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How Do Brazilians Feel About President Bolsonaro's First Year In Office?

NOEL KING, HOST:

On New Year's Day, Jair Bolsonaro will mark his first year as president of Brazil. You may remember he's an outspoken populist and a polarizing figure from the right. He was inaugurated in the capital, Brasilia. NPR's Philip Reeves went to the city to see how people feel about him now.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIRENS)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is a scene no Brazilian will forget. Cavalrymen on white horses accompany Jair Bolsonaro as he arrives in the capital to a 21-gun salute and assumes power as president of Latin America's largest nation...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Promising to transform Brazil. Back then, the outside world mostly knew Bolsonaro as a retired army captain from the far right with a record of sexism, racism and homophobia and a worrying admiration for the military dictatorship that once ruled his country.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

REEVES: Fifty-five percent of the Brazilian electorate voted for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

REEVES: They greeted Bolsonaro's ascent to power with hope and celebrations. Maria Sampaio (ph) sells clothes on the streets of Brasilia. She remembers watching the inauguration on TV with her family.

MARIA SAMPAIO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Everyone was happy," she says. Her whole family voted for him. Jair Bolsonaro was propelled to power in Brazil by public frustration over crime, recession and massive government corruption and also deep anger with the leftist Workers' Party that ruled for more than a decade. He'd been a congressman for 27 years, yet he had no actual experience of governing anything.

LEONARDO BARRETO: He wasn't prepared for the challenge we have here and the challenge of Brazil abroad.

REEVES: Leonardo Barreto is editor of Capital Politico, an online publication about Brazilian politics. He thinks one issue in particular stands out in Bolsonaro's first year.

BARRETO: I think the Amazon issue was the biggest challenge and was the biggest mistake.

REEVES: That Amazon issue was Bolsonaro's worst international crisis so far. In August, there was a huge surge of fires in the rainforest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Bolsonaro dismissed these as exaggerated. He accused European nations of interfering in a Brazilian issue and made wild accusations about non-government organizations setting fires in the forest to attract funding. Environmentalists watched in despair.

ADRIANA RAMOS: I think that we had 20-year setback this year.

REEVES: A 20-year setback?

RAMOS: Yeah.

REEVES: Adriana Ramos has spent the last two decades seeking ways to protect the Amazon. She's coordinator at the Socioenvironmental Institute in Brasilia. This year hasn't been easy.

RAMOS: It's demanding a lot of energy from us to learn how to defend ourselves.

REEVES: Bolsonaro has weakened Brazil's government environmental enforcement agencies. He advocates exploiting some of the forest's mineral and agricultural wealth. He also insists he's committed to protecting the forest. Ramos says he's blatantly encouraging deforestation and violence.

RAMOS: I think that he's completely engaged in strengthening the action off the illegal loggers and illegal gold miners, committing himself with the agenda of the legality in the Amazon.

REEVES: The coming year is unlikely to be any easier for defenders of the rainforest. Bolsonaro's allies robustly defend his conduct.

CARLOS JORDY: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The president didn't make any mistakes," says Carlos Jordy, a pro-Bolsonaro congressman.

JORDY: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Jordy describes the outcry as pyrotechnics whipped up by the international media and certain foreign governments hungry to exploit the Amazon for themselves.

When Bolsonaro took power a year ago, many commentators cast him as a threat to democracy, not least because of his close military ties and his admiration for the dictatorship that ended in 1985. Yet Brazil's Congress and courts have blocked Bolsonaro and his government on multiple occasions. The system of checks and balances is working, says David Fleischer, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia.

DAVID FLEISCHER: For the time being, we're not sure. We have another three years to go. But during the first year, the three powers have functioned quite well.

REEVES: Fleischer says that's led to some important achievements, including crucial pension reforms.

Bolsonaro is a big fan of Donald Trump and uses similar tactics. He plays to his base by theatrically attacking his opponents, recently including Greta Thunberg and Leonardo DiCaprio. Bolsonaro's critics see his populism as dangerously polarizing.

One year ago, on that same inauguration day, Maria das Gracas Santos remembers feeling...

MARIA DAS GRACAS SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Very unhappy and sad. Santos owns a hairdressing salon in the capital for African Brazilians. She's been an activist in Brazil's black rights movement for 40 years. Brazil's deeply rooted racism is surfacing anew thanks to Bolsonaro's polarizing politics, says Santos.

SANTOS: (Through interpreter) It's not that racism has increased. It's become more visible.

REEVES: Santos says the significant progress won by black activism in Brazil in recent years is being destroyed.

SANTOS: (Through interpreter) After a year of this government, our fears have been realized. No matter how pessimistic I was, I didn't imagine this.

REEVES: In the first half of this year, the number of Brazilians killed by the police was up on last year. It rose by 120, according to Brazil's violence monitor, which tracks this. Santos blames this on Bolsonaro's draconian approach to law and order and says the victims are all too often poor, male, black and innocent.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

REEVES: Bolsonaro begins the new year at the helm of a nation that likes him much less than it did one year ago. He entered office with popularity ratings nudging 75%. The latest poll shows him at a record low for any first-year Brazilian president in nearly 30 years. On the streets of his capital, where Bolsonaro rode in with the cavalry, he gets mixed reviews these days. Lucas de Moraes (ph), a rapper who's 23, finds Bolsonaro's government...

LUCAS DE MORAES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Very worrying. He can't wait for it to end. Maria Sampaio, the saleswoman who was so happy a year ago, isn't quite so happy now.

SAMPAIO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: She says she knew the first year was going to be difficult for Bolsonaro and hopes he can soon start to be more effective. Brazil's controversial president still has her support as this new year dawns, but there'll be no more celebrations.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Brasilia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.