Brazil has just elected a charismatic far-right loon, Jair Messias (sic) Bolsonaro, as its next President. Political junkies can study his campaign website and programme (pdf download), but these documents are more than usually irrelevant. His extraordinary rise from the backbenches in Brasilia has not been based on policy – zero-based budgeting, anybody? – but on tricolour smoke and mirrors, spread by WhatsApp.
A press summary of the programme indicates that there is very little of substance in it. Economy: austerity, privatizations. Taxes: cut (though most Brazilians will find any cuts are taken back by the ideological shift to a capitalized pension scheme). Corruption: lock ‘em up (PT politicians that is). Crime: a free hand to the police to shoot suspects; easier access to guns (I am not making this up). Environment: open up the Amazon to agribusiness. Foreign policy: follow Trump. Education: back to basics, national anthem. Rights of indigenous peoples, LGBTQ, lefties: what rights? Inequality, poverty: fear for the worst.
Bolsonaro has had two careers, both in the public sector. The first was in the army, which he entered aged 16 as an officer cadet. He left in 1988 (after 17 years) as a captain – an ignominious exit rank for a career officer. Brazil was a military dictatorship until 1985. For the first part of his career he was regularly being passed over for promotion by the men responsible for running this dictatorship: presumably not on grounds of ideological deviation. His superiors’ assessments of his capabilities did not change under democracy. He entered politics and sat for 30 years as a isolated backbencher, only known for incendiary remarks in favour of torture and dictatorship. He does not appear to have any serious interest in public policy; the core programme could have been assembled over a weekend in any bar frequented by right-wing blowhards.
The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed ‘Off with her head! Off—’
Now he is leader of a country of 210 million. How come? That’s not difficult: a severe recession, a crime wave (see: failed policies on poverty and drugs), and a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the entire political class, left and right, and to a considerable extent the MSM as well.
The manipulation of social media was professional, and quite beyond Bolsonaro to mastermind. Who was running this? You think of the FSB and its Brexit and Trump projects. Bolsonaro fits the template of Putin’s protégés, but it’s hard to see what real strategic interest Russia has in this election, nor where they would find the army of lusophones to staff the troll cubicles. Perhaps the technology has now escaped into the world for any demagogue to use. This should be investigated. He must also have been backed by a significant part of Brazil’s wealthy 0.1%. We will find out who exactly when the corruption investigations are stalled.
Historically, backing populist demagogues has been a very dangerous strategy for plutocrats. Look at Hitler and Trump. It’s possible that Bolsonaro will be more controllable as he’s not even in the Trump class for IQ, but it’s a very risky bet. They have secured from him one crucial concession: economic policy will be run by an orthodox Chicago neoliberal, Paulo Guedes.
This is where I can safely predict that Bolsonaro will fail, and quite quickly.
Unleashing random police violence is unlikely to lower the drug-fuelled crime rate significantly, judging by the experience of Duterte’s similar policy in the Philippines. Making it easier to obtain guns will just add gasoline to the fire.
The main test however is the economy. Chicago has no quick solution to Brazil’s severe macroeconomic problems. Unemployment is 12%; real GDP per head is unchanged from ten years ago. Keynesian deficit spending or monetary expansion is constrained (unlike in the USA and the EU) by a still fairly high inflation rate of 4.5%, and export dependence on commodities that won’t respond much to a devaluation. (Decades of bipartisan protection have left Brazil with a weak and uncompetitive manufacturing sector.) Investment is anaemic, which businesses naturally blame on “political uncertainty”, interpreted by conservatives as the threat of Lula’s return. But Bolsonaro’s very erratic character creates new uncertainties, especially for foreign investors. Even if Chicago-style structural reforms like privatisations work, they won’t do so in a politically useful horizon.
Hitler in contrast had the benefit of the unorthodox Keynesian advice of Hjalmar Schacht, and a sound contempt for bankers and their orthodoxies on the entirely false grounds of their imagined Jewish management. A more useful comparison is Pinochet’s Chile and the radical reforms of his team of “Chicago boys”. This included the shock opening of the economy to international competition and the dismantling of tariffs, as well as large-scale privatisations. I doubt very much if Bolsonaro’s shadowy backers will allow the first. Pinochet was a horrible piece of work, but he wasn’t dependent on businessmen for support and was obviously quite capable of crushing any opposition from them by force. Besides, he wasn’t an idiot.
What can the rest of the world do to limit the damage?
On the upcoming violations of human rights, opprobrium, investigations and boycotts: I wish it were more, but that’s how Duterte and Aung San Suu Kyi are being handled. Threats to use the ICJ should be made preemptively. This won’t be much, but something.
