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The Challenge to Democracy in Brazil

TUC report
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Historical Context

From dictatorship to democracy

After twenty-one years of military dictatorship, civilian government returned to Brazil in 1985 and in 1989 Brazilians were once again able to vote directly for their president. The dictatorship had been responsible for the murder of hundreds of political opponents and thousands of indigenous Brazilians, 6 as well as the violent persecution, imprisonment and exile of trade unionists, activists, journalists, and artists. It had also belatedly participated in Operation Condor, the US-backed counter-insurgency campaign that carried out thousands of assassinations across South America.

By the time Congress voted to elect a new civilian president, in 1985, the Brazilian elite had decided that economic liberalisation was the means to modernisation and restoring growth, and that this would require political opening. But re-democratisation was also the result of significant popular pressure. Mobilised by trade unions, social movements, progressive segments of the Catholic Church, and opposition parties, the mass protests known as Diretas Já! (Direct Elections Now!) showed widespread support for an end to military rule.

However, hopes for a deep structural transformation of Brazilian society were abandoned amid the clamour for representative democracy. In 1988, under President José Sarney, a former ally of the military dictatorship, a new constitution enshrined political rights, as well as certain social rights – to education, health, work and leisure, pensions, and social assistance.7 But it also preserved elements of the dictatorship’s repressive regime. The military police were maintained, as was the role of the Armed Forces in guaranteeing internal order. No serious efforts were made to bring to justice those most responsible for human rights violations under the dictatorship. 8 Although the generals withdrew from government, the legitimacy of military influence over public affairs survived. Rather than dismantle Brazil’s authoritarian structures, the ‘New Republic’ built the democratic state around them.

During the 1990s, Brazil was governed by parties of the centre-right. Large-scale privatisations were combined with a neoliberal macroeconomic regime, which eventually brought Brazil’s historically volatile inflation rate under control, though at great cost to manufacturing industries. 9 Although somewhat mitigated by the construction of a minimal social safety net, unemployment soared, and inequality remained at historic levels. Then, in 2002, for the first time, Brazilians elected a working-class president, the former trade union leader and founding member of the Workers' Party (PT), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The Workers’ Party takes control

Lula’s government preserved central aspects of the existing economic model, while also deepening social policies aimed at combating poverty and accelerating social inclusion. Favourable global economic conditions allowed the government to maintain a large primary surplus, pay off debts to the IMF and turn Brazil into a creditor country. Meanwhile, Brazil projected its power through international diplomacy, assuming leadership in the global fight against poverty, building alliances across the Global South, and adopting a more assertive posture in multilateral negotiations.10 But the biggest changes came at home. An expansion of social security, increases to the minimum wage, and systematic deployment of conditional cash transfer programmes all contributed to a historic reduction in inequality and a historic growth in consumption among the poor.11 After two terms, Lula left office in 2010 with an approval rating of 87 percent.

Much of this support was initially transferred to his chosen successor within the PT, Dilma Rousseff.  Rousseff’s first years in office represented a clear continuation of Lula’s legacy of deepening social inclusion. Overall, from 2003 to 2012, over 40 million Brazilians (around 20 per cent of the total population) were lifted out of poverty. Infrastructure projects brought electricity and running water to some of Brazil’s poorest regions. Social housing was made available to poor families across much of the country. Access to higher education was significantly expanded. And millions of workers were incorporated into the formal labour market for the first time, with employment rights extended to domestic workers, drivers and security guards.

However, the trend towards deindustrialisation that had begun two decades earlier, was not substantially altered; and a growing proportion of the workforce was drawn into casual and precarious, albeit formal, labour. Meanwhile, the PT, dependent – given Brazil’s multiparty system – on deals with clientelist parties to govern, also made alliances with construction companies and agribusiness; and avoided potential fights over regulating media conglomerates and finance capital, which exercised growing influence over politics. With violence and organised crime growing in much of the country, an increasing challenge was addressing the security concerns of urban populations. With these underlying challenges, a change in the political and economic climate would begin to erode the PT’s position.

Lavo Jato and the rise of the far right

In June 2013, small protests were held in the city of São Paulo in opposition to a rise in bus fares. A violent crackdown by police provoked anger, which spread rapidly and unexpectedly across the country. Initially mobilised by the left-wing Movimento Passe Livre (Free Pass Movement), the nationwide protests highlighted a lack of investment in public services, contrasting this to massive expenditure on prestige projects ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. However, as the protests grew, drawing in newly politicised members of the middle class, their character changed.

