Brazil’s Brutal Messiah

Brazil: A Biography

by Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling, translated from the Portuguese
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 761 pp., $40.00
Jair Bolsonaro
Jair Bolsonaro; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

If we were to think of Brazil as a person rather than a country, as Lilia Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling encourage us to do in their sweeping new history Brazil: A Biography, it would be someone who, at the moment, seems schizophrenic. Consider, for example, the October 28 run-off election to choose the country’s next president. One candidate was a neofascist former army captain with a penchant for insulting Afro-Brazilians, women, indigenous peoples, and sexual minorities; a declared affinity for the military dictatorship that ruled the country brutally from 1964 to 1985; and a desire to fight crime by allowing citizens to arm themselves and letting trigger-happy cops take the law into their own hands. The other candidate was the last-minute stand-in for a two-term former president and still-popular left-wing labor leader currently serving a twelve-year prison sentence for corruption, money-laundering, and bribe-taking. Millions of poor Brazilians were lifted precariously into the middle class during his presidency, but at the same time billions of dollars were siphoned from the public treasury into his party’s campaign coffers and the pockets of its leaders.

Faced with that unpalatable choice, all other options having been eliminated in first-round balloting on October 7, Brazilians elected, by a decisive ten-point margin, the extreme right-wing authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro to a four-year term that begins January 1, thereby also inaugurating what is certain to be a period of enormous political and social stress, uncertainty, and tumult. Bolsonaro, a truculent sixty-three-year-old congressional deputy from a small fringe party whom some have already taken to calling “the Trump of the Tropics,” owed his ascent to a coalition that included the São Paulo financial elite, the rural landed interests that have devastated the Amazon over the past fifty years, and a growing population of evangelicals. But what put him over the top was the support of urban middle-class voters disgusted by rampant corruption, rising crime rates, and what at least some of them view as the coddling of the darker-skinned poor in recent years.

Schwarcz and Starling obviously could not address the election in Brazil: A Biography, and Bolsonaro’s rise has been so unexpected and so swift that his name never appears in their book. But their detailed and deeply reasoned examination of Brazilian history—starting with the arrival on April 22, 1500, of the Portuguese nobleman and explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral on the shores of what is today Bahia—goes a long way toward explaining how the world’s fourth-largest democracy and eighth-largest economy has come to this unfortunate and, until just a few months ago, unthinkable situation. In the process, they offer some grounds for hope that Brazil may yet emerge from its latest crisis with its battered democratic institutions still functioning, but they also sound cautionary notes based on their close reading of its conflict-ridden past.

Throughout the country’s history, the authors write early in the book, “certain stubbornly insistent traits can…

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