Brazil is Back

Brazil is well placed to use its diplomatic service to knit together Latin America and the Caribbean in ways that other countries cannot.


Photo: Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (center) celebrates with his wife Rosângela da Silva (left) and running mate Geraldo Alckmin (right) after defeating incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a presidential run-off on October 30, 2022. Source: Andre Penner / AP.

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led his Worker’s Party (PT) to a remarkable victory over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro on October 30. Lula won by the closest margin in Brazilian history, a little over two million votes out of more than 118 million cast. This was a deeply personal defeat for Bolsonaro—his first electoral loss since entering politics as a Rio city council member in 1989. While he added more second round votes than Lula—seven million compared with Lula’s three million—and won in all but one of Brazil’s five regions, it was not enough to make up for Lula’s overwhelming dominance in Brazil’s northeast region, where he obtained over 12 million more votes than Bolsonaro. This was despite the president unprecedented use of vast state resources in a favorable economic climate to try to buy the outcome and last-minute, tawdry efforts to suppress the Lula vote by inhibiting voters from getting to the polls. Many of Bolsonaro’s legislative and gubernatorial candidates won, however, underlining the personal nature of the rejection of Bolsonaro as president. His negatives remained over 50 percent on the eve of the election, so the result should not be surprising.

It was a personal defeat for Bolsonaro even more than a personal victory for Lula. The PT leader’s negatives were less than 20 percent when he left office in 2010. However, his imprisonment and comeback combined with the Bolsonaro campaign’s extensive anti-Lula and anti-PT ads more than doubled that number. As hard as he tried, though, Bolsonaro could not get it above 50 percent. With no electoral college to contend with and voter suppression difficult in a country with obligatory voting, Bolsonaro was doomed.

The PT looks happy today, but they are bruised and a bit dazed. They have no national-level officials that look like plausible candidates for a 2026 presidential bid. The party’s brand is confused and may become more so. This was not an election about policy. The economic climate they inherit following Bolsonaro’s “secret budget” election expenditures—basically legal bribery of elected officials—has left a big fiscal hole for Lula to contend with. PT ideologues have no real solutions to such problems. They are social activists, not a strong governing class. Moderates in the PT may get more room to maneuver now, but their task is not easy. Lula voters care about hunger, education, violence, housing, and jobs. All that costs money. Lula will need to produce results on those matters quickly if he is to be successful. There will be a natural tension between the desire to spend and the possible negative market reaction to alleged fiscal profligacy. Like Biden, Lula has inherited a mess and faces a lot of problems and pent-up social demands.

It is common to say that Lula will face major problems in Congress, but this seems to be overstated. Bolsonaro’s slate won an impressive 99 seats in the lower house, but there are 513 members in that body—many non-ideological—and they are likely to be willing to make deals and resort to traditional pork barreling. This should allow Lula to be able to cobble together serial majorities that enable a cohesive program to emerge. He simply must get that right to have a successful presidency. It is also plausible that more than a few of Bolsonaro’s slate will consider themselves potential 2026 candidates and seek to build their personal political brands at the expense of the broader anti-Lula effort.

The Future of Bolsonaroism

While the outcome was a personal defeat for Bolsonaro, it was, to a significant degree, a victory for his muscular version of authoritarian populism. After all, he won in four of Brazil’s five regions. While he only by 200,000 votes in the north, he won by significantly larger amounts in the south (4.3 million), southeast (4.3 million), and center west (1.8 million). “Bolsonaroism” seems to be a real movement, with a strong spine of evangelical Christians. As evangelical power grows (it is likely unstoppable and closely allied to the political right), Bolsonaro’s movement could become stronger.

However, unlike Trump, who has built a similar movement focused on his personality and supposed authenticity, Bolsonaro is a more limited man. He is emotional, reactionary, impulsive, and anti-strategic. This was his moment, and he blew it. It is not easy to see a movement being built around his strategic conservative wisdom. The Bolsonaroism movement may struggle for an identity and traction as its leader gets bored and is faced with likely indictments and prison.

The Future of Lula’s Presidency and the PT

It would therefore be unwise to draw sweeping regional lessons from this election. The more accurate assessment is that another incumbent lost in Latin America—the 15th in a row to do so. Governing is hard, especially in the age of social media, where criticism spreads quickly and tribally inclined voters are susceptible to being influenced by fake news. Lula might well follow those failed incumbents unless he shows the wisdom and discipline to tack to the center, keep his militants in line, groom a successor, and keep his priorities relatively narrow.

Who might the center and center left in Brazil turn to next? Simone Tebet is talented and impressive. She may obtain a prominent ministry that allows her to build a deeper national constituency (like Agriculture), but it is unclear whether the PT would accept her as one of them. Former Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa occasionally dips his toes into the national political waters and may do so again. As a black man in a majority-black country, it would be important to see him make that effort. Those two are more likely national candidates in 2026 than any other PT stalwarts. On the right you could see either Flavio or Eduardo Bolsonaro—assuming they survive legal entanglements—or Sergio Moro—who sold his soul several times in the last month and will have no scruples about doing so again—emerge as potential leaders.

Lula worked hard in this campaign and, at 77 years old, he wants to reestablish a respectable personal reputation. This should guide his presidency, but this win fell into his lap because Bolsonaro made far too many mistakes and enemies—especially women and northeast voters—and lacked the emotional intelligence to cope with the negative consequences of doing so. In many ways Bolsonaro was more of an activist campaigner than a governing president.

A Consequential Foreign Policy?

Lula may be constrained domestically for the reasons noted above and seek some room to maneuver by distancing Brazil from some of Bolsonaro’s foreign policy choices. In places like Cuba and Venezuela this will likely irritate some in the United States, but will not make much of policy difference since U.S. policy in those cases has failed anyway. Brazilian diplomats are strong and can contribute to solutions to regional problems if allowed to work. They have access in some cases that U.S. diplomats do not have. This could be constructive since the United States needs a nudge in some places to reconsider failed approaches. On the environment and in thinking through how to deal with dictators, I suspect the United States can collaborate well with Lula. I still worry about the weak U.S. diplomatic presence in Latin America, and the Biden administration should prioritize putting an experienced professional ambassador in Brazil.

What might it mean for Latin America and the Caribbean now that Brazil is back? Brazil is a country that has traditionally enjoyed constructive relationships with others. Brazil has typically not sought to “name and shame” countries that are perceived to be failing to live up to democratic ideals. It has historically not drawn ideological lines to separate people, but instead has pursued positive relationships across the region. Yet it is easy to merely maintain good formal relationships that avoid hard issues. A big question for Brazilian diplomacy is what are those good relationships for? Do they have a purpose beyond basic state-to-state formalities that may be ineffective in promoting a democratic hemisphere?

Brazil is well placed to use its diplomatic service to knit together Latin America and the Caribbean in ways that other countries cannot. This would require Brazil to work with different groups of countries on discrete issues, in some cases coordinating closely with the United States and in others working with different like-minded partners. The overall objective should be to end the next Brazilian presidential term with a hemisphere where democratic countries are stronger and better able to meet the needs of their citizens, and where repressive or populist countries have moved closer to fully incorporating their citizens in decision-making.

What might this mean in practice? For example, the time is ripe for a constructive approach to the situation in Venezuela. It is less important to “name and shame” than it is to find solutions that heal the festering wounds that this conflict has caused. It is not easy for the United States to play this role since it is so identified with one side. Perhaps it is time for a government of national unity in Venezuela that would serve for at least one full electoral term. Cabinet portfolios could be divided with opposition parties. A small and trusted “group of friends” could play the kind of role for Venezuela that the guarantors, including Brazil, played for Ecuador and Peru in 1995. The solution to the problem could have several stages, with the goal being internationally observed national elections.

Peru is another country that may benefit from close coordination and quiet diplomacy in the months ahead as that deeply divided society seeks a path forward. Its inability to resolve problems over time resulted in horrendous terrorism challenges and now seemingly intractable political disputes. Peru’s success could strengthen the entire region. The Northern Triangle of Central America remains an area of intense interest for the United States because of the migration generated by state failures, but there is room for constructive Brazilian diplomatic engagement too. Brazil now has outstanding experience in establishing and insulating from political manipulation the multiple independent institutions that make democracy function. Brazilian diplomacy in those countries, as well as with more weighty partners like Mexico, could make a substantial difference to the outcomes for those societies. And of course, there is Cuba and Nicaragua, where the United States has no constructive relationships and where trends are negative. Which country in the region is better placed than Brazil to nudge those countries in a more positive direction? Being effective means making incremental progress, not necessarily vanquishing an opponent.

Of course, this approach requires Brazil to be prepared to assume a regional leadership role. It would be much easier to merely reestablish standard state-to-state formalities, with no creative diplomacy to tilt the scales in favor of democratic consolidation. This would be unfortunate and would risk ceding leadership to others, continuing the regional divisions that offer little but further conflict and democratic deterioration, reinforced by outside actors. Lula’s presidency will therefore be consequential for the entire hemisphere no matter what diplomatic choices it makes.       

Lula will have to pick his way through multiple domestic and foreign policy minefields in a context in which Bolsonaro and his many law enforcement allies at home and thorny issues like relations with China and Russia could make life extremely difficult for him. As Napoleon noted, even the best leaders also need lucky generals to win. Lula will need to display good judgment every step of the way and hope that Bolsonaro doesn’t try to make Brazil ungovernable. We will know soon enough if Lula’s enemies are organized in the trenches, or instead merely wandering around the battlefields taking selfies. But make no mistake—Brazil is back, and that’s a good thing.

Scott Hamilton is a former senior U.S. foreign service officer who retired in April, 2022 after almost 30 years of service. His most recent assignments were Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé d’affaires in Cuba, and Director for Central American Affairs in Washington, DC. He also served at the US Mission to the OAS, and in Colombia and Ecuador, among other assignments. He is a graduate of Oxford University, Harvard Law School, and the National Defense University.

More Commentary

Scroll to Top