Only the Left Can Save Brazil From Bolsonaro in 2021

by Benjamin Fogel

21 December 2020

a protester in Brazil wags their finger while wearing a bandana and face visor

2020 was a rough year for Brazil. Not only did it record the second-highest number of Covid-19 deaths in the world (181,000 at the time of writing), the Amazon and Pantanal biomes were devastated by fires and deforestation, while unemployment hit an all-time high of 14.6%. All the while, Brazil’s extreme-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been using the crisis to escalate his assault on democracy.

Critics of the government – in particular journalists, activists, environmentalists, LGBTQ+ groups, indigenous and Black Brazilians and trade unionists – are under constant attack from the government and its supporters, ranging from harassment to death threats to actual violence. Political violence, in particular, is increasing: according to The Brazilian Report, 15 candidates, pre-candidates and party officials were murdered between 1 September and 4 November, adding to the 27 assassinations and attempted assassinations recorded between January and September. 

Police killings have also been rising across the country – Brazilian police killed 1,810 people in 2019, the highest number since records began – while increasingly powerful paramilitary mafias composed of ex and off-duty cops combine death squad politics with lucrative extortion schemes. All this is unsurprising when you consider that Bolsonaro’s main policy has been to champion extrajudicial killing as the solution to Brazil’s problems. 

For years as the country descended into political and economic crisis, respectable commentators have insisted Brazil’s institutions were working. Yet their inability to keep Bolsonaro in check has been a defining feature of his government: the president reportedly came close to sending troops to shut down the supreme court in April. He has called on his supporters to take to the streets to protest against quarantine rules, opposition state governors, the supreme court and Congress. The government has deliberately undermined the country’s fight against Covid-19 at every turn and adopted a strategy aimed at intensifying the crisis.

To add to these woes, the opposition remains divided. Many leading figures – like São Paulo governor João Doria, who backed Bolsonaro in 2018 – have since fallen out with the president, and rebranded themselves the “moderate” or “centrist” opposition, despite sharing much of the same social and economic agenda.

It isn’t all bad, though. Last month’s local elections saw positive signs for the Brazilian left, as the Socialism and Liberty party (PSOL)’s Guilherme Boulos made it to the second round of the São Paulo mayoral election, while Manuela d’Avila of the Communist party reached the second round in Porto Alegre. In Belém, the capital of the northern state of Pará, PSOL’s Edmilson Rodrigues triumphed. As well as these decent showings in key cities, a number of young leftist city councillors were elected across the country, including record numbers of trans, women and Black candidates. 

While the Workers’ party (PT) was unable to win a single state capital for the first time in its history, it remains by far the largest leftwing party in the country and, going forward, must be involved in any broad democratic front. The country still has some of the strongest social movements in the world, along with a weakened but still millions-strong trade union movement. Brazil’s left is alive and kicking, despite the blows it has sustained.

Bolsonaro proved unable to significantly influence November’s local elections; only two of the candidates he endorsed were elected, while the candidates he supported in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo lost decisively. The real winners of the election proved to be Brazil’s traditional rent-seeking conservative parties known as the “centrão” (big centre), who trace their origins to the party of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964-85. This coalition of misleadingly named parties – like the Social Democratic party and the Progressive party – sell their support to the highest bidder, and now control around two-thirds of Brazil’s 5,000 municipalities. 

Bolsonaro has made it this far by leveraging Brazil’s many crises to strengthen his position and radicalise his base. Covid-19 was no exception: from the moment Covid-19 arrived in Brazil, he sabotaged the country’s public health response, withholding federal money from states governed by opposition parties; calling his supporters to the streets against lockdowns; promoting snake oil cures; and forcing out two health ministers for trying to actually contain the pandemic. He then handed over control of the Ministry of Health to the military, appointing a general who would approve of his promotion of snake oil coronavirus remedies in May.

At the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro’s popularity took a beating, as its president engaged in an open sabotage campaign against Brazil’s attempts to control the pandemic. However, Bolsonaro has been able to capitalise on the crisis in large part thanks to an emergency Covid-19 grant of R$600, or around £90, per month. The grant, a de-facto universal basic income scheme and the largest cash-transfer in the country’s history, has reached as many as 67 million Brazilians, and increased Bolsonaro’s support among sections of the working class – despite the fact it was passed through Congress by the opposition, and the president initially opposed it. So successful was the grant that it actually reduced overall poverty rates in the country, and even increased income levels in some of its poorest regions.

