The Battle for Brazil’s Evangelicals
After fueling Bolsonaro’s rise, some are flocking to Lula’s camp with earthly—and heavenly—concerns.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Bolsonaro and Lula court Brazil’s evangelicals ahead of Sunday’s vote, Cuba legalizes same-sex marriage, and Argentina’s government intervenes in the market for World Cup stickers (yes, really).
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Faithful, but to Whom?
Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 election to the Brazilian presidency was the apex of political efforts to cultivate a U.S.-style Christian evangelical right in the country. In a campaign drenched in socially conservative religious imagery, Bolsonaro earned more than twice as many evangelical votes as did his leftist opponent in the presidential runoff. Evangelicals are on track to become Brazil’s largest religious group within the next decade and currently make up some 30 percent of the population.
Bolsonaro has struggled to maintain the same level of evangelical support ahead of Sunday’s presidential election, however. A Sept. 20-22 poll by Datafolha said that only 50 percent of evangelical voters planned to back him, while 32 percent planned to support his leading opponent, former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The political alignment of evangelical voters has varied over the years. Lula was first elected in 2002 with the support of several prominent evangelical leaders. But by 2016, evangelical pastors across the nation were stumping for the impeachment of his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, before migrating to the far-right Bolsonaro—who often claims to be on the correct side of a divine battle between good and evil.
This election may prove that the right’s recent dominance of the evangelical vote has waned. A May Datafolha poll that weighed opinions on issues related to economic and social policy, law enforcement, LGBT rights, and drug liberalization found that 41 percent of Brazilian evangelicals identified with stances held by Brazil’s political left, versus 37 percent on the right and 22 percent in the center.
Multiple polls suggest evangelical women plan to vote for Lula in higher numbers than men. Religious studies experts have pointed to their disappointment with Bolsonaro’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, demeaning comments toward women, and support for easing civilian access to firearms—as well as their memories of economic stability under Lula.
“He [Bolsonaro] made fun of people while they lay dying,” retired clothing factory worker Conceição Monteiro told Foreign Policy, recalling the president’s imitation of COVID-19 patients struggling for oxygen. Monteiro, who is evangelical, lives in Rio de Janeiro’s outskirts of Duque de Caxias and voted for Bolsonaro in 2018. Monteiro now plans to vote for Lula and has grown irritated with the pressure from some pastors and friends to support Bolsonaro on religious grounds. “At my church, they told us he supported family values,” she said.
As election day approaches, evangelical churches loyal to Bolsonaro have waged aggressive campaigns to whip votes. Some pastors have even been fired for failing to toe the line, Folha de São Paulo reported. Federal University of Rio de Janeiro media studies scholar Marie Santini told the Associated Press that pastors have also spread religious and political disinformation online—such as a video Monteiro received on WhatsApp that falsely claimed Lula planned to shutter evangelical churches.
Meanwhile, progressive evangelicals have launched efforts to openly campaign for Lula and—in communities where countering church leadership can lead to social ostracization—assure fellow church members they are free to make their own choice at the polls.
Many of these efforts have been bottom-up, as the Lula campaign has been slow to settle on messaging targeting evangelical voters. Most Brazilian evangelicals are working class, and Lula has played up his pledges to improve standards of living rather than foregrounding overtly religious discourse.
Lula speaks to evangelicals about issues like “access to work, access to income, education—and this is a progressive agenda,” Ana Carolina Evangelista, the director of the Rio de Janeiro-based Institute of Religious Studies, told Foreign Policy. Lula has also stressed the importance of all religions being respected.
Brazil has arguably never seen a politician with both strong evangelical and strong progressive discourse rise to national prominence. The closest person to fit this profile may be former environment minister and three-time presidential candidate Marina Silva; though Silva “is an evangelical politician and she doesn’t hide it, she also doesn’t make it explicit” Evangelista said. Silva, who recently endorsed Lula, has based her political career on her environmental credentials.
Sunday’s general elections may elevate some potential such voices, including Rio de Janeiro evangelical pastor and federal congressional candidate Henrique Vieira, who is a member of a left-wing party. Viera has already obtained some national recognition by collaborating with Brazilian rap star Emicida and starring in the hit film Marighella, which detailed the horrors of the country’s military dictatorship. Unlike Lula, Vieira is happy to talk about how the gospel “gave me the force to fight inequality,” he told Americas Quarterly.
Sunday, Oct. 2: Brazilians vote in general elections.
Wednesday, Oct. 19: Finance ministers from Chile, Mexico, and Peru participate in a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
What We’re Following
Contradictory changes. Cuba’s ruling Communist Party, which once sent gay men to forced labor camps, oversaw a national referendum this week on whether to change the legal code to allow LBGT couples the right to marry and adopt children. The referendum passed by around 67 to 33 percent, officials said. Although activists called the changes necessary, they also criticized the context in which the vote was carried out: The government, which backed the changes, planned the plebiscite in a top-down, propaganda-heavy style, rather than engaging with local advocacy groups.
