The risks of Brazil ignoring its public spending cap

The year 2020 was one of great expectations, not only for the Brazilian economy — but for the global financial landscape. Macroeconomic data corroborated growth expectations, GDP forecasts were promising, retail results enjoyed an upward trend, and inflation was under control. However, Brazil inherited an eye-watering debt-to-GDP ratio, which only got worse during the Covid-19 pandemic. The national debt to GDP ratio — already high at 75 percent — became desperate, with the expectation of hitting 100 percent.

Besides crashing into the Brazilian economy like a wrecking ball, [restricted]the pandemic certainly created a feeling of mistrust among investors with regard to the country’s public spending cap. Brazil has a severe flaw in its constitution, by which spending on personnel — the second-highest public sector expense, behind pensions — cannot be decreased. In fact, this expenditure has to be adjusted for inflation on a yearly basis, causing a direct impact on the spending ceiling.

Furthermore, the government’s public service reform, submitted to Congress, would only affect employees who enter civil service after the constitutional changes are approved. In other words, it would spark no effect, as existing obligations will continue to raise public spending. Beyond this, the reform proposal would not even apply to politicians, judges, members of high courts, prosecutors, and military servants.

Brazil an ugly duckling for international investors

Brazil’s image on the international market is very poor indeed. This can be seen by the outflow of foreign capital from the Brazilian stock exchange — BRL 87 billion (USD 15.5 billion) has left this year alone. While these political uncertainties and compliance with the public spending ceiling continue, Brazil’s reputation on the world stage is unlikely to improve. However, this flow of funds could be reverted into a potential increase in interest rates and the risk premium.

Mirroring this landscape, the world’s major credit rating agencies have maintained Brazil’s sovereign rating but altered their outlook from “stable” to “negative.” While ultraliberal Economy Minister Paulo Guedes has said he will adhere to the public spending cap, President Jair Bolsonaro has mentioned the possibility of breaking through the ceiling on a number of occasions, increasing uncertainty.

If Brazil were to breach its public spending rules, ratings agencies could lower the country’s sovereign credit rating, which would cause huge losses for Brazil’s image abroad and scare off foreign investors even more. 

Public spending issues: domestic factors

Macroeconomics also have to be taken into account. Ignoring fiscal policy would lead to an increase in inflation, the further weakening of the Brazilian Real, higher interest rates, and more unemployment. As this situation could turn into a vicious cycle, it is likely that the recession would become even more severe.

Elsewhere, there is the matter of the government’s coronavirus emergency salary. The plan to pay the unemployed and informal workers a monthly sum of BRL 600 (USD 106) set the administration back BRL 50 billion a month. The program was extended until the end of the year, but payments have been cut to BRL 300. The emergency aid certainly propped up Brazil’s GDP in the second quarter — avoiding a bigger dive than the -9.7 percent registered by the government — but it has aggravated the country’s fiscal outlook.

As seen in the chart above, Brazil’s Credit Default Swap — or CDS, measuring the likelihood of a default on public debt — reached 91.8 points in February 2020, but now stands at around 227 points.

Therefore, so that Brazil may improve its national debt to GDP ratio, authorities must focus on reducing debt and mitigating the country’s problems in honoring its payments by way of public service and tax reforms, and implementing a sweeping program of privatizations. This will give the country more control over its spending, increasing tax revenue, and allowing funds to be invested in health, education, and infrastructure.[/restricted]


How the U.S. culture wars were exported to Brazil

During the first days of The Brazilian Report’s existence, reporter Ciara Long pointed out how the arguments of Brazil’s gun rights activists were a copied-and-pasted version of the U.S. National Rifle Association’s playbook. “It’s not just an imported logic, but even the posts, the memes,” Ivan Marques, director of NGO Instituto Sou da Paz, said at the time. But if you pay more attention to it, you will see that this phenomenon is not exclusive to the pro-gun movement. Brazil’s left and right are increasingly importing American culture wars — transplanting discussions without much adaptation to a totally different context.

Just last week, President Jair Bolsonaro tried to spark an anti-vaxxer movement, saying “no-one can force anyone to take a Covid-19 vaccine.” The argument that strict vaccination policies are a violation of people’s personal liberties seems to come straight from the U.S. anti-vaccine discussion. It is, as well, completely out of touch with the Brazilian reality — where 88 percent of citizens would take a coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available, according to a recent Ipsos-Mori poll.[restricted]

Anti-vaxxers in the U.S. have become associated with supporters of President Donald Trump, and vaccination policies have become one of the uncountable battlegrounds for culture wars. While Brazil has its own complicated history of resistance to vaccination evidenced in the famous 1904 vaccine revolt in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Bolsonaro’s words are more evidence of this major ongoing cultural shift in Brazil.

The shameless adoption of U.S. culture wars has become a calling card for the Jair Bolsonaro brand. A few weeks ago, his third-eldest son, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, posted a picture of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old shooter who gunned down Black Lives Matter protesters in Wisconsin. Mr. Bolsonaro said the shooter was defending his property from “terrorists,” and offered his “total support for young Kyle.”

The youngest Bolsonaro politician son is known for his unchecked love of all things alt-right and Trump (he frequently wears MAGA hats). One time, he praised fast-food chain Popeye’s Chicken (where he briefly worked) — which has gotten many accusations of labor rights violations — for stimulating work ethic in him, a value compromised, in his words, by Brazil’s culture of “samba, caipirinha, and carnival.”

However, the unfiltered import of U.S. culture wars is not exclusive to the Brazilian right. In recent years, many on the left have too become active participants in U.S. culture wars.

A history of U.S. cultural influence in Brazil

Brazil and the U.S. go way back, with the Americans being the first nation to recognize the Brazilian independence. And as foreign policy professor Carlos Gustavo Poggio told the Explaining Brazil Podcast, relations between the Americas’ two largest nations have been traditionally tepid — never too close, but never too distant.

Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. has frequently sought to interfere with Brazil’s internal politics, playing an important role in funding and supporting the 1964 military coup that toppled the left-leaning João Goulart — perceived as hostile to U.S. interests. 

In the post-war world, as Brazilian elites and intellectuals shifted from a francophile sentiment toward a more U.S.-centric perspective, cultural influence from North America is everywhere to be found, from Disney’s Three Caballeros and its iconic malandro parrot Zé Carioca, to Tupac’s influence on São Paulo’s rap scene.

That cultural influence started to intensify already in the 1930s, as both the U.S. and Brazilian governments sought to promote cultural exchanges between both countries. In 1936, then-U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Rio de Janeiro to promote his “Good Neighbor” policy of non-interventionism and economic alliances in Latin America’s largest country. He remarked to those assembled — including then-Brazilian leader Getulio Vargas: 

“You have done much to help us in the United States in many ways in the past. We, I think, have done a little to help you, and may I suggest that you, with this great domain of many millions of square miles, of which such a large proportion is still open to human occupation, can learn much from the mistakes we have made in the United States.”

Years later, Brazil was the sole Latin American nation to send troops to Europe during World War II. According to historian Andre Pagliarini, a lecturer at Dartmouth University who studies the U.S.-Brazil relationship, “World War II gave Brazilians a definitive sense of their importance in the world, not unlike the feeling after the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics.” 

Many middle-class Brazilians in the 1950s became convinced that U.S. culture was a sign of progress and should be emulated in Brazil, as opposed to Brazilian culture — associated with backwardness, but this met with significant resistance. 

Anti-Americanism or hostility to U.S. cultural and political imperialism is another age-old Brazilian tradition: from Army lieutenant revolts in the 1930s to fiery left nationalists like former Rio de Janeiro Governor Leonel Brizola. Hostility to U.S. cultural influence in Brazil was more or less a foundational value of the Brazilian left, despite the quest for steady bonds with the U.S. becoming a near-permanent feature of Brazilian foreign policy.

Historically, the Americanization of Brazil did not happen passively, as historian Antonio Pedro Tota argues in his book “The Seduction of Brazil.” 

“There was an interaction between U.S. and Brazilian culture. The ‘culture shock’ created by the strong presence of the U.S. communications media did not destroy Brazil’s culture, but most certainly it produced new cultural manifestations. It is useful, but not enough, to draw on the notion of cultural resistance to understand this process.”

For the leftist student movements of the 1960s, U.S. cultural influence was a form of imperialism. Singer Caetano Veloso, for instance, was famously pelted with eggs, fruits, and vegetables during a music festival by radical students hostile to his American-influenced reimagining of Brazilian culture through rock music.

These days, it would be hard to imagine radical students attacking musicians and culture figures for selling out Brazilian culture to the Americans. Last month, Columbia University historian Lilia Schwarz found herself under widespread attack for penning a critique of Beyoncé’s latest album “Black is King” in newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

The recent shift

As The Brazilian Report has covered, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sought to fashion out a new foreign policy agenda that would see Brazil focus on creating its own set of relationships and networks outside the U.S. 

Brazil sought to become a world power on its own terms, building on alliances with other Latin American countries — along with other developing nations. While Lula’s agenda was hardly unprecedented in Brazilian history (even Brazil’s military dictatorship sought to craft a foreign policy agenda beyond the U.S., even establishing diplomatic ties with Communist China and being the first country to recognize Mozambique and Angola’s independence), it met significant resistance from middle classes.

Mr. Pagliarini told The Brazilian Report: “For many Brazilians, the Workers’ Party administrations forced a decision on the county: ‘Are we going to be more like the U.S. or less like the U.S.?’ More Washington-like in how we allocate resources or more like Moscow or Venezuela or Beijing. I know this borders on caricature, but I do think a whole lot of people believe in this dilemma. Like, ‘what is so wrong with the U.S.? Why did the Workers’ Party’s foreign policy seemingly go out of its way to thumb its nose at Washington?’ Things are obviously more complex than that but I think this distilled a sense of frustrated potential among millions of Brazilians. We might not actually be the U.S., but we could be much closer.”

But what does it mean to be more like the U.S.?

For the historian, many Brazilians imagine being more like the U.S. as “valuing hard work and not expecting handouts, no government-provided basic services nor free college for rich private school kids.” This was evident in Mr. Bolsonaro’s 2018 election campaign, which attacked public services with the Reaganite rhetoric that the state is the problem, rather than a means to a solution. 

The idea of Brazilian meritocracy is deeply tied to ideas of what a normal advanced country should be like, and people turn for inspiration to the U.S. — a country with no labor protections, paid holidays, and the weakest welfare state in the developed world. 

Mr. Bolsonaro’s guru Olavo de Carvalho resides in rural Virginia and frequently makes reference to the U.S.’s “unique political values” as superior, or to “Brazilian stupidity and cultural backwardness.” As I have previously argued in The Brazilian Report, the new Brazilian right seeks credibility through fanboy-like association with leading conservative figures in the U.S. like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon.

“In practice, the result is that many Brazilians across the political spectrum see a strict kind of caste system in Brazil which, for opposing reasons, they want to see loosened. They see the U.S. free market as a source of dynamism — or social media discourse and activism as a source of dynamism. France is frowned upon as being just as sclerotic as Brazil — at least in the minds of Brazilian conservatives. That’s no model for the kind of change they want to see,” Mr. Pagliarini says.

U.S. dominance has brought about a remarkable shift among Brazilian intellectuals, who no longer look to Paris for inspiration, but to North America.

This is in part a reflection of the sheer financial dominance of U.S. higher education through soft power programs that lures high-potential students (evaluated for their leadership capacity) to American universities, where their perception of America and its policies will be shaped. Notable Fulbright Scholarship program alumni include Brazil’s former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and the country’s first female Supreme Court justice, Ellen Gracie. U.S. influence is evident across Latin America, leaders like Chile’s Sebastián Piñera or Colombian former President Juan Manuel Santos also stand out.

But the fact is that many of these ideas about the U.S. don’t hold up to scrutiny but it’s what many Brazilians think the U.S. is. So those on the right and to an extent on the left who look to US for models are in a way chasing a product that has decades of marketing behind it but isn’t actually what they think it is. The U.S. is in many ways all-too-similar to Brazil, in that it is defined by racial strife, inequality, lack of state capacity and a demagogic and corrupt political class.

The new Americanization of Brazil

What is happening now is different to previous iterations of the Americanization of Brazil. Rather than receiving cultural movements such as funk or rock and then refashioning in a distinctively Brazilian way, Brazilians seek to participate directly in U.S. culture wars and pop culture as a form of self-identification. 

The result is that Brazilians are fighting U.S. fights against other Brazilians. 

Brazilians seek to craft an identity as more American than their fellow countryman as a way of signaling their own social status or cultural capital from slang to fashion sense to consumption, for instance, one of the markers of being middle class in Brazil became an obligatory trip to Disneyland in Florida or closer-to-home dining out at an Outback steak house or enjoying a Jack Daniels while wearing a Metallica t-shirt.

As Mr. Pagliarini puts it, “the Americanization we see happening today is in some ways more sophisticated because it’s not just average Brazilians seeing ads for Coca-Cola and aspiring to be that, but it is also more shallow in a lot of ways. There isn’t a broad reordering of Brazilian society imbued in how the Bolsonaro children see the U.S., I think. It’s more about finding validation for reactionary Brazilian common sense in an idea of the U.S.” 

Social media is key to this shift. 

You are now able to engage, follow and interact in real time with cultural movements and figures anywhere in the world regardless of where you are geographically located. You can stream Beyonce’s new album simultaneously with millions of Americans fans for instance or consume Fox News as much as any ageing provincial bigot in the exurbs of a medium-sized U.S. city.