The grant has also necessarily increased the public debt, leading Bolsonaro’s ultra-libertarian finance minister Paulo Guedes to slash it in half. Guedes now seeks to end the scheme as soon as possible – rather than, for example, raising taxes on Brazil’s notoriously tax-averse elite. If the grant is ended as it is scheduled to in January, Bolsonaro’s popularity will likely nosedive. Fights over public spending will be central to the future of this government, as Bolsonaro is caught between the centrão – who usually demand increases in public spending for the purposes of embezzlement – and neoliberals’ demands for fresh rounds of austerity in 2021.

To make matters worse, the government has already begun to play political games with the vaccine by attempting to block its roll-out to those considered rivals of the president – plans that Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s paper of record, has described as “homicidal negligence”. Bolsonaro himself is anti-vax curious, to the point of declaring that he won’t take a vaccine.

For the moment, Bolsonaro is in a relatively powerful position. He may not have a political party – he quit the Social Liberal party (PSL) when he could not wrest control of the party coffers – but he has the support of the centrão and military – more than 6,000 active or reserve members of the military hold government positions, with more in the cabinet than during the country’s military dictatorship – along with Brazil’s powerful evangelical preachers. These traditional bases of authoritarianism in Brazil have been behind the president even as he has presided over the deaths of nearly 200,000 Brazilians. Thanks to the centrão, he is safe for now from the over 30 impeachment requests sitting on the desk of Congress president Rodrigo Maia. 

Brazil has known only two periods of mass democracy in its history: from 1945-1964, and 1985 to the present day. Authoritarianism has been the norm in Brazil and in this respect, the election of a president openly hostile to democracy represents the restoration of the status quo. 

What differentiates Bolsonaro’s government from traditional Brazilian authoritarianism, however, is a strategy of “dis-government” and manufactured chaos. The government aims to destroy many of its key functions – including oversight, service delivery and regulation – for the benefits of capital. This means appointing a minister of the environment who supports using a pandemic to “run the herd” through the Amazon, and a minister of education committed to destroying public education. 

Investing in institutional chaos has proved a winning strategy so far: Bolsonaro has managed to finish 2020 with his highest ever approval ratings. Unlike other authoritarians such as Modi, Bolsonaro lacks a truly organised social base, and a political party and seems to have lost the political Midas touch that allowed unknowns to get elected purely through his endorsement. While he has been able to capitalise on the Covid-19 crisis in terms of short-term popularity, Bolsonaro ultimately owes his future to the continued support of other forces in Brazilian politics.

Bolsonaro was elected on an anti-corruption platform, though his supposed crusade is now officially over – in his words, “there is no more corruption in government”. Despite the key role it played in his election, Lava Jato (Car Wash), the largest corruption investigation in the country’s history, has been defanged and Bolsonaro is openly using state intelligence and the attorney general’s office to shield his large adult sons from corruption probes. His eldest, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, faces charges of embezzlement, money laundering and criminal association related to the Bolsonaro clan’s deep ties to Rio’s paramilitary mafias.

Nor is Flávio the only one in Bolsonaro’s orbit who has been similarly accused. Having recently quit the government, Sergio Moro, the man more responsible than anyone else for Bolsonaro’s ascent – he jailed Lula da Silva, who was leading the polls in 2018, clearing Bolsonaro’s path to power – is now working for a consulting firm that counts Odebrecht, the company at the centre of the Lava Jato investigation, among its clients. 

Bolsonaro might have lost a friend in the White House, but Joe Biden won’t save Brazilian democracy. In fact, his administration already seems intent on restarting Latin America’s “anti-corruption crusade” that removed a centre-left government from office and led directly to Bolsonaro’s election. 

If things continue – indeed, even if Bolsonaro loses to a “moderate” in 2022 – the future of Brazil is a managed democracy, one in which social and economic policy is subject to virtually no democratic control, and where those who step out of line are met with fierce repression. Reversing Brazil’s decline into authoritarianism will only come one way: through a resurgence of the left.

Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a contributing editor for Jacobin.

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