The recent inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president had sharpened attention on the trend towards right-wing populism in Latin America, drawing parallels to the re-emergence of ultra-nationalism and neo-fascism in Europe and the US. The fact that this ceremony was attended by right-wing populists like Viktor Orbán and by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the possibility of an international axis of nationalist strongmen. Nevertheless, parallels between Bolsonaro and figures like Trump hugely understate the threat to stability and human rights posed by the growth of reactionary militarism in Latin America, where the danger is of a higher magnitude than in North America or much of Europe.

Rule of Law and Political Violence

Events such as Trump’s election and the Brexit vote have caused isolated incidents of political violence, such as the assassination of pro-Remain MP Jo Cox as well as spikes in hate crimes after both votes. The far-right violence in Charlottesville perhaps exemplifies this, with the election of Donald Trump emboldening an extremist movement which has often lain under the surface of American politics. However, the situation in Brazil and many other Latin American countries is even more febrile, with a real possibility of a return to genocidal violence against indigenous groups and organized political violence against dissidents. Indeed, Jair Bolsonaro has pretty much promised as much.

Rule of law is far weaker in Latin America than in Europe and the US, both in terms of state corruption and personal crime. The pre-existing level of violent crime and the general state weakness mean that both the police and non-state groups, political and otherwise, are often locked in cycle of violence and conflict. This creates a culture of impunity in which the perpetrators of gang-related crimes, police brutality and sexual violence frequently go free. It is within this particular context that Bolsonaro’s promises to put more guns on the streets while further militarising the police and cracking down on leftists have to be understood. His endorsements of rape, racialized oppression and torture have all the more bite because they come in a regional context already colored by violence and poor human rights. For all Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and for all the latent extremism in the West, widespread violence of this type remains unlikely in the immediate future.

Marginalized Groups

Another danger point in Brazil, and one which is shared by many Latin American countries, is the existence of extremely vulnerable ethno-religious minorities. In Brazil, this means indigenous groups and some of the world’s last uncontacted tribes, whose continued existence stands in the way of higher profits for the lucrative agribusiness lobby which Bolsonaro courted. While all of the world’s populist movements play on racial divisions there are few groups in the world as vulnerable as uncontacted tribes, who could be killed by unfamiliar diseases as well as by bullets. Even beyond these uncontacted tribes, indigenous people in Latin America face huge problems of poverty, social exclusion and political repression. Displacement over mineral and water resources is common, with indigenous leaders often being targeted for assassination by government forces, private security contractors and drug cartels.   

Bolsonaro brings a familiar contempt towards the minority black population in Brazil, as well as to religious minorities and immigrants. In this sense, he draws on a familiar reactionary nationalism shared by Trump and Orbán. The treatment of indigenous groups in Latin America also has some parallels with the demonization of the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe. However, indigenous groups in Latin America are in a particularly precarious position. Bolsonaro’s clearly stated intention to drive them from their land means that talk of a genocide in Brazil is not as far-fetched as it might initially seem.

Praetorianism and the legacy of Brazil´s military dictatorship.

Praetorianism refers to an excessive role of the military in civil affairs, often meaning a reversal of the civil oversight necessary for democracy. This is often characterized by frequent coups and military intervention in everyday governance, often leading to periods of outright military dictatorship. This praetorianism is and, to some extent, remains common in Latin America and in particular characterized much of Brazilian history in the 20th century. Given former army captain Bolsonaro’s distaste for democracy and admiration for Brazil’s former military regime, as well as his high support among the army, many see the potential for a slide into military rule.

The US, and Trump’s electoral base especially, places a particular cultural importance on the veneration of the military as seen in the persistence of debates over respect for the flag and troops. However, despite the cultural and political centrality of the military, there has rarely been a sense that a military takeover of civil governance is likely. Trump has included many former military officials in his administration, but they have often resisted as well as enabled his more authoritarian and militaristic policy moves. Attempts to deploy the military internally in the face of a non-existent threat from the so-called “migrant caravan” fizzled out against a backdrop of quiet but embarrassing recriminations, recognized as the pre-midterms electoral ploy that is was. The strong norms against explicit military intervention in civil affairs mean that the American military will remain extremely influential but still fundamentally under the control of democratic institutions. The same cannot be said about Brazil.

Bolsonaro brings the divisiveness and the bombastic style of a populist leader like Trump. At a superficial level, there are clear comparisons to be made between him and other democratically elected populists throughout the world. Like the American president, he has been quick to use executive orders to victimize his enemies and enrich his allies. However, the set of circumstances in Latin America mean that the possibility of widespread violence and a slide into dictatorship are immediate possibilities in a way that is not true of Trump. Endemic state weakness, criminal impunity and the legacy of violence and dictatorship mean that populist leaders, of both left and right, have a greater potential to cause widespread insecurity in Latin America. Bolsonaro brings with this a chauvinist ultra-nationalism which could do horrendous and lasting damage to the region as he takes the reigns of the continents largest country.

Image Credit: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.