Brazil: COVID Pandemic Worsens Gender Inequalities

By Cristina Pereira Vieceli*

Participation rate of men and women in the labor market – fourth quarter 2014 to second quarter 2021


Source: Author’s elaboration based on PNAD-C/IBGE.

The COVID‑19 pandemic has worsened the already precarious state of employment for women in Brazil, reversing the modest progress they made in recent years and deepening gender inequalities. Brazil has had one of the world’s worst infection and death rates during the pandemic. As of last month, more than 600,000 people had died from the disease, second worst worldwide in absolute numbers. The pandemic has profoundly affected the Brazilian economy, mainly hurting the poorest populations, including women.

The 2015‑2016 recession and its aftermath, as well as neoliberal reforms introduced in 2017, left Brazil and particularly its labor force vulnerable to the pandemic and resulting economic slowdown.

  • The industrial and civil construction sectors, for example, underwent changes that had a profound impact on the labor market, with the deepening of the precariousness of contractual forms of employment. Labor reforms established, among other changes, new hiring formats, such as intermittent working hours and more flexible rules for part-time contracts. Promoted as necessary to “modernize” the labor market and thus increase productivity and hiring, the reforms have actually increased informality in the labor market and growth in self-employment. Between the fourth quarter of 2014 and second quarter of this year, the number of registered workers dropped from 36.35 million to 33.66 million – a decrease of 2.682 million jobs. Informal jobs increased by 1.435 million during the same period.
  • Women workers experienced divergent effects from the recession. From 2015 to 2019, the percentage of female private-sector employees decreased from 43.6 percent to 42.06 percent, but expansion of self-employment increased their overall participation rate from 50.6 percent to 53.1 percent. Wage inequalities between men and women, against a backdrop of falling wages for the working class, also narrowed. This “feminization of the workforce” occurred mainly between the fourth quarter 2014 and the first quarter of 2017, when the average working female’s earnings rose from 75.41 percent of the average male’s to 78.64 percent.

The pandemic hit a precarious labor market – with dire implications for labor security, especially among women. 

  • In the year beginning the fourth quarter of 2019, about 3.8 million formal jobs in the private sector for both women and men disappeared. Between the fourth quarter of 2020 and the second quarter of this year – the period of greatest pandemic control – only 304,000 jobs were created in the formal private sector, and informal-sector jobs dipped by about 1.9 million. Unregistered workers in the private and public sectors, including domestic workers, self-employed, and auxiliary family workers – 44.3 percent of the workforce (or 41 million workers) in 2014 – amounted to 48.73 percent (43 million) this year. 
  • With COVID, the upward trend in participation of women in the labor market has reversed. Activities that employ women in education, tourism, and public and domestic services have contracted, while unpaid domestic work has increased the burden facing the female workforce. Men at the same social level have also suffered setbacks (dropping 4.7 percent in participation), but women have left the workforce in greater numbers (dropping 5.3 percent). The income ratio between women and men has also declined because many women work in sectorswith a low level of formalization. 

The labor participation of men and women remains deeply polarized and, while both sexes face greater overall precariousness, the data clearly show that women have suffered significantly greater setbacks over the years. The unemployment rate among women grew from 7.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014 to 13.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 – and jumped to 17.1 percent this year. Male unemployment was 9.2 percent in 2019 and 11.7 percent in the second quarter of 2021.

  • In-depth analysis of the data by class, race, and age would almost certainly show a similar trend: the vulnerable have grown more vulnerable through the country’s crises. It is clear that the populations most affected by the pandemic are those belonging to the low-income classes, which have a strong racial bias. Domestic workers, for example, were hit hard by job losses, with a dropout of 1.286 million workers in 2020 alone. Considering that more than 60 percent of domestic workers are black, most are in informal jobs with low wages.

November 3, 2021

Cristina Pereira Vieceli is an economist at the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socio-Economic Studies (DIEESE) in Florianópolis and the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) in Porto Alegre. She is also a faculty fellow in economics at American University.

Brazil: Where Will Bolsonaro Ramp Up Tensions Next?

By Matthew Taylor*

Demonstration in Support of Bolsonaro/ Editorial J/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazil’s September 7 holiday brought supporters of President Bolsonaro out in droves to hear him – standing next to his Defense Minister and his vice president (a retired general) – threaten the country’s Supreme Court, which he accused of politicization and abuse, and Congress, which has angered him by failing to pass his pet electoral legislation replacing electronic polling with paper ballots. Although the day’s events did not lead to significant violence, they portend further tensions and perhaps major disruptions ahead.

Great trepidation preceded the Independence Day confrontations. Some observers even worried that the demonstrations might become a rehearsal for an “auto-golpe,” triggering violence that might provide the excuse for a military intervention. The fact that the demonstrations (and counter-protests) came off without significant violence was cause for a collective sigh of relief.

  • While the crowds in Brasília, São Paulo, and a few other cities were energetic, they were – with a few exceptions – peaceful. Although small skirmishes with the police broke out, the police did not escalate matters, join demonstrators, allow conflict to escalate between protestors and counter-protestors, or otherwise create conditions that might generate excuses for the re-imposition of “law and order.” Even though many of Bolsonaro’s supporters carried messages calling for an end to the high court and for military intervention, and a few uniformed officers wandered through the crowds, both state police forces and the military chose to remain on the sidelines.

Nonetheless, the fact that reasonable observers worry that September 7 could become a breaking point is itself a sign of how bad things have become. Indeed, the question now is less one of whether Bolsonaro will further ramp up tensions, but of how he will do so.

  • The weak president, whose net popularity rating has been in the negative double digits since March appears to be trying to seize back public attention after a series of embarrassing scandals enveloped his family and his administration. His recent statement, repeated to demonstrators on September 7, that he would only leave office “under arrest, dead, or victorious” suggests he is willing to heighten tensions to protect his self-interest.
  • Bolsonaro may have further isolated himself politically this week, alienating legislative allies from the transactional and fickle Centrão parties that back his administration. They are likely to melt away as the 2022 elections approach, looking to back a winner. Impeachment murmurings in Congress also picked up yesterday. His record shows that, as his hold on power evaporates, he will be increasingly willing to push matters to hold onto office.

The Independence Day crowds were impressive enough that Bolsonaro’s appetite for adulation may be sated for now, but his supporters remain an angry minority bent on defending their leader. The 13 months between Independence Day and the October 2022 elections will be marked by significant tension, exacerbated by the President himself, along with any of his allies in the military and police who are willing to be dragged along. 

  • An analytical survey by Wendy Hunter and Diego Vega points to a number of worrisome factors within the military, including a three-fold increase in the number of military personnel in appointed positions between 2014 and 2020; Bolsonaro’s decision to increase military salaries and budgets (against a general context of fiscal austerity); and his calls to deploy the military to “defend civil liberties” against those calling for a vaccine mandate. The military has “become more assertive in engaging in political debates” and “leverage[d] the relationship to advance their own interest.” Yet Hunter and Vega also note that the military high command has growing reservations about propping up an increasingly unpopular president, and they “do not anticipate a democratic breakdown through an institutional military intervention, a traditional coup or even an incumbent takeover.”
  • A possibly greater challenge to democracy may emerge from Brazil’s truculent state police forces. The run-up to September 7 suggested that Bolsonaro’s appeal among the police might be even more widespread than within the military, and high-ranking police officers in São Paulo state in particular have been worryingly active in national politics in recent weeks. A number of high-profile police officers who were elected to public office during the 2018 elections were present in the September 7 demonstrations. The increasing politicization of police forces is particularly perturbing because of their potential to disrupt street-level politics. But so far, police discipline has held, with only small groups of police, many of whom are retired, actively backing the President.
  • With the police and the military seemingly on the sidelines, one possibility is that Bolsonaro may encourage supporters to target the courts. It is no mistake that a weakened Bolsonaro has chosen the vulnerable Supreme Court as his foil, and one of his most frightening bits of bluster on September 7 was the threat not to comply with the Court’s decisions. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Court pushes Bolsonaro into a corner, ordering another ally to jail, for example – with the President and his allies responding with flagrant disobedience and heated rhetoric about the court’s alleged partisanship and illegitimacy.

September 8, 2021

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University. This article updates one published on the Brazil Research Initiative blog.

Brazil: Case Study of How NOT to Handle a Pandemic

By Ingrid Fontes*

A health professional from the Special Indigenous Health District (DSEI) prepares a dose of the CoronaVac vaccine/ International Monetary Fund/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Most of the blame for Brazil’s inept response to the COVID‑19 pandemic – including the highest per capita death rate in the world (214 per 100,000) – falls squarely on the shoulders of President Jair Bolsonaro. Some of the severe criticism of the President – including some in an ongoing Senate investigation – is surely politically driven, but government foot-dragging and bad decisions, compounding the country’s political economy of corruption, have worsened the 15-month crisis.

  • The country has recorded 16.2 million cases and 452,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID‑19 Dashboard. Since early May, Brazil has had a moving average of more than 2,000 deaths per day.
  • Vaccinations have lagged even though Brazil has a competent infrastructure for administering conventional flu shots. As of this week, Brazil has administered a total of 63.7 million doses, with nearly 14.74 percent of the population receiving at least one dose, and 7.15 percent receiving both doses (13.2 million) – out of a population of more than 212 million. That’s below Chile (41 percent fully vaccinated) and Uruguay (28 percent); more than Mexico (9 percent); and well ahead of Peru (3 percent) and Ecuador (3 percent), according to a tracking website.

Government efforts ran into some longstanding obstacles, but many problems directly resulted from Bolsonaro policies that, according to many observers and experts, were minimalist if not obstructionist.

  • The country’s health system has long been underfunded, but the chaos has been the result of government actions. Four ministers of health have cycled through the job during the pandemic. The President and his administration have willfully disseminated information about the pandemic and vaccines, including that some shots will “turn you into a crocodile,” that have been roundly debunked. Bolsonaro has hosted large events without masks and social distancing.
  • Initially calling COVID a “little flu,” the government failed to begin arranging the purchase of vaccines in mid-2020 and later refused several offers by Pfizer that would have guaranteed it millions of vaccines. It rejected a liability waiver that the United States, EU, UK, Japan, and other Latin American countries had accepted.
  • The government also refused public calls to develop an immunization plan and delayed training healthcare professionals to administer the vaccine. When Brazil received its first batch of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines last month, the government stated it would distribute them to its 27 capitals in a “proportional and equal” division, but the lack of a detailed plan has led to wasted doses, shortages, and the suspension of vaccinations.

Corruption has also hampered efforts. Congress authorized US$50.8 billion in April 2020 and allowed all levels of government to purchase ventilators, intensive care beds, masks, and other supplies without bids and the usual bureaucratic review. By August, auditors were already warning that less than 8 percent of funds expended had gone directly to fight the disease. Of seven field hospitals the ex-governor of Rio de Janeiro ordered, five never opened. State and public prosecutors have already developed various cases of companies bilking more than US$70 million in each of various schemes. A lot of key equipment, such as respirators, and protective gear, never reached patients.

  • The government was slow to crack down on scams, such as the sale of bogus cures, that stole citizens’ money and undermined their confidence. The resident of a luxury building in Belo Horizonte, for example, told police that both the nurse and vaccine he paid US$100 for turned out to be false.

Other Latin American countries have struggled with the pandemic, of course, but Brazil’s performance falls far short of what it could have achieved with effective leadership and transparency. The harm has been magnified by the country’s interconnected and problematic political economy, specifically corruption. which has created a perfect storm of government ineffectiveness.

  • The President’s personal role is not to be underestimated, both in his deeds, such as undermining state and local governments’ efforts to contain the disease, and his inaction. Ironically, even communities that oppose Bolsonaro, or at least have no reason to heed him, have been heavily influenced by his example. Indigenous leaders report, for instance, that his refusal to accept the Chinese vaccine has contributed to vaccine hesitation among the 410,000 adults in indigenous villages. His rhetoric has made thousands of supporters refuse taking the vaccine.

* Ingrid Fontes is a student in the School of Public Affairs and School of International Service, with a particular focus on Brazil.

Lula Is Back, But What About Brazilian Democracy?

By Fábio Kerche and Marjorie Marona*

Rally in Support of Lula/ Ricardo Cifuentes/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva recovered his political rights last month when the Supreme Court overturned his convictions on corruption charges, but Brazil will need more than a simple court decision to restore the country’s confidence in its democracy and institutions after years of political turmoil.

  • The court ruled that the conduct and decisions of then-Judge Sergio Moro and the Operação Lava Jato (Carwash) investigators that landed Lula in prison were not impartial and, therefore, the justices invalidated the conviction of the former president (2003-2011). The case began to unravel in 2019 when a Brazil-based U.S. journalist, Glenn Greenwald, published leaked private conversations between Moro and the prosecutors showing a highly politicized agenda. The ruling reinforced the public perception that Lula was innocent and that Lava Jato was used as a political weapon against him and his Workers’ Party (PT).
  • The action opened the door for Lula to be a presidential candidate in 2022. It also demands restarting the trial from ground zero, but the consensus among legal experts is that a re-trial cannot be mounted before the election.

Lula’s return coincides with a period in which President Jair Bolsonaro faces enormous difficulties. The Senate is currently investigating his government’s alleged negligence in the 400,000 deaths caused by its COVID policies. Furthermore, the Brazilian economy is not recovering, as the Bolsonaro team asserts. Unemployment is over 14 percent, and hunger has reemerged as a perverse reality for millions of Brazilians. According to a Datafolha poll, only 24 percent of Brazilians consider the government to be good. Bolsonaro suffers from the lowest polls among presidents in the democratic period, except for Fernando Collor as he resigned in the face of impeachment.

  • The same poll shows that Lula would handily beat Bolsonaro in a presidential election – 41 percent to 23 percent among intending voters. In a second round, Lula would beat Bolsonaro 55 percent to 32 percent. Moreover, the public narratives pushed by Bolsonaro supporters trying to identify Lula as a radical left-winger are being put aside. The press, despite repeated attacks by the current government, portrays Lula as a much more reasonable alternative than Bolsonaro. Lula is emerging as a conciliator and a moderate center-left politician.
  • Attempts to build a center-right candidacy, a so-called terceira via (third way), seem to be getting little traction so far. The growth of center-right parties in the 2020 municipal elections is not being reflected at the national level, and the TV pop stars cited as potential 2022 Presidential candidates are not gaining momentum.  

Far from radicalizing him, Lula’s 580 days in prison seem to have softened his sharp edges, and his immediate full-time focus on looking for solutions to the COVID crisis fits his strategy of reminding the public that Brazil was a better country under his government. He is not in a rush to officially launch his candidacy, but he’s talking to several parties and leaders – even those in favor of Dilma Rousseff’s controversial impeachment and of Lava Jato, which portrayed the Workers’ Party as a criminal enterprise. He is also looking into possible alliances in state elections in exchange for broad support for his candidacy. There are indications that his vice-presidential running mate will be someone closer to the center-right, signaling that his government will be of reconstruction and not of polarization. But the path ahead isn’t necessarily easy for Lula. Bolsonaro has a group of loyal supporters and, even with a slow pace of vaccinations, there is a chance that all Brazilians will be protected from COVID by the end of this year, bringing hope for better times. Bolsonaro is also providing financial aid to the poor, which will help him recover voter share.

