Previous issues
Contact Us

Summer 2003 cover

National Observer Home > No. 55 - Summer 2003 > Articles

Brazil Turns Left: Executive Power in Latin America's Largest Country


Preoccupation with Bali's and Moscow's bloodbaths recently exacerbated Australian news media outlets’ long-standing illiterate provincialism to so grave an extent that Brazil's dramatic presidential election of 27 October 2002 went largely unreported here. Such provincialism contrasts with the attitude of Canada's and the United States’ quality press, which gave this election the coverage it deserved.

When Brazil sneezes, the entire Western Hemisphere catches cold. No Latin American country equals Brazil in area (8.6 million square kilometres) or population (174 million). So when Brazilian voters instal in a landslide, for the first time in thirty-eight years, an overtly leftist President - veteran metal-trades unionist and Workers’ Party leader Luis Inácio Lula de Silva, universally known just as "Lula" - while rejecting Washington's preferred candidate, former Health Minister José Serra, the repercussions matter globally: in a style which not even the most narcissistic Canberra press gallery hack dares attribute to Australia's Tweedledum-and-Tweedledumber rotativism.

The first time (1989) that "Lula" ran for Brazil's highest office, openly threatening to renege on Brazil's foreign debt if he won, he secured only 16 per cent of the vote. At his second attempt, in 1994, he managed 27 per cent; and at his third (1998), he achieved 31 per cent. To understand how - after this solid record of failure even against two widely denounced presidential incumbents - he has now been swept to power with a popular vote of 61 per cent, we must comprehend something of the Brazilian political system's longer-term history. This task is aided by the subject's sheer repetitiveness. British sociologist John Mander noted in 1969:1

"Brazil has always been a country of boom and gold-rush. It has never taken thought for the morrow . . . [Its] economic cycle has always had the same hysterical, manic-depressive character."

Except for Atatürk, no leader of a major nation in the last two hundred years has taken a greater role in creating a polity than Portuguese King-Emperor João VI took in creating modern Brazil, almost ex nihilo. Napoleon could stand on the shoulders of Richelieu, Mazarin, Louis XIV and Robespierre; João wholly lacked such precursors. Sickly, obese, deformed, and often giving observers the impression of being slow-witted, he made up in sheer energy for what he lacked in dash. Within a decade of arriving at Rio de Janeiro - having fled thither in 1807, with his whole family and court, from the Bonapartist advance upon Lisbon - João gave Brazil its first regular water-supply, its first library, its first printing press, its first medical school, its first titles of nobility, and its first botanical gardens.2 Many a fawning French savant repeatedly credited eighteenth-century anticlerical sovereigns with the doctrine of "enlightened despotism". Yet João embodied this doctrine at least as effectively as Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, or Joseph II had ever done, and much less harshly. The pattern he had set by the time he died (when back on Portuguese soil) in 1826, of personal dictatorship without melodrama or overt rancour, repeatedly dominated Brazilian politics from his time until ours.

João's grandson Pedro II, during his long reign (1831-89), built upon existing monarchical foundations rather than pursuing comparable administrative novelties of his own. Practical power more and more devolved from the monarch's quiet, unassuming, conscientious person to Brazil's upper clergy (who mostly despised Pedro for his Masonic connections as well as his publicly manifested admiration for Protestants),3 and, more damagingly still, to the slave-owning landowners who hated Pedro's daughter Isabela for proclaiming full emancipation in 1888, while her father made one of his numerous European tours. Unlike the great republic to the north, Brazil at least ended chattel-slavery without leaving half a million corpses in civil war; but emancipation's aftershocks brought down the Brazilian throne itself, Pedro and his relations being sent (November 1889) into permanent exile. Not for more than forty years would any one Brazilian of comparable political stature to Pedro emerge.

