Latin America Brief

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How Bolsonaro Changed the Brazilian Right

Sunday’s election cemented the far-right president’s dominance of a formerly moderate camp.

Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters during a campaign rally and military parade on Brazil’s 200th Independence Day at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 7.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters during a campaign rally and military parade on Brazil’s 200th Independence Day at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 7.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters during a campaign rally and military parade on Brazil’s 200th Independence Day at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 7. Wagner Meier/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: What Jair Bolsonaro’s better-than-expected election performance reveals about the Brazilian right, how an OPEC+ oil cut is affecting U.S. policy toward Venezuela, and why Chile’s first lady is stepping down.

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

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: What Jair Bolsonaro’s better-than-expected election performance reveals about the Brazilian right, how an OPEC+ oil cut is affecting U.S. policy toward Venezuela, and why Chile’s first lady is stepping down.

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


The Far Right’s Staying Power

Brazil’s first-round presidential election last Sunday saw leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva earn 48.4 percent of the vote to far-right incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro’s 43.2 percent. Since neither managed to crack 50 percent, they will face off again in a runoff on Oct. 30.

Both candidates broke electoral records. Lula received the most votes of any candidate in a first-round presidential election since Brazil’s redemocratization in 1985, while Bolsonaro earned 1.8 million more votes than he did in the first-round contest four years ago.

While Lula’s strong performance was expected, Bolsonaro outperformed polls. The day of the vote, an aggregator on the news site Jota estimated that Lula would lead his opponent by 10 percentage points—rather than 5 points. What’s more, several politicians who aligned themselves with Bolsonaro won sweeping victories at the state and congressional levels. Seven gubernatorial candidates who endorsed the president won their elections, compared to five who backed Lula; Bolsonaro’s party, meanwhile, grew to become the largest in both houses of Brazil’s Congress. Lula’s party grew around 20 percent in both houses to become the second-largest in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and fifth-largest in the Senate.

“Bolsonaro’s structural force” was “underestimated during two years of polling,” Andrei Roman of Atlas Intelligence told Bloomberg Línea after the vote. Last Friday, Atlas had pegged Bolsonaro’s support at a close 41.1 percent.

Analysts have speculated that polling errors could be due to last-minute changes in opinion, the phenomenon of a “shy” Bolsonaro voter, Bolsonaro supporters’ distrust of pollsters, or difficulty predicting turnout. Roman said data from the pollster Futura showed men interviewed by male pollsters more often said they would vote for Bolsonaro than men interviewed by female pollsters.

“Bolsonaro surprised us again,” Getúlio Vargas Foundation political scientist Jairo Nicolau told Nexo.

Sunday’s election demonstrated how much Bolsonaro has shifted Brazil’s partisan landscape. The president has not only strengthened the Brazilian right but also changed it fundamentally.

Since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the country’s politics has generally included a “left pole” organized around Lula’s Workers’ Party and a “right pole” organized around the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), as well as several other ideologically ambiguous parties that often supported whoever was in power, State University of Campinas political scientist Andréa Freitas told Foreign Policy. The PSDB’s focus was “economic issues,” especially “controlling state spending and pushing for more efficient state spending,” she said, calling the party a “very responsible right.”

In 2018, when Bolsonaro was elected president as a member of a tiny right-wing party called the Social Liberal Party, the PSDB shrank to around half its size in the Chamber of Deputies. On Sunday, it dwindled by half again. Now, Freitas said, it is Bolsonaro who serves as the “pillar” and “organizing force” of the Brazilian right.

“Brazil turned to the right [in 2018] and stayed there [in 2022],” Nicolau said.

Bolsonaro achieved this in part by building alliances with conservative elites in Brazil’s ideologically ambiguous parties—known as the “Centrão,” or “big center,” Nicolau said. Bolsonaro even joined a Centrão party, the Liberal Party, ahead of this year’s election.