  • The 2022 election is perhaps the most critical test for Brazil’s fragile democracy since redemocratization. The Bolsonaro government, whose handling of national challenges has been highly problematic, continues to flirt with authoritarian measures. Civil and human rights are being weakened. Whether Bolsonaro ultimately succeeds in consolidating a regime of his own design or becomes merely a stumbling block in Brazil’s democratic history now looks likely to depend on a 75-year-old former president and former union leader who’s returned from prison to provide, yet again, an alternative to the status quo.

May 19, 2021

* Fábio Kerche is a professor at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) and former CLALS Research Fellow. Marjorie Marona is a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

Brazil: Congress Shows Leadership on COVID-19

By Beatriz Rey*

National Congress of Brazil, Plenary Session, 2020/ Senado Federal/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The Brazilian Congress has been the leading force in combating the COVID‑19 pandemic and its disastrous impact on the Brazilian economy, made necessary by the disorganization of the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro in proposing and securing the approval of legislation. The President of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, recently pointed out that, following a trend that predates Bolsonaro, no substantial vote would have occurred without legislators’ leadership.

  • Political scientists have ranked Brazilian presidents as among the traditionally most powerful in the world. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, presidents in Brazil can initiate almost any type of bill in Congress, enabling them to be the dominant player behind major policy reforms. However, this pattern began to shift in the 2000s. Political scientist Acir Almeida has documented 2009 as the year in which Congress – for the first time ever – passed more legislation of its own drafting than that proposed by the presidency. In that Congressional session (2007-2010), 371 laws were legislator-sponsored – more than three times the 113 President-sponsored laws passed. The number of laws sponsored by the presidency dropped to 86 in the next Congressional session (2011-2014), compared to 297 by Congressmen. Between 2015 and 2018, lawmakers approved 369 of their own bills, while only 42 executive-sponsored bills became law. 

Congress has especially exerted leadership during the pandemic, during which the coronavirus has dominated the legislative agenda. (Almost half of the 133 bills that Congress passed last year were linked to the public health and economic impact of COVID‑19.) Legislators proposed 96 percent of the total 2,377 pandemic-related bills drafted. Bills initiated by the Legislative and the Executive branches experienced similar approval rates – roughly 47 percent of the Administration’s and 52 percent of the Congress’s – but all but one of the President’s laws were approved as provisional decrees, which are like executive orders in the United States. Executive decrees are arguably easier to pass than other bills. 

  • The coronavirus emergency aid program was one of the legislator-sponsored bills. The country’s most important COVID-19 policy to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic, its legal framework originated in a bill submitted by Congressman Eduardo Barbosa. The program’s approval also demonstrated Congressional activism in the level of funding. The Federal Government initially proposed a monthly benefit of 200 reals (about $55), but the Chamber of Deputies counterproposal of 500 reals put pressure on the government to increase the benefit to 600 reals (about $110).

The legislative branch naturally embodies a broader array of social, political, and economic interests than the President and his Administration, which, although elected with support from several segments of society, has a much smaller reach.

  • Congress’s performance indicates that it is able to serve – with at least some presidents – as a co-policymaker, potentially improving the quality of policy debates, acceptability among political actors, and the likelihood of successful implementation. A public opinion poll by Datafolha suggests that four in every 10 Brazilians aged 18 years or older requested emergency coronavirus aid. Indeed, a study by Fundação Getulio Vargas estimates that the program decreased the country’s poverty rate by 23.7 percent (compared to 2019). This means that 15 million Brazilians had left poverty by last August. These results validate the Congressional activism and lay the groundwork for more in the future.

January 12, 2021

* Beatriz Rey is a CLALS Research Fellow. Parts of this article appeared on the Wilson Center website and in the Brazilian Report. 

Brazil: When Will the Government Act to Reduce Firearm Deaths Among Children?

By Beatriz Rey and Estevan Muniz*

Brazilian police
Police in a city in Brazil./ dfactory/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Gun-related violence against Brazilian children and teenagers has been alarmingly high for years – rising to 9,818 in 2017 and 8,253 in 2018 – but the Brazilian government has paid little attention to the issue. Seventy percent of the over 140,000 children and teenagers (0-19 years old) killed in firearm-related incidents between 2001 and 2018 were Black. While exact figures remain elusive, the independent Brazilian Public Security Forum estimates about one in almost five of the deaths – 2,884 children and teenagers in the two-year period 2017‑18 – resulted from police interventions.

