Jair Bolsonaro: the Devil?

Scott Sumner wrote recently on The Library of Economics and Liberty a piece in which he apparently buys into Reason’s understanding that Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is “the most extreme and repellent face of a resurgent, evangelical-driven right-wing attempt to drag the country backwards by decades”. Reason, on its turn, is buying into The Intercept’s understanding of Bolsonaro.

There is little new on the piece: Bolsonaro is a racist, a misogynist, a homophobic, a fascist… All the accusations that mainstream media is used to throw at him, mentioning no clear examples or just inventing ones. And once again, it is my job to defend not Bolsonaro himself, but the truth.

Bolsonaro was born in 1955. He is in many ways a typical aging Brazilian man. Coming from a lower middle-class family, as a young man, he joined the army. He was very young but lived the years in which the military took over power to defend Brazil from the communists. Many people today might think that the communist threat didn’t call for that. Nevertheless, this is not what common people in the 1960s understood. They were afraid and begged the Army to defend the country. Most people were happy to give up democracy in the name of security. Bolsonaro was among them. Maybe they were very wrong, but one should try to empathize with them.

Because of the environment in which he grew, statism and protectionism are in Bolsonaro’s blood. Actually, that’s how we all grew up in Brazil. We expect that the government will solve the problems, and we are not used to asking where the money will come from. We also believe that the government has to protect the Brazilian workers and businesspeople against foreign competition. To become economically conservative in Brazil is crazily hard. You have to fight against a deeply established culture. Bolsonaro seems to be fighting against his best instincts that tell him that he should protect the Brazilian market and promote development.

I seriously doubt that Bolsonaro is corrupt. In any functional democracy, this should be a given, but sadly in Brazil, especially after the PT years, to have an honest president is a great relief. I’m certainly not saying that he is incorruptible. Also, Bolsonaro was not virtuous enough to give up many of the privileges he had over the years as a politician. Nevertheless, compared to much of the Brazilian political class, he stands as an honest guy.

In a sense, all this talk is pointless. Bolsonaro was elected. He is the president. He is profoundly against all that the PT government did. The PT government brought Brazil into its deepest economical, political and moral crisis. Bolsonaro and the people around him are trying to revert this. I’m certainly not saying that he shouldn’t be criticized. But he needs help. And Brazilians need help as well. Our real enemy is certainly not Bolsonaro.

Some lessons from Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro has been in government for almost six months now. I believe I can proudly say that I saw this coming before many people: Bolsonaro would be the next president in Brazil. However, he might not be the best person for the job.

In my assessment, Bolsonaro is not the usual politician. As John Mearsheimer brilliantly observed, politicians lie. A lot. It should be a given: dogs bark, cats climb on trees, and politicians lie. Bolsonaro, as far as I can tell, doesn’t. And that might be part of the problem: he always speaks his mind. Nothing is concealed, even when strategy might call for that.

In the past week, Bolsonaro sent an open letter to some of his followers (not written by him) manifesting how hard it is to govern Brazil. The letter sounds like a vent for the president’s frustration: “You Either Die A Hero, Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain”. But what Bolsonaro means by all that is not clear. For all sorts of reasons, corruption is a living part of Brazilian politics. Actually, of politics in general, just a little more down there. So why the president sounds surprised by that?

Some people in the press speculated that Bolsonaro plans a coup. Call that it is impossible to govern with the current congress and just close it. To be sure, that is not unthinkable, and Brazil has historical precedents for that. But that doesn’t sound like something that Bolsonaro would do. Sounds more like that he is trying to bypass Congress and govern with direct popular support.

