Brazil under Bolsonaro: (inter)national re-positioning
Analyse Geopolitiek & Wereldorde

Brazil under Bolsonaro: (inter)national re-positioning

13 Feb 2019 - 14:14
Photo: Pixabay
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The rise to power of Jair Messiah Bolsonaro in Brazil is much more than a mere electoral shift to the right. His victory in the October 2018 elections reflects profound changes in the country’s political and ideological landscape. It rests on deepening social polarisation since 2013 in a context of multiple crises. Although Bolsonaro took office only a month and a half ago, the implications for major shifts in Brazil’s international position are emerging already. What paved the way for the rise to power of the extreme right? What kind of political figure is Bolsonaro and what steps has he taken since the presidential inauguration of the first of January 2019? And finally, what is the economic and foreign policy orientation of the new government and what are its (potential) implications for the global position of Brazil?

The multiple crises that played a fundamental role in the demise of the centre-left government of the Workers’ Party (PT) and the eventual rise to power of Jair Messiah Bolsonaro took Brazil watchers by surprise, in a way. Former Brazilian president Lula (2003-2010) ended his second presidential term on the crest of an unprecedented wave of popularity produced by the booming economy, poverty reduction and equity and diplomatic prestige.1 The crises that unfolded from 2013 onward were fourfold: economic recession, a public legitimacy crisis, massive corruption, and the collapse of ‘coalitional presidentialism’.2

From 2013 onward, economic growth slowed down and even collapsed completely in 2015. According to Laura Carvalho this economic downturn was deepened by erroneous policy responses (both before and after the impeachment of Dilma).3  The recession, to a great extent, accounts for the breakdown of the legitimacy of the government, extent both before and after Dilma’s impeachment.4

Other elements of the crisis are closely related to the collapse of public legitimacy and tended to reinforce one another. The so-called Lava Jato (Car Wash) scandal involved Petrobras employees and politicians from the principal political parties. The breakdown of parliamentary support for Dilma Rousseff’s government was not just a result of Lava Jato (in fact, her impeachment was not grounded on corruption charges). It was rather the product of complex political calculations and stratagems.5

Ironically, the centre-right successor government led by erstwhile vice-president Michel Temer (2016-2019), combined a quick descent into the dungeons of popular rejection with sustained congressional support. This unstable and uncertain conjuncture marked the road to the October 2018 elections.

The crisis and ensuing political uncertainty has had an impact on Brazil’s international position. Economic decline called into question the country’s claim to have become a consolidated emerging power that carries clout in the G20. Social protests and political turmoil cast a shadow on the image of a stable and inclusive democracy that Brazil had created as part of its soft power in the new global order.6

inauguration of president Bolsonaro
Inauguration of president Bolsonaro on the first of January 2019. © Senado Federal

Lula in prison, enter Bolsonaro
Perhaps surprisingly, the runoff to the 2018 elections revealed the continued popularity of former president Lula among a plurality of the electorate. Hence, the PT presented Lula as their presidential candidate, as it was the party’s best option to regain power in the short run despite the damage it suffered as a result of the corruption scandal. Most opinion polls in 2017 and early 2018 suggested that Lula would be victorious in the first and second round of the presidential elections: even in a race against his prime opponent Jair Bolsonaro, a retired military officer.

However, criminal investigations against Lula starting in February 2017 led to his trial, conviction, and finally imprisonment in April 2018. This took Lula out of the presidential race. Bolsonaro captured the groundswell of moral conservatism and succeeded in changing his status from a fringe politician on the extreme right into the solid front runner of the electoral campaign.

An important element was Bolsonaro’s mobilisation of the generalised despair produced by the crisis of public security

The campaign was tainted by emotions, intimidation, and widespread disinformation, mostly from the Bolsonaro camp. A crucial factor has been the encounter between the nominally Catholic candidate Bolsonaro and the influential universe of conservative Pentecostal/Evangelical churches. WhatsApp and Facebook groups brought Bolsonaro’s message into the capillary system of Brazilian society. To his followers, Bolsonaro became o mito (the myth) ready to cleanse Brazilian politics and society from a palhaçada (the foolishness) of the left, including their ‘gender ideology’, and ‘cultural marxism’.

