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Volume 57 / Social Sciences

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS: BRAZIL


TIMOTHY J. POWER, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Florida International University


ON MARCH 15, 1995, Brazilian democracy celebrated its tenth birthday, and the consensus of observers was that the mid-1990s were crucial years for the country. The end of military rule in 1985 had led to widespread hopes for a stable democracy combined with economic growth and development, but the first eight years of the New Republic proved to be a roller-coaster ride of dashed expectations. In order to understand the recent scholarly literature on Brazilian government and politics, it is necessary to comprehend. An understanding of the convulsive nature of political and economic change during this first decade of civilian rule, the issues at stake, and the important events of the mid-1990s will clarify the choice of topics evident in recent scholarly literature on Brazilian government and politics.

The government of President José Sarney (1985-90) presided over an extended period of hyper-inflationary stagnation punctuated by major political battles - the most notable occurring during the National Constituent Assembly of 1987-88, which produced the country's current constitution. Although praised for its political inclusiveness, the constitution was widely criticized for its statist orientation at a time when most other countries were moving toward economic liberalization. President Fernando Collor de Mello came to power in 1990 promising to reorient Brazilian development away from State interventionism and toward market reliance. However, Collor's neoliberal reform policies failed to survive when the charismatic young populist fell from grace in a corruption scheme and subsequent impeachment in 1992. Neither Collor nor Sarney made much headway against Brazil's traditional nemesis, inflation, and their principal legacy was a parade of failed stabilization plans. Both presidents were handicapped by the weakness of the country’s political institutions, particularly the party system and the national legislature, which made coalition building difficult.

Collor's vice president, Itamar Franco, took office in late 1992, and appeared initially to preside only over Brazil's economic and institutional paralysis. Early 1993 brought the darkest moments of Brazilian democracy to date, as analysts began to speak of a crisis of governability, and the media aired rumors of an impending military intervention. However, as the economy slowly revived from the Collor-induced recession, Franco made a fateful decision. In April 1993, he chose Fernando Henrique Cardoso as his Finance Minister. Cardoso, one of the region's most influential social scientists in the 1960s-70s, had become a widely respected senator in the 1980s. While in the Finance portfolio, Cardoso used his considerable negotiating skills to implement a new economic plan based on fiscal adjustment and the gradual introduction of a new currency (Brazil's sixth since 1985), the Real. Introducing the Plano Real in July 1994 was a turning point for a nation exhausted by a decade of economic failures. With the strong currency, inflation fell to near zero while a spending boom reignited the economy. Cardoso rode the Plan to a spectacular victory in the presidential elections of October 1994.

The success of the Real permitted Cardoso to construct a broad coalition, and in 1995-96, his government became the first in the new democracy to have widespread backing in both Congress and among the general public. By now far from his Marxist origins, Cardoso used his mandate to revive and accelerate the neoliberal adjustment initiated by Collor. By 1997, the similarity of the macroeconomic policies of these two presidents had been widely noted, and academic debate focused on the historical implications of this fact. There was no longer any doubt about the significance of the 1990s: Brazil was now abandoning the State-led development model that had prevailed since the 1930s in favor of the market orientation now dominant in Latin America. The buzzwords of Brazilian politics in the mid-1990s were liberalization, privatization, fiscal adjustment, neoliberalism, and globalization. As in neighboring countries, the shift in the development model was contested vigorously by the political left, public employees, and various rent-seeking social forces weaned on the developmentalist State. To achieve his economic reform goals, Cardoso began in 1995 to propose major amendments to the seven-year old constitution; his efforts provided Brazilian politicians with a daily source of debate and political action. As with previous presidents, Cardoso faced the difficulty of keeping his governing coalition intact in an environment of weak political institutions. Although the economy became somewhat more predictable and manageable in mid-decade, the polity did not follow suit.

If the foregoing is a reasonably accurate description of Brazil's recent travails, then the scholarly literature on Brazilian politics should logically parallel some of the concerns and issues raised in the turbulent 1990s. At first glance, the literature reviewed for HLAS 57 appears exceedingly diverse. The largest group of contributions are studies of parties and elections. In second place are the general appraisals of the regime - either of democracy or the development model, but usually both together. In third place an ironic tie is found between the military and the organized left (the socialist Partido dos Trabalhadores, the two Communist or post-Communist parties, and the labor federations in their orbit). Other topics represented here include: social movements, human rights, and environmental activism; corruption and the Collorgate scandal of 1992; political economy studies of structural adjustment and/or State reform; and organized religion. The remaining contributions reviewed for this edition concern the 1993 plebiscite on parliamentary rule and the restoration of the monarchy, political elites, the National Congress, biographical studies, subnational and regional politics, and gender.

Much of the scholarly literature is devoted to three large clusters of topics. The first is political institutions, here broadly understood to include the party system, the electoral system, and the national legislature. The poor performance of Brazilian democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s has frequently been traced to various deficiencies of these institutional arenas. The party system has been criticized as weak, fragmented, and incoherent; the national legislature has been portrayed as disorganized and inefficient; and the electoral system has been blamed for contributing to the foregoing weaknesses of parties and Congress. Moreover, the presidential system of government itself has been subject to withering academic attacks (the plebiscite held on April 21, 1993, in which Brazilian voters chose overwhelmingly to maintain presidentialism and reject parliamentary government, does not seem to have closed this debate). On the party system, the essay by Mainwaring is a lucid and penetrating discussion of the problem of weak parties (item bi 95015908); the book-length studies by Kinzo (item bi 96003045) and Nicolau (item bi 97008068) are less theoretical but are also valuable. The behavioral study by Limongi and Figueiredo challenges the conventional wisdom that Brazilian parties lack discipline (item bi 96010478), setting the stage for a vigorous debate over the proper characterization of the post-1985 party environment. On the topic of the National Congress, Ames' sophisticated study is a huge step in understanding legislative voting (item bi 95018310). On elections, there are numerous case studies of individual contests, especially the 1989 and 1994 presidential races. Dimenstein and Souza provide an excellent journalistic account of Cardoso's victory in 1994 (item bi 97008062). This and several other contributions reveal the recent Americanization of electoral campaigns in Brazil, as candidates rely increasingly on fund-raising, television access, marketing and focus groups, and the advice of professional political consultants.

