Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: High-profile Brazilian business leaders abandon erstwhile ally Jair Bolsonaro, new Colombian President Gustavo Petro faces an early legitimacy test, and the Uruguayan internet nominates an unlikely World Cup mascot.
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Chronicle of a Coup Foretold?
When Jair Bolsonaro reached Brazil’s presidential runoff election in 2018, he had broad support from the top ranks of the country’s financial sector. His University of Chicago-trained economic advisor, Paulo Guedes, vowed to cut taxes and improve the country’s business environment. In the years since, decision-makers on Faria Lima Avenue in São Paulo—known as Brazil’s Wall Street—often kept quiet as the Bolsonaro presidency careened from one crisis to the next, presumably in the hopes that the economic reforms promised by Guedes—who became Bolsonaro’s economics minister—would come to pass.
Now, with another presidential election approaching on Oct. 2, many in Brazil’s business class have taken a different position. For months, Bolsonaro has lagged in polls against his main opponent, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro has also repeated unsubstantiated claims that the country’s electronic voting system is fraud-prone—apparently laying the groundwork to contest a possible election loss. The Brazilian Federation of Banks, for its part, signed a letter that was read at a pro-democracy rally in São Paulo yesterday, where participants called for trust in Brazil’s voting system. Brazilian election authorities “have carried out our internationally respected elections with full security, efficiency, and integrity,” it read.
Another declaration read at the same event—this one backed by more than 900,000 individuals, including prominent bankers and investment fund managers—said in the United States, “efforts to destabilize democracy and people’s confidence in the smoothness of elections were unsuccessful, and they will be here too,” a reference to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Two months ahead of Brazil’s presidential vote, polls have been stable, with Lula leading Bolsonaro by at least 10 percentage points in most polls and no other candidate coming close to either of them. Steady, too, are Bolsonaro’s disparaging comments about Brazil’s electronic voting machines and insistence that the military is on his side, presumably in the event that he has a dispute with electoral authorities. While over 2,000 people with military backgrounds signed one of the letters read at yesterday’s rally, Brazil’s secretary of defense has—in an unusual move—requested that military officers be granted extra permissions to carry out inspections of the voting machines.
All this has pushed players who could be decisive in a possible effort to reject election results to make their positions public ahead of time. The shift among Brazil’s financial elite is not all-encompassing—big agribusiness companies that stand to benefit from Bolsonaro’s lax environmental stances remain loyal to the president—but it is a notable difference from four years ago.
Beyond big business, the U.S. government has also increasingly voiced concerns about Bolsonaro’s apparent steps toward a possible self-coup. As early as last August, White House security advisor Juan González told reporters that, on a trip to visit Bolsonaro, “we stressed the importance of not undermining confidence” in the election process.
In recent weeks, Washington has restated that position. In July, the U.S. Embassy in Brazil called the country’s electronic voting machines “a model for the world,” and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in Brasília that militaries should remain under “firm civilian control.” In addition, Reuters reported this week that U.S. lawmakers temporarily held up a prospective sale of Javelin missiles to Brazil due to concerns over Bolsonaro’s behavior.
In many ways, the situation has parallels to the runup to the 2020 presidential election in the United States, when Trump repeatedly warned—without evidence—of electoral fraud and claimed the only way he could lose the vote was if it was rigged. Although Trump himself never respected the ultimate election results—and went on to incite the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—U.S. military commanders, Capitol police, and election officials pushed back against his efforts and ultimately ensured the transition of power.
In Brazil, the military and police could behave quite differently than their U.S. counterparts when push comes to shove. The country’s military carried out a coup in 1964 that Bolsonaro has often praised, and most top generals have not joined the recent chorus calling to respect elections. Because of this, early positioning from business leaders and foreign governments is all the more consequential.
Tuesday, Aug. 16: Candidates in Brazil’s elections are allowed to start running television and internet ads.
Sunday, Sept. 4: Chile holds a plebiscite on its proposed new constitution.
Wednesday, Sept. 7: The deadline for Colombian lawmakers to declare themselves part of the new governing coalition or the opposition expires.
