Viewpoints on Energy, Geopolitics, and Civilization
Hal Brands/Bloomberg: If Brazil’s Democracy
Falters, All Latin America Is in Danger
Sergio Lima /Getty
Bolsonaro’s military of the future?
In the 1970s and 1980s, South America’s largest nation
was a bellwether for political liberty in the region.
Nicaragua’s sham election on Sunday — in which President Daniel Ortega ran, nearly unopposed, after banning or jailing most of the opposition — may be the most egregious example of creeping authoritarianism in Latin America. But a much larger and more important nation, Brazil, is also headed for a political crisis. And the history of Latin America demonstrates that if Brazil suffers a democratic breakdown, the effects will be felt far beyond its borders.
Brazil’s democratic system is both relatively young, having emerged after two decades of military rule in 1985, and relatively weak. For the sake of social peace, the country largely avoided a reckoning with the crimes perpetrated by the armed forces when they held power. Civilian control of the military remains more tenuous than in democracies in North America and Europe.
Moreover, Rampant crime has led to pervasive public insecurity, which can easily translate into sympathy for authoritarian rule. Disappointing economic performance, corruption and a failed response to the Covid epidemic have recently added to the strains.
Most recently, the populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, has flirted with calling for military intervention in the country’s politics; a majority of Brazilians believe that he wants a coup. He has undermined the separation of powers, declaring that he would no longer respect the rulings of the Supreme Court. He has also followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook by claiming, speciously, that the electoral system is untrustworthy and fanning hatred of his political enemies.
Brazil’s democracy, writes political scientist Oliver Stuenkel, is “in grave danger” of a breakdown. If Bolsonaro wins re-election in 2022, he could further degrade the country’s institutions and take it down the road to autocracy — a situation similar to what has happened in Venezuela. If he loses and refuses to accept defeat, violence could follow, on a much greater scale than the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Even if he does reluctantly cede power, future demagogues might emulate his tactics. Failed bids for autocracy sometimes lead to successful ones.
That’s not just a problem for Brazil. As the scholar Samuel Huntington explained three decades ago, changes of regime type in one country often have snowball effects in others.
Aspiring democratic reformers draw hope and energy from political breakthroughs in neighboring countries. They may also receive tangible support from a new democracy that believes it will be more secure if surrounded by others. Democratization can thus become a virtuous cycle — but, by the same logic, democratic breakdowns can start a vicious one.
Brazil’s past proves the point. When the nation returned to democracy in the 1980s, it was part of a region-wide awakening. Democratic reformers in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil saw each other as allies against illiberal forces in their own societies. The Brazilian government helped protect political transitions in countries such as Paraguay; it put democracy at the center of regional institutions such as the Mercosur trade pact. Brazil’s commitment to democracy had international effects.
During the prior era of dictatorship, however, Brazil was a bulwark of regional autocracy. The coup of 1964 was part of a rash of military takeovers in Latin America, provoked by fears of communism, economic underperformance and political instability. Brazil’s military regime acted as though its own well-being required supporting friendly governments and toppling threatening ones.
The Brazilian junta supported right-wing groups that destabilized the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Brazilian policy arguably had a bigger impact than American policy on the coup that eventually topped Allende.
In 1971, Brasilia moved troops to the border with Uruguay, in a blatant act of electoral intimidation, when it appeared that a leftist coalition might win the vote there. Brazilian operatives also helped stage a coup in Bolivia that year, and Brazil would later play a part in Operation Condor, a Chilean-led initiative to find, jail and kill political opponents of the South American dictatorships.
The logic of Cold War politics meant that Washington was happy enough to have a right-wing Brazilian regime policing South America. “I wish he were running the whole continent,” Richard Nixon said of Brazilian president Emilio Garrastazu Medici. The effects might not be so welcome today, when authoritarian governments often look to China and Russia for support, and democracy is experiencing a worldwide recession.
Indeed, a Brazilian breakdown could be particularly damaging given that democracy is struggling in much of Latin America. Venezuela and Nicaragua have fallen into outright tyranny; El Salvador is run by the self-proclaimed “world’s coolest dictator.”
Contested elections and violent disruptions have plagued countries from the Caribbean to the Andes. Popular dissatisfaction with democracy surged, regionwide, from 51% in 2009 to 71% in 2018, according to a poll by Latinobarometro. The economic, social and political traumas caused by Covid-19 may play out for years to come. And China and Russia are increasing their role in Latin America, using tools — from the sale of surveillance technology to diplomatic support for autocratic rulers — that are pushing the region in the wrong direction.
Brazil, as always, will be a regional bellwether. If its fractured opposition can close ranks to defeat Bolsonaro and reinforce representative government, Latin America’s democratic forces will receive a boost. If the country’s political slide continues, the beneficiaries will be illiberal actors throughout the region. Whatever happens in Brazil won’t stay there.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order." Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Bloomberg, on November 09, 2021. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
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