This paper examines the status of democracy in Latin America, using Brazil as a case study. It provides an overview of Brazil’s transition to democracy in 1985 after two decades of military dictatorship, and analyzes the consolidation and quality of Brazilian democracy over the past few decades. Factors supporting democratic consolidation such as economic growth, social welfare policies, and a strong civil society are discussed. Challenges to democracy including socioeconomic inequality, corruption, and public security issues are also analyzed. Comparisons are made to other Latin American democracies. The paper concludes that despite significant progress, Brazilian democracy faces ongoing threats that need to be addressed to achieve democratic deepening and resilience.
Over the past four decades, democracy has spread across much of Latin America, replacing authoritarian regimes in a “third wave” of democratization (Huntington, 1991). Following transitions in the 1980s, by the 2000s most Latin American countries held regular, open elections with universal suffrage. However, the quality and stability of these new democracies varies extensively across the region. While some countries have achieved democratic consolidation and resilience, others struggle with democratic erosion and regime instability. As the region’s largest country and economy, Brazil provides an important case study for analyzing the status of democracy in Latin America today.
This paper examines Brazil’s transition to democracy in the 1980s after two decades of military rule, and analyzes the subsequent quality, challenges, and durability of Brazilian democracy. It begins with an overview of Brazil’s transition process, followed by an evaluation of factors supporting democratic consolidation such as economic growth, social welfare policies, and a strong civil society. It then discusses threats to Brazilian democracy including socioeconomic inequality, corruption, and violence. Comparisons are made to other Latin American democracies. The paper argues that despite meaningful progress, Brazilian democracy still faces serious problems of institutional quality and public discontent that require ongoing reforms to achieve democratic deepening and resilience. As home to 40% of Latin America’s population (World Bank, 2022), Brazil’s ability to maintain a stable, high quality democracy will significantly influence the future of democracy across the region.
Brazil’s Transition to Democracy
Brazil was ruled by military dictatorships from 1964 to 1985, with brief interludes of civilian rule. The repressive regime was established to counter the perceived threat of communism, but grew more violent and corrupt over time (Skidmore, 2010). Persistent civil society resistance emerged in the late 1970s, demanding free elections and a return to democracy. The military gradually initiated liberalization reforms, caught between domestic and international pressure for change. The unwinding of the dictatorship culminated in Tancredo Neves’ 1985 indirect election as Brazil’s first civilian president in 21 years. However, Neves fell ill and died before taking office. His vice president Jose Sarney assumed the presidency and oversaw the completion of the transition process (Hagopian & Mainwaring, 1987).
The transition was enabled by divisions within the military regime over the pace of opening, as hardliners were increasingly isolated. It was also facilitated by the voluntary exit of military rulers, who handed power over to elected civilians once the decision to democratize was made. This distinguishes Brazil’s transition from the simultaneous processes underway in the Southern Cone, where outgoing authoritarian leaders had to be forced out or negotiated with to ensure their withdrawal (O’Donnell & Schmitter, 1986). Brazil also took a more incremental, negotiated approach to democratization compared to the abrupt regime collapses seen in Ecuador or Bolivia. The military retained significant prerogatives such as constitutional non-interference guarantees and an amnesty law precluding prosecution for human rights abuses. But the surprisingly smooth, peaceful nature of the transition helped confer legitimacy and stability to the nascent democracy (Mainwaring, 1999).
Consolidating and Deepening Democracy
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Brazilian democracy became incrementally more consolidated and deepened. Free, fair, and routine elections institutionalized democratic competition. The military remained in the barracks and accepted civilian control. Checks and balances between branches of government were established. The press and civil liberties gained greater protections. As Linz & Stepan (1996) outline, behavioral, attitudinal, and constitutional consolidation of democracy progressed.
Several factors accounted for the steady strengthening of Brazilian democracy in this period:
Economic Growth and Social Welfare – The Brazilian economy grew substantially from the 1990s until 2014, with brief recessions contained by large currency reserves (Baer, 2014). Democratic rule coincided with the economic revitalization, conferring it legitimacy. Market reforms were paired with substantial social welfare programs, reducing poverty by 55% from 1990 to 2014 (World Bank, 2022). This boosted support for democracy among lower income citizens.
Civil Society – Grassroots movements that had resisted the dictatorship continued mobilizing in the democratic era to expand rights and participation. Major societal organizations like the Workers Party, land rights movements, feminist networks, and Afro-Brazilian advocacy groups pressed successive governments for change through an institutionalized civil society (Dagnino, Olvera, & Panfichi, 2006). This civil society activism strengthened civic culture.
Political Leadership – The presidencies of Cardoso, Lula and Rousseff institutionalized democratic norms over political gain. Transitions of power between parties occurred peacefully (Hunter & Power, 2007). Brazilian democracy benefitted from the leadership of moderates committed to democratic principles.
Moderation of the Military – The armed forces voluntarily submitted to civilian control and constitutional restrictions. Hardline generals were isolated or retired. Younger officers saw more professional benefits under democracy (Zirker, 2014). This moderation of military prerogatives prevented democracy from being overturned.
Decentralization – Political and fiscal decentralization initiatives expanded local democracy and service delivery (Montero, 2010). Subnational governments gained greater autonomy and responsibility. This helped shift power away from the central state.
Despite this democratic progress, Brazil’s military dictatorship left lingering legacies of inequality, corruption, discrimination and impunity. Combined with unfettered capitalism, these issues fueled ongoing challenges to Brazilian democracy’s quality and stability.
