Prospects for Brazil in 2020: Part One


By Kenneth Maxwell

Politics in Brazil are already polarized and will continue to be so in 2020.

The Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, owed his election to this polarization. He will stoke it further. It is in his political interest to do so. It is entirely in his character to do what he does best.

That is stirring up resentments, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and rightwing populism.

Confrontation is the new norm in Brazilian politics.

This in a country that once prided itself on conciliation.

Even if conciliation historically covered a multitude of social, racial, and economic inequalities.

Belligerent confrontation is now the name of the game.

Few are seeking consensus.


The economic situation may improve in 2020.

There are indications that the long recession the country has suffered over the last five years may be easing. Employment prospects are beginning to improve. The unemployment rate had been 13.70% in 2017.

But 2019 ended with unemployment falling to 11.20%.  This still leaves almost 12 million people out of work within a population of over 210 million.

Some legislative changes have been made in Bolsonaro’s first year in office. Much now depends on implementing radical domestic reform legislation which the multifarious special Interests represented in the Brazilian Congress (there are 17 parties in the Senate and 30 parties in the lower chamber of the Congress) have always been loath to support (or to support in return for special favors.)

An improvement in international trade and business conditions will also help, especially a resolution of the trade dispute between the US and China which could have a major impact on Brazil’s prospects.

Brazilian growth according to the most recent projections, prior to the new crisis in the Middle East, may reach 1.7% which will return Brazil to pre-recession levels.

The World Bank forecasts Brazilian growth at 2%.

Brazilian society remains woefully divided.

The on-going culture wars will intensify.

Brazil will continue to be part of the global struggle over the future of democracy, authoritarianism, populism, internationalized drug trafficking, and especially over the environment. The broad de-facto consensus between center left and the center right which has dominated Brazilian politics since the 1980’s has clearly broken down.

A stable new configuration of political forces has yet to emerge.

The lingering presence on the political scene of the two principal political protagonists of the old political division between center left and center right, former two term presidents Lula da Silva (Lula) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), complicates the situation.

Neither Lula nor FHC shows any willingness to gracefully retire from political protagonism.

Each seems determined to continue fighting old battles. In FHC’s case (he is ever conscious of US precedents) this means promoting the 2022 presidential prospects of the São Paulo TV host and entrepreneur Luciano Grostein Huck. Huck presents “caldeirão do Huck” (Huck’s Cauldron”) on the Rede Globo network, Brazil’s largest.

Lula’s continued political activism stymies the prospects for the emergence of credible alternatives on the left. It did so in his late withdrawn from the last presidential contest which undermined the prospects of Fernando Haddad who belatedly became the Worker’s Party (PT) candidate.)

But Lula’s resilience, wiliness, political ruthlessness, and instinct for self-preservation, should never be underestimated.

The Political Landscape

The political landscape is being recast by forces well outside the old networks of power (though sometimes these are old forces, like the Bolsonaro clan clothed in and weaponized by new garments.)

What is new is that these clusters of special interests have emerged in an environment which is already internationalized with the rise of cyber influence campaigns and sophisticated clandestine political interference and manipulation.

In this Brazil is well ahead of the game which marries the old surveillance mechanisms inherited from the military dictatorship to the new techniques developed in the age of the Internet.

One of the Harvard University students who co-founded Facebook in 2004 it should be remembered was the Brazilian Eduardo Saverin. He fell out with Mark Zuckerberg. His worth was estimated at US$10.1 billion in June 2019 and he is now living in tax exile in Singapore.

Jair Bolsonaro with an eye on the next presidential election in 2022 is forming a new political party, an “Aliança pelo Brasil” with himself as the President of the party and his son, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro of Rio de Janeiro, as the Vice-President. Its objectives match his government’s slogan of “Brazil above all, God above all everyone.”

Like so much with (reserve) army captain Jair Bolsonaro and his outspoken nostalgia for the days of the military dictatorship, his new “Aliança pelo Brasil” is reminiscent of the National Renewal Party (ARENA), the pro-government conservative political party (or agglomeration) which between 1966 and 1979 was the” official” party of the military regime.

The Aliança pelo Brasil is mobilizing the support of leading Evangelicals to obtain the 491.000 signatures needed to make the new party a viable electoral alternative.

The Evangelicals are an important force in Brazil.

Recent analysis in one Rio de Janeiro favela found that 40% of the residents considered themselves to be evangelical and only 17% considered themselves to be Catholic’s. in São Paulo a vast 10,000 seat “Temple of Solomon” was built as the cost of US$300 million by the “Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.” Its minister is the son-in-law of the founder of the church, Edir Macedo, whose worth is thought to be US$ 1.3 billion and is the owner of Rede Record, the second largest broadcaster in Brazil. The “Universal Church” is said to have 1.8 million followers in Brazil.

The old battle between “Liberalism” (or “neo-liberalism”) and “Statism” (that is the dominant role of the state in business enterprises) is also back with a vengeance.

This is a conflict that rests in part on the struggle between the power of the “official” economy, where the statisticians, the bankers, the corporate managers, and the international investors live, and the “informal” economy where most non-rich (and non-white) Brazilians survive their daily challenges, and where emotional support for national enterprises remains very strong.

The “markets” know what it is they would like to see: A successful implementation of the plans of Paulo Guedes, the minister of the economy, and the creation of a slimmed down, more agile state, with more privatizations, a simplification of the tax system, much greater openness of the economy to the world, more flexible labour rules, and the overhaul of the pension system.

Paulo Guedes is certainly trying.

He has incorporated into his super-ministry the former ministries of planning and industry and commerce and established departments of “de-bureaucratization” and “de-Stateization.”

Guedes also has under his wing the national development bank (BNDES), the Banco do Brasil, the Central Bank, Petrobras, and the applied research institute (lpea). Guedes was promised a free hand by Bolsonaro.

Not surprisingly he is most popular among rich Brazilians (58% approval according to the December 5/6 DataFolha opinion survey) than among poorer Brazilians (where his rating is 31%).

The featured photo is of President Bolsonaro and is credited to Mauro Piemtel/AFP and the original source can be found here: