Everything You Need to Know About Brazil’s Recent Politics

Brazil is one of the most diverse nations in the world, with over 200 million citizens, making it the fourth-largest democracy in the world. They accordingly boast one of the largest economies in the world, making them a large trade force.

Globally, Brazil is the 9th largest producer of oil, 2nd largest producer of beef, making them the 7th largest economy in the world. Their impact on the Global South is, thus, vast. That does not prevent the Global North to think that it is largely obsolete in their discussions of the international order.

In this blog post, I will argue that Brazil should receive the attention it deserves to properly grasp the democratic crisis the world faces from the resurgence of right-wing populist regimes.

A Brief Look at Brazil’s Recent History

Before I outline the progression and development of political regimes in Brazil after the end of the Cold War, I would like to pause on the nature of Brazil’s politics.

In Brazil’s Military Regime, H. Jon Rosenbaum argues that “fluidity” is the framework of Brazilian life. It is therefore important to remember that any analysis of future events in Brazil can never certainly predict the future of the country. In the end, my goal with outlining the history of Brazil’s politics is not to predict what lies ahead. Rather, I attempt to explain why Brazil finds itself in a situation that threatens its recently-established democracy.

Regimes from 1946–1990

Historically, Brazil’s political development during the Cold War can be distributed into three stages:

  • (1) the populist years (1946–1964),
  • (2) the military dictatorships (1964–1985),
  • and (3) the New Republic (1985–1990).

Brazil has a history of military violence. In comparison to other countries in South America, and despite recent efforts to do the contrary, Brazil is far behind in acknowledging the violations it has committed to human rights activists.

Regimes 1990–2005

After the end of the Cold War, Brazil went through 6 stages,

  • (1) the Collor government (1990–1992),
  • (2) the Itamar government (1992–1994),
  • (3) the FHC government (1995–2003),
  • (4) the Lula government (2003–2011),
  • (5) the Dilma government (2011–2016),
  • and(6) Bolsonaro’s presidency.

I will primarily focus on the last three stages, stages three to six, in this analysis. However, I will briefly outline the previous ones here as well.

Near the end of the Soviet Union and fall of the Berlin Wall, Fernando Collor de Mello became President of Brazil (1990–1992). His election was meant to last from 1990 to 1994. He resigned due to corruption charges at the beginning of his third year in office. After Collor resigned, his vice-president, Itamar Franco, took over office (1992–1994).

Collor’s task to remake Brazil’s economy was not easy. Brazil was facing high unemployment and inflation rates. With that came a lot of hostility to his presidency and his capability to bring the country out of turmoil. Due to outside influence, mainly from the anti-Collar campaign, Itamar permitted full control to his Minister of Economy and succeeding president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who then launched the Plano Real (“Real Plan”).

The economic reform was largely successful. Cardoso’s regime (1995–2003) was distinguishable from the rest because of his overt privatization of most public services and privately-owned companies. Notably, toward the end of his term, the parliament passed a constitutional amendment that enabled a current president to run for president for a second term.

He beat Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 1998. However, his presidency is not fondly remembered by Brazilians. In response to criticism of Bolsonaro for his xenophobia, racism, and sexism, the Brazilian people often respond that anything is better than a socialist regime, which privatizes most publicly-owned companies.

Regimes from 2005–2020

Lula’s election did not come to much surprise. Firstly, he ran three times before and always failed to the opposition, however, his continuous exposure to the public boosted his popularity.

Lula managed to contribute with productive solutions to the growing economic problems that Brazil faced. He was, thus, reelected in 2006. Along with Lula’s successes as president, he helped grow the middle class, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. However, Lula’s promise for economic reform was short-lived due to multiple corruption charges.

Operation Car Wash

In 2010, Lula handed his presidency over to Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016). However, Dilma was later impeached due to corruption charges that came to be one of the largest corruption cases in the Global South, Operacao Lava Jato, “Operation Car Wash”.

I will discuss Operation Car Wash after I touch on Lula’s vice-president who became president due to Lula’s impeachment in 2018, making him Brazil’s 37th president. Temer’s succession only lasted for the second year of Lula’s term due to growing unpopularity.

