The election of Jair Bolsonaro was not surprising—but to liberal democrats in the region, it was most definitely shocking. The biggest, wealthiest and most powerful country in Latin America has just handed its presidency to a fascist.
Most of the time, the word is thrown around hyperbolically, but not here: with a decades’-long track record of rejecting democracy, advocating for lawless violence against undesirables and pining for military dictatorship, “fascist” isn’t an epithet when applied to Jair Bolsonaro. It’s a neutral descriptor.
The story of how such a large, pivotal country came to elect such an obviously unfit figure to lead the nation is relatively familiar by now: the political system, as a whole, failed under the weight of unbridled corruption and utter shamelessness. The Left failed most spectacularly, in the form of successive PT governments shot through with corruption and mismanagement. But the Center and the Right failed, too, to offer minimally credible alternatives to voters sickened by the spectacle of Lava Jato.
The entire system failed, and when entire systems fail, power falls to the fringe.
Venezuelans today are looking South with a mixture of curiosity, horror and—no sense denying it—jealousy. The reactionary authoritarian vein that propelled his rise in Brazil is powerfully present among Venezuelans traumatized by our own catastrophe. The Bolsonaro phenomenon serves to sort Venezuelan opposition-supporters between those actually committed to democracy and those willing to trade one kind of dictatorship for another.
Liberal democracy is in crisis everywhere. Venezuelans were among the first victims of its worldwide retreat. Brazilians are about to become its latest.
Some, in Venezuela, are bizarrely cheered up by this, as though the acute threat to constitutional order to our South was somehow good news for its own prospect among us.
It’s a mirage: a clumsy outcome of a childish, the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend mindset that debases those who yield to it. At the end of a slow-burn disaster, Brazil has chosen a catastrophe. Latin Americans will be living with its consequences for many years to come.