Brazil is the largest country in South America. It is the fifth-largest in the world and third largest in the Western hemisphere. Its GDP ranks it ninth in the world and its population is 213 million. On October 28th 2018, Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency of Brazil with 55.1% of the votes. He is known in many circles as the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ and his election has shaken Brazilian politics and has the potential to shift Brazilian domestic politics and regional politics for years to come. Doug Becker speaks with Erica Resende and Guilherme Casaroes about Bolsonaro’s election and what this means for Brazil and the rest of the world.
Erica Resende is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Security Studies at the Brazilian War College in Rio de Janeiro. She is an expert in post-conflict studies and is the co-author of Crisis and Change in Post-Cold War Global Politics: Ukraine in a Comparative Perspective.
Guilherme Casarões is a Lecturer in International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas. He is an expert in history and political cultures.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Doug Becker: Jair Bolsonaro is frequently described as a populist which has a specific meaning in the US, western Europe, as well as in South America. Erica Resende is this an accurate description?
Erica Resende: In a way it is, if you think about both Trump and Bolsonaro as belonging to the same DNA of populist regimes. They are part of the broader global phenomenon of populism. To understand populism there is an easy working concept for that and that is the understanding of populism being a political strategy characterised by anti-elites and anti-pluralism. The idea of populist leaders in a way is understanding and intuitively knowing what the people won’t want and speaking for the people against the elites. So in a way both Trump and Bolsonaro share some of the characteristics that we political scientists usually understand as being how populism works.
DB: Guilherme Casaroes, populism has a specific definition in Latin America and it is an historical one. How much does Bolsonaro resemble the old school populists like Juan Peron and Getulio Vargas or the leftist populists like a Hugo Chavez or Nicolas Maduro?
Guilherme Casaroes: I think populism in Latin America has many different strands. We have left-wing populism, especially in the early 2000s, when people tried to characterise former Brazilian president Lula as an example of left-wing modern-day populism. But populism can be traced back to the 1930s and 40s, if you think about Vargas in Brazil who was fascist and resorted to populist strategies during his fifteen years in office as well as Peron in Argentina. But I would categorise Bolsonaro in a slightly different way. I think he might be considered a typical Latin American populist in the sense that he has used his charisma to push his agenda forward and to get elected, but he can also be seen as part of a very contemporary wave of global populism. So I think it is pretty fair to compare Bolsonaro to Trump in this regard. I think it is important to understand that Bolsonaro adopted the very same strategy and very same narrative as Trump. So a great deal of his election has a lot to do with the way he built his campaign. And I think we can think about it in strategic terms with the very intense use of social networks and direct communication with the people; he resorted a lot to Twitter, Facebook, and most successfully WhatsApp to reach out to people directly. And of course, there was a lot of fake news going around as well, but I say that there is also something about the narrative of Bolsonaro which has less to do with traditional Latin American populism and has a lot to do with Trump’s narrative. Bolsonaro portrayed himself as the bearer of the truth of the average person in Brazil which I think was something very common among Americans during the 2016 election. The idea that Bolsonaro was the only true interpreter of the average person in Brazil was something very powerful during the campaign. I picture Bolsonaro as a member of this anti-globalist wave. I am not sure if they use this term in the US but if I think it was Steve Bannon who coined the term globalism and applied the term in many debates in American politics. Bolsonaro also portrayed himself as a man who is fighting the tyranny of globalism that is happening around the world and wants to restore the traditional values of the average Brazilian. So he basically talked a lot about God, and that, by the way, was his motto during the campaign: ‘Brazil above everyone and God above everybody’, or something like that. And also family and the nation, so there was a very strong component of nationalism in Bolsonaro’s rhetoric which equates him to Trump and other global phenomena too.
DB: Now Erica on this theme of the similarities between Bolsonaro and Trump, one that has certainly been noted is gender constructions and issues of masculinity, the idea that Bolsonaro represents a return to a traditional masculinity. Is that a pretty accurate description and how much do you see a reaction against the rise of women in Brazilian politics behind some of Bolsonaro’s support?
