I have a very particular vision of the afterlife. I hope that when I die and ascend to heaven, St. Peter will greet me at the pearly gates with a tired frown. Then, without a word, he’ll hand me a plane ticket.
On it, there’ll be written LATAM 3333 to Rio de Janeiro. It’s one-way.
Rio de Janeiro is a city of early risers. Ipanema roars to life at exactly 5:45 a.m. Some stragglers, drunk on cheap beer and mirth, catch cabs at the closing of the bars while the ice boys whizz down the sidewalk by the beach, shouting “Gelo! Gelo!” past the sellers at their stalls. Barraca de Denise 63…Barraca 62…61…
Near Arpoador, on the border between Ipanema and Copacabana, a block from the beach, you’d find me drinking bad coffee at a little cafe, humming “Romaria.” Then the honking would interrupt the voice of Elis Regina in my head. As the convoy would get closer, the gurgling of the engines and honking would grow menacingly louder. Then, you’d catch a poorly made sign on the back window of some rundown Brazilian Lada: “Fora Bolsonaro!” Point made, peace disturbed.
This is my heaven. A normal day in Rio.
Such scenes were common scene in the lead-up to the election. Opposition to President Bolsonaro was loud in Rio, but isolated. First, it was a few activists here and there, but things took a turn for the unexpected during the election week of October 2022. Like a kettle at boiling point, Brazil roiled as the fire underneath kept crackling.
And by crackling, I don’t mean some embers here and there. One of the first signs of how bad things would get was a bus carrying voters burning down on the road in Rio de Janeiro state. Later, as the Brazilian army occupied the bridge to Niterói, constables of the Polícia Militar and elected representatives in Bahia confronted each other. Elsewhere, buses were thrown off schedule and transit boarding was refused to civilians sporting the red colors of the opposition Lula campaign. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (SET) sped up the process by which it could censor online news, controversially targeting opponents of Lula. Rampant censorship took over, as did rumors of lost and stuffed ballots. The list goes on. This is democracy in the Brazilian style.
Democracy With Brazilian Characteristics
In its national mythos, Brazil takes democracy very seriously. More than two decades of dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 imprinted respect for human rights and the right of Brazilians to vote as hard-won privileges in the collective mind of the nation. Many paid in life, limb, and shattered dreams to gain them—at least, in theory. In practice, a surprising number of Brazilians over the age of 45 will sing praises to the dictatorship after a few drinks. Bolsonaro himself is a major defender, crediting it with saving Brazil from communism. When voting to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, he dedicated his vote to Colonel Carlos Brilhante Ustra, whose dictatorship-era Doi-Codi unit had tortured Rousseff after she was arrested for Marxist guerrilla activities.
Today, though, voting is mandatory in Brazil. Failure to vote in elections can result in the suspension of benefits and government services, alongside fines. It’s a real stick for poorer people to vote. Fortunately, enterprising politicos can capitalize on this by trading votes for food, cash, clothes, and even water. They can also make it easier to vote by bussing voters to the stations directly. The letter of the Brazilian election laws renders both these enterprises illegal. Its byzantine enforcement, however, means that they remain widespread practices.
The 2022 election was particularly unique because all three parties—the pro-Lula “Petists” of the Workers’ Party (PT), the Bolsonarists, and the SET—agreed to rely on the Brazilian armed forces to act as a guarantor of the election. This was an unexpected step in a country so marked by its two decades of military rule. There was enormous, understandable reluctance on behalf of the PT due to the widely known Bolsonarist sympathies of the armed forces. There were even rumors of a supposed coup in the making. Eventually, the Brazilian army shouldered security and a portion of the logistics required to bring a country of 225 million citizens out to vote.
Whatever the sympathies of the Brazilian army, they didn’t get in the way of the role it played in the elections. Being under permanent scrutiny by the civil authorities means that the armed forces try to act beyond reproach. Mighty as they are, the military does not risk the fury of a higher power: the Brazilian supreme court.
