Bolsonaro Represents the Starkest Expression of Politics of Hatred in Brazil
Prof. Alfredo Saad-Filho says the disappointment with the presidency of Bolsonaro will be inevitable
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party, PSL, in Brazil won the presidential runoff election with 55 percent of the vote on Sunday, swinging the country far right, and perhaps even fascist. He won against the Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, who was former President Lula’s hand-picked representative, since he himself was unable to run against Bolsonaro. Yet Haddadi secured an unexpected 45 percent of the vote. This is a smaller election victory for Bolsonaro than some of the most recent opinion polls had predicted; yet it remains a staggering blow to Brazil’s democracy and to Brazil’s social movements. After the results were announced, the defeated candidate Fernando Haddad had the following to say.
FERNANDO HADDAD: I put my life at the disposal of the country. I am sure that I speak for millions of people who have put the country above their own lives, above their own welfare. I want to say to them that when I looked out onto the streets of the country, to all regions, I felt an anguish and a fear on the faces of many people, who sometimes cried. Don’t be scared. We will be here. We are together.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jair Bolsonaro, on the other hand, gave only a brief statement to the press, where he seemed to echo some of President Trump’s talking points about developing a foreign policy that would be greater benefit to Brazil; make Brazil great again. Let’s listen.
JAIR BOLSONARO: We will liberate Brazil and the foreign ministry from the ideology of its international relations that it has subjected Brazil to in recent years. Brazil will no longer be different from the countries of the developed world. We will seek bilateral relations that add to the economic and technological value of Brazilian products. We will restore international respect for our dear Brazil.
SHARMINI PERIES: President Trump immediately called Bolsonaro, and followed up with a tweet, saying, “Had a very good conversation with the newly-elected President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, who won his race by a substantial margin. We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on trade, military, and everything else! Excellent call, wished him congratulations,” he said.
Joining me now to discuss what these election results mean for Brazil is Professor Alfredo Saad Filho. He is professor of development economics at London University, and is originally from Brazil. His most recent book is Brazil: Neoliberalism Versus Democracy, coauthored with Lecio Morais. Thank you so much for joining us, Alfredo.
ALFREDO SAAD FILHO: Thank you, Sharmini, thank you very much.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alfredo, let’s start off with getting your initial reaction to the results, and then of course what this means for Brazil.
ALFREDO SAAD FILHO: This is a victory for the forces of the far right. It is a victory for the forces that overthrew President Dilma Rousseff through impeachment in 2016. But curiously, it is not those political leaders that led the impeachment process that are now coming to power with Bolsonaro. The center right that led that process, that cornered the PT, that removed the president, and that ultimately put former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in prison, they have been incinerated and destroyed in the parliamentary elections. What you have is a destruction of the political center ground, the center to the right ground, and the emergence of a completely improbable candidate. Someone who has no political track record of any note; someone who has failed at everything he did in his life before getting to this point suddenly is gifted with the presidency of the largest democracy in Latin America. This is an absolutely unpredictable moment in Brazilian history with consequences that will reverberate for many years to come.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Alfredo, Bolsonaro has been compared to Duterte in the Philippines, Trump here in the United States. He has said some very extreme right-wing statements. One cannot decipher whether this is political rhetoric running in a campaign, or does he really mean some of these things he has been saying. For example, he says that I will give carte blanche for the police to kill. In terms of social movements and leftist groups he says these groups, if they want to stay here in this country, we will have to put them under the law before all of us. That part is fine. But they will have to leave or go to jail, he says. These red marginals will be banished from the homeland. He says under his leadership, Lula will remain and rot in jail. Now, these kinds of statements he’s been making throughout his campaign. How serious are these statements? And particularly, the one about how he sees the former military dictatorship that took place between 1964 and ’85, where he says under his leadership there might be a return of such a dictatorship? Are we to take all of this seriously?
ALFREDO SAAD FILHO: Bolsonaro and Trump have been compared many times. Trump was a little bit of a figure of ridicule, even during his campaign. And a lot of what he said was not taken very seriously, and perhaps rightly so. Bolsonaro is a completely unknown quantity. Even though he has been in Congress as a deputy for a long time- he was elected seven times for Rio de Janeiro- but always a particular constituency of the far right, the military, et cetera. Very corner appeal; a kind of an acquired taste by the far right. And he specialized not in producing legislation- he only produced two pieces of legislation in 28 years, inconsequential- but he specialized in the production of statements that were horrendous, and that would be guaranteed to take him to the attention of the of the media, and to bring him to the rejection of the center of the right, of the left, or moderate forces in the country. He was appealing to a particular audience.
