With the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency, the far-right has taken power in Latin America’s largest and most populous country, which also has one of the world’s largest economies. How, if at all, should Canada and Canadian business react?
A recent report for CBC News charted economic opportunities with this new regime, noting that “a Bolsonaro presidency could open new investment opportunities, especially in the resource sector, finance and infrastructure, as he has pledged to slash environmental regulations in the Amazon rainforest and privatize some government-owned companies.”
But diving in for the sake of short-term financial profit would be ethically irresponsible and politically catastrophic. Bolsonaro unashamedly praises the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 20 years, from 1964 to 1985. If we proceed as though it were business as usual, we would normalize his breach of a long-standing democratic consensus.
Trade as a political transaction
Every economic transaction is also a political transaction, and nowhere is this more true than in the realm of international trade and foreign investment. Governments have long combined commercial deals with strategic objectives: from the 19th-century opium wars — in which the Royal Navy fought to open China to British merchants — to the recent renegotiation of NAFTA, politics and economics go hand in hand.
But since the Second World War especially, the discourse around trade has been about more than simply self-interest. For instance, U.S. post-war economic assistance to Western Europe (the Marshall Plan) was designed to reinforce liberal democracy by ensuring economic recovery and removing the temptation of more radical solutions, i.e. to ward off the Communist threat.
This Cold War logic framed international trade for 40 years: the Soviet Union provided economic and military assistance to its satellites, while the United States did deals with dictators and other unsavoury regimes (in Guatemala, Iran, the Philippines, and so forth) where it considered it necessary for the broader narrative of protecting the “free world.”
With the end of the Cold War, the narratives were modified but didn’t disappear. Ethical as well as political considerations came to the fore in arguments either for or against economic engagement. At times, both the left and right argued for sanctions to effect political transformation (though they disagreed about when: whether apartheid South Africa or Communist Cuba, for example), but at other times they also often claimed that integration into international norms was better served by the exchange of ideas and attitudes that accompanies the traffic in goods and services.
In the U.S. during the Bill Clinton era, for example, maintaining preferential trade relations with China (“most favoured nation” status) was justified, despite concerns over human rights abuses, on the grounds that engagement encouraged openness and increasing liberalization, sidelining hardliners within the regime.
Similar arguments have, until very recently, been used to justify economic contracts with Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia, though these justifications would often be criticized as merely a cover for economic interests. Few people, for example, believe that the Gulf War was really about freedom for Kuwaitis rather than oil for the U.S. and its coalition partners. But the point is that, however paper-thin, those justifications had to be in place: trade and military intervention alike demanded a broader story of progress or development — one that went beyond naked self-interest.
The private sector has started telling similar tales, marketing their activities in terms of social change. Apple adverts once featured images of figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King alongside the slogan “Think Different;” Facebook tells us that its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Even industrial behemoths such as resource extraction followed suit, despite evidence of their destruction of the environments and livelihoods of vulnerable populations, and of their long-term impact on the planet. British Petroleum, for example, adopted a leafy-looking green and yellow logo suggestive more of horticulture than oil wells; mining giants everywhere began speaking of community benefits and their need to secure a “social license to operate.”
Dispensing with old trade narratives
All this is now changing, with countries and corporations increasingly dispensing with such exculpatory formulas. The key figure is doubtless U.S. President Donald Trump, who more than anyone has rejected the narrative of trade as a vehicle to liberal progress. His mantra “Make America Great Again” inverts the age-old adage of “private vice, public virtue” to assert that the only political rationale needed is self-interest. It is in this context that Brazil’s lurch to the right will be welcomed as an investment opportunity to some, and its environmental and political consequences cast to the wind. The sense that some broader political justification is required has faded.
In much of Latin America, the overarching political narrative of the past 30 years has been “Never Again.” Just as post-war European politics has been marked by the collective decision never to return to the internecine conflict (and horrors such as the Holocaust) of the First and Second World Wars, likewise the ground of political debate and policy in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Brazil) and elsewhere has been a social consensus, shared by all parties and sectors, that a return to the authoritarian regimes of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s should be unthinkable.
“Never Again” (“Nunca Más” in Spanish; “Nunca Mais” in Portuguese) was the title of the reports on human rights abuses published in Argentina and Brazil. But with his open praise of the dictatorship, new president Jair Bolsonaro is dramatically breaking that pact and taking the country in a harmful, regressive direction. In the absence of any other narrative, then, Canadian engagement (political or economic) that takes advantage of his election for short-term gain inevitably becomes complicit in this broader story of democracy’s decline.