Instead, the serious contestation that occurred against mobilizing PT officials on election day was mainly carried out by the Brazilian highway police, the Polícia Rodoviária Federal (PRF), assisted by the myriad of Polícia Militar units all across the country. The PRF closed down routes where the PT would bus in voters, including many bought-off ones, in PT-heavy electoral districts. Because the private bussing of votes is illegal, the PRF could argue that they were applying the letter of the electoral law. But such high-minded legal goals were probably far from the minds of many officers: the PRF, like most law enforcement in Brazil, has heavy Bolsonarist sympathies in the ranks. Blockades were their own way of “balancing” the perceived violations of electoral law by Lula’s campaign.
The move caused outrage in the upper echelons. Alexandre de Moraes, the president of the SET, threatened the arrest of PRF Director-General Silveni Vasques unless he immediately stopped all operations. After a few hours of stand-off, Vasques gave in and ceased all roadblocks, although various units of the Policia Militar continued to conduct stalling operations under the guise of enforcing security during the elections. The non-enforcement of the illegal voter bussing clause under electoral law was perceived by the Bolsonarists as another interference by the SET, all in favor of Lula and the PT. For them, it was a sign of things to come under Lula’s comeback—a return to the days of endemic collusion against their interests.
For many years, the right-wing in Brazil has levied the accusation of “juridicismo” against the country’s political class. It is something akin to judicial activism in Anglo-Saxon legal systems but in a much more blatant fashion. In the context of Brazil’s byzantine electoral laws, juridicismo refers to actions of a sort that would seem completely comical to any foreigner. In practice, it means that certain laws are enforced and others are not, as seen in the case of the PRF and the bussing of voters. It means that minor electoral violations are investigated and major ones are not, depending on who commits them. But even with all its systematic vote-buying and corruption problems, Brazil stringently enforces rules about online content and how many days in advance of elections politicians can advertise.
The Brazilian right skirts this disparate enforcement through creative and comedic means of distributing political propaganda. For example, car dealerships might disseminate pamphlets advertising “22% off merchandise,” and those receiving them will recognize 22 as Bolsonaro’s number; this lets them tiptoe around regulations on electoral ads. Another tactic is the use of the Brazilian national flag on billboards; this baits censorship of the national flag itself by Brazilian courts, something they have so far denied, because of its association with Bolsonaro. It’s Jeitinho Brasileiro—bending the rules, Brazilian-style—in its most glorious colors.
Crosshairs on the Policia Militar
The tug-of-war between the PRF, the Polícia Militar, and the PT in the election is seen by many as a return to the battlegrounds of prior years. Many members of law enforcement in Brazil feel that the work of the last half a decade in fighting crime and insecurity in the streets could be easily undone with a return of the PT.
For Brazilian police, juridicismo takes on a personal dimension. Laws prohibiting “excessive force” have been applied to exclude the targeting of the body, particularly of the head, in a shootout situation. Speaking with a former member of the presidential security detail, I learned that Brazilian policemen train to counterintuitively shoot at limbs in situations of extreme danger. Any stray bullet that lands in the skull of a criminal warrants an immediate investigation by the Brazilian judiciary into a possible “extrajudicial execution.” Although such laws continued under the Bolsonaro presidency, the government was willing to cut some slack. It’s not hard to see why there is enormous animosity towards the PT by those who see them as constraining an effective response against violent criminals.
Expanded gun ownership was another plank of the Bolsonaro program. Acquisition of firearms for personal defense became fairly easy and many took advantage of it: since 2018, the number of firearms in private circulation has more than doubled. Alongside an unshackled Polícia Militar, gun ownership allowed Brazil’s security situation to improve considerably. Brazil is extremely dangerous in a way that very few can imagine without having been there. Brazilians’ ability to defend themselves when subjected to the arbitrary violence of organized crime changed the game for many ordinary citizens.
Under this expansion, many ordinary Brazilians finally felt that they were no longer personally powerless and that the Polícia Militar was now sufficiently effective to discourage crime. That sentiment drives much of the support for Bolsonaro in Brazil’s violent cities.
Whether the Polícia Militar, the PRF, or even the military are acting in good faith in their electoral policing is beside the point of what their actions tell us about Brazilian democracy. When the PRF conducted its stalling operations, Gleisi Hoffmann, the president of the PT, called for the immediate arrest of Silveni Vasques and called on PT parliamentarians to head to the Polícia Militar headquarters of their respective states and hand out arrest warrants in person. For the PT, it was the only possible response—the correct political impulse. The police and the army, as bastions of Bolsonarist support, are hostile institutions from the PT’s perspective. Unlikely to be captured by the PT, the only other option is to gut them.
