Brazil and Shaping the 21st Century Global System: The Reluctant Global Player

By Kenneth Maxwell

São Paulo saw two faces of the “New” Brazil this past week.

On Thursday, June 20th, President Jair Bolsonaro attended the “March for Jesus.” Tens of thousands of Evangelical Christians gathered near the Estação da Luz. Once once upon a time this was the main terminal for the British São Paulo Railway Company (1867-1946).

It is now a commuter hub for the far-flung São Paulo suburbs. It is also the site of the (preventable) devastating fire which destroyed the “Museu da Lingua Portuguesa” (The “Museum of the Portuguese Language”) which was housed in the old railway company’s ornate 19th century headquarters building.

Bolsonaro is the first Brazilian President to participate in the March. Evangelicals now represent 30% of the Brazilian population. They provide one of the most solid of Bolsonaro’s support bases in the lower house of the Congress in Brasília.

On Sunday (June 23rd) on the Avenida Paulista, the principal skyscraper lined business boulevard of Brazil’s largest city, which is where the coffee barons once had their elaborate early 20th century residences, São Paulo’s LGBT Community turned out, also in their tens of thousands, to celebrate “gay” pride.

Bolsonaro when arriving in São Paulo for the “March for Jesus” unsurprisingly relaunched his homophobic attacks against Glen Greenwald and David Miranda.

Greenwald is responsible for publishing on-line the massive leak of hacked communications between the justice minister, Sérgio Moro, and the prosecutor in the “java jato” corruption investigations, prosecutions, and convictions, including that of former President Lula, when he was a Federal judge in Curitiba.

Bolsonaro said yet again that Brazil is not for “gays” but for “families.”

The problem is that Greenwald and is long time partner David Miranda are married and have a family. Though not the sort of “family” Jair Bolsonaro had in mind. Bolsonaro does not wish Brazil to become the location of “gay”sex tourism, but welcomes middle aged men in search of Brazilian girls. He continues to be obsessed with gays in fact. One of his first acts as President was to post videos of a gay couple having public sex during Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval.

The “March” and the “Parade” are both part of an international phenomenon: The global rise of fundamentalism and the rise of LGBT rights.

Curiously Brazil has always be a key player globally, influencing as much as influenced, even though few Brazilians recognise the fact, since they are very uninterested in their own history.

President Jair Bolsonaro, with his homophobia, and his draconian cuts to the education budget, and his attacks on the universities, and on the social sciences and the humanities in particular, will only make Brazil more ignorant about itself. Which Is a great pity.

Brazil in the 17th century was the major initiator and participant in the international sugar and slave trades, so much so that it became the target of of the upstart aggressive capitalism of the Dutch West India Company, which seized the North East of Brazil from the Portuguese, as well as the Slave exporting outposts of El Mina on the Gold Coast of West Africa (in present day Ghana), as well as Luanda in Angola.

After 1690, and through much of the 18th Century, Brazil was the source of the world’s gold, and after 1720 of diamonds. 80% of the gold circulated in Europe during the 18th century came from Brazil which witnessed the greatest and longest gold rush in world history.  Between 1889 and 1930 Brazil produced 71% of the world’s coffee.

In the 21st century Brazil’s agricultural, iron ore, and petroleum resources are immense. As in the 17th century in the 21st century the world casts envious eyes on these Brazilian natural resources. They have become vulnerable as a result of the corruption scandal which has weakened Petrobras, and the neo-liberal privatisation policy of Bolsonaro’s economic “czar” Paulo Guedes.

Brazil has also osolated between openness to the world and suspicion of the world.

This has been reflected in swings from open-door liberalism to closed-door protectionism.

Ever since Brazil’s independence from Portugal in the 1820s, this has led to repetitive financial crises, and repetitive baillouts by the financial powers of the epoch: The Rothschilds and Barings during the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the IMF in more recent times.

This led to the rise during the two Getulio Vargas regimes (the first dictatorial, the second democratically elected) of import substituting industrialisation, and in 1952, to the establishment of the national petroleum monopoly of Petrobras, which remains deeply engrained as a national treasure in the minds of Brazilians, despite the tribulations of the past five years.