ER: Actually, what some political scientists that study this phenomenon of populism had already pointed out is that populism as a political style has one or two specific characteristics that in the current populist regimes that are emerging expresses itself with a performance of crisis and bad manners. So in those two specific characteristics, there is a very deep similarity between Trump and Bolsonaro. In the example of the bad manners: the way that white masculinity, Christian masculinity emerges both with Trump and Bolsonaro are very similar. One example of how this showed up in Bolsonaro’s political discourse regarding women during the campaign, was how many times he referred to his four sons and how all of them are studs, and one time he was not careful enough and – boom – he had a daughter. So he is constantly downplaying the role of women and when he was in the House of Representatives he had a very tense relationship with two or three key Brazilian women who are in parliament. This expresses what political scientists term the ‘bad manners component’, be it towards women or gay people, as well as blacks, bad manners have to be performed in a way as to present Bolsonaro the populist leader to the common people. And at the same time the strategy of bad manners also conveys the idea that political correctness is a liberal attitude that cannot be tolerated anymore. The second characteristic that I think is very similar to Trump is the performance of crisis. So in order for the populist discourse to take on there has to be a continuous framing of a crisis, an overwhelming existential threat. So in the case of the US, I think this can be seen in how Trump has played the card against immigration and specifically immigration coming from Mexico and Latin America, and in Brazil Bolsonaro plays the card of security and public safety, the fact that many Brazilian big cities experience high rates of crime. So the performance of crisis has to be going on and on in order for the populist discourse to mobilise support. So both characteristics are present both in Trump and Bolsonaro.
DB: Guilherme Casaroes, you had mentioned nationalism as one of the real key components of Bolsonaro’s rise. Are there any regional implications with neighbouring countries with Bolsonaro’s seeming turn inward with this rise of nationalism as a part of his discourse?
GC: Well, the curious thing about Bolsonaro’s foreign policy platform is that it tries to incorporate a very strong sense of nationalism, a very specific kind of nationalism which tries to bring Brazil closer to the West. The idea of Brazil as a Western country is one of the strongest components of the kind of nationalist narrative that Bolsonaro is trying to put forward. But there is also this very liberal idea too, especially economically. Unlike the US, for example, in which there is a combination of nationalism and protectionism behind the rhetoric of ‘Make America Great Again, in the case of Brazil, there is this nationalism of trying to put Brazil into the Western hemisphere and at the same time opening up Brazil’s economy. And I think it reflects different groups that are part of the Bolsonaro administration. You have a group of liberal economists lead by Paulo Guedes who is the Minister of the Economy and he is very liberal, he is trying to restore the credibility of Brazil’s economy on liberal grounds, so he talks a lot about opening up the economy, about free trade agreements, about reaching out to liberal neighbours such as Colombia or Chile. And then there is the other group, which is the anti-globalist group lead by Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo who is the disciple of so-called philosopher Olavo de Carvalho who is Brazil’s Steve Bannon. So there is this very strong anti-globalist component to Brazil’s foreign policymaking which is also very noteworthy.
So we have this dichotomy, this paradox which at the same time is very nationalist and very liberal, and of course this has a deep impact on how Brazil behaves in the region. Because at the same time Brazil has abandoned most of the regional integration structures that it had built in the past. So for example, Mercosur which is a free trade and customs union that Brazil launched in 1991 together with Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Mercosur is almost dead now, nobody in the government has been talking about it. Mercosur has historically been one of the most important initiatives of Brazil’s foreign policy and has been the South American equivalent to the European Union, roughly speaking. So nobody is talking about it anymore and the relationship between Bolsonaro and Brazil’s neighbours has been very narrow in the sense that he only seems to be interested in doing free trade with countries like Chile and they even have this new bloc that Chile has created called Prosur, a political bloc of conservative leaders in South America, so it is something that Bolsonaro is trying to be part of. But basically, Brazil has lost much of its interest in constructing the regional order around Brazilian interests. That I think is the most important thing. For the last twenty-five years, Brazil has led the regional integration process in South America and ever since President [Dilma] Rousseff, Brazil has practically abandoned the desire of building institutions or sustaining institutions and making sure that the regional order would favour Brazil’s interests. If you look at the most concrete issue that most South American countries are having to deal with, which is the Venezuelan crisis, Brazil is no longer the leader of the debate, Brazil is no longer trying to mediate the conflict in Venezuela, Brazil is actually jumping on the American bandwagon in dealing with Venezuela. And when Bolsonaro went to the US last month, one of the things that he said was that Brazil would support any policy undertaken by the US towards Venezuela including a military intervention. This is very new to Brazilian foreign policy and has a deep implication in the relationship between Brazil and South America because one of the cornerstones of Brazil’s foreign policy towards the region was the total respect for its neighbour’s sovereignty and this is something that Bolsonaro is probably going to abandon if the US decides to invade Venezuela.
DB: Very interesting. Erica would you like to follow up?
