Over the weekend the Brazilian ship of state made a sharp right turn in electing Jair Bolsonaro, 63, its new president. His clear margin and mandate is at about 56 percent. But because Bolsonaro is a former Army captain, a status the media can’t identify with whatsoever, and perhaps because he is more Trump than Trump, many articles you could see on his election described him as “far right.” Well, as the reporters and pundits who described him as such are likely far left, his actual policy stances put him as solidly conservative. His public pronouncements put him as solidly un-PC sarcastic. Ah, the best of both worlds, as voters reminded the intelligentsia that being a Bolshie bluestocking is not necessarily the best qualification for high office.
For background, Brazil had suffered under a socialist government for thirteen of the last fifteen years. It had some initial boom economic time but over the last several years the Portuguese-speaking nation hit a hard recession. It also has a dog’s breakfast of a political system, sporting thirty different parties in the national legislature. Now, because of the massive “car wash” scandal involving paybacks and bribes regarding state assets, the leaders of the hard left are now either in jail or awaiting prosecution. I know, if only…
A caretaker center-right president has been in power for two years. But this election was a classic struggle between right and left. Bolsonaro’s PSL party was up against the PT party of unapologetic corrupt leftists championed by its nominee, Fernando Haddad. The campaign got so heated Bolsonaro was stabbed by a leftist several weeks ago. It only improved his poll numbers and he recovered enough to win yesterday in a rather healthy fashion.
As Latin nations have done recently in Argentina, Colombia, and elsewhere, Brazil went with the right and rejected the outright government thievery of its recent past. As an individual of Latin heritage myself, trust me, Latins are way more at home on the right. They only trend leftist, and usually very deep left, when our emotions get all in a lather over supposed oppression that actually has mostly meant not everyone getting a sports car on their sixteenth birthday. Sadly, certain Latins do the inane and false righteous indignation thing far too well for their own good.
The new president campaigned hard against rampant crime, promising to send the Army to the streets if necessary. His admiration for Donald Trump is well known and he embraces it. Like Trump, his wife is winsome. He also advocates slashing gun control, gutting the bloated bureaucracy, creating more of a private sector pension system, increasing police autonomy, and cutting down on state assets and state corruption, saying in his victory speech, “We cannot continue flirting with communism…We are going to change the destiny of Brazil.” He went on, “We are going to stop hailing murderous dictatorships and denigrating great democracies like the United States, Italy, and Israel.”
Somebody has been reading up on their Reagan and Thatcher.
The markets have reacted well. The Brazilian real is up close to 1 percent, leading the pack in major currencies. The Ibovespa index has risen 1.2 percent. So Brazil having easily the best type of Latin music in the world, bossa nova, may now have its best president and a prospective roaring economy to boot. However, there is an interesting question afoot that speaks to a larger question concerning the democratic process as a whole.
Bolsonaro is an admirer of Brazil’s military government of 1964-1985. That period marked the “Brazilian Miracle” of rapid industrialization. He also was active-duty then and participated in some of the regime’s more unsavory punitive and investigative methods. But in a fight to the death with the hard left, not merely a political fight but an existential stiletto fight in a dark alley, allowances must be made. Not saying all civil liberties should be curtailed at the sip of a caipirinha, but getting your hair mussed a tad should not lead to the national vapors.
Which brings us to the aforementioned question.
Bolsonaro’s soft spot for the old junta probably extends to another past junta in the same neighborhood, the helicopter-optional government of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet and his “Chicago Boys” team of supply side economists. Pinochet is one of my faves of the Latin caudillos, because like Franco before him he used tough medicine to save his nation from the even tougher fate of communist dictatorship. Also like Franco, he ensured a smooth transition to democratic government when the time came. In Chile’s case when it was time the country was blessed with a robust Friedmanesque economy led by Uncle Milty’s acolytes from the University of Chicago.
This was because, as Jeanne Kirkpatrick noted in “Dictatorship and Double Standards,” a conservative authoritarian government seeks to control the political sector, but leaves the civil, economic, and associative sector (Burke’s “little platoons”) much intact. A socialist authoritarian government like Cuba desires to control the whole society. Thus the transition to democracy is considerably easier with the conservatives, as the building blocks of freedom remain and are still viable.
So for Spain and Chile, was it worth it? Did the stopping of an imminent brutal Marxist regime, and in Chile’s case the launching of wide-ranging free market reforms, justify the Franco and Pinochet dictatorships? During both periods the juntas were very popular for a good deal of their tenure. Can a people still remain in charge of their fate if they embrace a pause in their own political freedom?
If so, then Bolsonaro’s fond remembrances of 1964-1985, seen in empirical light, do not make him unfit to lead a democracy. They make him a realist.
So much the better for the people of Brazil.