Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidency with a far-right populism that drew comparisons to President Donald Trump. But Brazil and Latin America don't fit neatly into the Western populism narrative, says Peter Schechter, cohost of the Altamar podcast and 20-year veteran of Latin American politics. Schechter talks military deployments, Chinese investors, and Brazilian politics on this week's episode of Deep Dish.
Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish and Global Affairs going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking about Jair Bolsonaro, the far right politician, who on Sunday won the presidency of Latin America's largest nation, Brazil. Throughout the campaign his anti-corruption, tough on crime agenda was also peppered with controversial remarks on rape, torture, race, and sexual orientation, yet the success of Bolsonaro's populist message has many now asking what comes next for Brazil and for Latin America.
To discuss this subject, I'm joined today by Peter Schecter, who is a political commentator and cohost of the Altamar podcast, which I highly recommend to you. He was previously a senior vice president at the Atlantic Council, and founding director of the Adrian Arsht Latin America Center. In addition, for two decades he has been a consultant on various international elections, including elections in Brazil. So it's great to have you on the show, thanks for coming on to Deep Dish, Peter.
Peter Schechter: Brian it's a great pleasure to be with you and it's a great pleasure to join you in Chicago next week.
Brian Hanson: Thank you. So you just published a brand new analysis, I think it just came out this morning on the Brink News website, and the title of the piece is What to Expect from Bolsoarno's Brazil. You argue up front very provocatively that Bolsonaro poses the greatest threat to democracy in Latin America today. So let's start with who is Jair Bolsonaro, and what is his agenda.
Peter Schechter: Well I think what's interesting, one of the many things that's interesting and worrisome about Jair Bolsonaro is that he's a little bit of a tail wags dog story. Jair Bolsonaro has been in the Brazilian congress for 30 years, in which he basically achieved nothing for those 30 years. He was a back bencher congressman of a very small party, which is not the party by the that he ran on.
He was not very well known. He was never in the news in Brazil, he was seen as a little bit of an outcast, and yet here is a situation in which a country descends into a great deal of both social and economic crisis, and the search begins for somebody to resolve everything or to promise to resolve everything.
Somehow Bolsonaro, a man who for a long time, espoused very radical views about Brazil society, radical views on gays, radical views on some race integration in Brazilian society, radical views on how to fight crime. Radical views on his love for the military and his admiration for those dark years in the '70s in which the military had taken over Brazil's government.
Suddenly those became the law and order iron fisted tough guy that Brazil needed. It's quite a story, it's quite a drama of how a man, who for 30 years was never the right man in the moment suddenly found the moments to be exactly the right man.
Brian Hanson: So for our listeners who may not follow Brazil's politics very carefully. Brazil's got a lot of political parties. Why was he able to breakthrough given that history that you talk about, much of which is pretty unappealing. Why was he able to capture so much support. He wins the election soundly 55 to 45 percent.
Peter Schechter: I think it's important for listeners to remember, let's just say a few things about Brazil. First of all it's a well-entrenched democracy. I mean this is a country that has, it's a 210 million person country. It's a continent sized country. It is the fifth largest country in the world. It's the eighth largest economy in the world, and it's a country that has amazing deep democratic values by now. If it's not the first, the second largest Facebook community in the world. NGOs in similarly society are incredibly well organized and very active. There is a thriving press, there is a real sense of freedoms, the states have enormous power.
But one of the things that is important about Brazil is that it has a, to say it in a British understated way, it has a multi-party system. Boy there's a lot of parties belonging to that multi-party system. So some of those parties are regional, some of those parties represent religious groups, some of those parties represent cities or interests or agricultural groups or industrial groups.
So there's many parties, but I urge people always to think about Brazil that with the presidential system that's sort of modeled on the American constitution, on the American checks and balances presidential system. But it really is how they ... because it is such a multi-party country, it really functions as a parliamentary democracy. A government has to be able to negotiate what various parliamentarians to be able to create a government that has any chance of passing laws.
Particularly this has some huge challenges ahead of it. So Post Party is the second largest party in parliament, but in no way does it have anywhere close to a majority. So it will have to try to both coerce and to cajole and to negotiate with parliamentarians in order to get their agenda going.
