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Brazil’s controversial new president embraced by Trump administration

Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has declared an end to socialism and political correctness in his country. But can Bolsonaro, accused of authoritarian tendencies, deliver campaign promises of ending corruption, reducing crime and boosting the economy? Nick Schifrin turns to former Trump national security staffer Fernando Cutz and Elizabeth Leeds of the Washington Office on Latin America.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Brazil celebrated the inauguration of a new president on New Year's Day. And Jair Bolsonaro was greeted with open arms by the Trump administration.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin tells us who he is and why he has sparked equal amounts of hope and fear.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jair Bolsonaro rode into office in the back of a Rolls-Royce and on the back of widespread anger at Brazil's elite. And with the help of pomp and circumstance, the former army captain became Brazil's first modern right-wing leader, as an unabashed nationalist.

  • Jair Bolsonaro:

    This is our flag, which will never be red.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Red as in socialism, and red as in the party of his political opponents, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is in prison, his successor, who was impeached, and most recent President Michel Temer, who was accused of corruption and embraced Bolsonaro before he spoke.

  • Jair Bolsonaro:

    I stand before the nation today, on the day the people became free from socialism, free from the gigantic state, from the politically correct. The elections gave voice to those who have not been heard.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    His supporters call him Myth, a reference to the almost mythical status Bolsonaro achieved after surviving a September stabbing, and to his middle name, Messias. They expect him to save a country by fighting corruption, ending recession, and ruling conservatively.

  • Ana Paula Gonalves:

    Family values, no corruption, no robbery, this is what I expect from him in the next four years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Bolsonaro presented his cabinet and quickly followed through on a campaign promise. These farmlands are on the edge of the Brazilian rain forest. In the past, farmers that wanted to clear forest had to get permission from a group that considers the rights of the indigenous, like these members of the Munduruku tribe.

    But Bolsonaro ordered farmers' requests would now go through a pro-business agriculture ministry. Bolsonaro also promises to end Brazil's left-leaning foreign policy and embrace conservative leaders. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Brasilia, as is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

    Today, in a press conference with Brazil's foreign minister, Pompeo described Bolsonaro as like-minded.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    We think the people of America and the people of Brazil have a set of shared values in democracy and liberty and freedom.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Bolsonaro's long been accused of sexism and authoritarianism. In 2014, after pushing a lawmaker, he yelled, "I wouldn't rape you because you are not worthy of it."

    And last week, his son posted a profanity-laced video of his father promising to make it easier for police to kill suspected criminals. But the U.S. wants Bolsonaro's help.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    And we know, too, we will have the opportunity to work alongside of each other against authoritarian regimes around the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's a reference to ending President Obama's engagement with Cuba and confronting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose government has overseen economic catastrophe, causing millions of Venezuelans to become refugees.

    Bolsonaro was elected to fix domestic problems, and could face internal resistance to foreign intervention. But he cements Brazil's rightward shift and alignment with the substance and style of the Trump administration.

    As President Trump tweeted: "Congratulations to President Jair Bolsonaro, who just made a great inauguration speech. The USA is with you"

    To understand what this means for Brazil and the region, we get two views from. Fernando Cutz, he was director for South America on the National Security Council staff during the Trump administration until this past April. He's now a senior associate at The Cohen Group, a consulting firm. And Liz Leeds is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, where she focuses on Brazil.

    Thank you very much to you both.

    Fernando Cutz, let me start with you.

    Jair Bolsonaro, is he the right man for this moment?

  • Fernando Cutz:

    You know, I think, overall, he is.

    I think that he certainly will have some challenges. I think he's said some things that are certainly, you know, offensive to some. I think certain things he has said are certainly more of the populist side of, you know, any candidacy.

    But, in the big picture, I think he's got the right things down. Brazil right now needs three things, an economic boost, it needs corruption to end, and it needs crime to just severely go down.

    And I think Bolsonaro came in and he really made a point of promising these three things, hammering these three things down. And now, of course, is the tough part. He has to deliver on these three things.

    But, if he can — and all signs point that he at least has the right team around him — then I think he will truly move Brazil in the right direction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Liz Leeds, economy, corruption and crime, can he tackle all three of those things, perhaps despite some of the human rights concerns that people have?

  • Liz Leeds:

    Well, I think the human rights concerns are certainly a serious issue to be considered in this new administration.

    Let me focus a little bit on the crime. This is one of the major issues that the population has been concerned about. But the proposals that he at least initially has put forth, I think, will only increase the crime and violence.

    He's proposing, essentially, liberating the use of guns by the civilian population who have — do not have a criminal backgrounds. He has also almost given carte blanche to police to kill with — almost with impunity.

