Brazil: Prospects for 2020

By Kenneth Maxwell

By Kenneth Maxwell

Politics in Brazil are already polarized and will continue to be so in 2020.

The Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, owed his election to this polarization. He will stoke it further. It is in his political interest to do so. It is entirely in his character to do what he does best.

That is stirring up resentments, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and rightwing populism.

Confrontation is the new norm in Brazilian politics.

This in a country that once prided itself on conciliation.

Even if conciliation historically covered a multitude of social, racial, and economic inequalities.

Belligerent confrontation is now the name of the game.

Few are seeking consensus.


The economic situation may improve in 2020.

There are indications that the long recession the country has suffered over the last five years may be easing. Employment prospects are beginning to improve. The unemployment rate had been 13.70% in 2017.

But 2019 ended with unemployment falling to 11.20%.  This still leaves almost 12 million people out of work within a population of over 210 million.

Some legislative changes have been made in Bolsonaro’s first year in office. Much now depends on implementing radical domestic reform legislation which the multifarious special Interests represented in the Brazilian Congress (there are 17 parties in the Senate and 30 parties in the lower chamber of the Congress) have always been loath to support (or to support in return for special favors.)

An improvement in international trade and business conditions will also help, especially a resolution of the trade dispute between the US and China which could have a major impact on Brazil’s prospects.

Brazilian growth according to the most recent projections, prior to the new crisis in the Middle East, may reach 1.7% which will return Brazil to pre-recession levels.

The World Bank forecasts Brazilian growth at 2%.

Brazilian society remains woefully divided.

The on-going culture wars will intensify.

Brazil will continue to be part of the global struggle over the future of democracy, authoritarianism, populism, internationalized drug trafficking, and especially over the environment. The broad de-facto consensus between center left and the center right which has dominated Brazilian politics since the 1980’s has clearly broken down.

A stable new configuration of political forces has yet to emerge.

The lingering presence on the political scene of the two principal political protagonists of the old political division between center left and center right, former two term presidents Lula da Silva (Lula) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), complicates the situation.

Neither Lula nor FHC shows any willingness to gracefully retire from political protagonism.

Each seems determined to continue fighting old battles. In FHC’s case (he is ever conscious of US precedents) this means promoting the 2022 presidential prospects of the São Paulo TV host and entrepreneur Luciano Grostein Huck. Huck presents “caldeirão do Huck” (Huck’s Cauldron”) on the Rede Globo network, Brazil’s largest.

Lula’s continued political activism stymies the prospects for the emergence of credible alternatives on the left. It did so in his late withdrawn from the last presidential contest which undermined the prospects of Fernando Haddad who belatedly became the Worker’s Party (PT) candidate.)

But Lula’s resilience, wiliness, political ruthlessness, and instinct for self-preservation, should never be underestimated.

The Political Landscape

The political landscape is being recast by forces well outside the old networks of power (though sometimes these are old forces, like the Bolsonaro clan clothed in and weaponized by new garments.)

What is new is that these clusters of special interests have emerged in an environment which is already internationalized with the rise of cyber influence campaigns and sophisticated clandestine political interference and manipulation.

In this Brazil is well ahead of the game which marries the old surveillance mechanisms inherited from the military dictatorship to the new techniques developed in the age of the Internet.

One of the Harvard University students who co-founded Facebook in 2004 it should be remembered was the Brazilian Eduardo Saverin. He fell out with Mark Zuckerberg. His worth was estimated at US$10.1 billion in June 2019 and he is now living in tax exile in Singapore.

Jair Bolsonaro with an eye on the next presidential election in 2022 is forming a new political party, an “Aliança pelo Brasil” with himself as the President of the party and his son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro of Rio de Janeiro, as the Vice-President. Its objectives match his government’s slogan of “Brazil above all, God above all everyone.”

Like so much with (reserve) army captain Jair Bolsonaro and his outspoken nostalgia for the days of the military dictatorship, his new “Aliança pelo Brasil” is reminiscent of the National Renewal Party (ARENA), the pro-government conservative political party (or agglomeration) which between 1966 and 1979 was the” official” party of the military regime.

