Bolsonaro and the Far Right’s Arrival in South America

Bolsonaro and the Far Right’s Arrival in South America


In modern day studies of geopolitics and international relations, South America unfortunately lingers on the global backburner in comparison to regions such as Eurasia and the Middle East/North Africa (MENA). After centuries of colonialism and imperialist control by Western nations, many perceive South America as an underdeveloped continent with little political power.  This belief stems from racist rhetoric and inaccurate assumptions. While many countries within South America are not considered “developed” in the eyes of the Western world, this is due to years of political and economic destabilization by the west. Perhaps this very history of Western meddling provided the right conditions for a growing far-right movement, which has steadily been gaining traction in several South American countries. At the end of October 2018, Brazil, South America’s most populous country, elected the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro as president. Believers in democracy and human rights defenders alike were shocked and dismayed in his election, and fear for the changes that Bolsonaro will inevitably bring to the continent, and their lasting implications on relationships with other countries and the geopolitical balance.

Political History and Legacy of Brazil

Brazil, unlike the majority of South America, was claimed as a Portuguese colony from 1500 until its independence in 1822. One of Brazil’s most distinguishing sociopolitical features is its long established  history with slavery. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Brazil was noteworthy for having brought over more African slaves than would ever reach North America; in total, Brazil imported half of all the slaves that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery, in 1888, more than two decades after the United States did. The social repercussions of the slave trade meant that Brazil became a heavily ethnically mixed nation, with significant intermingling of African, indigenous, and Portuguese populations. While it may expected that a sizable mixed race population would foster societal equality and tolerance, to this day Brazil remains a deeply unequal society, especially in regards to the intersections of race and socioeconomic status. The roots of Brazil’s unequal society largely stem from a failure to restructure society post-slavery. Freed slaves were left without land, money, or education, and centuries later millions of their descendants continue living with these same circumstances. In the modern day, Afro-Brazilians make up two thirds of the 60,000 annual victims of crime and two thirds of the prison population. After the eradication of slavery, Afro-Brazilians often still worked in modern forms of slavery, which was not outlawed until 1995. Contemporaneously, most instances of modern slavery and forced labor occur in rural areas, often in industries tied to environmental destruction, such as the logging industry. In 2016, the Global Slavery Index estimated that there were over 300,000 people in conditions of modern slavery on any given day.

In addition to the brutal and bloody legacy of Brazil’s slave trade, corruption also plays a large role in Brazil’s political history from colony to present day. Like many other South American countries in the 20th century, a military dictatorship ruled Brazil from 1930 to 1945. After less than two decades of democracy following 1945, the military once again intervened in 1964, overthrowing the leftist Goulart administration, and established Castelo Branco as the newest dictator.  Following Branco’s regime, military governments ruled Brazil until 1985, and the country had its first democratic presidential elections in 1989. In the 21st century, Brazil’s many presidential administrations were marred by corruption and scandal, and a growing distrust in the Worker’s Party which had been in power for several decades. Both “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Vana Rousseff were criticized for reckless spending and corruption during their respective administrations. However, under these Workers’ Party-backed administrations, the government made combating and assuaging hunger and poverty one of their top priorities. On a social level, Brazil’s rural vs urban struggles also take on another dimension when considering the debate regarding the use of natural resources and sustainability. In present day, there exists little to no data on peoples living in the Amazon rainforest and little regard for their residency in the region.

Brazil’s society, like many around the world, found itself at a crossroads during its most recent election, with its people divided between leftist and right-wing movements. The left wing of Brazil’s politics has become fragile, weakened by widespread corruption, while the right came out as the party of reason, calling for the restoration of order at any cost. With Bolsonaro’s recent election, Brazil is waiting to see just how high the cost of order will be.

Bolsonaro’s Rise and Popularity

After suffering the frustration and betrayal of several leftist governments ending with corruption charges, a 2016 poll found that Brazilian society as a whole had become more conservative, with 54% of the respondents shifting their social and justice beliefs to the right. As a whole, this has been accompanied by a growing movement of conservative Christianity, both in the public sphere and in the national legislature. Later during the same election cycle, public-opinion polls demonstrated that one in three Brazilians would look favorably upon a military intervention to oust the leftist government. It is important to know these facts in order to properly contextualize the environment in which Bolsonaro’s administration was born.

Jair Bolsonaro is a figure that is mostly known to the Western world as a “tropical Trump.” In actuality, Bolsonaro’s political history and infamously controversial statements may prove him to be a much larger threat to democracy in the Southern cone. Bolsonaro rose in the public consciousness by serving as a seven-term congressman after his military career. During his congressional tenure, Bolsonaro became known as a hardlined believer in law and order, and for some of his more inflammatory statements. Beginning with Brazil’s military and dictatorial history, Bolsonaro gained attention for saying in 1999 that he believed the dictatorship should have killed 30,000 more people. Additionally, Bolsonaro became known for several misogynistic, homophobic, and racist statements, over the course of several years. Since the beginnings of his political career, Bolsonaro has established himself as an extreme member of the conservative party, with many cautioning his neo-fascist ideas.

