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Beef, Bible and Bullets:
Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro

by richard lapper
manchester, 272 pages, $29.95

In 1941, after fleeing ­Hitler, the Austrian Jewish writer ­Stefan Zweig wrote a book called Brazil, Land of the Future. The title became a cliché, tiresome to many Brazilians. On an official visit in 2011, President Obama declared: “This is a country of the future no more. The people of Brazil should know that the future has arrived.” Like-minded leaders were in charge. World prices for Brazil’s commodities had soared.

But as quickly as it came, the future went. Commodity prices plummeted and the pink tide that had propelled free-spending socialists to power across Latin America receded.

Richard Lapper’s book is a level-­headed assessment of a country that has been on a roller-coaster ride from prosperity and social democracy to political turmoil, social unrest, and economic mayhem in the 2020s. ­Lapper refrains from well-worn clichés about ­samba, soccer, and carnival. His text is constructed around the rise of the outspoken nationalist currently in uneasy charge of Brazil, and the problems that catapulted him into power.

For many years, the author has reported on Latin America for the Financial Times, a publication ever allergic to such populism. The title Beef, Bible and Bullets refers to the conservative lobby that has been in the ascendant recently, drawing support from agricultural interests, religious movements, and the security forces. But Lapper avoids patronizing stereotypes about individuals and national characteristics. He is refreshingly candid about his own journey from Marxism and his belief in dependency theory as a source of Latin America’s ills to a more nuanced appreciation of the continent’s problems.

In terms of its size and importance in the Americas, Brazil is second only to the United States. But history and geography have perhaps made this Portuguese-speaking nation more isolated and self-­contained than any other state of comparable magnitude. In South America, language separates it from nearly every other country. Ties with Europe have historically been weak. In Brazil there has ­usually been less hostility to the U.S. than is to be found in some of its Spanish-­speaking neighbors. Brazil was the only Latin American country to send troops to fight in wartime ­Europe on the Allied side.

Past books often concentrated on Brazil’s natural wealth and ­mineral riches. This one reflects the fear that perhaps its main asset, the vast and complex Amazon river ­system, will be despoiled by excessive human interference, and with grave ­planetary consequences. The latest chapter in the Brazil story describes a land of opportunity, endowed with nature’s bounty, that is impeded from making the leap to greatness.

But it is too easy to write off Brazil as the perpetual land of tomorrow. Its Spanish-­speaking neighbors have been far more strife-torn. Periodic civil or military dictatorship, with the specter of civil war sometimes added and demagogic politics never far away, has been the story of many of these countries. Autocratic strongmen abound in South America, but Brazil appeared less susceptible than others.

It was only in 2018 that Brazil chose its own caudilho, or man on horseback. Richard Lapper weaves an astute profile of Brazil around the intense man elected president in that year, Jair Bolsonaro. His portrait of this truculent figure avoids hyperbole or distortions. But there is sufficient strife and drama, as well as byzantine plotting and subterfuge, to provide an absorbing account of a country once again stuck in a rut after turn-of-the-century growth and social progress.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged Brazil, deepening the country’s woes and clouding the path to a better future. Optimists cling to a silver lining: If Brazil’s past is any guide, quarrels over how to define the rules of politics, allocate positions among the various contenders, and distribute resources that keep unrest in check will be bruising and debilitating, but will not lead to runaway conflict. A glance at the history of this sprawling nation reveals plenty of inefficiency, cruelty, and ­indolence—but also levels of restraint and tolerance often absent elsewhere in the Americas.

Paradoxes abound. Brazil abolished slavery only in 1888, but under the Portuguese colonizers, racial divisions were far less marked than in other European empires. (When paying a visit to the U.S. in 1876, Emperor Pedro II bemoaned the extent of racial separation there.)

Compared with Spanish America, colonial Brazil had a phlegmatic and temperate pace. The first synagogue in New York City may have been set up by Jews fleeing Recife, but the Inquisition in Brazil was comparatively mild. So was intellectual endeavor. No printing press appeared until 1807, whereas books had been printed in Spanish America for almost three hundred years. Universities, which had existed in Spanish America from the sixteenth century, only slowly emerged in Brazil during the last half of the nineteenth century.

Industrialization got under way belatedly in the 1930s after the price of coffee, Brazil’s main economic staple, crashed on world markets. But entrenched, rent-seeking interests, from protected corporations to protected labor groups to an ever-­larger bureaucracy (not to mention the military), impeded any economic take-off. Despite such constraints, enterprising Brazilians continued trying to innovate and prosper away from the state’s heavy reach. New forces also sought to influence the political weather.

Two of the most noteworthy enjoy central roles in ­Lapper’s story. First, there is the Workers' Party (PT: Partido dos Trabalhadores), which emerged in 1980 as a powerful voice for the long-submerged working class and informal sectors on the margins of society. It held office after 2003, during the commodity-price boom. The success of PT under former car plant worker Luiz Inácio da Silva (universally known as “Lula”) appeared to indicate that lower-income groups were finally making their mark in Brazilian politics. It is quite likely that by the end of 2022, the PT will be in office again under Lula, who will be ­seventy-seven. But its composition and policies are arguably tilted more toward middle-class professionals and civic activists than toward the poor or marginalized.

The second contender for influence and power is the well-organized evangelical Protestant movements, increasingly dominated by various forms of Pentecostalism. Swedish missionaries introduced Pentecostalism in 1911, when Protestantism was a minuscule presence in Brazil. By 1980, still only 6.6 percent of Brazilians were Protestant. The 2020 census shows this figure exceeding 30 percent. The explosion in growth has been ascribed to the ability of these churches to offer a personal ethic for poor people that chimes with the hunger of many for a faith combining spirituality with a design for living. Popular Catholicism in Brazil emphasized spirits, cures, and miracles. In the 1960s, liberation theology sprang up due to a partial radicalization of the Church. But ultimately Pentecostalism proved more adept at providing hope and comfort for millions of rural Brazilians who found themselves displaced and disoriented in fast-expanding cities.

Pastors offered a message of self-discipline, correct behavior, and communal solidarity. Millions are willing to pay tithes to the pastoral organization to realize the “theology of prosperity” in their own lives. The personal wealth of Edir ­Macedo, the most visible Pentecostal leader, stands at $1.1 billion, according to Forbes. Macedo has a media empire that has thrown ­Globo, the previous media kingpin, into retreat. The churches promote conservative social values and encourage political involvement. They were crucial in securing electoral victory for ­Bolsonaro and are likely to retain influence when he departs.

Bolsonaro lacks the ­intellectual heft or strategic savvy of Viktor Orbán in Hungary or the fluency of Italy’s Matteo Salvini. He was an obscure national congressman for more than twenty-five years after an early discharge from the army for indiscipline. In office he has been unable to shake off the impression that he is an awkward fringe figure lacking the deal-making abilities that are often essential for survival in Brazilian politics. Even without the cataclysmic impact of COVID on a country with poor medical facilities, it is unlikely that this sixty-six-year-old would have been able to impose strong central direction on this sprawling country.

Brazil, a land of four time zones, has vastly contrasting regions with distinctive economies and interests. It still seems remarkable that the colony mostly run from Portugal for three centuries did not break up when, two hundred years ago, upheaval in Europe led to a power vacuum in ­Latin America. Instead, there was an orderly transfer to a member of the Portuguese Bragança dynasty, who ruled as Emperor Pedro II from 1831 until a republic was peacefully ­established in 1889.

