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Bolsonaro pushes for control in Rio de Janeiro

. Oct 11, 2020
rio de janeiro bolsonaro Photo: Andriano CZ/Shutterstock

Though born in the state of São Paulo, it was in Rio de Janeiro that Jair Bolsonaro became a politician. Following his expulsion from the Army due to insubordination, Mr. Bolsonaro ran (and won) in eight consecutive races, one for Rio’s city council, and the rest for a seat in Congress, representing the southeastern state. It was also there that he ushered his ex-wife and three children into politics.

But Mr. Bolsonaro has never been a part of the Rio political establishment, which, in retrospect, worked to his advantage — Rio’s political elite has been ravaged by anti-corruption investigations, with every former state governor having been jailed at some point.

</p> <p>Not even after <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/10/28/jair-bolsonaro-elected-brazils-38th-president/">winning the presidency</a> with massive support in Rio de Janeiro did the president manage to wrestle control of the state. Instead, he saw Governor Wilson Witzel — who was elected on his coattails — break with the Bolsonaro family and present himself as a possible presidential challenger. At the municipal level, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella, an ally, is as <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/12/19/rio-de-janeiro-catastrophe-under-mayor-marcelo-crivella/">unpopular</a> as an incumbent can be. Moreover, his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, saw himself being <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/01/18/flavio-bolsonaro-scandal-president/">investigated</a> for running money-laundering while serving as a state lawmaker.</p> <p>But, with the twists and turns Brazilian politics is known for, the Bolsonaros now seem in position to plant their family flag over Rio de Janeiro and control the state.</p> <p>In August, the Superior Court of Justice suspended Mr. Witzel from office, following <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/09/17/witzel-moises-impeachment-season-in-brazil/">embezzlement and money laundering accusations</a>. Since then, the president has made multiple public gestures to acting Governor Cláudio Castro, who is also under investigation, and has intensely worked behind-the-scenes deals to put allies in key positions in the Rio de Janeiro establishment.</p> <p>After the Rio State Congress decided to open impeachment proceedings against Mr. Witzel in a 69-0 vote, his ousting seems all but certain. And Mr. Castro, who should soon become the governor full-time, will take over a state that is on the cusp of a full-scale <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2019/09/05/state-finances-biggest-risk-brazilian-economy/">financial collapse</a> and in need of federal support — giving the president tremendous leverage to get the best out of his relationship with the state administration.</p> <h2>The beginning of a beautiful friendship</h2> <p>After being trusted with the state government in the most adverse of situations, Cláudio Castro <a href="https://veja.abril.com.br/politica/claudio-castro-se-encontrou-com-cla-bolsonaro-na-vespera-de-operacao/">spent six of his first 14 days</a> as acting governor far away in federal capital Brasília,&nbsp;officially negotiating a renewal of Rio&#8217;s Fiscal Recovery Regime — a settlement with the federal government signed in 2017 to avoid Rio&#8217;s complete financial ruin. At one point, he posted on Twitter: &#8220;I&#8217;ve just gotten a call from Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, who put himself at our disposal to help the state of Rio.&#8221;</p> <p>Days later, Mr. Castro flew on the presidential jet to attend the inauguration of the new Supreme Court Chief Justice, Luiz Fux.</p> <p>&#8220;Alongside the [Rio] State Congress and our young governor, we will seek a way to bring Rio back from this dire situation. God willing, this way of doing politics will be left behind and a new era of politics will rise,&#8221; declared President Bolsonaro, two weeks ago.</p> <p>If 21 months of Jair Bolsonaro as president have taught us anything, it is that his goodwill doesn&#8217;t come for free. The president demands unwavering loyalty from allies —&nbsp;and <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/08/26/jair-bolsonaro-outsmarted-sergio-moro/">doesn&#8217;t take no for an answer</a> when he wants to handpick names for public positions. And if Cláudio Castro wants to stay in Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s good graces, he better play ball.</p> <h2>Setting up the chessboard in Rio de Janeiro</h2> <p>The Bolsonaros have had their eyes on Rio&#8217;s law enforcement agencies ever since the family rose to national prominence. The president&#8217;s willingness to control the Federal Police state superintendency there led to a fallout with <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/10/09/the-fall-from-grace-of-once-anti-corruption-hero-sergio-moro/">former Justice Minister Sérgio Moro</a>. Late in March, Mr. Bolsonaro told Mr. Moro, via a text message: “You already have 27 superintendencies. I only need one [Rio].”</p> <p>Now, the family has its sights set on the State Prosecution Office. Eduardo Gussem, the current head of the department — and responsible for presenting criminal charges against two of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s children — ends his current term in December. And it will be up to the acting governor to choose a replacement.&nbsp;</p> <p>The name of the Bolsonaros&#8217; favorite for the job,&nbsp;ultra-conservative prosecutor Marcelo Monteiro, has made its way to Mr. Castro.</p> <p>Indeed, one consequential change to cater to the First Family has already taken place. In mid-September, Allan Turnowski was named chief of the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police after Senator Flávio Bolsonaro personally endorsed him to the acting governor, as sources told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Since taking office, Mr. Turnowski has already swapped out the heads of 70 police divisions and precincts. When asked, he claims none of these changes were politically motivated.</p> <p>Since Claudio Castro was named Rio&#8217;s acting governor and got closer to the Bolsonaros, a series of personnel changes have been made in the state&#8217;s security apparatus, with all of the new faces linked to the Bolsonaro family.</p> <p>Among aides, President Jair Bolsonaro is described as having a persecution complex, made worse by the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/09/06/jair-bolsonaro-stabbing-changed-brazil-one-year-removed/">stabbing he suffered during the 2018 presidential campaign</a> —&nbsp;as well as reports (later debunked) <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2019/10/30/marielle-franco-murder-investigation-reaches-president-bolsonaro/">tying him to the murder</a> of City Councilor Marielle Franco.</p> <p>Officials who are aware of the president&#8217;s maneuvers to take control of Rio de Janeiro&#8217;s politics mention another reason for his moves: a willingness to control and contain investigations into his two eldest sons, who are accused of running rudimentary money-laundering schemes within their public offices in the state.</p> <p>For a family who was once made out of bottom-feeders in Rio de Janeiro&#8217;s shady political scene, the Bolsonaros are now the most popular political figures in the country. However, President Bolsonaro&#8217;s goals in power have always seemed provincial — targeting his home state and making life easier for his family and allies, thus his full-blown assault on the political structures in Rio de Janeiro.

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Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

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