    And it's been shown in the past that violence generates violence. So I think, at least on that particular set of issues, he's — he will be going at it in the wrong way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Fernando Cutz, there was Twitter videos, as we just saw in the piece before we started talking, where he talks about 200,000 killed, meaning police can kill 200,000 would-be criminals.

    Doesn't that concern you?

  • Fernando Cutz:

    Well, of course. So far, it's only rhetoric, though. And I think that's the key difference, right?

    I mean, there's — there's a giant jump, a giant leap that goes from the rhetoric phase to the Duterte phase, right, in the Philippines, right? If he starts to actually massacre people, I think that's going to be a big mistake.

    And I think that will be a mistake with the administration and — but regardless of what President Trump does, Congress would certainly not buy it. And American businesses certainly would not buy it. So it goes back to his promises on boosting the economy, right? If you want foreign direct investment from the United States, American companies aren't going to jump in to some country that starts kind of massacring its peoples.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Liz Leeds, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today called Bolsonaro like-minded. The national security adviser, John Bolton, has said the same and has said the U.S. strategy is to take on a troika of tyranny, meaning Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

    Is the U.S. on the right track to ally with Bolsonaro against what Bolton called the troika of tyranny?

  • Liz Leeds:

    Well, I think that, in terms of dealing with these regional problems and conflict, the correct way to go about it, at least initially, is to not do it in a bilateral way or a trilateral way, but to use the existing institutions, such as the Organization of American States, which exist for dealing in part with regional conflicts.

    So I do not agree with this troika mentality.

  • Fernando Cutz:

    You know, I totally agree that, in an ideal world, the OAS, the U.N. would be taking up this situation.

    Unfortunately, they have proven themselves to not be willing to take this up, or to be incapable of taking this up, time and again. And when I was at the White House, one of the things we really pushed for was for OAS action against Venezuela, for OAS to pass resolutions.

    So I think we need regional leadership. The problem of Venezuela is a regional crisis, right? If you look at the migrants, the refugees, they're streaming into Colombia, they're going to Brazil, to Ecuador, and to Peru.

    So it's a regional problem. And it requires a regional solution. It's not a U.S. bilateral problem. So I think it's time for the region — and I think President Bolsonaro might be the right guy to do this — to really take this issue up, and to start addressing it on their own and showing leadership on this.

    The United States has taken a lot of actions against Venezuela. I think it's time for Bolsonaro and the rest of the region to actually follow suit now and take their own actions against Maduro and that troika.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Liz Leeds, what do you think about that? Can the U.S. and Brazil be the leaders against Venezuela?

  • Liz Leeds:

    Well, despite Fernando's skepticism about the role and the effectiveness of the regional organizations, I still maintain that the leadership has to come in a more regional way.

    I do not feel that these bilateral efforts will do anything. I think, in terms of Venezuela, it will make the situation even worse.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Fernando Cutz, the criticism is, you increase the pressure on Venezuela, that might actually hit the Venezuelan people more and cause more refugees than there already are.

  • Fernando Cutz:

    Absolutely.

    And I think that's a key reason why we haven't gone after, for example, an oil embargo. The United States consumes 95 percent of Venezuelan oil that is actually sold. So it's a significant part of their GDP.

    And if we were to cut that off, of course we could effectively shut down their economy. But we have to look at the other side of it, which is, what happens to the Venezuelan people? Essentially, we'd create this disaster, humanitarian disaster, within Venezuela. And we would own it. It's our mess at that point. So, I think we very much have to think carefully about the ramifications for the people of Venezuela.

    Having said that, I think there are a lot of steps that can be taken by President Bolsonaro and others in the region to isolate diplomatically Maduro, to put pressure on him and his inner circle, without harming the people of Venezuela, things like sanctions, following suit with what we have done, individual sanctions against individual regime members, going after the narco state that is Venezuela, making sure that drugs aren't pouring in or out of their border, and indicting folks, to be honest.

    Go after these people. Put them on the Interpol list. Don't let them leave their country. Don't let them spend their corrupt money. And that will really, I think, shake that regime to its core.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Liz Leeds, last word.

    Are you worried that the U.S. and perhaps Brazil will take on Venezuela and some of these other countries and actually increase instability, rather than decrease it?

  • Liz Leeds:

    I do worry.

    I think that's a distinct possibility. To what extent these actions will affect Brazil in particular, I know that Fernando mentioned the Venezuelans pouring into the Brazilian borders in the north. So we're getting back to the violence issue.

    There's been a tremendous amount of violence against Venezuelans coming into the border. So I think Brazil is being affected personally by this. And I do hope that the kinds of reactions that the Bolsonaro government will take will not increase the violence within Venezuela.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Liz Leeds, Fernando Cutz, thank you both.

  • Fernando Cutz:

    Thank you.

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