When he did, it was through the revolution of October 1930, by which hitherto obscure ex-congressman Getúlio Vargas seized power in his first step towards what he afterwards called the "New State" (Estado Nôvo). This institution's very title typified Vargas’ ambiguity, since he borrowed the phrase from Dr. Salazar's lexicon, yet he discarded the implications of pietas and monkish efficiency with which that austere Portuguese statesman had endowed it. As affable as Salazar was introverted,4 he could usually be trusted to sport for the cameras a toothy grin, not to mention a facial resemblance to Franklin Roosevelt that did him no political harm whatever. His constitution-mongering attracted the widespread journalistic epithet "fascist". The result, to outsiders concerned with the exact meaning of words, was a very odd sort of "fascism" indeed. Political enemies remained at large; irreverent newspaper comment flourished in Rio and São Paulo; labour unions enjoyed an exalted legal status that would have horrified European dictators; Communist leaders, ostensibly outlawed, had few problems printing Party literature; and in World War II Vargas abandoned punctilious Salazarian neutralism by sending soldiers to fight alongside the Americans in southern Italy. A brief but bloody secessionist uprising (1932) elicited from Vargas severity in battle combined with subsequent lenience towards the vanquished rebels, whom he allowed to retain their assets. With that quixotic element which never entirely deserted his character, Vargas even decreed an armistice in the middle of the war: to mark national mourning for the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, who had taken his own life rather than endure a world where his beloved aeroplanes were used to slay the innocent.5 Ousted by the army in 1945, Vargas at first cooled his heels in the political limbo of Brazil's Senate, but six years after his downfall he won back the presidency in a reasonably fair election. Disgraced in August 1954 for a second time, he followed Santos-Dumont's example of Roman stoicism, and shot himself.

Realising that both sycophancy and blatant insolence would have an equally dire effect on Brazil's relations with the United States, Vargas knew for most of his career how to divert, to dam up, and (where necessary) to strengthen the nationalistic current which an ever more literate workforce was generating. O Petróleo é Nosso ("The Petroleum Is Ours"), declared the protesters against American inroads into Brazil's oil industry. With Vargas gone, the protests grew in volume, frequently promoting white-elephant prestige projects such as later ages would make familiar in African kleptocracies. No such project acquired greater notoriety than the late 1950s’ transfer of the capital to the brand-new ghost town of Brasília: through the same kind of parochial squabbling that had also actuated capital status for Canberra and Ottawa, cities which at least had been established early enough to escape the worst horrors of Brasília's glass-box architectural brutalism.

The national embourgeoisement - an ungainly but useful word - led to an increasingly radical spirit which considered even Brasília's instigator, Juscelino Kubitschek (President 1955-60), insufficiently exciting. This spirit found political expression, first, via the abortive reign of Jânio Quadros (1960-61) and then - Quadros having impetuously stepped down, hoping for a de-Gaulle-type restoration which never occurred - via the more overtly extremist João Goulart. Partly through design, partly through simple incompetence that helped send Brazil's already high inflation rate to three-figure levels, Goulart steered Brazil dramatically to the left. His tenure finished in March 1964, when a locally-inspired but American-favoured army coup overthrew him. Goulart always denied wanting to turn his country into a second Cuba; but then as Castro himself had hoodwinked millions (Eisenhower included) into trusting his early anti-Soviet assurances,6 it is scarcely odd that Goulart's protestations sounded disingenuous at the Cold War's height.

For twenty-one years following Goulart's deposition, a series of military dictators governed Brazil, in a manner not readily corresponding to army rule of other Latin American countries. By comparison with the uncontrolled death-squads rampaging through Argentina, Guatemala or El Salvador at the same period, Brazilian militarism bordered on the benign. It deprived Goulart, Quadros and Kubitschek of their civil liberties, rather than gaoling them, let alone killing them. It left unmolested the "liberation theologian" Hélder Câmara, heretical occupant of the Recife archdiocese (although it did ban him from the national radio).7 Opposition candidates generally contested, and occasionally won, gubernatorial elections. Most notable of Brazil's strongmen during this period was Marshal Humberto Castello Branco, the anti-Goulart coup's chief beneficiary (though not its chief organiser), who tolerated while in office - and who himself publicised - devastating witticisms about his personal ugliness and dwarfish stature. (Explaining the paucity of photographs depicting his visage, he asked: "If you had a face like mine, would you like to have to stare at it everywhere?").8 Castello Branco's death in a 1967 plane crash deprived the country of a leader admitted even by his foes to be personally incorruptible.9 His military successors proved to be lesser men, capable of retaining office, but not of further dignifying it.