Brazil’s politics have been fractious and turbulent ever since. But the country has rarely known any prolonged period of dominance by a single figure, military or civilian. Instead, regional or city bosses have vied for control, and their success has depended on how adroit they have been at calming the military, satisfying the bureaucracy, and pleasing powerful economic interests and regional lobbies. Getúlio Vargas, a politician more skillful and subtle than ­Bolsonaro, did impose a dictatorship in 1937, his seventh year as president, and hung on until 1945. A civilian, he was removed by the military, which later held power from 1964 to 1985. The military, and much of wealthy Brazil, worried that simmering social unrest among the rural poor of the northeast could trigger a ­Castro-style revolution. No Franco or Pinochet emerged, and five officers rotated in power. Labor demands were suppressed and costly economic prestige projects were undertaken. But eventually, worn down by running a country with such a bewildering set of interests and challenges, the military willingly handed back the reins of power to liberal-conservative civilians.

What these different regimes had in common was a preference for expanding an inefficient state that too easily succumbed to political interference by private interests. The 1988 constitution widened the number of beneficiaries but did not alter the rules of the game. A sprawling state remains firmly at the heart of economic investment decisions. Its debility weaned the author away from his left-wing loyalties toward the need for a reformed capitalism and a leaner state. The hope was that long-term reforms would ensue, enabling Brazil to be less dependent on the commodity prices of its ores, hydrocarbons, and agricultural products.

Instead, acute political turmoil marked the second decade of this century. Both the economy and Brazil’s serpentine web of political interests were mishandled by ­Lula’s successor as president, ­Dilma ­Rousseff. It was a feat beyond the PT to master Brazil’s intricate web of patron-client interests. The return of economic crisis in 2014 meant that downward mobility struck many of those who had only recently emerged from severe hardship. Crime surged, often stemming from well-organized gangs battling for control of the drug trade. By 2018, sixty thousand Brazilians were dying violently each year. Protests against a bankrupt order were by now familiar sights on many city streets. The sense of outrage was fueled by the revelations that Brazil’s most high-profile state company, Petrobras, was signing contracts putting huge amounts of money in the pockets of both the old elites and the new socialist political class.

The electorate’s patience snapped over this exposé of flagrant institutional rent-seeking. Many hard-pressed citizens were aware that political insiders were the main beneficiaries of the rise in public spending, which by 2019 accounted for nearly 40 percent of GDP. Income tax was low, but indirect taxes were high, and they fell heavily on the “unprotected” who lacked political connections and substantial capital. Brazil’s politicians enjoyed some of the highest political salaries in the world.

Where Bolsonaro was innovative was in constructing a social media operation that fanned discontent, not only over abuses of power, but over the PT’s clumsy attempt to introduce gay-friendly themes in Brazilian school education. Bolsonaro’s three sons were heavily involved in politics, and they helped ensure that this uncharismatic man, by 2017, had more Facebook followers than the country’s leading media corporation. Rousseff had been impeached the previous year, and Lula would be jailed for corruption in the next one. They were convenient scapegoats, while more compromised and seasoned power holders were able to use various stratagems to keep clear of the law.

However ­well-­packaged he is and was, it is hard to imagine that Bolsonaro would have performed well in the presidential debates before the December 2018 election. But he was able to sit them out, thanks to being stabbed in the abdomen by a bricklayer. He was duly elected, the beneficiary of a multi-layered crisis involving an economic recession, a backlash against social liberalism, and the malfunctioning of a political system incapable of reform or renewal. Inevitable comparisons were made with Donald Trump, but the Brazilian was elected by a much larger margin: 55 percent. He also won votes across the racial spectrum. One-third of his parliamentary supporters are non-white, a higher percentage than Democrats can claim in the United States Congress.

Bolsonaro inherited an unwieldy Congress and a Supreme Court that had no intention of retreating into the background. The centerpiece of his program was a plan to liberalize the economy. If he was to be a transformational president, he would need to draw on qualities lacking in his political makeup: pragmatism and an ability to improve the performance of lackluster state institutions by persuasion rather than through threats and displays of melodrama.

