The Making and Unmaking of Brazilian Democracy

The Making and Unmaking of Brazilian Democracy

The Shape of Power

The making and unmaking of Brazilian democracy.


Until very recently, most Brazilians took it for granted that their country’s dark authoritarian past was over for good. A presidential candidate like Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who gloried in extrajudicial executions by police; who expressed open hostility to women and gay, black, and indigenous people; who threatened to cut off funding for media outlets he deemed “fake news”; who talked about banishing or even killing his political opponents; who claimed to be fulfilling the divine will; and whose running mate was a general who casually talked about carrying out a “self-coup”—a candidate like this, many commentators maintained, could never win in Brazil. No matter how deep the crisis, democracy in Brazil seemed here to stay.

This hopeful consensus, punctured by Bolsonaro’s decisive win last October, is evident in a new one-volume history, Brazil: A Biography. The book was published in Brazil in 2015 and released in the United States last summer, when Bolsonaro still appeared to be a grotesque joke—not even worth mentioning in a chronicle that starts with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500 and culminates in a comforting series of peaceful transitions between democratically elected leaders in the last generation or so. In their conclusion, the book’s authors, historians Heloísa Starling and Lilia Schwarcz, confidently announce that “Brazil entered the twenty-first century with one certainty: the consolidation of democracy is our greatest legacy for future generations.”

Needless to say, the authors have since had cause to revise their opinion. “We used to think that rights that have been conquered were rights that had been consolidated,” Schwarcz told The New York Times on the eve of Bolsonaro’s victory. “I’ve concluded that we were being foolish.” This realization is not unlike the one that took hold in the United States after Donald Trump’s election. In both countries, there are those who insist that norms and political institutions will constrain their leaders’ worst impulses. The difference is that the United States has had a democracy (imperfect though it may be) for more than two centuries. Throughout Brazil’s history, democracy has existed only in troubled spurts.

Like most nations of the “New World,” Brazil was founded on violence: the subjugation and murder of the land’s original inhabitants and the forced labor of enslaved Africans. The Portuguese arrived at the beginning of the 16th century to extract natural riches for the crown, and the climate proved apt for sugarcane, which dominated Brazil’s colonial economy for the next 200 years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sugar would give way to gold, and gold to coffee. But slavery was the constant, along with its horrors, as Starling and Schwarcz recount: “Public chastisement in the stocks, the use of the whip as a form of punishment and humiliation, the iron collars studded with spikes to avoid escape, the iron masks that prevented the slaves from eating earth as a way of provoking a slow and painful [suicide], the chains with which they were tied to the ground.” Rather than encourage their slaves to raise children, Brazilian plantation owners found it simpler to work them to death and replace them with fresh imports. The country received 4 million slaves from Africa—10 times more than the United States. Brazil was also the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888. Brazilians often gloss over this barbarous past. In an interview with the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, Schwarcz said that the book’s chapter on slavery was inspired by the indignation she felt after seeing 12 Years a Slave at a Brazilian theater: “I heard people saying, ‘Good thing it wasn’t like that in Brazil.’”

The violent domination by plantation owners also shaped the nature of power in Brazil. Answerable only to a distant crown, these men ruled like feudal lords, administering both law and religion in the vast lands they controlled. Democracy hardly took root after the country’s unusual independence in 1822, when a son of the Portuguese king declared Brazil his own empire. Even when the country became a republic in 1889, it was mainly the result of a power shuffle at the top, not a revolution from below. The republic’s first two presidents were military officers who had overthrown the Brazilian emperor; those who followed were more or less appointed by the coffee and dairy oligarchs.

While Brazil never had a successful revolution, smaller revolts erupted constantly. Slaves would kill their masters, flee to the countryside, and create independent communities known as quilombos, some of which still exist today. (The most famous quilombo, Palmares, became one of the largest settlements in Brazil, enduring for most of the 17th century, before Portuguese forces crushed it.) In later years, some white rebels took up arms over taxes; others would aim to emulate the American Revolution and establish a republic, but their movement would be ruthlessly put down. Perhaps the most famous uprising came toward the end of the 19th century, when a millenarian mystic named Antônio Conselheiro founded Canudos, a seditious community of believers. The Brazilian government sent wave after wave of soldiers to subdue it, killing thousands; even the women and children who surrendered were decapitated.

In the context of other New World republics, it is true that Brazil’s political transitions have been relatively bloodless—even when the military carried out coups, as it often did. In 1930, idealistic young officers installed Getúlio Vargas, the country’s most enduring 20th-century leader. A charismatic, contradictory nationalist, Vargas implemented the first minimum wage and other labor reforms, even as he mercilessly cracked down on communists. Overthrown in 1945, he returned to the presidency by popular vote in 1950, only to face another coup four years later. This time, rather than step down, he shot himself in the heart inside the presidential palace.