The reason for the Polícia Militar’s escape from political capture is simple. It is the very nature of the fight against Brazil’s brutal criminal gangs and the country’s widespread street-level violence that radicalizes policemen. A few dead colleagues, a few threats to your loved ones, and there is simply no coming back. It doesn’t matter what the entire judicial apparatus of the Brazilian federation has to say: you’re not going to put your life or the lives of your colleagues on the line for some appearance of ideological conformity. Instead, there is an open confrontation between the Policia Militar—along with the PRF and local forces—and the judiciary. It’s a battle that undergirds all of Brazilian politics, and it’s one that PT and its judicial allies were well aware of as the elections unfolded.
As a result of this situation, one of the policy proposals of the Lula campaign is the liquidation of the Polícia Militar in some form or another, with familiar talking points used as a justification: the claim that over-militarization of the police leads to more violence in underprivileged communities, that the Polícia Militar is a right-wing death squad used to kill poor Brazilians, and so on. The idea is to transfer the competencies of the Polícia Militar to the equivalent Polícia Civil, which can be politically captured and carries far less institutional weight.
For many Brazilians, any talk of the abolition of the Polícia Militar means a return to the bad old days of PT rule. In the 1990s and the 2000s, chronic insecurity and corruption were the order of the day. It’s hard to explain what this kind of rhetoric does to the average Brazilian who immediately grasps the exact meaning of “demilitarization of the police.” Many would-be Lula supporters understand that it unshackles the criminal hand that will pull the trigger on them.
Bolsonarismo in Crisis
Like many of the populists of the 2010s, including Trump, Bolsonaro wasn’t elected to bring a certain platform to government and engage in the minutiae of public policy. He was elected to torch the whole thing down. The dysfunction and internal conflict in governments with populist leaders was not a side effect of a societal ideological conflict, but the express desire of the voters who brought these figures to power. They wanted to throw the wrench into the machinery of the state. Juridicismo and public violence were supposed to be on notice.
In practice, Bolsonaro’s classically liberal stance sparked resentment among his own supporters, shackling a would-be activist government. The enthusiasm among his supporters had dampened in the years since his election, but the threat and then reality of Lula’s victory brought it back with a vengeance.
Despite the unbearable figure that Bolsonaro was for much of the social class behind juridicismo, he went on to lose the 2022 election by little more than one percent. Regardless of what image the media painted of Bolsonaro—usually as a dangerous nostalgic of the military dictatorship, or as a fascist threatening Brazilian democracy and the sanctity of the judiciary—a good half of Brazilian voters remain strongly behind him. This gives him a personal legitimacy that will outlast his administration, as evidenced by the prolonged protests gripping cities all over Brazil. Massive crowds gathered in front of Brazilian army installations chanting “Forcas Armadas, salva o Brasil” (“Armed Forces, save Brazil”). A return of Lula is so odious to half of the country that the suspension of democracy and direct military rule are seen as salutary alternatives.
This contradicts the image that the Western press built of Lula’s image in Brazil as a universally-heralded savior of democracy, the Amazon, and the country’s racial and sexual minorities. Bolsonaro’s assimilation to Trump blinded the entire western media and the State Department to the realities on the ground. As it is not uncommon for the Western press to map its own ideological conflicts onto the rest of the world, it went ahead and lionized Lula into such a figure, erasing his past as a man of the old socialist left.
In the coalition of progressive movements that backed Lula against Bolsonaro, the urban bourgeois youth are only one minor component; groups like workers’ unions, indigenous coalitions, and segments of the Catholic Church friendly to liberation theology carry far more weight. The only reason this image of Lula as a great social progressive took precedence over his other social commitments was that bourgeois-bohemian youth is the only class the Western media is able to interface with internationally.
While the Western press and foreign ministries depict Lula as the local anti-Trump, an equivalent fantasy plays out in capitals hostile to the U.S. Here, Lula is seen as a great figure of the Third World by those geopolitical powers pursuing multipolarity and a decrease in U.S. hegemony. Lula was a founding member of BRICS and his return is welcomed by Moscow and Beijing.
