Judge Sérgio Moro has left the Bolsonaro government. Chosen to be Minister of Justice, Moro achieved prominence for leading the Carwash operation that took several corrupt politicians to jail, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Moro’s departure exposes a very serious weakness within the Bolsonaro government, and in the medium term, it will lead to the weakening of the government and the country. According to Moro, his departure is due to attempts by President Bolsonaro to unduly interfere with the Federal Police. Bolsonaro countered the accusations, but the scenario remains shaky for the president. If Moro is speaking the truth, and if he can substantiate what he said with material evidence, this can lead to impeachment and even arrest of the president.
It is important to remember how Bolsonaro came to power. Going back a few decades in the past, Brazil emerged from a military dictatorship in 1985. The years since then have been called the New Republic by Brazilian analysts. One of the most relevant leaders of this period was Fernando Henrique Cardoso. As finance minister (1993-1994) of the Itamar Franco government (1992-1994) and later as president (1995-2002), FHC led a series of reforms that made the country’s economy, previously marked by developmentalism, freer. FHC was succeeded by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010). Historically a radical socialist affiliated with the Workers’ Party, Lula came to power in 2003 promising a moderate government. To a large extent, this promise was kept, but the Lula government was soon hit by serious allegations of corruption. These complaints continued under the government of his successor, Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), who ended up being impeached in 2016. Because of his corrupt actions as president, Lula ended up arrested by Sérgio Moro in 2018. Despite the moderate tone of Lula and Dilma as presidents, throughout their time in power, both signaled measures that resembled their party’s most radical years. This nod often sounded like a threat that both could trigger the bases of their party to take radical measures as was seen in other South American countries that had elected left-wing governments, especially Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Lula went so far as to declare that in Venezuela under Chavez there was an “excess of democracy”.
It was in the face of multiple corruption scandals and the threat of a radical turn to the left that Jair Bolsonaro gained prominence. For many years an inconsequential politician from Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro gained fame with his stripped-down and even pimp language. As early as 2014, he began to be welcomed throughout Brazil under the shouts of “myth” for the open way in which it criticized the “left”. He soon became a popular phenomenon. Although many analysts doubted his viability as a candidate, he ended up winning the presidency.
Unfortunately, Bolsonaro is far from a classic liberal or a Burkean conservative. A retired army captain, he entered politics to defend the interests of his fellow soldiers. In addition, he has always defended Rio de Janeiro’s military police officers, who are constantly accused of human rights abuses. Finally, Bolsonaro has always declared himself an uncompromising admirer of the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985). Although he showed no signs that he would like to extinguish democracy in Brazil (as many analysts on the left feared), he was also unable to see the many damages that the military did to the country during their years in power.
In his practice as president, Bolsonaro shows himself to be an impatient man, unable to respect the bureaucratic procedures of a liberal democracy. Worse than that, if Sérgio Moro’s allegations are true (and there is good reason to believe that Moro is not a frivolous man), Bolsonaro is trying to control the Federal Police to avoid investigations against his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, accused of corruption and involvement with militias. There are good reasons to believe that, with the departure of Sérgio Moro, the Bolsonaro government has come to an end.
Fortunately, as Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment demonstrates, Brazil is not Venezuela. Despite its many setbacks and weak record as a liberal democracy, the country still stands out in South America for its record of solid institutions that survived even during anti-liberal governments. Although imperfectly, Brazil has the institutions expected from a classic liberal democracy: division of powers, a bicameral legislature, a supreme federal court, and (at least formal) independence between the powers. Unfortunately, there are high levels of corruption in all of these spheres, largely due to the great attributions of the state provided for in the 1988 Constitution. Much is expected of the state, and the state controls an immense amount of resources. It is said that a thief was once asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” was his reply. Likewise, there is a good reason why many people enter politics in Brazil.
There are crucial reforms that need to be made in Brazil if the country is to become a viable democracy. Fortunately, many of these reforms have been made in the past. Since its independence from Portugal in 1822, the country has, at least superficially, classic liberal institutions. Never has a head of government in Brazil dared to govern without a constitution, as was the case in other South American countries. Bolsonaro’s impeachment, if confirmed, will be a major blow, but it will not destroy Brazil. But it also shows that, more than populist politicians, Brazil needs leaders who will lead it to a deeper liberalism. Popular support for this type of reform exists, but it is contrasted by the desire for a “myth”.