Organisers of some demonstrations banned the participation of political parties, unions, and social movements and ambiguous, moralistic accusations of corruption against the political class gained prominence. Although they had begun over specific, often local, issues, over time, popular anger became directed towards the incumbent national government. According to political scientist Leonardo Avritzer, ‘June 2013 opened the way for a reorganisation of conservative sectors in Brazil, first on the Internet and later on the streets.’12 It was amid the ideological confusion of the June protests that the seeds were sown for the far-right movement that would eventually form around Bolsonaro.

In 2014, the Brazilian economy entered a crisis from which it has yet to recover. In a tightly fought election that year, Rousseff’s second-round opponent, Aécio Neves of the centre-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), sought to mobilise widespread discontent and a growing mood of antipetismo (anti-PT sentiment) among wealthier segments of the population. Rousseff nonetheless went on to narrowly win re-election. However, with the backing of senior figures in his party, Neves issued unfounded accusations of election fraud and called his supporters to the streets. The official audit one year later confirmed Rousseff’s victory, but the damage to democratic norms in Brazil would endure.

This moment gave rise to new reactionary groups, such as Vem Pra Rua (Come to the Street) and Movimento Brasil Livre (Movement for Brazilian Liberty), which, both online and in the streets, contributed to radicalising the newly politicised middle classes. Mixing economic libertarianism with social conservatism, they increasingly incorporated more anti-democratic elements of the Brazilian far right. As they expanded, they helped to normalise attitudes that had become marginal to public discourse since redemocratisation – the glorification of military rule, overt bigotry, violent intolerance of political opponents – as well as propagating the anti-communist conspiracy theories now associated with the so-called ‘nationalist international’.13 Their immediate concern at this stage, however, was mobilising support for Rousseff’s impeachment.

They were helped in this regard by Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), an anti-corruption investigation initiated in the city of Curitiba in 2014 that would become the largest in the country’s history. Initially focused on money laundering, investigators uncovered a kickback scheme involving the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Inflated construction contracts had been awarded to a cartel of giant firms in return for kickbacks to politicians and political parties. As a result of the investigation, leading business executives and politicians were jailed. Meanwhile, prosecutors and, most notably, the leading judge in the investigation, Sergio Moro, became celebrities, receiving regular, sympathetic media coverage.

From an early stage, Moro and the prosecutors were accused of political bias, for disproportionately targeting the PT and its allies, as well as contravening legal norms in their zeal for convictions. Leaked phone messages published by The Intercept, in 2019, revealed that prosecutors had doctored evidence, targeted Supreme Court judges considered hostile to the investigation, and consulted illegally with Moro in building their case against big-name defendants. They also revealed illegal collaboration with officials from the United States Department of Justice.14

As Lava Jato expanded, it provided a handy pretext for different groups that wished to see the PT removed from government. Sensationalistic new coverage conflated corruption cases with unfounded claims from the opposition implicating Rousseff, even though she faced no criminal charges and her government had actively promoted the investigations. Towards the end of 2015, the speaker of the lower house of Congress agreed to initiate impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, after it became clear15 that the government would not protect him from prosecution on corruption charges that he himself was facing.

The case against Rousseff rested upon two accusations relating to 2015: that she signed three decrees to increase credit for expenditure on social programmes without congressional authorisation; and that she delayed payment to a public bank for money spent on a government agricultural programme. It was only at the end of 2015, more than six months after the delayed payment in question, that the Federal Court of Accounts decided that such delays were illegal. When, in 2016, the Legislature decided that Rousseff’s accounting irregularities constituted ‘crimes of responsibility’ (the condition for impeachment), it thus accepted a new, post-hoc interpretation of the country’s budgetary laws, not previously applied to other presidents or governors who had behaved similarly.16

On 17 April 2016, Congress voted in favour of impeachment, with many, incorrectly but revealingly, citing corruption as their motivation. Ironically, unlike Rousseff, some 60 per cent of deputies participating in the vote were themselves under investigation for corruption.17 On 31 August, the decision was upheld in the Senate (where more than half also faced corruption charges) and Rousseff was officially removed from office. The political chicanery involved in Rousseff’s impeachment was later laid bare by a leaked recording of a conversation between a senator of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party, Romero Jucá, and an influential billionaire businessman. In it, the senator affirmed that the impeachment was necessary not to end government corruption, but in order to halt the corruption investigations, given protection by Rousseff, that threatened the rest of the political class.

Rousseff was succeeded by her erstwhile vice president, Michel Temer, also of the MDB. His two years in power were characterised by constant corruption scandals and an aggressive attack on social rights, both of which contributed to a collapse in his approval ratings. The other main party of the centre-right, the PSDB, was also discredited, having accepted key posts in his government.