The guiding principle of the anti-Western, multipolar world order is trade and the valorization of economic development over political conflicts. Lula’s Brazil will likely pursue further economic integration of the entire South American continent, now filled with friendly, left-leaning capitals. The flagship project for the continent is building up a single currency bloc, led by Brazil, for all of South America. This would be a far more decisive statement of continental autarky than Mercosur, the Southern Common Market already in existence. Lula’s plan is to capitalize on the red wave which has gripped Latin America from Obrador in Mexico to Fernández in Argentina, which is now pursuing membership in BRICS. The stars couldn’t be more aligned for the development of South America as an important pole in a multipolar world.
Will Lula and the PT conduct a progressive, liberalizing social policy? Yes, most likely. Will this be the cornerstone of Lula’s social program? Absolutely not. Will Lula pursue a left-wing geopolitical strategy to unite South America under a red banner? Yes, most likely. Will Lula turn Brazil into Venezuela? Absolutely not. Casting Lula as either a western-style progressive or a third-worldist overlooks significant dimensions of the PTs power base and its party machine.
While Bolsonarists decry Lula as a candidate pushed on Brazil by the Puebla Group—a forum that brings together the Latin American left—the reality is that there is significant genuine support for Lula in PT’s home base in the Northeast. While the motivations of the Bolsonarist right are easily graspable, the PT’s success in building a lasting power base on its home turf is much more elusive.
The Lessons of Nordeste
For Western scholars, the usual reading of the Northeast-Southeast divide in Brazil is through the lens of critical race theory. The explanation is as follows: the Northeast is more black, and therefore historically a victim of oppression—therefore Lula represents the voice of blacker, marginalized communities in the Northeast. Conversely, the Southeast is white, and whiteness represents a supremacist inheritance from the colonial era—therefore Bolsonaro is a fascist, defending a white Brazil now on the defensive. As simplistic as this sounds in two sentences, this is considered a respectable scholarly position.
The reality is that the Northeast of Brazil is not majority black. Bahia is the only black plurality state in Brazil, with 16 percent of the population being black. For the region as a whole, it’s somewhere around 10 percent. With that in mind, there is the additional issue of the sociology of race. Race works very differently in Brazil. Fragmented identities such as “African-Brazilian” or “Japanese-Brazilian” would seem completely bizarre. Regional and class identities are much stronger. For example, the Candomblé religion and the martial art of Capoeira Angola are strongly rooted in Bahianese culture without explicitly being markers of an “African-Brazilian” identity, though their African origins are known and celebrated.
Another simplistic tendency in explaining the Northeast and Southeast divide is in crude Marxist wealth terms. At face value, this reveals a fundamental divide: the Northeast has a GDP per capita of just over $3000 USD, while the Southeast has a GDP per capita of about $7800 USD. The reasoning goes, the Northeast is poorer and more exploited—once again, Lula therefore emerges as the voice of the marginalized communities of the Northeast. But this ignores the position of poorer communities on a primary issue that is on the minds of many Brazilians right now: gang violence and insecurity, which low-income neighborhoods and favelas are the most subjected to. In the poorest neighborhoods of major cities in the Southeast, this translated into support for Bolsonaro during the 2018 election—a lead he lost in the 2022 election.
In order to avoid these analytic traps, a better starting point is the material nature of the regional divide. Brazil is a big country, but also an old one with five centuries of colonial history. Each of its regions had very distinct arcs of historical development.
The historical capital of colonial Brazil was Salvador. It was a prized possession of the Portuguese crown at a time when sugar was a cash crop. Bahia was a major sugarcane-producing region and Salvador was its port of exportation. African chattel slavery was a founding institution of the region, leading to a highly hierarchical, highly stratified, feudal, and agricultural society. Coupled with the discovery of gold, the region became one of the most developed in the Americas in the seventeenth century, with very high rates of urbanization. Meanwhile, the rest of the hemisphere was still undergoing its period of initial settlement. Pelourinho, the historical center of Salvador da Bahia is a living testament to this period, with its churches gilded in gold and a heavy Jesuit presence.
