Why Brazil Matters
Why you should care that Brazil's elites may be about to organize a coup.
Sun, samba and soccer are probably the three words most associated with Brazil. It is true that the country boasts a blissfully sunny climate year round, loquacious locals who enjoy flaunting their dance moves to infectious beats and an unrivaled passion for the beautiful game however the country’s political importance in the region and internationally is often overlooked.
Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country in terms of population, boasting around 205 million residents and in the Americas only the U.S. has more inhabitants. It dominates South America, bordering every country in the subcontinent apart from Chile and Ecuador.
It is also the world’s fourth-largest democracy after emerging from a brutal 21-year military dictatorship in 1985.
But now there are fears that the political instability in the nation could lead to its elected government being ousted. Though this may not be a step back in the country's dark history of dictatorship, it certainly suggests that the Brazilian elite are still not prepared to accept the will of the tens of millions of poor and non-white citizens who are so important to Brazil's culture and which many believed were starting to have an impact on public life with the election of the Workers' Party, for the first time, earlier this century.
The Americas was once described as the New World and is home to people from all corners of the planet. Brazil is no exception. It boasts the largest Japanese community outside Japan, scores of people with German ancestry, who usually reside in the southern cities such as Porto Alegre, and descendants of millions of African slaves. However unlike countries such as the U.S., Canada and some Latin American nations, Brazilians mixed and carved new identities for themselves.
A 1976 report from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) asked Brazilians to identity their own skin color and they received 134 types of racial definition from those polled. One cannot doubt the people are a flamboyant mix of people from all over the world which has created a look and culture that can only be described as Brazilian. But wealth and power are closely aligned to race and deep racial segregation remains in Brazil, with the bulk of the country's favelas or shanty towns dominated by people of color.
Since gaining independence from the Portuguese in 1822, Brazil has experienced numerous political changes that, in some cases, unfolded like one of the country’s soap operas. The disdain with which many powerful actors appear to have toward the will of the majority - and to the first period of leftist rule in half a century - reflects this tortured past.
In 1889, the monarchy was overthrown and the federal republic established with central government controlled by coffee interests. Brazil produced 65 percent of world's coffee by 1902.
A 1937 revolt against Rio de Janeiro, the former capital, led to Getulio Vargas being put at the head of provisional revolutionary government. Vargas was a dictator until 1945 when he scraped victory in a presidential election. However, he committed suicide in 1954 after the military tried to overthrow him.
Juscelino Kubitschek became the next elected president two years after Vargas' suicide. Notably, Kubitschek decided to replace Rio de Janeiro as the capital with the yet-to-be built Brasilia in the country’s interior. He pledged that the new city would be grand and symbolize a new Brazil with progressive modern ideas. Brasilia, which was founded in April 1960, hosts the country's Congress and is the wealthiest city in the country in terms of GDP per capita.
Kubitschek also opened the economy to foreign capital and offered credit to the business community. As a result, the economy prospered.
After Kubitschek, Brazil again descended into economic woe and a dictatorship. His successor Jânio Quadros, an eccentric former high school teacher resigned after seven months in office in 1960.
Vice President João "Jango" Goulart took office only to be overthrown by the military on March 31, 1964, in a coup, after frustrated attempts to impose socialist reforms.
Humberto Castello Branco was the first of five generals (he was followed by Artur Costa e Silva, Emílio Médici, Ernesto Geisel, and João Figueiredo) to lead Brazil in 20 years of military rule that left indelible scars on the nation.
The military claimed that they brought about an "economic miracle" during the 1970s. However, toward the end of the regime inflation soared while nuclear power projects and the conquest of the Amazon never completely succeeded. Power was to go peacefully back to civil hands in 1985 although memories of the torture and lack of freedom are ingrained and are the overriding hallmarks of the dictatorship.
Fernando Collor de Mello, a dapper 40-year-old from the northern state of Alagoas, took office in March 1990. Mello set about trying to control inflation which spun out of control under President José Sarney immediately after the dictatorship. However, his time in power was short-lived after reports emerged of corruption involving his friend and campaign manager Paulo César "P. C." Farias. Mello resigned from his post before the Senate could vote to fully impeach him in December 1992.
After 40 years of rule by right-wing governments, the Worker’s Party's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former trade union leader, was elected under promises of political and economic reforms and pledges to eradicate hunger.
