Brazil’s New President: Populist In The Streets, Elitist In The Sheets

by Rebeca Camacho
Staff Writer

2018 marks the thirtieth-year anniversary of the enactment of Brazil’s constitution, ending an era of military dictatorships that swept the country from 1964 to 1985. This year the Brazilian public elected former-military general and far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro into presidential office-the first president in over ten years to not represent the Workers’ Party (PT). Bolsonaro’s election can be attributed to a combination of the Brazilian people’s indignation with the PT’s previous administrations and the strategic alignment of his campaign with that of his protectionist counterparts abroad. Bolsonaro framed himself as a man of the people, but one need only look at his plans for economic reform to determine exactly whose interests he is representing.

As we examine Bolsonaro’s campaign, there are certain historical parallels with Donald Trump’s 2017 campaign worth mentioning. Much like Trump, Bolsonaro understood where the PT had failed the people; he brought attention to serious concerns of insecurity and the displacement of Venezuelan economic migrants within Brazil’s borders, ultimately using them as fuel for divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. Similar to how Donald Trump appealed to a portion of society that felt disconnected from reality, Bolsonaro ignited political fervor among those in Brazil who viewed him as the only credible alternative. Unfortunately, through his appointment of neoliberal economists into his cabinet and an agenda favoring the business elite, many of his proposals reinforce a status quo of inequality.

‘Women against Bolsonaro’ March in Brazil

From Foreign to Familiar
With Brazil’s political climate more closely resembling an episode from the Netflix original political thriller “House of Cards”, much of the Brazilian people began tuning out the news. The increasing disconnect between Brazilian politicians and their constituents amidst economic uncertainty opened up the way for Bolsonaro to emerge from the fringes of the political spectrum.

Indeed, the primary reasoning behind Bolsonaro’s victory was his campaign as the “anti-establishment” candidate. With the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff and the similarly low approval ratings of her successor, sitting-president Michel Temer, the Brazilian people grew tired of finding their leaders in the midst of misconduct allegations. Brazil’s news cycles and reputation abroad have been tarnished by some of the country’s most widely reported corruption scandals such as “Operation Car Wash” and “Mensalão” (or “Big Monthly Stipend”), which implicated individuals from virtually all levels of government and major Brazilian firms. In this way, the PT’s past and that of many in charge served as their own worst enemy.

So, it should come as no surprise that Bolsonaro would leverage the people’s loss of faith in the administrators of the country’s welfare as a deflection away from points of contention raised by his own critics. Bolsonaro’s heavy use of social media platforms such as “Whatsapp” for campaigning, his decision to run for office as the Social Liberal Party’s (PSL) candidate, in an effort to distance himself from the ruling far-left Worker’s Party (PT), provided him the credibility to present himself as a departure from the image of Brazilian politicians that the public had come to despise.

Bolsonaro’s weaponization of inflammatory rhetoric and promotion of conservative values endeared him to a disenfranchised segment of the population. Similar to the “silent majority” that Donald Trump’s “anti-political correctness” movement captivated, some Brazilians were enamored with Bolsonaro’s bigoted verbiage as a deviation from the global progressive wave. Much like Trump in the United States, Bolsonaro framed himself as the outsider at odds with the political and intellectual elites. However fastidiously criticized his policies were in academic circles, the business elites proved beguiled by Bolsonaro’s promised governmental reforms. With the majority of the population expressing dissatisfaction with the previous two administrations headed by the Worker’s Party (PT), Bolsonaro was able to utilize public skepticism of “establishment” politicians to alter Brazil’s position as a “peaceful giant”-a historically neutral and cooperative international agent.

Bolsonaro supporters in October 2018

The recent economic destabilization of some of Brazil’s Latin American neighbors played a pivotal role in Bolsonaro’s victory, empowering an isolated demographic to express their collective political voice. Residents of Brazil’s state of Roraima, for instance, have largely borne the negative impacts of  Venezuelan migration as many migrants sought refuge from the worst economic crisis in their country’s history. Bolsonaro played on the uncertainty of the residents of Roraima during his campaign. He suggested a possible withdrawal from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, and more recently stated that he would resort to “whatever means necessary” when “saving Venezuela from itself.” His rhetoric is more like that of military leaders during Brazil’s period of political oppression and Donald Trump’s anti-immigration platform. In this way, Venezuela served to negatively reinforce what Brazil’s future could look like if the way the country is running the economy does not change.     

Bolsonaro’s victory is largely attributed to his economic vision, or lack thereof. When asked of his economic policy, Bolsonaro admitted his inexperience in the field and professed his reliance on the expertise of his cabinet’s nominee to be Minister of the Economy, former banker Paulo Guedes. As a graduate from the University of Chicago and fervent advocate of Neoliberalism and free-market economics, Guedes espouses the urgent need for a shift away from Brazil’s long-standing system of heavy government involvement, a sizeable welfare state structure and stringent oversight of Brazilian institutions.

Plans for a smaller government translated into optimism in Brazil’s stock market. The idea of privatizing a good portion of the country’s public agencies can be attractive to potential investors, but at what cost? The progress made for social and environmental causes is intimately tied to combating the driving forces of inequality in Brazil. This is what is at risk. Bolsonaro’s administration promises to free the country from its many inefficiencies and overly bureaucratic characterization. But when less oversight translates into deregulation of environmental policies and disregards the root causes to social injustice, many of the ails affecting the country’s workforce will continue to fester like unattended open wounds.


Photos by:
Renato Gizzi
Alessandro Dias

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