The Bolsonaro administration: causes and consequences

In October 2018, Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) became Brazil’s next president, defeating Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT) with 55 percent of the vote. A former Rio de Janeiro congressman, Bolsonaro persuaded voters by positioning himself as the “law and order” candidate, using Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 as a guiding force for his vision of Brazilian society. Bolsonaro’s election was the result of years of growing disillusionment with the left-wing PT concerning rampant corruption, high rates of crime, and a stagnant economy. At the same time, his election has made members of marginalized and underprivileged communities fearful of an imminent assault on their civil rights. The environmental, economic, and sociopolitical stakes for the Brazilian people could not be higher.

First, to understand the presidency of the “Trump of the Tropics,” we must examine Brazilian political history to understand how he will govern. Throughout his campaign, Bolsonaro’s firm law and order posture was rooted in nostalgia for the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for just over two decades. Bolsonaro’s references to this era as a “good period” that “stopped Brazil [from] falling under the sway of the Soviet Union” tapped into growing pro-military sentiment amongst the public – a 2017 poll showed approximately 43 percent of the population favored temporary military control, up from 35 percent in a 2016 poll. Bolsonaro has retained several former generals in his cabinet and his circle, including his vice president, Hamilton Mourao, to appeal to the sentiment that the military is the last institution able to preserve stability.

Second, we must look at three factors that lead to Bolsonaro’s election. The first factor is the disdain for establishment politics. In recent years, former Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Inácio Lula da Silva, both of the PT, along with former President Michel Temer and many other Brazilian congresspeople, have been implicated in Operation Car Wash, a bribery investigation into the state-owned Brazilian oil giant Petrobras and construction conglomerate Odebrecht. The revelations of corruption within the leftist political establishment damaged the public image of the PT and elevated Bolsonaro the “change” candidate for many people weary of corruption. The second factor is the perception of rising societal disorder. In 2017, Brazil saw a record 63,880 homicides and continues to see gang violence spreading northward from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to the cities of Ceara and Fortaleza. Bolsonaro’s proposals involving greater use of lethal force by police and looser restrictions on gun ownership have been a response to the public’s desire for greater security. Bolsonaro took advantage of the Brazilian people’s vulnerability regarding their own safety and positioned himself as the person who would rectify the ills plaguing society.

The third factor is a weak economy. From 2000 to 2012, Brazil experienced a commodities boom that produced high rates of economic growth, but the drop-off in commodities growth and oil prices has driven the economy into recession, plaguing the nation with abysmal growth, high inflation and interest rates, and a budget deficit. This terrible economic climate led many voters to gravitate to the staunchly free-market Bolsonaro, whose economic policies are currently steered by Paulo Guedes, an economist from the pro-free market Chicago School of Economics. His plans for the Brazilian economy include privatization of companies and the implementation of tax cuts to spur growth and investment.

Based off of campaign promises and rhetoric, the Bolsonaro administration promises to be a disaster for women, ethnic and sexual minorities, and leftists. Throughout the campaign, Bolsonaro constantly used inflammatory rhetoric to attack these different groups:

  • Women   Bolsonaro, who told a Workers’ Party congresswoman “[he] wouldn’t rape [her] because [she] wouldn’t deserve it,” has tapped an anti-abortion, anti-feminist conservative pastor to lead the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights. This appointment indicates a shift in how women’s rights will be approached under a Bolsonaro administration, and more broadly, how women will be treated in Brazilian society in the years to come.
  • Racial minorities   Regarding ethnic minorities, Bolsonaro made it abundantly clear during the campaign that the Brazilian state owed nothing to Afro-Brazilians for slavery and singled out affirmative action quotas bolstered under the Rousseff administration as promoting division. This dismissiveness of Afro-Brazilians, who comprise 78.5 percent of the bottom 10 percent of income earners, manifested itself in one of Bolsonaro’s first decisions as president, to cease demarcation of indigenous lands and quilombos, rural settlements inhabited by descendants of African slaves.
  • Indigenous people   For indigenous peoples, the aforementioned decision puts their fate under the control of Bolsonaro’s agribusiness allies, with loggers and farmers empowered to increase the exploitation of indigenous lands.
  • LGBTQ community   His executive actions on the first day in office sounded alarm bells for the LGBTQ community, as he removed the LGBTQ community as a priority from the new Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights. Bolsonaro, who once said he was “homophobic and very proud of it,” has signaled that his presidency will usher in a new and more hostile climate to the LGBTQ community.
  • Leftists   Bolsonaro’s harsh stance on leftism manifested through a purge of civil servants out of line with his government’s ideology. Bolsonaro views leftism as a corrosive influence on Brazilian society, declaring his election “Brazil’s liberation from socialism, political correctness, and bloated government.”

Finally, the environmental, economic, political, and societal ramifications of a Bolsonaro presidency are huge. Bolsonaro’s advocacy for greater industrial operations has outraged environmentalists, who fear the degradation of the Amazon may eliminate one of Earth’s last natural defenses against climate change. Bolsonaro’s image as the messiah of Brazil has the possibility of backfiring should he prove unable to deliver on his promises. Paulo Guedes’ staunchly free-market approach has investors giddy, but the fallout if his agenda of pension reform, privatization, and tax cuts does not lead to economic prosperity may be intense. Given the hardline position the administration has taken on leftism’s presence in Brazilian life, Bolsonaro may find it difficult to compromise on issues that require nuance. For a country looking to a former military man to solve their problems, an inability to do so may be the last straw.


Author: Raj Rao

Raj Rao is a staff writer at The Compass. He is a freshman in the Elliott School majoring in international affairs. Outside of writing for the Compass, he is a member of Roosevelt Institute at GW.