The Aliança pelo Brasil is mobilizing the support of leading Evangelicals to obtain the 491.000 signatures needed to make the new party a viable electoral alternative.

The Evangelicals are an important force in Brazil.

Recent analysis in one Rio de Janeiro favela found that 40% of the residents considered themselves to be evangelical and only 17% considered themselves to be Catholic’s. in São Paulo a vast 10,000 seat “Temple of Solomon” was built as the cost of US$300 million by the “Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.” Its minister is the son-in-law of the founder of the church, Edir Macedo, whose worth is thought to be US$ 1.3 billion and is the owner of Rede Record, the second largest broadcaster in Brazil. The “Universal Church” is said to have 1.8 million followers in Brazil.

The old battle between “Liberalism” (or “neo-liberalism”) and “Statism” (that is the dominant role of the state in business enterprises) is also back with a vengeance.

This is a conflict that rests in part on the struggle between the power of the “official” economy, where the statisticians, the bankers, the corporate managers, and the international investors live, and the “informal” economy where most non-rich (and non-white) Brazilians survive their daily challenges, and where emotional support for national enterprises remains very strong.

The “markets” know what it is they would like to see: A successful implementation of the plans of Paulo Guedes, the minister of the economy, and the creation of a slimmed down, more agile state, with more privatizations, a simplification of the tax system, much greater openness of the economy to the world, more flexible labour rules, and the overhaul of the pension system.

Paulo Guedes is certainly trying.

He has incorporated into his super-ministry the former ministries of planning and industry and commerce and established departments of “de-bureaucratization” and “de-Stateization.”

Guedes also has under his wing the national development bank (BNDES), the Banco do Brasil, the Central Bank, Petrobras, and the applied research institute (lpea). Guedes was promised a free hand by Bolsonaro.

Not surprisingly he is most popular among rich Brazilians (58% approval according to the December 5/6 DataFolha opinion survey) than among poorer Brazilians (where his rating is 31%).

Brazil is now overwhelmingly an urban society.

Yet the countryside matters, and is now dominated by agribusiness, which is a major source of president Jair Bolsonaro’s political support. He appointed a major friend of agribusiness, Tereza Cristina, as head of the agriculture ministry.

Agribusiness likes to export, and China which has for 10 years been Brazil’s principal commercial partner. China is the largest market for Brazilian soya beans, soya bean meal, beef, and pork. In 2019 Chinese purchases of Brazilian produce reached US$ 65.4 billion. (The United States was in second place in 2019 with US$ 29.6 billion.) The Arab states are major importers from Brazil. Countries with majority Islamic populations import 70% of Brazilian sugar, 37% of Brazilian chicken, and 27% of Brazilian beef.

Jair Bolsonaro is an evangelical Pentecostal. Like US president Donald Trump he is ideologically wedded to Israel. He was baptized in the River Jordan. He wanted to move the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He has claimed that “China was buying up Brazil.”

But Bolsonaro has already been obliged to reconcile Brazil’s material concerns with his ideological (and Pentecostal) preferences. He visited China on his way back to Brazil from the enthronement of the Japanese emperor (Brazil has a large and influential Japanese origin population, especially in São Paulo state). He was lavishly feted in Beijing by Chinese President Chinese Xi Jinping.  Bolsonaro also visited Saudi Arabia on his way back from Japan and China though he spent much of his time there railing in an unhinged televised transmission against Globo, the big Brazilian media empire.

The Brazilian mainstream press (like Trump and his attacks on what he calls the ”fake news” of the mainstream US media) is another of Bolsonaro’s favorite targets. He declared recently that the press was ”a species facing extinction.”

Chinese investment has been rising in Brazil.

Massively into Brazil’s electricity distribution system as well as into Brazilian off shore oil production.

China is at the center of the ideological split within Bolsonaro’s government between the “pragmatists” represented by the economic team under Guedes, the military ministers in the government led by Vice President army General Hamilton Mourão, and the ideologists led by the President and his sons, supported by the foreign minister, Ernest Araújo, and Felipe Martins, the president’s foreign policy adviser in the presidential palace (palácio do planalto), the environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, who is like Bolsonaro a climate change denier, the education minister, the economist Abraham Weintraub (he is greatest user of twitter in Bolsonaro’s government), Damares Alves, the Evangelical pastor, the minister of women and family and human rights, all of them backed from Virginia in the US by Olavo de Carvalho, the self-exiled verbally incontinente, foul mouthed, internet ”philosopher” and gun totting “mentor” and “guru” to Bolsonaro and his sons.

