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Bolsonaro pushes for control in Rio de Janeiro

The president has never been able to shape Rio de Janeiro politics to his image. But he has now found an opening

Though born in the state of São Paulo, it was in Rio de Janeiro that Jair Bolsonaro became a politician. Following his expulsion from the Army due to insubordination, Mr. Bolsonaro ran (and won) in eight consecutive races, one for Rio’s city council, and the rest for a seat in Congress, representing the southeastern state. It was also there that he ushered his ex-wife and three children into politics.

But Mr. Bolsonaro has never been a part of the Rio political establishment, which, in retrospect, worked to his advantage — Rio’s political elite has been ravaged by anti-corruption investigations, with every former state governor having been jailed at some point.[restricted]

Not even after winning the presidency with massive support in Rio de Janeiro did the president manage to wrestle control of the state. Instead, he saw Governor Wilson Witzel — who was elected on his coattails — break with the Bolsonaro family and present himself as a possible presidential challenger. At the municipal level, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella, an ally, is as unpopular as an incumbent can be. Moreover, his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, saw himself being investigated for running money-laundering while serving as a state lawmaker.

But, with the twists and turns Brazilian politics is known for, the Bolsonaros now seem in position to plant their family flag over Rio de Janeiro and control the state.

In August, the Superior Court of Justice suspended Mr. Witzel from office, following embezzlement and money laundering accusations. Since then, the president has made multiple public gestures to acting Governor Cláudio Castro, who is also under investigation, and has intensely worked behind-the-scenes deals to put allies in key positions in the Rio de Janeiro establishment.

After the Rio State Congress decided to open impeachment proceedings against Mr. Witzel in a 69-0 vote, his ousting seems all but certain. And Mr. Castro, who should soon become the governor full-time, will take over a state that is on the cusp of a full-scale financial collapse and in need of federal support — giving the president tremendous leverage to get the best out of his relationship with the state administration.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

After being trusted with the state government in the most adverse of situations, Cláudio Castro spent six of his first 14 days as acting governor far away in federal capital Brasília, officially negotiating a renewal of Rio’s Fiscal Recovery Regime — a settlement with the federal government signed in 2017 to avoid Rio’s complete financial ruin. At one point, he posted on Twitter: “I’ve just gotten a call from Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, who put himself at our disposal to help the state of Rio.”

Days later, Mr. Castro flew on the presidential jet to attend the inauguration of the new Supreme Court Chief Justice, Luiz Fux.

“Alongside the [Rio] State Congress and our young governor, we will seek a way to bring Rio back from this dire situation. God willing, this way of doing politics will be left behind and a new era of politics will rise,” declared President Bolsonaro, two weeks ago.

If 21 months of Jair Bolsonaro as president have taught us anything, it is that his goodwill doesn’t come for free. The president demands unwavering loyalty from allies — and doesn’t take no for an answer when he wants to handpick names for public positions. And if Cláudio Castro wants to stay in Mr. Bolsonaro’s good graces, he better play ball.

Setting up the chessboard in Rio de Janeiro

The Bolsonaros have had their eyes on Rio’s law enforcement agencies ever since the family rose to national prominence. The president’s willingness to control the Federal Police state superintendency there led to a fallout with former Justice Minister Sérgio Moro. Late in March, Mr. Bolsonaro told Mr. Moro, via a text message: “You already have 27 superintendencies. I only need one [Rio].”

Now, the family has its sights set on the State Prosecution Office. Eduardo Gussem, the current head of the department — and responsible for presenting criminal charges against two of Jair Bolsonaro’s children — ends his current term in December. And it will be up to the acting governor to choose a replacement. 

The name of the Bolsonaros’ favorite for the job, ultra-conservative prosecutor Marcelo Monteiro, has made its way to Mr. Castro.

Indeed, one consequential change to cater to the First Family has already taken place. In mid-September, Allan Turnowski was named chief of the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police after Senator Flávio Bolsonaro personally endorsed him to the acting governor, as sources told The Brazilian Report.

Since taking office, Mr. Turnowski has already swapped out the heads of 70 police divisions and precincts. When asked, he claims none of these changes were politically motivated.

Since Claudio Castro was named Rio’s acting governor and got closer to the Bolsonaros, a series of personnel changes have been made in the state’s security apparatus, with all of the new faces linked to the Bolsonaro family.

Among aides, President Jair Bolsonaro is described as having a persecution complex, made worse by the stabbing he suffered during the 2018 presidential campaign — as well as reports (later debunked) tying him to the murder of City Councilor Marielle Franco.

Officials who are aware of the president’s maneuvers to take control of Rio de Janeiro’s politics mention another reason for his moves: a willingness to control and contain investigations into his two eldest sons, who are accused of running rudimentary money-laundering schemes within their public offices in the state.

For a family who was once made out of bottom-feeders in Rio de Janeiro’s shady political scene, the Bolsonaros are now the most popular political figures in the country. However, President Bolsonaro’s goals in power have always seemed provincial — targeting his home state and making life easier for his family and allies, thus his full-blown assault on the political structures in Rio de Janeiro.[/restricted]

By Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.