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What Bolsonaro’s presidency means for Brazil and the Amazon

In the Amazon rainforest, historic levels of deforestation and fire have prompted global outcry. But what’s driving the devastation? Amna Nawaz and producer Mike Fritz traveled to Brazil to better understand both the physical and political dynamics at play. The series' first report focuses on the influence of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, an advocate for logging and developing the Amazon.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we begin a series of reports on the threats to the Amazon rainforest. Historic levels of deforestation and, this month, those record-setting fires have sparked global outcry.

    Amna Nawaz recently traveled to Brazil to better understand what's driving the devastation.

    Tonight, she's back with the first report, with the support of the Pulitzer Center, which examines the role played by Brazil's controversial President Jair Bolsonaro.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    He's been dubbed the Trump of the Tropics, both for his surprising rise to power and for a history of controversial and offensive speech.

    President Jair Bolsonaro swept into office in January, promising to jump-start a failing economy by fighting widespread corruption and high levels of violence in Brazilian cities.

  • Monica de Bolle:

    There was a bit of a political vacuum left in the country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Latin America expert Monica de Bolle at the Peterson Institute says, for Bolsonaro, the timing of his candidacy was crucial to his win.

  • Monica de Bolle:

    People were looking for somebody who could effectively tell them a good story about how they were going to get rid of corruption, and also about how they were going to reduce crime and violence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over his 27 years in Congress, Bolsonaro built a reputation for holding far-right views and a thundering disdain for political correctness, like in 2003, when he told a fellow Brazilian lawmaker she wasn't worth raping.

    The former army captain has long praised Brazil's former military dictatorship. He's said he'd be incapable of loving a homosexual son, and advocated for the use of firing squads to kill suspected criminals.

    But last September, Bolsonaro became a target of violence himself, stabbed in the stomach while campaigning for president. He survived, saying God saved him to lead Brazil, then cruised to victory weeks later by tapping into national outrage over a massive corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash.

    The years-long probe uncovered a vast and unprecedented web of political and corporate racketeering. Several lawmakers went to jail, including former President Lula da Silva. Public backlash against the establishment was swift and severe.

  • Monica de Bolle:

    Brazil's democracy, while people still believe in it, they think it's been shaken to its core because of this corruption scandal.

    And, therefore, Bolsonaro was pretty much the right person to appear at the right time for the conditions that were set in the country, but far from being the kind of leader that Brazil actually needs to get over a lot of the problems that it has.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, eight months into Bolsonaro's presidency, those problems still linger, says Eduardo Viola, a professor of international relations at the University of Brasilia.

  • Eduardo Viola:

    He's governing a lot over tweets, OK, like Trump, more or less, OK? And so this many times create crisis.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The most recent crisis? The anti-corruption candidate now faces his own corruption scandal. Leaked messages and audio allege collusion between prosecutors and a then judge, now Bolsonaro's handpicked justice minister, an effort, critics say, to keep former President Lula locked up on corruption charges and out of last year's election.

    Recently, Bolsonaro, who was elected with 55 percent of the vote, has seen his support start to slip. Polls show only about a third of Brazilians now view his presidency positively.

    But the president still enjoys strong support and loyalty from his base. Thousands of Bolsonaro supporters took to the streets earlier this summer at pro-government rallies around Brazil, this one in Sao Paulo.

  • Man (through translator):

    I voted for change, and that's the way he conquered the masses.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I think if he can do half of what he said he would do, then, yes, he could succeed, if there is no corruption.

  • Man (through translator):

    Now I see a person more honest, patriotic to command our country. The proposals that he has put in place, everything is beneficial for our population.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But one group tracking Bolsonaro's rise and rhetoric with concern is the environmental community.

  • Mercedes Bustamante:

    I think there is a dangerous combination of an anti-science discourse and an anti-environmental discourse.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Mercedes Bustamante is a biologist and professor at the University of Brasilia. She says Bolsonaro's push to open up the Amazon rainforest for more agriculture and mining threatens both the battle against global warming and Brazil's image and legacy as an environmental leader.