The second group of contributions concerns progressive political and social movements. Over the past fifteen years, this category - including works on the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), organized labor, social movements, human rights organizations, environmental movements, the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, and other groups seeking social and political change - has consistently been one of the largest sources of scholarly output, as Brazilian and Brazilianist social scientists typically sympathize with the left. But there is also a practical reason for studying these groups. Progressive actors constitute a large part of Brazilian civil society, which has acquired unprecedented complexity, density and dynamism over the past decade. As argued by Viola and Nickel, progressive groups share a common interest in securing citizenship rights and the rule of law in Brazil because in the absence of these fundamental guarantees, progressive legislation has little meaning (item bi 95021371). A sobering report by the Univ. de S˜ao Paulo’s pioneering center for the study of social violence shows how much farther Brazil must go in securing basic human rights (item bi 96012899). Human rights groups remain one of the few sources of knowledge about the urban settlements known as favelas, but Gay's comparative study breaks new ground in this area (item bi 97008066). Among recent contributions on the progressive Catholic Church, Hewitt's panel study of urban base communities is the most sophisticated (item bi 96011726). Turning to another largely urban actor, organized labor, the recent publications of Armando Boito Jr. provocatively revise earlier, more optimistic analyses of the novo sindicalismo of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The political party that emerged simultaneously with the novo sindicalismo, the PT, continues to expand its influence in the 1990s and is the subject of several contributions. Brazil's environmental movements are attracting increasing attention; the story of the rubber tappers of Acre is reviewed in Revkin's vivid biography of the late Chico Mendes (item bi 96012918) and in Keck's interpretive essay (item bi 95025731). Finally, after a long drought in which Brazilian agrarian movements were ignored by North American social science, the complementary books by Maybury-Lewis (item bi 97008067) and Pereira (item bi 97003420) break new ground in the study of rural workers.

The third broad group of contributions encompasses general appraisals of the political regime and the model of development. Although these are analytically distinguishable, many appraisals treat both economy and polity simultaneously as they review Brazil's trajectory since 1985. Within this group, two contributions are noteworthy. One is the felicitously conceived volume by Sola and Paulani, who, rather than chase the moving target of the 1990s, edited a retrospective review of the lessons of the turbulent 1980s (item bi 97008064). The other is Mainwaring's comparative essay on the political economy of democracy in the Southern Cone (item bi 95025419), which places the Brazilian experience in comparative perspective with Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. As Cardoso pursues his reform agenda, his efforts will inspire even more spirited debate about neoliberalism and its social, political, and economic impacts. In coming years we can expect sustained academic attention to the public-private mix (State ownership versus privatization) and to the foreign-national mix (economic nationalism versus liberalization) in the politics of Brazilian economic development, especially in the form of sectoral and actor-oriented case studies. We can also expect more attention to the issue of State capacity, as in the recent work of Weyland (item bi 97008072). Clearly the advent of the neoliberal "revolution" is injecting new energy into comparative political economy approaches to Brazilian politics.

These three broad categories of research - political institutions, progressive movements and civil society, and the political economy of democracy and development - account for more than two thirds of all the citations to follow. A few observations are in order about the remaining literature. The Brazilian military continues to attract significant scholarly attention more than a decade after it withdrew from power. Most work on the military in the late 1980s and early 1990s stressed the continuation of military power and prerogatives, but recent research by Wendy Hunter disputes these earlier claims. In two provocative contributions (items bi 95025730 and bi 97008069), Hunter argues instead that the logic of competitive democracy eroded military influence in important ways, and her unexpected findings are sure to spark further debate about civil-military relations in post-authoritarian regimes. As for remaining contributions reviewed this year, among the most noteworthy are Moises' impressive study of mass political culture in Brazil (item bi 97008071) and Leoni's fawning but still informative biography of Cardoso (item bi 97008073). The most outstanding recent contribution on Brazilian politics is Hagopian's beautifully written analysis of sub-national politics in Minas Gerais and its relationship to regime change (item bi 97008070).

No essay on the scholarly literature would be complete without suggestions for further research. First, the preoccupation with progressive actors is understandable, yet it must be balanced with sufficient attention to the political and social forces that tend to retard, not advance, social change in Brazil. Very little is known about rural elites, conservative parties and politicians, or right-wing pressure groups and social movements. Literature on the organization of the working class as traditionally defined abounds, but a useful study of white-collar unionism is lacking. There is a privileged stratum of middle-class public employees in Brazil whose interests are threatened by the changing role of the State and who are increasingly politically active, but about whom little is known. Third, the post-1988 administrative and fiscal decentralization has generated new patterns of political interaction, both in the relationship between the states and the federal government and within the internal politics of the states. The revolution in the federal structure of Brazil has important implications for political and economic development, but this revolution has not yet been the subject of systematic analysis. Any one of these topics would make an excellent doctoral dissertation. In a political system as rich and fascinating as Brazil's there is always room for further analysis, as both domestic and foreign observers will attest.


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