Bolsonaro is likely to exacerbate the problems Brazilians elected him to solve  

Jair Bolsonaro
REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
Jair Bolsonaro has expressed interested in ramping up mining in the Amazon region.

Jair Bolsonaro, the former army captain Brazilians elected president on Sunday, makes President Trump look like genteel Uncle Donald. His victory, like Trump’s, is a reflection of how angry and frustrated voters are. But we already have a pretty good idea of how this turns out – and it’s not good.

In some ways, it’s easy to see why Brazilians turned to a candidate known for outrageous statements, such as: He’d rather have a dead son than a gay son; he wants to let the police and army loose on the favelas; make it easier to buy guns; thinks the country’s former military dictatorship should have killed more people and on … and on.

After the rapid economic growth that lifted millions out of poverty, boosted Brazil’s status and brought soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic summer games in 2016, things went horribly wrong. The country’s democratic foundation wasn’t strong enough, and the economy was far too dependent on exporting commodities.

Brazil is only now, and slowly, emerging from what was the worst recession in its history. The murder rate is an astronomical 30 per 100,000 people; nearly 64,000 people were killed last year, or 175 a day. Bolsonaro himself nearly died after a knife attack on the campaign trail. An epic corruption scandal landed a popular former president in jail and tainted many other prominent officials. So, yes, Brazilians (like voters in so many other countries in recent years) were in a mood to throw the bums out.

But what they’re likely to get won’t cure what ails Brazil. There almost certainly will be more bloodshed, but it won’t address the causes of violence. Bolsonaro seems inclined to double down on commodity exports rather than diversifying the economy. And turning to an authoritarian populist with a fondness for the army is not likely to eliminate corruption, only change the beneficiaries.

Brazil matters to the rest of us, too. It is the globe’s fifth-most populous country and possesses a top-10 economy, bigger than Canada’s or Russia’s. Its agricultural sector competes with U.S. farmers for global markets in soybeans and other commodities. In an era of deep concern about climate change, the Amazon rainforest is often called the world’s lungs. At a time when global politics is undergoing a major realignment, Brazil could help shape a new world order as an emerging power: The ‘B’ in BRIC is for Brazil.

But it’s Brazilians who vote, of course, and Bolsonaro appealed to those angry about crime, to those in the business community interested in trimming bureaucracy, to farmers and to socially conservative Evangelical Christians who make up about 30 percent of all Brazilians.

Bolsonaro might be able to get a handle on one big problem, the pension system, which is rapidly going bust. The current president, Michel Temer, failed earlier this year to reform it, but the public may be coming around. Two polls nine months apart found that the number of Brazilians rejecting pension reform had fallen from 71 percent to 44 percent.

Temer also directed federal authorities earlier this year to take over security in Rio de Janeiro to try to quell violence that is largely the result of turf wars among drug gangs. Reuters reported that in the first six months, the number of people killed in confrontations with police increased by 35 percent over the previous year. That may not be a huge surprise, but the number of murders also increased, by almost 5 percent. Gang leaders interviewed by the news agency said little will change; high-profile leaders might lie low for a while; their foot soldiers will continue to sell drugs. The favelas will be just as poor, and the young men who make up the vast majority of the murder victims will be just as vulnerable. It may get quieter, but only for a while.

Bolsonaro’s economic policies are less clear, but he has expressed interested in ramping up mining in the Amazon region. The organization representing Brazil’s agribusiness sector has endorsed Bolsonaro, as well.

The problem is that Brazil risks reinforcing the boom-and-bust cycle of a commodity-driven economy. Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse: It produces about 20 percent of the world’s sugar (and 40 percent of sugar exports), and 30 percent of global soybeans; it’s the largest producer of coffee and oranges, and a major global supplier of beef and chicken, among other commodities.

The economy was great while demand was strong, particularly from China. Brazil may be able to take advantage of the trade war between the United States and China by exporting more soybeans, for instance. Overall, though, the Chinese economy is slowing down – and that won’t be good for Brazil. Nor would an increased emphasis in the United States on domestic production. Sure, you can produce more. But where do you sell it?

