The Brazilian Election: Recap and Potential Consequences

The night of Sunday, October 30th marked a great victory for leftists and supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the new Brazilian President, after a majority of voters chose to oust incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. The election’s margins were close, with 60.3 million voting for Lula, compared to 58.2 million voting for Bolsonaro. This round of voting came after a fiercely contested first round, with neither candidate reaching 50% of the overall vote on October 4th, thus needing a second round with the top-two candidates. But with this election marking a shift to the left for Brazilian politics, what does this victory by Lula actually mean?

Goodbye Jair Bolsonaro

An image of Jair Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro diz que, se perder para Lula em 2022, só aceitará se “voto for auditável”. Source: Yahoo! Images

Jair Bolsonaro led Brazil from 2018 to 2022, through a platform centered largely on eliminating corruption and “putting an end to ‘old politics,’” using rhetoric similar to that of Donald Trump. Interestingly enough, many have actually called Bolsonaro as the “Trump of the Tropics,” and combined with that title came a desire of the Trump Administration to foster closer ties with Brazil.

Brazil under Bolsonaro’s Administration started with a shift in how pensions operated in the city, changing the retirement age for men and women from 56 and 53 to 65 and 62 respectively. Brazil also reduced the protections granted to the Amazon rainforest, leading to more instances of illegal logging and burning of trees. Despite the harm done to climate change efforts, President Bolsonaro promoted business interests instead, which also led to the displacement of indigenous populations in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic also showcased Bolsonaro’s reluctance to impose federal restrictions and aid state/local governments in imposing lockdowns, with the President himself downplaying the severity of the virus. Through Bolsonaro claiming to have benefitted from taking hydroxychloroquine (which does not treat COVID-19 in individuals) and raising doubts related to vaccinations, not to mention a lackluster response from the federal government, 15 million Brazilians contracted COVID-19 and more than 400,000 individuals died from the virus.

Welcome Back Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

An image of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva
Lula será candidato em 2022, diz vice-presidente do PT”: | Política. Source: Yahoo! Images

da Silva, more commonly known as “Lula,” served as Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010, and helped alleviate ~20 million Brazilians out of poverty. After leaving office with above an 80% approval rating (President Obama even called him the “most popular politician on Earth”), he then became part of an investigation into government bribes, leading to his imprisonment. In 2021 however, the Supreme Court threw out Lula’s conviction, noting that the judge “was biased in convicting Lula.”

With 50.9% of the total vote, Lula’s victory cemented a shift to the left for politics throughout Latin America, with leftist victories in Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Lula campaigned on making life better for Brazil’s poor, especially with the effects of the pandemic and inflation throughout Brazil. His election marks promises to increase the minimum wage, create jobs, and widen the already existing safety to aid more struggling Brazilians. His victory also came due to the deep unpopularity that Bolsonaro has throughout Brazil, given his actions and impact on Brazil’s standing on the global stage, combined with his selection of Geraldo Alckmin (his opponent in the 2006 presidential election) as his running mate. Lula’s victory also induced many celebrations throughout Brazil, and around Latin America, with Columbia’s leader, Gustavo Petro, also tweeting “Viva Lula.”

The 2022 Brazilian Election – Concerns and Protests

This election pitted an incumbent (Bolsonaro) with an ex-President (Lula), with both candidates attacking each other for the stances they have, calling each other corrupt or authoritarian-like. Tensions in Brazil are also at an all-time high because of President Bolsonaro’s attempt to cast “unsubstantiated doubt on the trustworthiness of Brazil’s electronic voting system,” combined with conspiracy theories from his supporters noting that career politicians were against Bolsonaro’s victory. Lula’s victory also symbolizes the start of a continued conflict between Lula’s leftist party and the opposition, with Lula facing many Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil’s Congress when creating and working to implement new policies.

Interestingly enough, Bolsonaro had not conceded to Lula following the election despite official results noting that he lost the election. This silence also comes with an increase in protests against Lula’s victory, especially from those working in the trucking industry. With many truckers supporting Bolsonaro’s policies starting fires and blocking off portions of a highway, election deniers / doubters have worked to cause chaos and disruption to the Brazilian economy in an effort to bring Bolsonaro back to the Presidency. In recent days, many supporters of Bolsonaro have called for blockades to be created around major industry centers, in an effort to “paralyze the country.” Despite the potential for more protests, many of Bolsonaro’s cabinet members and allies have accepted the results of the election, from televangelists to elected officials and judges in Brazil. And unlike similar occurrences of politicians refusing to accept defeat, Bolsonaro does not have as much political support to launch operations or coups.