In 1964, the military took power in a US-backed coup, and a succession of generals ruled for the next 21 years. This is the authoritarian period that Bolsonaro holds up today as his model. Most political parties were disbanded, and protest was outlawed. Still, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the regime was popular, as it coincided with the so-called “Brazilian miracle” of economic growth. Gen. Emílio Médici, who led the regime from 1969 to 1974, received standing ovations at soccer games. Partly because the generals censored the press, many Brazilians still remember the regime for its sheen of order, believing that the hundreds who were tortured and murdered somehow had it coming. As Bolsonaro put it to me, “There was security, there was education, there was respect, there were family values.” (Never mind that the vast majority of the population remained desperately poor and largely illiterate, and that security and respect were reserved mostly for the upper classes.)

Starling and Schwarcz spend little time on the left-wing movements that percolated throughout the 20th century—whether those that advocated for simple agrarian reform or for a larger dictatorship of the proletariat. But the left that crystallized during the period of military rule would later play a major role in the country’s democratic politics. Three of the regime’s opponents—a professor, a labor leader, and a guerrilla—went on to become president. The most famous is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who grew up in poverty and made his name leading massive auto-industry strikes in the industrial center of São Paulo in the late 1970s. As a founder of the Workers’ Party, a sprawling coalition of unionists and intellectuals, Lula was an important player in the pro-democracy protests that culminated in the return of power to civilian hands in 1985. Later, as president from 2003 to 2011, he helped to lift more than 30 million Brazilians from extreme poverty.

Though Lula is undoubtedly the most significant figure in Brazil’s recent history, the authors barely discuss his time in office, arguing that it is still too fresh for historians to properly consider. This is a shame, because the failure of the Workers’ Party, with all its democratic promise, helps to explain the rise of Bolsonaro. Under Lula and his successor, the guerrilla turned bureaucrat Dilma Rousseff, the economy boomed and then sputtered into the worst recession in Brazil’s history, while a multibillion-dollar bribery scandal erupted. Rousseff was impeached in 2016, and since 2018, Lula has been sentenced to a total of 25 years in prison for corruption.

While the legality of Rousseff’s removal and Lula’s convictions have been questioned, there is no denying that their party stole a staggering amount of money from the public coffers while both were in office. And this, combined with the economic crisis that began in 2014 and an ongoing epidemic of violent crime, undermined the appeal of democratic institutions in Brazil just as they were taking root. It didn’t help that Rousseff’s replacement—Michel Temer, her former running mate—was himself accused of multiple acts of corruption, even while imposing unpopular austerity measures. As Brazilians lost faith in their young democracy, many grasped at magical solutions; some even called for a military coup. And then came Bolsonaro, who promised to purge the nation’s criminals, high and low, by any means necessary, and to restore a lost morality.

Starling and Schwarcz wrote their book primarily for a Brazilian audience. This often shows in the clumsy, Portuguese-inflected English translation. Often, too, vital context is missing for a foreign reader: There’s no detailed explanation of carnaval, or the favelas, or how corruption works in Brazil. More fundamentally, the book lacks the kind of guiding vision that is essential to justifying a one-volume history. The authors never quite succeed in explaining what they mean when they call their book a “biography.” They frame it as an effort to combine a more traditional chronicle of major political events with bottom-up history. Yet while we read much about the machinations of the Portuguese court, we learn little about the life of, say, a worker in 20th-century São Paulo. And we are frequently presented with lists of important names without any sense of who these people are. If anything, the book is lacking in biographical material.

Starling and Schwarcz might be forgiven for failing to register the ripples of the global alt-right in Brazilian politics. Bolsonaro is partly the product of very recent developments—such as Facebook, where he garnered millions of followers with a US-style culture war, and WhatsApp, where pro-Bolsonaro memes and fake news spread virally. Yet he is also the product of Brazil’s evangelical movement, which has built up its power over the past generation, and of a broader, more enduring social conservatism. In appealing to violence as a means of social control, he also drew on age-old Brazilian traditions. Perhaps most important of all, the antiestablishment feeling that yielded President Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom has long been Brazil’s default mode. In 1988, a chimpanzee at the Rio de Janeiro zoo threw feces at a mayoral candidate. Come Election Day, 400,000 voters wrote in the chimp’s name, Tião, on their ballots; he came in third.

The authors’ failure to anticipate the recent backslide reveals a certain Whiggish myopia about Brazilian democracy—to be fair, a flaw they share with almost every other Brazilian intellectual who came of age around the time of the military regime’s end. But this failure is all the more mystifying given that Starling and Schwarcz acknowledge that an all-consuming “indignation over corruption” could lead to “a loss in credibility in the democratic institutions.” Taking stock of Rousseff’s impeachment in an afterword for the English-language edition, they even pose the question: “Is democracy in Brazil at risk?” Ultimately, though, they fall back on a Brazilian vice they themselves criticize in their prologue—the tendency to imagine that everything will turn out all right because, as a popular saying goes, “God is Brazilian.”

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