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What the Death of Two Cultural Giants Says About Brazil Today

Political opposites Olavo de Carvalho and Elza Soares garnered vast youth followings in the final years of their lives.

Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Brazilian samba legend Elza Soares performs in a concert in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 28, 2018.
Brazilian samba legend Elza Soares performs in a concert in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 28, 2018.
Brazilian samba legend Elza Soares performs in a concert in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 28, 2018. CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Brazil mourns cultural giants and political opposites Olavo de Carvalho and Elza Soares, Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric names a majority-woman cabinet, and Mexican journalists march for their survival.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Brazil mourns cultural giants and political opposites Olavo de Carvalho and Elza Soares, Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric names a majority-woman cabinet, and Mexican journalists march for their survival.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.


Age Is Just a Number

In the past eight days, Brazil lost two of its most titanic cultural figures, Olavo de Carvalho and Elza Soares, prompting government leaders to declare official periods of mourning—on a national level for Carvalho and in the city of Rio de Janeiro for Soares.

Carvalho and Soares were, in many ways, radically different. Carvalho was a conservative ideologue who moved to the United States in 2005 and rallied his internet followers around the cause of strengthening a new right-wing movement in Brazil. Soares was considered one of Brazil’s greatest singers and died in her native Rio de Janeiro, where she had become iconic for her feminist and anti-racist activism. Carvalho, who was white, dined with Steve Bannon; Soares, who was Black, was mourned by Beyoncé.

What the two figures have in common, however, is that they reached peak relevance at the end of their lives by tapping into and nurturing cultural currents that define Brazil today. The movements, resentments, and desires that were their currency continue to shape the nation and its politics.

Carvalho, who was 74, gained a large social media following in the 2000s, when Brazil’s Workers’ Party led a center-left administration. He argued that leftists were spreading “cultural Marxism” throughout Brazil and, on a global level, they aimed to implement a “new socialist world order.” He called for a mass movement to defeat them and diminish their influence. Carvalho also fed conspiracy theories—including an argument that the government was trying to turn children gay in public schools—and said mainstream media journalists should be treated “like dogs.”

Many of Carvalho’s overwhelmingly male online followers grew to self-identify as part of a new Brazilian right, distinguishing themselves from the old right that helmed a bloody dictatorship in the country from 1964 to 1985.

Brazilian scholars Camila Rocha, Esther Solano, and Jonas Medeiros, whose 2021 book on the topic I translated, argued that Carvalho’s followers embraced homogenous online spaces where their views would go unchallenged—especially forums on the now-extinct social network Orkut—due in part to feelings of being spurned from the country’s mainstream political conversation at the time.

Brazil’s new right threw its support behind Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 presidential campaign, and once elected, Bolsonaro appointed key ministers who followed Carvalho’s theories—in a nod to this support base.

They varied from a foreign minister who threatened to withdraw Brazil from the World Health Organization—saying it was part of a “globalist” plot—to an education minister who encouraged parents and local school administrators to carry out a “purge” against supposed communist indoctrination and oversexualization in schools, which included teacher firings. Meanwhile, funding was dramatically cut from the Brazilian public education system. Former Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, like Carvalho, publicly questioned human responsibility for climate change and oversaw wide-scale destruction of the Amazon. Although those ministers have now resigned, the consequences of their tenure endure.

Carvalho, who repeatedly denied the seriousness of COVID-19, was reportedly diagnosed with it early this month. His estranged daughter said coronavirus was his cause of death.

He leaves behind a thriving community of followers and the significant space he created in Brazil’s social fabric for hostility toward the mainstream media, research institutions, and social equality movements, such as feminism and Black activism. “He gave extremism intellectual clothing,” Federal University of Paraná historian Murilo Cleto wrote in Universo Online.

Soares, for her part, was born into poverty in Rio de Janeiro’s western outskirts 91 years ago. By her teenage years, she had lost two of her own children to malnutrition; when a judge in a 1953 singing competition asked where she came from, she replied “planet hunger.”

