THE BACKGROUND: A (quick) political overview
Brazil’s past is no fairy tale. From 1964 to 1985, the country was governed by a military dictatorship. Although promised to last a few years, it took two decades for the nation to freely choose its leaders once again. The long years of authoritarianism left, however, a deep footprint difficult to cover in the transition towards democracy.
Instability is at the heart of a country whose motto reads “Order and Progress”. The men and women, that once promised to serve the country, have failed. Historically, elected presidents had a certain pattern: wealthy, full of promises’ mandates marked by economic distress but, mostly, corruption. The hopes (and fears) of the nation focused on Lula da Silva, a working-class man, that promised to save Brazil from corruption and poverty. In the latter, he saw a slight success, but in the former, he saw himself and his protected successor Dilma Roussef being involved in the greatest corruption scheme in Brazil.
In 2018, the elections shone a light on how Brazil had become divided. Those who remembered the dictatorship, feared the return of authoritarianism, while others had had enough of the system and rallied behind Jair Bolsonaro. In the end, Bolsonaro emerged as the 38th president with 55,1% of the votes. Now we ask ourselves how this once marginal political figure ended up winning half of the country’s trust, and how his influence evolved throughout the mandate and the current pandemic.
THE CAUSES: What led Brazil to its current state?
I. A Never-ending Internal Battlefield
In 2017, Brazil was facing a record-breaking number of around 65.000 homicides; a country representing 8% of the world’s population accounted for 33% of all murders. This ever-growing trend of violence, stemming largely from drug gang rivalries, was further aggravated by the ill-management of security funds, which left police forces underpaid and underprepared. The established chaos fuelled police violence, including extrajudicial executions, which only undermined public security and further endangered the lives of police officers.
This incited support for the far-right candidate, who praised the armed forces and promised loosening gun laws and making the police force more affirmative. For many, this stuck a chord and Bolsonaro became a champion of law and order, most notably for a young core of supports, to whom the thought of oppression and violence of the military regime had faded into history.
At the end of 2019, Bolsonaro had seemed to uphold his campaign promise. Killings were down 19% from the previous year, reaching the lowest number since 2007. There were, however, doubts regarding his involvement in this feat, as the number had already begun to fall in early 2018 and the leader had signed an anti-crime bill at the end of 2019. Reports of a militia-run Rio de Janeiro – organized crime groups that control entry into neighbourhoods, run extortions and drug trade, i.a. – only seem to disprove this claim.
II. A Never-fully-honest Government
Though the war on violence gathered a large following, what secured Bolsonaro’s candidacy was the conviction of his strongest opponent, Lula da Silva, which barred him from the presidential race. The former president of Brazil was, however, only one of several convicted in one of the biggest corruption investigations of the recent ages, “Operation Car Wash”. It uncovered a laundry scheme that funnelled billions into politicians’ and big companies’ pockets. According to a Datafolha study, the general public’s faith in Brazilian institutions had eroded over the years, with trust in the presidency and congress falling below 40%. Bolsonaro seized this opportunity to emerge as an outlier and promised to end corruption.
Almost two years later, both the president and his family have been ensnared in corruption scandals. Most notably, his oldest son and former senator of Rio de Janeiro, Flávio Bolsonaro, was charged this past November of embezzlement, money laundering and criminal association.
The very probe, that shed light on the institutional corruption in Brazil via “Operation Car Wash”, has now wound down following pressure from parts of Congress as well as the Bolsonaro administration. The outbreak of the Coronavirus has only helped Brasilia in sweeping any talk of corruption under the rug.
III. A Never-stable Economy (in the heat of a pandemic crisis)
Social and political instability were not all that troubled the nation, which was coming out of the worst recession in its recent history. The economy had barely grown for almost a decade, incurring even in contractions. Both the commodities’ boom and tourism, one of the country’s largest economic motors, had collapsed. Inflation and unemployment had risen significantly, the former reaching 10.7%, in 2015, and the latter reaching a century-high value of 12.82%, in 2017.
Efforts of Bolsonaro’s administration to depart from the status quo of deep recessions were cut short as Brazil was hit severely by the global pandemic. Today, the country has the second highest death toll in the world and more than 2,000 daily deaths from Covid-19, which might be higher due to lack of reporting. In a country struggling with inequality, the disease has struck distinctly among social classes, affecting mostly people living in extreme poverty, who are less able to follow social distancing and other health norms. There are more than 14 million people unemployed, an astonishingly high number, since 40% of the workforce depends on daily wages to eat and survive.
At the beginning of the pandemic, a stimulus package of 50 bn$ was widely credited for Bolsonaro’s popularity and for boosting the economy. However, the president continued to dismiss and even mock health measures, while strongly questioning official statistics. He incited public disrespect of curfews and fired those who did not agree with him, such as the health minister.
Now, there is a new smaller stimulus package on its way. The package enables Bolsonaro’s administration to relaunch a cash transfer scheme to the nation’s poorest during the next four months, while limiting the impact on fiscal accounts, since investors are worried with debt rising above 90% of GDP. There are, nonetheless, questions as to whether they will be able to keep people from hunger.
IV. A Never-equal society and a Never-prioritized Environment
Bolsonaro’s mandate is full of controversies created by strong statements of the president against the LGBTQ+ community, black minorities, and women. His promise to make “Brazil safe for all its people” might not be real after all, as, socially, he turned out to be polarising, and excluding minorities. In addition, Bolsonaro and his government’s denialism of climate change remains unchanged. As widespread fires hit the Amazon forest last summer, the president intends to exploit deforested lands, rather than preserve them, which will severely affect indigenous communities.
Brazil: A Never-united country?
As the 2022 presidential elections draw ever closer, it seems the division that plagued the country four years ago has only deepened. Despite unfulfilled promises and mismanagement of the ongoing health crisis, Bolsonaro has managed to maintain a significant following.
New developments have seemed, albeit, to undermine his re-election campaign. Former president Lula da Silva has been released by the supreme court of justice, which decided to overturn graft convictions. While the decision has yet to be finalized, it has set the scene for a contest between opposite sides of the political spectrum in next year’s presidential race.
As the emerging candidate once said, “We all know that, all over the world, never did the workers’ win a single thing without fighting, without perseverance.” It remains to be seen who the nation will be fighting for.
Sources: BBC, Britannica, CSIS, Financial Times, Folha de S.Paulo, Forbes, the Guardian, Latin America Reports, Open Democracy, Vox, FRED, Human Rights Watch, Abc News