Bolsonaro’s ‘secret weapon’ dead on arrival

. Sep 15, 2020
President Jair Bolsonaro and Economy Minister Paulo Guedes. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR President Jair Bolsonaro and Economy Minister Paulo Guedes. Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

During the 2018 campaign and until this year, President Jair Bolsonaro came across as one of those politicians who believe the state should not give handouts to its citizens. He once compared the world-renowned Bolsa Família cash-transfer initiative to a vote-for-cash graft, saying it amounted to “nothing more than taking money from those who produce and hand it to those who are lazy, so people would keep the status quo.”

 As a candidate, he promised to audit the program and refused to rule out shutting it down. During his first year in office, Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration cut Bolsa Família to the bone, true to his words.

But then came the pandemic — and the Brazilian government was forced to implement an aid benefit to help vulnerable populations survive the crisis. And, like magic, Mr. Bolsonaro discovered the electoral dividends brought by social programs in a country as unequal as Brazil.

By giving BRL 600 (USD 113) per month to roughly 65 million people, the president saw his approval ratings soar — even in areas where he never had much support.</p> <p>With that in mind, Jair Bolsonaro aimed for the left&#8217;s jugular. He had already routed the Workers&#8217; Party in the South and Southeast regions —&nbsp;Brazil&#8217;s richest. Now, he would launch his own cash-transfer program to win over the Northeast — the last &#8220;red belt&#8221; standing. Announced in July as Renda Brasil (Income Brazil), the program would be a <a href="">beefed-up version of Bolsa Família</a>. It was even given the moniker &#8220;Bolso-Família.&#8221;</p> <p>But Mr. Bolsonaro has cancelled Renda Brasil before it was even launched. During a live broadcast on social media, the president said the words &#8220;Renda Brasil&#8221; are now forbidden from being mentioned by government officials.&nbsp;</p> <p>The president’s tantrum came after members of the Economy Ministry argued that there is simply not enough money to pay for enhanced cash transfers. The Economy Ministry claims that Brazil&#8217;s public deficit is growing at an unsustainable pace and has proposed cutting benefits such as unemployment insurance and retirement pensions&nbsp;as a way to pay for it.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;We will continue with Bolsa Família [until 2022]. Period,&#8221; the president declared. During the same broadcast, Mr. Bolsonaro threatened to fire anyone who even suggests cutting off social benefits from now on. &#8220;I won&#8217;t <a href="">take money from the poor</a> to give it to the pauper. Whoever proposes that will get a red card,&#8221; he said.</p> <p>In the Economy Ministry, the tension is palpable.</p> <p>Senior government officials told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>, under condition of anonymity, that Economy Minister Guedes was summoned by President Jair Bolsonaro to a meeting on Tuesday morning, &#8220;during which the president yelled a lot, and Mr. Guedes just stood in silence.&#8221; Another source said they had &#8220;never seen the president so pissed off.&#8221; </p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro reportedly told Mr. Guedes to fire whoever was responsible for telling the press about aid-cutting plans without his authorization. That would be Mr. Guedes&#8217; special secretary, <a href="">Waldery Rodrigues</a> — who could soon be heading out the door.</p> <h2>Why Bolsa Família is so politically important</h2> <p>In 2018, Sérgio Simoni Jr., a researcher at the University of Campinas&#8217; Center of Public Opinion Studies, wrote on <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> about the <a href="">electoral impacts of Bolsa Família</a>.</p> <p>Estimates show that the higher the number of Bolsa Família beneficiaries in a given region, the higher the vote percentage for the Workers’ Party. Even out of power, with no control over the federal budget or government agenda, the Workers’ Party still benefits electorally from the program. &#8220;It is possible that a reciprocity mechanism — or the creation of a bond between party and voters — is at work here, which goes beyond an association between the program and the incumbent head of state,&#8221; he wrote.</p> <p>&#8220;The arguments that social policies are types of &#8216;vote buying&#8217; schemes or political patronage weaken as the party that cashes in is in the opposition,&#8221; says Mr. Simoni.</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s intentions to &#8220;repeal-and-replace&#8221; Bolsa Família could be a savvy move. The program is still widely associated with the Workers&#8217; Party and its leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Doing nothing could push his approval ratings quickly to the ground, hurting the president&#8217;s re-election bid in 2022, at best, and maybe even threatening his stability in office, at worst.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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