Reflecting in Tumult: Brazil’s Democracy and Election

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Forty years ago this month, I had recently moved from Brazil to LA to start my doctoral program at UCLA’s Department of Sociology.  My scholarship from my employer, the Fundacao Joao Pinheiro, was modest but enough.  General Ernesto Geisel was the President of Brazil and the mood was for the struggle to end military rule and build democracy in Brazil.  Jimmy Carter, a former farmer and submariner, was the President of USA and the Shah of Iran had been overthrown and replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini.  Communism was still seen an imminent threat.

In the fall of 2018, Brazilians appear disappointed by their government and more importantly feel betrayed by the limitations and the results of Brazil’s democratic experience.  Fernando Collor’s presidency ended in impeachment, as did Dilma Roussef’s tenure. Scandals tainted Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) and seemed to worsen during Lula’s presidency (2002 -2010) but, nonetheless, were attenuated by his economic success and his enormous popularity.  He left office in 2010 with an 80% approval rating and was able to elect his successor President Dilma.

Through these years, Brazil has regularly held elections at all levels from municipal to state to federal, political parties of all stripes have been free to form and the press although heavily dominated by economic groups has been vigorous with a very free flow of opinions and ideas.

During these 40 years, Brazil’s population nearly doubled to 210 million and GDP went from 235 billion in 1980 to about 2 trillion in 2017 and this with the lost decade of the 1980’s with it hyperinflation which only ended with Plano Real in 1994.  Lula inherited a stable currency and a favorable international environment.  His promises and delivery of growth with redistribution resonated well throughout the country.   However, his anointed successor poorly managed the economy Brazil’s economy shrank significantly with only weak signs of recovery after her exit.

Throughout these decades of change, Brazil grew but failed to deliver in basic areas of education and infrastructure especially basic sanitation.  Brazil’s schools grew in number but declined in quality.  Sewage and clean water supply did not keep up with urbanization and demographic growth.  Similarly, Brazilians gained access to an industrialized food supply chain and became somewhat healthier while becoming obese.  Coincidence or not, this is the same period that McDonald’s and other fast food chains became predominant.

Even with the drawbacks, one might think that Brazilians would be proud of their accomplishments and supportive of a hard won democratic process.  This is not exactly the case.

Back in 1978, FHC was a leftist university professor with democratic ideals and a major advocate for change in Brazil.  Lula was a union leader about to found a political movement based on the working class in alliance with intellectuals and a portion of the middle class.  Both succeeded in being elected and reelected.

So what went wrong and why is it that Brazilians no longer trust the democratic process?  Why do they now provide substantial support to a Congressman with few accomplishments but who has positioned himself as a militaristic messiah. (Indeed his middle name is Messias and he retired as an Army captain.)

Some of the answers are straightforward.

1) Brazilians have become exasperated with crime and corruption and feel that only a “strongman” can provide a quick remedy.  The captain has captured this malaise.

2) Brazilians associate the political system with crime and corruption.  With a certain imagined nostalgia for the military past which most Brazilians cannot remember as they were too young.   Many fantasize that authoritarian governments actually controlled crime and there was little or no corruption.  Here the captain promotes and projects this false memory.

3) Brazilians seek out and vote for traditional political figures whom they perceive as being able to deliver immediate benefits as patrons.  Thus perceived personal contacts are thought to be needed for access to employment, schooling and basic improvements and even social welfare programs such as bolsa familia.  The captain states that he understand popular demands and that he can deliver.

4) Newspapers, TV, radio, religious organization and social media overwhelmingly promote and reinforce traditional mores, norms and values based on deeply rooted authoritarian and paternalistic modes of behavior.  Thus the father should earn and lead, the mother should engage in domestic activities and the children should be quiet and obedient to authority.  The captain notes his manliness exemplified by his male children noting that he only “weakened” once and produce a lone daughter.

5) Nelson Rodriguez noted the Brazilian inferiority complex (vira-lata) and this lack of confidence is often replaced by the belief in a strong, paternal, authoritarian figure.  The captain projects this image even telling his running mate, a general, to shut up.

6) Corruption derives from lack of transparency and weak institutions, which fail to inhibit misbehavior.  Moreover, both causes have distant historical roots and traditions.  Authoritarian figures are forgiven if they share in ill gain spoils or seem to get things done.  Thus the saying: “rouba mas faz”.  There is evidence of malfeasance in the captain’s past but he denies it. The popular news magazine Veja just published the records of his divorce where the wife gave numerous examples of theft or fraud.  It is ironic though that she has now recanted as she is running for office using the ex-husband’s name to piggy back on his popularity.

7) All in all, top down rigid power structures in a situation of gross inequality mediated by patriarchs and bosses has created a society of interlocking interdependency.  Power, resources and favors are mediated in real and imagined personal relationships as illustrated by the tradition of the “jeitinho” as a way of attenuating unequal and skewed social relations.  Each party is expected to know and assume its place in society and this placing is defined by both subjective and objective categorizations of dress, body language, race, color, hair and a never-ending gradation of physical and psychological factors.  The captain denigrates homosexuals, blacks, feminist and those who self-identify as minorities. He proclaims they must follow the majority and “accept” their subordination.

8) The lack of access to basics: equal rights, infrastructure, and education perpetuates the system and predisposes large groups of the Brazilian populace to an authoritarian temptation where a single figure appears to embody a promise of progress, dignity and security.  His vision is separate and unequal with each group sorted by gender, race, class, religion, wealth and attainment  When this occurs, it is obvious to Brazilians that the question: “Voce sabe com quem esta falando?” makes total sense.  The captain has always been quick to play the macho, powerful, self-righteous and self-serving white man identity card.  His family basically advocates shoot the black guy first and ask questions later.

These are the factors that contribute to the success of the “myth” and justify why people are now prepared to vote for the army captain in spite of his disdain for women, his racism, his homophobia, his violence, his lack of good manners and his questionable morality.  All of the negatives can be denied because he suddenly embodies a prototype that Brazilians clearly see in themselves.  Brazilians lack power, feel impotent, want change and see the captain as embodying their desire and capable of change.  Much like the Trump supporters in the US, Brazilians can now channel their unconfessed political incorrectness for all to see without shame.

Some things don’t change even after generations.  Messianismo simply reoccurs.


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