  • The issue first appeared on the Congressional agenda in 1992, when legislators created a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (CPI) in the Chamber of Deputies to investigate the high number of killings of children and teenagers. Of the eight bills proposed by the CPI, only two became law – one establishing restrictions on private security companies and one removing some immunities from military police who commit crimes against civilians. Neither law has directly impacted the killing of children and teenagers. Several other bills, including one that would have created a National Code for Gun Ownership, failed.
  • Legislators instituted another CPI in 2015 (in the Senate) to examine homicides among Black youths. Their work resulted in a single bill (PLS 240/2016) that proposed a National Plan to Combat the Killing of Young People. The plan aims to reduce the number of youth homicides to less than 10 for every 100,000 youths over the next 10 years and to prosecute up to 80 percent of crimes against them. The Senate approved the bill (now called PL 9796/2018) in 2018, but no Chamber vote has occurred.
  • An executive branch initiative, enacted by the administration of former President Lula da Silva in partnership with UNICEF and the Favelas Observatory in 2009, was the Program for the Reduction of Lethal Violence Against Adolescents and Youth (PRVL), which attempted to mobilize key societal actors, produce indicators of lethality, and analyze cases of successful mortality reduction. The PRVL is no longer active; it was discontinued during the Dilma Rousseff administration.

Squabbling between the left and right has led to inconsistent and short-lived policies that have failed to reduce gun violence. The two Cardoso administrations (1995-2002) took only incremental steps in addressing law and order issues. Fears of failure and popular blame made Lula (2003-11) reluctant to implement his own National Public Security Plan. He eventually enacted the National Plan of Public Security and Citizenship (PRONASCI) in his second term, but Rousseff (2011-16) discontinued it – reflecting the lack of a coherent proposal from the left in the face of lobbying from the Armed Forces, police associations, and police chiefs within an institutional legacy of the dictatorship (1964‑85).

  • The lack of effective policy action is also due to the policymakers’ cognitive and institutional constraints. Leaders can only focus on a limited set of issues at once, and building majorities in legislatures on contentious issues has proven beyond them. Earlier this year a few legislators attempted to schedule a vote on the bill creating a National Plan to Combat the Killing of Young People (PL 9796/2018) in the Chamber of Deputies – where it’s been stuck since 2018 – but the COVID‑19 pandemic shifted all attention away.

After years of government failure to protect the lives of thousands of children and teenagers, civic action might be the only feasible way to tackle the issue. Mobilization has achieved successes in other areas such as education, where civil society groups recently pressed deputies and the executive branch to approve the National Fund for Basic Education (Fundeb).  

  • A window of opportunity currently exists to push the Senate-approved draft bill – PL 9796/2018 – to the Chamber floor. It enjoys broad civil society support and, unlike proposals from the 1992 CPI, offers comprehensive national guidelines, goals, and strategies for the federal government, states, and municipalities. In this sense, bill 9796/2018 provides a consensus-based roadmap for future political negotiation.
  • While a lack of data on the link between police violence and race makes it hard to target policy solutions for Black children and teenagers, progress on the broader issue of police violence will especially affect this vulnerable segment of the Brazilian population. The renewed focus on race and police violence in Brazil presents the opportunity for popular mobilization to bring necessary attention to the issue. Reigniting this policy conversation could represent a first step towards preventing future deaths.

September 23, 2020

* Beatriz Rey is a CLALS Research Fellow. Estevan Muniz is a journalist at TV Globo and a filmmaker. This is an adaptation of an article first published by the Wilson Center.

The Bolsonaro-Trump Relationship: Costs for Brazilian Values and Interests

By Laís Forti Thomaz and Tullo Vigevani*

Bolsonaro and Trump

Jair Bolsonaro (L) shakes hands with Donald Trump (R) at the White House in 2019/ Palácio do Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

New priorities in Brazil-U.S. bilateral relations since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 have shifted the country away from its longstanding diplomatic values. In his eagerness to demonstrate a strong capacity to reach international deals, Bolsonaro has made concessions in talks that haven’t produced concrete benefits for Brazil.

  • Talks on a proposed merger of Boeing and Embraer ended when the U.S. company walked away from the table. Negotiations with the United States on the use of U.S. technology in space launches from the Alcântara Launch Center have been inconclusive – even after reaching the Alcântara Technological Safeguards Agreement (AST) and the Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Agreement (RDT&E). Brazil granted a visa waiver to U.S. travelers without any reciprocity for Brazilian citizens visiting the United States. Even the government’s interest in joining the OECD has been controversial: its candidacy required Brazil to abandon its developing-country status at the WTO, and the Trump Administration then gave priority for OECD accession to Argentina.
  • In trade, for years Brazil has been one of the few countries in the world that has maintained a steady deficit with the United States. The expansion of quotas on ethanol and wheat from Brazil in favor of the U.S. (without opening the market for Brazilian agricultural commodities like sugar) and steel and aluminum tariffs are examples of unbalanced trade issues. The Brazil-U.S. Commission on Economic and Trade Relations has been negotiating various rules, but tariffs are not on the table. USTR Robert Lighthizer has stated, moreover, that the Administration doesn’t have “any plans right now for an FTA with Brazil.” A new “mini” trade deal supported by the Brazil-U.S. Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in Brazil may be forthcoming, but there is no evidence that it will better distribute the benefits of trade between the two countries.
  • When Trump mentions countries with the worst performance in combating COVID-19, he highlights Brazil and supports measures to prevent Brazilians from entering the United States.