There has never been a more pro-U.S. president than Jair Bolsonaro, he has tied his political fortunes to the U.S. in an unprecedented fashion, putting U.S. foreign interests above those of Brazil. He even went as far as prostrating himself in front of Mr. Trump to say “I love you.” To which Mr. Trump reportedly answered: “Nice seeing you.”

Shopping mall tycoon Luciano Hang, who is accused of illegally funding Mr. Bolsonaro’s disinformation network, has made his mall brand distinctive through the almost indescribably tacky plastic Statue of Liberty replica that visually pollutes the scenery in front of his shopping centers.

For those on the left seeking inspiration after a series of historic defeats, the Black Live Matter Movement seems an obvious source, given that it is tackling racist policing in a country where law enforcement seems to be even more racist and brutal than in the U.S. 

However, only a relatively small layer of Brazilians can truly learn and interpret the signs, symbols and language of U.S. cultural politics, which then in turn becomes a market of social status and political insight in Brazil. 

The truth is as I remarked earlier is that in many ways U.S. society is as broken and unequal as Brazil, social mobility is a thing of the past and nobody seems to be offering a real way out of its mess. Perhaps the real lesson for Brazil is that the U.S. is almost as dysfunctional and doesn’t offer too much hope in terms of possible solutions to Brazil’s crisis — given the fact that only the U.S. has recorded more deaths from Covid-19 than Brazil.[/restricted]


The role of religion in Brazilian politics

In Brazilian electoral politics, there are rules to try and even the playing field, punishing candidates who win their races thanks to the unfair use of money — labeled an “abuse of economic power” — with impeachment. This week, the country’s Superior Electoral Court tried a case which would decide the level of scrutiny religious leaders would face when running for office. They would decide whether or not to create the crime of “abuse of religious power,” and if it should be an impeachable offense. The case was brought up by Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin, who believes that religious leaders are overstepping their roles and using faith as a vote-whipping tool.

Justice Fachin, however, lost in a 6-1 vote. 

His peers say that the current rules, as they are, already regulate such transgressions. Moreover, Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who voted with the majority, said “one cannot transform religion in absolutely neutral movements without political participation and legitimate political interests.” His words echo those of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who once said he was confused about which Bible people were reading when they said that religion and politics do not mix.[restricted]

But the discussion has become a hot-button issue in Brazil, especially since the rise of Evangelical churches as major power brokers in Congress and — with the ascension of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency — in the federal government.

In fairness, religion has always been a part of politics in Brazil, from slave revolts led by Muslims in 19th-century Bahia, to the role of liberation theology in the resistance to the military dictatorship. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 84 percent of Brazilians believe that faith in God is necessary in order to have moral values, meaning that religion and religious values play a key role in how Brazilians make political decisions.

It is necessary to go beyond the surface level in analyzing the current role of religion in Brazilians politics. The Brazilian Report dug into the research and spoke to leading experts in the field to break down the role of religion in politics.

Religion in Congress: the “Bible caucus”

For decades, Brazil held the title of being the “world’s largest Catholic country.” Being Brazilian was almost synonymous with being Catholic, even for those who did not attend mass. There was even a name for these non-practicing not-so-devotees: Census-only Catholics.

Since the 1950s, however, Brazil has been experiencing a rapid demographic change. The country’s urbanization process was followed by another phenomenon: the surge of Evangelical Christianity. Brazil’s Evangelical population exploded from just four percent 40 years ago to nearly one-quarter of the population. It would not be surprising if next year’s census shows Evangelical Christians as comprising over 30 percent of Brazilians.

And while Mr. Bolsonaro is a Catholic, he often professes his faith in evangelical churches. In 2016, he was baptized into the Assembly of God Church by a preacher who is also the leader of the Social Christian Party. His electoral win placed religious activists in the cabinet in a way never seen before in Brazil. Damares Alves, a former secretary within the congressional evangelical caucus, is now Family, Women, and Human Rights Minister — the ‘Family’ element was shoehorned in as a concession to the evangelical community. But religious leaders were also placed in key positions related to policies targeting indigenous groups, populations which many churches seek to convert. 

Earlier this year, Ricardo Lopes Dias, another Evangelical Christian pastor, was appointed as head of Brazil’s indigenous affairs agency Funai — and missionaries were granted special permission to enter indigenous territories, despite there being a raging pandemic that is killing an average of over 1,000 Brazilians every day.

In Congress, Evangelical Christian candidates went from winning 12 of the House’s 513 seats in 1982 to snatching up 82 seats in 2018. Alongside the rural caucus and the so-called “bullet caucus” — made up of pro-gun and public security lawmakers — the Evangelical bench is one of the top three most powerful interest groups represented in Congress. 

And while that growing influence is linked to the growth of their religion, it is also true that Evangelicals were also empowered by the dictatorship — which saw them as a useful buffer against communists and left-wing elements within the Catholic Church.

The Evangelical caucus not only has its own distinct social agenda — anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights, anti-secular education — but is also a well-organized group with a strong political strategy. And they know how to pick a winner. 

As sociologist Liz McKenna told The Brazilian Report, “the majoritarian evangelical bloc has never been on the losing side of a presidential campaign in Brazil since the end of the dictatorship. From Fernando Collor, in 1989, to Jair Bolsonaro, they always chose the candidate who ended up winning.” In 2018, big-name televangelists began endorsing Mr. Bolsonaro late in September, helping push his poll numbers from 33 to 48 percent.

It is wrong, however, to assume Evangelicals are a homogeneous group, either in terms of demographics or politics. 

While it might seem like Evangelicals would be natural allies of Brazil’s right-wing political parties, they served for over a decade as some of the left-wing Workers’ Party’s most reliable allies. In 2002, Evangelical leaders held a campaign barbecue in Rio de Janeiro to show support for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who heads a party associated with more progressive politics, such as LGBTQ- and abortion rights.

There is no such thing as a free barbecue, however, and the support of the Evangelical caucus came at a price. The Workers’ Party gave their churches freedom to expand without having to worry about the taxman. As The Brazilian Report showed last week, the Workers’ Party government also promoted the expansion of Brazilian churches in Africa.

More importantly, churches were granted the opportunity to take responsibility for distributing welfare on behalf of the government in poor communities. “At least in the city of São Paulo, public health and social assistance policies created during the Lula administration were being managed by social organizations controlled by Evangelical churches,” Ruy Braga, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo, tells The Brazilian Report. “For the recipients of these public policies, Evangelical churches were more often associated with the Bolsa Família program or even with the role of community health agents than with the distant federal government.”

That arrangement was more of a benefit to Evangelical churches than the state vis-à-vis public opinion. Religious groups became seen as their benefactors, rather than the federal government. 

Now, the Evangelical caucus is trying to leverage its political power into taking over institutions such as public education and welfare distribution, along with getting tax breaks and support for their media ventures. 

The politics of the base

Low-income areas were once seen as the domain of groups belonging to Catholic Liberation Theology. Radical priests would deliver the social gospel to the poor and build a base for social change. This strategy operated in conjunction with trade unions and other civic organizations. Social gospel and the organizing work of Liberation Theology were key to the formation of the Workers’ Party. 

Now, however, Evangelical churches in these same communities push forward their own version of the prosperity gospel — according to which wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Moreover, preachers say donations to the church and the community result in wealth coming back to people.

One of the ways to understand the rise of the Evangelical churches, particularly on the periphery of Brazil’s major cities, is to see them as rising in response to declines in other forms of civic association and organizations — in particular trade unions.

Brazil’s trade unions are a pale shadow of their former selves, they no longer strike fear into the hearts of governments and big business. Though the union-founded Workers’ Party won four successive elections, Brazil’s trade unions were already in a state of demobilization and steady decline. And, after the 2017 labor reform, compulsory union dues were done away with, robbing these groups from their main revenue source.

The country’s largest trade union federation — the Central Union of Workers (CUT) — went from collecting BRL 60 million per year from its members to just BRL 3 million. 

Meanwhile, Brazil’s Evangelical churches rake in an estimated BRL 88 million per day. Moreover, the congregants are loyal and dedicated to their beliefs. As Liz McKenna points out, 89 percent of Evangelical Christians contribute regularly to their church through tithes.

Part of this shift can be explained by the social trends during the boom years of the 2000s while Lula was in office. The millions that gained access to higher education for the first time or could finally afford a television or fridge saw this as a result of their own individual success and godliness, rather than government policy. The Workers’ Party increasingly promoted the idea of a rising middle class rather than building workers’ power. Prosperity gospel, which preaches that material success is connected to spiritual virtue, found appeal among many of those who believed they had finally moved into the middle class.

Formerly with Lula, now with Bolsonaro

Once organized communities loyal to the Workers’ Party with an active trade union presence, were no longer the focus of base building or political organization. That left a civic vacuum that evangelical churches increasingly filled. The labor market in Brazil has increasingly shifted to forms of informal employment: the typical worker in 2020 risks their lives riding their motorbike for a delivery app or works in a call center, and they are not unionized. 

As Ruy Braga tells The Brazilian Report, “Evangelical churches are social hubs, where people make friends and take part in cultural activities, at least as much as they are places of worship. This is especially the case for poor black and multiracial women who are generally deprived of such spaces, many of whom are the mothers of young men victimized by gang and police violence.”

Religious spaces in Brazil are syncretic, members are not particularly loyal to the social agenda of the Bible bloc and move between different denominations and spiritual beliefs. They are also the sites of welfare distribution and social services. As a result, these social spaces and those that occupy them often join radical leftist social movements rather than right-wing middle-class social movements. Evangelicals, for instance, form a key part of the base of the two largest movements in Brazil: the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) and the Landless Workers Movement (MST). 

Guilherme Boulos, the MTST leader and the radical leftist candidate in the 2018 elections, points out that ‘the largest part of our base, of the MTST, is by far, [made up of] Pentecostal Evangelicals. It’s wrong to think that all Pentecostals are conservative. (…) The phenomenon underneath is much more complex.” The average member of this radical social movement is a black woman in her 70s who regularly attends a Pentecostal church.

Religion in Brazil is a complex phenomenon. It is a mistake to generalize or reduce it either to its most radical or venal exponents. Religion can never be divorced from politics, in the sense that its idioms and expression are key not only to how people view and interact with the world, but how people organize to change it both for the better and the worse.

While the Electoral Court may have struck down the move to render the abuse of religious power during elections a crime, Brazilians and Brazil-watchers should pay close attention to the political maneuvering of Evangelicals. Mr. Bolsonaro is currently enjoying his best polling yet since he took office and Evangelicals form perhaps the strongest and most organized section of his base. 

People turn to religion during times of uncertainty, suffering, and crisis, like the terrible pandemic we are living through currently. As The Brazilian Report has shown, the state has abandoned poor Brazilians who are both those most likely to die from Covid-19 and are bearing the worst of its economic consequences. As a result, these people are turning to religion for solace. 

It seems highly likely given that churches provide not only community and social services, and that the Evangelical churches are the ones that predominate in much of the periphery, that their reach and power will almost certainly increase as a result.[/restricted]


Bannon arrest doesn’t change a thing for Brazil’s far-right

Steve Bannon, the former top adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, was arrested on fraud charges this week. Strangely, that piece of news appears to have generated more buzz in Brazil than in the U.S., where Mr. Bannon is no longer seen as a major political player. But in Brazil, his connections to the Bolsonaro clan have turned him into a bogeyman for the Brazilian left — which lost no time in foretelling the backslide of the far-right in the country.

Many in Brazil sincerely believe that Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power was orchestrated by Mr. Bannon, after they were pictured alongside one another on multiple social media posts. [restricted]That is why, from former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to former presidential candidate Ciro Gomes, everyone on the left seemed to celebrate Mr. Bannon’s disgrace as a blow against the Bolsonaro administration. Political columnist Matheus Leitão, of weekly magazine Veja, went as far as saying that “[Mr.] Bannon’s arrest is worse for Bolsonarism than it is for Trumpism.” 

For Lula, the arrest was “an important victory for democracy” because Mr. Bannon “represents evil” and wished the same for [Mr.] Bolsonaro’s Virginia-based far-right guru Olavo de Carvalho, who The Brazilian Report profiled in 2018. Indeed, many Brazilian commentators have referred to Mr. Bannon as Donald Trump’s answer to Olavo de Carvalho.

What is the real connection between Bannon and the Bolsonaros, if any?

Mr. Bannon supposedly served as an “informal advisor” to the Bolsonaro campaign in 2018. And the president’s son Eduardo, a congressman, was once named the Latin American representative for Mr. Bannon’s botched attempt to construct a reactionary international simply known as “The Movement.” The entire Bolsonaro clan has used every chance it gets to grab a photo op with Mr. Bannon on their infrequent trips to the U.S., despite the fact that he is more or less a political non-entity after being evicted from the Trump White House. 

Eduardo allegedly even offered Mr. Bannon a say in Brazilian policymaking during a dinner in the U.S., The Guardian reported.

Mr. Bannon has infrequently commented on Brazilian affairs before — labeling Vice President Hamilton Mourão as “useless and unpleasant,” and claiming that the investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s oldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, is part of “the cultural Marxism movement’s war against the family.”

But the truth is much less juicy. Mr. Bannon’s influence anywhere has been greatly overstated. While he might have strategically been important during the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, he’s hardly the visionary who single-handedly revived the far-right, pulling the strings that made things such as Brexit or Mr. Bolsonaro’s victory possible.

A lot of ink has been spilled on Mr. Bannon’s influence, but short of actual details of what he supposedly has done.

There is an element of simplistic conspiratorialist thinking that negates the actual reasons for the rise of these extremist forces — reducing it all to the Machiavellian genius of Mr. Bannon, who is more of a grifter than a visionary. Mr. Bannon, if anything, is closer to Jair Bolsonaro in that he has spent much of his career operating small- to medium-sized scams, and has a gift for capturing the popular mood. 