Brazilian society is profoundly unequal and the concentration of wealth at the top remains obscene, even by international standards.

The top one percent of Brazilians control 28.3% of the national wealth. 10% of the richest control 41.9% of the wealth. Only Qatar has a worse distribution of wealth at 29%.

Yet Jair Bolsonaro’s most fervent political support base is among Pentecostalists, many of them drawn from the urban aspiring lower middle class and Favala residents.

The intersection between the urban upper middle class ensconced behind their well protected high rises and heavily gated compounds, and the aspiring poor is intense, interconnected, and interdependent.

Often these connections are through household service and through what the Brazilian historian Jaime Reis calls the world of “motor boys, bike boys, Uber, the slaves of neo-liberalism.”

This is the “Gig” economy Brazilian style. These unequal segments of society are linked through the large informal economy of the drug trade especially in cocaine. This is where the middle class meets the traffickers. These connections are also international.

Clandestine Commerce

Some idea of the scale of this clandestine commerce can been seen in the extent of drug seizures. Cocaine seizures between January and October 2019 comprised 47.1 tons in the port of Santos (SP), 18.9 tons in Paranaguá (PR) which is the second largest port in Brazil in terms of tonnage and the third in container shipping and is the main port for Brazil’s agricultural products, 13.5 tons of cocaine was seized in Natal (RN), and 4.4 tons in Itajaí (SC).

These cocaine shipments were destined for Holland, France, and Belgium. The cocaine routes link the inland frontiers of Colombia and Venezuela through Bolivia and Paraguay to the Brazilian (and Uruguayan) Atlantic ports. The trade also passes from Natal to Europe through the former Portuguese colony of Guiné Bissau (virtually a narco-state).

The trade in cocaine and the routes of cocaine trafficking into and out of Brazil are a major unacknowledged contributor to Brazil economy.

It also stokes Brazil’s high rate of crime, urban gang warfare over urban territory, and the interconnections between the informal armed “milícias” which since 2000 under the guise of combatting narcotraffickers have extorted the population of the favelas and low income communities for the clandestine use of gas, cable television link ups and other services, and in the sale of property. Formed of police, firemen, security guards and retired military officers, they often live in the communities and are linked to politicians and community leaders.

According to research in 2010 the milícias dominated 41.5% of the 1006 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The other 55.9% were controlled by narco traffickers. The corruption of the police and local politicians, and the high rates of homicides, especially among Brazil’s “afro descendent” population is a direct consequence. In Rio de Janeiro the milícia “escritório do crime” which is active in the western area of the city exploits the illegal construction and the sale of real estate.

The role of the military police along these sharp domestic boundaries is particularly shocking.

The context was captured by the iconic photograph, taken in 2004 by Tuca Vieira of the favela of Paraisopolos abutting the upper-class district of Morumbi in São Paulo, where the division between wealth and poverty was most grotesque, between the favela and the luxurious apartment bloc.

It also mirrors the division between whites and non-whites with deep roots in Brazilian history and the legacy of almost 400 years of slavery.

Social and Racial Divisions

The social and racial divisions have not improved over the past 15 years since Tuca Vieira took his iconic photograph. It was in Paraisopolos, now the second largest favela in São Paulo, where 100,000 people live, that nine young people, attending the weekend “baile funk” on the first Sunday of December were shot dead (according to the military police), though they were more likely killed by suffocation caused in the panic as the military police intervened and blocked all exits, according to residents and the families of those killed.

Eduardo Bolsonaro (35) a congressman representing São Paulo, and the president’s third son (he received the largest vote in Brazilian history) took to Twitter to ironize the Paraisopolis victims. Eduardo Bolsonaro is the chair of the foreign affairs and defence committee in the lower house. His father wanted him to be the Brazilian ambassador to Washington. He is an acolyte of Olavo de Carvalho and more recently of Steve Bannon, and he has been the South American link in Bannon’s right-wing international populist organisation.