On the environment, things are more promising. Brazil has made formal international undertakings to protect the Amazon, as a globally important biological system and carbon sink. See for instance Article 5 of the Paris Agreement (pdf download), underlined by Brazil’s Nationally Determined Contribution, page 3.
This isn’t feelgood hot air. The integrity of the huge Amazon rainforest is a vital national interest of other states. By “vital” I mean in the traditional sense of “justifying armed force to protect”. The international community will have the moral and legal right to use strong measures to stop Bolsonaro from his intended course of allowing ranchers and miners to destroy the forest.
It’s a favoured conspiracy theory of Brazilian right-wingers that there is a gringo plot to take away the Amazon. Never mind that since 1865 at least the USA could have seized the Amazon without breaking a sweat. SFIK Washington never even considered doing so, even when military interventions in Central America were routine, and during the short-lived rubber boom when the region had strategic importance. It would be piquant if Bolsonaro, a typical advocate of “development” of the Amazon, were to become the Brazilian leader responsible for its loss.
It is fun to play “Battleships up the Amazon”. Stealing the Amazon, should anyone were stupid enough to try, would be a naval operation not a land army one – the few roads could be cut by tiny groups of special forces with chainsaws and Semtex. The way humans have got round the basin for 15,000 years has been by boat. The Amazon is very deep (20-100m), and a Ford-class aircraft carrier (draft 12m) can sail upriver at least as far as Manaus.
If you have one of those on the table, the game has no interest. To make it fairer, let’s suppose that the righteously angry country is the Netherlands. Rising sea levels threaten its existence, and the securing of a “habitable environment” and “promotion of international law” are duties laid on the government by its generally minimalist constitution (Articles 21 and 90). They have a plausible casus belli and crack international lawyers to say so. Besides, the Dutch ran Northeast Brazil for 24 years in the 1600s and might like it back, as naked imperialism is coming back into fashion. The navies (Brazil, Netherlands) are broadly similar in size and composition, but the Dutch units are generally more modern and capable, especially the submarines. However, the Brazilian Navy has dozens of river gunboats. Ships in rivers are vulnerable to air attack, so air superiority is essential. The Royal Netherlands Air Force should have no trouble here, with F-16s against Brazil’s antiquated F-5s. They would need the cooperation of their ex-colony Suriname for an airbase. A fortiori, any international coalition including the Netherlands and at least one other similar naval power would have its way fairly easily.
This bellicose scenario is of course a fantasy. Any attempt on these lines would arouse the undying hatred of the entire Brazilian population, supported by most of Latin America. It could easily trigger a dictatorship by Bolsonaro, and rally support behind him. That’s without considering the Monroe Doctrine veto, though the Falklands war proves it could be waived, by President Gilliharris if not President Trump. The practical point is that in a lesser political confrontation, Bolsonaro would have few options for escalating to war.
The rest of the world has had to put up with Trump, as you have to be cautious with a deranged superpower. The EU has taken modest steps to insulate European companies trading with Iran from US sanctions; China is retaliating tit-for-tat in Trump’s trade war. Brazil isn’t the USA and much more vulnerable to economic pressure.
One useful tactic, applied to Russian oligarchs in the American Magnitsky Act, is targeted financial and travel sanctions against individual high-level perpetrators of environmental crimes. This legislation stung, as shown by Putin’s intense efforts to get Trump to walk it back. A European effort would not be effective without the USA, as the wives and mistresses of Brazilian plutocrats go shopping in New York and Miami rather than Paris and Rome. It’s still worth a shot.
A more promising weapon is supply-chain accountability. France already has a law since February 2017 imposing a “duty of vigilance” on large companies operating in France over their suppliers. The issues to be watched include environmental obligations. It should become European law and toughened up. You would need a monitoring and early warning system identifying for instance the Brazilian meat-packing companies sourcing livestock from deforested ranches in the Amazon, making it impossible for them to export to Europe. The same goes for logging. Soybeans are not typically grown in the Amazon but in the drier cerrado scrublands to its south; it’s a pity these are being destroyed too to feed the world, but the loss does not have the global impact of Amazon deforestation. If Bolsonaro retaliates, Europe can escalate by imposing tariffs on all Brazilian food exports.
I suggest this one is winnable, especially if China can be brought on board. Xi did add a “beautiful China” to the mission statement of the Chinese Communist Party, so he may be persuadable, especially if Bolsonaro starts locking up and torturing Brazilian communists.
The paragraph in Alice in Wonderland continues:
‘Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.
I give Alice two years.