In contrast, the historical trajectory of the Southeast was very different and came later. Slavery was also a founding institution, but for most of its history this had to do with the subjection of local Amerindian tribes, which led to heavy intermarriages with the founding Portuguese Bandeirantes. It wasn’t until the Portuguese crown moved the capital to Rio de Janeiro, and most particularly when the Portuguese court exiled itself there in 1807, that the region saw major developments.
While the Crown favored the import of African slaves to exploit the interior of the Southeast, they also brought with them liberal economic ideas of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The new valorization of trade infrastructure led to huge investments in the port of Rio de Janeiro and its surrounding areas, as well as the encouragement of early manufacturing.
In the nineteenth century, this industrial maritime infrastructure drew huge numbers of European immigrants, catapulting the development of the region and leading to the establishment of a powerful bourgeois elite and bourgeois institutions. Rio de Janeiro’s Centro neighborhood is filled with the beautiful buildings of the imperial era, with a good number of them built by trade and manufacturing groups. In contrast, the Northeast, with its agricultural economy and its inability to draw European immigrants, stagnated for decades.
This brings us to the crux of the divide. One useful way to categorize these developments is to say that Northeastern Brazil is a feudal fragment: its history, culture, and economic development are marked by its initial founding. Meanwhile, Southeastern Brazil is a bourgeois fragment, with its historical trajectory determined by the introduction of liberal institutions at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The American political theorist Louis Hartz analyzed these divergent developments across colonial societies in his work The Founding of New Societies. He postulated the idea that the ideological frame of colonial societies remained locked from the exact moment of their founding. This stood in contrast to European societies, where changing class power structures caused updates in the ruling ideology. He thus categorized three major ideological frames: feudal, whig (bourgeois), and radical. Examples of feudal colonial fragments include French Canada and most of Latin America, while examples of whig fragments include the U.S. and Dutch South Africa. Applying this to Brazil, we see that these different regions of Brazil in fact attribute their social structures and political elites to very different founding moments in the country’s history. Thus, the nature of politics in these regions differs as well.
In The Founding of New Societies, Hartz writes:
Feudalism, of course, goes into the socialist brew and in the case of the feudal fragment, which smothers the Enlightenment from the beginning, there is a powerful type of appeal which the Marxist can make when the comparative impact ultimately hits […] He can promise a single leap across the whole of the modern experience that has been suppressed, a combined development into the last stage of industrialism and democracy […] To be sure, especially after the First World War, various types of socialism penetrate the Latin-American labor movement. But they do not transform the culture, and above all, they do not touch the great hacienda tradition on the land, one of the great sources of the later Marxian threat.
Lula’s lasting appeal in the Northeast stems from exactly the fact he represents this “promise [of] a single leap across the whole of the modern experience.” Lula’s familial roots are in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, and his early political career began when he worked as metallurgist and trade unionist in the metalworks factories of São Paulo—a figure of opposition to the bourgeois powers of the Southeast. Politically, he serves as the embodiment of the Northeast’s search for an alternative model of development.
In his seminal work, Raízes do Brasil, the Brazilian sociologist Sérgio Buarque de Holanda developed the concept of the “homem cordial.” He writes:
It is difficult for holders of positions of public responsibility, formed in such an environment, to understand the distinction between private and public domains. This is what separates the “patrimonial” civil servant from Max Weber’s pure bureaucrat. For the “patrimonial” functionary, the management of the political presents itself as a matter of his own particular interests; the functions, jobs, and benefits that are earned are the result of his personal rights and not from objective interests [of the bureaucratic state]. The choice of the men who exercise public functions is done according to matters of personal trust, that the candidate earns, rather than the result of his own abilities. […] And one of the decisive effects of the uncontested supremacy of the nuclear family […] is that relations formed in the domestic sphere of life serve as mandatory models for any social composition between [Brazilians].
Although Buarque de Holanda is talking about Brazil as a whole, this phenomenon is significantly more pronounced in the Northeast, where feudal influence makes the line separating the public and private very thin indeed. The rule of the “personable” through familial and personal relationships is ubiquitous, suffocating any attempt at creating a genuinely public sphere. Thus, the endemic corruption of the PT—as demonstrated in the Lava Jato trials—is a feature of good socialization and conformity to the social expectations of the Northeast. Cordiality is the basis of political life and is why PT has a lasting appeal in the region. The PT’s clientelism, including vote-buying, is a kind of patrimonial socialism. Lula’s own lasting charisma and image as a fatherly figure to the Brazilian left is a manifestation of this phenomenon of the patrimonial public figure.
