Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Challenges of the Lula Government in the Context of Latin America

Talita São Thiago Tanscheit, Associate Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of Diego Portales University

[Editor’s Note: This is the first substantive post in the ICONnect symposium on the new Lula government in Brazil and the challenge of democratic erosion after Bolsonaro. For the introduction to the symposium, see here.]

The return of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the presidency of Brazil is decisive for the Latin American integration and cooperation strategy. On the one hand, Brazil led for a long time the international insertion of the region. On the other hand, the region became irrelevant for Brazil during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, who prioritized negotiations with extra-regional countries and blocs.

It was no coincidence that Bolsonaro’s term coincided with the period of less expression of Latin American regionalism. On the contrary, the scenario is opposite to that of Lula’s first two terms in the pink tide era in the region. Examples include the Brazilian leadership in transforming Mercosur into an organization focused on economic, social and political integration and cooperation and creating Celac and Unasur to construct a common regional identity. Unfortunately, this leadership currently does not exist, and Latin American regionalism is experiencing a mix of stagnation, fragility and decay (González et al., 2021).

The devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic further aggravated this scenario. The region concentrated the highest number of deaths per inhabitant in the world without an intra-regional agenda capable of responding collectively to the health and humanitarian crisis. Nationally, Brazil recorded around 700,000 deaths in Bolsonaro’s absolute disregard for people’s lives. Regionally, Brazil encouraged intra-regional divisiveness at a time when it was most needed. Bolsonaro played an active role in disrupting the architecture for Latin American integration and cooperation.

The impact of Brazil in Latin America is considerable, and it is not by chance that in the 1970s, the United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stated: “Wherever Brazil goes, there Latin America will go”. Concerning conservative authoritarianism, it is enough to remember the country’s active participation in Operation Condor once the Brazilian military regime began about a decade before the other countries of the region. Or Bolsonaro’s influence on the rise of other far-right leaders, such as José Antonio Kast in Chile and Guido Manini Ríos in Uruguay.

Therefore, the crisis of regionalism is also a reflection of a political project anchored in a conservative authoritarianism that collided with the current international agenda, focused on human development on an environmentally sustainable basis and the promotion of human rights. These elements reinforce Brazil’s importance not only because the country has the biggest economy and dispose of the most significant population and territorial extension of the region, but also to its leadership in Latin American regionalism.

For this reason, Lula’s coming back to the presidency is also an opportunity to return to a privileged view of Latin America, making its regional organizations spaces of collective action of global relevance. It is also a change in the understanding of the State and public policies – including foreign policy – in their role in producing equality. For this task, it was first necessary to defeat Bolsonaro’s authoritarian conservative project at the polls.

The Erosion of Democracy and Regionalism in the Bolsonaro Government

Jair Bolsonaro was the first far-right president elected in Latin America. This political position corresponds to leaders and parties that tend to adopt radical programmatic positions and have little commitment to the formal and informal rules of liberal democracies. Therefore, they are semi-loyal or disloyal to the political system (Bale and Rovira Kaltwasser, 2021). As a result, the far-right can initiate and promote a process of democratic erosion that, in some cases, can lead to a competitive authoritarian regime or foster democratic erosion.

From a national point of view, the process of erosion of Brazilian democracy began with the radicalization of the mainstream right with the impeachment (also understood as a parliamentary coup) of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, which brought Michel Temer to power and began a decomposition process of the 1988 Federal Constitution and Brazilian democracy. One of Temer’s main measures was the Constitutional Amendment to the Expenditure Ceiling, which limited the growth of government expenses and froze those invested in all social protection services for two decades. At the same time, cuts in public expenditure interrupted the production of public policies elaborated with broad citizen participation through conferences and national councils, preventing the realization of fundamental rights provided in our Citizen Constitution (Pogrebinschi and Tanscheit, 2017).

This process of democratic erosion was accelerated to unimaginable levels under Bolsonaro, in an anti-democratic government with a well-known anti-rights agenda, in which concern for the population’s living conditions occupied the last place in the queue. Thus, the cycle of political imagination started with the 1988 Federal Constitution, in which the expansion of democracy meant the realization of social justice ideals, came to an end. The final report of the Presidential Transition Office states that “the legacy of the Bolsonaro government is the disorganization of the State and the dismantling of essential public services”, as well as a “continuous action of affront to the legal framework of the democratic regime”.