The president’s continued dominance on the right is also partly due to a communications strategy that is heavily reliant on social media, where he often denounces criticism as fake news. In these forums, Bolsonaro has emphasized his proclaimed Christian values, touted gun ownership as a solution to Brazil’s insecurity, and played up the idea that he is a clean politician while Lula is corrupt, a reference to Lula’s trials in connection with the Operation Car Wash scandal. (Lula’s cases related to Operation Car Wash have all been closed or suspended.)

“Practically all of the [Bolsonaro] voters I interviewed considered Lula and the Workers’ Party corrupt,” political scientist Camila Rocha, who has for years conducted qualitative interviews with Bolsonaro supporters, told Folha de São Paulo on Monday. “People repeated verbatim Bolsonaro’s discourse on livestreams and social media.”

Bolsonaro’s electoral performance Sunday cemented a new status quo. Unlike in decades past, the core of Brazil’s right now holds positions that are “anti-science,” heavily focused on social conservatism, distrustful of the press, and pro-gun, Freitas said. Economic liberalism appears to matter much less: In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s vote, Bolsonaro’s government spent more than $2.3 billion not approved in Brazil’s 2022 budget to give an economic boost to poor Brazilians, Poder360 reported.

For now, what Freitas called the “responsible right” has been voted out of office in large numbers. José Serra, one of the PSDB’s founders, lost his Senate seat on Sunday. Former Bolsonaro Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello, whose department ordered supplies of chloroquine for hospitals to administer to COVID-19 patients during the pandemic, was elected to the Chamber of Deputies.

On Tuesday, Serra announced his endorsement of Lula for president, as did his fellow PSDB founder, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Lula’s running mate, Geraldo Alckmin, hails from the party, too.

The lasting consequences of Bolsonaro’s dominance of the Brazilian right are still unclear. In the past, Freitas said, Centrão politicians often made alliances with other political forces—left or right—while being careful not to embrace all their positions. That may be harder with Bolsonaro. Centrão lawmakers might find themselves calculating that “they will not get reelected if they don’t ally with the whole package,” she said.


Upcoming Events

Wednesday, Oct. 12: The United Nations Security Council discusses Colombia.

Thursday, Oct. 13: The U.N. Human Rights Committee discusses Haiti.

Wednesday, Oct. 19, to Friday, Oct. 21: Finance ministers from Chile, Mexico, and Peru attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Bangkok.


What We’re Following

Spyware in Mexico. A new report from Mexican nonprofit Network in Defense of Digital Rights and the University of Toronto found that devices belonging to journalists and human rights activists in Mexico were hacked with Pegasus spyware as recently as 2021. That’s after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his government would not use the software, which is produced by the Israeli company NSO Group and is only sold to governments.

An earlier leak had showed that users of Pegasus in Mexico included people close to López Obrador on a list of potential targets between 2016 and 2017, during the government of his predecessor.

One of the journalists allegedly targeted by López Obrador’s government had shared information about extrajudicial killings of civilians by Mexico’s army, and another is known for reporting on links between the government and cartels. López Obrador denied that his government hacked their cellphones.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appear during a joint press conference at Casa de Nariño in Bogotá on Oct. 3.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appear during a joint press conference at Casa de Nariño in Bogotá on Oct. 3.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appear during a joint press conference at Casa de Nariño in Bogotá on Oct. 3.Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images

Blinken in South America. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Colombia, Peru, and Chile this week. In a Monday meeting with Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who has called for a rethink of the militaristic U.S.-backed war on drugs in Colombia, Blinken said there was “extensive common ground” between the two countries and that “we strongly support the holistic approach the Petro administration is taking”—one that includes talks with guerrilla groups.

Petro said differences remained between the countries and criticized the United States for ostracizing Cuba through sanctions. Blinken’s visits to all three countries will also include discussions on migration, the U.S. State Department said.

