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Far-right politician ‘Captain’ Jair Bolsonaro won the second round of Presidential election in Brazil and became the captain of the ‘sinking ship’. Brazil, a wrecked economy, needs a strong political authority to control the economic crisis post-Operation Car Wash tornado. The politico-economic history of Brazil is a roller coaster ride from boom to doom or development to underdevelopment. Brazil fell into the deep pits of economic recession and once it manage to reach the ground of stability, the ‘outsiders’ push them back to the pit of instability and crisis. The emergence of a pro-army leader who always praise the erstwhile military regime, and a vocal critic of left-wing politics, will lead the nation. But what will be his weapon? Does he have the magic wand to solve the present economic turmoil? At this moment, there is a need to look back to the past of the Brazil and it will provide a clear insight about the new danger that rose to power now!

Two years after Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to reach the treasure land that is India in 1498, another explorer from Portugal named Pedro Alvares Cabral decided to follow the same and landed in Porto Seguro (present day Brazil) in 1500 CE! The Portuguese who were in search of resources found interest in ‘redwood’ (pau-brasil) and started exporting it to Europe. Initially in order to study the landscape and geography, the invaders seek help from the indigenous tribal people, particularly Tupinamba Indians. They wholeheartedly welcomed the foreigners and the helped the Portuguese people to delve into the forests. Sooner, the forests were cut down and new settlements mushroomed, all the settlers were the greedy Portuguese people. Then the vast lands transformed into very large plantations. “The interest in establishing plantations on cleared lands increased and so did the need for laborers”, Jose Fonseca writes in ‘A Brief History of Brazil’. The native Indians were the target to fill the required personnel needed in plantations. The innocent people, who led peaceful and harmonious life, suddenly became the prey for the traitors. The colonizers brutally enslaved them, through violent ethnic conflicts and when the people resisted they spread diseases like ‘small-pox’ to eliminate the local threat. The ruthless act of the colonial power was nothing short of ethnic cleansing and inhumane encroachment into the liberties of the poor people. The Indians didn’t realize that they were ‘embracing the serpent’.

Fonseca says that, “indigenous population was believed to have been more than 3 million, today the number is scarcely 200,000.” When the remaining population wasn’t enough to accelerate activities in the plantations, new ‘slaves’ were brought from the Africa. The trans-Atlantic slave trade witnessed a mass flow of African population to the Americas, particularly to Brazil. The workforce of the colonizers thus had Africans and the native Indians. The diverse and complex demographic composition of Brazilian society owes its origin to the aforementioned history.

The territorial disputes which often feature among the relations between the South American countries also have its origins in the colonial period. The ‘new land’ was also a bone contention between the European colonial powers who wanted to expand their empire. The resource-rich Brazil attracted many others in Europe like Spain. In 1494, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Terdesillas, which delineated their boundaries! Who on the earth gave these Europeans the right to divide and rule other people’s lands! The colonizers, always fond of dividing the lands like ‘cutting the cake’, never had the heart to see the miseries of the poor and didn’t even heard their voices. The arbitrary act of dividing the lands according to their own ambitions severed the historic, ethnic and social linkages among the indigenous people. This ‘land autopsy’ happened wherever the West went including in Palestine, India and in Africa, other than the Latin America.

The governance of the colony was also a matter of concern. The Crown during the early periods didn’t establish a centralized administration in the colony. The power was delegated to ‘captains’. Later, a Governor General was sent and he established a capital in Bahia (present day Salvador) which was shifted to Rio de Janeiro in 1763. The resources were exported from the colony to the West in larger quantity. After the discovery of gold in Minas Gerais towards the end of 17th century, Fonseca notes that “30,000 pounds of gold was exported to Portugal per year.” It was not only gold, many other precious stones, silver etc. were mined illegally and transported to the West. The resources from the orient made the West rich, nothing else. The wealth acquired from this ‘plunder business’ was the sole reason for the ‘progress’ of the occident. The policies of the local administrations in the colonial Brazil installed by the monarch failed to build an economic base for the colony and “stripped Brazil of its resources.”