Meanwhile, unless President Bolsonaro is completely different from candidate Bolsonaro, he will be exacerbating social and economic tensions in an incredibly diverse society. He’ll be giving the army, which had stepped to the background in an era of democratic civilian rule, new prominence.

You can indeed throw the bums out. But in Brazil – as in many other countries – it can be very easy to replace them with scoundrels.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/29/2018 - 10:08 am.

    Bolsonaro is guided by the same economic theories that Pinochet followed to create the “Miracle of Chile”.

    Not only did Pinochet’s belief in free market capitalism resurrect Chile’s economy, with the threat of Communism quashed, it eventually directed the return to a free society.

    We have seen what leftist scoundrels did in Venezuela. I for one, am excited to see what free market scoundrels can do for Brazil.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/29/2018 - 12:36 pm.

      A free society under Pinochet? Is that a joke?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/29/2018 - 01:00 pm.

      Pinochet started the ball rolling on his “miracle” by overthrowing a democratically-elected government (with US assistance). He kept the momentum going by murdering upwards of 2200 people and torturing more than 27,000. His regime also sponsored murder on US soil. Pinochet only escaped justice by dying before he could be brought to trial.

      Ever hear of “La Parrilla,” Mr. Senker? It literally means “the grill.” La Parrilla was a favorite “enhanced interrogation” method in the Pinochet years. The person being interrogated was strapped to a metal frame, like a bed frame. Electrodes were placed strategically on the person’s body (the genitals were especially favored in this regard) and electric shocks were administered. If the person interrogated was a woman, sexual abuse was a common adjunct. Sometimes, “grilling” sessions would continue for days or weeks.

      I’m not so excited to see what the “Pinochet of Brazil” might accomplish. Happy barbecuing.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 10/29/2018 - 03:45 pm.

      By that same logic, Hitler and Mussolini’s belief in fascism laid the groundwork for NATO to serve as a bulwark against communism.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/29/2018 - 04:15 pm.

        No. It was the aggressive actions Communists took immediately after they were defeated that led to NATO.

        George Patton wanted to crush Communist Russia immediately. It’s a foresight he shared with Pinochet.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 10/30/2018 - 02:22 pm.

          Equating Patton and Pinochet does a disgusting disservice to the soldiers who fought and died in WW2 in North Africa and Europe to ensure a free and open society. IMO.

          • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/30/2018 - 06:47 pm.

            Well, that’s your opinion. I don’t agree. I think Patton and Pinochet would have got along famously.

            • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 10/31/2018 - 09:08 am.

              Of course you disagree- You’re fawning over brutal dictator who liked to throw unarmed and bound people out of helicopters.
              It’s no wonder the alt-right writ large, and their ideological thralls, have no problem finding common cause with the GOP, and visa-versa. They both draw from the same well.

              • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/31/2018 - 12:48 pm.

                You keep saying “people”, as if Pinochet was snatching up innocent citizens at random and brutalizing them; didn’t happen.

                Pinochet was fighting dedicated, heavily armed Communist geurillas who were intent on setting up a Marxist puppet state with the Soviet Union.

                He used brutal tactics against a brutal foe. US Marines used flame throwers against Japanese soldiers…burned them alive.

                Were they wrong?

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 10/29/2018 - 11:35 am.

    With a 13.7 unemployment rate, I would say jobs is the answer to many of Brazil’s problems.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/29/2018 - 01:28 pm.

    “Pinochet started the ball rolling on his “miracle” by overthrowing a democratically-elected government after the the democratically-elected legislature had passed a resolution that the Socialist President was acting against the Constitution.”


    Pinochet was faced with 2 heavily armed, Communist guerilla groups; MIR and FPMR. Together they had a membership of more that 15,000 dedicated Communists. We all know what happens when Communists take power.

