How Brazil’s Democracy is Falling Apart

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

On a recent evening in Natal, the capital of Brazilian state Rio Grande de Norte, 95-year-old Dona Sebastiana was packed into a cramped room with about a dozen people and their families who were also suspected of having COVID-19, Jornal Nacional reported. She received treatment in a wheelchair because all of the hospital beds were full. Every day, over a thousand people die in Brazil due to the coronavirus, while the country faces severe medicine shortages, overfilled hospitals, as well as a severe economic downturn.

Dona Sebastiana being treated in a wheelchair (Image from Jornal Nacional, Jun 8 2020)

Meanwhile, far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has turned a blind eye to the situation, claiming that the coronavirus is no more than “a little flu” and firing the Brazilian health minister over a dispute on the severity of the coronavirus. When confronted with the situation, he responded, “It’s life. Everyone dies someday.” Later, after people began gathering in the street to protest the lack of government response to the virus, many were arrested for not respecting distancing guidelines. At the same time, at similarly sized pro-Bolsonaro rallies, there were little to no arrests, indicating a preference by the country’s police towards those who support Bolsonaro, a sign of authoritarianism.

Most recently, presumably after realizing that the country was on track to surpass the US with the most coronavirus deaths, Bolsonaro ordered the ministry of health to stop reporting coronavirus deaths. This prompted news agencies to begin compiling their own data on coronavirus deaths, by adding up tallies from individual states. After significant backlash from news agencies and the general public, the government began reporting deaths again.

The official government figures, however, were often lower than the independently collected data from individual states, hinting towards underreporting in the federal government’s official figures. This shift towards censorship and authoritarianism which has recently plagued Brazil’s government raises questions about a country’s transition into authoritarianism and whether other countries with growing support for far-right candidates, like the United States and Poland, are also susceptible to facing a similar fate.

To begin to understand the rationale behind Bolsonaro’s election, it is critical to rewind to the U.S.-supported military dictatorship from 1964-1985. During the early years of this era, despite low wages, censorship, and the government’s torturous agenda, Brazil went through a period of rapid economic growth, referred to by many Brazilians as an “economic miracle.” In 1973, a worldwide crisis quadrupled oil prices, driving the world into an economic downturn. With this, investment into Brazil slowed down, inflation accelerated, and support for the military dictatorship began to wane.

In response, President Ernesto Geisel, who was appointed in 1974, began to slowly transition the government into a democracy, in hopes that this would help improve the country’s economic situation. Throughout the next 11 years, the general public’s role in government began to slowly increase, as they began to win the right to vote for positions such as mayor and governor. Eventually, in 1985, a free election was held to determine the next president, marking the end of the military dictatorship and the beginning of a new democracy in Brazil.

The beginning of this democracy brought economic failures. The first president, José Sarney enacted policies that worsened hyperinflation in the country. Then, the next president, Fernando Collor, enacted a plan to end hyperinflation, where he froze 80% of all money in everyone’s bank accounts and switched up the currency. This plan was unsuccessful, and further angered the Brazillian people. Collor was then impeached due to a corruption scandal, where it was discovered that he was accepting bribes from companies to take overpriced contracts from them. After a brief period where Collor’s vice president ruled, the next president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso enacted a plan called the “Plano Real,”, which changed Brazil’s currency to rescue the Brazillian economy. This plan, combined with the dissipation of Collor’s corruption scandal, led citizens and foreign investors to become more hopeful about Brazil’s economy, as they thought the corruption that marked the Collor era to be largely over. This caused an increase in foreign investment, leading Brazil through another period of economic success. This economic success continued into the next president’s leadership and the early 2000s.

In 2002, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a popular, charismatic, far-left leader won the election, with promises to make Brazil even more prosperous. This brought Lula’s party, the Workers’ Party, into power in Brazil. As the years went by, Lula delivered on his promises, with unemployment dropping to an all time low and GDP growth accelerating throughout the country. This led the Workers’ Party to grow even more in popularity, until it came to dominate Brazillian politics. The economic success continued until 2014.

In March 2014, a shocking revelation displayed that many politicians in the Workers’ Party and the rest of Brazil’s government, as well as CEOs of major corporations were involved in various systemized corruption schemes, which operated mainly by having private companies bribe government officials to overpay contracts with those companies. The discovery of these corruption schemes led to the creation of the ongoing anti-corruption operation, Operation Car Wash, allowing Brazilians and the world to begin to see the gravity of corruption in Brazil.