Temer promised to overhaul labor laws, the pension system, and curb public spending. Temer was replaced by Jair Bolsonaro on January 1, 2019. Temer was then arrested on March 21, 2019, for corruption charges after investigations into Operation Car Wash. Notably, one of the reasons Bolsonaro was elected into office was his promise to “crack down” on corruption and crime in Brazil.

Operation Car Wash — What Was It Exactly?

The police investigation into corruption, known as Operation Car Wash, started in March 2014. The investigation looked into allegations that the state oil company, Petrobras, was accepting bribes from construction firms for building under reduced prices. Operation Car Wash revealed deep corruption within Brazil. 352 of Brazil’s 594 members of Congress were under investigation in 2016 as a result of the scandal.

As a result of the scandal, some of Brazil’s largest companies lost billions of dollars, most notable of which is Odebrecht, which was fined $2.6 billion.

On a positive note, Operation Car Wash revealed corruption in Brazil on a public scale.

Ex-president, Lula, was sentenced to prison for 12 years. His successor, Dilma, was impeached. Michel Temer, Dilma’s vice-president, was charged with corruption. Eike Batista, once the richest man in Brazil, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Few were exempt from the rule of law. Brazilian politicians were prosecuted for good reason.

By 2016, 11 projects that relied on funding from politicians were stalled as a result of corruption investigations in Brazil. Projects outside of Brazil were affected as well. In Latin America, 17 projects were stalled, costing thousands of jobs. The Olmos Irrigation Project in Peru had three former presidents associated with taking bribes to allow launch. In Colombia, the Magdalena River Project admitted to paying 11 million dollars in bribes. Similarly, Venezuela had 23 projects suspended. The economic impact of these corruption scandals was vast. By 2017, more than 500,000 jobs in Brazil were lost.

Why is Brazil so susceptible to corruption?

There are several reasons. According to two-time presidential candidate, former senator, and Brazil’s minister of the environment from 2003 to 2008, Marina Silva, the prevalence of corruption can be largely attributed to the governmental structure which is coalition-based, making it open to corruption scandals.

Crowded parties require more funds to gain a majority in Congress, resulting in a larger need for monetary funds for political parties to get into power. Therefore, Silva writes, “It is a self-perpetuating cycle.” With one of the largest economies in the world and little to none focus in the global arena, Brazil can get away with a lot.

Collective Memory & Politics

In Breaking the ‘Silence’ of the Military Regime: New Politics of Memory in Brazil, Nina Schneider argues that Brazil has gone through two political transitions between military regimes. In particular, the military regime lasting from 1964–1985 endeavored to appear democratic whilst governing by totalitarian force.

Interestingly, the military regimes in Brazil “rotated” between military leaders rather than by one dictator in comparison with other totalitarian regimes at the time. It was rare in history that dictators were willing to abandon their influence and power for someone else. The military leaders in Brazil also managed to kill fewer people than Chile and Argentina which may contribute to the “politics of memory” displayed in Brazil.

We can see these politics of memory played out right now in current affairs in Brazil. In response to Bolsonaro’s incompetence, his followers state that his racism and sexism are better than corruption. As is the case with most right-wing populist regimes today, the populist appeals to citizens by blaming the elites.

In Brazil’s case, it is hard to blame the citizens of Brazil for their distaste and distrust of the government. Operation Car Wash revealed a lot about Brazil’s politicians. Therefore, it is not surprising that Bolsonaro, who has been outspoken against the elites throughout his career, is seen as a viable solution to endless corruption scandals in Brazilian politics.

The most significant political leader in recent memory in Brazil is Bolsonaro. He has promised to fix the disastrous economy that the left-leaning politicians were not able to do in Brazil. Bolsonaro was meant to save Brazil from the corruption epidemic in Brazil. For Brazil to come out of its recession, it will need to establish strong foreign trade and relations. With Trump in the White House, it is more than likely that a strong trade agreement will be established between the two nations. In an interview with Fox News, Bolsonaro had said that Brazil has a lot to offer to the USA.