Last October in response to the widespread street protests in Chile and Bolivia, he suggested Brazil needed “a new AI-5” which was the Brazilian military regimes institutional Act 5 which gave it the power to override the constitution and inaugurated the most repressive period of military rule. His father has for many years praised the military regime. Eduardo Bolsonaro is a former federal police officer and lawyer.

The deaths in Paraisopolos at the hands of the São Paulo military police are far from being isolated cases. Up until October of 2019 the military police in São Paulo killed 697 people. In 2018 they killed 686. (The civil police in São Paulo over the same period killed 28 and 18 respectively). In Rio de Janeiro the police killings rose by 17% in 2019.  Here the favelas and the high rises coexist in close proximity, often defined as the contrast between the “morro and the ashfelt” the contrast between the city street and the hill side self-made settlements that lack road paving and most city services. These hill side favelas narrow steps, irregular surfaces, overhanging buildings, channels of rubbish and sewerage, protected by and subject to extrajudicial punishments and protection rackets by drug gangs and the informal milícias of former police officers, are the most iconic favelas, but in reality in Rio de Janeiro the favelas also stretch much further inland to the north and far west of the city’s limits.

Here the disparity between locally available jobs and the resident population is enormous so residents must travel two hours a day each way to work in the inner city. The favelas of Rio have increased exponentially over the last half century, from 337,000 out of a total population in Rio de Janeiro of 3.3 million in 1960 (10.20%) to 1.313 million in a population of 6.2 million in 2010 (22.16%).

The same is true on the periphery of São Paulo as well as in occupied abandoned high-rise buildings close to the São Paulo city center. The consequences of these social and racial disparities show up in the Brazilian crime statistics which are the sixth highest index in the world in terms of homicides for 19 to 24-year olds: 7000 in Rio de Janeiro, 26 per 100,000 of the population. For young black men this means 400 per 100,000. The absence of the state and brute force is the norm for many.

Environmental Crisis

It is the crisis of the environment where Brazil is at the center of the global challenge and where what happens in Brazil has broad and inescapable international ramifications. Bolsonaro, like Trump, is a climate change denier. The US and China are the world’s largest contributors to carbon emissions.

But the threat to the Amazon rainforest has long attracted global concern and has created networks of powerful connected Brazilian and international activists, many of them high profile international figures, like the assassinated Chico Mendes in the past and the indigenous leader cacique Roani today, the British singer Sting in the 1980s, and American film star Leonardo DiCaprio more recently.  Bolsonaro claimed that DiCaprio was bankrolling the deliberate incineration of the Amazon rainforest.

The “criminalization” of NGOs in Brazil by Bolsonaro’s government comes against the background of the global mobilization of young people against global warming who are demanding concrete responses to the pledges made at the Paris global climate change summit in Paris and the subsequent failed climate change meeting late in 2019 in Madrid where China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Australia, blocked meaningful resolutions.  Bolsonaro not surprisingly attacked Greta Thunberg as “pirralha” (literally a little ”brat”or “pest”).

Donald Trump, another climate change denier, and also the master of insulting tweeted acronyms, agreed with Bolsonaro about the merits (or in their view the lack of merit) of Thunberg’s declarations.

The figures for 2019 for the burnings in Brazil are dramatic. The highest loss in rain forest in a decade, a 30% rise over the same period the year before. The attacks on Leonardo DiCaprio accused by Bolsonaro of bankrolling NGO’s to deliberately incinerate the Amazon rainforest and of Greenpeace for creating oil slicks along the Brazilian coast, are met with contempt outside Brazil. As was Bolsonaro spat in 2019 with Emanuel Macron, the French President.

Over the past year 3,700 square miles of Amazon rainforest has been razed. The cattle, soybean frontiers have been advancing all across the Amazon rain forest and along the Amazonian periphery in the Cerrado. Small prospectors, for gold, iron ore, and land grabbers and property speculators clearing forest land, are at the forefront of this violent, lawless, illegal cutting edge. Big agribusinesses are the beneficiaries. As is China which imports Brazilian agricultural products.

