A great deal of ink has been spilled in different analyses of the new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and whether or not he is emblematic of the global rise of right-wing populist leaders. Beyond doubts about his potential autocratic tendencies, Bolsonaro’s election also has important implications for Brazil’s international role and status.
Bolsonaro campaigned as a social conservative and vowed to roll back many of his predecessors’ policies of social and environmental protections. Within his agenda is the repeal of gay rights laws, promotion of gun rights, and rolling back environmental safeguards in the Amazon. But in his attempts to reshape Brazilian society, is Bolsonaro reducing Brazil’s global soft power and its ability to be a global player?
One of Bolsonaro’s campaign pledges was to end Brazil’s affirmative action policies. He claimed that the he could not trust the accomplishments of those that had entered universities through the quota system. Actual evidence, though, has shown that affirmative action beneficiaries perform as well as non-beneficiaries in Brazilian universities. This line of thought emerges from Brazil’s historic claims of being home to the world’s first “racial democracy”—the first country that had overcome racial animosity and inequalities.
Evidence on educational access, social mobility and racism—blatant and subtle—demonstrate that the claim is a myth. Discrimination and large inequalities exist between Afro-Brazilians and their white counterparts. Although poverty in Brazil has declined since the turn of the 21st century, Afro-Brazilians and indigenous Brazilians still suffer from poverty rates more than double that of their non-indigenous, non-Afro-descendant counterparts. Furthermore, access to education and healthcare remains unequal across ethno-racial lines.
Starting in the early 2000s, Brazil started to implement affirmative action policies to address these inequalities, acknowledging the national lie of “racial democracy.” While eliminating affirmative action policies may play well with Bolsonaro’s supporters, it risks weakening the Brazilian economy and geopolitical standing.
Economically, ending affirmative action policies could be costly to Brazil. Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. According to a recent Inter-American Development Bank report, more than nine percent of Brazil’s income inequality can be explained by racial inequalities, even when controlling for other characteristics. This is a problem for Brazil. Studies have shown that countries with high levels of ethnic fragmentation and inequality are a drag on economic growth.
The most effective policy that Brazil has to reduce ethno-racial inequalities is its public spending on education. In fact, unlike many of its contemporaries, Brazilian public spending on university education was ethno-racially progressive, even before the passage of a 2012 law that expanded affirmative action policies across Brazilian universities. Continuing affirmative action policies in Brazil would not only help reduce ethno-racial inequalities in the country; it would spur social mobility, reduce inequality and spur broader economic growth for the country as a whole.
Why this matters internationally
Brazil’s diplomatic might rests not on military power, but both on its well-trained, professional diplomatic corps and the soft power of the ideological and moral authority of Brazil’s image. The state’s pursuit of inclusive growth provided the diplomatic corps with additional moral authority in its dealings with other nations. The clearest example of this is Brazil’s conditional cash transfer program, Bolsa Familia, which has been heralded as a best practice for reducing poverty and replicated in many other nations.
This recent state-sponsored push for equality has burnished Brazil’s reputation as a leader of the developing world, which it has used in its foreign relations and international forums to speak for the need for more inclusive policies across the globe. Although during the 20th century, Brazil relied on the myth of racial democracy as a means of maintaining global moral superiority (particularly vis-à-vis the United States). But since the early 2000s, the Brazilian diplomatic corps has sought to shift its international role by acknowledging racial inequalities in the country and pushing for all nations to improve ethno-racial equality. Already, some have highlighted Brazil’s affirmative action policies as an example of best practices in promoting inclusion and social mobility. As with Bolsa Familia and Brazil’s push for inclusive economic growth, this could allow Brazil to play a greater role in international politics. Brazil’s aspirations for global recognition are dependent on it maintaining the moral authority that it has acquired in recent decades. But the elimination of affirmative action policies will weaken the country’s international standing and its ability to project itself globally.
If the numerous moral reasons for preserving affirmative action programs are not convincing to the Bolsonaro administration, they should consider the implications for the economy and Brasilia’s diplomatic might. Affirmative action policies are not handouts that weaken society; they support the growth of Brazil and provide it with soft power that can be used in pursuing its foreign policy objectives. If Bolsonaro wants to improve Brazil’s economy and geostrategic standing, he should tread lightly as he considers slashing programs that have proven effective at making the country a more equal place.