A day after the second round of elections in Brazil, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center hosted a Members and Press Call to discuss what Bolsonaro’s presidency might mean for Brazil and for the future of US-Brazil bilateral relations. Below is the complete transcript and audio of the call.
JASON MARCZAK: Well, good afternoon, everyone. I’m Jason Marczak, I am the Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center here at the Atlantic Council, and thank you all for joining us for this rapid reaction on the record Atlantic Council members and press call on Jair Bolsonaro’s win yesterday in the second round of Brazil’s Presidential election.
As we like to do with the Atlantic Council and, particularly, the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center is provide rapid reaction to critical development across the hemisphere. And Jair Bolsonaro’s win yesterday is definitely top among that. Over the next half hour, we will discuss what Bolsonaro’s presidency means for the future of Brazil, changes that should be expected in Brazilian foreign policy and also what does it mean for Brazil’s relations with the United States?
I’m joined here by two colleagues. Each joining actually from Brazil, Roberta Braga. Roberta is the Associate Director of the Atlantic Council Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. And among other things, Roberta leads our Brazil portfolio. Roberta’s originally from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where she joined the center over two years ago. And (has been) in Brazil over the last week as part of our joint work with the Digital Forensics Research Lab of the Atlantic Council and Roberta’s calling in today from Rio. Hi, Roberta, how are you?
ROBERTA BRAGA: Hi, Jason, I’m well. How are you?
MARCZAK: Great. I’m also here with Ricardo Sennes. Ricardo is a Senior Fellow in the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. A position that Ricardo, I believe, has held for almost the entire five years of the Center’s existence. Ricardo is also a partner Director at Prospectiva, a consulting firm on public policies and international business. Ricardo is a well-known and highly sought after political commentator on all issues in Brazil and is calling in from São Paulo today. Hi Ricardo, how are you?
RICARDO SENNES: Hi Jason, it’s a pleasure all – it’s a pleasure to be back to this discussion. Thank you.
MARCZAK: Well, it’s a pleasure to have you. So let me start off. The results yesterday, I think were not a surprise for anybody who’s been following Brazil recently, especially after the first round, just a few weeks ago. Our callers today know the results. Bolsonaro won 55 percent of the votes against about 45 percent for Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party. Interesting yesterday as well, you have about 21 percent of voters that did not vote while about two percent voted blank, and about seven percent voted nule. These are important results.
What you also saw yesterday was the – was the Worker’s Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, winning in all nine states of the Northeast of Brazil, for the PT has advantage. But Bolsonaro won in all 15 others, as well as the Federal District. Bolsonaro’s win yesterday with 55 percent of the votes is an increase from the 46 percent he received in the first round. But Fernando Haddad’s 44 percent was an even more sizeable increase than this – about 30 percent, 29 percent that he received in the first round. These results are not a surprise. Jair Bolsonaro throughout his campaign has campaigned as the law and order candidate.
He has campaigned as somebody who will help Brazil to get out of the high rates of crime and violence that had been – the uptick in crime and violence that we’ve seen in recent years. There’s a general discontent in Brazil with the corruption that pervades among the political class and the business class, as well as the weak economic growth. And Jair Bolsonaro campaigned with what the answer he sees for those issues. Most particularly violence and security and on the economy.
Now, of course, there’s a lot of concern as well on what a Jair Bolsonaro Presidency will mean. His comments throughout the campaign toward various social classes, towards women, and others were repudiated by many. But in the end, Brazilians voted for him because he provided, throughout the campaign, the answers on some of the top concerns, specifically security and the economy among others.Roberta, you’ve been in Brazil monitoring disinformation over the last week as part of our joint project with the Atlantic Council of Digital Forensics Research Lab. What have you seen leading up to the election in the disinformation space? And actually on election day as well?
Roberta, you’ve been in Brazil monitoring disinformation over the last week as part of our joint project with the Atlantic Council of Digital Forensics Research Lab. What have you seen leading up to the election in the disinformation space? And actually on election day as well?