Once Bolsonaro publically entered the presidential race, he advertised himself as the candidate who would defend democracy and uphold the constitution. To help him achieve these goals, Bolsonaro promised his policies would focus on relaxing gun laws, reducing state involvement in the economy, and leaving the 2015 Paris Agreement. Bolsonaro entered the race as the candidate of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), an anti-establishment party known for their combination of social conservatism and pro-market policies. Bolsonaro’s running mate, Mourãu, hinted that Bolsonaro’s administration would go as far as to redraft the 1988 constitution, taking away representative input, in order to stack the Supreme Court. One of Bolsonaro’s key campaign promises was to help address the growing violence in Brazil. Unlike most countries, Brazil’s biggest threat to national security is not terrorism, but the heavily growing homicide rate within cities, especially in the favelas. In 2017 alone, Brazil broke its own homicide record, with a 3% uptick in murders, resulting in the murder of 63,880 people. Bolsonaro promised to face security issues with no-nonsense iron fist policies, such as relaxing gun control laws, allowing police more freedom to use violent tactics, and employing military forces to occupy the notoriously violent favelas. In Brazil, the drug trade and the resulting war against drugs further contributed to a nation-wide increase in violence.

Bolsonaro’s supporters mainly come from the more conservative members of society, as well as those who have felt betrayed by the Workers Party (PT), including the middle class, small business owners, independent professionals, members of the police, and armed forces. While some poorer populations were motivated to support Bolsonaro due to the worsening public security situation, the majority of Bolsonaro’s supporters are the rich and educated-- members of society whose voices are seldom silenced. Many members of Brazil’s upper-middle classes and elite have been fueled by class hatred, aimed at the PT. Echoing the dictatorial roots of Chile, Bolsonaro’s chief economic advisor (also hailing from the University of Chicago) promises to focus on privatization, a policy very popular with financial markets as well as media representatives. Many political analysts have cautioned that much of Bolsonaro’s rise to power has followed traditional steps towards establishing a fascist regime; Bolsonaro has threatened political opponents, activists, and labeled leftist organizations as terrorist organizations.

Spread of Far Right Movements in a Post-Trump World

In a post-2016-election world, it has seemed like there has been an outcropping of far-right movements all over the Western world. In the last decade, new right-wing movements have combined neo-Nazi groups with traditional free-market conservatives. Under the Trump administration, right-wing political rhetoric, often stemming from the president himself, has begun to normalize these ideologies. In Western Europe, this same rise in right-wing thought is not necessarily attributed to the working-class’s response to the economic state, rather, according to Liz Fekete, it stems from reactionary prejudice surrounding the war on terror, and its resulting increase in refugee presence. In the last decade, Europe has experienced several stunning terror attacks, from the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices to last year’s attack on an Ariana Grande concert. These attacks, often attributed to young people of color, have led to a distrust in the growing immigrant population, and a resurgence of xenophobic and islamophobic attitudes. In many European countries, the uptick in immigrant populations has led to stricter policies, including media censorship and frequent raids on left-wing organizations. The purported stress on welfare states  brought on by an increase in immigration into Europe left many joining right-wing thinkers in criticizing the policies and norms as laid out by socialist states. As with the United States’ 2016 election, many who voted for right-wing parties did so out of frustration with the leftist parties and their governments.

Bolsonaro’s election is not only notable within the context of its impact in Brazil, but also the entire continent. His election seems to mark the arrival of the far-right wave into the Southern cone, after its spread to countries like Germany, France, and Sweden. Bolsonaro’s far right policies have two simultaneous effects: threatening Western-established democracy and following the Western neoliberal order. However, for some, fascism spells good business. Some Canadian and American businesses suggested that Bolsonaro’s presidency creates good business opportunities within the resource, finance, and infrastructure sectors.  As outlined in his campaign promises, Bolsonaro has promised to considerably weaken environmental regulations in the Amazon and also privatize government-owned companies. While Bolsonaro’s administration presents a threat to democracy throughout South America, for many Western nations, fascism pairs nicely with neoliberalist economic policies.


Bolsonaro’s election was met with strong emotions from members of Brazil’s left and right wings. Throughout Brazil’s recent election cycle, Bolsonaro quickly gained notoriety for his offensive statements involving women, the LGBTQ+ population, and Afro-brazilians. Since its very inception, Brazil has been a socioeconomically unequal society, with racial and class tensions existing to this day. Brazil’s swing to the right is due in part to the population’s disappointment in the Worker’s Party, but also has much to do with rising inequality and violence in the country. Bolsonaro’s election means Brazil now joined the ranks of the United States, Hungary, and the Philippines in its election of a right-wing populist leader. Based on Bolsonaro’s campaign rhetoric, Brazil’s newest president exhibits a commitment to erase what the left-wing sees as years of progress towards a more democratic and socialist society. Analysts concerned with human rights within South America argue that Bolsonaro’s administration poses a great threat to democracy within South America, as well as human rights concerns for Brazil’s indigenous populations. The world will see if these fears manifest into reality when Bolsonaro takes power beginning in January of 2019.

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