    He crushed them, and after stabilizing the currency and raising the economy back to #1 in central America, he held a referendum in 1988, held new elections and he stepped down in 1990 allowing a peaceful transfer of power.

    Today, Pinochet is remembered as a hero by most Chileans, although I aver, leftists still don’t like him much.

    Leftists won’t like Bolsonaro much either, probably.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/29/2018 - 03:06 pm.

      Read some real history, for a change.

      Pinochet was faced with a heavily-armed army that had just tried to stage a coup. Whatever resolutions were passed by the legislature, they did not call for his removal.

      “He crushed them, and after stabilizing the currency and raising the economy back to #1 in central America, he held a referendum in 1988, held new elections and he stepped down in 1990 allowing a peaceful transfer of power.” Totally relieving him of any culpability for his unusually murderous regime. Hey, a lot of them were commies, so what the heck, right? Why can’t we do that here?

      “Today, Pinochet is remembered as a hero by most Chileans, although I aver, leftists still don’t like him much.” The man was under house arrest when he died, and was denied a state funeral. I haven’t heard any Chileans mourn his passing (why do you think he was voted out of office in the first place?).

      “Leftists won’t like Bolsonaro much either, probably.” And in the end, that’s all that matters, right? Owning the libs is worth any number of human rights violations. The fact that Bolsonaro is a misogynist and homophobe, as well as being a brutal authoritarian, is just gravy for a true Trump fan.

  4. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/29/2018 - 04:34 pm.

    Let’s all read some history:

    Article 14 of the resolution:

    “That the Armed and Police Forces are and must be, by their very nature, a guarantee for all Chileans and not just for one sector of the Nation or for a political coalition. Consequently, the government cannot use their backing to cover up a specific minority partisan policy.

    Rather their presence must be directed toward the full restoration of constitutional rule and of the rule of the laws of democratic coexistence, which is indispensable to guaranteeing Chile’s institutional stability, civil peace, security, and development;”

    “Pinochet was faced with a heavily-armed army that had just tried to stage a coup.”

    What? Pinochet had the backing of the army. MIR & FPMR were Communist insurgents. Salvador Allende’ s nephew was a leader of MIR. They were bombing and shooting BEFORE the coup.

    Real history.

    “Hey, a lot of them were commies, so what the heck, right?”

    They were all commies.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/29/2018 - 09:00 pm.

      Pinochet was quite literally a murderous monster. You admire a monster. Nothing else can be added.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/30/2018 - 11:23 am.

      My bad: I meant to say that Allende was faced with the army.

      All your revisionist “facts” cannot override the fact that the Pinochet regime murdered over 3000 Chileans and tortured around 32,000. Thee fact that people had stopped “disappearing” by 1977? Well, goody, goody for them. It does not remove the stain of torture or murder.

      “Today, lovers of freedom and economic prosperity are cheering the election of President Jair Bolsonaro . . .” No, they aren’t. Some of us regard freedom from an authoritarian despot as a good thing, better even than tp.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/29/2018 - 07:10 pm.

    Read some real history? Let’s start with some facts. Do you deny that Allende was the elected President of Chile and that he was overthrown and murdered after a CIA sponsored coup d’etat?

    It was a coup d’etat. Sponsored by the USA. those are the relevant historical facts as far as we’re concerned. You can try and justify it any way you want. It’s none of this country’s business to meddle in the affairs of other countries, even if they are “all commies.”

    Anyway, Pinochet was only one of a succession of South American and Central American dictators or oligarchs propped up by CIA to aid and benefit US big business interests. We’ve seen what decades of US sponsored and supported right wing authoritarian rule has done for the people of Central and South America. A continent filled with destitution, the natural resources plundered by foreign interests. Most of the land and other assets are owned by a tiny fraction, not unlike the US but these vested landed interests have controlled the military-with generous US aid and support to prevent reforms that would benefit the people of those countries. So, you get Communist inspired revolution and the cycle of repression that continues to this day. The Communists are gone but the repression and murder continue. And the right wonder why the flood of refugees from these countries.

