Bolsonaro: The Good and The Bad


It is not easy to build and sustain democracy.  The process requires commitment, resource mobilization and participation.  Brazil’s democracy has not yet matured, nor can it be taken for granted.  Still since the end of military governments in 1985 and direct elections, the movement has been halting but generally in the right direction.  From 1994 to 2018, elected Presidents were either from the left of center (some say “neo-liberal”) or from the left leaning PT (Worker’s Party).

Jair Bolsonaro, a long term Congressman, with a history of switching parties and a limited record, broke this cycle on an anti-crime, anti-corruption campaign which demonized the left and the prior administrations.  The basic question that the new president’s election raises is the durability of Brazil’s nascent democracy.  Bolsonaro has a military background, favored dictatorship, openly supported torture and has never been friendly or open to identity type politics advocating support for minorities whether they be racial, ethnic or identity related.  Many say he threatens Brazilian democracy.

The 57 million people who voted for Bolsonaro were willing to run this risk and accept his conservative and authoritarian nature based mainly on his promise to reduce crime and end corruption. So what are the good things and the bad things that have transpired under his watch and can Brazil’s institutions brake bad tendencies and survive?

Let’s start with the good.

  • Bolsonaro is gradually recognizing that he cannot dictate as much as he would like to. Thus, he is having to negotiate and, even horse trade, with Congress.  This is typical and happens in democracies even though the President might call this “fake news”.
  • The Ministry of Infra-structure is making progress through the use of PPPs in the construction of roads and ports.
  • The Mercosur-EU trade agreement has been signed after over 20 years of negotiations but it still has to ratified.
  • Against strong odds and opposition, the pension reform has passed the lower House of Congress and is likely to be ratified by the Senate.
  • Bolsonaro promised a reduction in criminality and homicide rates have apparently fallen at least in Rio.
  • The President reduced the number of Ministries from 29 to 22 and thousands of contracts have been rescinded.
  • Bolsonaro has reduced or eliminated the mandatory contributions in support of unions.
  • Visas are no longer required for tourists coming from the US, Canada, Japan and Australia.
  • The current administration approved the 13th month payment for Bolsa Familia, Brazil’s main income transfer program.
  • The President has voiced support for joining the OECD and received a verbal pat from President Trump, however the process will take a minimum of 5 to 6 years.
  • Bolsonaro has managed to keep Paulo Guedes in place as his Super Minister of Finance and the Bovespa has reached recorded highs.
  • Brazil’s energy sector continues to expand production offshore and Bolsonaro generally supports privatization in distribution favoring more foreign investment which Brazil needs to expeditiously exploit oil and gas.

Now let’s take a look at the bad.

  • President Bolsonaro has not delivered economic growth or significantly reduced employment.
  • The current administration has dismantled or neglected mechanisms for protecting the Amazon. Indeed, Bolsonaro rejects the preservation and extension of land reserves and parks for native population, favoring instead the opening of lands to mining and farming.  Deforestation has once again increased in rate and scope while the government has imposed controls on the release of information.
  • Bolsonaro has substantially reduced investments in education and health. Federal universities have been targeted as ideological hotbeds of leftism and left with stagnant or declining budgets.
  • Brazil’s foreign policy establishment has been redirected to alignment with the US and has given up on an “independent” and South – South alignment that the previous administrations sought to create. It remains to be seen if Brazil will benefit by alienating China, its largest trading partner.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture has eliminated or reversed its policy on restricting or reducing the use of insecticides and toxic products so Brazilians are concerned that their food chain is increasingly contaminated.
  • Bolsonaro and his immediate family participate in and avidly promote nationalistic and nativist policies. The President intends to nominate his son, Eduardo, a staunch supporter of Trump, as Ambassador to the US although he has no diplomatic experience or background.
  • The President, in his speech and public activities is a loose cannon. He has posted a pornographic video, made many likely illegal statements and vile accusations and generally has reduced the dignity of the presidency.
  • Under the new administration, the police forces have gained “carte blanche” and the number of executions and assassinations by men in uniform have increased dramatically. At the same time, informal militias which reportedly are associated with the Bolsonaros continue to expand the scope of their activities.  Gang related violence in prison once again erupted just this week nearly 60 executions in a riot at a prison in the Amazon region.
  • President Bolsonaro exudes self-righteous intolerance to any and all who would disagree or contest his positions thus setting an adversarial tone that is detrimental to dialog and exchange. His approach has fostered increasing polarization, making it difficult for anyone seeking middle ground.
  • Although Bolsonaro campaigned and was elected on his anti-corruption promises, he, his family, and members of his administration have been ensnared in nefarious activities large and small. The faces have changed but the corruption prevails.
  • Bolsonaro’s choice for Minister of Justice, Sergio Moro, was a national hero for his role as the judge who confronted corruption and jailed the elite including for President Lula. Now Moro is tainted by purloined hacks of his unethical and perhaps illegal communications with prosecutors.  This connivance certainly puts the tarnish on a once super hero and mainstay of the Bolsonaro administration.
  • Bolsonaro has threatened investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald with “a little jail time here” for his release of the compromising communications between Moro and prosecutors. By extension, the President is threatening press freedom and the right to information and open communication.
  • Like Trump, Bolsonaro uses social media extensively to express his contempt, dislikes and prejudices as well as promote his policies and inclinations. Unlike Trump, he does not have a docile political party with a majority in the Senate.  Bolsonaro’s political party (PSL) is a loose coalition of self-interested individuals seeking advantage from proximity to power.  To date, Bolsonaro has been ineffective in controlling his own party, and, much less, the whole Congress.