Under Lula Brazil’s economy continued to grow and the country’s inequality reduced dramatically through programs such as the Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero although his government was plagued by accusations of corruption. A wave of resignations ensued in a 2005 scandal and the president made a televised apology.
Despite corruption allegations (which remain unproven) Lula and the PT remained popular in Brazil. In 2010, Lula stepped aside from his post and his former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff successfully ran for presidency becoming the country’s first female president.
After years of economic growth, Rousseff, who was elected for a second term in 2014, is now struggling to retain power after an impeachment process was launched in March.
The leader is accused by her political opponents of breaking fiscal laws. They allege she manipulated government accounts to make the country’s deficit seems smaller than it was ahead of the 2014 presidential election to garner support for her re-election campaign.
The government maintains that the audit court is criticizing steps taken by the government to maintain social programs for Brazil's poor, such as the widely-praised Bolsa Familia.
Rousseff could be suspended from her post for six months should two-thirds of the full lower house in Congress vote to impeach her and the Senate decide to continue proceedings.
Brazil puts the B in BRICS, a nomenclature for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and was highlighted as one of the world’s up and coming powers due to the strength of its economy, vast natural resources and large population of over 200 million residents.
Its impressive economy, which was growing at 7.1 percent a year until recently, was the envy of most Latin American countries.
Between 2003 and 2013, more than 26 million people were lifted out of poverty, according to the World Bank, mainly due to the country's economic growth.
However, the plummeting oil and commodity prices have hit Brazil hard as its export-heavy economy has plunged the country into its worst recession in three decades, stunting the growth of neighboring countries in the process.
The World Bank reported that the country's growth rate has decelerated steadily since the beginning of this decade “from an average annual growth of 4.5 percent between 2006 and 2010 to 2.1 percent between 2011 and 2014.” Brazil’s GDP also contracted by a worrying 3.8 percent in 2015.
The International Monetary Fund said Tuesday that the drag on the region will continue for the next two years, as weak commodity prices and widespread inflation diminish South America’s immediate prospects for growth.
Despite the recent downturn, Brazil still has the world’s seventh-largest economy meaning the country’s decline could have profound effects on other economies outside of Latin America too.
Falling customer demand for oil, gas and commodities such as iron ore means Brazil will import less from the likes of the U.S. and China which will also have a negative effect on its trade partner’s growth.
In a bid to combat the situation, Brazil has begun exporting more oil and gas to generate quick cash but this strategy won’t help increase the price of oil price –something which oil-producing nations desperately need to happen. Its exports of diesel fuel more than tripled in March 2015 on last year's figures to 434,429 barrels, the largest monthly amount since June 2014, according to Brazil's oil and gas regulator ANP.
Brazil's economy is shrinking even faster than fellow BRIC country Russia, which has been on a downward spiral since the second half of 2014 thanks to economic embargoes and plunging oil prices. China and India have experienced continued growth, albeit stuttered, in the years Brazil has fallen into the abyss. Unemployment increased to 9 percent in 2015 and economists predict it could go into double figures in the coming months.
Building a New Latin America
Under successive PT governments, Brazil has aligned itself with progressive governments across Latin America.
Though typically seen as closer to the center than some of its neighbors, such as Venezuela, Brazil also formed part of the "pink tide" of leftist governments that were elected throughout Latin America. Despite pressures from Washington to drive a wedge between Brazil and the rest of the continent, the PT governments never betrayed their leftist allies and instead defended the sovereignty of Latin American countries and the right of their peoples to elect whatever government they wish.
Brazil developed strong economic and diplomatic ties with counter-hegemonic projects, supporting a multi-polar world through the BRICS and promoting regional independence through MERCOSUR, CELAC and the UNASUR blocs.
In recent years, Brazil has also established strong ties with African and Asian nations, expressing political support for Palestine and vocally opposing the brutal U.S.-led war on Iraq. Under the leadership of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian government was also praised for standing up to the U.S. when whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed Washington had been spying on the Brazilian president.
Despite its problems and contradictions, the global outlook of Brazil in 2016 is recognized and appreciated across the Global South. And with the U.S. government's continued aggression toward Russia, China, the region of Latin America and wider Global South, Brazil's role and left-wing leadership in the BRICS can and must offer an alternative to imperialist ambitions.