    Pinochet did nothing the help the people of Chile. He never faced the justice he deserved from the country he betrayed. After he was extradited, the authorities concluded he was too ill to face trial for the multitude of crimes he was charged with committing, including murder and forced disappearances of thousands of innocent people.

  6. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/30/2018 - 09:53 am.

    “Do you deny that Allende was the elected President of Chile and that he was overthrown and murdered after a CIA sponsored coup d’etat?”

    I deny he was murdered, because it’s not true. His body was exhumed in 2011, and examined by an international team of forensic doctors. They concluded that Allende had shot himself with the AK-47 that Fidel Castro had presented him with. That’s the facts; I love facts. Here’s some more facts.

    When Pinochet took power in a coup that was encouraged by the legislature of Chile, unemployment was 18% and inflation was surging to >300% per year.

    Then, from 1975 – 1982, Chile’s economy boomed. He had reduced government spending, liberalized restrictions on businesses, returned expropriated land and business to the private sector. It’s known as the “Miracle in Chile”.

    In 1977, the Catholic Church certified no disappearances were taking place in Chile: all the Communist guerillas were either dead, in prison where they belong, or had fled to spread Communism in El Salvidor.

    These are the documented, historical facts.

    Today, lovers of freedom and economic prosperity are cheering the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, because he has pledged to follow Pinochet’s successful economic reforms, and promised to crack down on drug cartels.

    Meanwhile, there is still no tp in Socialist Venezuela.

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/30/2018 - 04:23 pm.

      Fair enough, Allende committed suicide. The other “documented, historical facts” you claim exist are unsupported by or contrary to the record I’ve seen, for example in “The Pinochet File” taken from our own declassified National Security files and the International Commissions on human rights violations. As for the claimed “Miracle in Chile”, other repressive regimes have also reported temporary success (e.g. Spain under Franco). Hitler and Mussolini were also praised for “making the trains run on time.” Last I heard, most of South and Central America is still under the thumb of multinational corporations and the vast majority of the population lives in grinding poverty. .

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/30/2018 - 06:58 pm.

        Hitler and Mussolini were power hungry megalomaniacs that lit the world on fire.

        Pinochet just wanted to keep his country from turning into a Communist satellite, and to provide a safe environment for people to to business and prosper. He succeeded.

        In order to succeed, he used brutal tactics against an equally brutal foe. We all know what was happening in Cambodia, Cuba and the Soviet union at that time and before; genocide against unarmed population. That was not what Pinochet did.

        Had there been no armed Communist insurgency, I believe 100% he would never have killed anyone.

        • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/31/2018 - 12:54 pm.

          ” ‘. . . genocide against unarmed population. That was not what Pinochet did.”

          Oh, but he did. Death squads roaming the countryside for suspected “leftists” or dissenter or for that matter the “anyone that you don’t like oragree with” are part and parcel of the Latin American political experience under US supported dictatorship and junta regimes. No habeas corpus, no charges, no trial. No records. Why do you suppose they had to have special independent commissions to investigate and establish the historical record as we know it? Most of history in Chile since 1973 has been disappeared with its victims down a black hole.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/30/2018 - 10:03 am.

    I claim no expertise on Latin American history, so will sidestep the debate between Mr. Senker, who is not noted for factual accuracy in this household, and his several debate partners.

    What I DO take note of is the eerie parallel between the election of Mr. Bolsonaro, his publicly-expressed attitudes and positions about members of various minorities, economic policies, etc., and those of another recently-elected leader much closer to home, whose publicly-expressed attitudes and positions are similar expressions of prejudice and hubris.

    By accepting promises to “drain the swamp,” our electorate has, indeed, thrown some of the bums out, and has replaced the ones thrown out with scoundrels of equal or greater mendacity, coupled with significantly more dishonesty and publicly-expressed disdain for the public’s welfare.

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