BRAGA: Thank you so much, Jason. I’m very happy to be calling in from Rio today where I had the opportunity to work with Brazilians and to be with Brazilians who’ve been very engaged leading up to this election. As we know, this has been a very politically polarized election, so very difficult discussions for Brazilians and of course a polarization that dates back to 2013. And it’s the cause of a host of different issues that Brazil has faced for a long time: unemployment, difficult economic downturn, a lot of issues with corruption and some necessary reforms ahead.
Ahead of the second round, many Brazilians had a difficult decision to make. Some said that they felt neither candidate represented them. Some absolutely did not want to see another Workers’ Party President because of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the corruption and mismanagement associated with the PT government that governed Brazil for nearly 13 years. Others couldn’t bring themselves to support Jair Bolsonaro, who to them represented some challenge to the democratic process and who suggested that his hardline policies, like the liberalization of gun laws for example, were too hard handed. It was a division that was reflected in different priorities for different communities.
For example, Bolsonaro, he won in 97 percent of the richest states and Haddad won in the 98 percent of the poorest states. So that really showed you the extreme polarization and also the inequality that Brazil still faces. This polarization is what really open…
MARCZAK: This adequately mute line links to a Brazilian telecommunications issue that needs to be fixed as well in the next term.
You know, Ricardo, as Roberta was saying there, the election really did reflect extreme polarization in Brazil and the divisions that have been seen in the streets, that have been seeing throughout the campaigns, are going to be a very big challenge for Bolsonaro to overcome in his Presidency. How much – Ricardo, how much of a sea change is Bolsonaro for Brazil?
SENNES: Well, Jason, I think you have such a very important element. And I think Roberta gave some information about this polarization process. So, I think it’s worth to mention that the actual polarization, the extreme polarization in Brazil in elections was specific for the presidential election itself. In order that it is not the same what happened for the other elections. Let me explain myself.
If you take in consideration the whole election, not just the presidential election, you see a very important contrast, a differentiation between the presidential election and the other elections, like the election for the Senate election, for the Lower House, election for the state governors, etc. In these other elections, the level of polarization is much less notable, much less polarized in the sense that the predominance of the candidates and the winners was from the traditional political parties. So this, I think, give us a very important, I think, element to think about your question: “How Bolsonaro will manage to really bring some new agenda or new political dynamics to the Brazilian political system.”
In such a scenario in which he has, I think, brought a lot of energy and has been fighting very deeply against the Workers’Party. What he calls as the “extreme leftist politicians.” And he brought to the election this very strong polarization debate. But it’s not this is exactly what happened for the other elections. So, for him in order to really implement the changes that he’s mentioned to or defending to be implemented, he will need to really deal with this huge differentiation. He will need to establish bridges, establish coalitions, or try to actually to operate in a more normalized political and decision-making process.
So, I think this is the key question: Will he be able to define a political strategy that really will be successful in certain scenarios? So, I think this is still a question, but I think it’s clear that he’s pushing for a new agenda, for new values for the politics, in general, etc, but is not clear if he will really be able to define a completely new political strategy to implement that.
MARCZAK: Well, I mean, Ricardo on that point, that the Bolsonaro’s political party that he joined, the PSL, the Social Liberal Party, for the Presidential race, really carried no weight in Brazilian politics before this election. I mean, back in 2014, it had no representation in the Senate, just one Federal Deputy and now the PSL’s profile has risen and now will be the second most represented Party in the Lower Chamber. So maybe the sea change is not seen across all of Brazil but, at least, at the Federal level with Bolsonaro’s election and, obviously, his party. The PSL will need to form coalitions to be able to move forward some of Bolsonaro’s policies but the party has really risen in its stature, just in this last election.
SENNES: Well I think that if we have something really new on the Lower House is the PSL caucus. As it said, the PSL is a completely new party in a sense, actually a new player. Actually, it has been operating as a political party for several years but with no real representation. I think the PSL doesn’t have a clear platform. They have been combining different candidates from different areas. We can say with different agendas.
