The Many Brazils

Commentary No. 413, November 15, 2015

Brazil is a major world power – in terms of size, population, and influence. Yet in many ways it is a combination of so many different and contradictory faces that it is hard for anyone, including Brazilians themselves, to know how to define Brazil’s characteristics as a nation and as a force in the world-system.

The currently most important face of Brazil is the Brazil of Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) and his party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). After three previous unsuccessful runs for president, Lula finally won in 2002. The election as president of a trade-union leader of very humble background represented if nothing else a social breakthrough of a person and a party defying the social hierarchies entrenched in the political system.

Lula and the PT basically promised two things. One was to raise significantly the real income of the poorest sectors of the country. And he did this by his program ofFome Zero (Zero Hunger). These were a complex of federal assistance programs aimed at eliminating hunger in Brazil. It included notably the Bolsa Familial (Family Allowance) as well as access to credit and raises of the minimum wage.

The second promise was to reject the neoliberal policies of his predecessors and the government’s fulfilment of pledges to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Almost immediately, Lula changed his position. He named as the Finance Minister and the president of the Central Bank two persons committed precisely to neoliberal policies and particularly to the pledge to the IMF to maintain a so-called primary income surplus, which is the portion of the government’s income that is not spent. This kind of macroeconomic policy reduces available funds for social investments. Its presumed virtue is to stabilize governments and avoid inflation. The IMF demanded of Brazil a surplus of 4.25%. Under Lula’s presidency the surplus rose even higher, to 4.5 percent.

Lula’s mixed policies existed within the particular political culture of Brazil. Brazil is a country with a very large number of political parties, none of which exceeds a quarter of the seats in parliament. Brazil’s political culture makes it almost normal for individuals and even whole parties to shift allegiances with great frequency. They seek merely power and income. One of the ways Lula and his party remained on top was the mensalao or monthly payment to members of the legislature. Brazil’s level of corruption is probably not really higher than that of most countries, but the rapid shifts in legislative alliances has made it far more visible.

There is also Brazil as a geopolitical force, the Brazil of BRICS – the group of five so-called emerging economies, whose strength rested on a basis of rising worldwide prices for basic commodities. Suddenly, there seemed to be new wealth in Brazil (as in other BRICS countries), until the collapse of these primary commodity prices. It seems today that, economically, it was easy come, easy go.

However, the BRICS were more than an attempt to increase capital accumulation. They were an attempt to assert geopolitical strength. Here too, there were inconsistencies. On the one hand, Brazil became the major force attempting in the first decade of the twenty-first century to construct a unity of Latin America and the Caribbean independent of the United States and the structures it had built to control Latin America. This was the Brazil that took the lead in creating the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and keeping within it such politically disparate countries as the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez and the Colombia of Juan Manuel Santos.

The Brazil that championed Latin American autonomy was also the Brazil that sought to impose itself in many ways on its neighbors, notably Argentina. It was also the Brazil that wished to create a worldwide Lusophone group that served its economic interests. It was also the Brazil that learned that its closer links with China (through BRICS) were not located in a structure of geopolitical equals.

Today all these different Brazils are moving towards internal implosions. Lula’s successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, has had a catastrophic decline in popularity in the past year. Lula himself has lost some of his once untouchable standing. The regime is being threatened today by an impeachment of Rousseff. There are rumors as well that the army is considering a coup. The denial of such a possibility by the head of the armed forces seems itself a semi-confirmation of such a rumor.

Yet, there is no clear alternative, which may make both an impeachment and a military coup unlikely. To say there are many Brazils is to say something that may be said of many countries, probably of most countries. But somehow it seems more so in Brazil. Brave is the analyst who would predict the Brazil of 2016 or 2017. But, although the exact details are quite unpredictable, Brazil has strengths that may continue to make it a key locus of world power.