Is Bolsonaro “The Trump of the Tropics”?

By Débora Nunes

When the Brazilian presidential elections announced Jair Bolsonaro as the winner, the U.S. media almost immediately started to draw similarities between Brazil’s new President and Donald Trump, baptizing him as “the Trump of the Tropics.” They actually seem to share some characteristics, such as high social media presence, anti-minorities speeches (targeting immigrant and LGBT communities, mainly), they are both married to women 24 years younger than themselves, and both definitely share a terrible taste in haircuts and ties. When we try to stretch those similarities for economic and political positions, though, we need a closer look at both economies to understand why Bolsonaro’s “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” can sound as nationalist as Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” but that so-called nationalism translates to different—even opposite—policies in each country.

One could argue that Trump is only taking credit for good economic results that are the sum of a lucky international environment with lagged effects of some of Obama’s policies, but it is true that, after he started working in the White House, the unemployment rates and GPD growth are doing very well. Bolsonaro, though, gave credit to Trump. Even though he repeatedly emphasized that he doesn’t know a thing about economics and everything should be decided by his Minister of the Economy, he was very much impressed with what Trump was doing in the United States, so promised to do something similar in Brazil. In his campaign, a number of his supporters used Trump-Bolsonaro T-shirts and reemphasized this view that, somehow, making economic decisions for a country is like a cake recipe that can be cooked in any kitchen; what works in the largest and most powerful economy of the planet should definitely work for a middle-income country with one of the highest inequality levels in the world, where more than 20% of the GPD comes from agriculture—and agricultural participation is actually rising, indicating a deep deindustrialization process.

If “I’m going to do what Trump does” is not a very good idea to start with, all signs seem to indicate that what he meant was “I’m going to do whatever I think that Trump would like me to do,” which could be even more harmful for the Brazilian economy. Bolsonaro is pushing the idea that being friends with the US is being great, and the nationalism that he is trying to promote is one in which we don’t really care about our cultural and environmental resources—probably Brazil’s greatest riches—as long as the north American investors like us a lot.

The nomination of Paulo Guedes as the Minister of the Economy was an important movement to achieve that goal. Guedes got his Economics PhD in the University of Chicago and openly defends the ideas of Milton Friedman—the Nobel Prize winner, responsible for Chile’s unpopular economic plans during Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Friedman was the only reference in Bolsonaro’s government plan, which consisted in a slide presentation with little information about concrete economic measures. According to his speeches, the plan is to privatize every state-owned company, including state parks stablished to preserve native rainforest, the social security system, the post office and massive national companies like Petrobras (the Brazilian Petroleum Corporation, ranked #58 in the most recent Global 500). Cutting taxes is also in the agenda, and—as opposed to what Trump is doing to China—the import taxes are the first target.

If selling the most profitable companies in the country and reducing federal taxes during a deep economic crisis with consecutive primary public deficits doesn’t sound very nationalistic, contributing to the fast deforestation process that has accelerated deeply since 2017 is probably even less patriotic. When Bolsonaro was still a congressman, he tried to pass a law forbidding environmental agents to carry guns after he got a fine for fishing in a protected area—which is very weird coming from a man who loves guns so much that his symbol during the presidential campaign was making little pistols with the fingers, gesturing toward his promise to soften gun laws. Since his election, he already stated that we need to stop the “industry of environmental fines”, tried to merge the Ministry of the Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture and declared in interviews, speeches and lectures that Brazilian indigenous population needs to get a “proper job” (12.5% of the country’s territory is occupied by native populations, the majority of them live in preserved areas where intensive farming is forbidden).

But probably the most terrifying anti-environmental position came from Onyx Lorenzoni, the Minister of the Civilian House. On January 25th, only 25 days after Bolsonaro’s inauguration, a dam in Brumadinho (Minas Gerais, Brazil) collapsed, spreading a toxic mud responsible for 165 confirmed deaths and 160 people still missing, in addition to health effects for the survivors, intoxication of lands and devastation of uncountable crops and farms. The Dam belongs to Vale, a company founded in 1942 as a state enterprise that was sold through auctions in the stock market in 1997, during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government, for R$3.3 billion (at the time, the mineral reserves that belonged to Vale had an estimated value of R$100 billion, which raised big controversies and high suspicious of corruption during the process). This same company was involved in the Mariana dam disaster, which occurred in 2015 and is consider the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history—according to the United Nations report, the mudflow killed more than 11 tons of fish, devastated almost 2.000 hectares of native rainforest and killed 19 people as initial consequences. Official reports from Brazilian environmental authorities before the accidents pointed out that both dams presented risks of collapsing, and the director board decided to ignore them; surprisingly, neither incident was judged yet, and the families affected still didn’t receive any compensation from Vale. Even when faced with these terrible disasters and under the alert that, of the 24,092 dams currently operating in Brazil, only 3% of them were inspected in 2017 (there are no data for 2018), Onyx declared that “there is no condition of promoting any kind of state intervention [in Vale director board], because that would be a bad sign for the market.”

