Brazil, at a long-term crossroads

The Brazilian elections on October 2 will entail a much more important presidential succession than normal successions tend to be.

28 September 2022 Wednesday 22:30
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Brazil, at a long-term crossroads

The Brazilian elections on October 2 will entail a much more important presidential succession than normal successions tend to be. They will determine the future of the country for a long period. For this reason, it is imperative to understand the country and the current moment taking into account several factors – no country is explained by a single factor. We know that Brazil combines singularities that reach the limit of the incomprehensible.

How can a country endowed with an enormous abundance of resources, which rarely goes through major natural disasters and which has not suffered internal wars, let itself be imprisoned by an economic stagnation of the magnitude of the current one, which does not allow it to overcome its monstrous social inequalities and not even have an education system that can be classified as medium or good?

In order to outline a reasonably useful picture for the reader, I will begin by briefly evoking the main historical lines, to move immediately to the attempt at forced industrialization between 1930-1970 and conclude with the strictly political factors, which gravitate around the always difficult problem of incorporation of the working strata into citizenship, that is, at a level of effective participation in the political system. I do not see how to understand the risks under which the country is currently without composing a less ambitious perspective than this.

Nobody ignores that Brazil was discovered by Portugal - a small European country -, which could only maintain and control a territory of continental dimensions based on a primitive monoculture (sugar cane and coffee, mainly, with a brief interval focused on the extraction of gold and diamonds in the province of Minas Gerais). The economic aspect is well known. In the production of cane and coffee, Brazil came to hold a virtual monopoly, supplying everything the world demanded. In order to develop the extraction of precious metals, Portugal imposed internal limits, one country within another, where what can properly be called a colonial tyranny prevailed. Once the gold ran out, in the second half of the 18th century, the Portuguese legacy was reduced to the beautiful set of churches (considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO), but little or almost nothing that gave livelihoods to the large urban population that there it arrived.

Then it can be inferred that, economically, the Portuguese colonization was a complete disaster, and that the only institution capable of maintaining the population of the colony was the latifundio, that is, the granting of immense properties, most of which were occupied by a few. families, with extremely limited possibilities to organize an interconnected and dynamic economy.

The history of coffee – implanted in the province of São Paulo – benefited from more autonomous conditions after Brazil achieved its independence. Led by a more lucid and dynamic business class, the cafe was initially another success story, but the end of the argument was the same. In a short space of time, the Brazilian world quasi-monopoly was fatally beaten by international competition, and the sector was deprived of the alternative of surviving on government subsidies, losing its embryonic political autonomy. But it must be pointed out that, with respect to coffee, slavery was gradually abandoned and the wage labor system was adopted, which in the first half of the 20th century made possible the first experiences of industrialization.

But here it is essential to stress that historians, with rare exceptions, overlook the fundamental political implications to which successive economic failures gave rise. Instead of allowing themselves to be impoverished when their activities encountered obstacles, the ruling classes insisted on starting others and, given the daunting difficulties of the time, they did the simplest thing: they created political bases. In each province and in the federal capital, they assumed the sacrifice of setting up and controlling a state machine disproportionate to the needs of the country, but widely sufficient to ensure the privileges of their social circles. Thus was born –and remains in Brazil– the state system known as patrimonialism, the government of the friends of the king.

Over two centuries, it is not difficult to understand that this system, founded on a massive concentration of resources, settled down as a virtually irreformable barrier, preventing changes in all relevant sectors –the administrative machinery itself, social security, etc.– . Unassailable in terms of confrontation between political parties or other groups, this is, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest obstacle to the recovery of development and the construction of a fairer society. To make matters worse, public employees organized themselves into unions and resorted to the same trick: they accommodated themselves within the State and had all kinds of privileges carved into legislation. In Brazil, this is called corporatism, a curious form of combat that contributes to a perpetual difficulty in balancing public accounts. If you can't beat them, join them.

Contrary to Argentina, which refused to support the allies in the war against Germany, leaning towards fascism, Brazil not only sent an expeditionary combat force to Italy, but after 1945 managed to reduce the gaps to practically nothing. totalitarians that existed in the country during the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. The dictator had to leave, forced by the military, but he came to the presidency again through the normal electoral route in 1950. In this completely changed context, the political struggle lost its strict left-right reference, coming to gravitate on two superimposed axes, both referring to anti-getulismo, but including, on the one hand, sectors that fought the dictator under his Estado Novo (1937-1945) and, on the other, a properly ideological division, with a right centered on a new party, the UDN (Democratic Union). National), led by the journalist (ex-communist) Carlos Lacerda. Other elements further complicated the situation. Of course, the appearance of populism, represented by figures such as Leonel Brizola and Janio Quadros – the latter was elected to the presidency in 1960, but resigned eight months later.

On the other hand, a considerable part of the landowners maintained their adherence to Getúlio Vargas, not only because of the support that Vargas himself gave them during the dictatorship, but also because the issue of agrarian reform would surely enter the political agenda, thanks much more. to the action of populists such as Leonel Brizola who at the initiative of the traditional left, represented by the Soviet-oriented Communist Party. Then the arrival of the cold war divided the country from top to bottom, greatly expanding the spaces for a virulent right-wing opposition, led by Carlos Lacerda, against Vargas.

