Prospects for Brazil in 2020: Part Two


By Kenneth Maxwell

Brazilian Society

Brazil is now overwhelmingly an urban society.

Yet the countryside matters, and is now dominated by agribusiness, which is a major source of president Jair Bolsonaro’s political support. He appointed a major friend of agribusiness, Tereza Cristina, as head of the agriculture ministry.

Agribusiness likes to export, and China which has for 10 years been Brazil’s principal commercial partner. China is the largest market for Brazilian soya beans, soya bean meal, beef, and pork. In 2019 Chinese purchases of Brazilian produce reached US$ 65.4 billion. (The United States was in second place in 2019 with US$ 29.6 billion.) The Arab states are major importers from Brazil. Countries with majority Islamic populations import 70% of Brazilian sugar, 37% of Brazilian chicken, and 27% of Brazilian beef.

Jair Bolsonaro is an evangelical Pentecostal. Like US president Donald Trump he is ideologically wedded to Israel. He was baptized in the River Jordan. He wanted to move the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He has claimed that “China was buying up Brazil.”

But Bolsonaro has already been obliged to reconcile Brazil’s material concerns with his ideological (and Pentecostal) preferences. He visited China on his way back to Brazil from the enthronement of the Japanese emperor (Brazil has a large and influential Japanese origin population, especially in São Paulo state). He was lavishly feted in Beijing by Chinese President Chinese Xi Jinping.  Bolsonaro also visited Saudi Arabia on his way back from Japan and China though he spent much of his time there railing in an unhinged televised transmission against Globo, the big Brazilian media empire.

The Brazilian mainstream press (like Trump and his attacks on what he calls the ”fake news” of the mainstream US media) is another of Bolsonaro’s favorite targets. He declared recently that the press was ”a species facing extinction.”

Chinese investment has been rising in Brazil.

Massively into Brazil’s electricity distribution system as well as into Brazilian off shore oil production.

China is at the center of the ideological split within Bolsonaro’s government between the “pragmatists” represented by the economic team under Guedes, the military ministers in the government led by Vice President army General Hamilton Mourão, and the ideologists led by the President and his sons, supported by the foreign minister, Ernest Araújo, and Felipe Martins, the president’s foreign policy adviser in the presidential palace (palácio do planalto), the environmental minister, Ricardo Salles, who is like Bolsonaro a climate change denier, the education minister, the economist Abraham Weintraub (he is greatest user of twitter in Bolsonaro’s government), Damares Alves, the Evangelical pastor, the minister of women and family and human rights, all of them backed from Virginia in the US by Olavo de Carvalho, the self-exiled verbally incontinente, foul mouthed, internet ”philosopher” and gun totting “mentor” and “guru” to Bolsonaro and his sons.

Brazilian society is profoundly unequal and the concentration of wealth at the top remains obscene, even by international standards.

The top one percent of Brazilians control 28.3% of the national wealth. 10% of the richest control 41.9% of the wealth. Only Qatar has a worse distribution of wealth at 29%.

Yet Jair Bolsonaro’s most fervent political support base is among Pentecostalists, many of them drawn from the urban aspiring lower middle class and Favala residents.

The intersection between the urban upper middle class ensconced behind their well protected high rises and heavily gated compounds, and the aspiring poor is intense, interconnected, and interdependent.

Often these connections are through household service and through what the Brazilian historian Jaime Reis calls the world of “motor boys, bike boys, Uber, the slaves of neo-liberalism.”

This is the “Gig” economy Brazilian style. These unequal segments of society are linked through the large informal economy of the drug trade especially in cocaine. This is where the middle class meets the traffickers. These connections are also international.

Clandestine Commerce

Some idea of the scale of this clandestine commerce can been seen in the extent of drug seizures. Cocaine seizures between January and October 2019 comprised 47.1 tons in the port of Santos (SP), 18.9 tons in Paranaguá (PR) which is the second largest port in Brazil in terms of tonnage and the third in container shipping and is the main port for Brazil’s agricultural products, 13.5 tons of cocaine was seized in Natal (RN), and 4.4 tons in Itajaí (SC).

These cocaine shipments were destined for Holland, France, and Belgium. The cocaine routes link the inland frontiers of Colombia and Venezuela through Bolivia and Paraguay to the Brazilian (and Uruguayan) Atlantic ports. The trade also passes from Natal to Europe through the former Portuguese colony of Guiné Bissau (virtually a narco-state).

The trade in cocaine and the routes of cocaine trafficking into and out of Brazil are a major unacknowledged contributor to Brazil economy.

It also stokes Brazil’s high rate of crime, urban gang warfare over urban territory, and the interconnections between the informal armed “milícias” which since 2000 under the guise of combatting narcotraffickers have extorted the population of the favelas and low income communities for the clandestine use of gas, cable television link ups and other services, and in the sale of property. Formed of police, firemen, security guards and retired military officers, they often live in the communities and are linked to politicians and community leaders.

According to research in 2010 the milícias dominated 41.5% of the 1006 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The other 55.9% were controlled by narco traffickers. The corruption of the police and local politicians, and the high rates of homicides, especially among Brazil’s “afro descendent” population is a direct consequence. In Rio de Janeiro the milícia “escritório do crime” which is active in the western area of the city exploits the illegal construction and the sale of real estate.

The role of the military police along these sharp domestic boundaries is particularly shocking.

The context was captured by the iconic photograph, taken in 2004 by Tuca Vieira of the favela of Paraisopolos abutting the upper-class district of Morumbi in São Paulo, where the division between wealth and poverty was most grotesque, between the favela and the luxurious apartment bloc.

It also mirrors the division between whites and non-whites with deep roots in Brazilian history and the legacy of almost 400 years of slavery.

Prospects for Brazil in 2020: Part One

The featured photo shows Brazilian police seizing hundreds of kilos of cocaine in a drug raid in Sao Paulo on September 23, 2016, in which an Israeli man was arrested. (screen capture: Ynet)

The photo was taken from the following source: