Jair Bolsonaro defended the nation’s former military dictatorship and acknowledged that his unpopular policies might make a second term impossible.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s recently elected president, had his international coming-out party this past week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Called the “Trump of the Tropics” for his populist approach, his nationalist views and his admiration for the U.S. president, Bolsonaro ran an unusual campaign, mostly on social media. Now he must revive a stagnant economy, attract foreign investment, and reduce crime and corruption at home. Bolsonaro attracted Brazilians fed up with a serious recession and a major corruption scandal. In Davos, he sat down with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: You appear to be the first Brazilian president in many years to want a warm relationship with the United States. Do you admire President Donald Trump?
A: Yes, I do admire President Trump to a large extent because of his stance in trying to make America great again. We, too, want to have a great Brazil. It has been a long-standing tradition in Brazil to elect presidents who happen to be enemies of the United States. I, by contrast, have always admired the U.S. people and their policies. I have thus far had five to six meetings with top-ranking U.S. government officials, including [national security adviser] John Bolton. I have plans to visit the U.S. in March.
Q: What is your view of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela? Do you think regime change is a good idea? What can Brazil do to affect this?
A: We have always been against the Maduro regime, especially considering that Venezuela had very close ties to the administrations of [former Brazilian presidents] Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, as well as to Cuba. The Venezuelan regime currently in place must be changed.
Q: How do you see that happening?
A: You, of course, must remove Maduro from power. He happens to have 70,000 Cubans on his side, so it will not be easy to remove him from office.
Q: Would you be willing to use Brazilian troops?
A: We will not embark Brazil on a military intervention. We do not have a history of seeking out military intervention to solve problems.
Q: At the same time, Venezuela is a humanitarian tragedy.
A: Brazil has welcomed and accommodated refugees flocking to our country from Venezuela. We have relocated them throughout Brazil and assisted them with the transition. We have pretty much reached our limit and have clearly signaled to the Maduro dictatorship that Brazil does wish to see change in the current regime of Venezuela.
Q: Do you think that made a difference to Maduro?
A: I believe so, yes. Our intelligence service has indicated that there is a substantial level of dissatisfaction among members of the military in Venezuela. Former president [Hugo] Chávez in the past co-opted the army. But the armed forces have sent out signals that they are not as cohesive as they have been in the past.
Q: People are very upset in the U.S. about your comments regarding women and the LGBT community. You said that having a daughter is a “weakness.” And you have a daughter yourself! One of your cabinet members — Damares Alves, minister of women, family and human rights — said since the start of your administration, “Boys wear blue and girls wear pink.” Is this really necessary? Why are you doing this?
A: I have been accused of attacking women, black people, gay people, indigenous people. If all of that were true, would I have possibly won the election, having spent less than $1 million?
Q: But you’ve got to say something about that. How could you call having a daughter an act of weakness?
A: These were just playful remarks. It’s very common to voice playful remarks.
Q: You have to say something.
A: I’ve already voiced my views in that respect.
Q: You said you’d “rather have a son who is an addict than a son who is gay.” In retrospect, do you think you should be president of all the Brazilian people and forget about these remarks?
A: That’s a new piece of information for me. I’d never heard that before.
Q: That’s what is reported.
A: Do you really believe in printed media? Do you really believe in it blindly?
Q: Yes, I grew up in printed media.
A: I’m not casting any doubt on your media. In Brazil, they’re all one and the same — the newspapers.
Q: Can you reassure women and the LGBT community that they have a place in your Brazil?
A: I love women!
Q: And can you reassure the LGBT community that they have a place in your Brazil?
A: Everyone does have a place in our Brazil. I want them to be very happy. But I will not allow 6-year-old children to be exposed to homosexual content in a school setting.
Q: What about your commitment to democracy? You said during the campaign that you admired the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985. You said it would be good to go back to 40 or 50 years ago. You have a lot of army officials in key government positions.
A: The military saved Brazil.
Q: The military saved Brazil?
A: The military saved Brazil from a potential dictatorship in 1964.
Q: What about you, Mr. President? You were democratically elected. Do you have a commitment to democracy today in Brazil?
A: We will shore up democracy at any cost. Former president Dilma Rousseff had several terrorists in her government, and no one said a word. Presidents Lula and Dilma loved Fidel Castro, and they often praised President Kim Jong Un’s administration in North Korea. These are the people who have been talking about democracy in Brazil. I represent freedom and democracy. Our armed forces guarantee what I am stating to you.
Q: In the United States, we have great armed forces, but we have a great democracy, too. So you can have both.
A: The armed forces are the guarantor of democracy.
Q: During the campaign, you talked a lot about bringing an end to corruption, including the money-laundering Operation Car Wash scandal, which engulfed a large number of politicians. You appointed Sérgio Moro as your minister of justice. What will your government do to fight corruption?
A: Minister of Justice Sérgio Moro has available all the [tools] to follow the money trail. Corrupt people will no longer enjoy an easy life in Brazil.
Q: I have to ask you about the scandal involving your son, recently elected Sen. Flávio Bolsonaro. It is reported that your son hired multiple people with close ties to gang members.
A: This is not a government or a federal administration matter — or your business — but I will voice my view to you on the point. To a large extent, his family name, Bolsonaro, is the reason why he has so much visibility. What has been said about him so far is the result of political accusations from people who want to criticize my administration. My son has always worked with the Rio de Janeiro state military service and has granted more than 300 different decorations and honorable titles to members of the military who [fought] in combat. Two of those are now being charged with wrongdoing. Of course, the person who granted the decoration cannot be blamed. Should any evidence become available against my son, he will be punished like anyone else and serve his penalty.
Q: You’ve spoken a lot about combating crime, which is high in your country. Since taking office, you’ve made it easier for people to own guns. Is that a good way to fight crime?
A: Those who criticize me were in power in Brazil for 13 years, and they proposed a harsh policy to ensure citizens of goodwill would not be able to own guns. As a result, violence went up in Brazil, not down. We had a referendum in 2005, and the Brazilian population decided it was their legitimate right to purchase weapons and ammunition. All I’m doing is implementing a decision made by the Brazilian population.
Q: You ran an amazing election campaign from your couch at home — mostly on social media, without spending a lot of money.
A: It’s not so much that I chose to stay home, but I had to spend about 22 days in the hospital because I was stabbed.
Q: At a campaign event, right?
A: I was out being carried by people in their arms in the street. About 30,000 people attended that rally. Someone related to the left-wing party PSOL stabbed me and twisted the knife.
Q: I hear you have to have another operation when you go home to Brazil.
A: Yes, next Monday.
Q: Pension reform is reportedly the most important economic issue for Brazil today. It might have difficult political consequences if you increase the retirement age and cut back benefits. Do you back this?
A: The proposed reform is unpopular . . . If it doesn’t pass, it will spell economic collapse.
Q: Do you think you can get pension reform passed by Congress?
A: We have no alternative.
Q: You have said that you might only serve one term as president because of the unpopular things you’ll need to do.
A: That is a possibility, yes.
Q: So have you decided you’re not going to run?
A: The jury is still out.
Q: You’ve just been inaugurated.
A: I think you have to rule by example.
Q: By tackling really important but really unpopular issues?
A: These reforms must be carried out in the first year. Because, after that, only with difficulty are you able to move forward.