Brazil's parliamentary type democracy is a loose and very fluid democracy, in which some people maybe join the government and other people believe, and then other people may join the government. It's a always moving target. But the key thing that we need to think about now is here is this, let's call him a strongman, that has been elected and he's gonna have to show some real results in a country that is truly, truly in a moment of great crisis. We can talk a little bit about that crisis whenever you want to.
Brian Hanson: Terrific, so let's unpack that. What is the crisis, because that had a lot to do with why he was able to emerge as such a strong political candidate. We know, just following the press about the long-term corruption scandals which seem to have engulfed the entire Brazilian elite, but what else is going on there in Brazil. What's the nature of that crisis and how does it affect people's lives, why did it resonate so much in this election.
Peter Schechter: There's a perfect storm happening. So first of all, there is a security threat. Brazil has become a dangerous country in which crime and all the permutations that go around crime that you can think of. Whether it's drugs and drug running and drug trafficking, prostitution and sex trade and ... but crime has become out of control, and violent crime in cities is out of control. So people live in fear, and of course, the people that suffer most from that are the poor because most of ... like in the United States, most of the crime happens in poor areas and poor neighborhoods and metropolitan areas.
So this is their first great crisis and a sense of insecurity and we're not able to work on our streets, and importantly, we're not able to go to work, we're not able to commute back from work without being threatened by robberies, stabbings, etc. The second is a demise of almost every government institution in Brazil due to the rapid fire corruption scandal.
The third part of this perfect storm is the economy, which has just panicked in recent years. We're talking about a 10% reduction in economic output. So we have a perfect storm of security, of corruption, of economy and of social problems.
Brian Hanson: So that sounds like one really difficult agenda for anybody in power to deal with. I wanna go through in a bit more detail with some of these. Let's start right up front with the crime issue that you raised. You've got this very provocative line in a piece that you just did for Brink News, which is in anticipation of what President Bolsonaro is likely to do on crime you say. Philippine president Rodrigo Duartes quashing of criminality will seem downright Swedish in comparison. Greater bloodshed in Brazil is a given. What do we expect, that sounds pretty ominous that prediction?
Peter Schechter: Yeah I was gonna say of all the things that could go wrong with the Bolsonaro government, what worries me the most is the meeting of two things, his instinct. I guess the meeting of three things, his instinct that the only way to stop criminals is through repressing crime. Secondly the fact that he's surrounded by a lot of former military officials as his senior advisors, who I fear will also have a same instinct, which is, only a great show of force will stop crime.
Thirdly, I think the population will support and want a great show of force against crime. I think that that will be very popular initially when the military comes out into the streets of major cities and into the crime ridden poor areas that are controlled by Mafias and criminal gangs. When the military shows up there, it will be initially a very popular thing because people will say finally we've got some people who are determined to fight.
But then the bloodshed starts, and then the indiscriminate killings start, then the sense that we have to not only go after the bosses, but we have to go after the little guys, and we go after them without any indiscriminate ... you know if they run away we shoot to kill. I fear that this could be the ... I think this could be the first thing to come out of the Bolsonaro government, which is a massive show of force by police and military officials and I fear that this could go very wrong very fast.
Brazil is also famous for having huge honeymoons with their politicians followed by having huge marital crisis and divorces with their politicians. Even more fearful than the fact of all the things that could go wrong with Bolsonaro. I guess I'm most fearful of the fact that he is a failure because Brazil needs a lot of help right now, and it needs to make very important decisions. I fear that that failure could come relatively quickly when people turnaround their opinion after three, four months of too much repression, too much tough police measures and a lot of bloodshed. We could have a very fast honeymoon that ends badly.
Brian Hanson: I'm here today with Peter Schechter, political commentator and co-host of the Altamar podcast. So one of the institutions in the U.S. anyway that tends to keep police force and the use of military force in check domestically is the court system. You talked earlier about the strength of the judiciary. When it comes to these kinds of internal security issues versus civil rights issues, is there a possibility that the courts in Brazil can play a role in mediating the situation?
Peter Schechter: Let's get into the weeds a bit. Similar to the way it is here in the United States, police is in the hands of local officials. There is each state has a police force. So think of like Virginia State Troopers or state troopers in every state in our country. Or every municipality has officials, think of the Chicago P.D.
You will see different implementations of Bolsonaro's tough line depending on the governors and the mayors of different cities. Some of them belong to Bolsonaro's party or will be affiliated with Bolsonaro's government. So they will tow this hard line. Others will not toe the hard line as much because they fear that as this military tough fist becomes implemented, I think a lot of politicians are going to fear exactly what you said. We will get court involvement, an indictment not only of the police that are implementing the tough repression of crime, but also of those mayors and governors who have ordered the police to be tough.