Refusal to Concede

In his first public remarks post-election, Bolsonaro did not concede to Lula, while also noting that current protests come from a feeling of anger over a potential injustice being committed on the Brazilian population.

“The current popular movements are the fruit of indignation and a sense of injustice about the way the electoral process took place.” – Jair Bolsonaro

Despite this refusal to simply state his loss to Lula, Bolsonaro’s cabinet has moved into a transition process for the incoming cabinet. Even so, Bolsonaro has in recent months used language indicating some type of violence occurring were he to lose the Brazilian election. Combined with the fact that major Bolsonaro allies reside in the military raise even more concerns with which way administrators may turn when the transition of power officially happens.

Human Rights in Brazil

A flag of Brazil flowing in the wind
Brazil – Flag. Source: Yahoo! Images

Brazil under Bolsonaro had loosened gun regulations and opened up the rainforest to private developers. With President-Elect Lula, many hope to see protection of the Amazon Rainforest and protecting minority populations from women and LGBTQ individuals to indigenous populations and persons with disabilities. These initiatives by Lula will help to protect those most at risk while also helping Brazil recover from the detrimental effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, and a collision between left and right ideologies.

Other blogs point to Bolsonaro’s administration implementing policies that would only hurt the rich diversity in nature and the freedom of expression by all peoples, and it is through this election that hope for an egalitarian and environmentally-conscious government will serve the interests of the broader public, rather than serving the interests of the few through powerful and accusatory rhetoric.

Cataclysm: COVID-19 in Brazil

As the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to grow in the United States (U.S.), another epicenter has been growing in South America. As the sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside an array of national controversies that make the response efforts considerably more difficult. This blog addresses Brazil’s growing importance in the COVID-19 discussion and how it impacts human rights issues concerning indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, favela communities, and good governance.

As of late-June, more than 1.3 million Brazilians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 55,000 have died from the virus. Brazil’s most populated state, São Paulo, is currently the country’s epicenter with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The northeastern state of Ceará has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (100,000+), while Pará in the northwest is nearing 100,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro has over 105,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Amazonas has to the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state with 67 deaths per 100,000 cases, compared to Bahia’s 11 deaths per 100,000 cases, which highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities that have been systematically killed, displaced, and denied access to health care and other preventative services that could help fight the spread of the virus.

Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

As the largest Brazilian state in the Amazon region, Amazonas is known for its indigenous communities who often live in isolated villages and have poor access to health care. In the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2 million+ and is only accessible by aircraft or boat, many recent respiratory-related deaths have resulted in quick burial in mass graves, which has likely led to a severe underestimate the pandemic’s toll on the local population. In the remote community of Betania, the Tikuna tribe has five government medical workers that accommodate an approximate 4,000 inhabitants, but they are not treating the sick due to lack of protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. One considerable threat are the indigenous community members who are not quarantining and are, instead, traveling in and out of town for work.

These unprecedented events compound the colonial legacy that has threatened Brazil’s indigenous peoples for centuries. Centuries ago, indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon were decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. In a way, history is repeating itself because the Brazilian government’s ineffectual response to the crisis have allowed COVID-19 to ravage the surviving indigenous communities and put them on the brink of genocide. Aside from the tribes who have contact with the modern world, the Brazilian Amazon inhabits 103 uncontacted tribes who have virtually no knowledge or resources to protect them from the threat of COVID-19. Signing this petition will help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Since COVID-19 has reached these Amazonian communities, deforestation in the region has also proliferated. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is important to the global ecosystem because it absorbs approximately 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thus, protecting the Amazon is pivotal for stalling the effects of climate change. However, for years, the Amazon has been ravaged to accommodate the agricultural industry as well as illegal loggers and drug traffickers. As a result, indigenous leaders fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will be used to exacerbate the destruction these industries have already caused.

