How much has Bolsonaro changed Brazil’s role in the world?
By David Sogge* – Open Democracy
The far-Right leader’s status as an international pariah masks some important points of continuity
He may be welcome in Gulf sheikdoms, where religious faith and the sale of Brazilian military products, foodstuffs and even football clubs like Palmeiras are topics of discussion. But elsewhere in the world, Jair Bolsonaro is shunned.
The US president publicly avoids him. Hollywood celebrities give him the thumbs down. Europe’s top politicians not only snub Bolsonaro, they roll out the red carpet for Lula, his political nemesis. In diplomatic arenas, Bolsonaro is radioactive.
But what led to this political equivalent of a nuclear accident? Outside Brazil that question is seldom probed. Yet the build-up to this rupture developed over many years. ‘Yesterday’ looms large over ‘today’. But let’s first consider some views of Brazil from abroad in the past few years.
A break with the past
For many outsiders, Bolsonaro and his gun-slinging, bible-waving associates appeared without warning. They were party-crashers in a vibrant, colourful democracy doing its best to cope with troubles at home and playing its role abroad in benign and neutral ways. To the ‘international community’, Bolsonarismo is odious. After all, he fulminates routinely about conclaves of global elites and cosmopolitan bureaucrats with their multilateral (hence crypto-socialist) arrangements to run the world. He threatened to withdraw Brazil from the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accords. More concretely, he has pulled Brazil out of the UN-endorsed Global Compact for Migration, and from UNASUR, the union of South American nations.
Particular alarm is caused by domestic policies that have effects abroad, notably his horrifying indifference to Brazilians’ suffering and death from COVID-19 and his green light to cut and burn Amazonian forests. What gets less overseas attention is the hard-handed bullying of domestic opponents. The chief targets are emancipatory social movements, many of them networked with sympathisers in Europe and North America. His police and goons have hammered defenders of small farmers, landless people and environmental activists. Organised labour, gender justice campaigners, minority groups and asylum seekers are all routinely vilified. Academics, think tanks and legal professionals have also faced attack.
Yet responses abroad have been mixed. Readers of official US government reviews of human rights practices in Brazil will find little about these and other assaults on constitutional rights, or on the constitution itself. However, readers of the Financial Times and Le Monde can be left with few doubts: Brazil’s society and democracy are in trouble.
Why did this happen?
The political earthquake embodied by Bolsonaro surprised many outsiders. But subterranean tensions and fissures have long been detectable. In retrospect, Bolsonaro was an accident waiting to happen. Numerous activists, journalists and scholars in Brazil had long been aware of the risks, but with major exceptions such as Perry Anderson, foreign observers largely ignored them.
How were the risks created? To my mind, decisive processes began with the presidency of Collor de Mello in 1990 and gained traction thereafter. Large corporate actors, allied with certain classes and interest groups, fought for and achieved many of their neoliberal policy aims. Their pro-market project succeeded with backing from sectors of capital abroad, including help from strategic heights in Wall Street and the International Monetary Fund. Key economic policies may appear largely ‘home-made’ and may have included mildly redistributive measures for social stability and electoral advantage, such as a minimum wage or cash transfers. But for three decades policies have not deviated from orthodoxies stipulated at global levels.
These have reinforced Brazil’s extraverted orientation. Mineral and agribusiness exports have boomed, turbocharged by demand from China. Privatisation and tax breaks help lure in foreign capital. Especially welcome are wheeler-dealers in unproductive, ‘financialised’ capital. They buy, strip and re-sell assets such as privatised public services for water or healthcare. What were once citizen entitlements thus become commodities that people must pay for – if they have the money. Bolsonaro did not introduce these hard-edged measures, but his government is helping them gain momentum.
And outcomes for ordinary citizens? Impacts are complex and continue to pile up, but they include de-industrialisation and weak public spending for infrastructure, productivity gains, better health and education and reduced social insecurity. Time and again since 1990, Brazil’s leaders have refused, or been unable to pursue those kinds of positive measures such as equitable investments in public services and domestic industrial policies – even when influential outsiders, including IMF economists, have conceded that measures to promote public goods can put the economy on a more equitable and therefore more dynamic footing. But such advice seems lost on Bolsonaro’s team, which adheres to old imported orthodoxies and continues to await salvation in the second coming of foreign investment.
