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The Throes of Democracy: Brazil since 1989

The Throes of Democracy: Brazil since 1989

by Bryan McCann

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In the 1980s, Brazil emerged from two decades of military dictatorship and embarked on an experiment in full democracy for the first time in the nation's history Since then, Brazilians have sought to live up to the ideals of this experiment while negotiating dramatic economic and cultural transformations. In The Throes of Democracy Bryan McCann gives a panoramic


In the 1980s, Brazil emerged from two decades of military dictatorship and embarked on an experiment in full democracy for the first time in the nation's history Since then, Brazilians have sought to live up to the ideals of this experiment while negotiating dramatic economic and cultural transformations. In The Throes of Democracy Bryan McCann gives a panoramic view of this process, exploring the relationships between the rise of the political left, the escalation of urban violence, the agribusiness boom and the spread of pentecostal evangelization. Brazil remains a land marked by deep inequality, but in the last two decades the structure of that inequality has changed substantially. This is a country which remains an endlessly vital source of popular culture, now bubbling forth from different corners of the map. In explaining these transformations, this book provides a fascinating introduction to one of the 21st century's most significant countries.

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Zed Books
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Global History of the Present
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The Throes of Democracy: Brazil since 1989

By Bryan McCann

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2008 Bryan McCann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-791-2


The rise of the left

"They say politics is the art of swallowing toads. Wouldn't it be fascinating to make the elite swallow Lula, that bearded toad." Such were the sentiments of Leonel Brizola upon running third in the opening round of the 1989 presidential elections, behind Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Fernando Collor de Mello. Brizola, an old-school populist and the sitting vice-president of the International Socialist Organization, instructed his loyal followers to support fellow leftist Lula in the run-off election.

Brizola's support made the 1989 election close, but was not enough to overcome the concerted opposition of Brazil's business class, its landed gentry and, most importantly, its media titans. The Globo media empire cast its decisive weight behind Collor de Mello, the inexperienced scion of an oligarchic family from the impoverished northeastern state of Alagoas. Collor de Mello had little to recommend him for the nation's highest office, but most figures of influence found his message of market expansion more palatable than Lula's campaign for aggressive socialist reform. Economist Roberto Campos, Brazil's high priest of free-market discipline, famously quipped that if Lula were to be elected, there were only two possible outcomes (saídas), one via Galeão, the other via Cumbica the international airports of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Campos merely expressed the consensus among most Brazilians of means that a Lula victory would bring economic disaster, at least for them.

Lula kept at it, running again for president in 1994 and 1998, finally winning in 2002 and securing re-election in 2006. But between his narrow loss in 1989 and his decisive victory in 2002, a remarkable transition unfolded. When the bearded toad finally stepped into office, the Brazilian elite, or what was left of it, barely burped and showed no signs of indigestion. The same Globo empire that had savaged Lula in 1989 shone a generously favorable light on his 2002 candidacy and his first year in office. The left's hard-won triumph was apparently categorical and complete.

Three factors enabled this remarkable transition: the decline of the old elite, the increasing willingness of Lula's Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), the Workers' Party, to work with big business, and the leftward shift of political discourse.

The old elite Brizola referred to in 1989 had largely disappeared by 2002. In 1989, Brazil still had prominent aristocratic figures like Carmen Mayrink Veiga, Jorge Guinle and Filomena Matarazzo Suplicy, privileged offspring of a hereditary oligarchy, born to power and not overly interested in the redistribution of wealth. By 2002, Carmen Mayrink Veiga and Jorge Guinle were both impoverished by tycoon standards, that is, meaning their family wealth dissolved due to profligacy and bad luck, and they had fallen into the chilly depths of the middle class and Suplicy's son was a senator for the PT. To be fair, Eduardo Suplicy was active in PT ranks before 1989, but back then he was considered a black sheep of his social milieu, and by 2002 he was recognized as simply ahead of the curve. By 2002 the reigning social figures in Brazil were people like soccer star Ronaldo, model Gisele Bündchen and singer Gilberto Gil. In other words, Brazil no longer had elites, it had celebrities. These celebrities had no inherent or inherited reasons to shrink from leftist politics, and the PT in particular eagerly cultivated their support. Not for nothing did Lula choose Gilberto Gil as his Minister of Culture. The decline of the elite did not turn Brazil into a land of economic equality distribution of wealth remained extremely uneven. Nor was the importance of family ties lessened, as Chapter 6 will explain. But social and economic mobility increased dramatically, removing any quasi-aristocratic opposition to the left.

