Brazil's new political identity

Brazil’s social and economic achievement during President Lula’s period in office is the foundation of its rising international status. But to ensure its future Brazil needs to pass two major tests, says Arthur Ituassu.
Arthur Ituassu
2 November 2009

A number of events has projected Brazil into the headlines of international news, besides the traditional stories about violence, natural catastrophes or environmental issues. Behind this news-buzz is a deeper sense of the giant Latin American country as having in some elusive but unmistakable way "arrived" as a global player. The emblematic example of the country's new status is probably the small exchange between two presidents that took place on the sidelines of the "Group of Twenty" (G20) summit in London on 2 April 2009, when Barack Obama called his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva the "most popular politician on earth". Obama went on to shake hands with Lula, saying: "My man right here. I love this guy".

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His website is here

Among Arthur Ituassu's many articles on Brazil in openDemocracy:

"Brazil: never the same again" (3 October 2005)

"Violence in Brazil: all are targets, all are guilty" (16 May 2006)

"Brazil at the crossroads" (14 August 2006)

"The green and yellow phoenix" (28 September 2006)

"Brazil, let's talk" (3 October 2006)

"Welcome to politics, Brazil" (1 November 2006)

"Brazil: the moral challenge" (18 April 2007)

"Tropa de Elite: Brazil's dark sensation" (2 November 2007)

"Under one roof: a Brazilian in Goa" (13 March 2008)

"China's Olympics: a view from Brazil" (11 August 2008)

"Brazil: democracy as balance" (15 November 2008)

"Mr Lula in Washington...and politics in Brazil" (16 March 2009)

"The price of democracy in Brazil" (21 May 2009)

"Brazil, the United States and Chile: military ghosts" (21 August 2009)

In foreign policy, the key single incident that probably demonstrated Brazil's changing reputation took place on 21 September 2009, when after three months of exile the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was found to have returned to the country and been given refuge inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. This initiative by Brazil represented a radical break with the country's traditional opposition to any intervention in a country's internal affairs without strong sanction from the international community.

Brazil will host football's world cup in 2014, and Rio de Janeiro was on 2 October 2009 named as the victor of the competition to host the Olympic games in 2016. President Lula - whose second term ends after the presidential election of October 2010 - is feted across the world, but unlike other leaders of whom this can be said, he also remains popular at home: more than 70% of Brazilians approve of his performance. This degree of support is underpinned by admiration for a person who learned to read only when he was 10 years old, worked as a lathe-operator, and lost three presidential elections (in 1989, 1994 and 1998) on his way to the presidency; but it also reflects the way that Lula has become a strong symbol of Brazilian democracy itself.

Brazil has also impressed much of the world with its fast and strong recovery from the effects of the global economic crisis. The Brazilian stock-market is booming (there has been an 130% average increase since the worst moment of the crisis: analysts predict a 5% growth in GDP in 2010; employment levels are again increasing; and Brasília's worries are no longer about recession but concern inflation, interest-rates and rapid currency-appreciation.

As if all this good news were not enough, Brazil's state-controlled oil company Petrobrás is still celebrating the two huge, offshore, deep-water oilfields it discovered in 2008: Tupi and Jupiter. This enormous natural resource - along with the large-scale domestic production of ethanol, and the advanced national technologies available for the use of biodiesel - guarantees the country's future role as a leading global-energy supplier.

For all these reasons and others, many people inside and outside Brazil are with great enthusiasm acclaiming the country as an emerging global leader destined to play an increasingly strong role in the international arena. This view, however, must be balanced by a focus on two major (and connected) challenges that lie ahead of Brasília:

* the responsibility to build a much more egalitarian society

* the temptation to use nationalism abroad to mask internal failures.

The achievement

The credit for the positive outcomes is shared by others as well as Lula himself. The Real plan - a major programme for economic stabilisation, introduced in 1994 - was the responsibility of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in his successive roles as Brazil's finance minister (1993-94) and two-term president (1995- 2003). The policies Cardoso implemented in healthcare and basic education, themselves managed by then ministers Paulo Renato de Souza and José Serra, consolidated a structure that made it possible for Lula's approach to prosper. At the same time, Lula's own contribution to and role in Brazil's current relative success is absolutely important. This is especially clear in two ares: guaranteeing institutional political stability, and strengthening "social politics" within the Brazilian state.

