Brazil’s new direction: Bolsanaro

Tom writes*

Brazil experienced high growth from 2000 until 2014, when the country was suddenly in an unprecedented recession. Although the country’s GDP showed some recovery in 2017, Brazil elected far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro as president in a response to “rising crime and two years of political and economic turmoil”. As what follows will suggest, the election of Bolsonaro is not so much a result of the stagnation of economic growth, as it was rooted in the lack of development following the past decades’ growth.

To assess economic development, Sen and Nussbaum’s capabilities approach will be used as a definition to measure economic development in Brazil. Two of his most important political promises that explain why Bolsonaro gained so much support are his plans to fight corruption and reduce crime rates. The former deals with capability 10A, the political aspect of control over one’s environment, whereas the latter aims at tackling violations of capability 3, bodily integrity, and capability 10B, the material component of control over one’s environment. One might argue that a tougher policy on crime even relates to the first capability, life, in a country where homicide rates are among the highest in the world. The lack of economic development is also visible in the extreme income inequality and the over 23.3 million Brazilians, over 10 percent of the population, living below the poverty line, which inhibits almost all aspects of human development. This also explains why many people from minorities, such as people of colour and women, voted for him, despite his countless insults; they are overrepresented in the poorest groups of Brazilian society. It is important to note here, though, that many of Bolsonaro’s plans will probably not enhance human development as defined by Sen and Nussbaum, the argument is rather that the reason why people voted for him, are the obviously lacking aspects of development that he addresses.

What gave to rise Bolsonaro, however, started five years before his presidential election, in 2013, when all across Brazil, people took to the streets “with a range of demands from affordable public transportation to fixes to the government bureaucracy”. These demands are rather aimed at enhancement of quality of life than at quantity and seem to have more to do with development than growth. Popular discontent in Brazil was mainly centred around issues of development, but many of them are related to economic growth issues, such as stagnation and a drop in inflation that threatens the position of the middle class.

At the same time that development is lacking, the prospects for economic growth in the next years are also critical, especially since Bolsonaro, in an attempt to recover Brazil’s economy, wants to break most economic ties with China, while trade with China grew with 4000% between 2000 and 2013, largely contributing to Brazil’s economic growth. The irony is that at the same time that the ‘Trump of the Tropes’ wishes to copy Trump’s strong anti-China economic policy, it was exactly this American trade war with Beijing that has boosted Brazilian exports to China.

Bottom line: The rise of Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new president is rather a response of human development falling behind for years than just a response to the lack of economic growth between 2014 and 2016.


* Please help my Growth & Development Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

5 thoughts on “Brazil’s new direction: Bolsanaro”

  1. I think that you forgotten that Brazilians were disappointed about the promises the politicians (especially PT, the Lula´s party) and with the huge corruption.

    1. Thank you for your comment and your feedback! This was more implicitly discussed in my blogpost, but I agree that although it is linked with human development falling behind (corruption) and not rising as much as was promised by politicians, the disappointment about the failed promises of the establishment has been a reason in and of itself as well that gave rise to Bolsonaro.

  2. Antonio (via email) writes: “Thank you very much for this post, indeed it brought some light and different perspective on this subject. The situation in Brazil is very complicated at the moment, I don’t know much about it but from what I have heard from Brazilian friends, this discontent has been going on since Lula’s presidency, although he managed to drastically improve and increase certain things (ie. literacy rate). Dilma then brought more discontent and tensions started to raise.

    As stated, Brazil’s economy has been raising for the last couple of decades but this is the problem with a lot of similar countries, although the number point to an increase in economic wealth and power, this wealth is not being spent on infrastructure and programs to aid citizens but invested in programs and infrastructures that benefit an elite.

    So at the end, I completely agree with Tom’s point, and I add that this situation is the root problem of a lot of social and political tension found around the world, especially in developing countries.”

    1. Thank you for the reply, I agree with you in that there are more countries that experience similar problems to those of Brazil.

  3. Hey Tom,
    Very interesting topic that you will delve into, also a very challenging one. I’ve been investigating Brazil for the past 6 months in several of my LUC courses and also know a lot of Brazilians that live in Peru. Anyway, an important insight that might help in your investigation is that Bolsonaro’s rise to power is suspectedly strongly linked with the gun lobby (this is what a Brazilian economist collaborating with a Leiden University professor on a book about the Brazilian Economy told me in December). So what has happened is that Bolsonaro is promising to deregulate gun control, hence suspectedly benefitting manufacturing giants such as Forjas Taurus. Given the approach of the course you can tackle this issue from the perspective of development; for instance: to what extent will gun deregulation benefit certain interest groups? Also another comment that this Brazilian economist made to me is that Bolsonaro’s vote was mainly concentrated in the known ‘richer’ parts of the countries (completely different from a vote to Lula or Dilma). Finally to consider in the political realm: Lava Jato. Super important and relevant (also recommend watching El Mecanismo on Netflix brilliant show to inform you about it).
    Also: If I were you I’d challenge that Brazil is a BRICs economy or if such a thing even exists (coming from Goldman Sachs executives themselves). Will Bolsonaro bring about recovery in the Brazilian economy or is he just a ‘Brazilian Trump’?
    Anyway hope my comments helped and if you need sources let me know and I can send you a couple.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/01/world/americas/brazil-gun-laws-rights-bolsonaro.html

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