The bloated pension system was partly reformed in his first year. The COVID pandemic then threw a deadly spanner in the works. Pragmatic allies in state and city administrations opposed his anti-­lockdown and anti-mask stance, winning the backing of the Supreme Court. He disparaged the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm purchased by many other developing countries and later found to be ineffective. Bolsonaro placed his faith instead in hydroxychloroquine, despite its poor test results. His poll ratings recovered in 2020–21, as millions of poor Brazilians benefited from emergency welfare payments. Bolsonaro was thus behaving like past godfathers of populism, such as Argentina’s Juan Perón. Brazil provided the most generous COVID assistance of any developing country, but as funds ran low and the cost of borrowing shot up, Bolsonaro’s options were running out. As Lapper’s book was going to press, the Supreme Court was going after Bolsonaro’s allies because of what were deemed inflammatory comments. Some predicted impeachment, or else a coup mounted by the president himself. Top generals resigned, as did ministers. Only Bolsonaro’s most radical supporters remained fully faithful.

Close Brazil watchers on the left are queasy about anointing Lula’s PT as the force of the future. It has failed to disentangle itself from business interests with which it got enmeshed during its previous time in office. It is a party in which careers and material gain count for more than ideology. The aging Lula (whose corruption conviction has been quashed) is a lucky charm for a party that lacks obvious successors with strong appeal. His brief period of imprisonment has imbued him with a touch of Nelson ­Mandela’s martyrdom. But there are too ­many disquieting signs that, like the African National Congress in the aftermath of its founder’s years as president of South Africa, the PT will quickly end up as a machine party dominated by vested ­interests.

Class interests in Brazil historically have not shaped politics. Different socioeconomic groupings have enlisted in various amorphous movements controlled by groups and individuals often intent on milking politics for sectional advantage. It could be the turn of urban middle-class planners and strategists, influenced by U.S. left-wing thinking, to exercise their sway if Brazil is ruled by Lula once again. But many won’t take progressive groupthink lying down. Brazil’s complex pattern of race relations does not easily lend itself to woke nostrums.

Lapper ignores the universities in an otherwise comprehensive book. But evidence is growing that law faculties, humanities institutes, and even some medical schools are starting to incubate the aggressive obscurantism of woke thought. Inevitably, many of those young middle-class Brazilians who have forsaken religion are receptive to the new militant conformism being promoted at a global level.

It is not unreasonable to speculate that Brazilian corporations, which have been roiled by recent turbulence, might seek to recover by manipulating diversity and speech codes as a way of disciplining their workforces. Nationalism and anti-communism were strategies of domination that worked well for Brazilian capitalism in the past. CEOs might already be looking wistfully at U.S. tech ­giants and other corporations whose profit margins have soared as human resources commissars monitor their employees. But I suspect that the struggle for survival is too raw and elemental for the politics of Brazil to fall easily into the hands of scolds and zealots who police speech and shape public policy around race and gender.

In a pre-election year, an embattled Bolsonaro is enjoying a political respite despite surging COVID figures. (Brazil occupies third place in the total number of pandemic deaths worldwide, though it is twelfth in deaths as a percentage of population). Rather than attempt to drive him from office, his opponents are absorbed with the approaching electoral battle. In February, Bolsonaro made headlines when he visited ­Vladimir Putin at a key point in Russia’s stand-off with Ukraine. The visit can be over-interpreted. It probably has less to do with substituting a Western orientation for a Eurasian one than with impressing ­politically undecided Brazilians that their president carries weight—so much that he is able to hang out with the world’s currently most-discussed leader at a busy time.

Bolsonaro may soon fade from the picture, but it is likely that the interests that gathered around him, often comprising people who work hard to make a precarious living in small-town, rural, and God-fearing Brazil, will remain in contention. This ­unfrivolous but emotional, sometimes intolerant but community-­minded Brazil is arguably more representative than fashionable, sensual, and crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro, from which much of the world still derives its impression of the country.

Thomas Gallagher is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Bradford.

Image by Palacio do Planalto via Creative Commons. Image cropped.