ER: I want to add just a bit on the nationalism question, because I think this is a very interesting and a peculiar component in Brazil. When we say nationalism, it is not the nationalism that is equated with the nationalism you seen in a European context. It is not like French or German nationalism – it is not that. Whenever Bolsonaro brings up the question of nationalism, it is a specific understanding of nationalism that is in a way very much connected to his history as a former military man. In the Brazilian armed forces, there is a very strong perception that Brazil is under a constant threat of fragmentation due to a multicultural agenda and the existence and functioning of international NGOs, for example in the rainforests. So those are pretty much concerns within a specific branch of the Brazilian armed forces and in terms of nationalism that has a lot to do with keeping a national cohesion, more in terms of the pride and cohesion of the nation.
DB: I know there has been a great deal of conversation about the role of the military in Brazilian politics, is this potentially manifesting itself in Brazil increasing the size of its military or increasing spending on the military and even possibly having its military participating in some sort of armed intervention either in the region or overseas?
ER: I work for the Brazilian armed forces. I am an assistant professor at the Brazilian War College and one thing that I think should be made clear is that the military forces in Brazil are not cohesive in terms of how they stand regarding Venezuela. One thing that really strikes me as peculiar is that, first of all, regarding the participation of military armed forces within the government, not even during the military regime has there been so many military personnel retired or in active duty within the government – never. The last data that I was able to read showed close to one hundred retired military men occupying high ranking levels within the government. This is very unusual, not even during the military regimes was it like this. But secondly, what I think is quite interesting is the budget of the Brazilian defence ministry is considerable but mostly due to spending regarding pensions and wages, not as much in the acquisition of arms and things like that. In terms of military intervention, there is a sort of division of labour between the armed forces and it is understood that if there is a spillover regarding Venezuela into Brazilian borders this, will be something that will be taken care of by the army. So the army right now, especially high ranking officials are a little bit more vocal in the background trying to calm down rhetoric regarding possible Brazilian participation in a multilateral force led by the US. So it is a very unusual situation where generals are mostly working and pushing as doves against civilian hawks, which is quite interesting I think.
DB: Guilherme, from a foreign policy perspective one area where there has been a great deal of concern among international environmentalists has been around Brazil’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accord, some talk about whether or not Brazil might increase deforestation in Amazonia, and I know there have been some news stories about granting mining rights that could be an infringement on indigenous populations. Is this overblown or should environmentalists be concerned about Brazil’s environmental policy and the potential impact on its foreign policy?
GC: I think it is a real problem. Let me just get back to something Erica said which is very interesting to point out that the military have become a very key player and central force in the Brazilian government. But I don’t think that the military want to seize power, or at least not like the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 70s. The military want to keep the country stable and they see some very present threats such as international NGOs or organised crime, drug traffickers and so on. In terms of the environment, this has historically been one of the most delicate issues. If we think about the military regime in Brazil in the 1970s for example, one of the strongest positions of the military was to preserve the Amazon not because they love the environment but because they needed to preserve and safeguard the resources that are below the trees…So they have always put up a very defensive stance when it came to the environment, and if it depends on the military they will do there best to prevent international activists and NGOs meddling in Brazil’s environmental agenda. This is a backlash compared to what we witnessed in the last twenty to twenty-five years. Brazil has become in the last quarter-century one of the most active players in environmental discussions. Brazil has led many of the debates at climate change conferences and so on, so this is probably going to roll back and I really think it is a problem at this point.
But it is not just about the military. If we have a broader perspective of the government, we are going to see that the anti-globalist group is also very much against environmental activism. The Foreign Minister wrote a couple of months ago that the environmental discussion was part of a ‘cultural Marxist’ plot against Brazil. So he basically claims that the Paris agreement was part of a Marxist left-wing plot to destroy the Brazilian culture. I didn’t really understand the logic of the argument. but this is something that he wrote and is still there on his personal blog…Basically, Brazil has a government that is not committed whatsoever to protecting the environment and that might cause a very big impact on Brazil’s image abroad because Brazil’s reputation especially in terms of the environment has been very visible. I mean Brazil has become one of the most active players on the environmental chessboard and this is probably going to disappear very soon.
ER: There is another issue I want to point out. You also have to understand that this environmental rollback is also occurring in other policies such as migration, global health, humanitarian aid, human rights. In a way Brazil has been investing quite a lot for a long time in presenting itself as a normative power and trying to have a voice in trying to make a difference and influencing some of the policymaking at a global governance level. What we have seen is this rollback and this is not something specific to the environment and climate change policy.
DB: Another policy I know there has been some global pushback against Brazil has been on LGBTQ rights. The activist Marielle Franco was assassinated in 2018. Bolsonaro has made some pretty brash statements about gay rights and his lack of support for those. This seems to be an area of particular concern. Would you share that concern, Erica?