However, he lacks any real sort of political or strategic coherence. 

Mr. Bannon hardly knows anything about Brazil and doesn’t speak Portuguese. Quite frankly, too many people who should know better have mistaken Eduardo Bolsonaro’s fanboy love for Mr. Bannon for actual political influence. The scam that Mr. Bannon went down for involved defrauding a fundraising campaign to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

If anything, this represents the reality of Mr. Bannon as a petty grifter who enriched himself off bigotry at the expense of democracy.

The (real) significance of Bannon’s fall

Mr. Bannon’s tenure as a White House strategist combined gross bigotry and incompetence as part of a populist crusade against “globalism” and “the party of Davos.” But this was short-lived because in the end, Mr. Trump didn’t need Steve Bannon — nor did he genuinely trust his judgment. The forces propping up Mr. Trump’s administration are in the Republican establishment — which proved far more influential than the rogue populists that supposedly brought him to power.

While not all the dark and mysterious forces behind Mr. Bolsonaro’s victory and the sophisticated disinformation campaign behind it were Brazilian, the real evil genius was not some washed-up red-faced bloated huckster, but cynical tech companies looking for a quick buck from far-right forces who sold them the technology used for disinformation campaigns

Mr. Bolsonaro’s “office of hate” disinformation network is funded by Brazilian businessmen. The messaging was designed by Brazilians. But the microtargeting tech was foreign made. 

The Supreme Court’s inquiry into their underground fake news operation has revealed as much, raising no reason to believe that Mr. Bannon and his “Movement” actually accomplished anything in Brazil.

To watch the downfall of a character such as Steve Bannon might be cathartic to many, but believing the bogeyman hype can distract attention away from the dangerous forces effectively undermining Brazilian democracy — such as members of Congress, big business, and the military who enabled a leader that has, in less than two years in office, mulled over sending troops to shut down Congress several times, as Débora Álvares reported earlier this week.

The sad reality facing Brazil is that the political opposition to Mr. Bolsonaro remains weak and the president is enjoying record polling numbers despite his mismanagement of the pandemic, thanks to the biggest cash-transfer program in Brazilian history — which prevented tens of millions from falling below the extreme poverty line.

Mr. Bannon’s fall won’t change this political reality in the slightest.[/restricted]


Despite economic uncertainty, there are still reasons to back Brazil

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused levels of economic unpredictability to skyrocket in Brazil. The Brazilian Economic Uncertainty Index (IIE-Br), compiled by the Brazilian Institute of Economics at think tank Fundação Getúlio Vargas (IBRE-FGV), has hit its highest mark in history, far above measurements recorded amid previous 21st-century crises. In April 2020, the IIE-Br reached 210.5 points. In its previous peaks — at the 2002 presidential election, the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and Brazil’s loss of investment-grade rating by S&P in 2015 — the index hit 132.1, 132.4, and 136.8 points, respectively.

The so-called “standardization window” of the IIE-Br came between January 2006 and December 2015, where the average uncertainty hit 100 points, considered ‘normal.’ Therefore, the 210.5 points seen in April 2020 is extremely high for the index’s standards. July saw the IIE-Br retreat to 163.7 points, but this is still much higher than previous peaks.[restricted]

In a recent article published on VoxEU, entitled “Economic uncertainty in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” several aspects of Covid-19-related uncertainty are highlighted.

In epidemiological terms, there are lingering doubts about the degree of contagion and lethality of the virus, the efficacy of social distancing, as well as the time that will be required to produce a vaccine and successfully inoculate populations. With regards to the economy, there is uncertainty over the short-term economic impacts, the effects of reactive public policies, the speed of post-pandemic recovery, and the persistence of changes in habit, such as consumption patterns, business tourism, and remote working.

As the numbers make clear, Brazil was hit squarely between the eyes by the Covid-19 pandemic, being one of the countries with the highest number of cases and deaths from the virus. Therefore, Brazil not only has to deal with the enormous and undeniable short-term consequences of Covid-19, but also the unpredictability over the medium and long-term post-pandemic period.

What indexes such as IIE-Br show is that merely pushing the current bleak scenario to the future is a form of self-deception, similar to excessive optimism, yet working in the opposite direction. On the one hand, it is true that uncertainty in itself weighs heavily on economic activity, reducing investments and spending on more expensive consumer goods, as has been addressed by the economic literature. However, as the word ‘uncertainty’ suggests, the future is up in the air, and there are very few visible elements to forecast ‘trustworthy’ scenarios. In other words, we cannot rule out any possibility, be it pessimistic or optimistic.

However, this heightened uncertainty cannot be used as a justification for economists and other analysts to give up on making projections, even though this task has become much more challenging. And, when working with the future, we cannot rule out a direct consequence of the crisis, seen all around the world: the increase of public debt, which evidently has not spared Brazil.

Soaring public debt

A recent article by economists Victor Gaspar and Gita Gopinath, on the IMF Blog, indicates that global public debt is set to reach 101.5 percent of global GBP this year — the highest level ever, surpassing the peaks seen after World War II. In the case of advanced economies, public debt as a ratio of GDP is forecast to jump 26.5 percentage points, to 131.2 percent. In the same comparison, emerging economies should see their indebtedness climb to 63.1 percent of GDP, an increase of 6.8 percentage points.

Brazil is expected to see an increase in its debt/GDP ratio of around 20 percentage points, putting it closer to richer countries than emerging markets. The absolute value of Brazil’s public debt in relation to GDP could reach between 95 and 100 percent by the end of this year, which is also above average for emerging countries.

As it happens, monetary policy around the world has dunked global markets into a never before seen level of liquidity. This phenomenon creates different conditions for countries to adjust their public accounts after the necessary explosion in spending in the face of the pandemic. Brazil is drastically increasing its public debt, but the vast majority of major economies are doing the same thing. What we have seen is a form of exceptional tolerance linked to the extraordinary shock of the coronavirus. After severe panic in March, when the western world was rocked by the pandemic, markets began to cool off, including those comprising Brazilian assets. Today, the country’s stock exchange, risk level, and interest curve point toward a stable macroeconomic scenario.

While it is true that the Brazilian Real has suffered a severe loss in value, this appears to be in part down to a fundamental repricing of the U.S. Dollar, coupled with an adjustment of relative prices in Brazil that is potentially more structural. Inflation and inflationary expectations in Brazil remain at record low levels, which causes the devaluation of the currency in a completely distinct way to previous BRL slides.

This situation of a ‘truce’ in the markets does not mean, however, that there are no risks. In fact, returning to the leitmotif of this article, the current times are ones of heightened uncertainty. For some analysts, the massive injections of liquidity and fiscal expansion in rich countries, added to the possibility of “financial repression” to reduce the burden of global indebtedness, could lead to a return of global inflation in the medium term. In this case, almost everything mentioned here about tolerance and extended deadlines for the adjustment of macroeconomic inequalities comes undone. A scenario of sudden rises in inflation and international interest rates would certainly bring almost insurmountable difficulties for emerging countries such as Brazil, with significant fiscal vulnerabilities.

In the socio-political sphere, the polarization of recent years could be boosted by the inevitable short- and medium-term consequences of the pandemic. Unemployment and precarity of labor are tipped to hit record levels, and the potential end or reduction of emergency aid — impossible to fund for any significant length of time — could see social tensions become more acute.

All over the world, since 2019, the spores of social revolt and popular movements are in the air. We covered this issue in a July article, highlighting the global protest wave caused by the death of George Floyd, a black U.S. citizen killed by the police. The extremely adverse conditions ahead for the Brazilian labor market as a result of Covid-19 — which are likely to worse once the federal government’s mega income and job support programs expire — could in theory create a socio-political confrontation between the most vulnerably strata of the population and the capitalist elite, potentially threatening the integrity of the country’s socio-institutional tapestry.

Reasons for optimism?

As we have seen, there is no shortage of reasons to be concerned about Brazil in the coming years. However, despite this warning and the veracity of the risks detailed herein, we also believe it to be appropriate to outline a moderately optimistic vision for the country’s medium-term future.

First of all, it is necessary to mention the important role played by modern science in the fight against the coronavirus. Herculean efforts have been made in several countries to understand and confront Covid-19. In less than a year, countless aspects of the disease have been discovered, medications have been tested and analyzed, tests have been mass produced, and medical protocols have been developed and optimized. Above all, several projects seeking a vaccine have advanced significantly, signalling that this immense scientific and humanitarian feat may come to pass much faster than we had expected was possible. In other words, we can already see the horsemen of science on the horizon, galloping in our direction to provide a definitive solution to the pandemic, which could be rolled out gradually throughout 2020/2021.

In terms of the international financial environment, advances made by economic and monetary authorities in crisis management is also notable. Regarding the prior mention of inflationary risk, the majority of analysts and the current literature support the idea that the future scenario, for some time, should remain one of high liquidity and low interest rates and inflation. Indeed, the challenge of low growth will remain, already affecting most of the developed world and a part of emerging markets such as Brazil. Regardless, it is unlikely that a sudden eruption of inflation and interest rates will shorten the “sunny” period in which nations are expected to make adjustments to their public accounts. This doesn’t mean that the risk does not exist, as mentioned above, but it must be adequately measured.

Meanwhile, in terms of socio-political risk, Brazil’s institutional maturity since returning to democracy plays in its favor. While the distribution of income remains terrible, Brazil has built a reasonable social security network in recent years for a country with its level of income per capita, which cushions tensions during this disruptive moment in the economy and labor market. The pandemic also created a moment of ‘solidarity’ in the relationship between actors of Brazil’s extremely unfair and unequal social life. 

With the advent of the emergency aid, though it is temporary, the Brazilian economic elite tacitly or explicitly supported that an additional 0.7 percent of GDP be spent each month on an enormous legion of vulnerable families. Even with the potential of a primary deficit of 12.4 percent of GDP that is set to fall 5.5 percent, the financial market agreed — with a reflection on the price of assets — that massive assistance be given to the country’s neediest people. In a way, the distributive tension behind the political polarization of recent years may have evened out.

Evidently, these moments of social harmony do not last long. Once the pandemic has passed, the distributive tension is likely to return, and the big question will be how those with the economic and political power will lead. Concrete dilemmas will have to be faced, such as that between creating a new comprehensive social program, in the space created by the emergency aid, or returning to a strategy strictly focused on Bolsa Família. It seems that the “invisible” members of Brazilian society have become much more visible during the crisis. The debilitated labor market will also require actions from the public sector so that the working class may overcome the damage caused to the economy by Covid-19, with the least amount of suffering possible. Furthermore, there will be a demand for governmental actions of economic stimulus, such as a new public investment program, for instance.

Faced with this scenario, increased fears over the fiscal situation become inevitable. Some questions are already lingering: how long will it take for the market to demand that the primary deficit returns to 2 percent of GDP? Will there be a need to increase the tax burden to make fiscal adjustments? If so, which sectors will foot the bill?

There are no easy answers for any of these questions, and they make up the backdrop of widespread uncertainty upon which this article is based. While the moment is difficult, it’s not time to throw in the towel just yet. There is no reason to fall into radical pessimism or absolute skepticism. We must take Brazil’s unquestionable institutional maturity into account, which is not always appreciated in the predictions and constant murmuring during turbulent times. In recent years, there has been notable institutional progress with regard to the fiscal situation, as was made clear by the legislative approval of tough measures such as the public spending ceiling — though not a perfect initiative — and last year’s sweeping pension reform.

These Brazilian advances — often dismissed by the country’s own intelligentsia — appear in the latest report from J.P. Morgan, which suggests that Brazil should not rush into fiscal adjustments after the pandemic, under risk of grinding activity to a halt. This type of recommendation is a clear signal that important foreign actors have noticed that the management of Brazil’s public finances has evolved to a level of integrity that did not exist until recently.

Additionally, international liquidity — combined with some gains of credibility of Brazilian policymakers — helps to prolong the situation of very low domestic interest rates. The result is that, even with higher debt, the service is contained and the debt-to-GDP ratio may become more favorable.

There are, therefore, several elements, from the most different scopes of Brazilian life — from the albeit momentary increase of social solidarity to the environment of low interest rates and advances in macroeconomic governance — that indicate that it is possible for the multiple actors of Brazil’s spirited democracy to reach agreements that will gradually remove the obstacles to the resumption of the country’s socio-economic development. 

Though the current dimension of uncertainty brings a lot of anxiety, there are still rational reasons to bet on Brazil. 

This op-ed was originally published in the August 2020 edition of the Conjuntura Econômica magazine, by think tank Fundação Getulio Vargas.[/restricted]


Brazil’s strong retail results don’t tell the full story

In the month of May, we saw the reopening of some economies in some Brazilian states. Even though this process has been carried out gradually, this easing of social isolation measures has been reflected in economic indicators, especially those relating to the retail sector. The results released in May were considerably high, though not enough to cancel out the negative result accrued during the first months of the pandemic. The points to be examined are credit to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), unemployment trends, and the appetite for consumption. After the paralyzation of nearly all trade, the results seen upon reopening ended up being very strong indeed.[restricted]

To corroborate the strong drop, according to the chart below, the current volume of monthly sales in the retail trade is very close to that of April 2010.

For the month of May, expanded retail trade — which includes construction and vehicle sales — grew 19.6 percent compared to April 2020, but fell 14.9 percent in relation to the same month last year. Therefore, while immediate growth was very significant, it came from a very low baseline. Sales of construction materials increased 22.2 percent and the number of new vehicle license plates, according to ANFAVEA, totaled around 130,000. 