The development was “a bittersweet piece of news” amid the ongoing repression of activism in the country, Cuban writer and dissident Manuel Cuesta Moruá told Folha de São Paulo.
Cuba has carried out a crackdown on activism of all kinds since nationwide street protests last year, and in December it will implement a penal code that allows prison sentences of up to five years for criticizing the government. In July, Rebecca Bodenheimer wrote in Foreign Policy that Cuban officials blocked feminist activists’ proposals for new punishments against gender-based violence from being included in the code.
Breaking ground. Argentine officials announced this week that the country’s state energy company will begin exploration at its own first lithium mine next month. Argentina currently produces around 8 percent of global lithium, while neighboring Chile produces around 22 percent, according to Reuters. Private and international companies already operate an estimated 20 other projects in Argentina.
While prices for some globally traded commodities such as oil and copper have fallen in recent months after peaking in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lithium prices remain high. As of Sept. 28, the price of lithium carbonate remains around double its level at the start of the year.
Sticker shock. A moment of crisis among Argentine soccer fans—particularly children—moved the government last week to host talks on World Cup fan sticker distribution. The collectible stickers, printed each tournament to be traded and displayed in fan booklets, were in short supply in streetside kiosks last month, and parents were frantic.
After the emergency talks, the company that produces the stickers committed to ensuring its supplies reached the kiosks, CNN en Español reported. The World Cup in Qatar begins in late November.
The shortage prompted a flood of memes and jokes on social media, and even humor from sold-out sticker vendors. A representative for the local affiliate of the sticker manufacturer told Clarín this year’s unusual boom in demand for stickers could be coming from enthusiastic sticker-collecting adults.
Question of the Week
Which Brazilian soccer star recorded a video declaring his support for Bolsonaro this week?
Bolsonaro’s campaign has enthusiastically incorporated Neymar’s video as voting approaches Sunday.
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In Focus: Drama at the IDB
Mauricio Claver-Carone was ousted from the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) this week after an ethics investigation found evidence he had an affair with a staffer and raised her pay by 45 percent over base wage. He denied misconduct.
But Claver-Carone’s leadership of the bank—a major financer of infrastructure and climate-related projects in Latin America—was controversial for other reasons, too.
The IDB is controlled by its member countries, several of which are outside of Latin America. The United States holds 30 percent of the bank’s shares and thus wields considerable decision-making power. In 2020, then-U.S. President Donald Trump broke with the IDB’s longtime tradition of nominating a Latin American bank president by nominating a U.S. citizen, Claver-Carone, for the role. Claver-Carone had served on Trump’s National Security Council, and the bank’s board confirmed him. The events “changed an important unwritten rule of U.S.-Latin America relations,” Georgetown University political scientist Gonzalo Paz told Foreign Policy.
While Claver-Carone sought U.S. congressional support to approve an increase in the bank’s lending money, some congressional Democrats resisted. In February 2021, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Daniel Runde wrote in Foreign Policy that Washington partisanship explained the holdup.
Separately, Claver-Carone—who openly criticized China’s participation in the IDB—appears to have stood in the way of the bank’s cooperation with China, economist Rebecca Ray of Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center told Foreign Policy. Though China holds less than 1 percent of the IDB’s shares, it had been channeling money through the bank to finance projects in countries such as Mexico and Colombia. After Claver-Carone arrived, all mentions of China disappeared from the bank’s annual partnership report.
At best, Ray said, sidelining China is “a distraction to the IDB’s mission. At worst, you could say it is directly counter to the mission, which is to bring together regional and nonregional partners together toward shared goals.” The IDB, she added, is an ideal forum for the United States and China to cooperate on climate adaptation and mitigation, which U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has said he aims to do.
Georgetown’s Paz told Foreign Policy that under Claver-Carone, the bank made plans that focused disproportionately on lending to private companies, though its mission also includes lending to governments. “I think the public-private sector combination is quite positive, but you need to have strong support for the public sector,” he said.
The IDB’s staff nevertheless pushed forward with critical research and technical support to governments during Claver-Carone’s tenure, publishing reports on such topics as creating green jobs and reducing Latin America’s housing deficit.
The stakes are high for the bank’s next leader. “The war in Ukraine and disruption to global energy markets and worsening climate impacts demonstrate the need for the region to be far bolder” in bringing about decarbonization with employment,” former IDB senior consultant Guy Edwards told Foreign Policy. To reestablish credibility, the next president should come from the region, “have the requisite regional and global clout,” and “ideally be a woman,” he said.
Yesterday, Mexico became the first country to nominate a candidate to replace Claver-Carone: Alicia Bárcena, former chair of the United Nations’ economic agency for Latin America. Some additional names that Reuters reported as being floated for the post include Laura Chinchilla, a former president of Costa Rica; and Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile and recently retired U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
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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