We have, for instance, an important portion of the PSL caucus are retired people from the Army Forces. They have on a specific agenda focused on security, focused on some issues related to the Brazilian nationalist development, etc. But PSL also has another group of representatives that has a different agenda. For instance, they have a group of politicians, from this caucus, that are defending, for instance, issues like the family values, issues against the gender agenda, against the same-gender marriage. So this is not exactly the same, I think, interests that the other groups have been presenting.
So, even though they are a new political party, they don’t have actually a single agenda and a strong agenda but they do have a kind of fragmentation within the party. But for sure as the second most important party in the Congress, they will play an important role. Basically, they will be the platform for Bolsonaro to try to build a broader coalition. PSL will be in the center of this coalition, but not necessary, who will represent the majority of them. They will need another, at least, 200 representatives more than the PSL by itself in order to build such a majority.
MARCZAK: Great. Great. You know, Ricardo, that takeaway from your point is that Bolsonaro’s party has representation now in Congress, has a decent amount of representation, especially in the chamber but it’s still going to be in a uphill battle to form the coalitions and move forward the policy reforms that Bolsonaro campaign that especially some of the, I think, very far-reaching reforms that he’s talked about on increased gun ownership, on greater liberty, given to police and security forces, free mining taxes, wholesale changes to the security apparatus and the economic sovereignty of the country will require coalition building.
Roberta, you were talking about disinformation. I think there’s probably no coincidence that your line was cut, as you were about to talk about disinformation. So let me go back, we’ve been monitoring disinformation in Brazil. You’ve been there for the last week. What did you see leading up to the election?
BRAGA: So going back to what I was saying before, and something that Ricardo even showed is that the polarization opened doors for disinformation. Many Brazilians are connected primarily through WhatsApp. And so we just seen quite a lot of distorted news, rumors circulating on WhatsApp after the first round and leading up to the first and second round. We saw a lot of claims of electoral fraud. We saw a lot of migration of right-wing actors to other social networks like Gab, and again, a lot of distortion around certain candidates’ position, solutions. We saw some false videos circulating. So, in general, there was quite a bit of a spread of disinformation and misinformation, both with the intent to defy and without it. And this would sort of amplified on social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.
But on the positive side, I also – as I was here – met with over 20 organizations working to combat disinformation in the election. So, I think more than any other country we have seen, Brazilians are really at a large scale mobilizing to address this problem, and they’re working for a stronger democracy. Journalists are working with a changing information environment, trying to analyze deeper issues, civil society doing the same thing, working in support of human rights, creating safe spaces for discussion. So I do think that that’s a – that’s a positive turn. That we’re seeing Brazilian organizations and actors really working together to address the issue of disinformation here.
MARCZAK: Great. Thank you, Roberta. I want to move on to a foreign policy. And specifically, what does Bolsanaro would mean for the US and for the world at large.
You know, last night, President Trump calls Jair Bolsonaro to congratulate him on the election. Bolsonaro has spoken very openly of his admiration of President Trump and of the Trump administration. There’s a lot of expectations that there will be common ground found, probably like we haven’t seen to these this level. But this type of potential common ground between the US administration and the Bolsanaro administration, which he will take office on January 1st.
One of the main issues that are confronting the hemisphere, perhaps, I think, the main issue is the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the outpouring of thus, at this point, 2.3 million migrants and refugees from Venezuela. Bolsonaro even more so – much more so than the current Brazilian government has been openly critical, very critical of the Maduro regime in Venezuela. I think we could expect between him and President Duque in Columbia, both of Venezuela’s neighbors, much more concerted action with regards to trying to find a solution to the crisis in Venezuela.
Another issue, the Paris Agreement. Bolsonaro had talked about removing Brazil from the Paris Agreement during his campaign. But about a week ago, he changed his mind and affirm that Brazil will be maintained part of the agreement.
I think one issue in which there will also be common ground between the United States and Brazil are on the issues of China. Bolsonaro recently said that China is not buying in Brazil, it is buying Brazil. And then asked the question of, “Are you going to put Brazil in Chinese hands?” And this is important because China became – as all the work we’ve done here at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center on China-Latin America, – China became Brazil’s largest commercial partner six or so years ago, and Bolsonaro has expressed a fear that you’ve seen in many other parts of the world about being too heavily dependent upon the Chinese.
