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Guest: Ricardo Sennes, economist, political analyst, and Brazil expert

On January 8th, an extremist mob took over the country’s presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court buildings following President Lula’s inauguration. More divided than ever, how will Brazil handle this political crossroads?

News around the world centered on the violent protests in Brazil by those who rejected election results and sought to overthrow the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva following the presidential transition (sound familiar?). The riots were – at best – a collapse of military preparedness or – at worst – included the help and connivance of some military and business elites. Can we expect continued instability in the world’s fifth-biggest economy?

Brazil is no stranger to protests. We started the podcast by asking Sennes what made this protest so different from any since the return of democracy in 1985. He responded, “What we saw on January the 8th was an attempted coup d’état. The structure behind the protests was a very complex network that was connecting different political forces. Some connections within the state police, and unfortunately, from the military forces. In the end, the result was that we really had the strongest attempt against the democratic institution in Brazil in a very long time.”

There is lots of speculation as to why the security forces did not react during the protests. Was it a breakdown of intelligence and organization, or was it intentional connivance? Sennes said, “Part of the problem was a clear collaboration from different institutions, for instance, the Secretary of Security from Brasilia- the Federal District of Brasilia- he wasn’t there during this protest. He was trying not to engage. Other units of the state police or units from the army forces are completely incompetent. They failed to find enough information and they failed to organize a strong response to the threats.”

We turned to the big question of the hour – is this over now? Has the danger to Brazil and its democratic institutions abated? Sennes replied, “No, not at all. I think we still have room for another attempt against democracy like this one, or even worse than what we had. We still have a strong public opinion against the establishment in general. I’m talking about 40% of the Brazilian public opinion have some kind of objection against democracy in Brazil or the political establishment in general.”

Altamar’s Peter Schechter asked about the undeniable parallels between the US and Brazil. We had a similar event in America on January 6th, 2021. In the United States, it seems as if the far-right fervor has died down, election deniers were largely defeated in the recent midterm elections. Does our guest think that this will happen in Brazil? Will people’s opinions evolve, or will this continue to fester? Sennes acknowledged that the stream of fake news disparaging the Brazilian government systems is unlikely to go away anytime soon. “Actually right now, we have different groups with different leaders that may create their own strategies against democracy. It is clear that there is no single leader behind them. But we don’t know how coordinated they will be in the future.” That’s enough to make everybody nervous.

Where does Bolsonaro fit into this picture of fractured opposition? What is his role? Sennes said, “He’s not part of a strong organization that is national-wide or has a clear strategy. I define Bolsonaro as a leader of a very generic movement. He doesn’t have a clear agenda or a clear political strategy. What Bolsonaro did was catalyzed some of these movements that are there. We have a sense in the Brazilian society- I think is similar in other countries in Latin America- this suspicion: we have a very bad mood in the country, in society. We have this long-term economic crisis. Bolsonaro himself is not the strategic leader. He’s the leader of a narrative.”

Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked, “What about the role of the judiciary in Brazil? Some right-of-center Brazilians are complaining that the judiciary has been compromised, that it is full of leftist sympathies and has been a catalyst for impunity.” Sennes said, “We have in Brazil, what we call judiciary activism. That means the judiciary is pushing agendas. They are actually making decisions even against other constitutional powers. For instance, some decision that the Supreme Court did in the last few years was basically decisions that should have been made by Congress. But we have had this situation since before Bolsonaro’s presidency.” 

And Lula? He has a very complicated legacy. How does our guest see him? Is he a savior or does he continue to be one of the main architects of the biggest corruption scandal in the region’s history? Is he transformational or just really clever?  Our guest responded, “He’s both. He can be both at the same time. He’s a kind of leader. He made major decisions in the positive policies he created. He fought against hunger and poverty. I think that was clear. He did that, but at the same time, he’s the leader of the most important corruption scandal in Brazil. That’s clear. So Lula is a kind of paradox.”

This dissatisfaction with economic, societal, and political circumstances is not only present in Brazil. It is rampant around Latin America with protests threatening stability. What does our guest see happening in the region? Sennes said, “It has to do with the capacity of the Latin American countries to address what happened after the fourth technological revolution. Since the 1990s, what we saw in Latin American countries is a process of deindustrialization, a process in which the labor force has been disorganized. So, we have right now a lack of supply of good jobs in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Peru, among others. We have an increase in inequality in these societies.”

On her youth and social justice segment on the show, Téa Ivanovic asked about the role of social media in promoting this type of violence and insurrection. Less than a month following Brazil’s contentious presidential elections in October, Twitter fired most of its Brazil-based staff in charge of monitoring violent content on the platform. What do we do about these social media platforms? Don’t they have to pay some kind of price for their failure to monitor and moderate violence on their platforms? Sennes responded,” Brazil is one of the world’s countries with the most intense use of social networks. If you take Facebook, if you take Twitter- Brazil is in the top three or top five in the world with the most users. That means they are part of this democratic narrative dispute that we have in Brazil. And I would say that the far-right movements in Brazil have been much better in using social media than the centrists, the moderates, and the leftists.”

So, what is Sennes’ prediction for the political and economic outlook of the Lula government? He answered, “I’m not very optimistic. I think Lula will manage to arrange a coalition in Congress that will support his administration. But at the same time, I think Lula will, in the next four years, every single day need to pay attention to the opposition in society. I think these problems that we saw recently will not finish, will not stop. Lula will need to combine a traditional or normal administration with this permanent fight against a very strong and violent opposition in Brazil. I think, unfortunately, this will affect the capacity of Brazil to recover economic development in the next few years. […] We are not expecting any major strong change. I think being back to normality will be a major success for Lula.”

We finished with one final question about Lula’s agenda. How does all of this opposition affect the new president’s promise to be an environmental steward of the Amazon? Sennes said, “I think the issue of environment right now, it’s a pragmatic and a potentially positive issue for Lula. And that’s why I think Lula will take this agenda because he understands clearly that we have this low-hanging fruit for Brazil. Not just in terms of image, international image or international presence in forums, et cetera, but in a concrete sense and for attracting investments or attractive funding for his policy.”

Will Brazil continue to be plagued by more political violence and insurrections? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

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Episode 144