When Napoleon’s expansion campaigns in Europe reached the doorsteps of Portugal the monarch left the country and find asylum in Brazil. Dom Jaoa VI who ruled Portugal from the colony, first such instance in history, returned to home when the French threat was over. The monarch appointed his son Pedro I in Brazil to look after the ‘precious land’. Pedro, in turn proclaimed independence on September 7, 1822 and set up the Brazilian Empire. After his reign, until 1840, a series of regents ruled Brazilian empire. Pedro II succeeded to the throne and it was Princess Isabel who officially ended slavery in 1888, one of the last countries in the region to do so. “Soon after, disgruntled landowners united with the military to finish with monarchy altogether, forcing the royal family back to Portugal and founding Brazil’s first republican government on November 15,1889.”, Fonseca concludes the pre-republican history of Brazil.

Even though a republic was established in Brazil, until 1930, the nation was under military dictatorships. The ultra-conservative rule of wealthy elites, who owns the land, had nothing to offer for the growth of the country. The elite class or the landowners were powerful and influential, and people working in the plantations were virtually ‘slaves’. Getulio Vargas, who came to power in 1930, bought significant changes in the Brazilian society. His government took over economic planning and encouraged industrialization. He aimed at building an economy less dependent on export earnings of primary products but emphasized on industrial growth and thereby job creation. President Vargas was popular among the working class, which increased the concerns of army and the elites alike. Vargas, who shown the signs of an authoritarian ruler, and the suspension of elections after 1937, were enough for the Army to turn against him. He was forced to step down in 1945, but was reelected to the office in 1950. ‘The Father of the Poor’, as he was known in Brazil then, despite his popularity among the ordinary people, faced criticisms for his methods and views, from the upper class elites. The profit-motive upper class saw Vargas’ industrialization drive as an obstacle to their supremacy and stronghold. The political strife within the nation led to the suicide of Vargas in 1954, who famously said that his death was ‘a sacrifice on behalf of the Brazilian workers’.

Juscelino Kubitschek, the pro-army ruler was infamously known for constructing a new capital city in Brasilia, which in the words of historian Norman Lowe was an “extravagance the country could ill afford”. The 1961 elections saw the victory of Janio Quadros who resigned from the office within a year and Vice President Julio Goulart took over. Goulart era was very brief but eventful. He nationalized Brazil’s oil refineries, condemned the sanctions on Cuba, started diplomatic relations with Soviet Union and decided to control the unjust exploitation of MNCs, both resources and revenues. Goulart’s intention was to plough back the excess profit and divert it to social security programmes aimed at eradicating poverty and reducing economic inequality. The early 1960s saw tensions between the ruling government and the army. Goulart and the working class on one side had to face the army, the right-wing forces and the USA. Washington was suspicious of the growth of Communism in Brazil when the Cold War was at its peak during the 1950s and 60s. Goulart’s government wasn’t a ‘left-wing’ communist government as such, but opposed the US domination. “Lyndon Johnson told the US Ambassador in Brazil that the US must do everything possible to help overthrow this left-wing government” (Lowe 2013). The order was followed, a military coup in 1964 overthrow the Goulart administration and began the military rule, which lasted for two decades.

The first decade of the US sponsored military rule was repressive and the dark clouds returned to the Brazilian sky. The military in power banned all political parties and trade unions. All the dissident voices were silenced; the left-wing students were the prime target. The press freedom was challenged by rigid censorships and whoever opposed the regime landed in prison. The political prisoners had to face severe and violent acts of the army. Human rights violations and widespread torture became a natural feature of the junta rule. The USA, the beacon of civil liberty, freedom and human rights supported the harsh regime in Brazil. The politically instable atmosphere affected the economy which was indicated by massive inflation. But the period between 1968 to the 70s saw the ‘economic miracle’ in Brazil. The money from abroad contained the stagnating economy and the two digit growth rate made an economic boom. The uncontrolled flow of foreign money slowly started to affect the economy by the late 70s and 80s. The huge foreign debt became a burden for the nation which again saw the confluence of stagnation and inflation, often cited as “stagflation”. The alarming inequality which widened the rich-poor gap, along with many other social problems can be attributed to the widespread unrest that followed.

