Brazilian OGlobo newspaper front page on April 2, 1964., the day after the military coup. The headline reads: "Democracy returns".
Brazilian society supported the military coup of 1964.
The media claimed that the intervention was necessary to stop a coup by President João Goulart. The fears may or may not have founded. Since Goulart did not attempt to carry one out, we will never know. What we do know is that Brazilian society allowed the military to intervene, calling it a necessary tactic to protect its beloved democracy, and the result was 21 years of dictatorship.
“Democracy returns!” announced a headline on the front page of the newspaper O Globo, one of the country’s most important outlets. “The nation is living glorious days,” continued the article printed on April 2, 1964, a day after the new government was instated. “That’s thanks to all the patriots, regardless of political affiliations and opinions about isolated problems, that banded together to save what is essential: Democracy, law, and order.”
Fast forward 54 years and the scenario is strikingly similar. Brazilians on both sides of the political spectrum are fighting in the name of democracy, even though one is clearly not.
O Globo was far from the being the only one. The publication was accompanied by O Estado de S.Paulo, Folha de S. Paulo, Jornal do Brasil, and Correio da Manhã, to mention a few. The majority of Brazilians was celebrating, as made evident by the rallies and marches that took place in all major cities.
Fast forward 54 years and the scenario is strikingly similar. Brazilians on both sides of the political spectrum are fighting in the name of democracy, even though one is clearly not. Those supporting the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro claim that the 13 years of government under the leadership of the Workers’ Party (PT, for its Brazilian initials) have led Brazil into one of the worst economic crisis to ever hit the country. Joining Bolsonaro in the runoffs is Fernando Haddad, who also hails from PT, and would mark a fifth consecutive term in power for the party.
The argument could be made that another term in government would amount to a suspension of democracy. According to the Polish-American professor of political science Adam Przeworski, a true democracy is one that displays rotation of power, and another term for PT would mean that the party has retained power since 2003. However, Przeworski’s definition is hotly contested and his is far from being the only — or even the most used — definition of democracy in academic circles.
Today’s economic scenario
With this being said, this fear of PT, as justified as it may be, only means Brazil is closer to 1964 than it likes to admit (or see). What the country is facing now is a scenario that involves two familiar sides. The Workers Party has led Brazil through times of bountiful harvest and times of sorrow.
Under PT, millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty, the income growth for low-wage earners (between 2001 and 2012, the income of the 5 percent poorest grew 550 percent faster than the 5 percent richest), and the country exhibited a decrease in inequality (from a GINI coefficient of 0.59 in 2001 to 0.53 in 2012).
But the party also led Brazil during a brutal economic recession that has become the one from which Brazil has struggled the hardest to recover. In 2015, the country exhibited a 3.5 percent growth, which plummeted to -3,6% in 2016, something the country had not experienced since 1990.
Out of the eight economic recessions that have hit Brazil since the 1980s, when the country returned to a democratic framework, the latest marks the time Brazil is experiencing the longest cycle of recovery.
The economic scenario in ‘64
The rapid industrialization of the mid-20th century transformed rural Brazil into a growing urban society. The number of industrial workers grew to 2.9 million in 1960, which more than doubled the 1940 level of 1.6 million. Industry now made up 25.2 percent of the GDP, surpassing that of agriculture with 22.5 percent.
But this industrialization also meant a quick and uncontrolled urbanization. By 1960, 44 percent of the 70 million Brazilians lived in urban areas. Inflation soared, rising from 12 percent in 1949 to 26 percent in 1959 and a shocking 39.5 percent in 1960, as did poverty, giving rise to the country’s infamous slums.
In this scenario, the economy was stumbling to sustain development. Savings depreciated, lenders refused to offer long-term loans, interest rates were through the roof, and the government refused to undertake programs modeled after those of the International Monetary Fund.
Also, inequality was growing, with 40 percent of national income going to 10 percent of the population, 36 percent going to the next 30 percent, and 24 percent being divided among the poorest 60 percent of Brazilians. Local governments had a hard time formulating an economic plan that would satisfy creditors and keep trade flowing at the same time.
Adding salt to injury, Brazil has also beat its own record for homicides, reaching 63,880 murders across the country in 2017, up 3 percent from the year before. Crimes associated with gangs are rampant, and the bulk of the victims are marginalized communities, who are rightfully angry. They have been left behind and have every right to be disappointed in the party that supposedly had their best interests at heart.
Bolsonaro has promised to arm the population so that citizens can protect themselves, even though studies have shown that more guns result is more violence, not the other way around.