This was more than enough to convince Bolsonaro’s followers that his radically uncivil and illiberal discourse based on homophobia, misogyny, authoritarianism and punitive violence could be ignored or even applauded. An important element was Bolsonaro’s mobilisation of the generalised despair produced by the crisis of public security.7 In sum, his opponents ‘campaign under the banner of #elenão (#not him) became #elesim (#yes him) in the eyes of the believers of ‘the myth’.

Visitors during the inauguration of president Bolsonaro on January 1st 2019 - Senado Federal
Bolsonaro supporters during the inauguration of the president on the first of January. © Senado Federal

Bolsonaro and his government
Who is this new president who defeated his opponent by a more than 10 million votes margin, has taken up office in 2019, and does so with a government that bears the signature of the interests and ideas he represents?  As a politician, Bolsonaro has spent decades as a backbencher in the federal Chamber of Deputees. He operated on the fringe and was mainly known for his rambunctious rudeness and his ardent defense of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), including its violent practices.

His star started to rise after he announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2016. Bolsonaro aimed to fill the void caused by the implosion of the credibility of old school political conservatives. It has become commonplace to identify the support of Bolsonaro in terms of the four B’s: Bala, Boi, Banco, Bíblia (Bullet, Cow, Banks, Bible).

  • Bala represents not only his affinity with the military and his glorification of their dictatorship, but also his punitive populism: the idea that only uncompromising violence can secure the victory of law enforcement in the War on Crime.
  • Boi stands for the support he gets from the powerful lobby of large landowners and agribusiness and their caucus in Congress.
  • Banco refers to his association with the orthodox neoliberal economist Paulo Guedes who favors a sweeping privatisation and liberalisation of the Brazilian economy. The nomination of Guedes as superminister for the economy boosted São Paulo’s stock exchange.
  • Bíblia signals his association with the conservative Evangelical churches that support his discourse in favour of the traditional family and puritan morality. These churches also see an opportunity to move towards the centre of gravity of political power under the auspices of Bolsonaro’s government.

The four B’s are well represented in Bolsonaro’s government. Including Bolsonaro himself and his vice-president, general Hamilton Morão, nine members of his cabinet have a military background. With a surprising amount of political acumen, Bolsonaro managed to include the anti-corruption Tsar, former federal judge Sérgio Moro, in his government as superminister of Justice and Public Security. The agribusiness has been given control over not only the ministry of agriculture, but also the ministry of the environment. Superminister of the Economy Paulo Guedes has seen to the appointment of like-minded neoliberals as heads of the Central Bank and the national development bank BNDES. Conservative, religious and moral interests are reflected by the ministers of Education and Women, Family and Human Rights.

Economic liberalisation will be applauded by the agro-exporters but may not be acceptable to certain sectors of the business elite

After just over a month in office at the time of writing (early February 2019), the contours of Bolsonaro’s policy agenda are emerging. Initiatives include the decree that liberates the private possession of firearms, the announcement that the big public electricity company Electrobras would be privatised, a brake on the demarcation of indigenous territories, and the extinction of various ministries that were important for the redistributive and inclusive policies of the PT governments. Critics see this as first indications of the regressive counter reforms as announced during the campaign. Major legislation sent (or announced to be sent) to Congress in February 2019 concerned a toughened federal public security policy (by Sérgio Moro) and pension reform (by Paulo Guedes).

Ceremony in the National Congress during the inauguration of president Bolsonaro with on the right first lady Michelle Bolsonaro - Senado Federal
Ceremony in the National Congress during the inauguration of president Bolsonaro with on the right first lady Michelle Bolsonaro. © Senado Federal

Despite these initiatives, a number of challenges are on the table for Bolsonaro’s agenda. Wholesale privatisation as proposed by minister Guedes is not likely to be received well within certain sectors of the military. Economic liberalisation will be applauded by the agro-exporters, but may not be acceptable to certain sectors of the business elite, especially the manufacturing industry, and trade unions. Measures echoing illiberalism and social intolerance will mobilise protests from a wide range of social movements and human rights defenders.

