The violent takeover of the Brazilian Parliament and the storming of the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court on January 8th are worrisome signs for the country, as well as Latin America as a whole, at the start of an already critical 2023.
The events in Brazil come one month after a failed coup d’état in Peru, on December 7th, and violent riots that continue with a death toll of 50. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, clashes broke out at the end of the year over the arrest of the governor of Santa Cruz – a prominent opposition leader – on terrorism charges. Finally, in Ecuador, protests will almost certainly resume again, as President Guillerme Lasso has lost his majority in Parliament.
The situation in Brazil indicates what the pandemic has only accelerated: Latin America is currently the largest political and social tinderbox on the planet, where such events are occurring at an ever-increasing rate and have a substantial impact on future events.
The hundreds of radical supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro who stormed the Brazilian institutions followed a script devised by Donald Trump supporters in 2021 for the siege of the US Capitol. It is not a coincidence that Trump’s ideologue, Steve Bannon, who was sentenced to four months in prison for the events of January 6th in the United States, is a close friend of the Bolsonaro family, particularly his son Eduardo. During the assault in Brasilia, Bannon wrote on his profile on the Gettr network, which connects extremists from all over the world, that: “Lula fraudulently won the elections. Brazilians are aware of this,” referring to the perpetrators of the brutal invasion as “freedom fighters”.
The nature of “Bolsonarism”
Beyond these international links, how can we comprehend the underlying origins of Bolsonarism, and why have so many people become so radicalized as to call for an illusory military coup?
First, Bolsonaro’s far right is very different from Europe’s. European right-wing extremism is rooted in xenophobia, but Brazil does not have a migration problem. Bolsonarism’s “scale of values” never mentions anti-immigration measures. Latin America, especially Brazil, stopped attracting immigrants at least 70 years ago.
The second difference is the presence of neopentecostal evangelicals among Bolsonaro’s most extreme supporters. There are far fewer evangelicals in Europe. In the Old Continent, the far right has closer ties to traditional conservative Catholicism. Furthermore, Islamophobia and antisemitism find enough space in Europe. In the case of Bolsonarism, however, attacks are mainly directed toward African-based cults practiced in Brazil.
Some active-duty security personnel, both in the military and in the police, are extremists. The world has seen images of police officers in Brasilia sympathizing with vandals and doing little to stop them. It is still another divergence from Europe, where this phenomenon does not exist (it existed before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but not after).
Bolsonarism’s support for free-market economic policies is a last distinction. It is no accident that the former president sought the backing of Brazilian bankers throughout his four years in office and that his former economy minister, Paulo Guedes was an exponent of the so-called “Chicago school”.
On Europe’s far right, the financial sector is viewed as the number one enemy. It is the case, for example, with Le Pen and her supporters, who frequently accuse French President Emmanuel Macron of having ties to the major banks.
The Brazilian far-right shares many characteristics with the US far right, such as a robust anti-scientific stance, support for gun ownership, traditional militarism, and extreme conservatism in daily values.
Extreme nationalist populism also believes in the right to seize power via street violence. Trump’s example is prevalent in a continent that has shifted to the left and, with Lula’s inauguration on January 1st, solidified the red color throughout much of Latin America’s map.
Not only has the former US president influenced Bolsonaro, but other leaders as well, such as the Salvadoran Nayib Bukele, and he has kept excellent relations with the Mexican populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Brazil, however, is the continent’s giant, and left-wing authoritarians are already interpreting recent events as an opportunity. To fight the fascist right, they argue that populist and revolutionary democracies are required.
The lack of a strong political center across Latin America
Analyzing recent developments in Latin America reveals that the absence of a democratic center is the main problem.
This void gives rise to dystopias with no logical basis. For instance, Lula’s allies, supporters of the so-called Patria Grande – whether populists, revolutionaries, or dictators like Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega – have been praising Lula for the past three days and raging against Bolsonaro’s “fascism”.
This time, their cries are justified. Nevertheless, they have been silent in Venezuela. During the violent assaults on Venezuela’s National Assembly following the 2015 electoral victory of the democratic opposition, and when radicals, military, and chavista legislators regularly beat and intimidated opposition lawmakers, their silence was striking.
Politically, the events in Brasilia highlight a few key trends to watch for the future. One is the end of Bolsonarism; if we exclude the small percent who voted for him, who were among the criminals present in the streets on January 8th, then Bolsonarism has been ended by Bolsonaro himself. Bolsonaro was unable to formulate a plan and engage in democratic opposition. Unknown is who will be able to take his position, whose right-wing and whose leaders will be able to construct a new political consensus around ideas perhaps more developed than Bolsonaro’s motto of “God, Fatherland, and Family”.
Another consequential fact is Lula’s decision to intervene in the Federal District, the region that encompasses Brasilia’s capital. This decision allowed him to mobilize the army and purge the police and military of individuals who backed the January 8th vandalism, even in positions of authority. How the replacement will take place is still uncertain. Replacing Bolsonarist military members with colleagues of the opposing ideology would not solve the problem; it would merely shift it, from one extreme to the other.
Notably, the violent events in Brasilia have bolstered Lula’s government, at least in the short term. His first week in office was controversial, especially in the economic realm, where the Brazilian stock market lost as much as 3%. Nevertheless, according to estimates, Lula’s influence in and out of Congress increased by as much as 70% after he raised the prospect of a threat to democracy.
This strengthening may lead to a hardening of democracy through the government-ordered violent repression of any demonstration labeled as Bolsonarist. Lula might choose populism as well. To prevent more civil upheaval, the new president might enact popular but economically harmful policies. The only certainty is that the administration has broken the consensus stalemate, which on election day was limited to 50.9% of votes received. If not quantitatively, then qualitatively, the polarization scenario persists. If the economy deteriorates and inflation and citizen debt rise, division might harm Lula’s government and its capacity to survive in the long run.
In conclusion, the Brazilian case confirms a new trend in Latin America: the end of (successful) military coups in the region. The unsuccessful coup attempt of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo is a telling example. Castillo failed to persuade the military to join him, bringing ridicule upon himself since he declared a coup unilaterally. However, the approximately 50 deaths that resulted serve as a warning that radical words continue to weigh in Latin America and can have fatal consequences.