Brazilian congress is fabulously corrupt, and Bolsonaro still enjoys great popularity. Maybe he wants to use that to press Congress for the changes Brazil needs. In any case, it is a good opportunity to remember some lessons: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or, in other words, if men were angels, we wouldn’t need government. And if we were governed by angels, we wouldn’t need checks and balances. But we are not governed by angels. Therefore, checks and balances are necessary. The downside is that this makes the government slow when important changes are necessary. The temptation is to close democratic institutions and just do things the old fashion way: through a dictatorship. I don’t think that is where Brazil is going right now. But it’s important to remember that we need way more than a president. We need people who really understand and appreciate freedom. An uneducated people on these matters will always grow impatient and vote for an easy solution.

Brazil, 1984

Danilo Gentili, one of Brazil’s most famous and popular comedians, was convicted and sentenced to seven months of prison time for defaming Maria do Rosário, a Brazilian federal congresswoman with a suggestion that she was a whore in a YouTube video. I wrote about Maria do Rosário before here.

Danilo has been literally on the Worker’s Party blacklist for many years because of his political remarks against it. His “crime” this time, according to the official sentence, was to offend a congressperson. The same kind of defamation against a “normal” citizen would not lead him to jail. Here is what happened: in his twitter account, Danilo criticized Maria do Rosário, saying that she was a hypocrite. The reason was because José de Abreu, a Brazilian actor famous for supporting the Worker’s Party, spit on the face of a woman in a restaurant after she criticized his political positions. Abreu did that shortly after Jean Wyllys, a former Brazil congressman, spit on Jair Bolsonaro. Maria do Rosário, who always presents herself as a feminist, defended José de Abreu. Danilo commented in the case in his twiter account saying that Maria do Rosário was a hypocrite. The congresswoman sent Danilo an official congress letter asking him to delete his twits. The comedian answered putting the letter inside his paints and then sending it back, an action he recorded on video and uploaded to YouTube.

In a similar case, not too long ago, Supreme Court judge Enrique Ricardo Lewandowski threatened with jail an airplane passenger who, turning to him, said he was ashamed of the Supreme Court. Lewandowski is often perceived as defending the Worker’s Party and its interests.

Why do I so frequently write in English about Brazil? In part because I want a broader audience who doesn’t know Portuguese to know what is going on there. As far as I know, for quite some time people outside Germany or the USSR thought that they were doing pretty well. Little did they know. Also because I want to offer a counterpoint to the (more often than not) leftist media that calls Bolsonaro a far-right racist, misogynist. Finally, because I hope that people from outside who read this might engage with the cause of freedom in Brazil. George Soros and others are engaging with the cause of slavery. They count on you not caring about it.

As I wrote before, Brazilian democracy is under threat. And it is not because of Jair Bolsonaro.

Nazism: left or right? (again)

A few days ago, Brazil’s Foreign Affair’s Minister declared that Nazism “derives from the left”. Asked about his minister’s remark, president Jair Bolsonaro confirmed that he understands Nazism as a left-wing movement.

The understanding that Nazism is a left-wing movement is growing among Brazilian conservatives, especially those who support Bolsonaro’s government. On the other side of the debate, Bolsonaro’s adversaries ridiculed his remark or manifested concern with his “historical revisionism”.

Seems to me that classifying Nazim as a left-wing movement is not a Brazilian exclusivity. Political commentators from other countries (such as Dinesh D’Souza) are saying the same thing. It is probably more accurate to say that Brazilians are following a trend.

This trend, however, is not new. One of Friedrich Hayek’s main points in Road to Serfdom was to tell social democrats (who were indeed democrats in the classical liberal sense of the word) that they were closer to Nazis than they would like to admit. Hayek’s remark was as polemic then as it is now, but mainly because he is saying the truth: as Milton Friedman said, “The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.” If I remember correctly, it was also Friedman who said that in order to obtain perfect equality more government would be necessary, which would completely undermine the desire for equality, for those in government would most certainly not be equal to everyone else.

The standard in Political Science is, of course, to call Nazim a right-wing movement. However, we see in moments like this how political and how little scientific Political Science can be. What many people observe is that Nazism shares a lot with communism: both are violent, both emphasize the collective (and not the individual), both rely on popular leaders, and so on. Of course, there are also differences: Nazism has nothing of the class-struggle so central to communism and certainly doesn’t appeal to the cosmopolitanism present in “workers of the World, unite!”.