The anti-corruption agenda, which has been the prime reason that Sérgio Moro accepted his invitation to the cabinet, offers particular challenges. corruption charges hover above many of the politicians and parties that make up the support coalition of Bolsonaro’s government in Congress. This issue hints at the broader problem of sustaining a coalition in Congress, a problem faced by all presidents since 1999. How can a coalition be maintained in a splintered legislature where a working majority now requires collaboration of at least half of the 30 parties represented in the Chamber?

Brazil’s new global position: will Bricxit be the fifth B?
The largest degree of uncertainty arguably lies in the foreign policy domain. In international news media, Bolsonaro has often been called ‘tropical Trump’ because of his discourse and style. Certainly, Bolsonaro can be seen as part of the right-wing populist ghost that is at large across the world. Trump was quick in sending his congratulations on the day of Bolsonaro’s inauguration. Bolsonaro has clearly expressed his desire to strengthen (or restore) the historical alignment with the U.S.

At first sight, Bolsonaro seemed to be moving Brazil away from its previous position of balanced multilateralism

On the other hand, Bolsonaro, or rather his military backstoppers, embrace a conservative brand of nationalism – again, this is in line with Trumpism’s neo-isolationist tendencies. Bolsonaro’s minister of Foreign Affairs, career diplomat Ernesto Araújo, has been characterized as a nationalist, an adherent of the doctrine that resists the ‘globalism controlled by the cultural Marxists’ and as an admirer of Donald Trump.

This may have important consequences for the new international position Brazil has been building slowly but steadily since 1995. The governments of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and Lula (2003-2010) put effort in repositioning Brazil in the rapidly changing post-Cold War global order. Especially under Lula, Brazil acquired a new prestige: not only as a strongly growing economy, but also as an active voice in trade negotiations, the climate debate, peace building, and geopolitics. Brazil became a middle power that coupled a tradition of ‘soft power’ and a historical affinity with the West to a new role as initiator and driver of South-South alliances. In particular the country’s participation in the BRICS-forum has been important to consolidate this new role of Brazil in the global order.8

At first sight, Bolsonaro seems to be moving Brazil away from its previous position of balanced multilateralism. In January 2019, Brazil, as part of the Lima group of 14 countries in the Americas that oppose the Maduro regime in Venezuela, recognised the ‘interim presidency’ proclaimed by the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Bolsonaro has confirmed the priority of good relations with its South American neighbors that are also governed by conservative presidents, notably Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru.

He has also welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his inauguration. During this first ever visit of an Israeli leader to Brazil, both sides discussed close cooperation. Bolsonaro promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, and hence will move Brazil’s embassy from Tel Aviv to that city.

During the 2019 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Bolsonaro favoured encounters with the Japanese prime minister and with nationalist prime ministers from Italy and Eastern European countries.

It has been suggested that BRICS has run its course and that Brazil should leave this ‘leftist’ contraption to align with the U.S. in containing China

The question what this all means for Brazil’s role in multipolar arrangements such as its relation to China and the BRICS, is of particular interest. On this topic, there is an inbuilt contradiction within the Bolsonaro administration between the hard-boiled neoliberal Guedes and the anti-globalist Araúju. Brazil’s relation with China and its position within BRICS are bound to reflect the unfolding of this contradiction. During the 2018 campaign, Bolsonaro made no secret of his distrust towards China (and his sympathy towards Taiwan). He complained that China did not want to buy ‘in Brazil’, but ‘to buy Brazil’. This, in turn, provoked concern in China about the future of Brazil-China relations.