By 1985 Brazil's régime, instead of effectively wielding guns, was looking down the barrels of them. Washington had entirely abandoned that cynical realism towards Latin American despots which it had exhibited earlier in the century: a realism which had impelled Roosevelt (or, according to some accounts, Secretary of State Cordell Hull) to say of an incumbent caudillo, "He may be a son of a bitch,10 but he's our son of a bitch." Now the Beltway resounded to talk of pro-American "democratic revolutions" that would sweep military autocrats into history's dustbin. Whether America's distinctive political process - in its origins Puritan, industrialised, didactic, and individualistic - could ever be grafted successfully upon Catholic, rural, communitarian cultures with little or no heritage of voting rights, the rule of law, or universal education, remained unclear to thinking minds in 1985; and it remains unclear still. (Vargas, for one, had believed that it could not. "Voting", he once said in his sardonic fashion, "does not fill anybody's belly.")11 Nevertheless the signs of discontent with army cliques abounded. During the early 1980s Argentina's and Uruguay's juntas had let themselves be toppled peacefully. If they could not cling to power, Brazil's altogether milder administration had little hope of crushing liberal protest. Civilian opposition to General João Figueiredo, President since 1979, forced him to promise that he would transfer his authority to an electoral college's choice of candidate. That choice turned out to be Tancredo Neves, an ailing septuagenarian who had served in Goulart's cabinet; but Neves died before he could be sworn in, whereupon Figuereido handed over his office to Neves’ running-mate, José Sarney.

A 1976 cartoon in Punch said of British Prime Minister James Callaghan: "He didn't want to be P.M., and he doesn't want not to be." Sarney displayed the same attitude towards his own job: reluctant to hold it; even more reluctant to forsake it. There might have been a means of controlling the economic chaos that disfigured Sarney's rule (although similar phenomena afflicted most newly democratised South American countries at the time), but if there was, it eluded Sarney. Inflation - which the military had succeeded in clamping down until 1982 - soared under Sarney's aegis, until by 1988 it had reached 1,038 per cent.12 An especially hard-fought election the following year narrowly gave the presidential office to photogenic technocrat Fernando Collor, who within weeks of his inauguration adopted slash-and-burn policies of privatising numerous government-owned enterprises, abolishing almost all tariffs, and trimming Brazil's bloated bureaucracy. In his immediate aim of strengthening the currency, Collor succeeded. But he proved to resemble would-be fiscal crusaders elsewhere (John Hewson's Icarusian fate springs to mind): impressive bean-counting credentials went unmatched by moral fibre. In May 1992 Brazil's leading current-affairs magazine Veja published an interview with Collor's own brother Pedro, who gave gruesome details of the President's extortions, his adultery with Pedro's wife (probably the least damaging element of Pedro's testimony, in a Brazilian context), his links with prominent white-collar criminal Paulo César Farias, and his exuberant cocaine use. Rather than be formally impeached by Congress, Collor finally resigned in favour of his Vice-President, Itamar Franco.13 This gentleman reached depths of decorum perhaps beneath even Collor's own in 1994, when Brazilian television broadcast Franco's erotic phone conversation with Playboy bunny-girl Lilian Ramos to fifty million titillated viewers. Under Franco inflation had rocketed back up to 913 per cent, although after Franco had stepped down in favour of his rival Fernando Henrique Cardoso, it fell within a year to 19 per cent, and by 1997 to 14 per cent.14

Credit for this achievement resided primarily with Cardoso's Plano Real, a scheme (which he proposed while campaigning for president) to replace the existing cruzeiro paper currency with one - the real - made of metal. Lula, still seething at his 1989 loss to Collor, had furiously condemned the Plano Real when competing against Cardoso in the 1994 election; but by 1994 Brazilians had so wearied of hyperinflation that they thought any hitherto untried mechanism to stabilise prices warranted essaying, and thus Lula frittered away his original double-figure opinion-poll lead.15 (The Plano Real's implementation had the unexpected side-effect of making ordinary slot-machines, long since abandoned by Brazilian manufacturers, viable once again for the first time in a decade.)16 Voters must have liked what they saw of Cardoso on the whole, because in the 1998 election he again beat Lula without much difficulty. Sensitive to accusations of craving personal dictatorship, he decided not to seek a third presidential term in 2002.