What We’re Following
The “Remain in Mexico” saga. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration says it has stopped enrolling asylum-seekers in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, better known as “Remain in Mexico.” A court battle over Biden’s efforts to terminate the Trump-era program finally ended Monday, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prompted a Texas judge to reverse his 2021 order to resume the MPP.
Since Biden was forced to restart the program in December 2021 after the Texas ruling, more than 5,000 people have been forced to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court dates. Although the White House says they will now be gradually allowed back into the United States, that doesn’t mean normal asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border has been restored. Courts have also held up Biden’s efforts to terminate Title 42, a rule introduced during the pandemic that allows U.S. authorities to immediately expel any migrant, even those seeking asylum, purportedly for public health reasons.
OAS Haiti declaration. The Organization of American States (OAS) issued an usually frank mea culpa Monday on behalf of the international community’s responsibility for Haiti’s economic, political, and security crises. The lengthy statement said the last two decades of international presence in the country, through various combinations of peacekeeping and humanitarian task forces, amounted to “one of the worst and clearest failures implemented and executed within the framework of any international cooperation” and called for a new Haitian Constitution to be written—with outside support.
Haiti has been at a political impasse since former President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated last July. His unelected successor, Ariel Henry, is backed by a group of countries, including the United States, Canada, and France, but has earned low trust among the population. Over a five-day period early last month, more than 230 people were killed in gang-related violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
Writing in the Nation, journalist Amy Wilentz argued the OAS’s accusations merit harsh punishments rather than just words of condemnation, though there is no clear path to collectively prosecuting the international community in a case like this. Frantz Duval of newspaper Le Nouvelliste wrote that an appropriate step would be to push back against the fact that interim president Henry “is leading us to one form or another of guardianship” by outside powers.
Slurping to victory. A plastic thermos used to keep Uruguayan maté tea warm won an online vote to become the country’s 2022 World Cup mascot—twice. Uruguay’s soccer federation was unhappy with its first victory, apparently believing animal candidates—such as birds, horses, and wild cats—to be more appropriate for the two-time world champion team. So it hosted a fresh contest, this time with an open call for design submissions rather than a slate of five candidates. The plastic thermos, common in Uruguayan duffle bags, once again prevailed.
In line with Latin America’s anti-establishment wave, a fan wrote online during the second contest that he was voting for the thermos “because [our soccer federation] is so corrupt it can’t even hold a mascot contest without meddling. … I’M WITH THE THERMOS TO THE DEATH.”
Question of the Week
Which of the following countries is not part of a joint South American bid to host the 2030 World Cup?
Did you really think soccer archrivals Brazil and Argentina would work together on such an endeavor?
In Focus: The New Left’s Litmus Test
Gustavo Petro’s inauguration as Colombia’s first leftist president on Sunday turned the streets of Bogotá into a festival, complete with Indigenous costumes, local dances, and a gasp-worthy moment when the king of Spain refused to join others in standing to acknowledge a national Colombian symbol, the sword used by South American anticolonial fighter Simón Bolívar.
But behind the pageantry and symbolism, the Petro administration is quickly putting in motion a plan that will serve as its first big policy test. Perhaps with an eye to how quickly fellow leftist Chilean Presidential Gabriel Boric’s popularity dropped after his own recent inauguration, the Petro team has already announced a proposal for a tax reform. Colombian Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo aims to raise taxes on Colombians making over $2,300 per month and introduce a new wealth tax as well as a tax on oil, coal, and gold exports during periods of high international prices.
While Petro’s pledge to negotiate with the guerrilla National Liberation Army group has received more press attention, it is this tax measure—which needs congressional approval—that would prove Petro’s ability to carry out heavy-hitting progressive policies. Ocampo said his proposal would rake in new government tax revenue equivalent to 1.78 percent of the country’s GDP and bring inequality in the country—as measured by the Gini coefficient—to its lowest level on record.
The Colombian Congress has already begun discussing the reform. In Chile, the Boric administration is trying to rally lawmaker support for its own tax overhaul that would bring in some 4.1 percent of its own GDP over a period of four years. And in Brazil, a nonpartisan group of economists published a plan last week calling for the next Brazilian president to do the same to “immediately interrupt” rising hunger and poverty.