From a regional point of view, this far-right represented by Bolsonaro has as a key element of its identity a reactionary internationalism based on the defense of the nation and tradition against globalization and cosmopolitism(Sanahuja and López Burian, 2020). In a self-proclaimed mission to save the West, multilateralism has become an enemy, as have its international and regional integration and cooperation organizations. Examples include the replacement of the Secretariat for Multilateral Political Affairs for the Secretariat for National Sovereignty Affairs, undermining Brazil’s capacity to influence issues on the global agenda.

The dismantling of Unasur, the departure of Celac and the crisis of Mercosur substituted the Brazilian brand of encouraging Latin American integration and cooperation. As the final report of the Presidential Transition Office also points out, “from a catalyst for integration processes, the country became a factor of regional instability”. The once leader of regionalism became the main responsible for its collapse.

The 2022 Brazilian elections took place in the context of a dispute between authoritarianism and democracy and the definition of the State’s capacity to process and channel conflicts and articulate responses to improve society’s living conditions. Bolsonaro’s defeat defined Latin America’s capacity to reorganize its states’ capabilities and respond to the prolonged crisis of regionalism. In this context, Lula’s return is also an opportunity to rebuild the regional integration and cooperation strategy under the leadership of its Latin American giant.

Reconstructing Brazilian Democracy and Latin American Regionalism

Even though Bolsonaro lost the election, his candidacy obtained broad electoral support and his allies a good parliamentary performance. As a result, at least for now, the far-right replaced the former mainstream right in Brazil. However, the future of this political field is still open. Will Bolsonaro be able to found a far-right party, or will he maintain a non-partisan political strategy? Will far-right leaders remain allied with Bolsonaro, or will they compete for the space left? Finally, will both Bolsonaro and the far-right survive without the State apparatus? The repositioning of Brazil in the world is an essential antidote to Bolsonaro and the Brazilian far-right.

The reconstruction of democracy and regionalism requires the existence of a positive agenda, which is not reactive or a simple sounding board of the far-right agenda. In a text before the election of Lula, I highlighted four challenges for resuming Latin American regionalism. First, the elaboration of an integration and cooperation project politically renewed and programmatically updated, reflecting the current historical circumstances. Second, the constitution of a strong and autonomous regional identity, harmonizing structural asymmetries between its countries through functional articulation mechanisms. Third, the assertion that regional integration is not just free trade but economic, social and political cooperation. Fourth, the existence of a leadership capable of coordinating, from a political point of view, regional integration and the international insertion of Latin America (Tanscheit, 2022).

Lula’s speeches and the first appointments of his government in the international area give indications that he will face these challenges. First, Celso Amorim was named chief advisor of the Presidency’s Special Advisory Board. Previously, Amorim was a minister in Lula’s first two terms and, at the time, considered the  best chancellor in the world. With the elaboration and implementation of the so-called “active and proud” foreign policy led by Amorim, regional integration and cooperation were one of Brazil’s main projects and strategic axes between 2003 and 2010.

Second, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mauro Vieira, announced a new organizational structure for the Itamaraty Palace, whose innovations include the creation of the Secretariat for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Secretariat for Climate, Energy and Environment. The main novelty is the creation of a Citizen Participation and Diversity Advisory Board directly subordinated to the Itamaraty Palace, which aims to expand the Ministry’s dialogue with different social groups. The creation of a citizen participation structure is an old claim of civil society and goes in line with the recovery of the participatory precepts provided for in the 1988 Constitution.

The next challenges involve recovering regional organizations and facing the various crises that plague the region. These spaces must regain their dialogue ability to pursue common interests.  It is necessary to overcome the crisis in Mercosur and reaffirm the organization as a strategic project. To this end, it is essential to reduce asymmetries, valuing mechanisms such as Focem, and guarantee Bolivia’s entry into the bloc, whose membership depends only on a decision by the Brazilian National Congress. It is equally necessary to rebuild a regional identity, via Unasur and Celac, with the latter allowing the expansion of integration and regional cooperation all over Latin America.

Regionalism and multilateralism are once again part of Brazilian foreign policy. There are reasonable reasons to believe this international insertion will occur via a renewed regional integration and cooperation strategy. Brazil is back, and its good news for world democracies. Especially for Latin America.

Suggested citation: Talita São Thiago Tanscheit, Challenges of the Lula Government in the Context of Latin America, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 11, 2023, at:


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