With all that said, I have a growing feeling that there are only two political tendencies: “live and let live” and all others. Some people can’t stand the possibility of having others living a different lifestyle from them. Some people can’t stand people who disagree. Some people like to blame others. Some people truly believe that those who think and do like they do are superior to everyone else. These people come together and ask the government to force everyone else to comply.

Bolsonaro, Carnaval, Golden Shower, Reason

Sao Paulo. Carnival. Two men climb on a newsstand, bus stop, or truck. The video is not so clear. What is clear is that they are half-naked. What they do next is pretty graphic, and I don’t feel comfortable describing it here. Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, makes a tweet about what happened. Several websites, including Reason, criticize Bolsonaro.

The fact that several sites on the left criticize Bolsonaro does not surprise me, but I am disappointed with Reason. But let’s get some facts. Carnival is indeed a traditional party in Brazil, at least in some cities like Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. But for many people, Carnival is just a cultural imposition. Maybe the editors of Reason do not even know it, but Carnival is an official holiday. That is: even if you want to work, you are duly prohibited from doing so. Another thing that the editors of Reason forgot to report is that Carnival is largely sustained with public money. That is: like you or not, the party is partially sustained with your money raised through taxes. Another part of the money comes from organized crime. Yes. Carnival is partially supported by the state and partly by organized crime. Only a minimal part of the money is voluntarily given away by people interested in attending the party. That is: for a good anarcho-capitalist, Carnival is almost completely sustained by organized crime.

I grew up in a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where the carnival blocks start early and end late. Several streets are closed. My right to come and go is severely impaired. Even if I close all the windows (while it is 100º F outside), the noise of the music still prevents me from even thinking. I always think about people who are sick and need to rest. Or that they are elderly. Or families with small children. Carnival is the least libertarian party I can imagine: your participation is not voluntary. In fact, one of the most famous Carnival songs has very telling lyrics: “who does not like samba, good people are not. It’s bad in the head or sick on the foot.” To be clear: if you do not like samba you have a taste different from mine and we will respect ourselves? Not! You’re a bad person!

So, it is against this party that Jair Bolsonaro manifested himself. I’m proud of my president. One thing that Bolsonaro certainly did not do was try to be populist. If he wanted to be a populist, he would have done what all the presidents before him did: sponsor the bread and circus. By stating as he did, Bolsonaro proved that it is anything but populist. Reason has no idea what is going on in Brazil.

As a good libertarian I will say: if you like samba, you have a bad musical taste. Anyway, it’s your taste, not mine. But if you support Carnaval, you are attending a party that harms millions of people. You are not really thinking about your neighbor. And if you call yourself a libertarian and oppose Bolsonaro on this, something is very wrong. Maybe you just have no idea what is going on in Brazil.

Maybe you’re not that libertarian.

An optimist turns pessimistic

I won an essay contest back in my undergraduate days for an essay on optimism. I understand that poverty worldwide is on the run. I understand that none of us have suffered through a devastating worldwide war like most of our ancestors did. In many ways, we have it good.

But Donald Trump is still President of the United States of America. I still remember waking up to the news that he had beat Hillary Clinton. It was surreal (it didn’t help that I was living Austin, where everything is a bit foggier, brain-wise).

Unlike Jacques, who seems to be so in love with Trump that he would get down on his knees and do whatever Trump wanted him to do, I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s done a good job. I don’t even care that the left-leaning press is dishonest when it comes to reporting on his administration. I think this is the difference between libertarians like me, who lean more to the left, and libertarians like Jacques and Bruno, who lean more to the right.

Jacques and Bruno are not really defending the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations. And they’re not really speaking up for these two administrations because they hate leftists more than they like liberty. Guys like Jacques and Bruno care more about Truth than anything else, and the global mainstream media’s narrative skews left and is often dishonest.