Bolsonaro in his first live press comments of 2020 promoting tourism in the Amazonian region returned to his attacks on Macron and Greta Thunberg who he again called a “pirralha.” Bolsonaro added: “Now that Australia is on fire l would like to hear if Macron has anything to say. He said he had asked his minister of defence and his foreign minister “to offer the little that we have to combat the fires in Australia.” He also praised Paul Guedes and his economic team.

The Culture Wars

It is not surprising that these conflicts find expression in acute culture wars in Brazil and they bring strange alliances and counter alliances. The military agrees with the notion that foreigners are envious and covetous of Brazil’s Amazon riches. The Vice President, General Mourão, certainly thinks so. Bolsonaro has long blamed the indigenous population for controlling large segments of the forest and preventing development there.

Bolsonaro’s guru, Olavo Carvalho, says that the “the greatest and most perfidious enemy of human intelligence is the academic community.” Bolsonaro agrees. ”Experts” are the enemy, and the Brazilian Universities (especially the federal universities which opened their doors to poorer students under the Lula government and introduced a system of quotas to encourage the participation of non-whites in the student body) are hot beds of “cultural Marxism” in Bolsonaro’s (and Olavo de Carvalho’s) world view.

Bolsonaro has placed his education minister. Abraham Weintraub, his minister for women, family and human rights, the Evangelical preacher, Damares Alves, and the disciple of Olavo de Carvalho, the Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araújo, at forefront of this cultural campaign. The nomination (since withdrawn) of Sergio Camargo to president of the Palmares foundation, a black Brazilian, who claimed that “slavery was terrible but was beneficial to the descendants of negroes brought to Brazil, where they lived better than the negroes in Africa” and who is a critic of “the day of black conscience.”

The Palmares Foundation was established in 1988 to promote Afro Brazilian art and culture and is named after the fugitive slave community which flourished in the interior Alagoas between 1605 and 1694 made up of communities of former slaves gathered in quilombos.

Bolsonaro appointed Letícia Dornelles a television telenovela producer to be president of the Casa Rui Barbosa in Rio de Janeiro. Located in Botafogo in the home where the eminent writer, politician and jurist and his family lived between 1895 and 1923, the Casa Rui Barbosa was the first museum established in Brazil in 1930 and houses his personal archive and library in a beautiful neo-classical building and garden and has been a beacon of cultural life for many decades and has been directed by many distinguished Brazilian scholars.

Letícia Dornelles first act was to dismiss the director of research and four researchers, all eminent scholars. She was indicated for the position by the neo-Pentecostal pastor of the “cathedral of avivament” and congressman from São Paulo, Marco Feliciano, an outspoken conservative and friend of Jair Bolsonaro. Feliciano was ordained in the US and is the head of 14 churches in Brazil. He plans to run for Vice President in 2022. He is notorious, like Bolsonaro, for his attacks on Africans, LGBTQ individuals, women and catholics. Africans he said are descended from “ancestors cursed by Noah.” He abhors the” promiscuous practices” of homosexuals. Giving women more rights would “undermine relationships and marriage as well as increasing the likelihood their children would be gay.”

Another front in this cultural war is Bolsonaro refusal to sign off the renowned Brazilian singer and novelist Chico Buarque de Hollanda’s award of the prestigious Camões Prize, which will nevertheless be awarded anyway in Lisbon in April 2020.  In this Bolsonaro is facing many of his favorite enemies that he has spent 27 years in the Brazilian Congress railing against.

But the collateral victims of this cultural war are the young people killed in Paraisopolos, all them 14 to 23-year olds, all from the periphery, all of them devotees not of “bossa nova” but of baile funk. All of them “marginals” in terms of race and social class as far as the Military Police of São Paulo were concerned. The image of this “new” Bolsonaro Brazil is not that of the “Girl from Ipanema” on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, but of the 14-year-old Gustavo Cruz Xavier killed at a “baile funk” in the narrow alleyways of Paraisopolis in São Paulo.

