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Brazil voted out the Bolsonaro government, but its impact on institutions hasn't gone away.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva confronts the task of reclaiming democratic values after his predecessor’s tenure undermined democracy with regressive policies. : Palácio do Planalto (Flickr) CC BY-ND 2.0 President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva confronts the task of reclaiming democratic values after his predecessor’s tenure undermined democracy with regressive policies. : Palácio do Planalto (Flickr) CC BY-ND 2.0

Brazil voted out the Bolsonaro government, but its impact on institutions hasn’t gone away.

The Amazon summit in Belem, Brazil that concluded on 9 August came at an opportune time for Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The summit presented Lula, as he is widely known, a chance to restore his country’s environmental and international reputation after what he called four “disastrous” years under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

At the close of the summit, eight South American countries – Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela – signed a joint declaration laying out a detailed roadmap to promote sustainable development, end deforestation and fight organised crime contributing to deforestation.

But the summit attendees failed to agree on key demands of environmentalists and Indigenous groups, including adopting Brazil’s pledge to end illegal deforestation by 2030 and Colombia’s pledge to stop new oil exploration.

The outcomes revealed the challenges that still lie ahead for Lula. Democracy in Brazil took a turn backwards under Bolsonaro’s presidency. Regaining that ground will require continued effort.

Regressive strategies

Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 was a big win for the powerful conservative forces of evangelicals, farmers and middle-class voters outside the cities. It also exposed the vulnerability of the country’s democratic institutions. According to a 2022 report by Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index, Bolsonaro “repeatedly demonstrated that he poses a threat to democracy in both his rhetoric and concrete actions”.

During his first campaign for the presidency, Bolsonaro railed against some of the most sacred values enshrined in the constitution – human rights, the rights of minorities, protection of the environment and valorisation of national science.

Once in office, he moved from discourse to deeds.

Bolsonaro dismantled institutions protecting human rights and the environment, using various strategies to control them – putting allies in key positions, cutting budgets and degrading their credibility.

Policies in support of historical reparations or for the protection of traditional peoples were a particular target. For instance, the Palmares Foundation, dedicated to Afro-Brazilian education and culture, underwent a transformation. Bolsonaro appointed as its head an Afro-Brazilian who opposed affirmative action for disadvantaged minority groups, directly countering the foundation’s principles.

The foundation’s list of honoured black personalities was revised, removing important names such as popular musician and former Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil. And it changed the process for recognising former quilombos, communities originally founded by escaped slaves. Like Indigenous lands, these areas seek to preserve traditional ways of life and enjoy special legal protections.

Another strategy was used to undermine organisations linked to science, research and the environment. The National Institute of Spatial Research, whose purpose is to identify fire-prone areas in the Amazon, saw its resources reduced. The result was the absence of reliable data on fire outbreaks, jeopardising their ability to respond to fires and pursue those involved in illegal burning.

The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, the most important environmental agency in Brazil, also suffered cutbacks, hampering their environmental protection functions, such as the monitoring of illegal deforestation and illegal mining in indigenous lands.

Other administrative actions had far-reaching consequences.

Critical positions with the National Mechanism to Combat Torture, such as those in prisons under federal authority, were terminated. In 2019, Bolsonaro issued Decree 9831, dismissing the eleven experts of the National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combat of Torture. In 2022, the Decree was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The Ministry of Labor was folded into the Ministry of Economy, which effectively subordinated the social agenda to the economic agenda. The standing dialogue between the government and the workers’ union was eliminated.

The Amnesty Commission and the Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances were dismantled, hindering the clarification of serious human rights violations that occurred during the military regime that held power from 1964 to 1985.

Bolsonaro’s migration policy gave the authorities instruments for rapidly removing foreigners from national territory. The Ministry of Justice issued Ordinance 666/2019, establishing summary deportation of migrants based on suspected involvement in terrorism, criminal organisation or drug trafficking, among other crimes. Suspicion was enough to frame migrants as dangerous persons.

Bolsonaro also denied the severity of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of public health measures and vaccines. His rejection of the seriousness of COVID and scientific recommendations – such as his arguments against the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency’s position on social distancing and systematic vaccination – marred public health institutions’ credibility. The rate of COVID infections and deaths in Brazil was disproportionately large.

Bolsonaro then lost the 2022 election to Lula, whose campaign emphasised the need to rejuvenate democracy and strengthen its institutions.

Recovering the functionality and power of those bodies is central to Lula´s mandate. If budget cuts and political interference are easy to execute, undoing what has been done is not.

Rebuilding institutions and trust

One way to restore credibility is through foreign policy, and resuming the dialogue and relationship with strategic partners, international organisations and NGOs. This step is crucial to re-establishing a standard by which to assess national institutions and public policies.

Additionally, Lula might emphasise themes such as the environment, human rights and poverty eradication, aiming to clarify the substantial link between the objectives and the operations of such entities.

Anti-democratic forces are still active in Brazil, as seen in the coup attempt that took place in January this year. Trials are underway for the organisers and participants who stormed the Supreme Court, the Congress and the presidential palace, but some facts still need to be clarified – especially the degree of involvement of the former president and public officials, including police and members of the armed forces.

Lula will continue to face challenges inherited from the previous administration and that still exist among his own allies. He will also have to contain the most radical wing of his own Workers Party, which appears at times to seek undemocratic solutions in internal politics, such as through control of the press and mass media – much like the leftist authoritarian governments in Venezuela or Cuba.

An important lesson in Brazil’s recently troubled politics is that threats to democracy are embedded in the state bureaucracy and the party system itself. In times of weakened traditional parties and discredited institutions, anti-democratic agents seize the opportunity to organise their social base. In Brazil, these came in the form of fringe right-wing parties, members of the armed forces and police officers.

Brazilian democracy is still under construction long after the end of the military regime, and any oversight can cause dangerous setbacks in terms of public freedoms and social and environmental rights.

Mauro Kiithi Arima Junior is a lawyer based in Brazil. He is a senior researcher and legal coordinator of the Centre for Global Trade and Investment and an invited professor of the Business School of Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV). FGV is a Brazilian higher education institution and research think tank offering undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in economics, finance, law, politics and more.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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