Brazil at critical juncture

Earle Scarlett

Sunday, November 11, 2018

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JAIR Bolsonaro's presidential victory in Brazil has engendered hope for the 55.2 per cent who favoured him over Workers' Party Fernando Haddad. The former military captain's right-wing campaign promises may become concrete policies, with “order” — possibly a social order maintained by force — given higher relief than “progresso”, the other pillar of Brazil's national architecture.

The world's ninth-largest economy, Brazil, has experienced political false starts, flagging commitment, and traction in handling the country's major ailments, among them wealth disparity, social unrest, and criminality, wobbly economy, high unemployment, narcotics, and racism. More than ever is the urgent need for clear vision and creativity from the Palacio do Planalto to grapple these fractious issues and others.

Perhaps even more than “futebol”, samba and carnival, Brazil, the fifth-largest country is generally assessed as not living up to its potential. Its Achilles heel has been poor governments laced with viral corruption, resulting, for example, in the impeachment of ex-President Dilma Rousseff and incarceration of ex-President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva — both stalwarts of the Workers' Party (PT), launched in 1980.

The prospects of a reincarnation of economist Delfim Netto's “milagro economico brasileiro” are dim; however, if far-right and left-wing devotees remain polarised with no sign of compromise in sight. Impeding the process in the short run is Bolsonaro's blinkered nostalgia (“saudade”), and his trumpeting military rule, 1964-1985, as the most “glorious” years of Brazil's history — lamentably overlooking the arduous efforts for political opening (“abertura”) that plagued Mineiro elder statesman, Tancredo Neves, and others, in quest of the presidency. Unfortunately, Neves died in 1985 before sworn into office.

Far from Bolsonaro's depiction of two halcyon decades, Brazil's military regime, like Argentina's, committed social and political repression, extra-legal killings, and torture, as well as orchestrating the disappearance of activists called “desaparecidos politicos”.

In the aftermath of national elections, some countries experience a combustible combination of popular euphoria and disappointment. It would be unfortunate if Bolsonaro and his inner circle were to stoke that volatile situation with military interference. Presumably, Vice-President General Hamilton Mourao would register caution, given tangible negative consequences at home and abroad.

In the context of emerging pockets of authoritarianism worldwide (and plethora of entrenched autocrats long in the tooth), President Bolsonaro is entering narrow straits, requiring ingenuity to captain the ship of state through dodgy shoals. His immediate choices are to morph into “man on horseback” riding the populist/strongman tide, or, alternatively, accommodate select views of the 44.8 per cent that rejected him at the polls. For now, he seems more inclined to a hardline approach, if his campaign rhetoric, advocacy, and voting record in the “Camara dos Deputados” remain valid indicators.

However, the 'loyal' Opposition, concentrated in the complex north-east, where PT has a reservoir of support, has the obligation to meet the president halfway, at least in a dialogue on key issues. Failing that, a spate of public protests looms that could cause angst for a military officer corps that in the past had a propensity to quell dissent and ban organisations that criticised governments' orientations and policies — a case in point was the military regime's deliberations in 1980 on making a US diplomat persona non grata when his 'secret' meeting in Sao Paulo with leaders of the banned National Union of Students (UNE) was leaked to the press.

Like elsewhere, a conflation of “nationalism” and “patriotism” could become the mantra for extra-legal interference. Use of such idiomatic legerdemain could backfire in Brazil — a country of free spirit and respect for democratic norms.

Moreover, retrogressive measures would frustrate again Brazil's desire for prosperity and status as an influential player in world affairs, notably at the United Nations, where it enjoys substantial respect. Further, the fall-out would likely be a lethal blow to the country's economy, relations in the financial community, and trade patterns — possibly impairing along the way relations with China, its largest trading partner. This cluster of challenges would generate instability in Latin America, especially in countries now experiencing serious economic problems and social discord. In sum, a fractured Brazil is destabilising at home and abroad.

As for US and Brazil relations, it behoves both countries to focus on mutual interests across the board, having had questionable leaders recently, except President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Brazil must steadfastly shun alien ideological rhetoric and any semblance of authoritarianism. By hewing to a hard line, President Bolsonaro would forestall dialogue with the legitimate Opposition and lead his country in the wrong direction.

That's the last outcome Brazil needs at this critical juncture, especially with no “jeitinho brasileiro” at hand.

Earle Scarlett is a retired US senior career diplomat who was political officer in Brasilia (1979-1981, during General Joao Figueiredo's military regime, and Sao Paulo (1992-94) when President Fernando Collor de Mello, facing impeachment, resigned. Send comments to the Observer or

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