From this kaleidoscope it can be easily inferred that Brazil entered a period of radicalization, but a multidimensional, polyhedral radicalization, not a left-right confrontation in the classic molds of Europe. The only factor that in principle could favor some convergence was the attempt to form a broad development coalition, in which the economist Celso Furtado played a central role. After leaving ECLAC (UN Economic Commission for Latin America) and fully convinced that Brazil would not remain an autonomous nation until it established a strong industrial infrastructure, Furtado embraced the concept of ISIS –import substitution industrialization– , which moved the axis of the conflict to the industry/agriculture opposition, or, put another way, opposing ideological urban sectors to the supposedly obscurantist landowners. ISIS achieved spectacular early successes, as in other countries, but got stuck in what is now called the low-growth trap. In round numbers, the annual income per inhabitant of Brazil must currently be around ten thousand dollars. Growing at a rate of less than 2% (less than half of potential output), Brazil would need about twenty-five years to double that level of income, an entire generation, to catch up with the middle-wealth countries of southern Europe. It does not take much intelligence to conclude that such a trajectory is disastrous, similar to the one that, in combination with an incredible degree of political instability, brought the Argentine economy to a level of virtual devastation.

In order to properly evaluate the penetration of the national-developmentalist ideology in Brazil, it is enough to observe that, in different degrees of devotion, it recruited followers from A to Z in the political spectrum. Only fifteen years had passed since the resignation of President Janio Quadros (1960), which plunged the country into a deep crisis, with the fall of João Goulart and the military coup of March 31, 1964, when the fourth president-general, Ernesto Geisel, launched another program guided by the same heterodox conception, giving the state and technocrats an even greater amount of power, stifling the private sector and resorting to a stratospheric scale of indebtedness in London, where excessive liquidity derived from oil was then traded. . The ambition to make Brazil a great power stimulated the government to launch projects that the opposition ironically designated as “pharaonic”. However, not even the most powerful pharaohs would have been able to withstand the combined shocks of rising oil prices (1963) and interest rates (1969). That perfect storm arrived just when the military no longer had the strength and legitimacy to go back, imposing an authentically fascist regime, nor to run the risk of deploying it forward, which would inevitably sharpen dissidence within the military corporation, resulting in almost anarchic situation. Everything developed as a mutual weakening, once the military could no longer undertake anything and the leaders of the civil opposition could do nothing sufficient to maintain their prestige among the electoral mass. The decision made by the military commandos was more of the same, imposing a stagflation on the country for seven more years that has gone down in history as the period known as the lost decade. Politically, it meant the aforementioned extension of the military cycle, with the chaotic government of General João Figueiredo, and the additional difficulties caused by the death of the first civilian president, Tancredo Neves, before the scheduled date for his rise to power.

With the important exception of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the most prominent leaders of the resistance to the military regime were already politicians of the first magnitude before the 1964 coup. It was this group that formed and gave credibility as opposition to the MDB (Movimento Democrático Brasileiro), which can be correctly designated as the liberal center of the twenty-one years of the military cycle. As it could not be otherwise,    his departure from the scene in a short period, coinciding with the final phase of the transition to the civil regime, produced a substantial gap, since the newly established civil regime did not have comparable cadres and, let me remind Brazil was in the lost decade: an acute leadership deficit, stagnant economy, high unemployment and hyperinflation looming on the horizon.

It was in this scenario that Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) and his PT (Workers' Party, from which the term PT comes from), emerged at the top of the political system, in a position to contest the presidency. Lula is undoubtedly one of the most expert politicians (in the sense of clever, in English), but his mental horizon is made up of a clear lack of intellectual culture and an excess of populism in the traditional Latin American sense. His large body of supporters clearly leans to the left (cadres originating from the armed struggle, students and intellectuals, clerics and a union base), but Lula does not identify himself in particular with any of them, he gets on a truck to chat with Trotskyists with the same naturalness that he shows in the Federation of Industries or with the bankers.

This brief outline explains that, despite suffering three successive defeats (against Collor de Mello in 1989 and against Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1994 and 1988), he finally reached the presidency in 2002. To appease the economic sectors that feared his leftism, the PT released a Letter to the Brazilians, which was soon made the object of a joke by those who were against it with a Letter to the bankers. What matters, anyway, is that its only relevant achievement was appropriating a social policy conceived by Ruth Cardoso, which she called Bolsa Familia, an income transfer program, multiplied in its dimension by a factor that gave the PT a potential capable of keeping him in power until eternity. The problem, as is known, is that Lula, imitating Perón, believed that she would manage to return in 2014 by handing over the presidential chair to her minister Dilma Rousseff, a plan that she adhered to with insufficient sincerity. It would be too long to insert here the two facts that decisively deprived Lula of his unbeatable appearance: the economic disaster generated by Rousseff and the Himalayan corruption that reached the public thanks to the judicial operation called Lava-Jato, which almost did not go bankrupt. completely the largest company in the country, the state-owned Petrobras.

To understand the issues at stake in the October 2 elections, the sine qua non factor is the degree of polarity and hostility that developed between the PT and Jair Bolsonaro, who will be his adversary. Never before has Brazil seen a country so roughly divided into two camps, both occupied by legitimate representatives of the purest populism. Judging by the polls available until mid-July, the president will be Lula, possibly in the first round. But the picture has subtly changed, first because Bolsonaro is not a weak candidate, especially considering that the Lula of 2022 is no longer the "father of the poor" of 2002, and second because a significant portion of society continues to seek an alternative that throws them both out of the dispute at once.

The attempt to organize a third way begins to gain ground with Simone Tebet as a candidate, a senator from Mato Grosso and affiliated with a large party (but always divided), the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party). Tebet struggles with a handicap that can be lethal: she is only known by 67% of voters. But that die can be the reverse of the coin, since her opponents are 100% known, that is, they have nowhere to grow. In conclusion, I must underline the widely disseminated perception that, with Lula or Bolsonaro, it is difficult to believe that Brazil can recover from the black hole into which two decades of Lula and Rousseff led it.

Bolívar Lamounier is a political sociologist, partner and director of the Augurium consultancy. His last book is 'Jano: Images of Virtue and Power' (Desconcertos Editora, São Paulo).



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