In 2023, Jair Bolsonaro lost his bid for re-election to the Brazilian Presidency to former President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, returning “Lula” to leadership over the largest country in South America.  Join Active Minds as we explore Brazil’s bumpy political ride and what this leadership transition means for the country and the region.

Key Lecture Points

  • Brazil is the largest country and largest economy in South America. It has the 7th largest population and 12th largest economy in the world. It is slightly larger than the contiguous United States.
  • Formerly a Portuguese colony, Brazil gained its independence in 1822. Unlike much of turbulent Latin America in the 19th century, Brazil was rather politically stable under the leadership of a powerful local monarch supported by Portugal until 1889. Democratic revolution in 1889 resulted in over 4 decades of relatively peaceful, republican rule. In 1930, however, a military dictatorship swept the country, disrupting its democratic trajectory. Only in 1989 did Brazil return to democratically elected leadership.
  • Relations with the US have historically been based on common economic interests, as they still are today. Unlike much of Latin America, Brazilian politics has only infrequently been threatening to the US (only during some of the Cold War), leading to a policy of significantly less interference by the US.
  • In 2002 Brazil elected its first working-class President, Luiz Ignacio da Silva (“Lula”). Unlike Venezuela’s more radical, socialist agenda, Lula represented Latin America’s “pragmatic left,” simultaneously trying to meet the needs of the poor and reconciling the country to an increasingly global capitalist economic system.
  • A drop in commodities prices and demand led to recession in the mid-2010s and the devastating “carwash scandal” made Brazil politically and economically fragile. In frustration, the Brazilian people elected the previously little-known Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate, who promised to change the system and leave behind former corruption.
  • Bolsonaro began his presidency with strong moves to fulfill campaign promises, but struggled to gain a foothold with Congress, and his legislative agenda largely stalled. His populist and disinformation-filled handling of the pandemic led to a pendulum swing back to Lula’s center-left leadership in January 2023.

Discussion Questions

  • What factors led to the slide of Brazil from a strong emerging economy to the current deep recession?
  • Have you ever been to Brazil? What was it like? In what way did it differ from travel to other South or Central American locales?
  • Do you see social elements in Brazilian cultural that mirror those in American society?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Schwarcz, Lilia M. and Heloisa M. Starling. Brazil: A Biography. Picador. 2018. 816 pages. In an extraordinary journey that spans five hundred years, from European colonization to the 2016 Summer Olympics, Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling’s Brazil offers a rich, dramatic history of this complex country. The authors not only reconstruct the epic story of the nation but follow the shifting byways of food, art, and popular culture; the plights of minorities; and the ups and downs of economic cycles.
    Click here to order
  • Reid, Michael.  Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power. Yale University Press, 2016. 352 pages.  The author describes Brazil’s great potential as a global power and the problems it must address before it can take a commanding position in global affairs.
    Click here to order
  • Kerr, Gordon.  A Short History of Brazil: From Pre-Colonial Peoples to Modern Economic Miracle.  Oldcastle Books, 2014.  160 pages.  This book recounts the history of Brazil, from its discovery by Cabral to the challenges it faces in the 21st century.
    Click here to order