Brazil under Bolsonaro

At a recent UCLA lecture, Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos examined the economic agenda of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and the roots of his popular support.

Brazil under Bolsonaro

Economist Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos. (Photo: Kyilah Terry/ UCLA.)

Kyilah Terry (UCLA 2019)

UCLA International Institute, May 17, 2019 — “Even though [Brazilian President] Bolsonaro is a neoliberal economist, he is no liberal on morals,” said Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos at a recent event cosponsored by the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History, Center for Brazilian Studies and the Latin American Institute. Bastos is professor and chair of the department of politics and economic history at the State University of Campinas, Brazil.

Bolsonaro’s economic program

According to Bastos, Bolsonaro is extremely market-friendly, pro-U.S. and supports the deregulation of labor markets. “Bolsonaro is not a nationalist populist,” he said, “because he doesn’t vow to protect native workers and local markets against cosmopolitan elites, imported goods or immigrants — unlike Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orbán.” Marine Le Pen is the leader of the far-right nationalist Front National Party in France. Viktor Orbán is the conservative nationalist prime minister of Hungary, an open critic of liberal democracy.

Bolsonaro not only has a neoliberal economic program, he is considered racist, homophobic and misogynistic, said Bastos. “He is against reproductive rights, gender and race equality, public universities, sex education and environmental protection,” he commented.

The Brazilian president’s controversial economic platform, however, is the most significant aspect of his presidency. “His program expands the reach of market relationships over social and economic rights, thus transferring risks back to the individual and away from the state,” he said. His policies, said the speaker, allow for freer predation of the land of indigenous peoples and descendants of slave on economic pretexts.

Overall, Bolsonaro’s economic agenda is a radical form of trickle-down economics, said Bastos. “He lowered taxes and unit labor costs in order to increase aggregate savings, investment and business growth,” he said.

Support for Bolsonaro

Bastos outlined three main reasons for why Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro: the economic crisis, corruption scandals and increasing crime. “The economic crisis was caused by Brazilian integration into the global economy, as well as the previous presidents' economic policies,” said the speaker, noting that Brazil’s GDP dropped by four percent in 2017.

The speaker then addressed the political consequences of Lavo Jato (“Operation Car Wash”) investigation. Over the course of a decade, the investigation has brought criminal charges against an ever-widening number of Brazilian businessmen and politicians of all parties for corruption, including the last two leftist presidents.

“The massive corruption scandal within several oil companies resulted in money being channeled into politicians’ private fortunes,” pointed out Bastos, “which tarnished the Workers Party’s (Brazilian acronym, PT) credibility.” Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been imprisoned since April of 2017; his successor, Dilma Vana Rousseff, was impeached in 2016.


March 19, 2019. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (left) welcomed to the White House
by U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photo: Tia Dufour/White House). Public domain.

With respect to crime, Bastos estimated that there had been a 20 percent increase in the number of assassinations in Brazil over the past two years. “In 2015, there were 52,000 assassinations, whereas in 2017, there were 63,000,” he noted. 

These three factors led to a drop in Brazilians trust of mainstream parties and an increase in support for Bolsonaro. “Bolsonaro built a loyal basis of support among young and middle-age voters and inherited anti-PT votes,” observed Bastos. Bolstering his argument, he shared a recent poll that found the most important self-declared reasons for voting for Bolsonaro were “the desire for change (30 percent), anger at the mainstream party (25 percent) and fears about public safety (17 percent).”

“Bolsonaro has received his lowest presidential approval rating on the 100th day of his presidency, with a huge drop in voters located in urban peripheries,” said Bastos. While it is notable that the Brazilian president has lost some of his popularity, “it is not clear that the left will be able to create and frame an alternative to his neoliberal policies,” Bastos concluded.