Democracy and Authoritarianism in Brazil

Democracy and Authoritarianism in Brazil

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Jair Bolsonaro

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Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and vice president for policy at Americas Society / Council of the Americas, discusses democracy and authoritarianism in Brazil, as well as the role of the faith community in the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.


Brian Winter

Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly and Vice President for Policy, Americas Society / Council of the Americas


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to have Brian Winter with us today for a discussion on Brazil. Brian Winter is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and the vice president for policy at Americas Society / Council of the Americas. An author, columnist, and expert on Latin American politics, Mr. Winter has been editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly since 2015. He previously spent a decade living in Latin America as a journalist for Reuters based in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. He is the author or co-author of four books, including The Accidental President of Brazil with Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He regularly appears on broadcast media and has been quoted as a political analyst in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.

Brian, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought we could begin with you talking a little bit about the rise of Jair Bolsonaro and how his administration might affect democracy and human rights in Brazil.

WINTER: All right. Well, thank you very much, Irina, and thank you to everyone who’s joined us on this call today. It’s a privilege to be part of this fine series.

As Irina mentioned, I’ve been studying Latin America and Brazil as a journalist and now as an analyst for the last twenty years or so. Since 2015 I’ve been here in New York. From 2010 to 2015 I was in Brazil.

Well, in early 2017 I started closely following a retired army captain who had spent the last three decades as a very obscure, pretty much unknown congressman in Brasilia. And this, of course, was Jair Bolsonaro. It was clear at the time that Brazilians were going to vote for an anti-establishment figure in the elections that were scheduled for October 2018. And as an American, I saw shades of what had happened here in my country with Donald Trump. And so I started following Bolsonaro and it was clear that he was tapping into several currents that were running through Brazilian society at the time. And in my columns I started predicting publicly that Bolsonaro had a chance to win, and I was treated as a heretic—(laughs)—by the Brazilian establishment and others. A lot of people just laughed at me, said I didn’t understand Brazil. They said that Brazilians only vote for moderate candidates, pointed out that this guy didn’t even have a party, which was true, or any real campaign funding to speak of—that was also true. But we all know that with social media and with the anti-establishment wave that’s hitting not just in the United States, but really all over the world, especially in Western democracies, that there are new rules of the game, and we know now how that story ended.

But, you know, being early was great because, among other reasons, I was able to interview Jair Bolsonaro as well as his sons, who are also very politically active, before the media hordes did; plus, many of his supporters; also, his intellectual guru of sorts, a guy named Olavo de Carvalho, who’s kind of a Steve Bannon type who is Brazilian, but he’s actually lived in rural Virginia, just outside Richmond, believe it or not, since 2005. I published an interview with him in December.

You know, Irina’s asked me to talk about democracy and authoritarianism in Brazil, as well as the role of the faith community in the rise of Bolsonaro, and I’ll do so for about fifteen minutes, ten or fifteen minutes, and then I’m happy to take your question.

The framing of this, Democracy and Authoritarianism, suggests that democracy in Brazil is at least somewhat at risk. And I agree; I think it is. I’ve written as such. I do think that this risk has been overstated by some, though. And interesting things have happened since Bolsonaro was elected on October 28 and took office on New Year’s Day. To understand what’s happening in Brazil, though, I think it’s key to revisit first, even if briefly, what was happening prior to the election in October 2018. And, look, let me tell you, as somebody who lived there for that time and goes back about once a quarter, Brazilians in this election campaign last year were absolutely furious with their government and with the overall condition of their country. And there were basically three calamities that were driving this dissatisfaction.

The first one was economic. Brazil is still coming out of what was likely the worst recession in its history.

There was also a series of corruption scandals, one big one in particular that you may have read about known as the Car Wash scandal, that implicated not only the Workers’ Party which ran Brazil from 2002 to 2016 but also really most of the rest of the political establishment. So if ever there was a swamp that needed to be drained, it was probably Brasilia. I mean, you just had multiple parties that were involved in various aspects of this scandal, which started at Petrobras, the state-run oil company.

And then the third calamity is crime. Brazil is a country that has more gun deaths than any other in the world, 63,000 homicides last year. It’s been steadily increasing—slowly but steadily increasing for several years now.

