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OP-ED | 05-01-2019 10:13

Editorial: Short-sighted snub?

Even if Jair Bolsonaro is quite legitimately Brazil’s new president, after triumphing in free and fair democratic elections, there are some perfectly noble (and also not so noble) reasons for avoiding any open alignment with such an abrasive extremist.

Skipping the presidential inauguration in Argentina’s giant neighbour and most important trade partner on New Year’s Day cannot have been an easy decision for President Mauricio Macri – unless, of course, it was all too easy (as anybody would hate to think), consisting of a personal aversion to sacrificing any holiday time. Yet this need not be his only motive for shunning what should be an inescapable obligation for any Argentine president.

Even if Jair Bolsonaro is quite legitimately Brazil’s new president, after triumphing in free and fair democratic elections, there are some perfectly noble (and also not so noble) reasons for avoiding any open alignment with such an abrasive extremist. The nobler reasons more or less speak for themselves – it’s impossible to listen to the firebrand discourse of the populist ex-paratrooper for more than a few minutes with its xenophobic and homophobic overtones and its contempt for the environment and human rights, without deeming even a merely formal recognition impossible.

Yet for Macri the agenda for this brand-new year of 2019 is written entirely in electoral code – something even more sacrosanct than his holiday time given that Thursday saw him interrupting his vacations to inaugurate a gas pipeline in Bariloche, with some blasts against Kirchnerite corruption. October’s general elections stand to be decided by the middle ground between the present and previous administrations (a vast territory prompting Salta Peronist Governor Juan Manuel Urtubey to toss his hat into the presidential ring this week, joining Sergio Massa as a self-styled unity candidate proposing to heal the rift of Argentina’s polarised politics). Macri ill appeals to that middle ground by appearing in any photograph with anybody so way out in right field as Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s new leader takes a more benign view of his Argentine colleague, seeing them both as potential liberators from over a decade of state-centred tyranny imposed on South America’s two largest countries by the Workers’ Party (PT) and Kirchnerismo. Yet while the two men superficially might seem to be allies within the region by both standing right of centre, Macri’s re-election campaign is not so much defined along ideological lines as singling out populism as its main target – a strategy for which Bolsonaro would be quite the wrong bed-fellow. And even if Brazil’s new leader sees both Macri and himself as repairing the damage inherited from centre-left predecessors, strictly speaking the PT was not Brazil’s prior government, rather it was a more conventionally pro-market caretaker administration following Dilma Rousseff’s 2016 ouster which was far more to Macri’s taste – not that Bolsonaro is not also highly pro-market with the ‘Chicago boy’ Paulo Guedes as his economic czar, but Michel Temer’s alliance of traditional centre-right parties came without any extremist baggage or authoritarian threat.

Turning to Brazil, its new president is anything but predictable even if he won millions of votes by posing as a straight thinker amid all the double talk of politics – what you see is not necessarily what you will get. And this is not just because of the inevitable gap between campaign platforms and reality – for example, not too many signs of the wall with Mexico promised by Donald Trump (to whom Bolsonaro is so often compared) over halfway into his term. Bolsonaro’s team is replete with contradictions and tensions (of which perhaps the most striking is the contrast between the neo-liberal globalisation of Guedes & co and the military nationalism of the ex-captain’s old comrades-in-arms with privatisation looming as an early battleground). These privatisations might well help remedy Brazil’s huge infrastructural shortfalls and Bolsonaro might not be bad news for the economy any more than Trump so far, although the latter’s policies of fiscal deficits and protectionism should not only be judged by the immediate results.

But having said all this, attending a presidential inauguration is ultimately recognition of a country not just a person – in these terms Macri should probably have gone to Brasilia last Tuesday. The meeting between the duo, scheduled for the 16th of this month, will reveal more about Argentina’s relationship with Brazil in the coming years. The president will have to hope his snub does not prove to be short-sighted.

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