This Santa Claus listing of deeds and misdeeds could be more extensive and detailed.  However, the major concern must be can Brazil continue to develop its institutions?  This is more crucial than the question: Can Brazil’s economy grow?  Confidence in the rules of the game and predictability are minimum requirements for investment which, in turn, is essential for growth.  Bolsonaro is a transitory phenomenon and while, his administration undoubtedly impacts public administration and the economy, the deeper issue is the resiliency of Brazilian civil society and how people either acquiesce or come to demand their basic needs in terms of education, health, sanitation, security and employment.

For years Captain Bolsonaro was an outlier, so much so that he was judged a “bad soldier” and ousted from the military.  In the age of Trump, Boris Johnson, Orlan, Dutarte and others, there is a risk of normalization of poor behavior.  However, my expectation and hope is that the pendulum will gradually swing back just because the extremes are economically inept in the long run.  And Brazil can ill afford another decade of stagnation and decline.  We will see.


Brazil: The Long Run


It is curious how we demand answers, service and satisfaction.  In the US, things are fast paced and fairly efficient.  In Brazil and particularly in the daily news and in the social media, things too are immediate.  People want solutions but the cascade of events, some random and some predictable, always brings new problems before the old ones are remediated.  Looking back over the past year, we see a choppy ocean with froth and white caps.  It seems that the surface may never calm.  If we look below the surface, however, we might see a slower and less agitated situation.  Everything changes and nothing changes.

The basic problems of economic stagnation, inequality, an ineffective educational system and basic institutional weakness continue to hold the country back.  The question is why can’t Brazil address these fundamentals?  Since civilians wrested power back from the military in 1985, the country has had a rural oligarch (Sarney), a right wing populist (Collor), a left leaning moderate (Itamar Franco), a Social-Democrat (Fernando Henrique Cardoso), a Socialist (Lula), a leftist technocrat (Dilma), a traditional center-right politician (Temer) and finally a right-wing retired Army Captain (Bolsonaro) as Presidents.  All promised change and, undeniably, there has been some progress.  The 1988 Constitution came under Sarney.  Collor promoted an economic opening.  Itamar and Fernando Henrique stabilized the currency ending hyperinflation.  Lula benefited from a favorable expansion in foreign trade (mainly with China), economic growth and some improvement in distribution.  Dilma and Temer, while political opposites, inherited and worsened a declining economy and a political and moral crisis resulting in the election of Bolsonaro who channeled discontent into votes but thus far has failed to deliver growth or maintain popularity.

Through 8 presidential secessions, 2 impeachments, regular elections at all levels, the doubling of the population from 100 million to over 200 million, some 8 World Cups of which Brazil only won 2 in the period, the country has survived but only with a remnant of satisfaction and a huge growth of frustration and political polarization.  The complaints about crime and corruption continue through all with politicians and the political system receiving the blame.