And this resulted in just a huge atmosphere of dissatisfaction. In a poll last year, only 7 percent of Brazilians said that they were satisfied with the state of their democracy. And the previous president who Bolsonaro replaced, Michel Temer, had an approval rating of 3 percent, OK? (Laughs.) I mean, people talk about President Trump has having a low approval rating at whatever he is—you know, depending on which number you believe, but whether it’s 37 percent or 42 percent or whatever. I mean, 3 percent I think we can all agree is quite low.

And Bolsonaro was able to understand the moment and formulate a message that kind of looped a lot of these things together. It was basically a law-and-order message where he said he was going to crack down on the thieves in Brasilia and on the street, and this resonated with people. And I’m sure many, if not all of you have seen the long list of controversial and offensive things that Jair Bolsonaro has said over the years, but you know, as has happened to some extent here in the United States as well, a lot of people heard those things and focused less on the substance of it and more on—you know, they decided that this person sounded different and that he was likely to go into Brasilia and blow things up, and that was what they wanted. And so that is why they voted for him. And that’s in some ways, of course, I’m oversimplifying, but that I really do believe is the essence of it.

And it’s part of this anti-establishment wave that has been sweeping the world. And look, I mean, Brazil is the Western democracy that has arguably suffered most in recent years. So the fact that they would join this anti-establishment trend shouldn’t be such a surprise.

I want to talk a little about the role of faith now in all of this. I’m sure that, again, many or all of you know the story of the rise of evangelicals in particular in Brazil and the rest of Latin America. Just a few stats here. In 1980, according to the national census, evangelicals were 6.6 percent of the Brazilian population. By 2010, they were 22.2 percent. And, you know, likely higher now. Of course, we won’t have a census until next year, but most evidence suggests that that number has continue to rise.

Bolsonaro really from the beginning had very strong evangelical support. On September 11, which was about a month before the first round of the election, he had overall support—it was a very fragmented field—he had about 20 percent of the overall sort of voting intentions, but he was at 33 percent among evangelicals. And immediately prior to the vote he ended up with 40 percent evangelical support, and that continued to rise. And so there was always very strong enthusiasm, sort of more than society—the rest of society as a whole, for Bolsonaro. It was really two main groups of people. It was young people; Bolsonaro’s strongest demographic age-wise was always eighteen to twenty-four, which in some ways that’s one where the Trump analogies kind of fall apart because the opposite was true in the 2016 election. But Bolsonaro’s support spiked among younger people and then sort of descended downward as the demographic got older. But the evangelical support was consistent.

And I’m happy to talk in more detail about why, but basically there was a range of social issues that evangelical and also Catholic voters were upset about that were wrapped up in some ways—some of these were not new issues. They included things like abortion, the debate over legalization of drugs, gay marriage, and other things. But the difference between the U.S. and Brazil was that in Brazil you had had, with the Workers’ Party from 2003 to 2016, a government that really championed some of these causes—not abortion, but LGBT rights, various minority groups, Afro-Brazilians, and others. And that in many ways stepped on some of these—some of these religious leaders, some of these churches.

And Bolsonaro, with his strong rejection of communism, which is a term that is imperfect because communism was not really a threat in Brazil, but what you had instead was a leftist government that was in power for a very long time, more socialist but communist. But in any case, Bolsonaro was able to sort of unite his people’s objection and rejection of what the leftist party had done with a strong stance on some of these issues. And as a result—also the fact that his wife, Michelle, is very prominent in the evangelical community—he was able to get very strong support from some of the mega-pastors in Brazil, many of whom instructed their congregations to vote for Bolsonaro in the final days of the election. There’s more there, but we can come back to it.

And then, you know, finally, just to conclude my initial remarks, to talk about, you know, the risks to democracy here. Look, Jair Bolsonaro has authoritarian leanings. That’s just a fact. This is a guy who throughout his career has really built his image on nostalgia for the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985. He has over the years said that—you know, basically that democracy, or at least the brand of democracy that was being practiced, was not good for Brazil. He has defended the military regime’s torture of political opponents in the ’60s and ’70s. And, you know, I referenced the fact that he was an obscure congressman for a long time. Well, he was kind of a one-issue guy, and his one issue was this nostalgia for the military regime. And he and those close to him—and I have good relationships with some people in his circle—they insist that he has evolved, that now that he’s president in the year 2019 that it’s different from having been president in 1984, and they understand the need to respect institutions and respect the elected will of the people. And he’s been very strong in his condemnations of today’s dictatorships in the region, most notably Cuba and Venezuela.