Soares went on to become a multigenre star with an international career. First known for samba, she mastered bossa nova, jazz, blues, soul, funk, and rock, her unmistakable scratchy voice earning her the title “voice of the millennium” in a 1999 BBC Radio London vote.

Soares’s life was marked by recurring periods of adversity. She fled Brazil for Italy in the early 1970s after being targeted by its military dictatorship. She endured physical abuse at the hands of her former husband, soccer star Mané Garrincha, who died in 1983, and in the 1980s, she went through a period so devoid of singing gigs that she sang in the circus to pay her bills.

Over the past decade, in her 80s, Soares launched her career to new heights by partnering with several younger singers and diving deeper into feminist and anti-racist messaging in her lyrics and on social media. She embraced Gen Z fans, Twitter quips, and causes like LGBTQ+ rights.

“I’m the woman at the end of the world,” Soares sang on a 2015 album, and “I will sing until the end.” She did. Upon her death, one of the many homages she received was from a Brazilian congresswoman who vowed to work for, as Soares sang, “a country where health care is not sick” and “education really trains citizens.”

Carvalho’s and Soares’s ascension at the end of their lives is a story both about the prominence of the issues they represent and the power of seeking out younger generations to rally with them, especially with the help of social media.

It’s a lesson with heavy political implications. In the lead-up to, and at the start of, the Bolsonaro years, Brazil’s far right reaped the benefits of youth-focused outreach strategies. Progressives were more complacent and less proactive on this front, and voters between the ages of 16 and 24 swung for Bolsonaro, according to polling by Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics before the first round of the 2018 election.

But as Carvalho’s and Soares’s trajectories both show, no single political strain has a monopoly on compelling messaging. It’s a fact worth remembering as Brazil’s October general election approaches.


Upcoming Events

Friday, Jan. 28: The United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review adopts recommendations made to Venezuela following its review of human rights records.

Thursday, Feb. 3: The U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review adopts recommendations made to Haiti following its review of human rights records.

Sunday, Feb. 6: Costa Rica holds general elections.


What We’re Following

Pacific partner. Singapore has become the first associate member of the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc comprising of Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Chile. The bloc celebrated the addition as a step toward increasing business ties with Asia.

According to the Colombian minister of commerce, the Pacific Alliance’s combined exports to Singapore averaged $1.1 billion per year between 2016 and 2020. Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, and South Korea are all candidates to become associate members in the near future.

Trouble for Castro. Xiomara Castro became Honduras’s first female president yesterday at an inauguration that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris flew down to attend. But it was in some ways less celebratory than expected. On Jan. 21, a bloc of lawmakers from her leftist party had decamped to support an alternate candidate for the next leader of Honduras’s National Congress. Castro had promised her backing to a politician from an allied centrist party.

Castro expelled her breakaway colleagues from her party. It was her own pick for president of Congress who presided over her swearing in. The split casts doubt on Castro’s ability to deliver the kind of transformational anti-corruption drive she campaigned on.

A group of journalists hold posters that read "The killing of journalists doesn't kill the truth" during a demonstration against violence against journalists in the wake of the murders of journalists Margarito Martinez and Lourdes Maldonado in Tijuana last week in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Jan. 25.

A group of journalists hold posters that read “The killing of journalists doesn’t kill the truth” during a demonstration against violence against journalists in the wake of the murders of journalists Margarito Martinez and Lourdes Maldonado in Tijuana last week in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Jan. 25.ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images

Deadly job. Reporters across Mexico staged protests on Tuesday evening after a third reporter was shot to death in the country this year. The Committee to Protect Journalists calculated that at least three Mexican reporters were killed in retaliation for their reporting in 2021, and it is still investigating whether the total number could be as high as nine deaths.

