Come January 1, 2019, Brazil, the world’s fifth-largest country, will be governed by Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing reactionary. For decades, Bolsonaro has espoused sympathy for that country’s brutal, 20th century military dictatorship while showing open contempt for women, Afro-descendant Brazilians, members of the LGBTQ community, and basic democratic norms. Needless to say, this will have far reaching negative implications for Brazil, the Americas, and the world at large. To understand the implications of Bolsonaro’s rise, however, it is important to understand the factors behind it.
The ingredients of Bolsonaro’s ascent
Coinciding with a global reactionary wave hitting many Western democracies, a volatile mix of dynamics inside Brazil—a severe economic downturn, a profoundly discredited governing class, and widespread criminal violence—cleared the way for Bolsonaro’s rise after decades spent as a fringe politician.
Brazil’s once-booming economy is still reeling since the bottom fell out of its commodities-fueled boom in 2014. Its economy has contracted by nearly 9 percent; more than 12 million Brazilians remain officially out of work; and its middle class has shrunk after a decade of expansion.
At the same time, Brazil’s political and economic elites have been discredited across the board by the Lava Jato corruption investigation. A tireless group of independent judges and prosecutors have successfully jailed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, or Lula, on fraud charges as well as some of the country’s most prominent economic actors. Lula’s successor, former President Dilma Rousseff, was removed from office by Brazil’s Congress in 2016. Her former vice president, Michel Temer—also implicated in corruption—will pass the presidential sash to Bolsonaro with a single-digit approval rating.
As Brazil’s economy and elites have withered, criminal violence has flourished. Last year, Brazil experienced 63,880 homicides, its most ever, leaving it with the world’s seventh-highest homicide rate. One in 10 global gun-related homicides claimed a life in Brazil in 2017.
With so many issues of concern in Brazil and so little reason to believe that those elected will address them, it’s no wonder democracy’s appeal has waned. Only 32 percent of Brazilians saw democracy as the preferred form of government in 2016, down 22 points from 2015. In 2017, only 8 percent saw representative democracy as a “very good” form of government compared to the 33 percent who thought it was a bad form and the 27 percent (Latin America’s highest level) who expressed support for autocracy.
Bolsonaro’s policies and their potential impacts
Against this backdrop, with 55 percent of the vote in the October 28 presidential runoff, Bolsonaro will take office with a mandate to enact his much-promised crackdown on crime and violence. In a country where state security forces were already responsible for 5,000 deaths last year and with a new president who espouses that the “only good criminal is a dead criminal,” things do not bode well for the rule of law and respect for human rights.
The practical effect across the Americas of Bolsonaro’s arrival at Brazil’s White House, the Planalto, is less clear. On the most pressing regional challenge—Venezuela’s refugee, humanitarian, and democratic crises—Bolsonaro has promised to break diplomatic ties and support stricter sanctions against Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Although he will sharpen Brazil’s tone, it is unclear what impact that will have on efforts by more reasonable, regional right-of-center governments to generate more pressure on the Venezuelan regime. Bolsonaro’s anti-immigrant rhetoric will also likely heighten tensions in Brazil as the Venezuelan refugee crisis continues to unfold.
Although Bolsonaro will likely begin his tenure with nods to privatization, he is unlikely to break significantly with Brazil’s traditional protectionist economic policies. Despite campaigning as a free-trader, Bolsonaro has shown skepticism of regional integration efforts in the Americas and has long-championed Brazilian protectionism.
In terms of climate policy, Bolsonaro has threatened to withdraw Brazil from the Paris climate agreement, which would be a significant setback given Brazil’s fundamental role in any climate solution, although he seemingly backtracked on this threat in the closing days of the campaign. Even so, his close ties to large-scale agriculture producers represent a significant threat to Amazonian preservation efforts, with potentially significant global climate impacts.
Bolsonaro has talked tough on China and the need to reformulate the Brazil-China commercial ties. Whether he can turn that talk into reality remains to be seen.
It is also clear that a reactionary like Bolsonaro will not champion democracy and human rights despite the desperate need for global leadership on both fronts and add another autocratic voice on the global stage at the worst possible time.
With the United States, Bolsonaro, who embraced his role as “Brazil’s Trump” despite Trump’s dismal approval rating in Brazil, will seek close political ties. It is doubtful, however, that such ties will transcend rhetoric since Bolsonaro’s approach to economic policy and both countries’ competing interests as agricultural superpowers are unlikely to leave much room for deepened economic and commercial ties.
All told, Brazil’s sharp turn to the right—and, perhaps, to the worst elements of its military dictatorship—leaves many unanswered questions but plenty of reasons for concern. Under a President Bolsonaro, basic democratic norms and the rule of law will be put to the test in the coming years as will Brazil’s constructive role in the Americas and around the world.
Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.