The Workers’ Party was still able to narrowly win the elections in October 2014, as the true scale of corruption in Brazil hadn’t been felt yet, and  Dilma Rousseff was re-elected. As Operation Car Wash continued uncovering more and more corruption in Brazil, foreign investment into Brazil began to fall, driving the country into a deep economic recession. It also eventually led to the impeachment of Rousseff, who was also part of the Workers’ Party. The scandal led to the party garnering infamy, eventually becoming one of the symbols of corruption in Brazil. 

Protest against Workers’ Party in 2014 (SEBASTIAO MOREIRA EFE)

During the 2018 election, the people were discontented by the economic issues that the corruption from the far-left Workers’ Party brought, and they deeply regretted having re-elected Rousseff in 2014, so they sought something that was as different from that as possible. Citizens also yearned for another “economic miracle,” as the economic state of the country had reached an all time low. 

Enter Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate with roots from the military dictatorship, who promised to end corruption and crime in general. He had already shown his extreme rhetoric, through his open support of torture, exile, and total police impunity. Nevertheless, the Brazilian people were desperate enough to send him to the second phase of elections rather than selecting more moderate candidates. From there, Brazilian people had to decide between him and Fernando Haddad, a member of the Workers’ Party. Because many vowed never to vote for the Workers’ Party again, Bolsonaro won the election.

Bolsonaro’s election is a classic case of overcorrection. The far-left had driven the country into such a dire situation that the general public felt inclined to vote for the exact opposite. Prior to the corruption scandal, Lula, leader of the Workers’ Party, was almost unanimously beloved, so a lot of the country felt betrayed and disappointed upon seeing his true colors. Bolsonaro capitalized on this anger and discontent, having vowed to end the whole mess going on in the government and saying things like, “The Congress today is useless …let’s do the coup already. Let’s go straight to the dictatorship”.

Overall, although other radical candidates have garnered support in other countries, these countries’ democracies are not nearly as threatened as Brazil’s, because Brazil has had a lot more history with corruption and a military regime not too long ago. Also, in light of other problems like extreme crime and food insecurity, democracy, although important, is less of a priority for many people there than it is in other countries, like the United States. At the same time, other countries are still, albeit at a slower pace, becoming less democratic. For example, U.S. policy is becoming ever more influenced by powerful, rich, interest groups, indicating a shift towards an oligarchy. Companies and organizations are often able to lobby for policies that benefit them, even when these policies are detrimental to the general public, the most famous (or infamous) example being the NRA.

Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil and the devastating impact it has had is yet another example that reinforces the importance of making sure we never let anger, betrayal, and disappointment lead us to make irrational political decisions that threaten democracies worldwide.

Update: Bolsonaro has tested positive for COVID-19. To treat the virus, he is taking hydroxychloroquine, a highly controversial drug which the FDA cautions against using in non-hospital settings. Whether contracting COVID-19 will lead Bolsonaro to understand the Wgravity of the virus and re-evaluate Brazil’s virus response strategies is still unknown.

Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on Bolonsoro and Brazil’s government?

“He[Bolsonaro] wasn’t the ideal candidate, because he isn’t a really balanced person. The thing is, between all the candidates around, he seemed to have the best proposals” (Translated into English from Portuguese) Bruna Pereira, 21, Junior at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
“Bolsonaro only thinks about himself, not helping those who need help. He’s taking away our rights to education and cultural resources, not because there isn’t money, but because he doesn’t want to invest in us” (Translated into English from Portuguese) Adriana Silva, 17 – Senior at Escola Municipal Sérgio Pereira Rodrigues-Guarujá, São Paulo, Brazil
“In the last 4 years, us teens have seen ever-increasing polarization within the political landscape. It’s a pointless tug of war, because no good leader has been able to emerge to get us out of this medical crisis” (Translated into English from Portuguese) Joao Guilherme Medeiros, 18, Cuiabá, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil
“Brazil has had one of the worst responses to the coronavirus. Even though mayors and governors started to close public places far before virus cases exploded, a lot of Brazillians didn’t respect social distancing and other isolation practices. Bolsonaro has only made things worse, as he’s been contradicting everything that the Ministry of Health has been telling us, to the point that Brazil has almost 30,000 new cases each day and is the epicenter of the outbreak. Brazil has also started reopening, even as coronavirus cases continue to increase. Brazil, and the Brazillian government are being used as examples of how not to respond to a virus, while the president of the largest country in South America still calls the virus a “little flu”…which has already killed over 50,000 Brazillians.” (Translated into English from Portuguese) Gabriel Lico, 16, International School of Beijing, Beijing, ChinaInternational School of Beijing, Beijing, China

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