And so I think there is – especially on Venezuela and China, and I think a number of other bilateral issues, there could be room for a high degree of cooperation with the US administration.
Roberta, there’s also been a question. A new name for the Ministry of Foreign Relations is yet to be announced. But Bolsonaro has also indicated some other changes in Brazilian foreign policy. What do you see his leadership meaning moving forward, especially with some of the wholesale changes he’s talked about making to the Foreign Ministry?
BRAGA: Thank you, Jason. I think, as you said, it really will depend on who’s leading the Foreign Ministry. We will know more, of course, when that person is announced. And while Bolsonaro’s agenda is heavily turned towards the domestic policy, I do foresee a stronger bilateral relationship, like you mentioned, between the two countries, especially in the areas of security and defense. But I do also see for Brazil’s leadership, a pull back from regional convergence issues, at a time when Brazil’s leadership was front and center in tops of the European Union and the Pacific Alliance on possible convergence scenarios. Brazil is the largest democracy in the hemisphere. And I do think that as it moves forward it should continue working with its allies in the regions to advance open commerce, open borders, and really fulfill its position as the regional leader that it can be.
MARCZAK: Ricardo, how do you see Brazil foreign policy changing? As Roberta said, Bolsonaro was elected on a “Brazil-first” agenda but how do you see his relations with the rest of the world changing?
SENNES: Well, just to complement, to complete part of Roberta’s answer. I think there are few topics in which the Trump administration and, potentially, Bolsonaro’s foreign policy will be convergent, will be base it on the same perspective.
I think that both of them have a very skeptic vision about multilateralism, the global forums, regional forums. I think both of them has a very critical vision about these kind of forums. Bolsonaro share this kind of vision. He has been very critical about Mercosur and Unasur regional forums. They think this doesn’t work. Actually, these forums, for them, are just working for the leftist, etc. And they probably will decrease the importance of these forums for Brazil foreign policy, in general. We may see, for instance, Bolsonaro trying to have bilateral agreements or bilateral conversations with the US, with some countries like Israel, or Japan, or even Germany, etc. And trying to foster these bilateral agreements rather than agreements that will combine more diversity and countries.
So as you said, I think they also have a very, I think, pragmatic view about trade. And by pragmatic view, I mean not basing on long-term perspectives but short-term gains. So we may see also some kind of very specific trade agreements focused on specific demands. And from Brazil perspective, the agribusiness demand, probably will be in the top of the Bolsonaro administration’s list of priorities.
At the same time, as Roberta said, he has a very, I think, negative approach to the climate change agenda or any kind of environment agenda. As Trump has done, Bolsonaro may not actually leave these forums, but will restrain a lot the participation of Brazilian entities, Brazilian diplomats on these environmental agreements and environmental forums.
And finally, I think, Venezuela is back to the agenda after, I think, two administrations, Dilma and Temer administrations, in which Venezuela wasn’t exactly a key part of the agenda. They are basically trying to manage the Venezuelan crisis, but not putting Venezuela as a critical point. Bolsonaro may include Venezuela back to the agenda and there is information that part of the Bolsonaro team has already contacted people in Colombia, people in Chile, in order to check if there is a willingness for a stronger engagement on Venezuela. It’s not a confirmed information but we have been listening some people say that this may be a strong agenda for Bolsonaro.
MARCZAK: As a sea change, Brazil a couple of years ago invited Venezuela into Mercosur. And now, we see that the stronger actions that are likely under the Bolsonaro government.
I sense that the participants on the call are a little shy today. So, given that, I will ask a last question or talk to a last question, which I think is in everyone’s mind, which is what is the Bolsonaro presidency mean for the checks and balances in Brazil?
As we talked about at the outset, Bolsonaro’s campaign has promises, pledges, that he is, I think, fully committed to trying to deliver as much as he can. Involved dramatic remaking of the country and of laws governing everything from security to the economy. And there’s some concern about whether Bolsonaro, who has a military background and has spoken on high praise of the military government that ruled in Brazil. There are concerns about how well Brazilian institutions will be able to have the checks and balances that will be necessary in the years ahead. And Brazil, as is required in any other democracy.
We will start off with you, Ricardo. Where do you see that going? How strong do you see the Brazilian institutions? I see them as very strong. I see, I think, especially in the last couple years, the Lava Jato corruption investigation really shown the independence and the strength of the Brazilian judiciary. Ricardo, what are your thoughts on the strength of the Brazilian institutions at a time when there’s a lot of discussion on the importance of those checks and balances in the years ahead?
SENNES: Jason, I think I agree with you. I think the Brazilian institutions are very strong. Actually, they have been proven to be strong in the last 10 years, in which the judiciary branch has been operating in a very independently way. The public prosecutor office has been pushing very strongly against the corruption in the political system but also in the private sector relationships with governments. We have, I think, the Federal Police being very independent to actually investigate even the Presidential Cabinet. So I think they have been reaching a very, I think, important degree of independence and professionalism, etc, that gives to them, I think, a very important legitimacy to really contribute to the society.
But, actually, at the same time, we have this, I think, very strong institutional environment in Brazil. But at the same time, we have a public opinion that has been increasingly critical of the role of some of the institutions, mainly of the Congress. The Congress has been actually very, I think, criticized, having a bad assessment from the public opinion, have been involved in several corruption scandals. And I think Bolsonaro has been taken the advantage of this mood, this general mood on Brazilian public opinion against some of the political institutions in Brazil.
He has been surfing this wave and adding some, I would say, some strong statements to these general and more, I think, general negative mood against the institutions. The specific statement that he has been giving, as you mentioned, Jason, is that he has been attacking, for instance, the electronic voting system in Brazil. He has been mentioning that this voting system is fragile. That the opposition can fraud these systems. He has also been very critical concerning the Supreme Court in Brazil and this is not actually usual for the traditional politician in Brazil that has been very respectful to the Supreme Court.
MARCZAK: Ricardo, I want, in the interest of time, give it to Roberta for the last one. Then I’ll wrap it up. Roberta, your thoughts. Do you agree with Ricardo and I? How do you – how do you see the strength of institutions moving forward?
BRAGA: Yes, absolutely. I’ll just add to what you Ricardo said with a comment on the divide that has been created and how leadership will sort of react and engage with public opinion on this. I think that unifying Brazil is one of the most significant challenges going forward and addressing this divide really needs to start at the top, with the President-elect reaffirming trust in institutions and commitment to democratic norms and processes.
We will need to see a move away from simplifying Brazil’s problems or claiming they are the fault of one group or another. We all know Brazil’s historical context is a very complicated one. And solutions really that our sustainable need to come from an open and honest conversational of multiple actors and the public. And so you need not only to address this by moving the needle on the core issues that we’ve already discussed and really bringing back some questions and negotiating effectively, but we also need to see renewed trust in the media. And we need to see a move away from disinformation and misinformation online so that we can have a really fast-paced narrative and discussion going with the public on these issues.
MARCZAK: Great. Thank you very much, Roberta. For those on the call who are in the Washington area. Please join us on Thursday. We will be having an event here that will look specifically at the post-election outlook, with regards to the Brazilian economy. That’s an event that the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center will be doing in conjunction with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economic Program. Myself and the head of our Global Business Economic Program will be among the speakers, as well as Marcus Troyo from Columbia University; Lisa Schineller from S&P Global Ratings; Mauricio Mesquita Moreira from the Inter-American Development Bank; and Ricardo Senra from BBC World Service and BBC Brazil.
If you’re not in the Washington area, you can also join us. But we just will not be able to offer you breakfast. With that, please join me again in thanking everyone for the comments today. We will continue to follow the development in Brazil, as they move forward in this critical period between now and Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration on January 1st and the months and years ahead of that. With that, we will conclude.
BRAGA: Thank you so much, Jason, Ricardo.
SENNES: Thank you. Thank you too.