The Greenwald Factor

The hyper involvement of the use and misuse of the internet and the international dimensions of these political conflicts is also at the heart of the activities of Glenn Greenwald in Brazil. Greenwald was responsible for the revelation of the hacked archive messages between the judge and prosecutors in the “car wash” investigation which had led to the unprecedented conviction of many leading businessmen and politicians, including former President Lula, conducted by former judge Sergio Moro. Jair Bolsonaro appointed Moro to be minister of justice in his administration and also promised him a freehand in reforming the criminal justice system and in combating corruption.

Greenwald is no ingenue. He is a New York born constitutional attorney whose law firm represented clients, many on a pro-bono basis, which included a white supremacy advocate and a neo-Nazi organization.  In 2013 working with the British newspapers “The Guardian” he detailed the US and British global surveillance program based on information provided by Edward Snowdon. In 2014 funded by the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, he established with two colleagues Intercept Brasil. There were claims that information on Hillary Clinton purveyed during his blogging days came originally from Russian intelligence sources. Greenwald has also been highly critical of US Democratic Politicians for what he considers their “anti-Russian” hysteria.

The most significant information revealed by Intercept Brasil was the release of private messages exchanged between the investigate judge Moro and the main prosecutor, Deltan Daliagnol, during the ”car wash” investigation, the ongoing criminal investigations by the Brazilian Federal Police, Curitiba branch, which began in 2014. These private messages were hacked apparently by Walter Delgatti Neto. The consequence of these revelations was to seriously undermine Sérgio Moro’s stellar international reputation and to severely embarrass many (both within Brazil and internationally) who had praised his anti-corruption campaign, as well as to jeopardize many of the successful corruption convictions. Which were indeed spectacularly successful.

Using plea bargains the “car wash“ investigations interrogated 429 individuals, in 18 companies, in corruption case involving more than 11 countries, and convinced 159 major political and business figures. All of which was unprecedented. But Greenwald’s “Intercept” revelations do not seem to have seriously damaged Moro’s reputation in Brazil. Moro was in a DataFolha opinion survey in the January 2020 the Brazilian in which the population has “most confidence” (33%) followed by Lula (30%) Bolsonaro (22%) and Huck (21%). Though it should be noted that all also have low confidence rates (Moro 42%) (Lula 53%) (Bolsonaro 55%) (Huck 55%). But a real consequence has been a weakening of the anti-corruption momentum in Brazil.

Greenwald is also at the heart of the cultural wars Bolsonaro is waging. While in holiday in Rio Janeiro he met on the beach at Ipanema a handsome young Brazilian. It was a case of “the boy from Ipanema“ twenty-first century style. Greenwald fell in love. David Miranda and Greenwald are married and have two adopted children. Miranda is now a Congressman from Rio de Janeiro. Miranda and Greenwald both have a very high profiles In Brazil, and Greenwald as a major interpreter of Brazilian events to the outside world.

David Miranda and Glenn Greenwald have both received death threats in Brazil, which should not be underestimated. A good friend of theirs, the Rio de Janeiro council women, Marielle Franco, who had taken on the militias, was assassinated, and Miranda himself took up the seat in Congress of an openly gay Rio congressman who is now living in exile after death threats. Greenwald and Miranda both epitomize everything about the alternative Brazil that the homophobic Bolsonaro and his family and their sour “guru” in Virginia most hate. It is for them all a very personal and individual cultural war.

Shift in Brazil’s International Policies

The arrival Jair Bolsonaro in office also marked a major shift in Brazilian international policy. In 2020 Brazil has become very much part of the Trump (and American) camp. The days of Lula’s skepticism about the United States, and his opening to Africa, Venezuela, Cuba, and the Islamic world is long gone. But navigating these international shoals will not be uncomplicated for Bolsonaro in 2020.

Trump is an unpredictable friend and Trump is above all a transactional and not an ideological president and he faces an election campaign in 2020. In Brazil’s neighborhood in Latin America tensions will continue in 2020. Social unrest and street protests have already sent shock waves across the region from Chile to Colombia.

Venezuela is in permanent and unresolved crisis and millions of Venezuelans have fled the country including into Brazil. Brazil will strive to avoid contagion. Jair Bolsonaro will face the need to conciliate the ideological driven and pragmatists within his own government.

He will need to bring economic growth.

None of these easy tasks within an angry and divided society he has done so much to instigate and on which his political fortunes depend.