Latin American Elections in 2018 Part I: Cuba, Brazil

Practically since its inception, the United States has professed its vested interest in strong self-government in Latin America. That interest varied from the idealistic — “We consider their interest and ours as the same, and that the object of both must be to exclude all European influence from this hemisphere,” said President Thomas Jefferson — to the self-interested — “I am entirely convinced if [Latin America] and its resources are not for us that they speedily will be against us,” said Rufus King, Minister to the U.K., to Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury.

U.S. relations with Latin America variously alternate between idealism and pragmatism. Although President Monroe’s Doctrine (issued in 1823) espoused liberal ideals, the document was rarely acted on, and thus ultimately demonstrated American pragmatism. Theodore Roosevelt’s Corollary, enacted after the Venezuelan crisis of 1902-03, cemented American pragmatism into foreign policy, granting the U.S. international police power in the Western Hemisphere. Theodore’s fifth cousin Franklin Roosevelt reshaped U.S.-Latin American relations by promulgating his Good Neighbor Policy, which sought to increase American soft power in the region through goodwill and propaganda efforts. After the Second World War, the perceived threat of global Communism again hardened American foreign policy in Latin America — during the Cold War, pragmatic U.S. policymakers tacitly or explicitly propped up brutal regimes in the name of anti-communism.

Post-Cold War, two key tenets characterize American foreign policy towards Latin America: a promotion of Latin American democracy and a promotion of Latin American involvement in intergovernmental organizations, such as the U.N. or O.A.S. This year, many of those democracies will test the structural integrity of their systems in a tough election year — one that any stakeholder in Latin American politics and democracy, such as the U.S., must watch. So far, Cuba and Colombia have held important elections, and both are major milestones for the countries. These were Cuba’s first elections in a post-Castro world and Colombia’s first elections after the peace deal with FARC came into effect. Countries with major elections this year also include Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela.


In Cuba, a largely rubber-stamp election confirmed the 605 members of the National Assembly, all members of the Communist Party (their partisan allegiance is mandated constitutionally). The National Assembly is expected to elect Miguel Díaz-Canel, the Vice President of Cuba and a close confidant of Raúl Castro, as the next President. Díaz-Canel will be the first non-Castro president and the first president uninvolved with the Cuban Revolution of 1959 (he was too young). He has signaled a willingness to continue Raúl’s detente with the U.S., but he will also inherit Raúl’s legacy of economic malaise, recently worsened by Hurricane Irma, which destroyed many sugar mills, and Venezuela’s collapse, which spelled an end to cheap energy.


In October, Brazil will hold elections for the President, Vice President, 81 Senators, and all 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies. The country is poised for radical change. In recent years, the politics of the country have been dominated by Judge Sérgio Moro’s Operation Lava Jato, or Car Wash, a criminal investigation that has uncovered money laundering and corruption in the highest levels of government surrounding Petrobras, the state-owned petroleum company, and Odebrecht, a privately-owned Brazilian construction and petrochemical conglomerate. In December 2015, the Brazilian Congress impeached President Dilma Rousseff for budget mismanagement, although charges originally included her association with suspects in the Lava Jato probe and possible corruption during her tenure as president of Petrobras’ board. Since the impeachment, Rousseff’s vice president, Michel Temer, has served as president. However, his approval ratings have hit single digits, largely due to unpopular economic reform and Temer’s own corruption ties — in 2017, recordings surfaced in which Temer discussed hush money for Brazil’s largest meat-packing firm.

As in Mexico, an old face is the clear leader in the elections. Ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leader of impeached president Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT), captured about a third of the first round vote, and beat every other polled candidate in a run-off. However, he faces corruption charges that likely bar him from being able to assume the presidency if elected — which he may be, charges notwithstanding. When faced with the charges, Lula said at a campaign rally “Only Jesus Christ can beat me here in Brazil,” which isn’t entirely hyperbole. If he’s outright rejected from appearing on the ballot, a full 32% of Brazilians polled say they plan on casting a ballot for no one — voting is compulsory between ages 18 and 70 in Brazil.

From the remaining 11 candidates, two stand out: the left-wing Marina Silva and right-wing Jair Bolsonaro. Silva is Lula’s former Environment Minister and founder of the new REDE party, a tiny party espousing views of environmental sustainability. If Lula is invalidated from the presidency, a poll indicates that a slight majority of his voters will defect to Silva. Bolsonaro is Silva’s complete opposite — he’s a candidate described as ‘Trumpian,’ with a self-professed ignorance of economics, who has defended Brazil’s decades of military rule, described gay couples adopting children as akin to pedophilia, and once told a female congresswoman that she wasn’t worthy of being raped by him. Bolsonaro’s appeal comes from his strong message against large corporations and corruption. (Bolsonaro was scheduled to speak to GW’s Brazil Initiative, but backed out after he received backlash.) If Silva and Bolsonaro are the top two vote-getters, the second round run-off election between the two will be anyone’s to win (or lose).

If Silva wins, she will have to face public anger at the government in the aftermath of Temer’s reforms, as well as a popular appetite for anti-corruption efforts. If Bolsonaro wins, he may find it tougher to address the same problems. Like President Trump, he may be unable to unable to wield legislative power and strike deals without embedding partisanship into every effort.

However, a new face may soon enter the race and shake the electoral dynamics up significantly. Former Supreme Court President Joaquim Barbosa will join the PSB, the Brazilian Socialist Party, according to three party sources. Barbosa is a black Brazilian — a group consisting of 40% of the population — who grew up in poverty and ruled during the Mensalao corruption scandal of Lula’s presidency. His social justice credentials will make him a compelling choice for the electorate and could siphon off some of Lula’s and Silva’s backers should he choose to run.


Author: Parth Kotak

Parth Kotak serves as The Compass’s managing editor and is a double major in International Affairs and Economics. In addition to his duties for The Compass, Parth interns at the U.S. Department of Justice and also serves as blog editor for The Hatchet, the George Washington University’s independent student newspaper and as editor-at-large for The GW Justice Journal, an undergraduate law and policy blog. Parth’s interests include the political economy of developing nations, financial markets, and regulatory law. His views, of course, are his own.