Lourdes Maldonado, the latest to be killed on Sunday in Tijuana, Mexico, had personally appealed to Mexico’s president for her safety in 2019. Photojournalist Margarito Martínez was shot in Tijuana on Jan. 17, and reporter José Luis Gamboa was fatally stabbed in the Mexican state of Veracruz on Jan. 10.

U.S. foot soldiers. Latin American security contractors who were hired to serve in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking U.S. pensions and residency, a new Agence France-Presse (AFP) story details.

Colombian and Peruvian former contractors told AFP that their experiences of being caught in combat situations were not what they expected when they had signed up as security guards at U.S. diplomatic and military sites. Security contractors have held protests calling for compensation in Bogotá; Lima, Peru; Miami; and Washington.

A study by Brown University’s Costs of War project calculated that many of the more than 3,900 security contractors for U.S. forces who died in Afghanistan were citizens of other countries.


Chart of the Week

While Latin American economies struggled to recover from the pandemic slump last year, venture capital funding was pouring into the region in record numbers. The annual total of investment in 2021 was more than triple the previous record set in 2019, according to the Association for Private Capital Investment in Latin America.

The Economist reported that lots of room for growth still remains: “The total market capitalisation of tech firms as a proportion of GDP is still just under 4%, compared with 14% in India and 30% in China.”


Question of the Week

Tsunami waves following the eruption of a volcano near Tonga this month caused an oil spill off Peru’s coast—the country’s worst environmental accident in recent history.

How many barrels of crude oil were estimated to have been spilled?


In Focus: Chile’s Colorful Cabinet

Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric poses for a picture with his ministers during the presentation of his cabinet at the Natural History Museum in Santiago, Chile, on Jan. 21.

Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric poses for a picture with his ministers during the presentation of his cabinet at the Natural History Museum in Santiago, Chile, on Jan. 21.JAVIER TORRES/AFP via Getty Images

Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric announced his cabinet on Jan. 21, offering the first glimpse into how the former student leader plans to govern.

In a relieving moment for international financial markets, Boric named Mario Marcel, current central bank president, as his finance minister. The move was in line with Boric’s own comments in recent weeks about the importance of fiscal stability. “I don’t expect elites to agree with me, but I hope they stop being afraid of us,” he told BBC Mundo.

The cabinet is the most female cabinet in Chile’s history, composed of 14 women and 10 men. And at least six of Boric’s ministers are under age 40.

A pair of photos that circulated widely on social media contrasted Boric’s cabinet—many of whom wore brightly colored clothing to the announcement ceremony and two of whom appeared alongside their children—with that of the first cabinet after Chile’s emergence from dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, composed entirely of dark-suited men.

Boric also appointed the granddaughter of leftist former Chilean President Salvador Allende—who was assassinated when the Pinochet dictatorship was installed in 1973—as Chile’s defense minister.

Eight of the cabinet members do not currently belong to any political party, according to La Tercera. One of them is Boric’s future foreign minister, Antonia Urrejola, who criticized abuses by Venezuela and Nicaragua in a former position as the president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Another is Maisa Rojas, a climatologist and coordinating lead author of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, who will be environment minister.

Choosing young ministers brings its risks. It’s unclear, for example, whether 35-year-old doctor Izkia Siches, the incoming interior and public security minister, is able to de-escalate tensions surrounding arson attacks by Mapuche Indigenous Chileans in the country’s south. The Mapuche say they have the right to defend encroachments on their ancestral land, but police deployed to the area have clashed with them in recent months.

Some ministers also appear likely to have fundamental disagreements on key issues, such as Labor Minister-designate Jeannette Jara and Marcel. Jara defended a 40-hour work week and called for an overhaul of Chile’s current pension system, whereas Marcel has held opposite positions.

Still, those kinds of differences were to be expected when Boric opted to bake relative political diversity into his cabinet rather than solely choose ministers from his inner circle.

“The big risk for our government is that of not being able to widen our base of social support,” he told the BBC. “If we stay only with those who are with us now, we won’t be able to carry out the transformations that we want.”

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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