Me? I’ve grown accustomed to dishonesty in media. I’ve also grown accustomed to ignorance. I pick and choose which dishonest or ignorant bits I want to challenge. When journalists write or say something about guys like Trump or Bolsonaro that are blatantly wrong, I make a mental note of the dishonest nature of the reporting, but that’s about it. Guys like Trump and Bolsonaro are bad for liberty, after all. I’d rather focus on the mainstream press’ dishonesty when it comes to people like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The fawning over her is at least as concerning as the dishonest portrayals of Trump or Bolsonaro.

Left-wing populism is just as bad as right-wing populism, and everybody in the democratic world is going to be stuck with populism for quite awhile. Truth is on its way out the door, and I don’t know if it’ll be back in my lifetime.

Venezuela and the World

Nicolas Maduro’s regime seems to be on the ropes. Brazil, being one of Venezuela’s neighboring countries, feels this especially well. The border between the two countries is getting increasingly tense.

Nicolas Maduro came to power after the demise of Hugo Chavez. Chavez on his turn was the first leader connected to Foro de São Paulo to come to power as president in a Latin America country.

Foro de São Paulo is a coalition of leftist groups in Latin America created in the transition from the 1980s to the 1990s to answer to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perceiving that they would no longer be able to depend on the USSR for help, Fidel Castro as his allies in Latin America decided to help themselves. Chavez’ rise to power was the first result of these efforts. He was followed by Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, and many others. At one point in the mid-2000s, it seemed that Latin America was already informally a “Union of the Latin American Socialist Republics”.

At closer inspection, it is possible to see that the relationship between members of the Foro de São Paulo was not always perfectly harmonious. There were inside fights for leadership. Besides that, some leaders were more pragmatic and others more idealist. Even more, the Brazilian Worker’s Party, one of the main players in the organization, was itself internally divided. But none of this stopped members of the Foro de São Paulo from giving significant support to one another.

In the 2010s Foro de São Paulo suffered from many obstacles. Oil prices went dramatically down, making Venezuela – one of the main oil producers in the world – a less dependable ally for Cuba and other partners. Dilma Rousseff, chosen by Lula da Silva to be his successors in Brazil, proved to be shamelessly incompetent as a president. In 2016 she was impeached from office under corruption charges and Lula himself was eventually sentenced to jail. Jair Bolsonaro’s election to the presidency last year marks a right-turn in Brazilian politics that further hurts the Foro de São Paulo’s ability to support Venezuela.

According to political scientist John Mearsheimer, it is simply impossible under current technological development for one country to be a global hegemon. Nevertheless, it is clear that countries try the next best thing: to be regional hegemons and to stop other countries from doing the same in other regions. The US, with its Monroe Doctrine and world diplomacy, is a very good example of this. At least since the beginning of the 20th century, the US was able to secure undisputed leadership in the American continent. However, one of the most important developments of the last decade is China’s economic advance in Latin America. Russia, a country economically very weak, is nevertheless constantly trying to oppose US diplomacy, and Latin America is not an exception.

During the Worker’s Party years, Brazil massively helped Venezuela. The ideological affinity between it and Chavez’s supporters was key in this process. Today leftist leaders in Brazil unashamedly show their hypocrisy by criticizing Bolsonaro’s remarks on intervening in Venezuela.

The fact is that countries, independently of the ideology of those in power, do try to intervene in one another’s internal affairs, no matter what international law might say about this. However, as Stephen M. Walt observes, the chances of such interventions to succeed are highly dependable on domestic factors, mostly the disposition of domestic groups to welcome an intervention.

Venezuela, one of the world’s potentially richest nations is under great humanitarian crises thanks to socialism. Socialists around the globe already have their answer to this: Venezuela was never socialist. Regardless, Venezuela is a real problem, and to buy into the left’s narrative will not help to solve it.