Brazil's Path To Populism Should Not Surprise Anyone

Jair Bolsonaro's triumph in the first round of the presidential election is worrisome, but a simple response to economic hard times and a corrupt political class.

Bolsonaro supporters last week in Rio de Janeiro
Bolsonaro supporters last week in Rio de Janeiro
Marcelo Cantelmi


BUENOS AIRES — Anyone with doubts still about how a serious recession, combined with the widespread pilfering of public funds, can impact voters need only look at what happened in Brazil, our colossal neighbor, where former military man Jair Bolsonaro a radical on various counts, including in his admiration for authoritarian and even despotic rule just won the first round of the presidential election.

His notable rise in politics is not, however, unusual. Nor are the conditions that fostered it. For the same reasons, similar figures are proliferating around the globe. Without the devastating slump that followed the financial crash of 2008 that led, in turn, to acute concentration of wealth, the extremism crossing the length of the European continent like wildfire would not exist. Nor would we be seeing Trump's populist experiment in the White House. Likewise, the seeds of the fascism that emerged in Europe in the 1930s were sown in the social debris created by the 1929 crash and ensuing slump.

Latin America, given its experiences with brutal dictatorships, has its own reasons to be alarmed by Bolsonaro's ascent. Modern history shows us that effects multiply if the conditions producing them intensify. In other words, if one of these types occupies such an important position, more will appear, and soon.

Last year, 13% of Brazilians said they were satisfied with their democracy.

Like his European counterparts, this would-be strongman — who has pivoted from backing state intervention in the economy to laissez faire — managed to interpret the frustrations of a people heaving under the worst recession of their history and the corruption of their entire political class. The party that's suffered most in all this is the Workers' Party (PT) of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), who pursued developmental policies but also set up an unprecedented system of corruption and finally ruined the economy.

Brazil's economic indicators tumbled during the first term of his successor, Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). Annual growth reached a measly 0.9%, while per capita incomes began plummeting, falling 9.1% in the final year of socialist rule and effectively killing all hopes of social mobility.

It was in this simmering cauldron of frustration cooked up by the PT that the so-called "Carwash" corruption scandal broke, ultimately sending Lula to prison. That scandal is still very much on people's minds, and it is no coincidence that Dilma's bid to win a Senate seat in the Oct. 6 elections ended with a humiliating rebuff.

At a time when political parties and party politics are in crisis worldwide, these dismal events in Brazil have liquidated trust in traditional forces. Last year, just 13% of Brazilians said they were satisfied with their democracy. Bolsonaro's first-round victory can thus hardly be considered a surprise.

His voters are broadly middle class and want to restore a system of economic growth and prosperity. The wealthiest sectors, for their part, see his military rigor as something that could favor implementation of the economic adjustments needed to balance the country's antiquated accounts. Bolsonaro backers are mostly male, given the candidate's sexist discourse. But there are also women who support him for other motives, along with poor voters and even former PT supporters who like his nationalism.

As history has shown, momentum can shift.

The PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, is in a bind ahead of the upcoming runoff. Lula's successor sought to extricate himself from the hole into which his party and leader are sinking, and make himself attractive to the political center. He failed to realize, however, that in this multifaceted socio-economic crisis, the political center has all but dissolved.

There's still the second round, of course. As history has shown, momentum can shift. In 2002 in France, the fascistic presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen came within a hair's breadth of winning against the conservative Jacques Chirac in the first round of voting. But in the second round, a singular alliance of forces gave Chirac a thumping majority of 82.2% of votes against Le Pen's 17.1%.

Those were different times, though. Extremist movements seemed to be the exception, and while people's trust in politics was bruised, it was still standing. Whether there's enough of that trust remaining to keep Bolsonaro from office will be determined on Oct. 28.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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