Acton Institute Powerblog

Beyond Bolsonaro: A freedom surge in Brazil

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Those who argue that the recent victory of President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections represent an authoritarian shift are highly mistaken. On the contrary, liberalism has never been as strong and vibrant in Brazil as it is in the present moment. While some “intellectuals” and most of the media — in Brazil and internationally —  keep characterizing Bolsonaro’s victory as a sign of increasing intolerance and alt-right politics (because of a few unfortunate declarations  during his campaign) they fail to understand the importance of the current moment to Brazilian history. (I’m using “liberal” in the classical sense: free markets, rule of law, limited government. In Brazil, the term is not synonymous with progressivism.)

Bolsonaro is one of the least eloquent presidents to ever govern a nation, and some of his confusing statements were exploited by the opposition parties, making him sound intolerant and absolutist. Bolsonaro is neither an authoritarian nor a liberal. Bolsonaro does not have enough knowledge and discernment to be either of them. The president only represents the momentary reaction of the Brazilian population against continuous corruption scandals promoted by the leftist Worker’s Party (PT) in the past two decades. However, Bolsonaro is not the emblem of the liberal surge.

Classical liberalism was never popular in Brazil. In spite of early attempts, history shows that classical liberty never developed deep roots among Brazilians. After its independence in 1822, a constitutional monarchy — inspired by the philosophy of Benjamin Constant — became the form of government until 1889, when finally the republic was established. From its colonial period until the end of the Empire, liberalism was not properly practiced. Only men with a certain amount of income had the right to vote and slavery was present in every sector of the economy. Brazil imported the highest number of slaves from Africa — around 40% of the slaves imported to the Americas — and one of the last countries in the western hemisphere to officially abolish slavery, in 1888.

The period known by historians as Republic (1889 – present) is full of controversies. During this period, two dictatorships were established. The first one in 1930, when Getulio Vargas (1882 – 1954) lost the elections, he made an accusation of fraud and took over the country for 15 years. The second dictatorship lasted from 1964 to 1985, with the authoritarian military forces taking over under the guise of stopping the spread of socialism. Both of these dictatorships had a very nationalistic spirit, going against immigration, strongly reducing international trade and completely controlling the press. The strategy of combating socialism, led by the military dictatorship, was not successful and after its fall in 1985 until the last elections in 2018, Brazil has been governed by leftist parties. The most noticeable one, the Workers Party, was responsible for multiple corruption scandals, under the ex-President who is now in jail, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, and the impeached Dilma Rousseff. To realize just how left wing most politics are in Brazil, the social democratic party PSDB, which governed the country for 8 years (1995-2003), is considered to be center right in the political spectrum.

Indeed, Brazil has an authoritarian and absolutist history. Liberal principles, such as free markets, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, individualism and limited government were never properly applied. To the contrary, individual freedom is something relatively new to the country’s history. But an important shift is taking place.

Firstly, the most visible sign of liberalism is seen in the figure of the current Minister of Economics, Paulo Guedes. Popular known by the media as Bolsonaro’s guru, Guedes was a crucial factor in the President’s victory. A disciple of the Austrian School of Economics, he obtained his PhD from the University of Chicago. The new Minister of Economics is taking huge step towards liberalism, such as reducing the overprotective barriers to enter the market, privatizing companies owned by the government, and most importantly, proposing pension reforms. The proposal is being analyzed by Congress, and if passed, it will save billions of dollars, tremendously reducing national debt. In its 197 years of existence, Brazil has never seen such classical liberal actions taken from inside the ruling government.

Secondly, liberalism is finally taking form in political parties. The New Party (NOVO) is the first classical liberal party to ever exist in Brazil. Founded in 2011, it is formed only by non politicians. NOVO is adopting innovative practices in politics, such as a process of interviews in order to become a member and refusing public money to fund its campaign, only accepting funds from donors, who share the same values.

NOVO is a strong advocate of free markets, reduction of taxes — which are absurdly high in Brazil — privatizations, end of subsidies and tax exemptions, and an educational system that shuns political indoctrination. Surprisingly, the party has done extremely well in its first elections in 2018. The presidential candidate Joao Amoedo obtained around 3% of the popular vote, beating traditional candidates who were well known by the general public. In addition, 8 legislators were elected to the House of Representatives. However, the most astonishing victory came in the second richest state of the country, Minas Gerais, where Romeu Zema was elected governor.

Lastly, it is the emergence of activist groups, such as the Free Brazil Movement (MBL). It was the main organization responsible for the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016. The movement started as a small group, originating from the middle class in the state of Sao Paulo, and became a huge phenomenon around the entire country. MBL stands for classical liberal values at its finest. Its main leaders are devoted disciples of Ludwig von Mises, and these leaders were the first popular figures to publicly teach classical liberal principles, with more than 2 million subscribers to their Youtube channel. During the Rousseff impeachment process, MBL gathered millions of Brazilians dressed in yellow and green, protesting against the corrupt government of PT. Today, the movement represents the face of a new classical liberal tradition implemented in the country. Various of its members were elected legislators in the 2018 election, promising shrink the size of government.

For the first time in Brazil’s history, liberalism has been established in different sectors of society. The idea of a free and virtuous society has finally been spread in a national scale. The figure of Paulo Guedes, the political party NOVO and the activist movement MBL are examples of it. Fortunately, these three bodies are part of the current government. What they must not do is to let politics and small differences between them create conflict. Instead, they must unite themselves for a common good, which they all advocate: a liberalism for Brazilians.

Home page image: Protesters go to National Congress Palace denouncing corruption and for the departure of President Dilma Rousseff. 13 March 2016. Agência Brasil Fotografia. Creative commons license.

Rafael Junqueira

Rafael Junqueira is a intern at the Acton Institute. A native of São Paulo, Brazil, he is a senior at Northwest Nazarene University (ID), where he studies Economics and Political Sciences.