Lee Hamilton: Brazil’s politics mirror ours

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Watching the presidential elections in Brazil from the United States has been like looking in the mirror of a fun house. The image looks a lot like us, for better or worse.

According to official results, challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has sacked the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, and will take office on January 1. But the margin was very narrow: da Silva, a former president universally known as Lula, got 50.9% of the vote. voted 49.1% for Bolsonaro.

Like Donald Trump in the last US presidential race, Bolsonaro questioned the legitimacy of the election beforehand and has been slow to relent. One could imagine a Brazilian repeat of the January 6 insurrection, when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to block the transfer of power.

Brazil’s election reflected deep divisions between supporters of da Silva, a fierce former labor leader, and Bolsonaro, the bombastic right-wing president. Like the Democratic and Republican base in the US, Brazil’s political factions are separated by an ideological and cultural gulf.

Brazil has much in common with the United States, and it is not surprising that Brazil’s politics mirror ours. Both are continent-sized nations with large and diverse populations. Both value individualism and have a strong sense of national pride. Both wrestle with racial issues and the legacy of slavery.

Long a Portuguese colony, Brazil gained independence in 1822, but its experience of vibrant democracy is relatively recent. It was a monarchy for almost a century, then coffee exporters controlled its economy, followed by a series of populist regimes. After a 1964 coup, the military ruled Brazil for 21 years.

But democracy finally took hold. Not too long ago, Brazil was being touted as a rising power, along with India and South Africa. With their growing economies and democratic governments, these countries were expected to play a greater role in world affairs.

Da Silva, an avowed leftist, was president from 2003 to 2010, a time of relative prosperity. His policies are credited with lifting millions out of poverty, but his party was rife with corruption. He was convicted of taking bribes and spent 17 months in prison. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but opponents consider him a criminal.

Bolsonaro, in his only term as president, cultivated the support of evangelical groups and cultural conservatives. His take-no-prisoners style earned him the nickname “Trump of the tropics”; he and Trump are mutual admirers. Critics consider him an autocrat.

Bolsonaro waited two days to acknowledge the election results, while tens of thousands of his supporters took to the streets, blocking roads and even calling for a military coup. The situation seems unstable and the stability of Brazil matters. The largest country in South America, it has great influence in the region.

For a long time, Brazil has seemed to be a nation on the cusp of greatness, never quite reaching its potential. Its economy is the 12th largest in the world, and it has nearly $100 billion in trade in goods and services with the United States. Deforestation and agriculture, which accelerated under Bolsonaro, contribute to climate change. But it has moved toward clean energy, and the vast Amazon rainforest, 60% of which is within Brazil, is a major carbon sink, capturing greenhouse gases.

All these factors highlight the importance of Brazil for US foreign policy. At the same time, Brazil’s turbulent political history is a reminder of how fragile democracy can be and how remarkable it is that the United States has remained a democracy for nearly 250 years.

The situation in Brazil deserves close attention, both because of Brazil’s importance and because of the lessons Americans can learn as our 2024 presidential election approaches. If Brazil can manage an orderly transfer of power at a time of deep polarization, we should be able to do the same.

Lee Hamilton is Senior Adviser at Indiana University’s Center for Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and professor of practice in the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to [email protected]

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