Jair Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro, the former military captain and conservative congressman, had also provided South America, particularly Brazil, with a solution to the drug-trafficking crisis caused by Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Therefore, Bolsonaro’s presidency is affecting neighboring nations in the global south, unsurprisingly.

However, Bolsonaro is met with strong opposition. He is known for his fierce advocacy of social conservatism. On the issue of immigration, Bolsonaro had said that “The vast majority of potential immigrants do not have good intentions . . . to the US people.”

He has been steadfastly against same-sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion, and secularism in Brazil and said that one of the factors that helped him win the election was his respect for “families, principles, traditions, and customs, . . . and our culture, and religion.”

However, Bolsonaro also faces large opposition from the world and the nation, despite winning the majority vote in 2018. Bolsonaro was stabbed by a man that was affiliated with a left-wing party, the PSOL party. Furthermore, women have been particularly outspoken against Bolsonaro. The reason many women fear Bolsonaro is because his security forces have killed over 1,000 people in Rio de Janeiro since Bolsonaro took control on the federal level.

That amounts to 42% more than the previous year. Furthermore, the ones that are killed are primarily young men, which contributes to the reason why many women, particularly mothers, are opposed to the regime. Therefore, Bolsonaro has primarily campaigned on fear, crime, and security. As was argued above, this is not new for the citizens of Brazil.

The climate and climate change are among the primary Global concerns in the 21st century. Any country that does not uphold their side of the Paris Agreement is largely shunned and frowned upon. This has not been persuasive enough for some members of the United Nations to stick with the Paris Agreement.

Some have called the 20th century, the “Anthropocene” due to how important the global environment is to our survival. Brazil faces special responsibilities to the global environment because the Amazon rainforest accounts for 20% of the oxygen we breathe and is one of the world’s most crucial carbon sinks. Brazil had problems with deforestation since the 80s, most notably, however during Michel Temer’s presidency when he attempted to deforest 11 million acres in the Amazon — amounting to the size of Denmark.

More recently, Bolsonaro similarly came under fire, when tens of thousands of fires broke out due to deforestation in the Amazon. In response to Bolsonaro’s animosity toward the ensuing global catastrophe, the French president, Macron threatened to block a free-trade deal between the European Union and Mercosur, the trade bloc formed between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

Macron went so far as to call it an “ecocide.” However, backlash from the liberal international order has not prevented Trump’s “full and complete support.” Stewart M. Patrick argues in his article, A Responsibility to Protect the Earth? Reframing Sovereignty in the Anthropocene, that it is unlikely for the world to unite to prevent ecosystem destruction, climate change, and biodiversity collapse. However, global cooperation may be the only solution we have to our increasing concerns about the climate and the future well-being of generations to come.

The Future

In the years ahead, it is not clear whether Bolsonaro will be able to bring Brazil out of a recession. With the spread of COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus, it is even less likely to predict what the world’s economy will look like in a few years, let alone for Brazil. With Bolsonaro’s initial rejection of the virus as a “hoax” and then his dismissal of needing to self-isolate despite being tested positive for the virus, we can make some assumptions.

If anything, we know that Bolsonaro has little respect for experts, whether that comes from climate scientists or epidemiologists. He, therefore, rejects claims that point toward science. Thus, what can be expected from his regime is a short-term focus on the financial well-being of the country resulting in more investments in coal, mining, deforestation, and oil. This may boost the economy of Brazil in the short-term, however, the long-term impacts may well be detrimental.

In many ways, the rise of a figure such as Bolsonaro in Brazilian politics could have been predicted and expected. With Brazil’s liberation from military regimes, citizens desired to have an economy that can compete economically on the world stage. The Brazilian people, therefore, turned to left-leaning privatization which was largely ineffective. The inevitable happened; corruption, greed, and political scandals decimated what was left of Lula’s successful economic reforms.

The vast political cooperation in bribery, theft, and embezzlement, illuminated by Operation Car Wash, made the citizens of Brazil doubt the elites and politicians. Bolsonaro seized an opportunity of a life-time. All that is left is to show Brazil that perhaps a compromising centrist, between the two political extremes, will be able to better tackle the climate crisis all the whilst investing in economic reform to revive the needlessly tormented citizens of Brazil.

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Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

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