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Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro in front of his son Flávio Bolsonaro. (Photo: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil)
Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Brazil’s Bolsonaro: His Own Worst Enemy

Brazil president’s handling of crime, corruption and police being questioned.


Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has gone about shifting, defanging, and interfering with the nation’s architecture for fighting crime and corruption in recent months. With these moves, Bolsonaro risks losing the core of his general appeal, or what little still remains of it amidst falling poll numbers — his tough-on-crime, anticorruption brand. Worse, these moves play into his opponent’s more sinister interpretation that Bolsonaro is putting his finger on the scales of justice in an anticorruption case of great interest to him.

One of Bolsonaro’s sons, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, is ensnared in a serious money laundering investigation that threatens his father’s reputation — and perhaps his entire presidency. In this context, President Bolsonaro’s decision to reshape the machinery for fighting crime and corruption has given his opponents the ability to call into question his neutrality and commitment to the rule of law.

Bolsonaro’s government has overhauled the Council for Financial Activities Control (COAF), an agency that is critical to both the fight against transnational organized crime and political corruption in Brazil. Under the reorganization plan, COAF moved from the Ministry of Finance to the Central Bank and its previous director was fired. Moving the COAF under the auspices of the Central Bank could make it more difficult for the investigatory agency to coordinate with law enforcement agencies and potentially more open to political influence. The more cynical interpretation is that this is relegating the COAF for being the first institution to flag suspicious financial transfers from Flávio Bolsonaro’s bank accounts last year — the starting point for the ongoing investigation.

Second, Bolsonaro is under fire for his selection of Augusto Aras as Brazil’s next Attorney General. The position is normally insulated from political influence in the country’s Public Ministry, and for nearly 20 years, Brazilian presidents have followed a carefully crafted process involving a list of candidates vetted and approved by the National Association of Prosecutors for ensuring its independence. When Bolsonaro announced his selection, he likened his relationship with Aras to that of matrimony and stated that what he valued most was loyalty. “I need someone who I can trust. If it doesn’t work out, we divorce,” Bolsonaro said. The more nefarious interpretation holds that the “alignment” between Bolsonaro and his nominee for Attorney General raises questions about Aras’s ability to complete a rigorous and independent investigation of Flávio Bolsonaro’s alleged crimes.

Third, Bolsonaro also ordered an unusual change in the leadership of the Rio de Janeiro Federal Police. While he claims this change was a question of “productivity,” the less charitable interpretation is that this is a precautionary measure, since the Federal Police of Rio de Janeiro have jurisdiction over Flávio’s case because he was a state official during the period of the alleged crimes.

Unfortunately, under the guise of a Law Against Abuse of Authority (Lei de Abuso de Autoridade), elected officials in Brazil’s Congress have also reversed some of the gains made in fighting corruption and increased legal protections for themselves. While Bolsonaro bowed to the intense pressure to veto some of the more extreme elements of the bill — time limits on sensitive investigations and a prohibition on the use of handcuffs in arrests, to name a few of the most absurd — Congress may reinstate them by overriding his veto.

It is unclear, at this point, what kind of lasting impact these moves will have on the trajectory of rule of law and anticorruption efforts in Brazil. Polling numbers reveal that, although he is at the lowest point in his brief presidency, Bolsonaro retains the support of those who despise the leftist Workers Party (PT) and continue to believe he is an anticorruption crusader. Meanwhile, rather than develop their own agenda, Bolsonaro’s opponents in the PT remain mostly enthralled with the idea of reversing the corruption conviction of former president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, especially in light of the potential disclosure of confidential information by the judge in the case. Even within this context, Bolsonaro’s moves are inadvisable and risk giving his opponents fodder to attack his political brand; in a country like Brazil, they have also given rise to all-too-familiar charges of corruption and collusion to protect his son.

Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he focuses on transnational organized crime, narco trafficking, and illicit networks. He also studies Latin American foreign policy and development issues. Before joining AEI, Dr. Berg served as a research consultant at the World Bank, a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil, and a visiting doctoral fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He has also worked in Peru and São Paulo, Brazil.

Article based on AEI blog. Republished with permission from the author.


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