What’s Next for Brazil?

Jair Bolsonaro faces overwhelming issues as Brazil’s next president. If he manages to resist his authoritarian leanings and old-line personal views, he has a good chance of fixing them.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Cover Image
By Sunny Bok

“Brazil before everything, and God above all,” read the platform slogan of former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, now the President-elect of Brazil. Its meaning became clear as the campaign went on. Bolsonaro has disparaged the LGBT community on numerous occasions, claiming that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one. Speaking with a congresswoman from Brazil’s lower house, he publicly stated he wouldn’t rape her because she wouldn’t deserve it. He has attacked people of color (who make up a considerable portion of the country’s population), spoken in outright favor of torture (harkening back to Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship), and referred to immigrants as the “scum of the earth.”

But there is still some hope for Brazil’s future. Mr. Bolsonaro’s aggressively conservative views on social issues do not have to be realized as actual policy. If the president-elect can resist his dictatorial bend and follow through on the most promising and fleshed-out parts of his campaign, Brazil will soon be well on its way to returning as one of the world’s foremost democracies.

Bolsonaro is tasked with solving an unprecedented triad of problems. Corruption plagues the country’s government and police; the number of murders nationwide has shot up, predominantly affecting Brazil’s poorest neighborhoods; and a deep recession caused by short-sighted policymaking has gutted its previously booming economy. If the country is to have any chance at recovering its international influence, political integrity, and economic power, Bolsonaro must move past his admiration for a long dead military regime and implement policies that will help, not hurt, the Brazilian people.

The Guatemalan Model

The best place to start is political corruption, which has gone hand in hand with public office in Brazil for decades. Officials regularly deal in bribes and secret exchanges with corporate entities, like the state-run oil giant Petrobras, that dominate political agendas across the country. However, the general public has shown time and again that its patience for graft is running thin. After the discovery of a far-reaching corruption network involving Petrobras and the country’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (more commonly known as Lula) in 2016, huge waves of protests and an anti-corruption campaign led to Lula’s indictment and forced resignation as chief of staff under newly elected President Dilma Rousseff.

While the ex-president was barred by Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court from being a candidate again, he remains one of the country’s most popular figures due to his far-reaching reforms that provided education, funds, and food for Brazil’s most vulnerable people. Lula was the favorite to win the 2018 election prior to the release of the Supreme Court’s verdict. Subsequent Presidents Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer have not fared as well. Their respective tenures proved that Lula’s successors were no less corrupt than him, and their ineffectiveness as government leaders led to a major decline in government integrity and public belief in the honesty of political leaders. Political misconduct proved to be the strongest reason for the growing popular discontent with the incumbent government.

Enter Jair Bolsonaro, a strongman who, despite serving seven terms in Brazil’s legislature, successfully presented himself as an anti-establishment challenger. By appointing Sergio Moro, the judge who sentenced Lula to prison, as his justice minister and declaring that corruption in his government would not be tolerated, Bolsonaro has taken considerable action toward beating governmental misconduct.

Hardline positions and political appointments, however, are not enough. Brazil’s lawmakers can hardly be trusted to police their own misconduct. To find a workable model for combating corruption and rule-breaking, look no further than Guatemala. The country has experienced its own share of political problems, including governmental dishonesty and, in some cases, outright violation of constitutional law. The solution, or at least the start of one, came in the form of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Created a decade ago with a UN resolution, CICIG’s job is to monitor and report governmental lawbreaking, violations of human rights, and misconduct in the country. While the commission has a purely advisory role, it has been extraordinarily effective as an anti-corruption panel acting independently from the government.

Then-President Otto Perez Molina was jailed in 2015 after a fraud investigation by the commission kickstarted 20 weeks of forceful protests. Since then, CICIG has grown more and more popular with Guatemalans and has been granted legitimacy by the UN to fight corruption. It has not relented in its mission to clean up national politics: even current President Jimmy Morales, whose campaign was defined by a strong emphasis on honesty, has faced probes from CICIG after his attempt to remove its top prosecutor. The panel has proved extremely effective in its overarching goal of a more honest government. Such an organization, with some modifications like greater autonomy and authority over prosecutions of criminal cases, would therefore be ideal for Brazil’s situation.

Brushed underfoot

Nearly 62,000 murders were committed in Brazil in 2017, making it one of the most violent countries in the world. Policies that will be created to combat the horrific level of crime must balance strict adherence to human rights and legal procedures with uncompromising, proactive action.

Brazil’s armed forces have been a point of pride for numerous military dictators who ruled the country in past decades. As the largest economy in South America and one of the largest countries in the world, political leaders often point to the military as an efficient and legitimizing force that protects Brazil’s interests and exists to defend the country and its people. The army generals who took over Brazil’s government in 1964 and proclaimed themselves leaders of the country were the main proponents of the pride, power, and position of the military. While the military government crushed opposition, tortured and killed dissidents, and trampled over human and civil rights, its rule has since been identified by many with law, order, and peace. It was this idolization of the army and the deification of its rule that propelled Bolsonaro to the presidency with 55 percent of the national vote.