President Bolsonaro has often been called ‘tropical Trump’ because of his discourse and style. © Senado Federal

The stakes are significant. Although China only ranks 13th with respect to the origin of foreign investments in Brazil, it is Brazil’s most important bilateral trade partner (with Brazil, as opposed to the U.S., running a sizeable trade surplus due to its food and mineral exports). The Brazilian agricultural sector and its political caucus is a major stakeholder on this front, and close (economic) relations with China are strongly advocated by economy minister Guedes.9

The dilemmas generated by Brazil’s new international strategy have also transpired into the debates around the country’s role in the BRICS-format. From the anti-globalist and pro-Trump camp in Brazil, it has been suggested that BRICS has run its course and that Brazil should leave this ‘leftist’ contraption to align with the U.S. in containing China.  If this were to come about, ‘Bricxit’ would enter as the fifth pillar of Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

On the other hand, during the November 2018 G20 meeting in Buenos Aires former president Michel Temer stated that president-elect Bolsonaro would uphold Brazil’s commitment to BRICS. In 2019, Brazil will be BRICS chair and host the 11th BRICS summit in November. Scholar and El País-columnist Oliver Stuenkel convincingly argued that even a nationalist approach based on distrust of China would be better served by staying in BRICS than by leaving it.10 He argues that Brazil could use this arena to monitor and influence China, possibly by teaming up with the other conservative nationalists Modi and Putin. Furthermore, Brazil could benefit from the unique access to Beijing provided by the BRICS apparatus of consultation and technical-political meetings.

There is no doubt that Brazil will revise its global position on the basis of nationalist populism, moral conservatism and anti-globalism in the short run. Brazil will cease to be a progressive and prestigious voice from the Global South in the multipolar global order of the early 21st century as the country is poised to re-align with the ‘Old West’. One thing is clear, however: Brazil cannot afford a trade war with China; in case it should come to that, Trump’s U.S. certainly will not step in to bail Brazil out.

  • 1Timothy Power, ‘Brazilian Democracy as a Late Bloomer: Reevaluating the Regime in the Cardoso-Lula Era’, Latin American Research Review, vol. 45 (special issue), 2010, pp. 218-247. Kees Koonings, ‘Brazilië: van ziekenhuispatiënt tot Olympisch atleet’, Internationale Spectator, vol. 65 no. 4, April 2011, pp. 182-187.
  • 2Timothy Power, ‘Continuity in a Changing Brazil: The Transition from Lula to Dilma’, In: Fábio de Castro, Kees Koonings, Marianne Wiesebron (eds.), Brazil under the Workers’ Party: Continuity and Change from Lula to Dilma, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 10-35.
  • 3Laura Carvalho, Valsa brasileira. Do boom ao caos econômico, São Paulo: Todavia.
  • 4Marcus André Melo, ‘Crisis and Integrity in Brazil’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 27 no. 2, 2016, pp. 50-65.
  • 5Felipe Nunes & Carlos Ranulfo Melo, ‘Impeachment, Political Crisis and Democracy in Brazil’, Revista de Ciencia Política, vol. 37 no. 2, 2017, pp. 281-304.
  • 6Leslie Elliott Armijo & Sean W. Burges, ‘Brazil, the Entrepreneurial and Democratic BRIC’, Polity, vol. 42 no. 1, 2010, pp. 14-37.
  • 7Wendy Hunter & Timothy Power, ‘Bolsonaro and Brazil's Illiberal Backlash’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 30 no. 1, 2019, pp. 68-82.
  • 8Armijo & Burges, op. cit. See also Kurt Weyland, ‘Realism under Hegemony: Theorizing the Rise of Brazil’, Journal of Politics in Latin America, vol. 8 no. 2, 2016, pp. 143-173.
  • 9Matias Spektor, ‘Bolsonaro will regret baiting the Chinese tiger’, Financial Times, 27 December 2018.
  • 10Oliver Stuenkel, ‘Para lidar com a China, Bolsonaro tem um instrumento nas mãos’, El País,  22 January 2019.


Kees Koonings
CEDLA, University of Amsterdam & Utrecht University