Op-Ed

Who will save Brazil’s democracy if Jair Bolsonaro tries to destroy it?

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When Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as Brazil’s president on New Year’s Day, he announced that, “One of my priorities is to protect and reinvigorate Brazilian democracy.”

The hardline former army captain was known for many things during his 27 years in Brazil’s Congress, but champion of democracy was not one of them. Bolsonaro expressed nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship and dedicated his vote to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff to the colonel who led a dictatorship-era torture squad.

Within Brazil, Bolsonaro’s authoritarian rhetoric was hotly debated during the presidential campaign. His supporters embraced his brash promises to bring law and order to a country beset by crime, corruption and economic struggles. His opponents feared a resurgence of military rule or the emergence of a Duterte-style police state. Bolsonaro’s decision to populate his administration with retired generals hardly eased concerns.

Yet elsewhere in Latin America, where prosecutors are still investigating human-rights abuses committed by Cold War dictatorships, Bolsonaro’s inauguration provoked surprisingly little alarm. That is in part because many observers regard the threat as overblown. Since his election, Bolsonaro has affirmed his commitment to Brazil’s constitution. He has appointed federal Judge Sergio Moro, an anti-corruption crusader, as his justice minister. The country’s democratic institutions, moreover, have matured since Brazil’s 1985 return to democracy.

Nonetheless, it is worth asking how willing Brazil’s neighbors are to stand up for democratic principles should the need arise. Bolsonaro’s inaugural address had a messianic streak — borne of the president’s personalist style and religious fervor. It is uncertain how he might respond to an unwieldy or obstructionist legislature, an uncooperative court or an opposition protest movement standing in the way of his political agenda, which includes ambitious pro-market reforms and a sharp right turn on guns and social issues.

In 2001, the countries of the Americas declared democracy the only acceptable form of government. At multilateral bodies such as the Organization of American States, it is the price of admission. Latin American governments in recent years have shown a heartening — if not always consistent — willingness to act on these commitments.

In 2009, after soldiers in Tegucigalpa deposed President Manuel Zelaya, OAS members quickly suspended Honduras. And in the face of the democratic collapse in Venezuela, Latin American governments have taken unprecedented, though belated, actions. The ad hoc Lima Group, comprising the region’s biggest countries, refused to recognize the sham reelection of Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro. In September, five Latin American leaders recommended Maduro be investigated by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to doubt Latin America’s willingness to adopt a similar approach with Brazil.

First, history matters. Latin America’s response to Venezuela marked a break from longstanding non-interventionist tendencies and materialized only after a prolonged and severe deterioration in Venezuela’s democracy. As millions of Venezuelans fled, the crisis landed on the doorsteps of Latin American governments. Even so, it required strong pressure from both the Obama and Trump administrations to prompt a serious regional response.

In the case of Bolsonaro, that pressure is unlikely to materialize. President Trump celebrated Bolsonaro’s inauguration by tweeting, “The USA is with you!” His national security adviser called Bolsonaro a “like-minded” leader.

Second, size matters, especially when the United States is absent. Brazil maintains the largest economy in Latin America. Argentina, which led the effort to prosecute Maduro, relies on Brazil as its top trading partner. The Argentine president skipped Bolsonaro’s inauguration, but he has expressed no qualms about Bolsonaro’s disinterest in civil liberties. In fact, Argentina’s president is under pressure at home to mimic Bolsonaro’s hardline security agenda.

Latin America’s other powerhouse, Mexico, is led by the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He surely does not consider Bolsonaro “like-minded,” but he has promised a return to Mexico’s traditional, non-interventionist foreign policy.

Finally, politics matter. López Obrador’s election notwithstanding, Latin America’s political map is more right-leaning today than it was a decade ago. And while there is a stark difference between Bolsonaro and center-right technocrats such as Mauricio Macri in Argentina or Presidents Iván Duque of Colombia and Sebastián Piñera of Chile, these leaders prefer pragmatism over confrontation with Bolsonaro.

So if not from Latin American peers or the United States, where might any necessary checks on Bolsonaro come from?

First and foremost, Brazil’s own institutions and civil society. Brazil’s judiciary showed a remarkable willingness to stand up to powerful political figures in the “Car Wash” corruption investigations. It may soon have the opportunity to prove it was not driven by ideological bias, as alleged by supporters of the jailed former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Brazil’s civil society organizations are already gearing up to defend civil liberties, including in the poor favela communities where Bolsonaro is expected to unleash a no-holds-barred crackdown.

Ironically, the Brazilian military that is so central to Bolsonaro’s identity may prove the biggest impediment to any extreme measures he considers. Cognizant of the risks to their own status, the military brass are not hungry to govern Brazil or wade into its swampy politics.

That is reassuring. If Brazil’s democracy needs defending, Brazilians might be on their own in that fight.

Benjamin N. Gedan, a former South America director on the National Security Council, is a senior adviser to the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Michael J. Camilleri is director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. From 2012 to 2017 he served in the Obama administration as a member of the secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and as director for Andean Affairs at the National Security Council.

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