So I think that there will be ... if it becomes too bloody I think there will be an involvement of the courts, but it'll take time for the courts to become involved because it has to evolve into a situation that is seemingly out of control and it'll depend on different places. What I fear here is that we start getting into very chaotic situation in the big cities of Brazil, Rio, Sao Paulo, all these cities that are very big, were talking about metropolis' and Sao Paulo is 20 million people and it gets in Rio it's close to eight or nine. I mean these are big cities with big problems, and there will be an initial large wave of support, particularly in poor areas that want to see crime stopped.
My fear is that we're just gonna go overboard. So if that happens, the chaos that ensues will impede Bolsonaro's ability to get pension reform to reform the economy. To create some of the privatizations that a lot of his people wanna do. So I think that that's the first area in which I think there's gonna be a lot of internal tensions.
Brian Hanson: You led me right to where I wanted to go next, which is the economy. In kind of a break with the direction that economic policy has been going in Brazil, as you point out, he's advocated anyway during this election, a number of more free-market oriented reforms. Privatizing, state owned enterprises, cutting taxes, overhauling regulation, increasing trade and the markets have really liked it. The stock market is up, the currency is up, yet you also point out in your piece that this is not always been his orientation toward the economy, this free market approach.
What do we expect to see here, and what will be the biggest challenges for him in implementing that agenda?
Peter Schechter: Yeah, I mean I think that's one of the great misunderstandings of some of the press reports that I'm seeing. People are painting Bolsonaro as this tropical Trump who has a very clear agenda like Trump. I mean you may like him or you may not like President Trump, but there is a clarity to Trump's agenda in terms of what he wanted for taxes, what he wants for immigration. There is no clarity here with what Bolsonaro wants. Nobody knows, Bolsonaro has surrounded himself with a cadre of people that have as distinct views as Lenin and some fascist leader or democratic leader and an authoritarian leader.
There are so many tensions within his own group. The man who is most rumored to be his minister of finance, and a minister of finance who will be a super minister because they're gonna combine a bunch of ministries including the ministry of finance, the ministry of planning, and others into one big super ministry under the helm of Paulo Guedes, and Paulo Guedes is a Chicago boy.
Brian Hanson: As in University of Chicago free market oriented person right?
Peter Schechter: That's right, a University of Chicago free market orientation studied at the University of Chicago, and then taught in Chile, which is the place where the Chicago economic theories have been applied in the most advanced way taught in Chile. So he has promised massive privatizations, he's promised large scale reforms, some pension, which if they don't change is gonna go completely bust.
But it's not clear Bolsonaro's going to allow any of this because other people in his group believe that industries need protections. That agriculture in Brazil needs to be protected, that we can't do a large pension reform because the first people to suffer in a pension reform are gonna be military pensioners, and the spouses of military pensioners, who continue to receive monies. Since some of the military has been such a big reports for Maldonado, nobody knows. There's so many internal pensions and the decisions are so large and so painful, that it's not clear to anybody whether Bolsonaro is going to be this tropical Trump, a tough guy who makes decisions and come what may he's just gonna stick to them or is he gonna try to flub and simply not decide and try to muddle his way with a little tweaking there and a little tweaking here.
Nobody knows what the answer to that question is, and the first 48 hours that have passed since the election certainly do not point to any type of command decision making qualities of Bolsonaro as all we have heard in Brazilian newspapers are the squabble between the guy who's gonna be the chief of staff, and the guy who's gonna be the minister of finance, and the guy who's gonna be foreign minister, and the guy who's gonna be the minister of defense, all of them are now squabbling in public and Bolsonaro's no where.
So it's a big mystery as to what's gonna happen in Brazil in terms of economic policy. So when you are seeing the Brazilian stock market rise and the rial against the dollar. The Brazilian currency rises like we're seeing today, we're basically seeing people betting that future Minister Paulo Guedes will be in charge of the economy with the backing of the president.
But I don't know, markets are betting on that and I too hope that markets are right because we don't need some really tough decisions, and it seems to me that future Minister Guedes will probably be on the right track. But I have no way of knowing if that's really what's gonna happen. I think that nobody knows what Bolsonaro's gonna do and will he allow Paulo Guedes to really reform the economy in the deep and painful ways that he is proposing to do.