Cordiality is also good politics. The PT’s ability to build a wide coalition with a variety of churches, community centers, labor organizations, social movements, and intellectual currents stems from this very fact. Its ability to navigate the juridicismo of Brasilia’s ruling class and deftly nudge it to one side is the result of this deeply Brazilian instinct. Bolsonaro’s classical liberalism and the reduction of clientelism by scaling back the state runs counter to the social expectations of the Northeast.
Because cordiality is a more pronounced feature of feudal societies, patrimonial socialism informs the PT’s model of state-driven development for the Northeast. There have been a number of successes of this model in recent years, which even led to it being adopted by the centrist politicians who dethroned the PT in their own strongholds.
One notable example is the Salvador subway, launched by the state-owned CCR Metrô Bahia in 2014. It completely revitalized the city. It has 370,000 passengers a day. The bike lanes which run alongside the tracks are also heavily used. This was a project by the state government of Bahia, which has been under PT control since 2003.
Another example is the revitalization project for Salvador’s historical center, championed by former prefect Antônio Carlos Magalhães Neto, an “homem cordial” par excellence. The project cleaned up and secured a large coastal section of the city and restored a number of old decrepit buildings. Neto is from one of the most powerful political dynasties in Brazil and his influence runs so deep in Bahia that governance is basically a family affair. The cleanup of Salvador was a matter of maintenance and improvement of the familial patrimony.
These are both examples of the Northeast’s development model succeeding on its own terms. In this model, the politics of cordiality deliver results beneficial to the whole of the polity, inclusive of all the classes that constitute Northeastern society. These are also the politics that PT champions at the federal level. Its policies forward the expansion of the state. Their clientelism reaches the Northeast’s educated middle classes in the form of government jobs in public institutions and infrastructure spending. The expansion of subsidies and favoritism in contracts embody clientelism for select cordial businessmen. Since the early 2000s, these policies have earned the PT much loyalty and a lasting base of support, which in turn yielded victory in the 2022 election. The addition of the socially progressive elements of the Southeast ensures their inclusion in the system of guarantees, but also their subjugation to the PT’s regime of cordiality.
Support for PT is driven by two factors: ideological and sociological. The ideological factors are what rally the cultural elites of Brazil to the PT’s program: academics, the press, and even iconic funk and música popular Brasileira artists. This subset is attracted to the vision that the PT articulates for the country. It’s a progressive vision that plays on Brazil’s egalitarian impulses in the face of a rigid class society, and extends a version of familial solidarity to the whole of the community, the region, the nation, and the environment. The sociological factors, on the other hand, cement the PT’s base in the Northeast and allow the party to consistently articulate and execute a seductive, independent vision for Brazil and Latin America.
This shows exactly what is missing from the Bolsonaro camp. Being the candidate for popular anger and revolt is insufficient. As soon as you enter the corridors of power, you have to articulate a positive, energizing vision for the whole of the polity which gives the legitimacy you need to last for more than a term. A classically liberal proposition simply doesn’t cut it anymore. The 1980s were forty years ago and it doesn’t have the radical edge it once did. Latin America has moved on, and so has the world. Under those circumstances, the Brazilian right lacks several factors that it would need to triumph over an entrenched, byzantine system. The Southeast tends to lionize the military because they view it as one of the few truly meritocratic institutions. But military coups are not enough to overcome generations of cordiality and corruption.
Joaquim Nabuco, the great Nordestino statesman and abolitionist, once said: “In our society, it is the orphans, the abandoned, who win the struggle, rise, and govern.” This is insightful in terms of how things may play out. The Brazilian Southeastern upper classes rallied behind Bolsonaro. But they were raised in the confines of a domestic, warm, feminine society, and will retreat into the comfort of their wealthy compounds as the PT returns to power.
While the PT’s regime of corruption is one in which competence is an afterthought, its buildup of a mass movement will likely prove effective in the short term. It is the middle class and the poor that will bear the consequences of the PT’s policies—whether they pan out well or descend into chaos and violence. Some will learn to navigate the fallout, and it is from here that Nabuco’s orphans may come.