In several respects the Brazil over which Lula now presides is almost unrecognisable as the same country that Cardoso vowed, nine years back, to rescue. Certain improvements in living standards, which in other lands have taken a generation to effect, Brazil has managed only since 1994. When Cardoso swore his oath of office, it cost the equivalent of several thousand U.S. dollars to have a private telephone installed; but these days, even dwellers in a shanty-town on Recife's outskirts, so impoverished that Brazilians call it "Planet of the Apes", can afford telephones of their own (and Cardoso privatised the telephone system, something even Collor jibbed at doing).17 The proportion of Brazilians actually going hungry was estimated, in pre-Cardoso days, to be 20 per cent; under Cardoso it sank to 15 per cent.18 The AIDS rate, after having reached an all-time high in 1998, has now decreased to pre-1994 levels.19 Unemployment, while still severe, has not ballooned in the way that Lula and other opponents of Cardoso predicted it would. Official figures, for what they are worth, give it as 8 per cent:20 no worse than Australia's official jobless rate (itself equally fraudulent in its calculations, since it is artificially depressed by the conscription of school-leavers into what successive Education Ministers have quaintly styled "universities"). Where Cardoso has blundered, countervailing forces have sometimes intervened. The concept of States’ Rights - which in a federal republic like Brazil always receives lip-service, and often practical attention too - allied to the notion of frequent congressional independence from the executive, has ensured that Cardoso's 1999 attempt to ram through a gun-control bill met with well-deserved failure. Brazilians had formalised slavery for almost four centuries; the Australian neglect inviting possible unofficial slavery, through enforced disarmament, makes curiously little appeal to them.

So what will Lula do with Cardoso's legacy? Will he, possessing the advantage of incumbency, pile on the class-warfare rhetoric? Or will he moderate it, as he did while campaigning? The precedents for either course are, as we have seen, conspicuous in Brazilian annals. He might take after Goulart, and turn the country into one more Third World basket-case of entitlement-mania. Or he might take after Vargas, sustain a balancing act among otherwise antithetical vested interests for years on end, and choose his own successor. The first of these strategies would affront the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Pentagon, which his very presence alarms. The second would be impeded by his history of repeated, public electoral losses, a complete contrast to the way in which Vargas charged to the front of Brazil's stage after years of near-total anonymity as a spear-carrier.

Complicating the choice for Lula is the success which ex-socialists elsewhere - Paul Keating provides a familiar example - combine envious proletarian verbiage with economic policies devised solely to placate those big-business elements which they purport to revile. Were Lula to adopt the Keating method, already profitable for Tony Blair (though in Blair's case with bland egalitarian chatter taking the place of Keating's strident cloth-cap argot), it is hard to discern how the Brazilian Centre-Right, still in shock at the sheer scale of its electoral chastisement, could ever lay a glove on him. Thereby deprived of any rightist challenger who amounted to more than a passing joke, Lula would immediately be vulnerable to a flank attack from his left, as his vocal and numerous foot-soldiers from the union and student sectors present him with the political promissory notes that he signed for them amid the campaign trail's euphoria.

Two imponderables remain in assessing Lula's chances: racial factors, and the chances of renewed trouble from the army. The latter is probably negligible, but cannot be altogether ruled out. Brazil's 1964-85 military dictatorship amounted simply to a road-block against Communism. It never acquired the theocratic elements so obvious in Salazar's Portugal, in Engelbert Dollfuss’ Austria, or to a lesser extent in post-Civil-War Spain. When the likelihood of Castro invading Brazil weakened, so did the Brazilian army dictators’ raison d’être. The example of Argentina's chaos during the last months of 2001 suggests that South American economic meltdown does not intrinsically assist armed forces in regaining power. If it did, Argentina would be in the generals’ hands again by now. Still, it is all too easy to assume on limited or nonexistent evidence (especially if one's surname is Fukuyama) that after a certain point democracies become so robust as to make totalitarianism or even authoritarianism unthinkable. A century's tradition of democratic processes could not prevent Allende turning Chile into a Marxist hell-hole; half a century's tradition of welfarism on almost Scandinavian lines could not prevent Uruguay from singularly vicious military oppression during the 1970s and early 1980s.

What, then, of the racial question? Portuguese colonists avoided the Spanish preoccupation with limpieza de sangre, "purity of blood." Approximately 40 per cent of Brazil's residents are partly or wholly black. Until very recently Brazilians tended to assume - so great has been the racial intermixing which they, like all other erstwhile Portuguese peoples, embodied - that serious racial strife had never found, and could never find, any place in their homeland. Numerous volumes by Gilberto Freyre, the doyen of Brazilian anthropologists and (unlike most practitioners of his discipline) a figure who avoided even the most fleeting seduction by Marxian cant,21 confirmed them in this belief. Back in the 1950s they made racial discrimination a criminal offence.22 When they beheld apartheid in South Africa, native-born blacks’ status in America, and (more recently) West Indian black migrants’ status in Britain, they prided themselves - with considerable justice - on being free from these situations’ worst outcomes. Then again, so, until almost yesterday, did white New Zealanders: who thus left themselves entirely unprepared for the 1990s’ Maori separatist crusades, those embodiments of Political Correctness in its most asinine guise. True, Political Correctness remains a phenomenon largely confined to Anglo-Saxon societies; Latinate civilisations are too recognisably adult to swallow the phenomenon in its 100-proof form. Yet Lula, with the size of his mandate and the strength of his following among Brazil's underclass, would be superhuman if in times of blatant crisis he never felt the temptation to use the language of racial grievance.