Threats and Challenges to Brazilian Democracy
Brazil’s democracy has been regularly threatened by high levels of inequality, corruption, and violence. Persistent poverty and exclusion coexist with islands of wealth, undermining social cohesion. Corruption scandals have engulfed the political class, stoking cynicism. Homicides have caused immense insecurity, provoking democratic discontent. These threats interact in complex ways, demonstrating the challenges of democratic deepening:
Inequality – Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. The top 10% hold about 40% of national income, while the bottom 40% hold just 13% (World Bank, 2022). While poverty declined, socioeconomic disparities are extreme. This massive inequality undermines social solidarity and citizenship, opening space for authoritarian appeals. It concentrates power among economic elites who distort democracy to their benefit.
Corruption – Systemic corruption has plagued Brazilian democracy, with massive scandals implicating executives, legislators, parties, contractors and more. Vote buying remains pervasive in Congress and local governments. Endemic corruption has contributed to policy distortions, inefficient government, and disillusionment with democracy (Avritzer, 2009).
Public Security – Brazil has homicide levels akin to war zones, fueled by organized crime and police brutality. Over 30,000 murders occur annually, with victims disproportionately poor, Black males (Cerqueira et al, 2019). This rampant urban violence has normalized a state of exception. It has led societies to accept repressive policing, private security, arms, and vigilante violence that undermine democracy and rights.
Right-Wing Extremism – Bolsonaro’s 2018 election highlighted the revival of a reactionary, anti-democratic right. This extremist coalition attacks human rights, Congress, the judiciary, and minorities. It spreads disinformation to polarize society and erode democratic norms (Solano, 2022). This authoritarian current exploits public discontent to gain power and subvert democracy from within.
These threats compounded in the lead-up to Brazil’s 2014 recession, President Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment on questionable grounds, and Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 election. Democratic institutions have come under immense strain, requiring ongoing mobilization to defend (Avritzer, 2018). For Brazilian democracy to endure, substantial reforms are needed to reduce inequality and corruption, strengthen rights and the rule of law, and marginalize extremists seeking to manipulate democratic discontent.
Comparison to Other Latin American Democracies
Brazil’s democratization process and subsequent democratic experience mirrors broader regional patterns, with a few noteworthy divergences. Authoritarian regimes across Latin America collapsed or were forced out in the 1980s, replaced with elected civilian governments. Most countries succeeded in instituting free and fair elections, extending civil liberties, and subordinating militaries to civilian control – foundational elements of polyarchy (Mainwaring et al, 2006). This constituted major democratic progress from the repressive 1970s.
However, like Brazil, most Latin American democracies have struggled with deficits in the rule of law, quality of representation, and state capacity that inhibit democratic deepening. Weak, corrupt, and dysfunctional judicial systems are unable to hold elites accountable. Political party systems remain shallow and clientelistic in many countries, failing to adequately represent citizen interests (Tanaka, 2005). States continue to be captured by oligarchic interests and lack effectiveness in responding to social needs. These institutional shortcomings have fueled democratic discontent.
Key differences between Brazil and other regional cases include:
- Gradual Transition – As noted above, Brazil’s negotiated transition contrasts with abrupt regime collapses in the Andes or US invasions toppling dictators like Noriega. This influenced post-transition stability.
- Stronger Civil Society – Brazil boasts a particularly diverse, participatory civil society that countries like Mexico or the Central American nations lack (Booth & Richard, 1998). This civil society has helped democratize the state.
- Greater State Capacity – In contrast to failed states like Haiti or fragile ones like Honduras, Brazil has institutionalized bureaucracy, tax collection, and public service delivery more effectively. This provides greater democracy-reinforcing state capacity.
- More Inequality – Brazil’s extreme inequality outpaces other middle income Latin American states, posing greater threats to democratic stability (Lopez-Calva & Lustig, 2010). Only a few nations like Colombia or Central America match Brazil’s vast disparities.
Despite national variations, Latin America’s democracies collectively face challenges of representation, inequality, legality, and security. Overcoming these requires not just free elections, but deeper sociopolitical transformations that no state has fully achieved.
Brazil’s transition from military rule to democracy since 1985 represents a major political achievement. Democracy is now the only game in town, with the military confined to the barracks and all major actors accepting democratic rules. The institutionalization of clean elections, peaceful rotation of power, free media and civil liberties constitute significant democratic progress. Brazilian democracy has also demonstrated resilience against repeated crises that could have escalated into authoritarian reversals.
However, Brazil’s democracy remains threatened by egregious socioeconomic inequality, corruption, and violence that must be confronted through deeper reforms. Public discontent toward ineffective, unaccountable democratic institutions has grown, punctuated by massive protests in 2013 and the rise of authoritarian populists like Bolsonaro. Brazilian democracy exhibits some of the same flaws found across Latin America – shallow political representation, subverted rule of law, co-opted states. Overcoming these deficits requires transformative change that empowers citizens, holds elites accountable, and fortifies democratic institutions.
Sustaining and deepening Brazilian democracy also demands marginalizing reactionary extremists who spread disinformation to polarize society and manipulate institutions from within. Defending democracy requires an engaged civil society and political leadership committed to democratic principles over personalist power. Through ongoing civic pressure and progressive mobilization, Brazil’s citizens can help protect democracy from erosions, while pushing it to live up to its emancipatory promise. The future trajectory of Brazilian democracy will have major implications for the overall status of democracy in Latin America.
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