In this context, the PT made a moderate recovery in public opinion, and the new right, which had formed in the aftermath of 2013, sought more radical alternatives. Lula had announced his intention to stand as the PT’s presidential candidate in 2018 and was the frontrunner in the polls at the start of the year. However, in April, Lava Jato judge Sergio Moro fast-tracked Lula’s conviction on dubious charges of money laundering and passive corruption: Lula’s subsequent imprisonment barred him from the Presidential race. Although the PT contested Moro’s decision, Lula’s disqualification was upheld by the Superior Electoral Court.

As for Moro, he would later be rewarded with an invitation to become Justice Minister in Bolsonaro’s government, which he accepted.

Enter Bolsonaro

This was the context for Bolsonaro’s ascent in 2018. After an undistinguished 28-year career in Congress, Bolsonaro presented himself as an outsider committed to cleansing the country of corruption, disorder, and criminality. His campaign amplified the reactionary moral arguments of the new right, cultivating conspiratorialism and propagating disinformation on social media through an illegally funded scheme of targeted messaging. His message was not merely strategic political positioning at a time of widespread anger, it reflected the violent authoritarian brand of politics that he had always stood for. For years he had advocated police violence, defended torture and called for the extermination of political opponents and activists, and the 2018 campaign was no different.18

Bolsonaro also gained the backing of capital, in large part thanks to his appointment of Paulo Guedes, a Chicago-trained economist with a history in banking, as his finance minister. As a result, major corporations and much of the financial sector came to see him as the candidate best placed to accelerate the neoliberal reforms and privatisations initiated under Temer. And Bolsonaro’s supporters boasted that they had the support of then US president Donald Trump, promising to align Brazilian foreign policy with his campaign against “globalists”.

Bolsonaro’s election campaign was also enabled by a sophisticated disinformation network known as ‘the cabinet of hate’, funded by pro-Bolsonaro businessmen through an illegal slush fund.19 This network spread a series of bizarre myths about the PT in the run-up to the election, including the idea that kindergarteners were being indoctrinated into ‘gender ideology’ through the provision of ‘gay kits’.20

Beyond key interest groups and his core base, Bolsonaro was able to capture the protest votes of Brazilians exhausted by insecurity, economic crisis and political instability. In a second-round run-off against the eventual PT candidate Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro was elected president, with 55 per cent of registered votes.

The rest of this report details the human and environmental cost of this victory.

  • 6 Speetjans, P, “Long entrenched Brazilian military mindset is key to Amazon policy: Expert”, Mongabay, 26 October, 2020
  • 7 Starling, H and Schwarcz, L, Brazil: A Biography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015:564-5 
  • 8  Bevins, V, “Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Would-be Dictator”, The New York Review of Books, October 12, 2018
  • 9  Saad-Filho, A, “Varieties of Neoliberalism in Brazil (2003-2019), Latin American Perspectives, Volume 47 issue: 1, 2019: 16
  • 10  Anderson, P, Brazil Apart: 1964-2019, London, Verso, 2019
  • 11 Singer, A, Os Sentidos do Lulismo, Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 2015
  • 12 Avritzer, L., Política e antipolítica: A crise do governo Bolsonaro (São Paulo: Todavia, 2020). 
  • 13 This term refers to the grouping of far right, nationalist leaders across the world, who have provided mutual validation through their rhetorical opposition to the ‘globalism’ of liberal internationalists. Former adviser to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, has sought to formalise an international nationalist alliance, which he has named ‘The Movement’. On the history of nationalist internationalism, see Motadel, D., ‘Nationalist Internationalism in the Modern Age’, Contemporary European History 28, 1(2019): 77-81.
  • 14 Viana, M, Neves R, “O FBI e A Lava Jato”, Agência Pública/The Intercept Brasil, July 1, 2020.
  • 15 See Anderson, P, Brazil Apart: 1964-2019, London, Verso, 2019 
  • 16 These same ‘fiscal step-overs’ were later legalised by Congress during Michel Temer’s stint in power in late 2017.
  • 17 BBC Brasil, ‘Políticos que votam impeachment são acusados de mais corrupção que Dilma, diz jornal americano’, 29 March 2016.
  • 18 for more on Bolsonaro’s personal history, see Lapper, R, Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2021
  • 19 Campos Mello, 2020
  • 20 For more see, TUC Report, “The rise of the far right: Building a trade union response”, December 2020, in particular section 3 “Far-right media, online networkers and subcultures”: 13-19
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