Interview With Bolsonaro: Free-Trade's Unlikely New Champion?

Brazil's President Bolsonaro tells Argentine daily Clarín that, in contrast with his populist profile, he wants to liberalize the economy and forge free-trade pacts across the world.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro waving to the crowd as he leaves Israel
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro waving to the crowd as he leaves Israel
Guido Najemkis

BRASILIA In an exclusive interview with the Argentine daily Clarín, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, spoke of Brazil's judicial system, the state of Latin American politics and international trade.

Clarin: Brazil's former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is in detention. Corruption led to an institutional crisis in Peru, various former presidents are under judicial scrutiny in Ecuador and Panama. In Argentina, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is being tried. Should she go to prison too?

Bolsonaro: The Argentine justice system will have to decide whether she goes to prison or not. Our justice system worked very well here. The fight against corruption must be effective in any country that wants to be democratic and protect its freedom and wants to gain trust internationally. We have an ex-president in prison here, judged as far as I can see independently, and this may be an example to other politicians who wanted or want to lead a life on the margins of the law, like Lula and practically all his ministers.

But was Lula's prosecution by the now minister of justice and former judge Sergio Moro truly impartial?

His work, as far as I could follow it, was impartial. He was not the only one who came to such rulings. Other tribunals in following trials followed his same line.

Argentina's presidential candidate Alberto Fernández, who is backed by Fernández de Kirchner, has visited Lula in jail, claiming that his conviction showed that rule of law is dysfunctional in Brazil.

That shows his complete ignorance of what is happening in Brazil. The Workers' Party (PT) had a power project. For that reason they stormed state firms. Petrobras was on the verge of destruction, bankruptcy. The pension funds were also emptied. Cristina Kirchner's candidate does not recognize the Brazilian reality. Here we trust our institutions.

Fernández also said he could revise the recent Mercosur trade pact with the EU.

I hope Argentina reflects a lot on that. That will bring economic problems for Brazil, for Argentina, for Uruguay and for Paraguay. We're focused on the economy and a government with a weak economy cannot sustain itself. I don't want Argentina to follow the Venezuelan line. I shall be taking the opposite path. I have already discussed this with Argentina's President Mauricio Macri. We want Mercosur 2.0. When I was a member of congress, I was against Mercosur, but because of its ideological tendency. When I assumed the presidency, one of the people I spoke with was Macri and we came to the conclusion that this ideological trend has to cease to exist, we have to go to the free market and make agreements with as many blocks or countries in the world. We have discussed the possibility of agreements with Japan, South Korea, and now also with the United States. It is (the improvement) of the economy that is going to get people out of the difficult situation they are in.

Bolsonaro (left) with Argentina's President Mauricio Macri — Photo: Marcos Corrêa

What if the opposition to Macri wins in Argentina's presidential elections in October?

Brazil's only rivalry with Argentina is in soccer. We are brothers. Before there used to be a certain antagonism. Over the past few years it stopped existing, especially with my arrival here and with Macri there. Now, I would like the next Argentinian president to feel the same way. The declarations on revising the Mercosur trade deal and the visit to a convict, whose conviction was confirmed three times by the judiciary, area signal that we could have frictions with Argentina, which we do not want.

For Argentina, which exports more to Brazil than the United States and China together, it is vital that the Brazilian economy, which is stagnating, will grow again. When will this growth start?

The mother of our reforms is the new social security. And we're not promoting anything bigger right now in order not to harm this reform. Logically we have taken measures to unblock the economy, dozens and dozens of measures to cut red tape. The economy is starting to grow this year. Under the previous presidency of Michel Temer, we reformed labor laws. If we had not done it, Brazil's situation would be worse. We're making life easier for those who want to start a business, so they can do it in a few days. This used to take months.

Brazil's only rivalry with Argentina is in soccer. We are brothers.

You are being criticized for possibly wanting to appoint your son and legislator Eduardo as ambassador to the United States. Why Eduardo and not a seasoned diplomat

My son is friends with Trump's children, speaks English, Spanish, is still young. The possibility was raised and I am talking of the the po-ssi-bi-li-ty. Imagine if Macri had a son who was ambassador here in Brazil. Macri's son would be different to a professional ambassador. In Brazil it would be referred to the courts, some would call it nepotism. But I am fully convinced that my son, who is a Federal policeman, could do the job fairly successfully for his access to the United States. It is the world's biggest economy and it would be very good for us. But right now it is only a possibility.

Pope Francis told Lula he was spiritually close to him and has also spoken of justice used for political ends, or Lawfare... Do you see the Pope as taking sides in Brazilian politics?

I am a Catholic and I respect the Pope. I don't have any problems with him. He is Argentine and I was so happy with the election of someone from South America. But anyway, I think it is the Pope's personal opinion about Lula. And we know religious people, Christians, will always choose forgiveness. I recognize that in the Pope's heart. For my part, spiritually, I admire Pope Francis and in this personal issue, as a human being, I do not share his ideas (regarding) Lula, who did a lot of harm to Brazil. The PT used the media and fake news so well. Some ambassadors were even saying Lula was above the Pope, between Jesus and the People. When I began growing in the campaign this gained momentum. Fake news on me. I am not in any way homophobic, racist, fascist, none of that. People understood this. There was a democratic vote that brought me to this chair, the presidential chair in which I hope, with God's help, I am doing the best for my country.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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