In Brazil's favour is the pronounced tendency of a vigorous, talkative, self-mocking and flamboyant people towards serious public discussion of drastic political reforms. "We progress at night, when the politicians sleep", runs a Brazilian adage; "Brazil is the land of the future, and always will be", runs another.23 Some influential Brazilian commentators advocate that federalism be scrapped in favour of a unitary republic. Others want the precise opposite: secession from misrule by Brasília. A few even urge that the monarchy be restored (almost one voter in five supported this option at a 1993 referendum,24 although for most of the preceding century monarchist propaganda had been prohibited). If all else fails, Brazilians have been known to explore the animal kingdom for leadership. Various São Paulo citizens once, out of disgust with their local alderman, voted for a local rhinoceros named Cacareco. Intended purely as a protest candidate, Cacareco nevertheless won election to the city council; and when he died, he received the same state funeral to which his human colleagues were entitled.25

Brazil suffers from many appalling problems. Australian-type intellectual cowardice and addiction to the Servile State are not among them.

1. John Mander, Static Society: The Paradox of Latin America (Gollancz, London, 1969), page 292.

2. Bertita Harding, Amazon Throne (Harrap, London, 1942), pages 35-37, 46.

3. Harding, ibid., pages 241-246.

4. J. W. F. Dulles, Vargas of Brazil: A Political Biography (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1967), page 18.

5. Lewis Hanke, South America (Van Nostrand, Princeton, New Jersey, 1967), page 106; Nancy Winters, Man Flies: The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont (Bloomsbury, London, 1997), pages 145-146.

6. Robert Welch, "If You Want It Straight", American Opinion, April 1959.

7. José de Broucker (trans. Hilary Davies), The Conversions of A Bishop (Collins, London, 1979), page 200; Hugh Kay, Salazar and Modern Portugal (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1970), page 448.

8. John Gunther, Inside South America (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1967), page 47.

9. J. W. F. Dulles, President Castello Branco, Brazilian Reformer (Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1980), pages 4-5, 28, 486-487.

10. The origin of this famous quote is mysterious, and even its object is disputed. Usually the caudillo in question is said to have been Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua, but it may have been the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. Two Trujillo biographies, Robert Crassweller's Trujillo: The Life and Times of a Caribbean Dictator (Macmillan, New York, 1966) and Bernard Diederich's The Death of the Goat (Little, Brown, Boston, 1978), mention the remark. Both attribute it to Cordell Hull; neither provides a source, and it is curious - though hardly conclusive - that Hull's own memoirs make no mention of Trujillo whatever.

11. Gunther, ibid., page 26.

12. Thomas E. Skidmore, Brazil: Five Centuries of Change (Oxford University Press, New York, 1997), page 193.

13. Tom Bosque, "Looking Back at Collor", Brazil News, October 1996; Skidmore, pages 218-221.

14. Skidmore, ibid., pages 224, 227.

15. Skidmore, ibid., page 224.

16. Skidmore, page 224.

17. Anon., "Can Lula Finish the Job?", The Economist, 3 October 2002.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. A fact eloquently deplored in David Cleary, Race, Nationalism and Social Theory in Brazil: Rethinking Gilberto Freyre (Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000). Freyre expounded the history of mainly easy-going Brazilian miscegenation - convivência, as the almost untranslatable Portuguese term puts it - in Keith Botsford, "An Interview with Gilberto Freyre", Encounter, November 1962.

22. Hanke, page 97. Not everyone, of course, obeyed the relevant law. As late as 1966 the visiting American journalist John Gunther noticed newspaper advertisements seeking "light-skinned" employees (Gunther, ibid., page 11).

23. Gunther, ibid., page 1.

24. Alan Hooper, "Democratic Consolidation / Domestic Crisis in Brazil? The Collor Presidency, 1990-92", in P. Dunleavy and J. Stanyer (eds.), Contemporary Political Studies 1994 (Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom, Belfast, 1994), vol. 2, pages 636-650.

25. Gunther, ibid., page 25.

National Observer No. 55 - Summer 2003