It’s also true that in his three weeks or so in power he has not immediately come out and done anything destructive to separation of powers. But it’s early. (Laughs.) And I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions about what he’s going to do. I think that his past—and when I say his past, I mean really the entirety of his career up until, say, maybe six months ago—suggests that this is a guy who believes in, you know, a very strong executive and doesn’t have a lot of love for Congress and the judiciary, an independent judiciary. And so I think it’s too early to draw conclusions, and we’ll see.

What’s clear is that the support of the Brazilian population after the trauma of recent years, there’s all kinds of polls showing the dissatisfaction that people have with their democracy. And I have written and I still believe that if Bolsonaro decided to rein in some of these institutions, people wouldn’t care much. The majority would not care much. That saddens me as a democrat, but all of the polling really suggests that there’s no real love for institutional democracy in Brazil right now. So in many respects, you know, this question is in Bolsonaro’s hands and arguably in some of the rest of the power elite in Brasilia. He’s shown signs of being willing to play by the institutional rules so far, but we’ll see where it goes.

So, with those introductory remarks, I’m happy to build on any of those as you like or answer any other questions you might.

FASKIANOS: Brian, thanks very much for that. Let’s open it up to the group for questions and comments.

OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Frances Flannery.

FLANNERY: Hello. Thank you so much for this informative chance to get an insider’s view, somewhat, on Bolsonaro.

And what I’m concerned about is the rainforest. Bolsonaro has at times been a climate change skeptic, but he just told Davos that he’s interested in protecting the rainforest. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what you know about his position on protecting the rainforest, which is the largest carbon-sink forest in the world. And as you know, we’re entering a critical time in which the IPCC has said we have about ten years before, I guess, real catastrophe in terms of climate change.

But I’m also wondering if you have an idea of the evangelical perspective in Brazil on climate change, since evangelicalism is not a monolith with respect to environmental care, and the Environmental Evangelical Network has been active in trying to create an image of humanity as the stewards of creation as part of the evangelical platform.

So if you could comment on both of those I’d appreciate it. Thank you.

WINTER: What a great question. Thank you.

Look, I take great care when I talk about all these things to, you know, kind of convey where I have certainty and convey where I feel less sure. And one of the predictions that I feel like can be confidently made is that the Bolsonaro government will be bad for the environment and for deforestation in particular. Virtually everything that he and his ministers have said both during the campaign and taking office suggest that they will grant a bigger latitude to agribusiness and reduce protections for environmental reserves, and also reduce punishments for people who essentially engage in deforestation—people who go into the Amazon and elsewhere with tractors and chainsaws.

I think that there is a bit of nuance to this, although I’ve wondered whether the government is essentially trying to play a bit of a double game and kind of muddy the waters on public opinion. One example of this is the government has said that it plans to stay in the Paris Accord, which Bolsonaro had said during the campaign that Brazil would withdraw. And what I’ve been told and have read is that as he prepared to take office agribusiness—and of course “agribusiness” is an imprecise term— but let’s say sectors of the Brazilian agricultural world came to him and said, look, if you drop out of the Paris Accord it’s going to create a huge problem for us, not just with our international image, but with sales in places like Europe. It’ll make us a bit of a pariah. And we actually think that there’s a way that we can do what we want to do without dropping out of Paris. And what they want to do is basically tip the scales a bit more away from conservation and in the direction of exploiting the land that Brazil has got.

Let me be specific. Bolsonaro said at Davos yesterday—and I’ve actually got the quote in front of me and I won’t read the whole thing, but he said—well, you know what? It’s only a couple of sentences. Let me just read this to you, and this is my sort of doing the translation live because what I’m seeing here is in Portuguese. But he says: No other country in the world has as many forests as we do. Agriculture is present in just 9 percent of our territory, and it grows thanks to the technology and competitiveness of our rural society. Less than 20 percent of our ground is dedicated to agriculture. These commodities in large part guarantee a surplus in our trade balance and they feed a big part of the world. Here’s the key part. He says: Our mission now is to advance in the compatibility between the preservation of the environment and the biodiversity with necessary economic development, remembering that these things are independent. The sectors that are criticizing us, in truth, have a lot to learn from us.

That sounds to me like a guy who is laying the rhetorical ground work for increased—basically, increased deforestation. And his environment minister, Ricardo Salles, has also said, basically—and this is almost an exact quote—he said: We’re going to do what’s best for Brazil, and if the world is concerned then that’s just too bad. So, you know, I think their plans on this are quite clear.

