What happened in the recent elections in Brazil?

November, 2018

Interview: James N. Green / Marcos Cueto and Vivian Mannheimer

James N. Green is also Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Professor of Latin American History at Brown University and was the Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the same university from 2005 to 2008. He has written several books, such as The Brazil Reader: Politics, Culture and History, with Victoria Langland and Lilia Schwarcz. Duke University Press, 2018. One of his most recent books is “Exile within Exiles: Herbert Daniel, Gay Brazilian Revolutionary.” Duke University Press, October 2018, that was published in Portuguese as “Revolucionário e Gay: a vida extraordinária de Herbert Daniel” (Civilização Brasileira, 2018). Photo: Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

On October 28, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, the former army captain of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) defeated Fernando Haddad, of the workers Party (PT) with a conservative agenda of liberating gun ownership and bringing back Christian and family values.

According to James N. Green, Professor of Modern Latin American History and Director of Brazil Initiative at Brown University, the elections were the most important in the history of Brazil and the results the most dangerous for the preservation of democracy in the country.

In an interview for our blog, Green analyzed possible dangers to public health and universities, and some ideas about the political future of Brazil.

What happened in the recent elections in Brazil?

The elections on October 28, 2018 were the most important in the history of Brazil and the results the most dangerous for the preservation of democracy in the country. Jair Bolsonaro represents the wave of the far-Right, authoritarian-minded politicians who have come to power in the Philippines, Russia, Poland, Hungry, and the United States, and there are serious concerns about similar processes taking place in Germany, Italy, to say nothing of the conservative governments in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay. This should worry anyone concerned about guaranteeing democracy in Brazil.

In 1974, ten years after the Brazilian armed forces seized power, the generals initiated a slow-motion highly controlled transition to democracy that would ensure that those who committed serious human rights violations would not be prosecuted. They also wanted to make sure that the socio-economic system championed by the military regime would remain intact. Still, powerful student, labor and social movements pushed the democratization process forward in the late 1970s and opened the door for more radical changes in Brazil, winning partial victories in some of the provisions embedded in the 1988 Constitution.

The victory of the Left in 2002 and the expansion of some social programs and the development of many more saw a dramatic change in the lives of Brazil’s poor. For the first time in the history of the country, a government truly was interested in solving socio-economic problems. At the same time, these socio-economic changes threatened large sectors of the middle classes who saw the rights of their maids, the access of their maids’ daughters and sons to universities, and an uplifting of millions into the lower middle classes destabilizing changes in the status quo.

There are, of course, many other reasons why Bolsonaro won support—fear, hatred, homophobia, conservative moral and religious values, government corruption, etc. However, it is interesting to note two phenomena: the PT/PSOL bloc in Congress did not shrink, whereas the MDB/PSDB dropped significantly in size in the Câmara dos Deputados. Moreover, Haddad won 45% of the votes, or 47,000,000, actually 1.5 million more than Dilma Rousseff. Of course, this in part represents an anti-Bolsonaro vote that is not pro-PT, but considering the overall assault against the Left since 2016, it held up quite well.

What are the dangers to the social programs that Brazil developed during the past few years?

Many think that Bolsonaro offered a radical discourse during the election campaign but will tone down his rhetoric and adopt more moderate policies while in office. Although he may be forced to in order to guarantee a majority in Congress to pass his legislation, I think that the tendency will be for him to maintain his vitriolic tone and defend his radical positions after January 1, 2019 in order to show his base of support that he will not surrender his principles to political wheeling and dealing. However, he faces serious problems as many of the Right-wing parties that rushed to his candidacy in the second round have been charged with corruption and it will be very hard to set up a coalition government without including many of these shady figures in his Cabinet.

That being said, I think that public health will be under assault in an effort to underfund the SUS system and encourage people to see private medical insurance plans to cover their basic medical needs. Programs dedicated to diminishing inequality will also likely be curbed, underfunded, or led by conservative ministers with conservative notions of health, education, and welfare.

Another sector that will be under attack is the Brazilian university system, as he will attempt a purge of professors or at least encourage their persecution through lawfare against those who speak out against the government or raise social questions in the classroom. Rightwing students will begin to film professors’ lectures and charge them with politicizing the classroom. The professors will have to hire lawyers to protect themselves. This will have a huge impact on the quality of higher education.

Although the Federal Supreme Court recently admonished the Federal Electoral Court for authorizing the invasion of Brazilian campuses on the eve of the last election to prevent students from organizing events about fascism or prohibiting them from hanging anti-fascist signs, there is no guarantee that the Federal Supreme Court will remain adamant in protecting academic freedom and university autonomy if pressured by the new government of Jair Bolsonaro.

How do you see the political future of Brazil?

Historians are very good about predicting the past but not so good at predicting the future. However, I see several serious dangers ahead. First, the fact Sérgio Moro of Lava-Jato fame will now be the Minister of Justice–and it seems that he discussed this with Bolsonaro during the election campaign—makes it crystal clear that his role was to ensure that Lula was not a presidential candidate, by any means necessary. The right knew that if Lula were free to run for that office, he would win, so he and the courts rushed through the conviction and the appeal, based on dubious charges, to make sure that he could not compete in the elections.

I assume that Moro will continue to go after the Left, while leaving the members of Bolsonaro’s support base in Congress free from serious investigations. It will be part of a strategy to attempt to destroy the PT. His promises to outlaw social movements by declaring them terrorist organizations is also ominous. Moreover, his approach to the presidency, much like Trump’s, will be to appeal to his base of support through Whats’ App and social media, not as the president of the entire nation, but as radicalized and partisan supporters, will only polarize even more the divisions in the country.

It is important to note, that the international media so far has characterized Bolsonaro as far-right and compares him to Trump, and many times arguing that he is much worse. While international public opinion will not determine the ultimate fate of this presidency, it will have an effect on his ability to implement his policies.

How to cite this interview:

What happened in the recent elections  in Brazil. Interview with James N. Green, by Marcos Cueto. HCS-Manguinhos Blog, November, 2018. http://www.revistahcsm.coc.fiocruz.br/english/what-happened-in-the-recent-elections-in-brazil/.

More stories on elections:

El nuevo gobierno argentino y la salud – Hugo Spinelli analiza las tendencias de Mauricio Macri para la salud.

Elecciones en el Perú: propuestas débiles para la salud – Víctor Zamora analiza las perspectivas para la segunda vuelta de la votación presidencial en el Perú.

The new Bundestag: refugees and health – An interview with Dr. Michael Knipper, of the University of Giessen, about Germany’s recent elections and immigration policies.

A divided US: The unexpected electoral victory of Trump – Theodore Brown, professor of history at the University of Rochester analyses the victory of Donald Trump and the reactions of the progressive political forces in the US.

El nuevo gobierno mexicano y la salud – Ana María Carrillo, profesora titular en la UNAM, México, analiza los desafíos del país en el área de salud pública y las tendencias del presidente mexicano con respeto a este tema.

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