The Bolsonaro Administration does not appear troubled by these failures, despite Brazil’s unilateral concessions, because they parallel the President’s worldview. Bolsonaro’s philosophical approach to foreign affairs is not far from the idea of the Monroe Doctrine and the realist theories that prevailed during the Cold War, but this time against China. The inclusion of Brazil as a major non-NATO ally can be seen in this logic. His team considers a close relationship with the Trump Administration as essential to Brazil in order to achieve its economic, strategic, and political objectives.

  • Bolsonaro and his advisors may also believe their responsibility is diluted by the fact that most of the recent agreements emerge from negotiations that started in previous Administrations, especially during Michel Temer’s 28 months in office preceding Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2019. But the way that Bolsonaro concluded these agreements reversed key elements of traditional Brazilian diplomacy. Among them are the prominence of the advocacy of multilateralism, opposition to any kind of unilateralism, and respect for international law and sovereignty. Former Brazilian foreign ministers serving presidents of all major political parties since 1990 have issued a statement regretting this shift away from Brazilian allegiance to international institutions.

As with his embrace of chloroquine as a COVID‑19 treatment, Bolsonaro seems to believe that Trump’s solutions to bi-national problems are in Brazil’s interest. The resulting alignment with Washington borders on subservience – harming Brazil’s other strategic partnerships and strong foreign policy principles. Brazil is drifting away from Latin America, especially Argentina, as well as from the BRICS countries. The government is also neglecting Mercosur, despite the collective’s recent agreement with the European Union. Some European countries, concerned about Brazilian government policies on the environment and Amazon rainforest preservation, have been questioning Bolsonaro’s attitudes and cooling on the deal. While the Brazilian Constitution gives priority to peaceful relations with all countries, members of the Bolsonaro cabinet have suggested supporting a possible invasion of Venezuela.

  • The lack of concrete benefits for Brazil from the U.S. relationship does not appear likely to drive a reassessment of Bolsonaro’s approach. Similarly, the government’s Trump-like confrontations with a large part of the international community, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN), show no sign of diminishing despite their high costs. Brazil and the United States have been strategic partners – as Presidents Lula da Silva and George W. Bush reaffirmed in 2005 when establishing a new strategic dialogue – yet the two countries’ current presidents have disrupted the terms of this relationship in ways that will take years, if not decades, to mend.

July 13, 2020

*Laís F. Thomaz is Professor at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG). Tullo Vigevani is Professor at the State University of São Paulo (Unesp) and researcher of the Center of Contemporary Culture Studies (CEDEC). Both are researchers at the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU).

Brazil: Presidential Lockdown?

By João Jarochinski Silva*

Bolsonaro Questioned

Bolsonaro addresses the press, May 2019/Palácio do Planalto/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro faces mounting crises that could cut short his term in office and prolong Brazil’s multi-year political turmoil. The departure last month of two of his most widely respected cabinet members – Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta and Justice Minister Sérgio Moro – came on the heels of other bad news as Bolsonaro completed his 16th month in office.

  • Brazil’s GDP grew only 1.1 percent in 2019 despite the government’s promise that pension reform and other measures would make it almost double that. Most of the growth, moreover, came from the informal sector, not the entrepreneurial class that was expected to back Bolsonaro. Moreover, all predictions are that economic performance will decline significantly because of COVID-19.
  • A number of disputes have significantly eroded his political base. In his first year as president, he left the Liberal Social Party (PSL), which gave him a home and crucial help in his campaign and early days of government. Since November, he has been trying to create a new party, Aliança pelo Brasil, but it is unlikely that he will have it ready to participate in this year’s municipal elections (Brazil has 5,000 municipalities) or able to attract politicians, mainly deputies and senators, to form a consistent base in Congress. These likely failings will affect the party budget and its TV time in the national elections of 2022. Social media was central to Bolsonaro’s successful formula last year, but observers wonder if the magic will remain.

In this context, his decision to fire Mandetta and Moro’s decision to resign are particularly severe blows.

  • Bolsonaro and Mandetta had clashed over how to deal with the COVID‑19 crisis. Bolsonaro wanted to reopen some sectors of the economy, but the minister – with apparently strong public support – sought to follow the international protocols established for “flattening the curve” to protect the health system from collapse.
  • Moro disagreed with the President’s decision to fire the commander of the Federal Police when investigations appeared to be closing in on some activities of his sons. As lead ex-judge of the Lava Jato investigations, when Moro joined the administration, he brought credibility among some sectors to the Bolsonaro government’s stated commitment to anti-corruption. Moro’s speech on leaving the ministry suggested that he felt betrayed.

Bolsonaro’s strategy at this point appears to focus on reaching out to two constituencies that he considers reliable: Evangelical Christians and the military.