It comes after really a fifteen-year period where deforestation rates had fallen. Meaning, Brazil had done a dramatically better job of preserving that carbon sink or forest. Deforestation had already started to expand again in the last two or three years, as the political crisis that hit Brasilia and the departure of the Workers’ Party. And I would—as I’ve said—I would very much expect that that will continue.

You know, with regard, briefly, to the evangelical position on this, yes, I would recognize that there’s a split on these issues, not only in the United States but globally. And Brazil is no exception. I would say that the—one of the most prominent evangelicals in the government is the Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo. He has done some very interesting things and has talked a lot about bringing faith and God into Brazil’s foreign policy—which I’m happy to talk about at more length. He is also a guy who has said that—basically that climate change is a Marxist conspiracy and has also complained about the supposed criminalization of red meat and heterosexual sex. So, you know, his position on this is clear. I think it’s the prevailing position among most of this government. And I think the consequences are likely to be—on this one, I think you can say, with good certainly, I think they’re likely to be severe.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from José Casanova.

CASANOVA: Yes. Thank you very much for the presentation.

You mentioned briefly the Catholics. Could you elaborate a bit more on the position of the Catholic Church on Bolsonaro, both before and after the election? Have they put out any statement, the National Conference of Bishops or any individual bishops, or other organized Catholic groups, the charismatics? Or can we say that Catholics have taken a position for or against Bolsonaro?

WINTER: It is not nearly as clear as it is with the evangelical pastors. I—n the case of the evangelicals, there are a couple prominent pastors. Silas Malafaia, who actually married Jair and his wife back in March of 2013, who repeatedly filmed videos for social media supporting Bolsonaro. Edir Macedo, who’s the leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, who filmed a video on Facebook supporting Bolsonaro. And then you also had another pastor, José Wellington Bezerra, the president of the Assembly of God, which is the largest evangelical congregation in the country, who said—you know, he said, of all the candidates—this was during the campaign. He said—and I find this quote really interesting. He said: Of all the candidates, he said, the only one who speaks the language of the evangelicals is Bolsonaro. We cannot allow the left to return to power.

And, you know, those statements, those individuals, it’s also striking that even though, again, evangelicals are not the majority in Brazil, and pale in comparison to the rank and file of the Catholic Church, I do not recall anyone from the Catholic Church coming out with that kind of certainty and urging their voters to take a position. And I might have—I might be wrong on that. But I don’t—I mean, again, in the public way that these guys explicitly did, I just don’t recall anything quite like that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from John Pawlikowski with the Catholic Theological Union.

PAWLIKOWSKI: Well, I’d like to follow up on this question of the role of the Catholic Church in this administration. How do you feel the Catholic Church will fare in the political context under such a government? And/or is there other splits in the Catholic community regarding this administration?

WINTER: Yeah. It’s a great question. I have many contacts who are involved with the Catholic Church in Brazil. I mean, look, everyone on this call knows that churches, like many other institutions, are not monoliths. That there are always internal debates. I mean, they’re a bit like governments in that respect too. I mean, we always talk about government in the singular, when anyone who’s ever been in one knows that we should talk about them in the plural, that there’s always internal debate.

I think that, you know, right now there’s a degree of unanimity around this president. And it’s not so much—you know, if we move beyond the evangelical church and its position in what you could call, and some have called, you know, Brazil’s version of the culture wars—there is just a very strong desire for someone, in this case Bolsonaro, to lead Brazil out of the mess that it’s been in for these last four-plus years. You have to remember how good things were in Brazil in the 2000s.

I imagine that everyone on this call remembers that Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014. It hosted the Olympics in 2016. Prior to that, there had been a long run of economic growth that not only caused the economy to grow, but also caused about 35 million people to come out of poverty and into the middle class. And it was a period that really in some ways transformed the country and raised expectations. And then for them to have had a crisis of the severity that they have in the last couple years has been devastating.

There’s also an element that’s true of Brazilian political culture that is similar to a way that things used to be in the United States. We didn’t see it with this president, but, you know, typically Brazilian presidents start in office with about 70 or 80 percent approval ratings. And that has been the case with Bolsonaro as well. There was a poll that came out a couple weeks ago that showed that about—if I’m not mistaken—about 70 percent of the country supported him, about 10 percent said that they—10 to 15 percent said that they really didn’t know what to think, and only about 15 percent of the country said that they were against him—15 percent. So that inevitably will grow just because that’s the way politics goes. And Brazil, as they make decisions and things happen and maybe people end up being disappointed, then I think it’s safe to expect that his approval rating will fall. But for now, you know, there is a real desire to, you know—you hear people say things like let’s give the guy a chance, let’s let him work, it’ll be good for the country, it’ll be good for Brazil if he succeeds.

