U.S. diplomats talk Brazilian politics at Ford
Thursday afternoon, the Weiser Diplomacy Center and American Academy of Diplomacy hosted a live recording of “American Diplomat: The Real Stories Behind the News” at the Ford School of Public Policy. “American Diplomat” is a podcast hosted by Peter F. Romero, former U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, and Laura Bennett, a writer and producer.
The event featured Thomas A. Shannon Jr., former U.S. ambassador to Brazil, and University professor Melvyn Levitsky — also a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil — and focused on recent political developments in Brazil.
The event began with the speakers introducing themselves and providing background on Brazilian politics. Shannon explained the position Brazil was in, both economically and politically, six years ago.
“It looked like it was really Brazil’s time,” Shannon said. “It just really looked like growth rates were through the ceiling. It just looked like Brazil’s time had finally come.”
However, Shannon said this quickly seemed to change. He told a story from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil when he first noticed a change in the country, explaining many Brazilians were angry with the amount of money the government was spending on sporting events.
“As the teams came onto the field, and as (then President) Dilma Rousseff and the then head of FIFA prepared to make their speeches, her image came up on the screen,” Shannon explained. “Everyone in the stadium started whistling — whistling in Brazil is like booing. And I remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh, something is happening here in Brazil.’”
Levitsky offered a similar perspective, describing how he initially believed Brazil’s situation was improving. He explained the economy in Brazil had been growing rapidly.
“You could just see it in places like São Paulo, Rio — the big cities,” Levitsky said. “Even in some of the smaller cities, industries and businesses just began to come into Brazil.”
Levitsky then offered background on the problems rising in Brazil, like the one mentioned by Shannon. He said corruption caused much of Brazil’s population to distrust their government.
“I think the biggest problem Brazil has is corruption,” Levitsky said. “These scandals began where government officials took advantage of their position. I think the big issue in Brazil is corruption, and do people have any trust in the government when they see that money is being skimmed off?”
Shannon said he realizes there are problems that must be addressed, but he ultimately believes the Brazilian people are committed to democracy. To explain the gravity of Brazil’s situation, he presented a hypothetical situation comparing events in Brazil to the U.S.
“Imagine this in the U.S.,” he said. “Imagine that a president is impeached, that his predecessor is arrested and charged with crimes and imprisoned, that his successor would then be arrested and charged with crimes. The speaker of the house is removed from office, the Senate majority leader is arrested and imprisoned, and then the heads of Apple, Boeing and Ford are all arrested. This is effectively what happened in Brazil.”
The discussion then shifted to Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, and his similarities to other world leaders. Shannon explained he believed Bolsonaro was elected as a result of Brazil’s anger at corrupt politicians and his status as a political outsider.
“These scandals open a space for non-traditional politicians,” Shannon said. “Especially someone like Jair Bolsonaro who had been talking about law and order and fighting corruption. He was able to emerge as a clear alternative to traditional political leadership.”
The speakers then mentioned the similarities between the sentiments that caused the election of Bolsonaro and those that fueled the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. They also discussed the similarities between Bolsonaro’s and Trump’s social commentary and how they impacted voters’ opinions of the two.
“The Brazilians showed clearly that they were prepared to put up with the rhetoric,” Shannon said. “But only if President Bolsonaro was prepared to focus on the primary purpose of his campaign. The Brazilians want him to focus on the three or four core issues that matter to them.”
They also briefly mentioned Bolsonaro’s recent meeting with Trump, saying they believe the two leaders have a positive relationship, citing the leaders’ similar comments about the press and fake news.
The event concluded with the panelists discussing what they expect in Brazil’s future. Shannon expressed his confidence in Brazil’s people to preserve their democratic institutions and resist Bolsonaro’s discriminatory statements.
“Brazil is a big, diverse society,” Shannon said. “But it’s still fairly conservative and traditional. But even with that, it is a ‘live and let live’ country. I don’t see Brazil buying into the social rhetoric.”
Levitsky offered a similar perspective on Brazil’s future and Bolsonaro’s role in the country.
“I always try to be optimistic,” Levitsky said. “It’s a big, active country and I think it’s very special. I hope things work well. I hope that Bolsonaro sets aside these things he said during the campaign and tries to do something and get things done.”
When closing out the podcast, Romero commented on a trend he noticed among officials working in Brazil and how this reflected on the country.
“There’s clearly something that keeps them going back to Brazil,” Romero said.
Public Policy junior Zach Shulkin spoke to The Daily after the live recording, highlighting his interest in the ambassadors’ discussion of Brazil’s democracy post-Bolsonaro.
“An interesting thing that I thought is that there was a lot of mentioning of corruption, but when asked about whether a president like Bolsonaro, a radical, very fiery figure, whether a president like him, whether Brazil can come out with a president like him and come out with its democracy intact,” Shulkin said. “Both ambassadors, both Levitsky and Shannon, mentioned that they have a lot of faith in Brazil’s democracy.”