Undoubtedly corruption is rife.  Street crime and organized criminal enterprises have expanded and violence and thievery comingle with individual politicians and have a foothold in politics and the market.  Over the last 20 years, the population has become increasingly skeptical and distrustful of all things political as the press and social media revealed the ever-increasing scale of malfeasance.  Unfortunately, most fail to recognize that corruption and crime are really symptoms while the real causes are the lack of transparency, uneven acceptance or blatant bending of the rules of the game and selective enforcement of the law by policing authorities.   These three factors collectively portray institutional immaturity and weakness.  While Brazil’s media are dynamic, incisive and investigative, oligopolistic groups also largely control them.  Rede Globo commands the lion’s share of broadcast media.  Similarly, newspapers and magazines are consolidated in the hands of relatively small groups.

As people recognize this concentration, they suspect the promotion of special interests.  Likewise, the Brazilian justice system is notoriously slow, inefficient and generally perceived as favoring the powerful.  The maid of color is condemned to years in prison for stealing a pound of butter while the rich and powerful kill and pillage with impunity.  Similarly, the enforcers or the police are also viewed as suspect and in Rio; for instance, the police and milicianos can barely be distinguished or separated.  Again, this is the breakdown or the lack of institutional maturity.  Without a functioning police power, it is hard to impede petty crime and much more difficult to discover and breakdown organized criminal endeavor embedded in the power structure.

Looking at Brazil from this perspective, it is positive to see the progress that has been made in bringing, over the past 10 to 15 years, major politicians and their accomplices to justice.  Yes, there is institutional improvement but it is slow and disproportionate to the challenges.  And again the enforcement and application of the law appears to be uneven.  Brazilians still believe the old saying: “Para meus amigos tudo, para os inimigos a lei.” (For my friends everything, for my enemies, the law.)

The public clamor in support and then in withdrawing support from “populist saviors” or “salvadores da patria” manifests the weaknesses that sufficiently sharp politicos attempt to use to their advantage.  While President Bolsonaro’s campaign against crime and corruption was sufficient for his election, it is proving to be not enough to guarantee governance or even a coherent program.  To date, albeit it is only 6 months, his accomplishments are meager, fortuitous and contradictory.  Meager as exemplified by the removal of radar from the highways, and fortuitous and contradictory as the closing of the Mercosur – EU agreement reveal.  The European Union deal has been in negotiation for over 20 years and Macri’s Argentine government wanted it and need it more than Brazil.  It also contradicts the philosophical guidance promoted by Itamaraty’s current leader, Ernesto Araujo.  Still it is an achievement.

Just as Trump is constantly plagued by his past of womanizing and abuse, Brazil’s polity and openness also brings comeuppance.  Currently, Brazil’s hero of the day, crusading judge and now Justice Minister Sergio Moro, is being tarnished by leaked or hacked communications which purportedly showing him conniving with prosecutors to guarantee Lula’s imprisonment and even trying to illegally interfere in the affairs of Venezuela.  Lava-Jato (Car Wash) has become Vaza-Jato (Empty Wash) at the risk of reversing the supposed gains against corruption.  While it is apparent from the published purloined messages that the judge overstepped all bounds of propriety, he denies all wrongdoing.  In the end, this new scandal may ultimately strengthen respect for and adherence to judicial procedure, but in the short run, the messages and ongoing debate only generate more polarization.  In Brazil, it is generally accepted that the story is more important than the facts and different competing stories separate those who see Moro as a hero and those who see him as a villain.

As in war, truth is the first casualty in Brazil’s tumultuous and conflicted setting.  It is important to question, to try to be informed, to participate and to be present.  Institutional improvement will come as civil society makes its demands and as these demands crystallize and become more coherent.  Democracy is still young in Brazil and it may not even survive. But Brazil is overdue for improvement and economic growth and the reason the country is not growing is because the people do not have confidence in tomorrow as they have to focus on surviving today.  Turning inward is a private solution that many Brazilians will take.  Enjoy the beach, the beer, the holidays but the seeds for improving are there and when the individual alternatives such as emigration become too onerous, and as people and resources create opportunity, education, equality and access will gradually improve, in spite of the obstacles.  Brasil tem jeito, pelo menos ate provar ao contrario.