However, these could be backlogged license plates at state traffic departments, finalized when these agencies reopened, as opposed to manufacturers actually making more cars. Added to this, the fall in retail between March and April was very sharp with the almost complete closure of Brazil’s two main economies, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Even in this scenario, the automobile market could benefit, as people may be more cautious about taking public transportation, turning to cars.

The data below shows the sharp drop in sales when compared to last year.

Is the worst behind us? Only time will tell

With the reopening of economies in Brazil’s states, it is very possible that April represented the low-point of the crisis, and that we should have better numbers from here on out. However, authorities will have to closely monitor the progress of new cases, as if social isolation measures are reinstated, these numbers will certainly worsen once more. This may be proven by a survey conducted by IBGE, which shows that 18.1 percent of companies had their revenues affected in May, against 28.1 percent in April. 

Another factor that contributed to these results was the injection of liquidity by the Central Bank, by way of the government’s emergency aid program and credit for small businesses. However, what we have seen is that the funds for SMEs are now beginning to reach their final destinations, as there has been a greater demand for guarantees from financial institutions. This injection of liquidity into the market seeks to allow companies to take measures instantly and realistically, or even to maintain their survival. 

retail pandemic
Closed clothing store with padlock and chains in the door. Photo: Janine Passos/Shutterstock

The second point that should be observed is the unemployment rate, which, as expected, is rising. As funds are only now reaching their target, many companies have not had the breathing room to maintain the jobs of their staff. This has not just been the case for SMEs, but also for large companies. Social isolation has been a predominant factor, leading to a drop in the supply and demand relationship. The data that corroborates this is the negative projections of GDP for the end of 2020. 

Some institutions calculate the fall at 9 or 10 percent, while I predict it will reach 7 percent.

Some sectors of the economy have benefited from the pandemic, such as the e-commerce sector which has grown significantly due to social isolation, with many people working from home and forced to buy equipment to adapt. 

The third point is the appetite for consumption that people still have. If unemployment is taken into account, consumption will certainly continue to fall due to the drop in revenue. This scenario of lower consumption may also be extended to those who did not have a drop in revenue, as the scenario of uncertainty has led many to hold money back for emergencies. Furthermore, if credit does not reach companies quickly enough, unemployment will be higher and, consequently, consumption will fall further. 

Therefore, the excellent retail results for May are actually quite misleading. Certainly, with the gradual opening of states’ economies, the easing of isolation, and the arrival of credit at its destination, the results should continue to improve. However, this relies on increases in consumption.[/restricted]


A president under siege

Last week, the Federal Police — with authorization from the Supreme Court — launched the largest operation ever against supporters of a sitting president. Under the scope of an investigation into the use of clandestine networks spreading fake news and promoting anti-democratic protests, the Feds lifted the confidentiality of bank and phone records of 11 members of Congress loyal to President Jair Bolsonaro. Not even during the heydays of Operation Car Wash — during which Brazilians would consistently see Hollywood-like raids on billionaires and politicians — did we see so many high-profile actors being targeted at once.

To make matters worse, the arrest of Fabrício Queiroz — an old friend of the president’s who worked for his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro — came just two days later. As The Brazilian Report explained, Mr. Queiroz is a pivotal figure in a money-laundering investigation against the senator. His whereabouts were unknown for over a year, and he resurfaced at a property belonging to a lawyer close to the Bolsonaros — this does not paint a pretty picture for the First Family.[restricted]

To Bolsonaro supporters, last week’s events could have more of an effect on the government vis à vis its popularity than any threat cabinet members — or the president himself — might make against democratic institutions, a notion that may be too abstract for the average voter.

We could say that this moment represents Mr. Bolsonaro’s highest point of isolation since taking office in January 2019.

Ironically, it comes precisely as the president’s chief of staff, former Army General Walter Braga Netto, has successfully carried out a decompression plan to mend fences with Congress. The government has engaged in horse-trading deals with smaller parties, the first step towards building a functioning coalition. 

But the government’s unwillingness to call out its most radical supporters, who have threatened Supreme Court justices — saying their daughters should be raped and murdered — has broken any lingering trust between the different branches of government.

It is telling that the House Speaker and Senate President remained silent about this week’s police operations — which might suggest that opposition to the government is stronger than Congress’s corporate instincts.

The deterioration of the president’s stability

There is a consensus among members of Congress and the Supreme Court that the president is ambivalent in his demeanor — sometimes challenging democratic institutions, sometimes signaling a willingness for dialogue.

The ongoing investigations will reveal if the president not only tolerates his most radical supporters but actually finances them with public money. Federal prosecutors are scrutinizing ads paid for by the president’s press service on websites considered to be disinformation hubs. If a link between these groups and the presidential palace is proven, we could enter into impeachment territory.

Meanwhile, the Superior Electoral Court will hold a trial to determine whether or not a massive illegal messaging scheme used in the 2018 election to benefit Mr. Bolsonaro had ties with his official campaign committee. As The Brazilian Report explained, that would constitute an electoral crime and a conviction would unseat both the president and Vice-President Hamilton Mourão.

Proving the connection almost two years after the election would be difficult and certainly would raise many questions regarding the political motivations behind the investigation. 

However, cases of this nature in Brazil are never strictly about the law, as there is always a strong underpinning political element. The president’s detractors are putting pressure on electoral judges not to yield to the president — especially after Mr. Bolsonaro hinted that the Armed Forces would intervene should the 2018 election results be nullified.

But, at risk of demoralizing other branches of government, the more Mr. Bolsonaro threatens justices, the more they must call his bluff.

How the crisis will unfold

The short-term scenario is not likely to see an impeachment process or a conviction by electoral courts. There is still no smoking gun against Mr. Bolsonaro — and he still commands around one-third of the electorate.

We are far from reaching the point in which the crisis will be solved. The likely scenario is a long process of turbulence that could end with Mr. Bolsonaro out of office, but that is only one of the possible outcomes.

Decompression necessarily requires major concessions from the president. He would have to tone down his rhetoric, without any guarantee that the Supreme Court would drop their investigations against him. 

Mr. Bolsonaro would also have to signal to the country that seeing out his term would be less damaging than his fall. He would have to control the radicals — the exit of the Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub, is one example of this. Moreover, the president would have to strengthen his ties to the political establishment and respect the internal dynamics of other centers of power, along with adopting a credible economic plan to exit this crisis. Such a plan would require both the approval of the markets and have a social element that could help strengthen his political position.

Unconditional surrender might go against the president’s character — but it might be the only way to pacify Brazilian politics.

Follow Leonardo on Twitter: @LeonardoCapPol[/restricted]


How much support does Bolsonaro have in Congress?

As mentioned here several times, the characteristics of Brazil’s political-institutional regime — especially since the 1988 Constitution — make the costs of governing very high indeed. That is why I want to address the relationship between the government and the so-called “Big Center” through a more holistic view of Brazilian politics. In short, governability is understood as the efficacy of promoting a given administration’s agenda in Congress, where laws and public policies are proposed and discussed. In the case of Brazil, the favorable environment for the creation of several political parties — which leads to hyper-fragmentation in legislative spaces — among other conditions, have made it practically impossible for the president’s party to wield a majority of seats in either chamber of Congress.[restricted]

Clearly, having a majority in the legislature ensures the smooth functioning of an administration’s programmatic agenda. In parliamentary systems, for instance, holding a majority is a prerequisite to appoint a prime minister and form a government. As it happens, due to the various representatives elected by dozens of parties in Brazil, there is a need for the Executive to form a coalition that is often heterogeneous and barely aligned in ideological terms. 

Specialized literature on the subject has always pointed toward the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party as the pivotal force in government coalitions. From Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) to Michel Temer (2016-2018), presidents who had the MDB party in their corner were able to achieve congressional majorities. In the 2018 elections, however, the party did not perform well, reducing its ranks, particularly in the House of Representatives. Thus, another group has taken the lead as the anchor of majority coalitions: the so-called Centrão, or ‘Big Center,’ a hodgepodge group of barely ideological right-leaning parties that has gained strength since the election of Eduardo Cunha as House Speaker in 2015. 

This group includes around nine or ten fixed center-right and right-wing parties. Larger groups such as the Democratas (DEM) party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), and the MDB party itself opt to distance themselves from the group — often voting alongside them, but renouncing the ‘Big Center’ label. 

How big is the Big Center?

In a previous column, I explained the reasons that led President Jair Bolsonaro to seek out the support of the Big Center and, of course, the reasons why this group decided to join the government’s support base in Congress. After all, it takes two to tango. However, with this new-found alliance, how many votes can the Bolsonaro administration count on out of 513 members of the lower house?

Considering the strong whip of Brazil’s political system — the vast majority of representatives vote according to their party line — it is fair to suggest the government will enjoy around 85 percent loyalty from members of Congress coming from Big Center parties. Therefore, it remains for us to analyze which parties have fully tried to consolidate the alliance. At this point, we should consider those parties that have received — or are set to receive — medium and high-level positions in the federal government in exchange for their support.

So far, this encompasses the PSD, the Liberal Party (PL), Progressistas (PP), Republicans, and the Avante party. Among the first offices handed out was the directorate general of the National Department of Works Against Droughts, awarded to Fernando Leão, an affiliate of the Avante party, by way of nomination from the leaders of the PP. The latter was also given the presidency of the National Fund for the Development of Education (FNDE), which was delegated to Marcelo Lopes da Ponte, chief of staff of PP leader Senator Ciro Nogueira. 

Within the FNDE, a former advisor to PL’s whip in the lower house was appointed to the fund’s Educational Actions Board. The National Health Foundation (Funasa) went to the PSD, while important offices in the Office of the Chief of Staff were filled by nominations by the Republicanos party. The Brazilian Labor Party is awaiting government negotiations to receive its second and third-tier appointments in the federal administration.

The logic of these nominations directly concerns budgetary decision-making. Almost all of the above agencies enjoy vast budgets. Moreover, controlling these areas is of interest to the parties, especially for electoral purposes — in the hope that the available money will not be used for shady and antirepublican ends. Those who are appointed by political parties tend to favor requests made by the same political group. 

From a simple calculation, taking 85 percent of the parties which have been given government offices plus Mr. Bolsonaro’s original base, we arrive at a total of 180 representatives who would, in theory, be part of the government’s coalition. This is already enough to block a potential impeachment case against the president, as doing so would require only 171 members of Congress to be against the request. The amount represents one-third of House seats, which also guarantees a good initial margin for important votes for the government. 

As a result of the president’s lack of a conciliatory attitude, it is unlikely that historically more “moderate” and politically important parties — such as the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, DEM, or MDB — will join the support base that is being formed. With one eye on 2022, these parties do not see rapprochement with Mr. Bolsonaro as being profitable. 

Thus, the government will still have to hold individual negotiations for certain votes, as was the case in the first year of the president’s term. However, as history shows us, having a coalition — even if it is not a majority — gives greater political strength to the Executive branch. At the same time, it is clear that by hitching a ride with the Big Center the chance of dishonest practices and corruption increases, a matter that is so dear to the president’s image.[/restricted]


What will Brazilian society look like after the pandemic?

Brazil might be the worst hit country by the Covid-19 pandemic in the world. As of writing, the country has 850,796 cases and recorded 42,791 deaths, though the real figures are likely to be significantly higher. The situation is so bleak that the government tried to hide the total number of cases and deaths on its official online dashboard. When asked about the missing numbers, President Jair Bolsonaro joked that it would make news organizations “run out of subjects to talk about.” While the crisis still has no end in sight and we may well be stuck in this half-life of social distancing and fear for years, it has not stopped many from speculating about what type of society will emerge out of this pandemic. 

At the beginning of the global coronavirus crisis, back in March — another lifetime ago — many speculated that Covid-19 might prove to be a global wakeup call: governments would return to science-based policy, regulate unfettered markets, invest properly in healthcare, take the environmental crisis seriously, and intervene to reduce inequality. After all, what was the risk of being optimistic?[restricted]

Now only three months later, such sentiments seem hopelessly naïve. At least in the case of the Americas’ two most-populated countries, Brazil and the U.S.

Covid-19 was tipped to be “the great equalizer.” Everyone was supposed to be equally at risk from an invisible enemy, but rather predictably class and race define who is more likely to die from the disease. While the pandemic has proved to be a mirror on Brazil’s social problems, it has also revealed that nobody has anything approaching a credible solution to them. If anything, it has demonstrated the inability of existing political forces to offer a credible alternative to the existing cycle of demagoguery, polarization, and violent authoritarianism. 

In fairness, this is by no means confined to Brazil. The state of international cooperation and solidarity is rather dire.

Far from being a wakeup call, it feels more and more like the pandemic will produce a worse version of the same, by worsening existing social crises and accelerating authoritarian tendencies. Some predicted the end of ‘populism’ and return to evidence-based politics but failed to see how accelerating the crisis might prove to be a survival strategy for those ‘populists’ in power. However, I very much hope that I am wrong; predicting the future is a fool’s errand, after all.

The Great Hangover for Brazilian society

Lockdowns are ending in Brazil, most likely prematurely. In part due to the deliberate efforts of the government, the population began to feel the coercive pull of economic factors to return to the streets. But even for those who have not lost their jobs, things are hardly likely to go back to ‘normal’. After all, what can be normal after families have lost their loved ones and millions are left without work? And many more may die of illnesses unrelated to the pandemic, as The Brazilian Report has shown. Brazil was stuck waist-deep in political and economic crisis before the coronavirus made its unwelcome arrival on its shores.