Lula and the most powerful faction of his Partido dos Trabalhadores ceased to advocate thoroughgoing socialist reform, at least in polite company, seeking instead to incorporate and appease organized popular movements while hewing largely to the orthodox economic strategy mapped out by Lula's predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. This enabled the PT to woo business elites as successfully as Cardoso had done during his eight years in office.

Most importantly, the PT, together with a host of like-minded organizations, successfully moved political discourse decisively to the left, and public acceptance of progressive reform including acceptance on the part of the business sector moved with it. In 1989, the PT's proposals for broad agrarian reform, for popular participation in municipal budgeting, and for greater political leverage for organized labor federations were all deemed unacceptably subversive by the country's reigning economic powers. By 2002, these and several other reforms initiated by Fernando Henrique Cardoso race-based affirmative action, direct disbursement of social spending to poor families, greater restrictions on economic development in the Amazon were deemed inevitable and, with the exception of affirmative action, largely unexceptionable elements of the political landscape by all but a few holdouts.

As these intertwining processes unfolded, the meaning of being leftist in Brazil also changed dramatically. During the military regime, being of the left entailed some kind of struggle against the dictatorship, and in the early stages of redemocratization, it entailed pushing for broader popular participation and the redistribution of wealth. While these latter goals remain rhetorically unifying, they have, in practice, largely been subsumed by the grinding political demands of stitching together governing coalitions and appeasing interest groups. The "rise of the left," then, really means the rise to power of former opponents of the military regime, and the increasing political leverage of the civil-society organizations that have supported them.

Ideology and physiology

A brief glance at the Brazilian political spectrum begins to reveal the nature and extent of the nature of this political transition. Since 1994, the PT's principal opponent has been Fernando Henrique Cardoso's Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, or PSDB, a party modeled on European social democratic counterparts, advocating a similar "third way" blend of targeted social spending and investment in market expansion. Cardoso himself was widely known as a political theorist and sociologist of the academic left before running for president and, contrary to popular allegations, did not renounce his early beliefs once in office. In early 2007, the Partido da Frente Liberal, or PFL, perceived in the Brazilian context as the last bastion of conservatives, changed its name to Demócratas (DEM) in explicit homage to the Democratic Party of the United States. Leaders of the renamed party expressed admiration for the US Democrats' historic support of civil liberties and public education, and for Clintonian Democratic administration in particular. The DEM immediately made environmental defense one of its central planks. This shift was rhetorical and not substantive, but demonstrates a central truth in Brazil's political arena: parties and politicians will go to great lengths to run from allegations of rightwing sympathies.

There is no significant party to the right of the DEM. On the other end of the spectrum, a cluster of fragmentary parties continues to uphold more radical views. Most prominent among them is the Socialism and Freedom Party, or PSOL, whose presidential candidate, Heloísa Helena, ran a surprising third in the 2006 election. Helena, a former PT militant, casts the PSOL as the real embodiment of the PT's original vision. (She is also the politician who takes most evident delight in calling Lula a bearded toad.)

New actors in civil society have also come to prominence since the 1980s, such as the Landless Workers' Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, or MST) and the non-governmental organizations that have pushed for human rights reinforcement. The ability of these organizations to execute effective media strategies in the contentious press of the post-1989 period has made their rhetoric pre-eminent.

The rise of the left has coincided with a period of significant economic and administrative reforms, but many of these such as the privatization of state enterprises are not leftist in nature, and the former opponents of the military regime who have come to power have rarely pushed a radical agenda. This moderation has global and local explanations. Globally, the most powerful sectors of the Brazilian left have come to embrace at least part of the Washington Consensus, prizing economic growth and encouragement of foreign investment as the keys to development. Locally, those in power have been constrained by the persistence of regional political machines committed only to their own perpetuation. No governing coalition can function without appeasing these regional machines. All legislation and administration must be filtered through them, putting a substantial damper on potential radicalism.

The regional machines are not ideological, but "physiological," in the apt Brazilian terminology: they occupy administrative bodies and flex bureaucratic muscles. They are characterized by weak party loyalty and strategic adherence to governing coalitions in return for control over specified government resources. The most enduring of these machines have roots in the bipartisan system of the dictatorship, when the only legal parties were the rightwing ARENA (Aliança de Reconstrução Nacional) and the ostensibly opposition party MDB (Movimento Democrático Brasileiro). In reality, both parties became closely intertwined with administration in different parts of the country. Consequently, their surviving powerbrokers are as likely to hail from the PMDB (the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, or Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), the successor to the MDB, as they are from the DEM, one of the successors of ARENA. Since redemocratization, new regional powerbrokers have emerged in other parties, but their personalist, interparty networks are far more important than the shifting alphabet soup of their party alliances. None of Brazil's two dozen parties is above the "physiological" temptation, but some are more successful than others at running party machines.

Regional powerbrokers typically extract concessions in ways that substantially alter and sometimes contradict national policies. In order to carry out agrarian reform, for example, Cardoso needed to pump resources into regional machines in sparsely populated states that carried out local policies reinforcing land concentration. As a result, the ability of these powerbrokers to bring first Cardoso and then his rival Lula to the bargaining table has created an uneasy overlap between leftist politics and old-fashioned clientelism the personalist use of state funds to curry political favor among key interest groups.

The regional machines have been able to rely on curious features of the 1988 Constitution to perpetuate their administrative leverage. Disproportionate congressional representation of sparsely populated states is one of these. The constitutional provision granting "parliamentary immunity" to members of Congress has been another. Elected officials cannot be prosecuted for "common crimes," covering almost everything not directly electoral, as long as they hold office. A constitutional amendment of 2001 placed some restrictions on these immunities, making it easier for prosecutors to indict congressmen, but a majority vote within Congress can still suspend prosecution, a loophole ably exploited by the regional machines to protect colleagues who have run foul of the law. Congressmen can also effectively time their renunciation of office in order to retain their eligibility in future elections, while requiring the process of indictment and prosecution to begin again.

Open-list elections for congressional representatives, the ability of congressmen to switch parties without losing their seats, and a low standard for the percentage of overall votes necessary for a party to place a representative in Congress all contribute to the proliferation of ideologically indistinguishable micro-parties that exist primarily to trade votes for administrative appointments and project funding.

There are currently over twenty-five parties represented in Congress, several of which have fewer than five seats an unfortunate consequence of unrestrained pluralism. Much of the work of governing consists of persuading these micro-party representatives to vote with the governing coalition. State governors exercise considerable leverage in this process, because of constitutionally required transfers of federal receipts to state governments. Again, this reinforces the perpetuation of interparty regional machines. These machines have also exploited weaknesses in the judicial branch, such as overlapping jurisdictions and the frequent issuance of staying orders that block imprisonment or seizure of assets until cases reach their conclusion, a process that can take over a decade. Consequently, it has proven almost impossible to serve significant jail time for political corruption, much as some elected representatives have tried. This physiological nature of the political arena, marked by common corrupt practices, places strict limits on the potential consequences of ideological transformation.

