It seems that many observers believe that Brazil’s current political situation is one of instability and uncertainty. Since the mid-1990s the national political scene has been dominated by two parties: the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese) and PSDB. Now, with the main leader of the PT imprisoned – former president Lula da Silva – the PSDB also seems to have lost its rationale. It is clear that this party never had faithful voters, only an anti-PT mass who saw in it the only viable alternative. Given these factors, it is true that a political cycle that began in the 1990s is coming to an end, but far from being a moment of uncertainty and pessimism, this may be the most fruitful moment in the country’s history, as it seems that finally classical liberalism is being vindicated in Brazil.
Brazil began its political history as a semi-parliamentary monarchy. As one observer of the time put it, the country had a “backward parliamentarism”: instead of parliament controlling the monarch, it was the emperor who controlled parliament. Moreover, the Brazilian economy was extremely based on slavery. In theory, Brazil was politically and economically a liberal country. In practice, it was politically and economically a country controlled by oligarchies.
With the proclamation of the republic in 1889, little changed. The country continued to be theoretically a liberal country, with a constitution strongly influenced by the North American one and a tendency to industrialization. In practice, however, Brazil continued to be politically and economically dominated by oligarchic interests.
The republic instituted in 1889 was overthrown in 1930 by Getúlio Vargas. Vargas was president from 1930 to 1945, and his political circle continued to dominate the country until 1964. Once again, political language was often liberal, but in practice the country was dominated by sectorial interests.
Vargas committed suicide in 1954, and his political successors failed to account for the instability the country went through after World War II. The Soviet Union had been trying to infiltrate Brazil since the 1920s, and this was intensified with the Cold War. The communist influence, coupled with the megalomaniacal administrative inability of Vargas and his successors, led the country to such an instability that the population in weight clamored for the military to seize power in 1964.
The military that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 were influenced mainly by positivism. In simple terms, they were convinced they could run the country like a barracks. For them, the motto “order and progress” written on the Brazilian flag was taken very literally. One great irony in this is that Auguste Comte’s positivism and Karl Marx’s communism are almost twin brothers, products of the same anti-liberal mentality of the mid-19th century. The result was that Brazilian economic policy for much of the military period was not so different from that of the Soviet Union at many points in its history: based on central planning, this policy produced spectacular immediate results (the period of the “Brazilian miracle” in the early 1970s), but also resulted in the economic catastrophe of the 1980s.
However, the worst consequence of the military governments was not in the economy but in the political culture. The military fought against communism in a superficial way, overpowering only the guerrillas and terrorist groups that engaged in armed struggle. But in the meantime, many communists turned to cultural warfare, joining schools, universities, newsrooms, and even churches. The result is that Brazilian intellectual life was taken over by communism.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, elected president in 1994, is an important Brazilian intellectual. Although not an orthodox Marxist, his lineup is clearly left-wing. The difference between FHC (as he is called) and a good part of the Brazilian left (represented mainly by the PT) is that he, like Tony Blair in England and Bill Clinton in the US, opted for a third way between economic liberalism and more explicit socialism. In other words, FHC understood, along with leading PSDB leaders, that the Washington Consensus is called a consensus for good reason: there is a set of economic truths (pejoratively called neo-liberals) that are no longer the subject of debate. FHC followed these ideas, but he was heavily opposed by the PT for this.
Since the founding of the PT, in the late 1970s, Lula’s speech was quite radical, explicitly wishing to transform Brazil into a large Cuba. But Lula himself surrendered to the Washington Consensus in the early 2000s, and only then was he able to be elected president. Once in office, however, Lula commanded one of the greatest corruption scandals in world history. In addition, his historical links to the left were never erased. Although in his first term economic policy was largely liberal, this trend changed in his second term and in the presidency of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.
Today Brazil is still living in an economically difficult period, but an ironic result of more than a decade of left-wing government (especially the PT) is the strengthening of conservative and libertarian groups in Brazil. In the elections from 2002 to 2014 it was virtually impossible to identify candidates clearly along these lines. In this year’s election, we expected several candidates to explicitly identify themselves as right-wing. Jair Bolsonaro, the favorite in contention, is not historically a friend of the free market, but his more recent statements demonstrate that more and more he leans in this direction.
It is possible that in 2018 Brazil will not yet elect an explicitly libertarian president. But even so, the economic transformations initiated by FHC seem now to be vindicated. Only with the strengthening of the Internet did Brazilians have real access to conservative and libertarian ideas. With that, one of the most important political phenomena in Brazil in the last decade is the discovery of these ideas mainly by young people, and it is these young people who now cry for a candidate who defends their ideas. Bolsonaro seems to be the closest to this, although there are others willing to defend similar economic policy. After more than a decade of governments on the left, it seems that Brazil is finally going through a well-deserved right turn.