  • Two of his sons, while managing to keep their government positions, shifted to the Partido Republicano, which has strong links with the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and the second most-watched TV channel in Brazil, and other Evangelical groups. These groups are historically linked with the Centrão, a group of parties that do not have long-term political allegiances but support anyone who promotes their most immediate interests on issues such as federal administration and control over some areas with great budgetary power in the government.
  • Bolsonaro has also given the military a central political role in his government. Several government posts are held by retired and active-duty military officers, some of whom, like Moro, brought good levels of public approval to the administration. Some were seen as agents capable of taming Bolsonaro’s impulsiveness, even if evidence of success has been lacking. By lashing himself to military officers, however, Bolsonaro has tied the armed forces to his own fate and essentially coopted the officer corps into supporting him. In the event of an impeachment or other trauma, Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a retired general, and others would be held responsible for the government’s failure.

At this point, there is no good scenario for the Bolsonaro government – and COVID and other factors raise the specter of very bad scenarios in which courting the Centrão will be costly politically and financially. His alliances with the Centrão and the military also put at risk what little credibility he may have had remaining on anti-corruption after Moro’s defection. The military may not always want to be the guarantors of the government for public opinion.

  • The military will assume a technical role in dealing with the consequences of the coronavirus, including managing the impact of the economic decline such as a worsening of social tensions, but the results in terms of governance are unpredictable.
  • As Bolsonaro gropes for a way ahead, Vice President Mourão seems unlikely to willfully trip him up. Despite investing in a more thoughtful and responsible image than the president, he has not projected himself as an alternative. But the pressures for impeachment could mount steadily. Former Justice Minister Moro will be an important factor in any future scenario, but he will have to face angry supporters of Bolsonaro, mainly on social networks. A deep sense in the ranks of the other parties that he had a political agenda and lacked impartiality in the trials related to former President Lula by the Brazilian Supreme Court promises to continue the fireworks.

May 5, 2020

* João Jarochinski Silva is a CLALS fellow and professor at the Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR).

Brazil: Politicizing Refugee Policy

By João Jarochinski Silva*

Venezuelan refugees in Boa Vista, Brazil

Venezuelan refugees in Boa Vista, Brazil/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

Brazil’s decision to welcome Venezuelan refugees is based on political calculations — part of President Jair Bolsonaro’s domestic agenda, anti-Maduro policies, and efforts to polish his international image — while asylum-seekers of other nationalities are getting a distinctly colder shoulder. The country’s National Committee for Refugees (CONARE), which includes representatives of the Executive Branch and civil society, granted refugee status to approximately 37,000 Venezuelans between December and January. As permitted by Brazilian law, CONARE granted them prima facie refugee status — by virtue of the serious and widespread human rights violations in their home country — without requiring individual interviews. It was an unprecedented number, with strong support from the government, and responded to appeals from civil society and academic experts.

  • While the number of Venezuelans in other South American countries is greater, Brazil now has the most officially designated refugees. It previously had only a little more than an estimated 5,000 refugees of all nationalities — one-eighth its current total.
  • A generous refugee policy has been a key element of Brazilian foreign policy since the 1990s, often the subject of officials’ speeches in UN contexts. The current Administration’s rhetoric, however, has been different. While visiting India in 2019, Bolsonaro criticized a Brazilian law passed in 2017 (when, he claimed, he was the only deputy to cast a dissenting vote) that liberalized the country’s policies toward migrants — constituting a law in which foreigners would not be seen as threats to Brazilian society and also impacted the reality of refugees.

The recent decision to accept tens of thousands of Venezuelans appears motivated by the Bolsonaro Administration’s opposition to Venezuelan President Maduro — as well as Brazil’s left-leaning parties — more than by the humanitarian ideal of helping people fleeing crisis.

  • The Ministry of Justice has argued that non-Venezuelan arrivals are a security threat and need greater control. It introduced a legal regulation that increased control and facilitated the expulsion and deportation of foreigners, with some provisions that specialists claimed to be contrary to Brazilian laws. The regulation was revoked but made clear that the agency will continue to emphasize the security dynamic created by the entry of foreigners.
  • Minister of Justice Sergio Moro recently sent a message on social media stating that “Brazil will no longer be a refuge for foreigners accused or convicted of common crimes” [emphasis added]. With prior approval of CONARE, he rejected an appeal by three Paraguayans, who received refuge in Brazil in 2003 but were recently facing removal, and maintained the revocation of their refugee status.
  • Critics cite Moro’s use of social media to announce a technical decision as confirmation that his intention was primarily political. They note the ideological affinity between the current Brazilian and Paraguayan governments as being more important than the asylees’ previously determined well-founded fear of persecution — a violation of international law regarding non-refoulement. Critics also point out that the three Paraguayans were politically active with left-leaning groups opposed to Bolsonaro.

The contrast between the government’s and Moro’s attitudes toward asylum-seekers from Venezuela and elsewhere is striking. When confronted with evidence of rising crime by Venezuelan arrivals along the Brazilian border, the Minister said local authorities’ evidence was inconclusive. Bolsonaro’s supporters in the border state of Roraima protested Moro’s statement, but a subsequent decision to close the border for 15 days to foreigners without a permanent residence permit — allegedly in response to the threat of coronavirus — has calmed their concerns.