ER: This is not new for him. For most of Bolsonaro’s twenty-seven years as a member of the House of Representatives in Brasilia, there have been quite a number of instances and cases where he was very vocal against gay parliamentarians, against most of the multiculturalist agenda, against the bill on same-sex marriage. One of Bolsonaro’s key adversaries was an openly gay congressman from Rio, his name is Jean Wyllys. He left Brazil and applied for refugee status in Germany, but both of them went on and on at each other in very different moments throughout the last five or six years, there was name-calling and things like that within the House. In terms of the activist Marielle Franco, her assassination played a key role within the presidential campaign mostly because Bolsonaro’s three sons were also campaigning, one of them for senator, another for national representative, another one for city council, and all of them, especially regarding the politics within the city of Rio, were seen trying to downplay the symbol that Marielle Franco has become in the last year. There is some controversy regarding possible ties between one of his sons with militia groups that have officially been accused of being involved with her death.
DB: Many of us have been asking is the election of Trump in 2016 a sign of real political movement shifting rightward, shifting as part of a nationalist agenda and discourse. So I would like to ask the same question of both of you. Is this something that we are going to see as one and done with Bolsonaro’s election, or is this a real political movement and Brazilian politics has shifted to the right in the medium term, possibly for the long term?
GC: I think that there are basically two processes that began in 2013 that might shed light on what is going on in Brazil. Obviously, there is also a global wave of conservative politicians and populist politicians which also helps explain this whole thing. But let me start by saying that we have witnessed in Brazil ever since 2013 a huge number of popular demonstrations and the biggest of them took place in 2013, the demonstrations as part of the Brazilian Spring which took more than one million people to the streets in many capitals in Brazil and mostly organised through Facebook and so forth. So 2013 was the moment people realised that they could have a little bit of power or the upper hand in shaping their own political destiny. That was an unprecedented thing because if we look at the track record of Brazil’s popular demonstrations, they have been very sparse over time. We had some of these demonstrations in the early 2000s because of the FTAA negotiations, we had some demonstrations in the 1990s that led to the impeachment of President Collar, but 2013 was different because these demonstrations, they became massive and they became frequent so that was a very important thing.
And then there is a second element adding to that, which is the beginning of Operation Car Wash which was a graft probe beginning in 2014. And Car Wash was important because the investigation led to the imprisonment of so many politicians in Brazil and destroyed the political establishment of the country. It had a very specific impact on the Worker’s Party which is the party of Lula and President Rousseff, the Social Democratic party of former President Cardoso, and also affected the PMDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement], the strongest party in Brazil in terms of seats in the parliament. So basically, the traditional party structures in Brazil had been destroyed or at least partially destroyed by the Car Wash investigation. So the combination of people in the streets which gave people the feeling of a new path to politics or a new form of politics, and the Car Wash operation which basically fostered this anti-establishment sentiment among the people, these two things combined led to the rise of anti-establishment politicians such as Bolsonaro. Now, one thing which is important to point out that Bolsonaro is far from being a typical anti-establishment politician, he is not like Trump in the sense that he was a complete outsider who jumped into politics at the right time. Bolsonaro had been a congressman for almost thirty years so he had to create this narrative of not belonging to the system, but this was fabricated to be very specific between 2016 and 2018. So I think these two structural conditions paved the way for Bolsonaro’s rise, and combining this movement with the global wave of conservative anti-globalist and populist politicians, I think that we had a very specific recipe for Bolsonaro to get elected. And of course, it doesn’t stop here in the sense that maybe within the next couple of years we are going to see regional Bolsonaros popping up not only in Brazilian states – we have many Bolsonaro’s in some of the most important states in Brazil such as Rio and Sao Paulo – but also Bolsonaros are popping up in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and so on. So that might be one of the most important implications of Bolsonaro’s rise in Brazil, the rise of similar politicians with very similar narratives across South America.
DB: Erica, last words on this question?
ER: One thing I want to point out is that I think it is too early to place any bets regarding the next few years in Brazil. The other day Bolsonaro celebrated one hundred days in office, and in those one hundred days what we have seen so far is no real central policy changes. What we have seen so far is a shift towards presidential confrontation, constant confrontation within the cabinet and congress and the judiciary and the supreme court, confrontation against the press. It is an ongoing confrontation. But this also has to do a little bit with the characteristics of populist politics as a global phenomenon, specifically when a discourse does not engage politically between adversaries and people that might have different political stances or ideologies. Politics does not make adversaries anymore, but enemies. The antagonism that is produced by populist politics is the one that makes political life really hard because it attracts permanent ongoing confrontation between people within the government and outside the government and between the different branches of government. So it begs the question: will Bolsonaro be actually able to go through the next four years or not? The question we should be asking isn’t about the next election, but rather is he going to live to see the next election, is he going to be able to remain as president until the next election?
This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.