  • Mercedes Bustamante:

    Brazil has made huge progress in the last years trying to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon. But now, as the economic situation in Brazil is not that good, the main argument is that environmental protection is stopping Brazilian economic growth.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bolsonaro's administration has already overseen historic levels of deforestation, rolling back regulations on protected areas in the Amazon, and slashing the budget of Brazil's main environmental agency by 24 percent.

  • Monica de Bolle:

    He has weakened all of the environmental agencies in Brazil that were responsible for licensing, monitoring, and just sending people out to make sure that deforestation wasn't happening. He has basically upended all of those institutions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But one policy turnaround by Bolsonaro has given environmentalists hope: his reversal on a campaign promise to pull out of the landmark Paris climate accord, signed by almost every nation in the world.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Believe me, this is not what we need.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    If that pledge to pull out of the international climate agreement sounds familiar, it's because President Trump made it first.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Trump and Bolsonaro have forged an ideological bond over the last year.

  • President Donald Trump:

    But we have a great alliance with Brazil, better than we have ever had before.

    Are the two really that similar?

  • Eduardo Viola:

    Yes, they are. I mean, he was a lot inspired by the Trump electoral campaign and the election of Trump and the way Trump governs.

  • Monica de Bolle:

    I don't think it's altogether fair to call him the Trump of the Tropics, because he's very much a product of Brazilian politics.

    But, of course, some of these similarities in terms of tactics and his inclination to always find something else to sort of deflect the attention away from the issue that he's coming under stress for are indeed similar.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Another similarity? Bolsonaro keeps his family close. His three adult sons are all elected officials. The most visible is Eduardo, a congressman often seen by his father's side, and often serving as his foreign envoy.

    Last summer, he accompanied his father to Washington, D.C., in June, to the G20 summit in Tokyo.

    How much influence does he have over his father?

  • Eduardo Viola:

    In terms of foreign policy, a lot. I mean, and the influence of Eduardo Bolsonaro, all the sons, is very strong, more than any other minister.

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    Trump and Bolsonaro, they are very, very close.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    While in the capital city of Brasilia, I asked Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro what similarities his father shares with President Trump.

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    They do not care about the politically correct. So, they think, they talk. The same way that they speak with their friends, they are going to speak with the press.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Congressman Bolsonaro, now under consideration to be Brazil's ambassador to the United States, staunchly defends his father's past remarks, including him insulting a political rival's looks by saying she wasn't worthy of being raped.

    You don't deny your father said this about a woman, about a political rival?

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    No, because she attacked first him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about the comments about having a homosexual son, he'd never be able to love a homosexual son.

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    I am sure, if I would be a homosexual, my father will love me, for sure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There were a surge in attacks during the election against LGBTQ members here in Brazil. Two trans women were murdered during that time, and there was a direct link to their killers being supporters of your father. Do you worry about that?

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    No, I think my father got stabbed. He's the victim. People sometimes try to do this kind of relation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This is separate from the attack on your father, though. This was related to things that he had said.

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    Do you think the LGBT sent someone to stab my father?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you?

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    I don't know.

    You're saying that the words of my father has incredible power that influence people to kill each other. So, if Jair Bolsonaro starts to say that we have to love one, each other, do you think the murders would stop in Brazil?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you believe your father's words carry influence?

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    I don't think that he has so much influence as people are trying to do this kind of relation between murders of LGBT people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Poll numbers have been sagging recently. Are you worried that he's losing support?

  • Eduardo Bolsonaro:

    No, no, no, I don't see it this way. I think that to fix Brazil, after 13 years of socialism, we are not going to fix it in a couple of months. It's a long way that we have to run, and I think, four years, it will be the first step.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Bolsonaro has moved quickly to redefine Brazil's place in the world.

    But his moves in the Amazon are already sparking international backlash, according to Monica de Bolle. And she says the economy will determine the fate of the Bolsonaro presidency.

  • Monica de Bolle:

    Brazil is in a very, very delicate place right now, because you have this economy that's not taking off.

    And the levels of unemployed people, very high unemployment rates, and rising inequality, that's obviously going to lead people to at some point think, well, we voted this guy in because we thought he was going to turn the situation around, and it's actually not happening.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bolsonaro's challenge? Work within the very institutions he derides, as he tries to deliver on the campaign promises that propelled him into power.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Brasilia, Brazil.

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