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.

 

Mexico: Will AMLO Bring a “Fourth Transformation” or Return to Authoritarian Past?

By Daniela Stevens*

President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador / Eneas / 500px / Creative Commons

A week before his inauguration, Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) continues to stress his commitment to be a “good president” and leader of the country’s “Fourth Transformation,” but some of his early actions suggest that he will challenge political pluralism and destabilize the investment environment.  His sexenio could have a rocky start both politically and economically.

  • AMLO’s handling of a “national consultation” over the ongoing construction of Mexico City’s new international airport – a project that he criticized as corruption-laden – raised red flags about his intended governing style. Most observers say the consultation was unconstitutional and, with only one percent of registered voters participating, inconsistent with the President-elect’s pledge to respect the “people’s will.”  AMLO’s reaction to the criticism – asking “¿quién manda?” (who governs?) – was widely interpreted as a sign that the airport maneuver was not about careful financial planning but rather political power.  He held another referendum last weekend, a “consultation” with citizens on 10 projects on which he seemed to have made up his mind beforehand.  These referendums seem intended to legitimize his intentions and enhance his power.
  • He and his party, Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena), appear to be moving ahead with plans to increase control over public spending, eroding institutional checks on presidential power. The Morena majority in the Tabasco state congress, for example, last month approved a provision empowering the next governor, also from Morena, to assign public works and acquisitions directly, without public bidding.  If the Supreme Court does not deem the reform unconstitutional, the administration will build a refinery in Tabasco without any review of the integrity of the process.
  • To reduce imports of gasoline and natural gas, AMLO plans to halt oil exports and reserve production for national consumption only, as well as to build a new refinery and modernize six existing ones. Critics say such policies reflect an outdated vision of national sovereignty closely tied to oil, and that they would directly diminish Mexico’s creditworthiness, endanger the finances of state-owned Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), and, according to Moody’s, result in a two percent decrease in GDP.  Additionally, oil experts say, the emphasis on refining would detract from important efforts to expand exploration and production.  The country cannot immediately meet domestic demand for crude.  Similarly, the transition team seems to disregard the potential of renewable energies and the need to electrify transportation.

Morena proposals to reduce the autonomy of regulatory agencies are scaring investors as well.  A Morena Congressman, for example, is pushing to incorporate the energy sector’s regulatory agencies into the Secretariat of Energy, subordinating them to greater political control.  Although AMLO did not publicly support the initiative, his appointee as Secretary of Energy, Rocío Nahle, has already asked the director of the National Commission of Hydrocarbons, one of the regulatory agencies, to step down three years ahead of schedule.  Given its debt and deficits, Pemex can ill afford to strain its partnerships with private capital.

It’s too early to assess how many of these actions reflect AMLO’s and Morena’s inexperience or a considered approach to governing, but the incoming leadership so far seems unaware or unconcerned that such measures undercut their stated vision of ushering in a “Fourth Transformation” on a par with the country’s three previous ones – independence (1810–1821), the Reforma wars (1857–1861), and revolution (1910).  The hints of authoritarianism, alongside decisions to appoint single-representatives in the states and to maintain a pervasive military presence in the streets, suggest AMLO’s tenure may indeed transcend history – as a government not different from the priista centralized governments of the 20th century, and the militarized calderonista administration (2006 2012) he vehemently criticizes.  After 1997, when the hegemonic Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) – from which AMLO had already defected to lead the leftwing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) – lost the majority of the Chamber of Deputies for the first time, political analysts and academics pointed out the disadvantages of divided governments in presidential systems, such as political gridlock.  A unified government under AMLO, however, may not be the answer for Mexico either, unless progressives in Morena committed to democracy and its institutions find a way to restrain his impulses and keep his government on a democratic path. 

November 27, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

A Summit in Search of the Americas

By Carlos Malamud*

A large round table encompasses a room with various heads of state from the Americas

Last week’s Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru. / U.S. State Department / Public Domain

The Summit of the Americas in Lima last weekend has left its organizers and principal participants with a bittersweet feeling, leaning to the bitter.  The absence of Donald Trump, Raúl Castro, and Nicolás Maduro reflects only the existing difficulties.  The bigger problems relate to the impossibility of achieving general consensus about the big hemispheric issues, such as corruption or Venezuela, and – of even greater concern – the lack of clarity and substance of the Latin America policy of the United States.

  • The Summits initially were linked to Washington’s efforts to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), but since that project’s failure they have represented the United States’ ongoing interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. That explains why, since the Summit process was created in 1994, no resident of the White House has missed a Summit – regardless of how complicated national and international situations have been.  That was until Donald Trump gave priority to the conflict in Syria over his relationship with Latin American counterparts.

The disturbing thing is not just Trump’s conflict with Mexico, or his hostility toward Cuba and Venezuela.  Neither is the deterioration of the image of the United States in Latin America since President Obama’s term ended.  The fundamental problem is the lack of clear indications from the Trump Administration about its intentions and objectives in the region.  This is the case even with the closest countries.  For example, several South American countries’ exports to the United States could be affected by the trade war between Beijing and Washington.  But no one has clear answers about the policies driving these events, and no one is taking steps to reduce the impact of them or of Washington’s lack of policy.

  • Even though the official theme of the Summit was “Democratic Governance against Corruption,” it was impossible for the participants to go beyond good words and advance any global solutions. Without a doubt, this is good evidence of the weakness of regional integration.  In their Final Declaration, the leaders were unable to include either a condemnation of Venezuela or a call to disregard its Presidential elections on May 20.  Instead, what we got was a statement by the Grupo de Lima plus the United States expressing extreme concern for the situation in Venezuela.  Despite the decline of the Bolivarian project and Maduro’s isolation, Bolivia, Cuba and some Caribbean states dependent for oil on Petrocaribe remain capable of blocking hemispheric consensus.

This probably will not be the last Summit of the Americas, but future of these hemispheric meetings depends in great part on the capacity of the governments in the hemisphere, beginning with the United Sates, to redefine continental relations and find anew the essence of the Americas.  This means more than just responding to the growing Chinese role; it means putting on the table the real problems that affect the continent and going beyond mere rhetoric about them.  For now, with hemispheric relations buffeted by the unpredictable slams issuing in the form of Trump’s tweets, it will be difficult to get there.

April 17, 2018

*Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid.  A version of this article was originally published in El Heraldo de México.