In 1985, “faced with escalating economic and social problems, the military decided to hand power over to civilians” (Ibid) and the veteran leader Tanaredo Neves was elected the civilian President of Brazil. The 75 year old Neves passed away before assuming office and Jose Sarney came into power. The biggest challenge was to tackle the debt crisis the country faced in the 80s and when it reached a critical point, they had to suspend the interest payment. IMF came to ‘rescue’ the debt plagued nation. Ferdinando Collor, who was elected to the President’s office, introduced some measures like currency devaluation, freezing of bank accounts and reducing the public expenditure. These illogical measures of Collar administration virtually ruined the economy as well as the society. Besides unemployment, inequality and rocketing inflation, corruption was also on an upward motion. Collor himself was accused of corruption, was forced resign in 1992 following the impeachment by the Senate. The right wing coalition government formed by Francesco Cardoso in 1994 managed to control the inflation to some extent, thanks to the effective programme ‘Plano Real’ which reduced inflation from a three digit rate to single digit by 1997.

The rollercoaster graph of Brazilian economy again led to another economic doom due to an export slump in the late 90s. The foreign borrowings and high public expenditure were the other reasons for the downfall. IMF once again stepped in and offered huge financial credit. Brazil once again rose from the ashes like a Phoenix bird, this time the Workers’ Party leader Lula da Silva, who won the presidential elections of 2002, changed Brazil altogether. The left-wing government of Lula introduced anti-poverty programs and many other social welfare schemes. He increased the minimum wage by 25% and created new employment opportunities. Lula government’s flagship program was ‘Bolsa Familia’, which “paid modest grants to poor families provided they sent their children to school and had their health checked regularly” (Ibid). According to various statistics, 7.5 million families in the country benefited from the program and it lifted millions out of poverty. The general economic expansion and surge in exports paved the way for Brazil’s entry to the ‘emerging powers club’. He strongly opposed the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) proposed by George Bush and was bold enough to fight against the unjust international order. He paid great attention to multilateral collectives and played a key role in the formation of BRIC in the late 2000s.

Dilma Rousseff succeeded Lula in 2011 and she maintained the goodwill of Workers’ Party. She won the elections in 2014 but the slowing economy was of a serious concern for the people. Corruption allegations were raised against the Workers’ Party ministers related to the Petrobas. Media reports said that the Petrobas issue was the biggest ever corruption scandal in the history of the country. Thousands of Brazilians started demonstrations in the street. The 2015-16 protests eventually culminated in a legislative coup which removed Rousseff from power. Michel Temer, the Vice President was the acting President till 2018. Temer, who is also charged for corruption case failed to make a change in the economy. Brazil’s economy is in a critical stage now. The ‘Operation Car Wash’ effect in the economy as well as in the society will have prolonged repercussions.

The newly elected far-right and pro-military President Jair Bolsonaro is considered to be the ‘Latin America’s latest menace’ (The Economist). The dark clouds are back in the Brazilian sky. The uncertainty of the regional power’s future demands a serious attention. Latin America, the arena of capitalist forces’ games, is once again at the verge of a downfall. The history of Brazil itself reflects how badly Brazil needs a democratic and insightful government to lead the nation. Bolsonaro may or may not succeed in the mission to bring Brazil back to the global map of emerging powers. Brazil falling into the hands of far-right powers is certainly not a positive note for the country and the continent which is facing a number of other issues.

Gokul K.S isPost Graduate Student in International Relations and Politics at SIRP, Mahatma Gandhi University and also writes articles in

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