The CONARE decision on Venezuelans may have been intended in part to remove a glut that had slowed the entire refugee system, but the disparity in the treatment of asylum-seekers primarily reflects Brazil’s deep political polarization. Government discourse portrays its domestic opponents as being irresponsible leftists akin to Venezuelan President Maduro, who is so bad that starving refugees show up on Brazil’s doorstep, while praising rightist governments, to which even 17-year asylees can be repatriated without concern for their treatment. The Brazilian military’s deep involvement in operations regarding Venezuela also incentivizes civilians to help keep the status of refugees from becoming a political embarrassment.

  • Politicization of refugee policies and implementation is not unprecedented in Brazil. CONARE, the Brazilian government, and, indirectly, the UNHCR will determine how long this trend will continue. Altering Brazilian action to meet current political interests weakens the rights of refugees and related protective principles embodied in the Constitution and legislation.

March 23, 2020

* João Jarochinski Silva is a CLALS fellow and professor at the Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR).

Brazil: Relative Success – So Far – Receiving Venezuelan Refugees, Migrants

By João Jarochinski Silva*

Venezuelan migrants walk past UNHCR tents at a camp in Boa Vista, Roraima

Venezuelan migrants walk past UNHCR tents at a camp in Boa Vista, Roraima/ Marcelo Camargo/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

The influx of Venezuelan refugees and migrants since 2013 into the Brazilian state of Roraima has challenged the state’s ability to settle them, but a continued or increased flow will require a significant expansion of efforts to relocate and integrate the new arrivals. The flow has not been unmanageable or caused significant problems in public services, as some local politicians claim, and has actually generated some benefits. In the past six years, over 260,000 Venezuelans have applied for refugee or residency status in Brazil, with the vast majority entering through Roraima, which is north of Manaus and shares borders with both Venezuela and Guyana. A voluntary relocation program, called Interiorização, has moved more than 20,000 to other Brazilian cities, but most remain in municipalities near the border. Roraima state itself has less than 600,000 inhabitants.

  • The Venezuelans in Roraima are mostly working age (16-64 years old). National authorities, assisted by UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and others, have developed policies related to education, training, and employment to take advantage of their productive capacity and facilitate their integration in Brazil. These initiatives enhance the emergency benefits the migrants receive and help them become autonomous.

International, national, and local experts, including at the Federal University of Roraima, Getulio Vargas Foundation, and OBMigra, have found that the Venezuelan arrivals’ impact on Roraima has been mixed.

  • The state registered positive economic growth and diversification during 2016‑17, the period of most intense Venezuelan flow, when Roraima’s GDP grew 2.3 percent, compared to the 1.4 percent of other Brazilian states. In the two following years, the state registered significant growth in agricultural production, including Brazil nuts and some livestock items, and showed the largest recorded increase in planted area (28.9 percent), while Brazil as a whole saw a decline of 0.6 percent. Roraima surpassed all other regions with an 8 percent increase in its economic diversification index. Expanded retail trade and exports in 2018‑19 fueled a 25 percent increase in tax revenues.
  • Unemployment and poverty, on the other hand, also rose during this period. While many of the Venezuelans found jobs in services such as restaurants, retail, and construction, unemployment in the state rose by 6.1 percentage points between 2017 and 2019, while Brazil’s national rate fell 0.6 percentage points. The incidence of extreme poverty in Roraima also grew from 1.64 percent in 2015 to 5.7 percent in 2018, compared to 4.2 percent nationally in 2018. (The new Venezuelan workers, however, have not significantly reduced the wages of Brazilians living in Roraima.)

Local anxieties about new strains on social services have not been fully borne out. The Venezuelans have enrolled children in schools and used medical services, but available data do not show unusually high demand. There has been, in fact, a downward trend in outpatient care provided by Roraima municipalities, and the increase in hospitalizations in the state coincided with that seen nationally.

  • The research suggests that the state’s increase in tax revenues is on a par with the additional costs of these and other services provided to the Venezuelans. Both figures are about US$22.5 million.

Roraima’s experience – so far – shows that the influx of refugees and migrants into Brazil has not had a profound impact, but the crisis in Venezuela shows no sign of abating and could get worse. Roraima, the state with the smallest population in Brazil, has a limited ability to absorb new arrivals and settle them locally without significant new resources. Expansion of the successful elements of Roraima’s approach, such as the voluntary Interiorização relocation program, would help. Additional work-related training and professional qualification programs would also help new arrivals contribute economically after relocation. Particularly if flows continue to be strong or increase, Roraima state and its municipalities are likely to feel growing urgency to develop systems to manage them and beef up social protection networks to support relocation – with the same goal of taking advantage of the economic potential of the Venezuelans’ full social and economic integration.

February 3, 2020

* João Jarochinski Silva is a CLALS fellow, professor at the Universidade Federal de Roraima (UFRR), and one of the report’s researchers. The research, funded by the Escola Superior do Ministério Público da União (ESMPU) and the UNHCR, is available here in Portuguese.