Brian Hanson: So that sounds like a second thing that our listeners really should be paying attention to. What happens in the cities, how does he deploy force to address crime, and then in terms of economic policy, does he support the folks who are advancing this agenda as well.
Peter Schechter: Exactly, the big question is, will Bolsonaro strongly support a reformed base agenda, which is tough and painful and needs to be done, or is he just going to muddle through and give a little bit to this group and a little bit to that group, and that may work for a little bit and that's very Brazilian because Brazilian's have this expression, which is give me a little bit and I'll take a little bit. But in Brazil today, you need real deep serious reforms.
Brian Hanson: So one of the areas where those things come together. The foreign policy and the domestic economic policy is with respect to China. Bolsonaro has been very aggressive against China during the campaign, and yet as I understand it at this point, China has surpassed the United States in terms of foreign direct investment into Brazil. So the success of the Brazilian economy appears to be linked to some of that investment for China. What's gonna happen with this set of issues?
Peter Schechter: China is Brazil's largest trading partner, and possibly it's also the largest foreign investor. I say definitely the largest trading partner, I say possibly only because numbers on direct foreign investment are somewhat less clear than on trade.
But China is incredibly important to Brazil, it has also been a buyer mostly of raw commodities, which is unfortunate because Brazil as a growing economy that has a important technological and industrial sector. They would like to sell more finished goods to China. But China has no interest in buying them. They really buy mostly agricultural products and raw commodities.
So this has certainly not helped the Brazil's development, because Brazil then continues to be dependent on commodities that require no additional value added, and then take no additional value added to be sold. Over the last couple of years, China has continued to invest in Brazil at an accelerated rate. It's done so all over Latin America as there have been some glowing complaints for two reasons.
One, there have been people who started complaining that China only buys raw materials and doesn't buy any other more important products from Latin America's industrial and manufacturer capacity. But the other reason is because I think China begins to recognize that while Latin America is a complicated place, it is also a place of 600 million increasingly middle class citizens. So they want to invest in it, so there's been a lot of investment in banking, there's been a lot of investment in the infrastructure and one of the things that China is very interested in is investing in electricity and oil and gas.
The two companies that seem to be the crown jewels of Brazil's state owned company was Petrobras, which is the petroleum company and Electrobras, which is the electricity company. Bolsonaro has said that the crown jewels are off the table that China cannot buy those. So I think that there is ... I talked about tensions, tensions within the economic policy making that exists today. But there's also tensions in his foreign policy. I mean here you have a great example, Bolsonaro is a profoundly evangelical Christian, he's a profoundly anti-communist person.
As a result, his gut instinct is to really dislike China. But as the future president of Brazil, he's gotta make peace with the fact that China is his largest investor and certainly his largest trading partner. So there's tension there too, in which he has said some nasty things about China. He's also crossed that Rubicon that China does not tolerate which is he's called Taiwan a country. So like President Trump did in the beginning in which he received a phone call from the President of Taiwan, which created a big hullabaloo at the beginning just before he was sworn into office.
I think we're gonna see a very similar thing happening to Bolsonaro. Another one of his interesting foreign policy tensions is his policy towards Israel. Bolsonaro, as many evangelicals across the world are, is very pro-Israel, and very supportive of the policies of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, and has said that he will follow President Trump's lead in moving the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Now that's certainly his prerogative, but it's also important to note that the Arab world in general and particularly the Gulf states are huge buyers of Brazilian meat. Brazil is perhaps, if not the largest, second largest agricultural producer in the world. A lot of this is being bought by Arab countries. So I just wonder whether the future president is going to take into account whether moving of the embassy to Jerusalem is gonna endanger his agricultural sales. These are some of the issues that Bolsonaro has faced, and the tensions that exist, not only within his future cabinet, but also the tensions that exist between who Bolsonaro is himself, his past, and what he needs to do as president.
Brian Hanson: And again, I'm here with Peter Schecter, political commentator and co-host of the Altamar podcast. So I wanna take our conversation as our last step to look more broadly at Latin America. Starting in 2016 of course there was a great deal of public attention paid to the success of populist politicians. Most of that conversation focused on Europe, focused on the rise of President Trump here in the United States, and Latin America oftentimes hasn't been made part of that conversation.
