Jair Bolsonaro isn’t the only reason his country is in a ditch

HOSPITALS ARE full, the favelas echo with gunfire and a record 14.7% of workers are unemployed. Incredibly, Brazil’s economy is smaller now than it was in 2011 and it will take many strong quarters like the one announced on June 1 to repair its reputation. Brazil’s death toll from covid-19 is one of the worst in the world. President Jair Bolsonaro jokes that vaccines could turn people into crocodiles.

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Brazil’s decline has been incredibly rapid. After the military dictatorship of 1964-85, the country obtained a new constitution that sent the army back to barracks, a new currency that ended hyperinflation and social programs that, along with a commodity boom, have started to reduce poverty and inequality. Ten years ago, the country was teeming with oil money and won the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. It looked destined to prosper.

Brazil did not seize the opportunity. As our special report this week indicates, back-to-back governments have made three mistakes. First, they gave in to short-termism and postponed liberal economic reforms. The fault lies mainly with the Left Workers Party, in power in 2003-16. She oversaw growth of 4% per year but did not invest to increase productivity. When commodity prices fell, Brazil faced one of the worst recessions in its history. The governments of Michel Temer and Mr. Bolsonaro made some progress on reform, but stalled well short of what was necessary.

Second, in their efforts to shield themselves from the fallout from Lava Jato, a massive anti-corruption probe, politicians have resisted reforms that would curb corruption. The prosecutors and judges behind Lava Jato are partly to blame. After some turned out to have a political agenda, their investigation bogged down in Congress and the courts.

Finally, Brazil’s political system is a cornerstone. State-sized districts and 30 congressional parties make elections expensive. Even more than in other countries, politicians tend to support projects that win votes rather than long-term reform worthy of the name. Once in power, they stick to the flawed rules that got them elected. They enjoy legal privileges that make them difficult to prosecute, and a huge amount of money to help them retain power. As a result, Brazilians despise them. In 2018, only 3% said they trusted Congress “a lot”.

Disillusionment paved the way for Mr. Bolsonaro. A former army captain with a soft spot for dictatorship, he convinced voters to view his politically incorrect as a mark of authenticity. He is committed to purging corrupt politicians, cracking down on crime and boosting the economy. He failed on all three points.

After having voted for an overhaul of pensions in 2019, he abandoned the agenda of his liberal economy minister, fearing that it would cost votes. Tax and public sector reform and privatizations have stalled. Cash donations helped fight poverty at the start of the pandemic, but were reduced at the end of 2020 due to rising debt. The rate of deforestation in the Amazon has climbed by more than 40% since he took office. He took a chainsaw to the Ministry of the Environment, slashing his budget and ousting staff. Its Minister of the Environment is under investigation for timber trafficking.

On covid-19, Mr Bolsonaro has supported anti-containment rallies and quack cures. He sent planes full of hydroxychloroquine to native tribes. For six months, he ignored vaccine offers. One study found that the delay may have claimed the lives of 95,000 people.

Rather than tackling corruption, he protected his allies. In April 2020, he sacked the federal police chief, who is investigating his sons for corruption. His justice minister resigned, accusing him of obstructing justice. A few days earlier, Mr. Bolsonaro had threatened the independence of the Supreme Court. In February, its attorney general shut down the Lava Jato task force.

Brazilian democracy is more fragile than at any time since the end of the dictatorship. In March, Bolsonaro sacked the defense minister, who reportedly refused to send the army to the streets to force the reopening of businesses. If he loses his re-election in 2022, some believe he might not accept the result. He questioned electronic voting, passed decrees to “arm the public” and boasted that “only God” will dismiss him.

In fact, the Brazilian Congress could do the job without divine intervention. His conduct can likely be characterized as impeachable, including “crimes of responsibility” such as urging people to defy blockages, ignore vaccine offers and fire officials to protect his sons. Congress received 118 impeachment petitions. Tens of thousands of people gathered on May 29 to demand his deportation.

For now, he has enough support in Congress to block impeachment. In addition, the vice-president, who would take over, is a general also nostalgic for the military regime. The last time Congress impeached a president, Dilma Rousseff in 2016, for hiding the size of the budget deficit, it divided the country. Mr. Bolsonaro would present himself as a martyr. Many of his supporters are armed.

In the long run, in addition to replacing Mr Bolsonaro, Brazil must face the cynicism and desperation that made him elect, fighting chronic low growth and inequality. This will require radical reform. Yet the very resilience that has protected Brazilian institutions from the predations of a populist also makes them resistant to beneficial change.

The actions required are formidable. Above all, government must serve the public rather than itself. This means reducing the privileges of public sector workers, who consume an unsustainable share of public spending. Politicians should not spare themselves either. Office holders should have fewer legal protections. They should shake up electoral and partisan systems to bring new blood to Congress.

The next government must fight corruption without bias, limit unnecessary spending and boost competitiveness. A crackdown in the Amazon should go hand in hand with economic alternatives to deforestation. Otherwise, sooner or later new Bolsonaros will emerge.

A long journey ahead

Unless Mr Bolsonaro is impeached, Brazil’s fate will likely be decided by voters next year. Its rivals should offer solutions rather than peddle nostalgia. His successor will inherit a damaged and divided country. Unfortunately, rot goes much deeper than one man.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Brazil’s Dark Decade”

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