And that’s excluding the mental health knock-on effects of tragedy and isolation. Trauma can emerge a set of shared experiences that either produces further violence and alienation or in some cases solidarity and hope. What is needed for hope is the ability to imagine that perhaps tomorrow will be another day, a better day. While there are numerous cases of bravery and solidarity in the face of the pandemic, too often they have been a response to the indifference and incompetence of the powerful. The numerous examples of favela dwellers organizing medical services and protective equipment are pertinent examples.

It may of course also be the case that people just move on ignoring the costs of the pandemic, but the fact that the economy is expected to contract by at least 8 percent this year, the economic knock-on effects are unprecedented and could well dwarf those of the Great Depression. As Martin Wolf of the Financial Times notes in reference to Covid-19’s effects on developing economics “the impact … is unlikely to be brief. Many economies and billions of people are likely to be scarred. This might be the beginning of many lost years, or even worse, for multitudes.”

Government fanning the flames

While one should always take such measures with a pinch of salt. The latest Global Peace Index report has Brazil dropping into the red zone of high-risk countries. Brazil is ranked as the 126th least peaceful country in the world. The only countries ranked lower in South America are the still-war-ravaged Colombia and Venezuela, which remains stuck in the swamp of political turmoil and hyperinflation. According to the report, Brazil is likely to face social unrest and political turmoil due to the pandemic. 

President Jair Bolsonaro has just about done all he could to ensure that Brazil’s crisis will be as devastating as possible, he has consistently undermined public health responses, politicized the moment, and encouraged his supporters to attack social distancing measures. His principal response to the crisis — apart from dispatching one Health Minister after another — has been to force an unproven and possibly dangerous cure (hydroxychloroquine) down the throats of his fellow countrymen in order to get people back to work. His future as president is dependent on him empowering the most ancient and venal forces in Brazilian politics.

Instead of trying to aid vulnerable populations, security forces seem to be offering more of the same. In Rio de Janeiro, police intensified their deadly operations in the city’s favelas, refusing to stop even after the Supreme Court ordered them to decrease their violent onslaughts.

Brazil’s political class is still locked in a cycle of opportunism, intrigue and conspiracy, instead of trying to act as a responsible unified force in response to the worst pandemic in a century. The political wounds of the recent past have yet to heal and if anything, are beginning to go septic. While there were a number of attempts to fashion some sort of a unified opposition response to Mr. Bolsonaro, The Brazilian Report showed the opposition remains directionless and hopelessly divided as the country’s largest political party, the center-left Workers’ Party, remains mostly absent from these efforts. 

As The New York Times recently noted, “the crisis has grown so intense that some of the most powerful military figures in Brazil are warning of instability — sending shudders that they could take over and dismantle Latin America’s largest democracy. But far from denouncing the idea, President Jair Bolsonaro’s inner circle seems to be clamoring for the military to step into the fray.”

Talk of a coup is in the air, considering the military more or less seems to be running most of Mr. Bolsonaro’s government and that senior cabinet ministers have been indulging in gratuitous attacks on the Supreme Court, these cannot simply be dismissed. 

The scars left by Covid-19 on Brazilian society will remain long after the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine a positive scenario emerging at this point in time. Even if there are competitive democratic elections in 2022, the likely death toll and economic devastation will be staggering. 

Unfortunately, permanent crisis continues to be a breeding ground for dystopian forms of authoritarianism. [/restricted]


Why Black Lives Matter protests haven’t taken off in Brazil

The U.S. enters its ninth day of protests following the murder of George Floyd, a 47-year-old black man, by the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. The case sparked daily rallies against systemic racism and police brutality, in what has become the most widespread wave of protests the country has seen in half a century. The map below, courtesy of Al Jazeera, shows that Mr. Floyd’s killing also sparked solidarity protests in several other countries — from Europe, to the Middle East, to Oceania. But in Brazil, the wave of support was more like a drop in the ocean, with one single rally taking place in Rio de Janeiro over the weekend.


Brazil[restricted] has no shortage of cases just as disturbing as the killing of George Floyd. In September 2019, 8-year-old Agatha Félix was shot in the back by a bullet fired by the police. And just a few days ago, 14-year-old João Pedro died after the police shot over 80 times at the house he was playing in. Both incidents occurred in Rio de Janeiro.

Part of the problem is the fact that black and multiracial people in Brazil do not see themselves as a united ethnic group. 

In Brazil, race is self-determined — and until the 1991 census, whites represented the majority of Brazilians, amounting to 51 percent of the population. In 1976, when census researchers asked citizens to describe their own skin color without any options to choose from, they ended up with more than they bargained for. Between them, the thousands of Brazilians surveyed gave the researchers a list of 136 different colors, ranging from “coffee,” “cinnamon” and “honey” to “toasted,” “singed,” and even “wheat.”

That is the byproduct of a deliberate political will to “whiten” the country and marginalize the black and multiracial population. Public policies encouraged miscegenation, not as a way of integration, but rather to “improve the race.”

That has changed over the past three decades. in the 2010 census, for the first time ever, more than half of the population identified as either black or multiracial — 54 percent, to be exact. Credit is due to the struggles of the black civil rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, which paved the way for social gains such as racial quotas in public universities.

No shortage of reasons to protest

It is not only self-identification that is growing among black and multiracial Brazilians, these populations are also subjected to increasingly disproportionate levels of violence, often at the hands of law enforcement. A study by the Human Rights Ministry shows that a black or multiracial youth is murdered in Brazil every 23 seconds, meaning that, in the time it took you to read this paragraph, one young black or multiracial person was killed in the country.

A survey by the government’s Special Secretariat of Racial Equality Policies shows that 56 percent of Brazilian agree with the statement that “a violent death is less shocking when it is with a black or multiracial youngster as opposed to a young white person.”

Many such deaths, however, are the direct result of centuries of inequality in what was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. When Brazil finally did outlaw the practice in 1888, it did so without any compensation for the now emancipated black community, creating a destitute underclass in the country. Brazil’s structural racism has kept black and multiracial families cramped in favelas, where the state’s presence is almost non-existent.

In Brazil, racism was never defined by law, allowing the country to pretend that its profound social gaps were all economy-related — the truth is, black and multiracial people were never allowed to break certain barriers.

Black professionals earn 36 percent less than their white counterparts, according to data from the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socio-Economic Studies (Dieese). Another report, this time by Inter-American Development Bank and Brazilian Ethos Institute, showed that blacks are still the minority in the business market. Only 4.5 percent had reached positions on the board of directors among the 117 companies listed in the survey.

Still, the protests that have started to erupt in Brazil are focused more on politics than race. Indignation against violence on black and multiracial people remains mostly circumscript to these communities, struggling to be recognized as a society-wide issue.[/restricted]


Former Bolsonaro allies turn ‘anti-fascist’ as government opposition grows

Brazil’s political crisis seems to be intensifying at about the same rate as the country’s Covid-19 cases. Attacks on the country’s institutions from President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters appear to be occurring on a daily basis. And while the president’s support base seems to have held up so far, a number of new opposition forces are emerging.

This week, for instance, a new campaign dubbed “We are the 70 Percent” emerged, launched by “We’re In This Together” movement backed by major political figures across the political spectrum — such as former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Rio de Janeiro congressman Marcelo Freixo, São Paulo congressman Alexandre Frota and TV personality Luciano Huck — calling for the defense of Brazil’s democratic institutions. [restricted]

The new anti-fascists

Mr. Bolsonaro has turned many a former ally into an ardent foe. At first, São Paulo Governor João Doria and his Rio de Janeiro counterpart Wilson Witzel both rode the Bolsonaro wave to victory in the 2018 elections. Mr. Doria veered as far into pathetic opportunism, calling on voters to support a ‘Bolsodoria’ ticket; Mr. Witzel, if anything, took Mr. Bolsonaro’s vision of change through the barrel of a gun to new extremes, parading around with police during armed operations in favelas, and telling law enforcement to shoot drug dealers “in their little heads.”

Now, less than two years after Mr. Bolsonaro was elected, the pair have become two of his most vocal political enemies. Both have attempted to rebrand themselves as responsible moderates, standing against the president’s now-trademark toxic melange of Covid-19 denialism and unrepressed authoritarianism. 

Mr. Witzel has gone as far as to call Mr. Bolsonaro a fascist, after the Rio Governor’s home was raided by the Federal Police in relation to a corruption investigation. The banner of anti-fascism is now being waved by those who helped bring Mr. Bolsonaro to power — or were elected on his coattails — and who advocate many of the same policies, especially unmitigated police violence against the poor.

Were it not for the scale of the tragedy encompassing Brazil, the gross hypocrisy might be too much to stomach.

bolsonaro "I will keep fighting against fascism," says Rio Governor Witzel, who in 2018 promised to "dig graves" to fight crime. Photo: GOVERJ
“I will keep fighting against fascism,” says Rio Governor Witzel, who in 2018 promised to “dig graves” to fight crime. Photo: GOVERJ

Surfing the Bolsonaro wave

It is worth remembering why many public figures allied themselves with Mr. Bolsonaro in 2018. For Mr. Doria, it was a useful way to rebrand himself following a disastrous and short-lived stint as Mayor of São Paulo. After his first-round victory in 2016, scandal, gaffes, and incompetence plagued his time in office and turned much of Brazil’s largest city against him. By embracing Mr. Bolsonaro and moving far to the right, he was able to successfully leech off the president’s support base and win political advantage over his moderate rivals in the Social Democratic Party.

Mr. Witzel, a former judge, was an unknown entity before he hitched his wagon to the Bolsonaro campaign. By portraying himself as the candidate of Bolsonarismo in the Rio gubernatorial race, he was able to surf the electoral wave to a surprise victory. 

Since the beginning of his term, Jair Bolsonaro has not changed, or gone back on his campaign platform in any meaningful way to justify Mr. Doria and Mr. Witzel jumping ship. In fact, Mr. Bolsonaro has been remarkably consistent through his 30 years of public service.

He’s always been a family-oriented, small-time player who has never been shy to voice his homicidal desires, bigotry, or open hostility toward democratic governance. This is, after all, a man whose first political act was a terrorist plot that saw him “invited to leave” the Army, with a brand of extremism that was too much even for former military dictatorship President Ernesto Geisel, who called a 30-something Mr. Bolsonaro a “bad soldier” and an “abnormal case”. 

Ally after ally — including the late Gustavo Bebianno, highly decorated Army general Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, and Senator Major Olímpio — has fallen out with the president after earning the enmity of one or more of the president’s adult politician sons. The president didn’t change after taking office, everyone who has paid attention to his career in public office is aware that personal loyalty was never his strong suit and that politics is the family business: meaning that he would always side with his sons against anyone perceived to threaten their interests.

Eyeing up the top job

Mr. Witzel and Mr. Doria both openly covet the presidency. These days it is more opportune to sell their grift as moderates, opposing Mr. Bolsonaro’s disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

João Doria is perhaps Brazil’s most opportunistic politician, refounding his image over and over again: from maverick businessman to Botox enhanced technocrat, and then from outsider authoritarian into a responsible moderate. It is hard to predict which incarnation of the governor will be present in the 2022 elections.

Meanwhile, it is nothing short of astounding to see the likes of Mr. Witzel decrying President Bolsonaro, or even speaking of ‘anti-fascism.’ It was not long ago that Mr. Witzel joined the ranks of respectable pundits openly mocking those who pointed to the possible dangers of a Bolsonaro presidency.

Mr. Bolsonaro hasn’t changed, but it is clear that there is more political capital to be gained from posing as a moderate than waiting to fall out with the president. While it is to their credit that Mr. Witzel and Mr. Doria have been somewhat responsible in their handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the bar has been set so low by the president’s antics that simply acknowledging the severity of the disease is apparently enough to earn a reputation as a responsible moderate.[/restricted]


Brazil’s problem is more than just Jair Bolsonaro

Over the course of less than a month, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro joined a rally in favor of a military coup to suspend the Congress and Supreme Court, broke with his most popular cabinet minister, and found himself the target of multiple investigations and calls for impeachment.

A former Army captain and an ardent admirer of the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), Mr. Bolsonaro has long championed authoritarian tactics. But once in power, he proved to be a poor administrator and an even worse negotiator. His incredibly popular Justice Minister Sergio Moro resigned after Mr. Bolsonaro allegedly attempted to interfere with Federal Police investigations for the benefit of his own sons. Therefore, it could seem to the casual observer as if Jair Bolsonaro is now simply reaping what he sowed.[restricted]

While he certainly is the author of much of his own misfortune, this political crisis is in reality the latest reiteration of a perpetual institutional crisis in Brazil. Since the country began its first legitimate democratic period in the wake of World War II, it has struggled with the fact that the electoral processes employed created differing constituencies and motivations for the legislative and executive branches. This institutional weakness first appeared in Brazil’s 1946 constitution, yet it continues to plague the country even under the current magna carta, ratified in 1988.

The result is that the executive and the legislative branches are elected with almost entirely different mandates. This significantly complicates President-Congress relations and makes it extremely difficult to govern with any efficacy. This reoccurring conundrum has led many presidents down paths destructive to democratic integrity, including corruption, populist intimidation, and appeals to extralegal solutions. This unfortunate reality has led, time and time again, to the degradation of Brazilian democracy

Regardless of Bolsonaro’s fate, the issue will occur again unless institutional reform is undertaken.

A historical problem

Following the conclusion of World War II, the Brazilian military launched a coup against the Estado Novo dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. With the end of the dictatorship, a swift period of democratization began and Brazil adopted a new constitution in 1946. For the first time in Brazilian history, honest democratic institutions would be combined with regularly held elections. This democratic phase would last for only 18 years, until another military coup in 1964. It was in this period that this institutional crisis first appeared.