The most aggressive conflict at the heart of the Bolsonaro administration has been over foreign policy, and Bolsonaro has staked out the greatest difference with the policies of the Lula regime and the Worker’s Party (PT).

Lula and his foreign policy team under the foreign minister (Chancellor) Celso Amorim, and Lula’s long term Foreign policy adviser, the late Professor Marco Aurélio Garcia, charted a policy which flavoured relationships with the emerging powers in Africa and Asia, and the leftest bloc of countries in Latin America (Venezuela, Bolivia, Equador, and Cuba).

They also encouraged big Brazilian business to get involved by means of favourable loans from the Brazilian National Development (BNDES) which has a portfolio larger than the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Bolsonaro on the other hand favours a close relationship with Trump’s America, and his foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo wants to save the West from postmodernism.

He is an undistinguished diplomat and his appointment was made following the recommendation of Olavo Carvalho, the right wing American based “guru” of Bolsonaro and his sons. Araújo believes in conspiracy theories and that man-made climate change is untrue and a “communist plot” and that “globalism” is driven by “cultural Marxism.”

Bolsonaro’s principal foreign policy adviser, Filipe martins, is also an  anti-globalist. Felipe Martins holds that globalism is a cosmopolitan plot organised by multilateral elites to destroy national sovereignty.

It is not surprising that Steve Bannon sees the Bolsonaros and Brazil as key allies in his international crusade to reclaim the agenda from the liberal minded elites which have dominated the international agenda for the past forty years, and why Trump also sees Bolsonaro as a South American like-minded mini-Trump.

This has led to a great deal of friction with the “pragmatic” generals Bolsonaro has appointed to government positions and who have become the target for scatological tweets of Olavo Carvalho and the in-house opposition of Bolsonaro’s sons.

The most recent casualty of this on going struggle within the Bolsonaro’s government was the demise of army general Santos Cruz, and his replacement army general Luiz Eduardo Ramos Batista Pereira. General Ramos led the 8,500 man component of the UN stabilisation mission in Haiti (Minustah). He was the commander of the south-eastern military region and previously vice-chief of the army’s general staff. He was most importantly a colleague of Bolsonaro in the barracks when he was a junior officer in Rio de Janeiro.

General Santos Cruz, however, was the third minster to leave the government since January. He has not been quiet since he was fired. He says the government “each day has a foul up” and that of Bolsonaro and his sons and the “Olavistas” purvey ”bullshit.”

The problem with the military generals, however, has repercussions for Brazil’s attitude towards the ongoing crisis in its northern neighbour, Venezuela.

General Hamilton Mourão, Bolsonaro’s vice-president was the Brazilian military attaché in Caracas and knows Venezuela and its military well.  He has also served in the UN mission in Angola and speak English fluently (unlike Bolsonaro). He is a pragmatist and is not at all part of the Olavista group, and he has as a consequence, become a target of Bolsonaro’s sons and Olavo Carvalho.

The Brazilian military is extremely cautious about foreign military adventures, especially interference in the internal affairs of its near neighbours.

Mourão knows the Amazonian frontier well having served as the commander of the jungle command. The colossal outflow of Venezuelan refugees into Columbia, and beyond into Equador and Peru, and the recruitment of displaced Venezuelans into the cross-border Marxist guerrillas, and into the right wing para-military forces in Colombia, with which Brazil also shares a long land frontier in the northern Amazon basin, also pose potential problems for Brazil.

These challenges for Brazil will not go away anytime soon. The internal conflicts within the Brazilian government over policy towards Venezuela could become acute at any moment and beyond Brazil’s control. Brazil has always been ambiguous about its role in South America, but it may be forced soon to confront the reality of its neighbours problems.

The “LGBT” parade and the “March for Jesus” in São Paulo this last week are both part of the “new” Brazil.

So too are Jair Bolsonaro and the Brazilian evangelicals.

Brazil cannot forever avoid key decisions on how to respond to the conflicting demands of regional diplomacy, or the conseqences of its newfound friendship and ideological kinship and the demands of Donald Trump’s United States.

Brazil may see itself at times as a far way place.

But the reality is, that for better or worse, that Brazil very much shares global trends, and despite itself, always has.

See also,, the following:

Bolsonaro and Sons: A Brazilian Update, June 2019