If I can just briefly say, you know, what the clouds on the horizon are, what are the things that might drive them apart, they’ve got a real—the government’s got a real decision to make in terms of what it’s going to prioritize. And to oversimplify a bit, they’ve got a broken economy or an economy, let’s say, that still has a lot of problems. They have this terrible crime problem. And they also have what let’s call social issues.

And you really—governing is about priorities. And they’re not going to be able to do all three, they’re just not. They’re going to have to choose which is more important. And if they really make the economic stuff, which includes things like social security reform, tax code simplification, privatizations, et cetera, if they prioritize those things, then that might alienate some within the religious community who want to see them make progress and really talk a lot about things like gender ideology, which has, you know, been one of the Bolsonaro government’s big causes. So there’s all kinds of clouds out there on the horizon.

Another one is a corruption scandal that has already—and I’m shaking my head as I say this—that has already erupted involving one of the president’s sons. So, you know, things get complicated once you get in office and there is—there is all kind of things that might take this moment of unity that we’re seeing right now and cause it to splinter.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes Bishop John Chane, Washington National Cathedral.

CHANE: Yes. Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Mr. Winter. This is really a fascinating conversation.

I wanted to ask you two questions—or one question and then an observation about the economy. Is it not true that the interior minister, if that would be his position, called a cooling-off period of, what, ninety days between the government and NGOs that are currently working in Brazil, have been there for some time, especially those that have been working in dealing with the issues regarding the rainforest in particular, but also the increase in agricultural output of the country? If in fact this—if this government is so anti—the work of these NGOs, especially in the environmental realm, it’s very clear that significant millions and millions of dollars will more than likely be pulled out of the country that are working on just those issues. So that’s a big concern. And I know you’ve already addressed the position of the government sort of being a little hazy on it, but not being very friendly to the issues of the rainforest in particular.

The other is that the economy globally is slowing down. And it—and it presents itself as an issue that every government’s going to have to deal with. And so you’ve got the sovereign debt, which is a big issue, and I know that Brazil is just starting to emerge out of its recession. But it would seem to me that Brazil would be extremely fragile if the slowdown continues and if sovereign debt rises and if the United States continues to play out its behavior both from a presidential point of view and its sense of withdrawing from the global community in a variety of different ways. It would put Brazil in a very vulnerable position, at least from my limited perspective.

So I’d like to hear your position on that as well as the NGOs that are currently working very, very diligently in Brazil.

WINTER: What a great question and what great questions all of these are. What an informed, engaged group.

To talk first about the move on NGOs, this was one of the first things that the government did. And, you know, you talk about priorities. On, I believe, their second day in office, on January 2, Brazil’s government announced a move that would—I need to find that the language is right, I have it in front of me, hold on. Basically, it is a decree that allows the government to supervise, coordinate, and monitor international NGOs operating in Brazil.

And then also paired with this, the environment minister, the one who I said earlier, you know, basically said they don’t really care what international public opinion thinks, on the seventeenth of January suspended all partnerships and agreements with NGOs in the environmental sector. And what these are, as you referenced, bishop, these are NGOs, some of them funded by foreign governments—Norway is big in this space—that has helped with monitoring and with protecting some of these areas in a massive country—let’s remember that Brazil is actually larger than the continental United States—and in trying to ensure that some of these protections that prevent deforestation remain in place.

This is the same minister who has called global warming a “secondary issue” and has said that fines for environmental crimes are ideological. A Brazilian newspaper said that this decision “sounded like a declaration of war on NGOs dedicated to conservation.” So, you know, again, I think that there are areas of the Bolsonaro government that are more ambiguous; this is not one of them. This is an area where they know what they want to do and I don’t see a lot that’s going to stop them from moving forward.

As far as the economy slowing down, you know, just a brief comment on this. It’s true that a global economic slowdown led by the United States and China, which, of course, is Brazil’s biggest trading partner—and those of you who follow economies closely may have seen that China downgraded its growth expectations yesterday to just 6 percent for this year, which will be its lowest in a very long time—none of these things are good for Brazil. But they also shouldn’t be overstated.