Historian Thomas Skidmore noted the phenomenon in his work in 1967. He explained that rural states were significantly overrepresented in Congress but that this advantage was lost in presidential elections. He states that this imbalance was created by the fact that congressional representation was allocated to the states based on population, but the 1946 constitution restricted suffrage to literates. In 1960s Brazil, nearly 40 percent of the population could neither read nor write, and many of them were found in rural areas. As a result, rural voters — often under the influence of local landowners — held enormous power in comparison with urban voters in congressional elections, but not the presidential dispute, where a national popular vote and first-past-the-post system were in place.

This divergence set the stage for a deleterious disconnect between the executive and legislative branch, which became extremely apparent in the brief administration of former President Jânio Quadros.

Elected in 1960, Jânio Quadros was in fact similar to Jair Bolsonaro in some ways. He ran on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption platform and was not the product of any of the major political parties — though he accepted their support when it benefitted him. Once elected, he vacillated wildly between pursuing major reform and random personal projects. Having almost no solid congressional foundation, he clashed frequently with the legislative branch, as many of them resented his proposed anti-corruption reforms.

corruption janio quadros
Jânio Quadros with his inseparable broom: the promised to sweep corruption away from politics. Photo: National Archive

Just eight months into his administration, Jânio Quadros mysteriously resigned, citing the insurmountable forces he faced in attempting to govern. Most historians agree that he was inspired by the example of Charles de Gaulle in France and believed that his resignation would scare Congress into giving him emergency powers. It did not, and they accepted his resignation immediately.

It is possible that President Quadros believed that the thought of power shifting to his vice president, João Goulart, would prompt Congress and the military to demand that he stay in office. Mr. Goulart had won office as part of the opposition ticket, as Brazil allowed for split balloting at the time. He had a widespread fame as an ardent economic nationalist and some suspected him of communist leanings. His ascension did cause significant turmoil in the country but eventually he did take office as president.

João Goulart also pushed a reform agenda, but instead of pursuing anti-corruption, he sought to fight inequality with a series of controversial measures — land reform being chief among them. Encountering even stiffer opposition from Congress, he opted for the route of populist appeal. Those around him constructed a popular base of trade unions and left-wing organizations. President Goulart then engaged in a strategy of governing through executive decree and defying Congress to push back, while traveling the country hosting massive rallies in favor of his reforms.

When Congress proved unwilling to relent, João Goulart’s brother-in-law and others began plotting a military coup. Simultaneously, military leadership and several right-wing politicians were plotting a coup of their own, which they subsequently enacted in 1964, starting the country’s two-decade long repressive military dictatorship. Of course, the dictatorship did not suffer from this institutional malady. Once in power, the military enforced a two party system: their own party, and an ersatz opposition party of their own making. The dictatorship entirely suspended popular elections for the presidency. Through repression and constitutional manipulation, the military ensured they maintained power over the executive and the legislature at all times.

The problem today

The institutional issue resurfaced when Brazil returned to democracy after 1985, despite an updating of institutions. The new constitution of 1988 enfranchised Brazil’s illiterate population for the first time. However, it also brought with it two other new institutional changes.

First, it dramatically opened up the political arena allowing for a proliferation of political parties. This included the introduction of an open list proportional representation electoral system. Second, the constitution sought to maintain a degree of parity among states and avoid populous urban centers from dominating the rural states. Therefore, the constitution provided that states could have no less than eight and no more than 70 representatives.

This enforcement of parity means that rural states remain overrepresented in a country with more than 84 percent of its population living in urban areas. For example, in São Paulo — Brazil’s most populous state — there are approximately 655,986 people for each one of the state’s 70 representatives. In the northern state of Roraima, each one of its eight representatives corresponds to approximately 75,720 people.

The staggering number of parties — 30 elected to the latest legislature — also means that the presidential and congressional electorates remain divided. Brazil now has a two-round system for electing the president that requires the eventual winner to secure a majority of votes. In this case, a handful of candidates compete for the presidency and a populist or charismatic appeal is a virtual necessity to reach the second round, as partisan affinity tends to be very weak in Brazil.

Meanwhile, congressional elections are a confusing competition between establishment parties and tiny niche outfits with congressional candidates making personalistic and patronage-based appeals to their constituents on local terms. The notorious lack of partisan loyalty by representatives in Brazil and the constantly shifting alliances means that affiliation to a particular color, banner, or name means little to voters. As a result, congressional contests are almost wholly disconnected from the presidential election. Motivations for the subsequently elected branches of government are equally divergent.

The personal nature of Brazil’s presidential campaigns in this new era of democracy usually means that voters have high expectations for change when their candidate wins, without always appreciating fully the difficulties caused by the congressional makeup.

No Brazilian president exemplifies this better than Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. By winning the 2002 election, Lula became Brazil’s first working-class president. His party, the Workers’ Party, is a rarity in Brazil as a true grassroots party that grew out of Brazil’s trade unions and their resistance to the military dictatorship. Hope abounded for the changes that could be wrought by this transfer of power.

For many, the Lula administration delivered on its promises and was able to be quite effective after building a robust congressional coalition. This coalition, like the administration before it, relied on the trading of administration positions and government jobs in exchange for congressional support. The dark side of these alliances came to light in 2005, in a scandal known as the Mensalão. A congressional investigation into corruption revealed a massive vote-buying scheme run by the Workers’ Party whereby the government achieved its congressional coalition by way of monthly payoffs to congressmen in other parties. 

The investigation eventually led to charges against 40 suspects and took down high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party and Lula’s administration. The Workers’ Party’s ideological and historical distance from the other parties in Brazil likely made vote-buying a greater necessity, but the truth of the matter is that the Workers’ Party had essentially systematized a process that had become routine in Brazilian politics to allow for effective governance.

After Lula left office, he was replaced by his hand appointed successor, Dilma Rousseff. Riding Lula’s coattails, Ms. Rousseff’s government achieved significant popularity in her first term. Building on this support, Ms. Rousseff and the Workers’ Party attempted to govern with a lesser degree of power sharing, hoping the administration could sidestep the trap and achieve effective governance without excessive trade-offs or appealing to anti-democratic methods.

It was not to be, and when Brazil was rocked by the Operation Car Wash corruption scandal and the 2014 economic downturn, Ms. Rousseff’s popularity plummeted. Parties in her congressional coalition deserted her in droves and she was impeached for a budgeting technicality and removed from office in 2016.

Ms. Rousseff’s vice-president and successor Michel Temer was from one of Brazil’s main establishment political parties and he deserted the administration when impeachment proceedings were filed.

Once in government, despite suffering from an incredibly low 5 percent approval rating and constant corruption allegations, Michel Temer had a significant advantage. Unlike a traditionally elected Brazilian president, he shared a common bond with Congress. In his two short years as president, Congress not only saved him from impeachment twice but they also allowed him to pass a series of major reforms, including an overhaul of the education system, labor legislation, and a public spending ceiling.

Bolsonaro pledges to end ‘old politics’

Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency in 2018 campaigning on his anti-corruption and anti-establishment credentials. He decried the decadence of Brazil’s Workers’ Party governments, while extolling the virtues of an imagined golden age during the dictatorship. He vowed to introduce a new form of politics: he would not hand out favors or bribes and he wouldn’t even give out government jobs or posts in his administration to secure congressional support.

In fact, Mr. Bolsonaro claimed he wouldn’t form a coalition at all; instead, he would build majorities in Congress for each proposal. This went against the new norms in the age of coalition presidentialism ushered in during redemocratization. It was not unprecedented however; President Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-1992) had attempted a similar strategy, largely without success, until he was impeached after corruption was discovered in his administration.

Still, President Bolsonaro was seemingly aided in his quest by two political events. First, he had strong coattails — he had been responsible for his party securing 52 seats in Congress, compared to the eight they had before. Second, a newly instituted electoral threshold promised to weed out the excessive number of parties by eliminating small vote getters from contention.

In reality, these events reveal the depth of the institutional deficit. While Mr Bolsonaro’s party secured 52 seats, the total in the Brazilian lower house is 513, leaving the party 205 votes short of a majority. The Workers’ Party had the single largest share of any party with just 56 seats. Meanwhile, the new electoral threshold eliminated just nine of the previously mentioned 30 parties that won seats.

The new Congress, dominated by parties other than Mr. Bolsonaro’s, never embraced the idea of new politics and the lack of a coalition. The president proved inept in terms of congressional relations and frequently clashed with the lower house speaker Rodrigo Maia. Mr. Bolsonaro’s relationship with Congress proved so rocky that he eventually left his own party.

One brief example illustrates this poor relationship. The expansion of the right to own and carry firearms had been perhaps the most visible of Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign promises. Early on in his administration, he had attempted to institute his desired reforms through executive action, only to have Congress strike down his changes. While segments of the legislature are enthusiastic supporters of looser firearm regulations, congressional leaders did not approve of the president’s methods and refusal to negotiate with lawmakers. To this day, no such legislation has been passed.

Having failed to bypass Congress through decree, President Bolsonaro has gone through a checklist of the other tried and true workarounds. Earlier this year, Mr. Bolsonaro called for a popular protest against Congress, and more recently, he engaged in behavior far more dangerous. Under mounting pressure due to his ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic, he attended a rally on April 19, held outside army headquarters, calling on the military to execute a coup and close the Supreme Court and Congress. At the rally, President Bolsonaro declared, “we don’t want to negotiate anything.” 

Mr. Bolsonaro denies allegations that he, or those around him, organized the rally. Nevertheless, his attendance and vitriol is a chilling endorsement of the protest’s message. In a live broadcast to a similar gathering, the president told his supporters that the Armed Forces were on their side. 

Soon after the April 19 rally, Justice Minister Sergio Moro resigned and accused President Bolsonaro of interfering in the Federal Police. This sent shockwaves through the Brazilian political world and led to a flood of calls for impeachment and the beginnings of legislative action to that end.

Finding himself suddenly exposed and unable to overcome Congress or undermine the democratic system, Mr. Bolsonaro attempted reconciliation. He approached an informal coalition of ideologically vague center-right parties that hold a substantial number of seats known as the Centrão, or Big Center. Forced into submission, he offered administration posts, government jobs, and favors in exchange for their support and protection in Congress. The Centrão has tacitly agreed and Mr. Bolsonaro seems to be sliding towards a more conventional presidency.

Brazil’s current political crisis is both institutional and historical. The impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro may well be justified, and some of his actions have been truly repugnant to defenders of democracy. However, it is vital that Brazilians and their politicians understand that his impeachment or pardon will not solve the political crisis. If Mr. Bolsonaro were impeached, it would mean that of the five presidents elected since the return to democracy, three will have been impeached.

Only institutional reform that brings the legislative and executive branches closer together can provide a stabilizing solution. There are myriad reforms that could potentially solve this problem and it is the burden of policymakers to decide which route they will take. Solutions range from strengthening the electoral threshold to switching to a parliamentary system. 

Ultimately, Brazil has more than just a Bolsonaro problem.[/restricted]

Coronavirus Opinion

Covid-19 inequality could strike down Brazil’s Economy Minister

It is no secret that despite being a significant economy with medium-level GDP per capita, Brazil is one of the least equal countries in the world. This is a country where, according to a 2019 Oxfam report, the top 1 percent of wealthiest citizens controls 29 percent of the national wealth. This imbalance of income cleaves an immense opportunity gap, with a mere two-kilometer difference in a Brazilian’s address potentially implying a 20-year increase (or decrease) in life expectancy.

This malaise is shown in an even more real and morbid light by the coronavirus pandemic.

Looking at the megacity of São Paulo as an example: if the municipality were divided into 50 regions according to income, Covid-19 mortality rates jump fivefold from the top group to the bottom. Younger people are also at a much higher risk in lower-income areas, under 75s are twice as likely to die in the poorest third of neighborhoods.[restricted]

The vicious cycle

Several potential causes for this inequality have been discussed, and there is no doubt that economic and sociological variables play a role. On the more palpable side, I believe that Brazil’s extremely regressive tax structure is decisive: 50 percent of tax revenue is charged on consumption, while only 25 percent is levied on income and wealth, creating an unfair system for poorer families.

Brazil cannot even dream about entering the developed world without addressing these issues and breaking its vicious cycle of inequality fueling the opportunity gap, which then feeds inequality. A 2017 study from the University of Brasília showed that performance on national university entrance examinations is 85 percent determined by students’ socioeconomic class. 

This vicious duet between inequality and opportunity is what has been driving me in recent years, not only out of social sympathy but, as an entrepreneur, out of self-interest. We are missing a great opportunity if we do not consider this potential market.

The first challenge to address these problems is to help the Brazilian public become aware of the cause and effect of each issue. In opinion polls, corruption is consistently ranked as the country’s number one problem, while insufficient social problems rank low, around the fifth position. 

Part of this perception is linked to the success of the media-savvy Operation Car Wash investigation, which was able to tackle impunity but suffocated the debate about other major problems in Brazil, such as the inequality of wealth and opportunities. In the public eye, the country’s disease was corruption, pure and simple.

Inequality not on the agenda for Bolsonaro

The Jair Bolsonaro administration, a symptom of the Car Wash fallout, has made it clear that tackling inequality is not among its priorities. Some months ago, the ultraliberal University of Chicago-trained Economy Minister Paulo Guedes bluntly told reporters not to “count on us to lower inequality in Brazil.” And he meant it. As an example, the country’s pioneering Bolsa Família program — one of the most renowned income transfer initiatives in the world — has been suffering constant cutbacks since the sitting government came to power. 

