Brasilia, January 1, 2019. It’s almost 5 pm and thousands of people have already endured hours of brutal January sunshine, with nothing in the way of shade in the capital’s Ministries Esplanade. In the square that connects Brazil’s presidential palace, Congress, and Supreme Court, an enthusiastic crowd waits, decked in yellow and green, with t-shirts bearing a whole array of right-wing slogans. Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has just arrived at the spot where he is to receive the presidential sash from the departing leader, Michel Temer.
The excitement is palpable, with all faces and mobile phone cameras turned toward the presidential palace. Placing the presidential garment around his right shoulder, Mr. Bolsonaro moves to address the nation, alongside the new First Lady, Michelle.
Behind me stands 24-year-old student Cinthia Souza, who arrived early with her family. She is waving a large sign that reads: “January 1st, 2019 – Brazil’s new Independence Day.” She thinks the new president will be able to free the country from most of its ills: “This is our cry. This is our independence from corruption, lack of healthcare, lack of education and everything that we’ve been suffering from.”
Jair Bolsonaro starts his speech: “I stand before the entire nation, today, the day in which the people starts to free itself from socialism, inverted values, the bloated state, and political correctness.” As expected, the crowd listens to the address in awe. Soon after it’s finished, people begin chanting “A nossa bandeira jamais será vermelha!,” a popular right-wing slogan which claims that “Brazil’s flag will never be red,” a dig at socialism and left-wing politics, but also specifically at the Workers’ Party, which is represented by the color red.
One day before Bolsonaro’s inauguration, businessman Dionisio Magnus Justo was already camped with his family in a motorhome in Brasília’s residential Asa Norte. He decided to spend New Year’s Eve in Brazil’s capital so that he could arrive early to the inauguration of the new president, whom he has supported for years: “Jair Bolsonaro was in Porto Alegre [the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state] in 2016 for a business fair as one of the event’s speakers. We met him there, and from then on we have followed his ideas. Like everybody that voted for him, we wanted change, and we’ve seen simplicity in him.” It took him two and a half days to travel from Porto Alegre to Brasília, located right at the heart of the South American continent.
“We have never been as involved in politics as we are now, I have always left politics aside. But then I started campaigning for Bolsonaro online through social media almost every day. I wanted people to look at his positive side: his stance on corruption, public safety, and healthcare,” Mr. Justo told me.
One of his most urgent concerns is violence: “We’ve had two cars stolen already. Armed robberies. The first one was stolen while my son and his brother were in the car stopped at traffic lights. The other one was taken right in front of my house. Violence became commonplace and took over the country. Criminality is high in the outskirts of Porto Alegre.”
Retired Army member Claudio Holanda de Menezes, 59 years old, decided on the morning of New Year’s Eve to meet with friends who were camping in another motorhome at the same spot. He moved from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília 10 years ago, but has never attended a presidential inauguration before. Jair Bolsonaro’s is to be his first.
“I was a paratrooper for 15 years. When I started in 1987, General Mourão [Vice-president Gen. Hamilton Mourão] was still a captain. I did a parachute-jumping course with him and General Heleno [Minister of Institutional Security, Gen. Augusto Heleno], who was a coronel at the time,” he told me.
Jair Bolsonaro’s government contains the biggest contingency of military members in the Executive branch since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985. Mr. Menezes believes that civilians are starting to realize that the military has the potential to fill positions in government which are not necessarily defense-related.
However, he thinks that Bolsonaro’s military appointees were mostly chosen due to their proximity to the new president: “A politician that takes on a political position has to surround himself with people he regards as trustworthy. That’s what Bolsonaro did. Many were paratroopers in the past, so he identifies with them [Jair Bolsonaro is an ex-paratrooper himself].”
The next day, January 1, people started arriving in droves for the ceremony, which began at around noon. As Jair Bolsonaro was the target of an assassination attempt months before, the security apparatus in place was very comprehensive indeed. Umbrellas, backpacks, plastic bottles, and baby strollers were all forbidden.
Over 6,000 security agents were deployed for the event, including members from the police, fire department and armed forces. Two ground-to-air missiles and military planes were mobilized to monitor the area. The government later announced that 115,000 people came to the ceremony—a number that is below the initial estimation of between 250,000 and 500,000 people expected for the event. The crowd was a diverse one, with men and women from all over the country, of different backgrounds and ages.
One aspect that many had in common, apart from similar political leanings and the hope for change and better days ahead, was the proud display of conservative Christian values in both discourse and presentation. Signs, tattoos and clothing praising God and Jesus were in sight at all times. All of those who I interviewed self-declared as Christians.
Clearly this should be no huge surprise in one of the world’s biggest Christian countries, but it indicates that Bolsonaro’s campaign for the strengthening of traditional family values and of religious conservative movements has resonated with the electorate. Jair Bolsonaro himself is a Catholic, and his wife Michelle is an Evangelical Christian.
Publicist André Rhouglas, from the state of Minas Gerais, decided to stay at the front gate of Granja do Torto (one of the official presidential residencies), symbolically crucified to a cross made from aluminum pipes. He also carried signs claiming the Supreme Court is an “embarrassment” and praising Sérgio Moro, the new Minister of Justice who was previously the leading trial court judge in Operation Car Wash investigations.
“I have decided to dress up like this many times,” he said. ” I have also been in front of Mr. Bolsonaro’s home in Rio, and in front of the hospital where he was treated after he was stabbed. I have gone for 18 hours tied to this cross once, in a hunger strike.”
Samuel dos Santos, who works in an Evangelical church in the north zone of São Paulo, and Eliane Custódio, who is a lawyer and attends the same church, both “thank God for Bolsonaro.” They are concerned with the future of children in Brazil, and they spent many sleepless nights campaigning for the new president on social media: “We consider today the apex of our success. The people’s success. We are Mr. Bolsonaro’s team. We elected him. He speaks the language of the people”, said Ms. Custódio.
Both believe the new president should focus on the future of Brazilian children. “We want moral and civics lessons to be taught again in Brazilian schools,” said Samuel, who also wants Brazil to be “free from communism.” Ms. Custódio agrees: “We don’t want Brazil to become another Venezuela.” She also told me that she suffered economic disadvantages during the previous presidential administrations: “My income has been downgraded drastically. I had to put my children in inferior schools. We have become poorer”.