Now, this audience is now on the streets. The far right has conquered a mass base in Brazil for the first time in more than 50 years. But this is by far the most extreme example of the politics of hatred that the country has seen in its modern history. It’s absolutely unprecedented. So how far canwe take these statements seriously? We have to take them seriously in the sense that there is nothing else that he has said. Bolsonaro never said anything different from all this. He has never been in a position to implement anything. He’s ever been in a position of executive power. He was a captain in the army. He was expelled from the army for lack of discipline, and for preparing, for plotting to place arms in army headquarters to then try to pin the blame on the left. He was expelled from the army for that reason. Then became a federal deputy. That is his entire life.
So it’s a life of mediocrity, it’s a life of failure. That does not give us any handle on his behaviour once he is in office. We simply do not know.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alfredo, what does this tell us about where the electorate or the people of Brazil are at? I mean, the numbers that showed up to vote for him, and you saw the rallies with the green and yellow sea of people participating in the campaign rallies. There is a psychic shift here taking place. What is this telling us about where the people are at?
ALFREDO SAAD FILHO: For the past five years Brazil has experienced a convergence of dissatisfactions. Dissatisfactions coming for many different reasons, across many different social groups. The rich were unhappy with the PT government because it wasn’t favoring finance enough. The upper middle class was unhappy because they felt alienated from power. The unorganized, informal workers were feeling unhappy because of violence, because of lack of infrastructure in urban areas. The organized workers were unhappy because jobs were not being created fast enough. And all these dissatisfactions converged around corruption.
Now, corruption, and the succession of corruption scandals that have rocked Brazil in the past five years, they have been engineered. Not that corruption is not a problem. It is a massive problem in a country like Brazil. But corruption is also the way in which the political system functions in that country. It’s impossible to have the Brazilian political system minus corruption. You cannot persecute one corrupt individual at a time, then be left with a political system that is clean. This will not happen. The political system works on the basis of exchanges of favor, and exchanges of money.
But corruption has been weaponized by the right and by the media, and used against the party. So President Rousseff was pushed out of power, was impeached. President Lula da Silva is now in prison under allegations of corruption that were never proven. But the corruption contaminated the entire political spectrum, opening space for this pretend outsider, who in fact has been part and parcel of the political system for 28 years, to pose as the outsider, to pose as the person who is not corrupt, to pose as the person who is going to resolve this problem by force of will. He cannot do that. This will be a significant obstacle to Bolsonaro as president. He captured a lot of votes with his discourse that an increase in state violence will resolve the problem of urban violence; that the withdrawal of the state will provide jobs and infrastructure. And he can do a lot of votes with the idea that he is the outsider who can sort out corruption. He can’t do any of these things. So disappointment will inevitably set in. The problem is, the question is, what will happen after that? That is the problem that he will have to confront.
SHARMINI PERIES: Alfredo, Bolsonaro in his acceptance speech made reference to foreign policy, and how Brazil is going to be great again, using some of President Trump’s rhetoric here. What does this victory actually mean for regional politics? Because we know that the United States has been flexing its muscles at the Organization of American States, OAS, where they’ve been getting more and more support. And they’ve been flexing their muscles with aid in the region as well. So with the exception of Mexico, where they will be inaugurating a new president next month, most of the countries in Latin America seem to be in support of the U.S. mission; isolating Venezuela, for example. So what do you think the impact will be on Latin America?
ALFREDO SAAD FILHO: The there will be intense pressure on a number of governments to align themselves with the right. Immediately pressure will be felt on Uruguay, center-left administration, between Brazil and Argentina; two countries that have aligned themselves with the right. And a lot of pressure will be faced by Venezuela. Bolsonaro has stated that he would be in favor of an invasion of Venezuela by U.S. troops, but also supported by the Brazilian army. This is, I believe, completely far-fetched. But this is the kind of attitude that the Bolsonaro administration will take. They would also take a very negative approach to Mercosur, the common market of the Southern countries, because according to Bolsonaro and his advisors, this is a left-wing club that doesn’t do anything for Brazil itself. Which is incorrect. Mercosur is the way in which Brazil has managed to protect its power within South America.
The subtext of this discourse is that Brazil will align itself much more closely with the United States, perhaps sign a free trade agreement with the United States, and then turn its back towards Latin America. This is possible. It’s perfectly possible. The difficulty for Brazil is that the West is not such a great trading partner anymore. Brazil’s biggest trading partner is China. The second one is the European Union. So what difference does it make if Brazil signs a free trade agreement with the United States? For some sectors of the economy there may be advantages, but in general this is not the area of trade growth for Brazil to look into. This is not an area of success. The focus of Brazilian foreign policy in the past couple decades has been in the Global South, and it has been in China in particular. Bolsonaro, purely for ideological reasons, wants to reshape that into a much closer relationship with the United States.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Alfredo, let’s leave it there for now, but we’re looking forward to having you back, as this conversation will keep going here at The Real News. Thank you so much for joining us.
ALFREDO SAAD FILHO: Thank you very much.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.