The irony is that, due to the disastrous and slow coronavirus response, Jair Bolsonaro’s popularity is taking a very steep dip among the better-off, and growing among poorer populations, thanks to the BRL 600 (USD 112) monthly stipend being paid by the government to the unemployed and the millions in the informal labor market.

But while the president is battling for political survival, plans to extend this emergency payment are taking a back seat and coming up against Mr. Guedes’ economic standpoint on wealth transfers.

Dilemma for the Economy Minister

During an infamous April 22 cabinet meeting — footage of which was made public as part of an investigation into President Bolsonaro — the economy czar said that the BRL 600 payment is making life “too easy” for these populations, arguing that the stipend should be reduced to just BRL 200 and extended for another three months only. At the same meeting, Mr. Guedes stressed that his package of orthodox economic reform must continue one the coronavirus crisis passes.

Mr. Guedes’ slow response to the pandemic in terms of support of the Brazilian economy is deeply rooted in his economic beliefs. His first reaction was to keep pressing for reforms to shield Brazil from the crisis, a strategy that made no sense and was lambasted by Congress.

The Economy Minister now stands at a crossroads. When high-profile cabinet ministers Luiz Henrique Mandetta (Health) and Sergio Moro (Justice) left the government last month, there were rumors that Mr. Guedes would be the next to jump ship before he was pushed. Now, his department may be used by President Bolsonaro as a means of political survival, with the suggestion that the government may recreate the Labor Ministry to appease new congressional allies, stripping Mr. Guedes of some of his power. Will he go back on his economic creed? 

Or will he be the next cabinet member to cut ties with President Bolsonaro?[/restricted]


The importance of science and public policy in Brazil’s Covid-19 fight

Overcoming Covid-19 in Brazil is as much a matter of public policy as it is a medical and scientific endeavor. The same could be said for any country and almost all diseases, even those that have yet to be discovered. It is understandable that we, as a society, forget how much public policy and science affect our daily lives. Both can be confusing, take years to implement, and are often conducted behind closed doors. Appreciating how much the two are interdependent is equally elusive.

But the Covid-19 pandemic is shedding new light on this important relationship.[restricted]

Our health and our lives are dependent on scientific advances. Without science, we would never have discovered vaccines, treatments, or understood the healthy behaviors that prevent sickness and cure disease. Without the best-trained scientists or the investment in the education, infrastructure, and global exchange of scientific discoveries, Brazil would not have access to the latest medical advances, data, or the knowledge to translate such advances to the patient’s bedside. Hospitals would be useless without well-trained doctors and nurses. And these in turn would be useless without medicines, medical equipment, and practices. Policy decisions directly impact the resources for all the above.  

The safety of the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and education about the healthy lifestyle we should all live are dependent on good science. But, the evidence behind this knowledge would be useless unless policymakers — read, elected and appointed officials — put it into practice. In the words of Dr. Marcia Fournier, President of Dimensions Sciences, “The translation of advancements in science to the public is highly dependent on policy and legislation to enable it.”

Covid-19 requires public policy in Brazil

We see this in the Brazilian government’s current response to Covid-19. Epidemiologists know that physical distancing will prevent the spread of the virus. We know that testing vulnerable populations will allow the government to make informed policy decisions about opening or closing business, where to allocate limited medical resources, and how much protective equipment must be procured and deployed to where it is needed most.  

The tests that are being invented in rapid speed are dependent on the research by Brazilian scientists that mapped the genome of the coronavirus. This research was dependent on the education of the scientists, received in Brazil and abroad. That education was dependent on the financial investments made years ago in Brazilian universities and the primary educational systems before that. The relationship here between science and policy decisions is symbiotic, and so is the relationship between the health of a nation and the wealth of a nation. In that order.

A recent economic decision by the Brazilian government to waive import duties and other taxes will allow the free flow of medicines, protective gear, and devices to meet local demand. This smart measure will ensure faster procurement and distribution of much needed medical equipment. According to Brazil-based international trade experts Sidera Consult, import duties on medical devices and other hospital products were temporarily reduced to zero percent, cutting the price significantly for final users. Good news, and good policy.

Elected officials — chiefly the president — can model and influence public behavior. Legislated public policies won’t work alone without the cheerleader effect of the executive and political leaders. In the absence of this support, compliance with laws can wither on the vine. In a 2009 report, the Lancet Medical Journal wrote “the challenge is ultimately political, requiring continuous engagement by Brazilian society as a whole to secure the right to health for all Brazilians.” It’s not a stretch to say that just as many decisions about our health are made by our legislators than by our own doctors.

Brazil using policy to fight disease

Covid-19 is the current crisis, but Brazil is no stranger to pandemics. Zika, HIV-AIDS, chikungunya, dengue fever, measles, and yellow fever are not just diseases we read about in history books, they are real today. Scientific discovery and subsequent promulgation of effective public policies are critical to managing these public health crises as well.

HIV-AIDS is a prime example. Brazil is frequently cited as a model of success for its management of the pandemic. While the medical and scientific community was scrambling to get ahead of the curve or flatten it, the Brazilian government quickly passed legislation providing universal provision of free antiretroviral drugs and progressive social policies toward risk groups. Here, once more, science and public policy were complementary.  

The list of public health issues and enabling public policies to address them is too long for this article. But, one only needs to consider the positive impact that comprehensive tobacco control policies had in Brazil to appreciate the partnership between policy and science. Tobacco harms the health, the treasury, and the spirit of Brazil. According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Atlas, the rate of smoking by males in Brazil dropped to 15.4 percent in 2015, a dramatic decrease from ten years prior, when it sat at 20.4 percent. We can credit the federal political decisions to ban indoor smoking and regulate advertising. Nevertheless, more must be done.

The science and related policies behind cancer control is also compelling. Some cancers are preventable with certain vaccines (HPV, HBV) and by changing our behavior. Others are treatable with early detection and treatment. In 2019, Brazil enacted the “60-day law” that requires the public health system to initiate treatment for all cancer patients within 60 days of their diagnosis. While this law is too new to evaluate, science tells us that early detection of many cancers results in longer survivorship and in many cases, control of cancer.  

In the words of Dr. Louis Pasteur, the famed French microbiologist, chemist, and pioneer of the germ theory of disease, “chance favors the prepared mind.” The same can be said for the wonderful country of Brazil. It will require a healthy partnership between science and public policy to make it happen. We can’t deny it.[/restricted]

Coronavirus Opinion

Covid-19 and inequality: For whom the bells don’t toll

“We are in this moment of tranquility when it comes to press coverage. Covid-19 is all [the media] talks about.” That phrase was uttered by Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, during a now-infamous April 22 cabinet meeting. He explained to his boss and peers the golden opportunity the administration had to do away with environmental regulations, as reporters’ focus was elsewhere. At that point, the pandemic had already killed 2,741 Brazilians.

It is apparent that this government is indifferent to the victims of the pandemic and the suffering it has inflicted. Whose lives then matter in Brazil? Certainly not the majority of those who are dying from the coronavirus.[restricted]

The virus was brought to Brazil by the rich who can still afford to travel to Europe and the U.S. despite the massive devaluation of the Brazilian Real. But, as reporter Augusta Saraiva showed on May 10, the majority of those dying from the pandemic are the poor and black. 

The coronavirus has by no means been the “great equalizer” many talked about. If anything it has been the exact opposite.

Inequality: the geography of Covid-19 in Brazil

First the virus came to post neighborhoods like Jardins in São Paulo, the coronavirus hotspots are now on peripheral communities of Brazil’s major cities — where social distancing is impossible. All twenty neighborhoods with the most Covid-19 deaths are on the outskirts of São Paulo. Combined, they account for 40 percent of the entire city’s death total. And despite the growing body count, the city has so far avoided a lockdown and could resume commercial activities as early as June.

Nationwide, the virus is spreading much faster in the North and Northeast regions — the poorest in Brazil. The Amazonian city of Manaus was the first to experience a full-scale healthcare collapse, and data editor Marcelo Soares showed how the arid Sertão is being ravaged by the coronavirus. And the small impoverished cities of the northeastern countryside are the next in line to see their healthcare systems collapse.

The brutal inequality that continues to define Brazilian society is nowhere more apparent than in how the disease came to Brazil. 

One of Brazil’s first reported deaths from the coronavirus was of a domestic worker — whose employer in the wealthy Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Leblon had contracted the virus in Italy. Her employer neglected to inform her of the risks, despite the fact she had worked for the family for decades.

There is also the case of a businessman diagnosed with Covid-19 in São Paulo, who left the hospital and took a private jet to party with friends at a Bahia beach resort in early March. While the businessman and the Leblon resident survived, others have not been so lucky.

inequality Paraisópolis, São Paulo's second-largest favela. Photo: Rovena Rosa/ABr
Inequality: Paraisópolis, São Paulo’s second-largest favela, faces the upscale neighborhood of Morumbi. Photo: Rovena Rosa/ABr

Brazil’s poor were abandoned before the pandemic

In Belém, the mayor decided that maids and housekeepers as “essential workers,” allowing employers to demand their domestic workers continue their activities, even during social isolation measures. Meanwhile, demand for state-of-the-art air ambulances taking the city’s jet-set to upscale São Paulo hospitals rose by 100 percent.

Brazil does not have a culture of social solidarity, for instance, only BRL 5 billion has been raised to fight the pandemic — despite the country having 45 billionaires who combine for a net worth of USD 127 billion.

But the fact is that Brazil’s poor were abandoned by the state long before the pandemic. Favela residents are well aware that the state has left them to their own fate and have taken matters into their hands in producing protective masks and organizing medical services in their communities. 

In Brazil’s overcrowded prisons, reported cases have quintupled in just three weeks, while members of the government openly say things like “human rights are, basically, for righteous humans.”

Favela residents are still being terrorized by the police, who have if anything intensified operations during the pandemic in Rio de Janeiro. In April 2020, operations rose 28 percent — and police killings were up 58 percent. The recent killing of 14-year-old João Pedro, while he was playing with his cousin, highlights this ongoing barbarism.

The tragedy was not inevitable

Mr. Bolsonaro poses as a defender of the common man, who has had their livelihood taken away from him by lockdown measures imposed by state governors. He is anything but.

It was never inevitable that the poor would have to choose between starvation and lockdown. The government’s mishandling of the crisis and the lack of social provision was a choice. In the end the lives of those dying from the pandemic did not mean enough to warrant the type of intervention needed to prevent this crisis from occurring.

For a lockdown to work, you need both a significant amount of public-buy-in and a government committed to ensuring that people are able to survive it. Neither of these can be found in Brazil, in most part because Mr. Bolsonaro’s government has done all it can to ensure this. 

Mr. Bolsonaro once famously declared that in order to truly solve Brazil’s problems, 30,000 would have to die — we should not be surprised by his contempt for the victims of the pandemic. He was elected in part on the basis of his promise to shoot his way through Brazil’s problems, as was his former ally Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel who promised to “dig graves” in a crackdown on drug gangs. 

Well, graves are being dug and the pandemic’s body count is inching closer to 30,000.[/restricted]


Favela Lives Don’t Matter in Brazil

Fourteen-year-old João Pedro was playing at his cousin’s home in the favela complex of Salgueiro — in São Gonçalo, a low-income municipality on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro — when a bullet hit him in the stomach during a  police operation in the favela. Cops stormed the house and carried his body into a helicopter, without giving any information to — or getting authorization from — any member of the boy’s family. His whereabouts would only be known by his father, 40-year-old informal worker Nelson Pinto, 17 long hours later. But it would be too late. João Pedro’s dead body was lying lifeless in a coroner’s office bed.

The [restricted]cops’ first version of the events said that they reacted to a shooting started by criminals, but the police have since issued a statement admitting that João Pedro is innocent and has no ties to organized crime whatsoever. A forensic report found that the bullet which killed him is of the same caliber used by the police — and three officers involved in the operation were put on temporary leave.

While shocking, João Pedro’s case is hardly an outlier. Young males living in favelas — especially black young males — are often the victims of a lethal force: the Rio de Janeiro Military Police. With the blessing of the federal government and the state governor, cops have taken a shoot-first-ask-later policy to new heights. In 2019 alone, 1,814 police killings were officially recorded, an all-time record.

As someone who lives in the favela and as a social activist, I have seen enough cases like João Pedro’s to stop calling it a “fatality” and started referring to the killing of black youths as a “designed project.” How come the police manage to apprehend large quantities of cash or guns in high-income areas without ever shooting a single bullet — but when operations are in favelas, innocents are so often victimized? We only see the police using intelligence tactics when money and power are involved. For peripheral populations, brute force is the only modus operandi.

Meanwhile, the federal government tries to protect officers who kill in the line of duty in cases of “excusable fear, surprise or violent emotion.” Many organizations have called it a de facto license to kill.

Violence in the favela: a deliberate effort

Data from the State’s Public Defender’s Office shows that, between August 2018 and May 2019, there were at least 931 reports of police brutality — both physical and psychological —, an average of three cases of torture per day. And that is not even counting for the massive underreporting, as victims of the police often silence themselves for fear of retaliation. In most cases, the violations were perpetrated by police officers at the moment of an arrest. And the victims fit the same profile: young, poorly-educated black males.

According to public defender Fábio Amado, who commented on the report to news agency Estado, the numbers show a “naturalization” of torture as a common resort. Most of the victims who came forward to cite kicks and punches as the most common form of violence — followed by death threats and rifle butts.

For Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, however, police brutality is not a problem — but rather the way to fight criminals. When naming a new State Police Chief, on January 3, 2019, the governor — who had promised to “dig graves” in a crackdown on gangs — said Rio needs its own version of the Guantanamo Bay Prison, a facility described by Human Rights Watch as a “symbol of torture, rendition, and indefinite detention without charge or trial.” 

“Those holding rifles in their hands are terrorists and should be treated as such. An antiterror law would impose 50-year sentences in prisons away from civilization. We need our own Guantanamo,” he said.

As Brazil marches towards becoming the world’s Covid-19 epicenter, actions to control the spread of the pandemic in favelas remain scarce. In São Paulo, residents of the Paraisópolis community have themselves hired health professionals to compensate for the lack of support from authorities. Not even the worst pandemic in a century is capable of raising public officials’ awareness about the conditions of millions of people living in the favelas.

Not even the pandemic has slowed the police down. In April 2020, operations rose 28 percent — and police killings were up 58 percent. And while João Pedro’s killing is under investigation and the officers responsible for it face prosecution for executing the boy and evidence tampering, history shows that we should not keep our hopes up that the police will thoroughly investigate its own ranks. The logic of the status quo tends to sweep the dirt under the rug every time.

Many artists and sectors of society are trying to raise the pressure, but it is more likely than not that João Pedro becomes just another number — as so many others have before him.[/restricted]

Coronavirus Opinion

The forces enabling Jair Bolsonaro to create a coronavirus disaster

Many premature obituaries have been written for the Jair Bolsonaro administration. Over the last month alone, mistaken death sentences were issued following Sergio Moro’s resignation from the Justice Ministry, and then the tumultuous exit of two Health Ministers amidst the worst pandemic in a century. It has been commonplace to assert that his presidency is on its last legs.

However, despite the 32-plus impeachment requests currently sitting on House Speaker Rodrigo Maia’s desk, Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency is far from over. There is life to this unmitigated disaster yet. [restricted]

How, then, is Jair Bolsonaro’s position still relatively secure despite the fact he is now leading what is widely regarded as the world’s most inept response to the Covid-19 pandemic? Brazil’s confirmed totals stand at 16,118 dead and 241,080 infected, not taking into account the massive underreporting experts have warned about. One of the primary reasons is that many of Brazil’s most powerful leaders and institutions are actively enabling this unfolding disaster.

The Armed Forces

Most notably there are the Armed Forces. Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet contains more military members than any in the history of Brazil — including the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The number of officers serving is set to increase with the likely appointment of General Eduardo Pazuello as the new Health Minister, gaining a promotion from his previous role as deputy to former head Nelson Teich. While many commentators insisted the presence of generals would constrain Mr. Bolsonaro’s worst instincts and perhaps serve as a moderate counterpoint to the civilian flat-earthers and ideological zealots serving in his cabinet, the opposite has been true.

Instead, figures such as General Augusto Heleno, Mr. Bolsonaro’s chief security officer, have proven themselves to be ideological bedfellows of the Brazilian president and actively attempted to mobilize his supporters against Brazil’s democratic institutions. Earlier this year, Gen. Heleno said — overheard during a live broadcast  — “fuck Congress.” 

Mr. Bolsonaro has also bought their support by dramatically increasing military spending. In last year’s sweeping social security reform, military pensions were largely unaffected, despite being responsible for a huge portion of the social security deficit. Moreover, the military has invested so much of its political capital into Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidency, it perhaps feels obligated to maintain it in office.

Big Business

The other major group of enablers is made up of certain sectors of big business. Paulo Skaf, chairman of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp), has become one of the president’s more enthusiastic supporters. 

Businessmen operating in the retail, fast food, and fitness sectors are also firmly in Mr. Bolsonaro’s corner. They have been actively supporting his attempts to sabotage social isolation measures implemented by state governments and have been accused of funding the “office of hate,” an underground — and illegal — disinformation machine allegedly controlled by the president’s sons.

The Big Center

More recently, the ideologically amorphous rent-seeking group of oligarchical center-right parties known as the “Big Center,” who sell their support to the highest bidder, have fallen in behind Mr. Bolsonaro — who is now willing to pay the price needed to maintain his presidency, despite rallying against the “old politics” of horse-trading throughout his campaign and first year in office.

The Big Center sees the crisis in the Bolsonaro administration as precisely the moment to add their support to the administration. They can provide precious votes in Congress, which could block an impeachment or indictment against the president. In exchange, these bottom-feeding parties want positions that will secure votes — or, in many cases, more money — in the short term.

The opposition

While much of the political opposition is sincere, there have been segments that have enabled Mr. Bolsonaro. While House Speaker Rodrigo Maia has borne much of the wrath of the president’s most frenzied supporters and at times reined in the president, he also ensured that the far-right government would survive its first year in office by taking responsibility for passing the 2019 pension reform. 

More recently, he has refused to initiate impeachment proceedings on the grounds that “now is not the time,” despite evidence that the president’s criminal actions are mounting on a daily basis — as are the number of impeachment requests.

There are also sections of the opposition who would rally behind Jair Bolsonaro if it meant keeping the center-left Workers’ Party out of power. As long as the largest party in Congress is treated as illegitimate, it is hard to imagine the sort of unity emerging that could hold the president to account. 

In the end, many respectable pundits in the country continue to draw a false equivalence between the Workers’ Party and Mr. Bolsonaro, presented as equal threats to democracy. 

That’s not to minimize the Workers’ Party’s poor record in the opposition. Despite having the largest bench in Congress, it has avoided a full-scale confrontation with the government — which was the party’s modus operandi as a consistently opposition force during the 1980s and 1990s.

Some of the Workers’ Party top brass believe that letting Mr. Bolsonaro serve out his term is the best electoral move — as he would reach the 2022 election having frittered away his entire political capital.

There is also a section of the opposition that is relieved that Mr. Bolsonaro is in power during this unprecedented crisis, as they don’t have to take responsibility for the unfolding disaster. 

While the death toll skyrockets and Brazil’s economy faces collapse, it is worth remembering who exactly is keeping Mr. Bolsonaro in power and why. This is a dark time in the country’s history and it is being enabled by those who purport to serve the national interest and defend the constitution. If Brazil is going to weather this crisis, somebody needs to take responsibility for dealing with a president that has bet his political future on escalating it. [/restricted]


Teich chose not to be Bolsonaro’s Sisyphus

The myth of Sisyphus is one of the well-known stories in Greek mythology. The Corinthian king was described by Homer as the wisest and most prudent of mortals — but other tales portrayed him more as a highwayman or rogue than anything else. His wit allowed him to chain Death when it came to claim him — and, when he was finally taken to the underworld, allowed him to convince Hades to allow him to return home. He nearly successfully cheated the gods, but they discovered his deceit and punished him by forcing Sisyphus to complete the endless labor of rolling a great stone to the top of a mountain, only to see its falling back of its own weight.[restricted]

As French-Algerian writer Albert Camus explains in a 1941 essay, it was an “unspeakable penalty, in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.” Mr. Camus describes the futility of the endeavor. “At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.”

For Camus, what makes this myth tragic is the fact that Sisyphus is fully conscious that his torture is not the physical labor of rolling the stone to the top — but rather knowing that it will inevitably roll back to the plain. “Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?”

Oncologist Nelson Teich — who finally decided to quit the Health Ministry after only 28 days — was nearly a sort of Brazilian Sisyphus. 

Nelson Teich resigns as Brazil's Health Minister after less than a month
Former Health Minister Nelson Teich. Photo: Alex Pazuello/Semcom

His boss, President Jair Bolsonaro, has forced the Health Ministry to change its protocols regarding the controversial antimalarial drug chloroquine. With no proven efficacy against Covid-19, the medicine will not be a game-changer in the fight against the worst pandemic of the past 100 years. Scientific evidence suggests some promising results in limited tests — but experts advise caution, as high dosages could be linked to higher death rates. Instead, it will serve as another weapon for Mr. Bolsonaro to attack social isolation measures.

The ink in Mr. Teich’s resignation letter was barely dry when the president’s Chief of Staff, Walter Braga Netto, announced that chloroquine will become an essential resource distributed to hospitals. Until Friday, the drug was only administered to severe patients.

“Life is made of choices. Today, I chose to leave,” he said, in his last press conference as Brazil’s Health minister.

Like Sisyphus defied the gods, Mr. Teich’s caution around chloroquine defied the head of state. The burden of denying science was too much for him to carry, even if it would allow him to continue spearheading the Covid-19 fight. But maybe the gods were right: there is no punishment as being forced to perform futile and hopeless labor.[/restricted]


Bolsonaro and the peril of permanent outrage

Another week, another institutional crisis in Brazil, once again unlikely to result in the impeachment of Jair Bolsonaro. The latest scandal was triggered by footage of an April cabinet meeting that reportedly shows Mr. Bolsonaro promising to change the heads of the Federal Police before the force could “f*** [his] family over.” According to people who watched the video, cabinet members also joined in, voicing their violent fantasies of imprisoning Supreme Court justices and governors who are critical of the Bolsonaro administration.

Despite this latest crisis and the 30-plus impeachment requests sitting on the desk of House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Bolsonaro will be forced out of office anytime soon.

As I wrote for The Brazilian Report last week, Brazil’s recurring absurdist crises have led to a news cycle that is part ‘Groundhog Day’, part ‘Friday the 13th’: a cheap slasher flick stuck in the same perpetual time loop. Recent polls confirm this. [restricted]Despite Brazil passing 13,000 deaths and registering over 10,000 new cases per day, only 42 percent of Brazilians believe the government is doing a bad job handling the pandemic— and around 52 percent figure that the administration is actually doing O.K. Over 1,000 of Brazil’s 5,570 cities have recorded deaths as a result of the virus. Due to a lack of testing, the true number of cases in the country is believed to be up to 15 times higher than official figures.

Even if Mr. Bolsonaro’s approval figures are dwindling, his core base is still firmly behind him. Rather than a sense of collective outrage against the government’s continued anti-democratic provocations and Covid-19 denial, the overwhelming mood in Brazil is a mix of apathy and indifference. The angriest bunch are the president’s most fervent supporters.

What public protest there is has largely been the domain of the most rabid pro-Bolsonaro groups, who flout quarantine measures, stage blockades in front of hospitals, physically assault journalists and healthcare workers, while claiming that the pandemic is a communist conspiracy.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s continued public violations of social distancing measures and callous disregard towards the victims of the pandemic should come as no surprise. This is a man whose main campaign promise was to increase the number of police killings in the country that already recorded the highest number in the world before he took office — 6,220 last year. Mr. Bolsonaro has frequently gone on record calling for violent solutions to his political opponents. One shouldn’t expect empathy from someone who promised he could shoot his way through Brazil’s problems.

Lives v. Jobs

The truth is that the crisis the world is facing is extremely difficult to comprehend. It is an epochal calamity, meaning things won’t return back to normal in the near future. Brazil faces perhaps two years of political uncertainty, massive deaths, and economic chaos. The world that will emerge from the pandemic will be substantially different — and perhaps significantly worse than the one we knew before the arrival of Covid-19. 

Given the scale of this radical uncertainty and the continued denial of the federal government, it is easier to understand why a significant proportion of the population has opted to sink back into the relative comfort zone of indifference — or dismissal — rather than try to come to terms with the crisis. In addition, there remains a large voter base who would vote for Mr. Bolsonaro regardless of what he did, simply to keep the center-left Workers’ Party out of office.

The political crisis that has enveloped the country since 2013 and the knock-on effects of the anti-corruption Operation Car Wash have discredited, for millions of Brazilians, the idea that government can improve their lives. If public authorities cannot help people, indifference and individualism will prosper. If the debate remains between lockdown and the economy, existing polarization will continue. Outrage feeds off of outrage and rarely leads to concrete political change.

This state of affairs has been enabled by the failures of Brazil’s opposition parties, who seem stuck in an endless loop of indignation, responding to every one of the president’s ceaseless provocations with strong-worded yet ineffective statements of anger. Permanent outrage more often than not translates to political impotence.

Mr. Bolsonaro has attempted to turn the crisis into a choice between lockdown and starvation, while trying to let state governors take the blame for economic hardships due to federal government inaction. But he has been enabled by an opposition that has failed to substantially challenge this premise and craft a credible counter-narrative that says one doesn’t need to choose between the economy and saving lives. After all, outrage about Mr. Bolsonaro’s denial and callousness is easier than advancing a credible alternative to the false choice being placed before Brazil’s population.

All the president’s (new) men

Mr. Bolsonaro’s trajectory in power, if anything, resembles that of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985. After coming to power promising to rid Brazil once-and-for-all of its corrupt parasitic political class, they ended up aligning with the regional oligarchies that dominated much of the country. It was easier to govern in alliance with them than try to rule without the help of Brazil’s political class.

Mr. Bolsonaro has come to the same conclusion, by way of his recent overtures to the so-called “Big Center” — a loose coalition ready to join any administration for the right price. If he is to save his government and his family from prosecution, it is easier to embrace the “old politics” of patronage, horse-trading, and pork-barrelling. Ironically, many of the parties he has begun to speak with are direct descendants of Arena — the official political party of the military dictatorship. His embrace of the “Big Center,” far from motivating mass anti-corruption protests or anything of the like, will most likely further sow the seeds of indifference among the population. 

So long as there isn’t a credible alternative, it is likely that Mr. Bolsonaro will get away with his disastrous handling of the pandemic, provided the majority of victims fit the right profile — poor, black, and out of sight. After all, he was elected on a platform that was based on increasing violence against this same demographic. 

Endless outrage is a sign of political weakness and in Brazil, it increasingly feels like no force wants to take responsibility for offering a course out of this crisis.[/restricted]