ELDORADO, Brazil — João Evangelista fondly remembers the lanky teenager. How he fished in the Ribeira de Iguape River and then sold his catch to help his family or buy a movie ticket. A “normal guy” who teased his friends with insulting nicknames and declared, with what seemed like absolute confidence, that he would one day become president of Brazil.
Bolsonaro only slightly ahead of Lula in his hometown of Eldorado
Over the years, Evangelista, 67, has witnessed with awe how his childhood friend Jair Bolsonaro, born into a poor family of five brothers and attending public schools, became the most powerful man in the world. largest country in Latin America – and has managed to stay true to itself.
“I see him on TV and I still think he hasn’t changed at all!” said Evangelista laughing. “He’s the same simple, rude guy.”
Irineu Boaventura also spent his childhood with Bolsonaro, playing football — the future President was a goalkeeper – swimming in the Iguape or shooting his rifle at targets. Decades later, the retired teacher calls his old friend an irresponsible ruler, a barbaric “myth of madness” and a threat to democracy.
Welcome to Eldorado, the poor, sleepy town of 14,600, about three and a half hours southwest of São Paulo, surrounded by banana plantations and protected Atlantic forest, where Bolsonaro lived from age 11 to 18.
Today, Eldorado presents in microcosm the polarization that tore Brazil apart ahead of the second and final round of Sunday’s presidential election. Locals, including the president’s former friends and neighbors — the people who, in some ways, know him best — are deeply divided over the favorite son.
In the first round of the election this month, right-wing Bolsonaro beat left-wing former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Eldorado by 400 votes – a much narrower margin than his victory in São Paulo state in his outfit.
“A lot of this town is proud that the president is from here,” Boaventura said. “Another is embarrassed by it.”
Eldorado is where, in the 1960s and 1970s, Bolsonaro developed some of the ideas and beliefs that animated his presidency.
It was here that 15-year-old Bolsonaro witnessed an exchange of fire between Carlos Lamarca, an army deserter turned communist guerrilla, and military police in the city’s main square. Lamarca escaped unscathed; the authorities launched a massive military operation to capture him.
Friends said the event stunned the otherwise quiet rural town. This left young Bolsonaro with a growing admiration for the armed forces and a growing antipathy towards communism. He will enter a few years later at the preparatory school of the army, at the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship, and will become an officer.
Like his Portuguese ancestors who settled in Eldorado, Bolsonaro searched for gold in the Usina River, friends and neighbors say, but never found any.
Edouardo Fouquet, a former mayor and retired army officer, met Bolsonaro in the 1970s when they were both cadets at Brazil’s main military academy. It was Bolsonaro’s unabashed love and support for the military, as well as the influence of his evangelical church, that won Fouquet’s vote in 2018.
“I feel like I did my part by giving him a vote of confidence in 2018, but not yet,” Fouquet said. Bolsonaro’s chaotic handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 687,000 people in Brazil, his mockery of those who have fallen ill, his brash ways and his authoritarianism have caused him to reconsider his support.
If Bolsonaro is re-elected, Fouquet said he fears “Jair” will weaken the country’s democratic institutions: “If he wins again, no one can get him out of there.”
But that is precisely Bolsonaro’s belligerent and unvarnished presentation which resonates with many here.
Bolsonaro is outspoken in his opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and homosexuality. (In 2011, he said he would “rather have a son die in an accident than show up with a mustachioed man.”) He eased gun restrictions and expressed admiration for military dictatorship. who ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 should have killed 30,000 “corrupt” people, including then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Supporters say Bolsonaro’s ethnic and racial slurs, homophobia and constant attacks on women are proof of his authenticity and radical honesty.
“He is the best thing that has happened to this country since the dictatorship,” said André Beber, 23.
His father, Valmir Beber, one of the city’s biggest banana growers, praised Bolsonaro for limiting banana imports from Ecuador, easing restrictions on pesticides and stabilizing inflation. He called the president a “humble and honest man” who tells it like it is and stands up for their values: family, religion and the freedom to bear arms.
He spoke of the “economic progress” made by Brazil during the military dictatorship and claimed, without evidence, that Lula would close churches and legalize abortion.
Lula again publicly reiterated his opposition to abortion this week.
Some of the opposition to Bolsonaro in Eldorado comes from quilombos, autonomous communities on the outskirts of the city populated by descendants of former slaves who fought for land rights for decades and historically backed Lula.
“His government has meant a big step backwards for us,” said Elson Alves da Silva, head of the quilombo of Ivaporunduva. He pointed to the dismantling of Lula-era social programs under Bolsonaro.
He also cited Bolsonaro’s infamous remarks in 2018, when he said “the thinnest Afro-descendant” was seven years old. arrobas – a measure used for livestock – and “they don’t do anything, I don’t even think they’re good for breeding anymore”.
“He speaks on behalf of this veiled racism that exists throughout the country,” said Alves da Silva.
But Mari Miranda, 62, said her father lost property when Lula granted land rights to quilombos, which she described using insults. She said Bolsonaro is a good person who supports “hard working people”.
“In heaven is God,” she said. “On earth is Bolsonaro.”
Racism and homophobia didn’t cost Bolsonaro in 2018. His anti-corruption message and Lula’s jailing for bribery – his convictions were later overturned when the Supreme Court found he was denied due process regular — helped the fringe member of Congress win his long run for the presidency in 2018.
Bolsonaro again exceeded expectations in the first round of this year’s election, winning more than 43% in 11 and denying Lula a majority. Political columnist Thais Oyama said the unexpected success, which came despite the scandals that engulfed his administration, the chaotic response to the coronavirus and attacks on democratic institutions, critics and the media, shows the strength of a movement. of right.
“A lot of these conservative voters literally had no one speaking out for what they believe in,” Oyama said. “No one had ever said outright that he was in favor of guns, against abortion, against discussing gender issues.”
On a recent damp morning, dozens of people gathered inside a large white church for prayer. Women in white veils sat on wooden benches on the right side of the Christian Congregation of Brazil; leftists.
“Glory! they sang in unison. The rapidly growing evangelical Christian movement in Brazil has become a driving force rallying conservative voters, largely behind Bolsonaro.
“He is a good family man and I will vote for him,” said Telma Coutinho Resende, a housekeeper who became a Christian 15 years ago.
Pedro Pereira, owner of a palm production company, said it was a “privilege” to have a president of Eldorado. He hailed Bolsonaro as “authentic and honest”.
Pereira voted for Bolsonaro in 2018. But he wonders if he will do it again. It is difficult to judge his administration fairly, he said, because he faced extraordinary circumstances, including the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which affected the economy.
“It’s like being handed a car without gas,” he said.
Pereira said Lula, in his eight years in power, and other local elected officials from his Workers’ Party have done “a lot for the poor and for Eldorado, probably even more than” Bolsonaro.
“A lot of us expected him to do more for his own hometown,” he said. “But he did not do it.”