On the other hand, good signs for “the market” didn’t seem to be much of a problem when Bolsonaro announced that he would follow Trump and move the country’s Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. International relation experts agree that, as response to that threat, Egypt cancelled the 2nd Brazil-Egypt Forum of Investment Opportunities and Saudi Arabia announced a reduction in Brazilian chicken imports (the country is the largest buyer of the product, responsible for more than 12% of Brazilian chicken exportations). The Middle East in general responded for a positive trade balance of US$10 billions in 2018, and a possible boycott from the region could have devastating effects for the external accounts. International trade with Israel generated approximately a positive balance of US$1 billion in the same period—a number that will hardly increase considering Israel’s importing capacity. Following Trump’s decision of revisioning the NAFTA agreement, Bolsonaro also announced that the MERCOSUL (the Southern Common Market) needs to be reevaluated; the group was responsible for buying more than 15% of Brazilian total exports in 2018.

If Brazil’s new “nationalist” president is not particularly worried about protecting the country’s natural resources, neither about giving public statements that can negatively affect the macroeconomic indexes and international relations at least in the short run, maybe he promotes the Brazilian culture in culinary, arts and folklore—like Trump’s attitude of delivering Mc Donald’s burger in the White House because “it’s American traditional food”, regardless of how cheap, unhealthy and terrible tasting it is. But that’s not the case. Bolsonaro closed the Ministry of Culture for good and pushed it into the Ministry of Sports; he also wants to cancel all federal investments in Carnaval—one of the most popular parties of the world, that generates massive profits for the service sector—showed great disrespect for all African-Brazilian manifestations and, as result, bought a fight with Brazilian artists (Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Fernanda Montenegro, Wagner Moura and a long list of internationally celebrated performers declared disagreement with his platform). When asked about what his favorite book was, the president couldn’t cite any literature piece; instead, he answered A Verdade Sufocada (The Suffocated Truth), a book by Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra which hasn’t been translated into English. Ustra was the first military official to be recognized by a civil court as a torturer during the military dictatorship; his torture center was responsible for more than 500 deaths.

If Brazil is known for its great natural resources and diverse culture, this is probably the first time in history that a president dedicated to not caring about any of those is celebrated as a nationalist. For a developing country like Brazil, to put “Brazil above everything” seems to be synonymous with becoming very close friends with the White House and convincing them that we are nice people, so they should give us some money in the form of international assents, buy our state-owned companies, and buy more of our products. Forget about unemployment, wage distribution, and giving Brazilians decent standards of living; the new face of nationalism cares more about having a Disneyland in Brasilia, with a Brazilian flag next to the U.S. flag, as promised by the Federal District (and already disclaimed by Disney).

Débora Nunes is a graduate student in economics at Colorado State University.

Brazil Is Falling Under an Evil Political Spell

By Thomas Palley

Brazil is falling under an evil political spell. The leading candidate in the presidential election is Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing politician. It is as if voters are sleepwalking their way to destruction of Brazilian democracy. Under the spell’s influence, they have become blind to the truth about Brazilian politics and blind to their better nature.

The resurrection of the fascist political tradition

Bolsonaro represents the resurrection of the fascist political tradition. That tradition discards norms of decency, tolerance, compromise and due process whenever they obstruct taking power.

He is an open advocate of racism, sexism, torture, and police execution squads. Those views are paired with a neoliberal economic program which aims to savage Brazil’s welfare state and privatize key state assets. That economic program has won him the support of the business elite, which has been willing to overlook his fascist inclinations as part of the bargain.

Brazil is sleepwalking

Bolsonaro’s popularity is inconsistent with Brazil’s expressed political preferences, which is why it is as if Brazil is sleepwalking. Past polls have shown about 65 percent of Brazilians support democracy.

