Brazil: How Long the Nightmare?

By Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira 

Current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shaking hands with former President Michel Temer

Jair Bolsonaro (right) meeting with former Brazilian President Michel Temer (left)/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/micheltemer/45044560194

The decline of Brazil’s democratic culture since 2013 has thrust the country into nightmarish times from which only its ample civil society, if mobilized, can rescue it. The media daily reveal evidence that many Brazilians now celebrate violence, irrationality, torture, racism, and the demeaning of education, science and culture. We are witnesses to a blend of authoritarianism and radical economic liberalism, explicit subordination to the United States, and abnormality and evil.

  • Many Brazilians long nostalgically for the 20 years behind us, when two parties – one left- and another right-of-center – alternated as incumbents. They were subject to hits and misses, achieved good and bad outcomes. Each side swore that its policies and results were the best, but they were democratic, and they knew the meaning and rules of politics. Until 2013, politics was not a bitter fight between enemies that hated each other, but a compassionate fight between mutually respectful adversaries.

The two adversaries were the Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and the Workers’ Party (PT) – one standing for liberal orthodoxy, the other for distributive orthodoxy. The former put its chips on the markets, the latter on industrial policy. The PT achieved greater growth because it increased public investment and benefitted from the commodities boom of the 2000s, but the two administrations fell into the macroeconomic trap of high interest rates and an appreciated exchange rate that prevented private-sector investment.

  • On the fiscal level, after the financial crisis of 1998, the two administrations posted satisfactory primary surpluses up until 2013. Crisis in 2014 changed all that. Commodities prices plunged; a fiscal crisis ended surpluses and caused a large primary deficit; manufacturing firms were unable to turn a profit because of an overvalued real that flooded the domestic market with imports and caused excessive corporate indebtedness.

The political crisis might have been resolved or partly addressed if the opposition had won in 2014. The reelection of President Dilma Rousseff deepened it instead as her new term began with no support whatsoever from the economic elites.

  • During his brief period as Minister of Finance, Nelson Barbosa attempted to counter the fiscal crisis with a sharp current-spending cut, while increasing investment. Instead, the country returned to an absurd procyclical policy that persists to this day and keeps unemployment at unacceptable levels.
  • These mistakes were the fruit of the deep political crisis that since 2013 put hatred at the heart of political life. Although classic liberalism is defined by tolerance and some level of relativism concerning truth in politics, a form of intolerant liberalism emerged among the liberals, and Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (president in 2003-2010) and the PT were turned into enemies, even if they were simply adversaries. The leaders of the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigations took advantage of this hatred for self-promotion. Michel Temer, vice president under Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, took advantage of it to take over, using his “A Bridge to the Future” plan as an instrument. President Jair Bolsonaro, who took office on January 1 this year, harnessed the hatred to win last year’s elections, while relying on economist and investment banker Paulo Guedes as an assurance of a neoliberal economic policy.

For nine months, governmentlessness has resulted, with little or no prospect of a return to right-of-center liberalism or left-of-center developmentalism. Brazil does not appear headed back to the path of normalcy and a healthy alternation of moderate and democratic parties. Brazilians do not know where they are headed, but one thing for sure is that the rule of law and democracy are facing very severe risks. Only a far-right minority truly identifies with the incumbent administration’s policies. But Brazil’s civil society is already well organized, with a working class, a middle class, and a varied and qualitative business class. These are the assets that could help the country overcome the nightmare into which it has plunged. 

September 24, 2019

* Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira is emeritus professor of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, has served as government minister in several Brazilian administrations, and is author of numerous books and articles catalogued at www.bresserpereira.org.br.

 

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