Brazilian politician Jair Bolsonaro, who has been compared to Donald Trump, just finished a visit to the United States, which was cut short as he canceled an appearance at George Washington University in Washington D.C. He is currently polling second in Brazil’s 2018 presidential race.
The cancellation was not surprising (and there were some others in New York City). A letter signed by dozens of academics argued that his appearance at the university “would be helping a racist, sexist, homophobic right-wing extremist to achieve international recognition and solidify the political viability of his candidacy.” This was apparently the purpose of his trip. But opposition and protests here made it clear that he would have to answer questions at GWU that nobody would want to answer.
Bolsonaro greatly upped his international notoriety when he cast his vote in April last year in favor of impeaching then-president Dilma Rousseff. He announced that his vote was dedicated to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, an army colonel who ran an infamous torture center under the dictatorship. Dilma herself was tortured by Ustra’s unit.
His racist, misogynist and anti-gay statements have been so violently over-the-top that the comparison to Trump – whom Bolsonaro sees as a role model – is almost unfair to Trump. He told a female fellow member of Congress that he would not rape her because she “did not merit it.” He wants police to be able to kill more people, in a country where extra-judicial executions by police – especially of Afro-Brazilians – are already a serious problem. He claims that the 1964-85 military dictatorship was not a dictatorship.
How does someone like this even have a chance at the presidency of Brazil?
Like Trump, his rise has had help from much of the Brazilian media; and like Trump, this is paradoxical because most of the big media outlets that have helped him don’t like him at all.
But his only hope at present is that the country’s politicized judiciary – with help from the media – may prevent the country’s most popular leader from running. Former president Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party is currently polling at 36 percent, with Bolsonaro a distant second at 16 percent. A judge who has repeatedly demonstrated his animosity toward Lula convicted him in July for allegedly accepting an apartment as a bribe from a big construction company. However, neither Lula nor his wife ever stayed in the apartment, nor did they sign any document indicating ownership. The evidence for the “bribe” came from an executive who had his sentence reduced from 16 to 2 years in exchange for his testimony.
There is one part of Bolsonaro’s dictatorship nostalgia that his opponents will have to deal with. In an interview with Bloomberg news last week he said that young Brazilians should “talk to their grandparents about how that period [of the dictatorship] was and how it is today.”
During the dictatorship (1964-85) the income of the average Brazilian more than doubled, with GDP per person growing 117 percent (3.8 percent annually on average). All of this growth was before 1980, and Brazil was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Despite terrible inequality, most Brazilians’ living standards rose very rapidly.
But growth collapsed in the 1980s. From the end of the dictatorship in 1985 to 2015, GDP per person has grown at only about 1.1 percent annually.
And the vast majority of this growth took place after 2003, when Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party became president. By 2012, poverty had been reduced by 55 percent and extreme poverty by 65 percent. But the deep recession that began in 2015 – from which the economy is finally just emerging – reversed some of these gains. This allowed the deeply corrupt politicians of the Brazilian right to topple Dilma Rousseff in a “parliamentary coup.”
The lesson is not that Brazil needs a dictatorship, but rather that for democracy to take hold in Brazil, the next progressive government must advance farther from the failed neoliberal policies that began in the 1980s and 1990s.
Brazil’s democracy was dealt a devastating blow when Dilma was impeached and removed from office for something that a federal prosecutor concluded was not even a crime. The sentencing of Lula made it even clearer that Brazil’s traditional corrupt elite was willing to throw the rule of law and electoral democracy under the bus in order to retake power from the Workers’ Party, which they had never accepted as a member of their club.
But can they get away with it? And are they willing to risk that part of the price may be the international disgrace and humiliation that Americans have suffered under a Trump presidency?