Yet really interesting things are happening, of course we've got this election we've just been talking about. We have in Mexico earlier this year, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is a leftist populist, we've got Daniel Ortega taking an authoritarian line in Nicaragua of course Nicholas Madura, down in Venezuela. Is there a broader pattern here to what is happening with Latin American politics?
Peter Schechter: So I would say, Brian, that there is a broad pattern in the !est. Latin America's a profoundly western area of the world. Let me talk a little bit more about that. With the exception of Venezuela and Nicaragua and Cuba, Latin America has flourishing free press, flourishing civil societies, flourishing online social media. The ability to influence the direction of whether it's fashion or politics through social media is as profound as it is here in the United States.
The digital penetration is huge, and as a result, I think a lot of what is happening in the West is in part due to the profound sense that politics is unable to correct some of the severe dislocations that exist between the society, and has been unable to improve the economic situation of the poor. That's that dislocation and that unrest has been echoed and expanded by social media.
So I think Latin America is part of that, but I have to say that if you look at Latin America in its totality, I don't know whether I'd say that Latin America is as racked by the populism that is affecting the western world as is Europe or the United States. Yes, Bolsonaro is an absolutely fundamentally important part of that. I'm not entirely sure I'd put Andrés Manuel López Obrador in that category. I mean Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been a well known Mexican politician for over 30 years.
He didn't come from anywhere and doesn't have this claim to save the country. He has been saying pretty much the same thing for 30 years. He is super well known and finally seen as the right person in Mexico. I mean there's no doubt that López Obrador probably won the previous Mexican election, which was taken away from him through fraud. This time he won it, he's been close many times, so I'm not sure, yes some of his stuff is a little populist, but I'm not sure I'd put him in the populist category and in Chile. You have a former banker as the president in Columbia, just elected Ivan Duque, used to be a senior person at the Euro American Development Bank, a specialist in finance and in development.
I'm not sure Latin America fits neatly into that category of everything is going populist. Similarly, Peru has had some political issues with one president resigning, but the president that has taken office is also no where near a populist. So a very serious, a big dower. So the story in Latin America's mixed. We forgot are Argentina, President Martine was elected two years ago, has implemented very responsible and not very successful economic policies, which preoccupy and could bring populist back in Argentina.
So I think the story in Latin America is more mixed than it is in Europe or in the United States, where I think populist has taken hold pretty much every country. In Europe Macron was weighing a populist, so I would say in Europe basically Germany and Spain remain the two countries impervious to populism so far. Though in Germany there have been manifestations of anti-immigrants and stuff like that, so I am not sure. I think it's one last thing I'd like to say about populism.
The manifestations of populism in the West today. In the United Sates, and in Europe, populism has manifested itself as many forms, but one of its principle manifestation, is anti-immigrant ... Ripping off of an anti immigrant and anti-foreign fear. I would say that the experience of Latin America uniformly has been extremely different.
Please remember that Venezuela has coughed out now about 2.2 million people. One million of whom are in Columbia. The other million who are sort of divided in other parts of Latin America, and in each of those countries, the host governments have been welcoming, have given Venezuelan migrants immediate work permits. Latin America has really I think shown the world how immigrants should be treated.
Will this last if more and more Venezuelans come out, I don't know, but certainly their first reaction to 2.2 million people leaving Venezuela in about two years has been nothing more than incredible generous. So I'll stop there.
Brian Hanson: Peter Schechter, political commentator, cohost of Altamar podcast, thanks so much for being here. I think what I really took away from this conversation is that the dominant simple narratives about what's going on in Brazil and in the continent more broadly. To understand them, we really have to have a better sense of nuance. The other thing that I thought was very helpful for our listeners is, identifying what are key things to look at to pay attention to, to understand how President Bolsonaro's rule will unfold and how successful he'll be.
I should mention to our listeners that Peter will be here at the Chicago Council on November 5th for a program on Brazil as well as democracy in Latin America. You can come join that here in person and register for that event at www.theChicagocouncil.org, and also that event will be available on live stream also at www.theChicagocouncil.org.
Peter, thanks so much for being here, and I look forward to seeing you Monday.
Peter Schechter: Brian it was a great pleasure, thanks for having me on the show and hello to everybody in Chicago, and I look forward to being back in Chicago on Monday, thanks very much.
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As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council or Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio, our audio engineer is Andy Zernecke, I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.