In Peru on Thursday, Blinken attended a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS). The United States and most member countries backed a Guatemala-led declaration calling for “the end of Russian aggression in Ukraine.” Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina did not sign the declaration. Last Friday, Brazil abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote condemning Russia’s annexation of occupied territories in Ukraine’s east.

No more first ladyship. Irina Karamanos, the partner of Chilean President Gabriel Boric, has announced that she is not only stepping down as first lady but also moving to close down the position.

The office of the first lady directs several government sociocultural foundations that promote activities such as literacy, music, and women’s development. These will be transferred to the appropriate federal ministries by the end of the year, Karamanos said.

Karamanos had pledged during the presidential campaign to “rethink” the office of the first lady. She told El País on Wednesday that the figure of a first lady “is not as democratic as we hope from institutions” and that she aimed to be more professionally and financially independent from the Chilean presidency.

Boric and Karamanos remain a couple, and Karamanos said she may still appear with Boric at some ceremonial events.


Question of the Week

Before doing away with Chile’s office of the first lady, Karamanos caused a minor political scandal this year when she changed its technical name. What did she try to call it instead?

The public’s strong reaction to the change is evidence of how relatively scandal-free Chile is. After the uproar, the name was switched to “Sociocultural Coordination of the Presidency.”


FP’s Most Read This Week

• Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine by Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch

• The Russian Warship and the South China Sea by Alexander Wooley

• Russia’s Army Keeps Collapsing After Falling Back in Kherson by Jack Detsch


In Focus: The Venezuela Back Channel

A man wearing a face mask walks past a mural depicting an oil pump and the Venezuelan flag in a street of Caracas on May 26.
A man wearing a face mask walks past a mural depicting an oil pump and the Venezuelan flag in a street of Caracas on May 26.

A man wearing a face mask walks past a mural depicting an oil pump and the Venezuelan flag in a street of Caracas on May 26.FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration and the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro are in talks about potential U.S. sanctions relief for Venezuela that would allow Chevron to resume pumping oil in the country, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

Strains in global oil supply after Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine have apparently added to incentives for the United States to reevaluate its policy toward Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves. The last few months have seen some U.S. steps away from the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy toward the country, which included backing opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s 2019 efforts to oust Maduro and piling on sanctions when those efforts failed. In the past few weeks, multiple factors have pointed to a possible further thaw.

On Saturday, Venezuela and the United States conducted a prisoner swap. Venezuela released six U.S. citizens and one permanent resident who had been jailed for what Washington called trumped-up corruption charges, and the United States released two Venezuelan men who had been convicted of drug trafficking. The swap created “new opportunities,” a U.S. official told the Journal.

Then, on Wednesday, OPEC+, a cartel of large oil producers that includes Russia and Venezuela, announced that it would slash global production by 2 million barrels a day. The move was a blow to U.S. President Joe Biden, who in July had urged Saudi Arabia—the group’s leader—to increase oil output.

Former Chevron executive Ali Moshiri, who oversaw the company’s Latin America operations, told the Journal that if Chevron and other companies could work freely in Venezuela, the country could produce around 1.5 million barrels per day within two years. Rice University economist Francisco J. Monaldi, an expert on Venezuela’s oil sector, tweeted that without sanctions, it would take at least three years for the country’s production to reach 1.3 million barrels per day.

The possibility of sanctions relief hinges on Maduro’s commitment to restarting talks with Venezuela’s opposition that aim to secure conditions for the country’s 2024 elections, the Journal reported. A U.S. National Security Council Spokesperson said “there are no plans to change our sanctions policy without constructive steps from the Maduro regime.” A potential relief deal would also reportedly free up Venezuelan money frozen in U.S. banks that could then be used to pay for food, medical, and infrastructure imports.

Guaidó, the opposition leader, appeared not to have been briefed on the details of the potential authorization for Chevron and asked the United States for information about it on Monday, according to Reuters. The United States’ “quiet downgrading” of relations with Guaidó is another sign that it’s shifting its Venezuela policy, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Michael Paarlberg tweeted.

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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