Meet Brazil’s New Cabinet: The Science Minister Is A Creationist, Agriculture Minister Deforested The Amazon

Brazil's acting President Michel Temer greets supporters as he arrives to speak, at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2016.

Brazil’s acting President Michel Temer greets supporters as he arrives to speak, at Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, May 12, 2016.

BRASÍLIA, Brazil — The new Brazilian president’s first pick for science minister was a creationist. He chose a soybean tycoon who has deforested large tracts of the Amazon rain forest to be his agriculture minister. And he is the first leader in decades to have no women in his Cabinet.

The new government of President Michel Temer — the 75-year-old lawyer who took the helm of Brazil on Thursday after his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was suspended by the Senate to face an impeachment trial — could cause a significant shift to the political right in Latin America’s largest country.

“Temer’s government is starting out well,” Silas Malafaia, a television evangelist and author of best-selling books like “How to Defeat Satan’s Strategies,” wrote on Twitter.

“He’ll be able to sweep away the ideology of pathological leftists,” Malafaia added of a conservative lawmaker whom Temer chose as education minister.

For more than a decade, Brazil has been an anchor of leftist politics in the region, less strident than the governments in countries like Venezuela and Cuba, but openly supportive of them and committed to its own platform of reducing inequality.

But parts of Latin America are now drifting away from the left after elections in neighbouring countries like Argentina and Paraguay. Temer seems to be embracing a more conservative disposition for his government as well, with the country’s business establishment pressuring him to privatize state-controlled companies and cut public spending.

To many of Temer’s critics, the shift is perhaps most evident in the role of women in his and Rousseff’s administrations.

The contrasts could not be more glaring. Rousseff, 68, was a former operative in an urban guerrilla group. She was tortured during the military dictatorship and eventually rose to lead the board of the national oil company before becoming Brazil’s first female president.

Until recently, relatively few Brazilians had even heard of Temer. When they did, it often involved references to his wife, Marcela Temer, 32, a former beauty pageant contestant who is 43 years younger than he is. They met when she was just 18.

A profile of Marcela Temer in Veja, a newsmagazine, caused a stir by glowingly referring to her as “pretty, demure and of the home.” It said Michel Temer was “a lucky man” to have such a devoted, unassuming housewife as a spouse, especially one who wears knee-level skirts.

The magazine did not mention the tattoo on the nape of Marcela Temer’s neck featuring her husband’s name, but the message was clear: Michel Temer, a law professor and career politician, embodies a more conservative approach than Rousseff in the corridors of power and in his own home.

Then there is the issue of race. After a long stretch in which Brazil pressed ahead with affirmative action policies, Temer’s critics point out the lack of Afro-Brazilians in his Cabinet, especially when nearly 51 per cent of Brazilians define themselves as black or mixed race, according to the 2010 census.

“It’s embarrassing that most of Temer’s Cabinet choices are old, white men,” said Sérgio Praça, a political scientist at Fundação Getulio Vargas, an elite Brazilian university. He drew a contrast with Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, who formed a Cabinet in which half of the 30 ministers are women.

In a speech to the nation on Thursday, Temer said he would seek to soothe tensions in Brazil, a nation polarized by the impeachment trial of Rousseff. She is accused of manipulating the federal budget to hide yawning deficits, a budgetary sleight of hand that her critics say helped her get re-elected in 2014.

“It’s urgent to seek the unity of Brazil,” Temer said during a ceremony introducing his ministers. “We urgently need a government of national salvation.”

The new president’s supporters point out that he considered a couple of women for Cabinet-level posts, including Renata Abreu, 34, a lawmaker, to oversee human rights policies.

But that effort, along with other test balloons, did not prosper. First, it became widely known that Abreu had voted in favor of legislation to make it difficult for women who are raped to get abortions. Then Temer opted to fold the human rights post into the Ministry of Justice, making it a second-tier appointment.

Temer’s offer of the Science Ministry to Marcos Pereira, an evangelical pastor who does not believe in evolution, also fizzled. He named Pereira trade minister instead. Then, to the dismay of leaders in Brazil’s scientific community, Temer merged the ministries of Science and Communications.

Like many of Brazil’s political leaders, Temer has legal problems of his own. He was recently found guilty of violating campaign finance limits, a conviction that could make him ineligible to run for office for eight years, leaving a cloud of scandal that has raised concerns about his capacity to govern with a strong mandate.

“Temer faces the fundamental problem of legitimacy,” said Michael Shifter, the president of Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington. “He did not become president as a result of a popular vote, but rather because of a controversial impeachment process.”

But some argue, in Temer’s favor, that his Cabinet includes officials who held important posts when Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party was in control. Henrique Meirelles, a banker who is the new finance minister, served as central bank president for eight years during the government of Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from 2003 to 2010.

During that time, Brazil’s government gained the respect of investors as incomes soared during a commodities boom. Prominent figures in Brazil’s financial markets hope that Meirelles can rebuild that credibility.

Some environmental activists are blasting Temer’s choice for agriculture minister, Blairo Maggi, a soybean farmer and politician who has pushed for opening huge areas of the Amazon to agricultural development. Yet some point out that Maggi was also open to dialogue, winning plaudits for reducing deforestation rates while he was governor of Mato Grosso state.

Still, Maggi, along with an array of other members of Temer’s Cabinet, has been battling corruption inquiries. For three years, investigators examined claims tying Maggi to a money-laundering scheme. Just this week, the Supreme Court shelved the case.

Other ministers appointed by Temer remain under investigation in separate cases, including Geddel Vieira Lima, a former executive at one of Brazil’s largest government-controlled banks who is now the president’s secretary, and Henrique Alves, a tourism minister in Rousseff’s government who will occupy the same post under Temer.

The rancor around the ouster of Rousseff, who will go on trial in the Senate, was evident Thursday on the streets of Brasília, the capital. Dozens of women chained themselves to barriers surrounding the presidential palace, shouting slogans in support of Rousseff and expressing alarm about Temer’s top advisers.

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