Brazilian are hostages in their own neighborhoods and communities. They don’t feel secure walking the streets they grew up on. The only candidate who has offered a quick fix to their plea is Bolsonaro.
Unfortunately, his solution is not only unviable and misleading, it is also dangerous. Bolsonaro has promised to arm the population so that citizens can protect themselves, even though studies have shown that more guns result is more violence, not the other way around.
But all the disenfranchised populations hear is someone who speaks to them and sees their plight when the leftist parties have seemingly neglected them and abandoned them to the drug lords.
The PT failed as have the leftist social movements, which left a vacuum that progressively came to be occupied by rightist forces, particularly far-right forces, which know exactly how to turn real issues into incendiary lies to favor their cause.
The “communist” threat, 2018
If you have talked to a Bolsonaro supporter, you have heard the word “Venezuela” repeated like a mantra. If PT wins, Brazil will become the next Venezuela, they claim. The Brazilian far-right has engaged in a Quixote-esque fight against the Venezuelarization of Brazil.
Through “fake news” disseminated mainly via WhatsApp — for which Bolsonaro is being investigated — far-right enthusiasts have promoted the notion that the PT is equivalent to the Chavista government of its neighbor to the northwest, as the two were indeed associated in the 2000s.
This fear has even sparked talks of the return of communism. So much so that Haddad has chosen to forgo his party’s signature red, replacing it with the green, yellow and blue of the flag following a difficult first round. Every institution and person who criticizes Bolsonaro, or “The Myth” as his supporters call him, have been called “communist,” including well-known conservatives like The Economist, which called the far-right candidate “Latin America’s latest menace” in its September issue, and the political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama, known for his defense of liberal democracies and free market capitalism.
The fear of going down a similar path of Venezuela, with its 1.000.000 percent inflation and mass emigration, may not be entirely unfounded.
“A lot of Brazilians seem to think I'm a Communist because I'm worried about a Bolsonaro presidency. And you think Americans are polarized...” Fukuyama tweeted earlier this month.
The fear of going down a similar path of Venezuela, with its 1.000.000 percent inflation and mass emigration, may not be entirely unfounded. However, the candidate with the highest probability of carrying it out is not Haddad or the PT, but Bolsonaro himself. Like Hugo Chávez first and later Nicólas Maduro, Bolsonaro is a populist.
Despite falling on opposite sides of the political spectrum, the Brazilian populist shares more similarities with the the Chavists than his followers care to admit. Like Chávez, Bolsonaro is leading a campaign that criticizes the political system and attacks the so-called establishment.
This populist strategy, though effective at the polls, tends to lead to an institutional crisis, especially in Latin America, as history shows with the examples of Perón in Argentina, Fujimori in Peru and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
Crucially, Bolsonaro’s most striking similarity to Chávez is his link to the military.
But most crucially, Bolsonaro’s most striking similarity to Chávez is his link to the military. Bolsonaro, a former captain and paratrooper, has publicly referred to the military dictatorship as a "glorious" period in Brazil's history, and touted that the under the military dictatorship, Brazil enjoyed "20 years of order and progress."
In addition, for his running mate, Bolsonaro has chosen the retired Brazilian Army General Hamilton Mourão, who has already shown he isn’t afraid to confront Bolsonaro.
The “communist” threat, 1964
On the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis that marked the height of the Cold War, the world had been sharply divided into the communist Easter Bloc and the capitalist Western Bloc. Though Brazil was part of the so-called Third World, or non-aligned states, the tensions were also felt in Brazilian society, particularly the financial elite who used the “red threat” to sway votes in their interests.
The elite’s continued unwillingness to share the benefits of Brazil's wealth with the majority gave way to a crisis, which, by the early 1960s, was boiling in reverse, from the top down. Fearing a mass uprising, supposedly instigated by international communism, the elites, including the media, spread the fear that the leftist João Goulart was going to turn Brazil into Cuba.
The administration of Jânio Quadros (January-August 1961) and later João Goulart (1961-64) embraced the term povo (people) in reference to the rural poor, which produced the image of a growing proletariat ready to join a reformist government against elite privilege and United States imperialism.
The perceived threat of a popular uprising shook Brazilian society to its core, leading the United States to pour money straight into the states in an attempt to aid the capitalist elites by bypassing the federal government, a helping hand Brazilians accepted with eagerness. And in fearing a Cuba-like regime, Brazilians shot a murderous troop straight into power.
What will you say in 50 years?
Brazilians who grew up since redemocratization have at some point or another asked their parents and teachers about the second civil-military dictatorship that trounced the country. How did we allow it to happen?
Regardless of the outcome, we are living how the same process happens again today. How will you answer?