Brazil, you know, we think of as being this big exporter of commodities, which it is and it’s the number-one producer of soy and it’s a top two in iron ore and—what else—orange juice, and a whole list of commodities. But actually, trade accounts for a smaller percentage of Brazil’s economy than any other major economy in the Americas. If you take exports plus imports and divide it by GDP, it only amounts to about 26 percent. It’s much higher in places like Colombia, Argentina, Chile, which run from the 40s into the 60s.

Brazil, in many respects, is a lot like the United States in terms of the composition of its economy in that it’s a large consumer-spending-driven economy. So what that means is they’re probably less vulnerable to a slowdown than a lot of other countries are. Also, because of where they are in the business cycle, they’ve bottomed out, hopefully. I’d just say everything indicates that they’ve bottomed out. And, you know, inflation is very low, interest rates are also historically very low. That’s obviously good for consumer spending. And so, you know, you’re likely to see a continued sort of timid economic recovery in 2019. The IMF’s latest forecast is for 2.5 percent GDP growth for Brazil.

And, yeah, I mean, look, they’re part of the world, so they’ll get—you know, if we go into recession here in the U.S., that’s going to take a toll on that number. But they’re not as exposed as a lot of countries are.

And then, you know, you mentioned the relationship with the United States, which we really haven’t discussed yet. This foreign minister, who I mentioned earlier, and the president as well, they’re very keen, and I mean very keen, to bring Brazil closer in line with Washington and with the Trump administration in particular. The Bolsonaro family loves Donald Trump so much so that when Jair Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, went to Washington last month to have meetings at the White House, State Department, and elsewhere, Eduardo actually walked out of the hotel wearing a Trump 2020 hat. That’s how much these guys want to be friends with Washington. And it’s actually created a bit of a—I don’t know that it’s a problem, but it’s a challenge for D.C. because, of course, you know, all of us—all of us armchair psychologists know at this point that an effective way to Trump’s heart is emulation. And Trump has said, I mean, Trump is on the record saying, hey, there’s this guy down in Brazil who they call the “Tropical Trump,” he wants to be like me, can you believe it?

But beyond, you know, the kind of I want to be your friend rhetoric, there’s a real question in Washington about what that will actually mean in practice. Does it mean increased cooperation on security? Does it mean trade? And everybody kind of their first answer is trade, but there is some skepticism, even within the administration, on whether Brazil is really, really prepared to do what it would take to enter into some sort of free trade negotiations. And, of course, there’s also questions about Washington’s willingness at a moment like this as well. So, you know, that’s one where the atmospherics of it are good, but, you know, we all know that foreign policy, you know, goes beyond just feelings. And nobody seems to really know yet what the real deliverable will be.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Susannah Tuttle with North Carolina Interfaith Power & Light.

TUTTLE: Hi. Thank you for your presentation.

And my question is about the universities. You said that in the election, those of the people that voted for Bolsonaro were between eighteen and twenty-two years old. Did the universities have a role in this election? Thank you.

WINTER: Well, thank you for that question. Yes. I mean, the earliest, strongest original support for Bolsonaro was in that eighteen to twenty-four segment. I wouldn’t call it, in the—in the case of Brazil—I mean, look, in the United States, only about a third of people go on to college. Right? And that number in Brazil is considerably lower. So, you know, I wouldn’t cast that as a university-driven phenomenon, per se. I think it was more of a youth—and I can come back to that—as to why people think the young people liked him so much.

But, you know, the universities themselves, actually, you know, writ large—and I am generalizing here—but writ large, universities were actually more enthusiastic for the Workers’ Party candidate in this election, Fernando Haddad, on the left, for the same—I mean, look, the political dynamics are broadly similar on Brazilian campuses to the way they are in the United States. They tend to be more left-leaning than society at large.

The interesting question is to move beyond the universities and ask the question, what was it young people saw in this guy so early that caused them to be such an early, enthusiastic base of support? One of them is the easy answer perhaps, is that the Bolsonaros, the family, they’re very good at social media. Not only are they good at it with the, you know, sort of values of authenticity and conviction in what they’re saying, things that we know play well in the social media space, that, you know, it’s not so much the policies that matter, it’s the degree of certitude that you have as you say them. I mean, this family conveys that quite well.

They also—I mean, just to tell a brief anecdote—when I did the profile of Jair Bolsonaro in October of 2017, I ended up spending about two hours in their congressional offices in Brazil. And I say they because Eduardo, his son, and Jair actually occupied side-by-side offices. And I sat there for two hours in a room with about eight or nine people, all of them were doing social media. OK? All of them were editing videos or sending out blasts on WhatsApp, which is the messaging service, and so on. There was no legislative work being done, which, you know, worked out for them. So that’s the easy answer.

The more interesting one—and somebody pointed out to me fairly early on, they said, you know, every generation rebels against the circumstances under which it grew up. And twenty-year-old kid grew up for fourteen of those years, the fourteen years they remember, under the Workers’ Party, under the Brazilian left. And so rebelling against the establishment, rebelling against, you know, what we used to call in the United States, lashing out against “the man,” well, curiously, “the man” in Brazil was on the left. And so being antisystem for an entire generation of Brazilian youth has meant being on the right and lashing out against the establishment, which was leftist. And I find that a fascinating notion and it’s borne out in, you know, conversations that I’ve had with younger people who have basically said, you know, these people who ruin the country, we need to get rid of them and they were communists—which, as I’ve already said, they weren’t, but that’s kind of what’s taken hold in the public imagination. And so they’ve embraced, at least for now, they’ve embraced the right.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Satpal Singh, University of New York at Buffalo.

SINGH: Hi. Thanks for taking my question.

This discussion on the role of faith-based sentiments in elections in light of governments that may not be much sympathetic to democratic values, not only in Brazil, but also at some other places, raises a larger question in mind. And that is, on a global level, does one find a correlation in the strength of one’s religious feelings or community and their attitude towards democracy? For example, those who are passionately religious, are the left concerned about democratic process than the religious values or the other way around?

WINTER: That’s a good and difficult question. And I’m hesitant to answer it because I’m not a global specialist. I, you know, I’m a Latin America guy who specializes in Brazil.

As a—given my own faith, I really would hesitate to draw any correlation between, one, the strength of one’s faith and one’s opposition to democracy. I don’t—you know, maybe that’s wishful thinking. My experience in Brazil and elsewhere around Latin America has been that the rejection that people feel towards democracy is kind of sui generis in the sense that it’s based on the Brazilian experience of the last few years, not based on people’s religious beliefs, per se.

I mean, basically, the narrative that people have adhered to, the stories that people tell, is that we, you know, that the country collapsed, it was a moral, economic, and security collapse, and I want the problem solved, and I don’t really care about the system under which it’s going to be done. The people’s basic needs, they want them attended to.

I think to the extent that there’s a religious correlation, it’s the people who believe that the collapse, that the economic collapse was wrapped up with a leftist government that also was somehow godless and did not, you know, did not have the right policies on things like gender and LGBT and so on. I think people have conflated those things.

But I—that’s a good question. I mean, again, I would revert to my original statement, which somebody who studies those things more globally perhaps would be—would be—could give you a more scientific answer that’s rooted in polling, as I’ve tried to do on some of these other things. What I’ve just said is kind of more anecdotal.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Charlie Goessler from Abiding Place Christian Fellowship.

GOESSLER: Thank you for this informative discussion. Is there any indication how severe his reactions might be to political opponents? And is there the potential for a human rights crisis?

WINTER: Yes. Yeah. I mean, we have we have quite a lot of evidence on this, right? I mean, Bolsonaro has been, over the years, has just been unforgiving in terms of his stance on political opponents.

And just—and, you know, look, I’ve steered away in this whole call—just as a parenthesis on this—from reading you a list of the most controversial things that he’s said over the years about LGBT, about democracy, about criminals, and so on, in part because I’ve found that most audiences are already aware of these. And I’ve been able to kind of add value by not dwelling on these things. But my intention is not to whitewash them. And certainly on this topic, it gives me an opportunity to play a few of his greatest hits.

You know, over the years he’s repeatedly called for Congress to be closed. He said that the last military government’s biggest mistake was to torture instead of kill. And he said back in 1999—which, granted, was twenty years ago—he said that if elected president he would “start a dictatorship” right away. More recently, he’s vowed to stack the Supreme Court with sympathetic judges.

Now, again, as he drew closer to the election, some of this softened, but he also, in talking about leftists, he said that we’re going to do the greatest cleanup that this country—I’m sorry, the greatest cleansing that this country has ever seen. Now, there’s some—and again, just being honest here—there’s some ambiguity about when he talked about cleansing, which is a word that sets off alarm bells for obvious reasons. It’s possible that what he was talking about was convicts, right, people who have—corrupt people who have been convicted of crimes as opposed to leftists, per se. But, you know, he’s been unyielding in terms of the way that he’s talked about opponents over the years.

It’s also true that, you know, our president in the United States has used comparable rhetoric, especially during the 2016 campaign. And I’ve had Bolsonaro supporters tell me, oh, well, you know, those are just figures of speech, that’s how you get elected in our modern times. And now that he’s in office, of course he knows, of course he knows that he can’t, you know, persecute his political opponents just because they oppose him, and of course he believes in freedom of the press and separation of powers and so on.

I have the old-fashioned belief that you should take people at their word. And his words on this subject was consistent over the years. And, you know, I mean, again—and it lies at the base of his popularity. One of the big moments that catapulted Bolsonaro into the public eye was when the Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff was being impeached in 2016 and Jair Bolsonaro dedicated his impeachment vote to the military colonel who oversaw the torture of leftists like Dilma Rousseff during the 1970s. And, you know, it was one of those classic moments of our—of our era where polite society and the media expressed horror and Bolsonaro’s approval ratings went up and people started paying more attention to him.

There was actually, in doing some research for this call today, I found a university professor in Brazil, who’s an expert on evangelical issues, who said that Bolsonaro’s popularity among the evangelical community began to soar when he was spit at by another legislator, a guy named Jean Wyllys, who is gay, and that this polarization, getting in this confrontation with this gay congressman was part of what made Jair Bolsonaro come to the public eye for the evangelical community in particular.

So, you know, in that sense, Brazil is polarized. And again, going back to what I was saying earlier, a guy with an approval rating in the seventies in front of a population that doesn’t really care so much about the system, that just wants law and order, wants to crack down on corruption, you know, I think, to some extent, he’s going to be able to do what he wants.

And those of us who care about things like independent institutions and minority rights and democracy are going to be watching really closely.

FASKIANOS: And I’m going to try to squeeze in one last question. And my apologies to those and not getting to all of your questions. So then we’ll give the last word to Tom Walsh.

WALSH: I’m still here. I’ll make it short.

Great session, great topic. Just maybe I’ll just briefly say—there’s a lot I could say—but is there resurgent nationalism? And we’re talking about democracy and the state it’s in and the rise of authoritarianism. Is there a resurgent sense of nationalism as we’re finding really going on globally?

WINTER: Yeah. You know, sometimes—I missed out on an opportunity to tell you what his campaign slogan was because it kind of encapsulates all of this. His campaign slogan was “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.” So, you know, nationalism and faith—forgive me for sort of saving that for the very final question of the call—but, you know, campaign slogans and marketing brands can tell you a lot. And nationalism is very much part of his appeal.

One of the sort of signatures of his rallies was that while the Workers’ Party candidate, you know, that is traditionally a party that wears red, for obvious reasons, and at rallies for Bolsonaro it was green, yellow, and blue, which are the colors of the Brazilian flag.

And, you know, I don’t want to misrepresent that as being something completely new. Brazil has, at least in recent history, it is a quite nationalistic country by Latin American standards. I mean, you know, people tend to sort of wave flags and fly them to a greater extent than the other Latin American countries that I’ve lived in, which are Argentina and Mexico. You know, it’s a very patriotic place. But it’s clear that Bolsonaro has exploited that. And I say exploited as if it were negative. It’s what’s been effective. And again, he’s done that to a greater extent than the previous several candidates did.

WALSH: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Well, with that, we need to close this session. But, Brian Winter, thank you very much for a terrific hour, sharing your insights and analysis with us. We really appreciate it. And to all of you for your excellent questions and comments.

WINTER: Yeah, what a great group. And I wish I had been able to answer more questions. I’m sorry if I went on a bit too long, but they were great questions. And, look, it’s a really important country, it’s the world’s fifth-biggest country, one of its largest democracies, important for not only environmental reasons, but because of the role of the various churches there. And I think it’s going to merit all of our attention here in the next months and years.

So thank you all for your interest and for being a part of the call.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. And we hope that you will all follow Brian Winter’s work at Americas Society / Council of the Americas. And you can follow him on Twitter @BrazilBrian. So we’ll continue to watch and read what you’re saying, Brian.

And we also hope you’ll follow us at CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter @CFR_Religion for announcements of upcoming events, conference calls, and information about other resources that can be helpful. You can also as always email us at [email protected] with suggestions on future calls or topics and speakers.

So thank you all again. Thank you, Brian Winter. And we look forward to your continued participation.

WINTER: Thank you.


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