This indeed is the Lula government's very best achievement since his election in 2002: that is, managing and maintaining the political process as something that slowly makes the government work for the people in a democratic way (see "The price of democracy in Brazil", 21 May 2009). In the context of Brazil's history of institutional and political instability - and of the wave of major corruption scandals that engulfed the political class (including aides and allies of the president) in 2005 - this is a real advance (see "A big mess in Brazil", 16 June 2005).

It must be remembered, after all, Brazil returned to full democracy only in 1989, four years after the fall of a military dictatorship that had lasted for two decades. The first president elected in the new era was impeached (Fernando Collor de Mello), and the second changed the constitution so that he could serve another term in office (Fernando Henrique Cardoso). 

Lula has resisted the temptation to use the Brazilian constitution as a vehicle to extend his rule to a third term, even though some in Brazil suggested and pressed for that. It is a technique now regrettably being employed by the leaders of many of the region's republics (among them Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and Nicaragua; and it triggered the political crisis in Honduras following the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya).

Lula has also implemented important and much-needed social policies that have changed the country. During his period in office, 2 million households received electrical power for the first time; 11 million very poor families began to receive the Bolsa Família minimum-income benefit; the minimum wage grew 45% in real terms (thus benefiting 42 million people); 8 million registered jobs were created; 17 million people were lifted out of poverty; and the income of the poorest 50% of the country grew 32%, twice the increase of the richest 10%.

All this amounts to a process of transformation within a democratic environment. In turn it generates a political virtuous-cycle that strengthens institutional stability and social capital; maps a course to Brazilian prosperity; and highlights the value of solid institutional checks and balances, a strong opposition role, and a positive alternation of power.

This context greatly differentiates Brazil from other countries in Latin America, including those whose leaders have charted a more self-consciously more "radical" path. In demonstrating that it is possible to redress inherited social and economic injustices by democratic means, it puts Brasília in the political forefront of the region.

The work ahead

Brazil still faces huge tests, revealed in some of the less human-development indices. The combination of widespread poverty in a very unequal society (the seventh most in the world)  and social violence persists. Even in 2009, 64% of households in Brazil do not have electricity and sanitation; only 22% possess the full range of six modern facilities - electricity, telephone, computer, fridge, TV and washing machine (and in Brazil's poorest regions, the north and northeast, these numbers are 8.6% and 8.3%). The educational statistics are equally stark: almost 37% of Brazilians between 18 and 24 years old did not finish high school, and only half of those above 25 had more than eight years of study.

Moreover, the degree of prosperity and of leadership in the international arena that Brazil has achieved brings with it great responsibilities. It is natural to worry here about a degree of "Orwellian" confusion between patriotism and nationalism in today's Brazil; an issue most visible in the ambiguous social and political role of sport. Brazil's rising status has also led to a subtle competition in the Americas between Washington and Brasília (notwithstanding the relationship between the two presidents). There are serious strategic differences over trade, with the United States seeking to clinch as many free-trade agreements in the region as possible and Brazil favouring the expansion of the Mercosul/Mercosur customs union. The rivalry is also exemplified in Brazil's active policy in the Honduras affair; in Venezuela's "entry" to the Brazilian bloc; and in Brazil's leadership of the United Nations mission in Haiti. These are indeed interlinked elements of a broad pattern.

If Brazil is to sustain its upward path, it must prioritise domestic social and economic inequality and avoid any nationalist adventures in the foreign arena. In this light, the goal of building an egalitarian, free and democratic society that respects and works with international institutions is more essential than ever.


Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Brazil:

Camilla Bustani, "The challenges to Lula's revolution" (16 January 2003)

Marco Aurélio Garcia, "Brazilian future" (16 July 2003)

Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, "Brazil and the United States: from dependency to equality" (20 November 2003)

Hilary Wainwright, "No end: the crisis of Brazil's Workers' Party" (26 September 2005)

Sue Branford, "Brazil's historic test" (18 June 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Lula de novo: a letter from Brazil" (21 September 2006)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "Brazil in the world: principle and practice" (19 January 2007)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "Brazil, the United States and ethanol" (29 March 2007)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "Benedict XVI in Brazil: raising the Catholic flag" (8 May 2007)

Sue Branford, "Brazil's Amazonian choice" (19 May 2008)

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData