Brazil’s (B)olsonaro Case and What It Represents for Democracy Worldwide

Laura Oller, Contributor

HBS graduates will soon go out to “make a difference” in a world that is changing. Trump, Brexit, Erdogan, Orban, Duterte, and now Bolsonaro have all joined the roll-call of far-right nationalist populists rising to power. As leaders of tomorrow, what can we learn from Brazil’s (B) case?

A lot has changed since the promising reality of 2006. GDP fell over 8% in two years, major corruption scandals were uncovered, violence increased to 63,880 murders in 2017, Dilma Rousseff was impeached, and the country faces a deep political crisis. People now legitimately want change and the two main political parties were penalized in this year’s presidential elections: on the right, the traditional PSDB achieved only 5% of votes in the first round, for the first time in 24 years and six election cycles not making it at least to the second round. On the left, the Worker’s Party’s rejection peaked at 44%. Curiously, the anti-establishment sentiment found its representation in a candidate who has been in Parliament for the last 27 years, Jair Bolsonaro.

As put by The Independent, Bolsonaro “is not a normal presidential candidate. He is openly hostile to democracy and will probably be the most extremist elected leader in the world. He embodies the most hardline faction of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 21 years. He claims fidelity to those like his hero Colonel Ustra who embraced torture, murder and rape, as necessary tools in the fight against communism.” You might have heard some of Bolsonaro’s incendiary phrases, such as preferring “his son to die than to date someone with a mustache.”

Even Marine Le Pen has distanced herself from Bolsonaro, saying before his election victory that his rhetoric would be unacceptable in France, and that she would not consider him part of the far-right, but something else – which can only be out of the democratic spectrum. A concern is that Bolsonaro – like other populist leaders – was elected democratically, but then will erode those democratic institutions from the inside. As Harvard professor Yascha Mounk puts it, “flirting with a more military-leaning government, Brazilian voters seem to be suffering from the same generational amnesia that has allowed extreme forms of right-wing nationalism to prosper in Europe.”

Even Hitler was democratically elected with wide popular support. Political scientist Oliver Stuenkel summarized the reasons that led to Hitler’s election: (i) revolt against the political establishment, (ii) use of media (The Washington Post and NYT describe how “Fake News is Poisoning Brazilian Politics”), (iii) perception of a moral crisis and need to restore order, (iv) not taking words seriously, (v) promise of simple solutions (Bolsonaro wants to “give guns to good people”), (vi) elite support (“[Bolsonaro] is vulgar, offensive, and wildly popular with traders”), and (vii) increased violence. The parallel between Germany in the 1930s and Brazil today is troubling.

Nevertheless, many of Bolsonaro’s supporters believe he is not a threat to democracy and see him as best positioned to deal with two greater evils: economic crisis and corruption. Guided by his economic advisor Paulo Guedes, a free-market economist educated at the University of Chicago, Bolsonaro recently converted to economic liberalism. However Latin America has experienced a painful mixing of social conservatism, economic liberalism, and autocratic regimes before. As highlighted by The Economist: “Pinochet, a brutal ruler of Chile between 1973 and 1990, was advised by the free-marketeer ‘Chicago boys’. They helped lay the ground for today’s relative prosperity in Chile, but at terrible human and social cost. Brazilians have a fatalism about corruption, summed up in the phrase ‘rouba, mas faz’ (‘he steals, but he acts’). They should not fall for Mr Bolsonaro—whose dictum might be ‘they tortured, but they acted.’”

The question is, at what cost are Brazilians  willing to bet on Bolsonaro and Guedes’ push for free-markets? Guedes has no political experience, and there have already been clashes between him and political advisors. Can politics and economics be separated? In a political gesture, Bolsonaro recently announced a move of Brazil’s Embassy to Jerusalem, strongly disappointing Arab countries, who are together the largest buyers of Brazil’s protein, having imported U$13.5 billion in 2017. Likewise, Chinese officials were upset by Bolsonaro’s visit to Taiwan and aggressive comments towards China, Brazil’s main trade partner. Political action against China may come at high economic costs.

Are we repeating history? Is Bolsonaro a threat to democracy, or are Brazilian institutions strong enough to constrain him? Only time will tell. So far, Bolsonaro has chosen not to participate in political debates, threatened the country’s largest newspaper, and barred the main media from his first press conference.

Beyond his potential impact on government and institutions, words matter. Bolsonaro’s hate-filled speeches flamed hate crimes in all parts of the country. His administration poses a high risk of institutionalizing and legitimizing violence even more. Brazil is already one of the most violent countries, especially for LGBTQ population, Black people, and women. As a Brazilian who must pick a side, I am not willing to take any risks on our young democracy and fragile human rights.  

Worldwide, increased nationalist populism, hate speech, spread of fake news and extremism are undeniable, but no fate is sealed. What role do the “leaders who make a difference” want to play in this changing world?

Laura Oller (MBA ‘19)  is from the very urban and charmingly chaotic São Paulo. After graduating in Social Sciences and Economics in Brazil she joined the International Finance Corporation and led strategic initiatives in impact investing and inclusive development in fragile areas. Further, she co-founded a startup to connect refugees in the developing world to outsourced digital work. During her summer, she worked with innovation at UNDP and human rights at UN’s Peacekeeping Mission in Guinea-Bissau. Her passions are social justice, emerging markets, and samba.