Whence the toad? The left's deep background

The current pre-eminence of a broad, multifaceted left springs from the history of opposition to the military dictatorship that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985. The 1964 coup itself was widely supported, responding to a general sense that the government of President João Goulart was spiraling towards disintegration. By the time the generals finally relinquished their grip, however, they were despised by much of the populace. Having struggled against the dictatorship particularly if the struggle involved jail, torture or exile the left subsequently became a valuable political trump card in the period of redemocratization.

This development was completely unpredictable in the early 1960s, when the Cold War was still understood to be a distorted global variation on the local struggle between Getulistas, or supporters of Getúlio Vargas, and anti-Getulistas as ever, Brazilians necessarily saw domestic political events in the foreground and the international scenery in the distant background. Getúlio Vargas seized power in 1930 in a so-called revolution whose key participants sought only to update an oligarchic republic. But the global context of the crisis of liberal republicanism pushed Vargas into more ambitious experimentation, and he amassed greater power in stages. He inaugurated the Estado Novo dictatorship in 1937, relying on secret police, political prisons and loyal henchman to supplement his popular appeal. His alliance with key industrialists, his patronage of government-organized labor unions, and his astute negotiation of international investment guaranteed the short-term economic growth that underpinned state expansion. Getulismo became both a popular phenomenon and the fuel for a political machine.

Vargas was ousted in the wake of World War II, but his temporary absence from the capital only strengthened his popular appeal, and he returned to power as elected president in 1950. The populist initiatives of this "second regime," like coercing employers into granting generous concessions in order to settle strikes, stoked the ire of the conservative middle class. Over the course of 1954, Vargas's opponents turned the drive to unseat him into a moral crusade. On August 24 of that year, he shot himself in the heart, leaving behind a grandiose letter that pledged his blood for the sake of Brazil's downtrodden, making him an instant martyr.

Vargas's suicide guaranteed the perpetuation of his machine. Juscelino Kubitschek, a regional captain of that machine, won election to the presidency in 1955, and built an administration characterized by massive state projects such as the construction of the new capital at Brasília.

Jânio Quadros, elected in 1960, had built his own populist base in middleclass São Paulo but only secured presidential election by striking a compromise with the Getulistas, making Vargas's protégé, João Goulart, his vice-president. Quadros resigned from office in a failed power play, and Goulart took office in the midst of constitutional crisis. He enlisted the support of his charismatic brother-in-law, Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio Grande do Sul. Brizola, more volatile than Goulart, expropriated multinational corporate holdings and advocated extensive nationalization programs.

Brizola astutely decided that Rio de Janeiro offered a better platform for his political ambitions than did provincial Rio Grande do Sul, and in 1962 won election as a federal representative from Guanabara, the small city-state created when the federal capital was moved to Brasília in 1960, and basically comprising the city of Rio de Janeiro. His ongoing battles with Guanabara governor Carlos Lacerda, a renowned anti-Getulista, helped to bring the national conflict to a crisis.

Goulart dithered, vacillating between attempts to appease radical nationalists and reassure moderate republicans. Wary of radicalism, Brazil's most powerful generals seized power on March 31, 1964. No one expected their intervention to last over twenty years, but the generals who seized power found no suitable candidate capable of defeating Getulismo at the polls. They sought to cleanse the political arena by outlawing existing parties and limiting the political spectrum to two new parties, ARENA and the MDB.


Excerpted from The Throes of Democracy: Brazil since 1989 by Bryan McCann. Copyright © 2008 Bryan McCann. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author

Bryan McCann teaches Latin American history at Georgetown University, where he is Director of the Brazilian Studies Program. He is the author of Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil (2004). His current research focuses on the recent history of urban conflict in Rio de Janeiro.
Bryan McCann teaches Latin American history at Georgetown University, where he is Director of the Brazilian Studies Program. He has written broadly on Brazil's cultural and social history in the 20th century. His first book Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil was published in 2004. His current research focuses on the recent history of urban conflict in Rio de Janeiro.

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