Brazil has suffered through hard times in recent years. A huge corruption scandal has caused the impeachment of the nation’s first female president, sent numerous business leaders and politicians to jail (including former president Lula), and left deep scars on the economy. There are rays of hope, however, with Brazil’s worst recession finally behind them, and continued investments in a greener, more sustainable future.
In 2018 Brazilians went to the polls to vote in a presidential election that was unlike any in the past. Two years prior, their previous incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, had become Brazil’s first democratically elected president to be impeached and removed from office. Meanwhile, Rousseff’s predecessor and Workers’ Party founder, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was only a few months into his 12-year prison sentence. Despite the charges – money laundering and passive corruption – he remained extremely popular with Brazilians. He even attempted to run for president that year (surveys indicated him leading by a wide margin in a hypothetical election). His efforts, however, were thwarted when the Superior Electoral Court barred him from running in the presidential race.
The choices for voters didn’t look very promising: two leading candidates – Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party and Geraldo Alckmin of the rightwing PSDB – had both been charged with corruption. Anger against the ruling political class had led to the rise of far-right demagogues like Jair Bolsonaro (often described as the Brazilian Donald Trump). A former military officer, Bolsonaro praised strong-arm rulers like Augusto Pinochet and promised to bring law and order back to Brazil. His fiery rhetoric earned him many enemies, and he was stabbed during a campaign rally in Minas Gerais.
If there's one central theme made shockingly clear in the most recent election cycle, it’s the pervasive level of corruption plaguing Brazilian politics. Even a people accustomed to this endemic problem were shocked at the vast size of the scandals that have rocked the country in the last few years. The magnitude of the scandal exposed by Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), which first came to light in 2014, boggles the imagination. This colossal kickback scheme was tied to Petrobras, Brazil's state-run oil company, as well as Odebrecht, the massive multinational construction firm headquartered in Brazil. The money laundering involved more than US$5 billion in bribes, and led to the convictions of over 200 of the country’s top executives and politicians – including former president Lula and Rio state governor Sergio Cabral.
The repercussions from the scandal have sent shockwaves rippling through the county, and beyond, with at least 10 other countries involved. Brazil was already reeling from a crippling recession (in part brought on by overspending on the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics), and the scandal only made things worse – undermining investor confidence and leading to mass layoffs by the scandal-plagued industries. The economy contracted by more than 3.5% in both 2015 and 2016 – its longest recession in history. As unemployment surged and the currency collapsed, the number of Brazilians living in poverty grew by a whopping 33% (an estimated six million people fell below the poverty line between 2014 and 2018). With prices rising and wages falling, workers have taken to the streets in mass protests; in 2018 one trucker strike left the country paralyzed for nearly two weeks. Huge budget cuts to schools, hospitals and other public institutions have also had devastating effects; a raging fire destroyed most of the collection inside Brazil’s National History Museum, a 200-year-old icon that housed some of the most important archeological collections in South America.
A Glimmer of Hope
The good news is that after three years of crisis, Brazil’s economy was finally climbing out of the red by late 2018. Business investment was on the rise as the political scandal (somewhat) subsided, and production rose significantly across many sectors (agriculture, electronics and the automotive sectors, among them). Meanwhile, Brazil has continued to invest in renewable energy, and today sustainable sources meet more than 70% of Brazil’s energy needs (some months reaching above a whopping 86% of Brazil’s domestically produced electricity). Recent years have seen the opening of massive solar farms – including two in 2017 that are among the largest on the continent. Wind power has also grown in leaps and bounds, with installed capacity of 13.1 MW in 2018 – a 35% increase from just three years prior. That said, oil production remains a huge part of the Brazilian economy, and finding the balance between green energy and petroleum will be one of the hot political topics in the years ahead – along with the challenge of preserving Brazil's natural environment (particularly the Amazon) amid relentless economic pressures, driven in part by the agriculture lobby.