Among the many pernicious outcomes are, for Brazil’s middle strata, stagnant incomes and declining prospects – and for semi-proletarian and unregistered workers, even more desperate struggles for livelihoods. In both these strata, people have grown anxious and angry. As voters, they are up for grabs – for the Left, but especially for the Right. They may have voted for Lula in 2002 and 2006, but by 2018, pulled and pushed by the factors just noted, most swung to Bolsonaro.
How long will this last?
When it comes to foreign relations, Brazil’s ‘yesterdays’ have also persisted today. Its aid for Latin America and Africa and to international organizations continues, though not nearly at levels reached in the boom years of Lula’s globalismo, from 2003 to 2013. As with most other donors, Brazil used most of its aid to help its corporations penetrate new territories. In Angola and Mozambique, for example, infrastructure and mining giants Odebrecht and Vale became major players thanks to Lula’s energetic South-South diplomacy and employment of Brazil’s state-owned development bank BNDES as a vehicle for foreign assistance.
As for multilateralism, Bolsonaro has denounced it. But as the Dutch say, the soup is never eaten as hot as when it’s served up. Indeed, his government shows rising enthusiasm for key multilateral bodies. It is working hard to gain Brazil’s admission into that old elite conclave of the OECD. In Washington DC, Bolsonaro’s finance minister urged the IMF to intervene more vigorously in the affairs of member countries. For Bolsonaro the World Trade Organization should be strengthened and cooperation among the BRICS stepped up. He may denounce the United Nations, but his government continues, and has indeed intensified engagement with various UN agencies.
Might all the hand-wringing about Bolsonaro’s repudiation of multilateralism be exaggerated? It’s true that his government, angry about IMF public pessimism over Brazil’s economic prospects, asked that the IMF close its offices in Brazil in 2022. But in many other ways Brazil continues to follow orthodoxies of the established multilateral order.
Brazil’s relations with the Pentagon and US arms producers, for instance, have never been seriously in jeopardy. Under Lula, military ties were further formalised and expanded. Today relations are better than ever; in 2019 Trump granted Brazil the formal status of “major non-NATO ally”, thereby allowing it to buy American stuff and bid on some US defence contracts. Brazilian corporations continue to export arms, sometimes in violation of the International Arms Trade Treaty, which – against then-Congressman Bolsonaro’s objections – Brazil ratified in 2018.
Regarding China, on the other hand, Bolsonaro has put relations with Washington to the test. On becoming president, he abandoned his earlier anti-China talk. Complying with agribusiness and other corporate interests he took up Brazil’s trade and investment ties with China as matters of priority. Today, as yesterday, Brazil’s foreign ministry must seek a balance between domestic elite interests (together sometimes with those of its neighbours) and the interests of powerful elites that steer policies in Washington. Faced with the pursuit of autonomy, and the exaltation of South-South linkages, Western diplomats have derided Brazi for fence-sitting when matters of importance to Western powers are at stake. As US drum-beating over China intensifies, with or without Bolsonaro Brazil will face pressure to fall into line.
Last of all, Brazil’s soft power is evident in many parts of the world, including Europe. Here, in part thanks to a vibrant Brazilian diaspora, people flock to hear choros and samba, to devour feijoada, to marvel at Sebastião Salgado’s photography, and to enjoy Brazilian films and literature. Yet Brazil also exhibits another kind of soft power. Articulated by such figures as Paulo Freire and João Pedro Stédile of the MST, the landless workers’ movement, these are ideas and practices to promote power from below.
Brazilian movements, activist organisations and municipal leaders have for decades shown enormous creativity and courage in testing and producing these ideas. Practices like ‘participatory budgeting’ may not work perfectly, but they strike me as much more beneficial exports than soy, arms, hardwood and oil.
This article was originally published under another title by CartaCapital and republished with permission. Read the original in Portughese here.
* David Sogge works as an independent scholar based in Amsterdam, where he is affiliated with the Transnational Institute. He writes for OpenDemocracy and many other publications. Further observations on aid appear in his book ‘Give and Take. What’s the Matter with Foreign Aid’ and in articles such as ‘Donors Helping Themselves.’