Even more striking is the fact that former President Lula was the most popular political figure prior to the election. However, Brazil’s corrupt political elite imprisoned him on fake corruption charges and, with Lula barred from the election, Bolsonaro has become the front-runner. That speaks to the blinding power of the evil spell since Bolsonaro is the polar opposite of Lula.

A poisonous political potion, voter amnesia, and shapeshifting

Voters’ zombie condition reflects the poisonous political potion the elite has force-fed them. The feeding tubes have been a parliamentary coup and a dishonest media.

The potion has induced an amnesia whereby voters have forgotten history. They have forgotten how President Lula’s administration oversaw an economic miracle of growth with rising wages and declining inequality.

At the same time, the potion has enabled a shapeshift whereby the Workers’ Party (PT) has been falsely tarred as the party of corruption. The reality is the massive decades long thievery for personal enrichment was restricted to the business elite and political establishment. The PT received a relatively small amount of money, which it used for political purposes to grease Brazil’s corrupt Congress. Sadly, the novice PT government was confronted with the fact that Brazil is ungovernable without such grease.

Economic history rewritten

Worse yet, the long recession has been falsely blamed on the PT. The truth is Brazil’s long recession was triggered by the financial crisis of 2008 that began on Wall Street. President Rousseff advocated modest fiscal stimulus to help recovery, but her political opponents obstructed her and then impeached her for using improper budget accounting procedures that previous presidents had also used on a smaller scale.

A political vacuum and the appeal of authoritarianism

The charge against President Rousseff was technical budget improprieties. The real motive was to regain power and stop the “Car Wash” corruption investigation that implicated most of the political establishment, but not Rousseff.

The political elite regained power through its parliamentary “impeachment” coup. However, it was unable to hide its massive criminal corruption, which discredited it and created a political vacuum Bolsonaro has filled.

With the PT falsely smeared and the political establishment discredited, Bolsonaro’s neo-fascism began to appear attractive. He combines authoritarianism and nationalism. Authoritarianism offers false certainty, while nationalism exploits Brazilians’ loyalty to their country. All that is wrapped in the blanket of social conservatism, which incites the self-righteous and deceives the exploited.

Bolsonaro and the five big lies

Ninety years ago Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis learned the power of the “Big Lie”. Tell a big lie often and loudly enough, and it will be believed. Bolsonaro’s candidacy is built on five big lies.

Lie number one, and the most important lie, is that the PT is corrupt and the same as Brazil’s thieving elite. The reality is the elite has enriched itself, stealing tens of millions from the Brazilian state and people. There is no equivalent behavior by the PT.

Lie number two is the PT is responsible for the long economic recession. The truth is the recession was triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, and deepened by Brazil’s political elite which suffocated President Rousseff’s economic stimulus plans.

Lie number three is Bolsonaro is the candidate of patriotism. The truth is he is the anti-Brazil. Brazil is the country of the “beautiful game” and Pelé, of Samba and Bossa Nova, of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Those are what have made Brazil a global cultural force. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, Brazilians have struggled for social progress and succeeded. Bolsonaro is the opposite of all that. He would destroy tolerance and multi-culturalism, roll-back social progress, and inflict a new dictatorship.

Lie number four is Bolsonaro is the anti-crime candidate. Brazil has a gang and street crime problem owing to narco-trafficking and poverty. The solution is economic recovery and jobs, plus a narco-trafficking strategy. Bolsonaro will worsen poverty by his anti-worker policies. He also wants to kill the gangsters. The reality is many innocents will die, civil rights will be anihilated, and street gangsterism will be supplemented by police gangsterism. Brazil will have both street crime and police crime, making Bolsonaro the king of crime.

Lie number five is Bolsonaro is the anti-corruption candidate. The reality is he is allied with the neoliberal bankers who want to privatize and pillage the Brazilian state. He is an authoritarian, and authoritarianism always breeds corruption and economic inefficiency because it lacks accountability and checks.

The magic question: is that what you really want?

There is an antidote to the spell. Bolsonaro is the anti-Brazil. He is openly racist and tacitly approving of rape; a supporter of torture, extra-judicial killing, and dictatorship; and his neoliberal economic program aims to slash the welfare state. The antidote is to show the real Bolsonaro and then ask Brazilians “is that what you really want from your next president?”

Since the end of the last dictatorship, Brazil has enjoyed three decades of social progress. That history means voters know the answer if only they are asked the magic question.