As one of the strongest institutions in Brazil, the military has often intervened to preserve national unity and security. Historically, this has meant nothing less than outright coups against the government. But with the country’s crime problem becoming an epidemic in recent years, military commanders have decided to intervene not in the government, but in the urban streets of Brazil. Soldiers in full combat gear can often be seen apprehending criminals and questioning onlookers. This situation is not unique to slums and villages; even large cities like Rio de Janeiro have received massive influxes of professional military forces. However, these attempts by the military to bring the killings to an end by the use of force have done more harm than good. Many have criticized the presence of the soldiers as a “publicity stunt,” functioning more as a false reassurance of security than an actual deterrent against crime. Deploying troops in the most crime-affected regions is a temporary solution at best and serves more to destabilize areas of high population than to actually keep people safe.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s preferred solution of increasing gun ownership is even worse than outright military intervention. More weapons in poverty-stricken neighborhoods would only increase robberies, assaults, and killings, and the assertion that criminals would be dissuaded from breaking the law because of increased ownership of weapons is laughable. The best solution is to focus on increasing the funding, efficiency, and procedures of regional police forces. This could be achieved through mandating provincial and local governments to set aside portions of public funds to pay for hiring, training, and equipping more police officers. Without the specter of past dictatorships to haunt it, the national police force could potentially become a highly effective crime-fighting force in Brazil. Such an approach would not immediately have a noticeable effect on crime statistics in Brazil, but if the government stays committed to its policy goals, the long-term gains will become obvious.

Real change

The third major problem Brazil faces is a quickly eroding economy. Former President Lula became extremely popular with the Brazilian people after implementing a generous and richly funded pension scheme, which aimed to benefit families and the elderly with a countrywide safety net. Government salaries are exorbitantly high, and public officials have access to massive pots of public money after retirement, which is attainable at ages as early as 50. These combined measures have tanked Brazil’s budget and led to a sharp downturn in economic health. The country’s National Treasury calculated the gross national debt to be 74 percent of GDP at the end of 2017, up from 70 percent in 2016.

Bolsonaro’s economic policy, which advocates for privatization of industry as opposed to public ownership, is among the more controversial parts of his plan to cure Brazil’s woes. The proposed merger of the ministries of Finance, Industry, and Planning into one agency suggests a larger vision for a simpler and more streamlined government. With the appointment of free-market economist Paulo Guedes as the head of the vast new “super-ministry,” Mr. Bolsonaro has made clear his adherence to liberal economic principles. However, as with the corruption agenda, more action must be taken if the economy is to rebound from its current slump. Widespread privatization of industry has potential, but it will not keep the debt from rising ever higher. The problem behind the current economic crisis dates back to even before President Lula’s tenure— public spending.

While the bloated government is no doubt in need of serious trimming of red tape, over-reliance on the private sector will not solve Brazil’s economic woes. Petrobras, though it is state-subsidized and state-run, is one of the most notorious corporate conglomerates in the world, and the scandals it has been involved in have led to an understandable wariness about private companies among the Brazilian populace. The people at large will not embrace private corporations after years of corruption stemming from government back-channeling with those same organizations.

A better solution would be to invest in human capital, one of the most valuable resources in the world. The government should focus on providing economic opportunities and improved social mobility for the Brazilian population rather than devoting massive public funds to pension pots and military budgets.

Considering President Lula’s extraordinary popularity with the country during his tenure, his failure to reform Brazil’s pension system underscores just how difficult it would be to push such legislature through the government. Increasing funding to the country’s Ministry of Education would be an excellent first step. The money should be spent on developing Brazilian children’s potential and skills from the very beginning of their education. Public schools should get more funding and oversight, and all students at or below high school age should be guaranteed a quality education.

Colleges are more expensive for the government to subsidize and cover, but the government must recognize that they are not the only path to success for aspiring successful Brazilians; training programs and access to adequate jobs should be an essential function of the national government. Finding space in the national budget for such investment promises to be difficult. The most obvious place to start would be to cut the military’s annual funds, which would have the double effect of freeing up more money and weakening the influence that the armed forces still hold over the Brazilian government. To take these steps would mean the biggest investment in human capital the country has seen in years, if not decades, and it would be the first meaningful action of restoring hope in the potential of the Brazilian people.

As of now, Brazil’s future is in the hands of an ex-military strongman who has expressed strong preference for autocratic leadership and disregard for basic human decency and essential rights. The country would benefit from a combination of support for private industry, opposition to corruption, and investment in education. However, by electing a former military member to the highest office of the land, Brazil risks endangering its hard-won democratic institutions. Right now, Jair Bolsonaro faces overwhelming problems as Brazil’s next president. If he manages to resist his authoritarian leanings and radical personal views, he has a good chance of fixing them.