During the month of April, deforestation in Brazil increased by nearly 64% which resulted in more than 150 square miles of rainforest destruction. In response, 3,000+ Brazilian soldiers were deployed to the region to prevent illegal logging and other criminal activities that contribute to deforestation. Some worry that such activity in the rainforest will lead to outsiders giving indigenous communities infectious diseases, namely COVID-19. Brazil’s Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) has made efforts to distribute N95 masks, gloves, and goggles to the region, but activists warn that the only way to protect uncontacted tribes is by keeping illegal loggers and miners out of these areas. Despite the Brazilian government establishing three military bases to prevent illegal actors from permeating the region, they are only expected to be present for 30 days. This is because Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, is expected to take over these efforts but are currently understaffed and underbudgeted.

Favelas in the Age of Social Distancing

More than 11 million Brazilians live in favelas which are shantytowns outside of urban centers. Already hit hard by gun violence, unsanitary conditions, and militaristic police presence, people living in Brazil’s favelas struggle to adhere to social distancing measures. Research has found that people living favela-like conditions spend roughly 50% more time per day with others than people in less-impoverished areas. Often, favelas are composed of two or three rooms with five or six people sharing these spaces. As such, favela conditions enable the spread of COVID-19, and with precious little assistance from the government, Brazil’s most impoverished communities are left to fend for themselves.

With little government help, residents of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo (population: 100,000) have offered a community-based solution. Due to donations and volunteer work, residents have responded to COVID-19 by organizing distribution of free meals, ambulatory services, and neighborhood watch persons. They even designated one building the quarantine house and repurposed closed schools in self-isolation centers. In Rio, members of the gang City of God drive through the local favelas, blaring a recorded message ordering people to stay home. Other gangs have become knowledgeable about COVID-19 in order to deliver essential goods to favela residents and have even gone as far to enforce social distancing measures by preventing restaurants from putting tables out. These forms of gang vigilantism in Brazil’s favelas demonstrate the lack of government support and tension with local police.

Small grave onlooking a favela.
At the bottom of this block destined to the burials of COVID-19, is the favela of the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha housing complex. Source: Léu Britto, Creative Commons.

Trump of the Tropics

These criticisms are largely attributed to the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who notoriously dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu”. Aside from personally ignoring social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has organized large rallies in an effort to confront local governors who have locked down their regions. Recently, after ignoring federal regulation that require wearing a face mask in all public places, a judge ruled that Bolsonaro (and any public official) is not exempt from this policy and should expect a 2,000-reais ($387) fine like anyone else. Bolsonaro even fired his Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, in April after he supported social distancing measures. His successor has since promoted a reopening of the economy and unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.

Known by many as the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has successfully maintained a strong coalition of supporters such as the agriculture community, evangelical Christians, and the military. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is an emerging economy with a weak social safety net that makes it difficult for government officials to convince people to stay at home. Health care access and the conditions to work from home are also quite limited. Recent cell phone tracking data has revealed that 45-60% of Brazilians are not complying with social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that they have to choose between feeding their families and being exposed to the virus. As such, it is assumed Bolsonaro’s defiance of a public health approach to COVID-19 is an effort to appeal to his core supporters. Bolsonaro has also slashed regulations and enforcement of land grabbing, which exacerbates the deforestation crisis currently impacting the Amazon.

Human Rights in Brazil

As demonstrated, Brazil has an array of chronic human rights problems that have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was passed that limited public expenditures in Brazil for the next 20 years. As a result, we are now witnessing how these austerity measures have affected access to housing, food, water, and sanitation when Brazilians need it the most, particularly within the most vulnerable groups – women, children, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and informally-settled persons.

Much like the U.S., Brazil’s COVID-19 response has mostly been subnational social distancing measures and an emergency basic income to placate the masses. However, these efforts are clearly inadequate considering Brazil’s COVID-19 cases are surging alongside another potential Zika outbreak. As a result, Brazil has effectively become the most prominent COVID-19 case study in the Global South, a nation plagued by a deadly virus and an array of human rights issues. Human rights experts suggest fiscal stimulus and social protection packages would only be the beginning of a COVID-19 response because many of these concerns are the consequence of marketization and privatization of public goods and services. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to reverse the market-based ideology that has failed so many countries, especially the Land of the Palms.

Please sign the petition to help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.