The Roots of Brazil’s Long Stagnation
Brazil has the natural fundamentals to make a world power. In practice, a lack of functional political institutions means it has squandered this potential. Only a live player can make Brazil matter.
Brazil has a population of over 200 million people and the tenth-largest economy in the world by nominal GDP, larger than the economies of South Korea, Russia, or Turkey.1 After the United States, Brazil is by far the most populous country in the Western Hemisphere. With total land area also comparable to the U.S. and including vast grasslands, rainforest, and fertile soil irrigated by many rivers, Brazil has been viewed as a prime candidate for a future great power since the 19th century. In 1961, Brazilian President Janio Quadros declared that “in five years Brazil will be a great power.”2 Sixty years later, Brazil is still not a great power, despite yet new variations on the idea of Brazil’s great potential, such as Brazil’s inclusion in the BRICS grouping of large emerging economies in 2001.3
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The rise and fall of countries into middle or global powers is important to track because each new powerful country is an opportunity for newly-empowered functional institutions and live players to make idiosyncratic advances in science, technology, culture, and industry that are adopted later by the rest of the world, with ultimately unpredictable consequences. For example, the pursuit of national greatness by countries like Turkey has resulted in advances in military drone technology, while, in Taiwan and South Korea, state-directed industrial growth has resulted in the technical and manufacturing infrastructure to vastly increase the amount of computing power available through microchips.
Owing to the country’s size, population, wealth of natural resources, and lack of credible and immediate military threats, the reasons for perennial high expectations for Brazil were and are correct. It is not Brazil’s potential that has ever been misassessed, but rather the ability of the country’s institutions and elites to deliver on it. Since the late 19th century, Brazil has been a country with an unusually fractious elite that is unable to build functional institutions. This makes the country a place where fighting costly political battles takes priority over economic development. This situation has continued to the present day. Since 2003, Brazil has not had a president who has not been forcibly removed by impeachment, criminally investigated, or imprisoned, or some combination thereof.
The Strong Fundamentals for Brazilian Power
The core reason for optimism about Brazil has always been the country’s large amount of fertile, arable land. While a strong agricultural base can be used to grow and export cash crops, the real value is the ability to support a large population, which in turn provides manpower for industry and the military, two basic necessities for a great power. This is just a product of Brazil’s favorable climate and geography. The country is not only as large as the continental United States, but situated entirely at the equator and immediately south, with the result that, with the exception of the Amazon rainforest, effectively the entire country is highly suitable for agriculture.
Only 6.7% of Brazil’s land is used for agriculture, but this means Brazil has more arable land in absolute terms than any country except the U.S., China, India, and Russia, all of which use far higher proportions of land for agriculture.4 Moreover, this is while nearly half of the country is covered by the dense jungle of the Amazon in the northwest. Ongoing deforestation of the Amazon is a hot-button political issue in Brazil, as the rainforest is regularly logged or replaced with cropland or ranchland. One estimate says Brazil has 4.1 million square kilometers of potentially arable land—an area larger than India—but currently uses only 15% of it.5
The fertility of Brazil has allowed the country to lead in many profitable commodity exports worldwide. Brazil is by far the largest global exporter of sugar, coffee, tobacco, and wood pulp, which is used to make paper.6 It is also by far the largest exporter of beef, poultry, and soybeans, which are used in animal feed.7 While not the largest itself, Brazil is also one of the top exporters in many other categories including corn, cotton, pork, fruits, and other agricultural or pastoral products.
Like other large countries, Brazil’s size has unsurprisingly resulted in discoveries of mineral and hydrocarbon wealth. By far the most important is iron ore, which made up a full 16% of Brazilian exports by value in 2021 and thus made Brazil the second-largest iron exporter worldwide, behind Australia.8 While Brazil exports some amounts of copper, gold, and other minerals too, these all pale in comparison to the iron trade.
Moreover, Brazil has risen to be the world’s eighth-largest oil producer as of 2022, ahead of Iran and Kuwait.9 Surprisingly, 97% of Brazil’s oil production is offshore, off the southeastern coast, as a result of large and accessible underwater reserves.10 While most of this oil is consumed domestically rather than exported, Brazil does not rely on hydrocarbons for generating electricity. Rather, an incredible 64% of Brazilian electricity is reportedly provided by hydropower, something only made possible by the country’s many and vast rivers.11 Three of the world’s ten largest dams by electrical generation capacity are Brazilian. An additional 10% of electricity is provided each by natural gas, biofuels, and wind power. Brazil is arguably the largest country in the world to achieve a broad measure of renewable electricity in practice.
Through its vast wealth in both organic and inorganic natural resources, Brazil is one of a few countries large enough to be truly autarkic, self-sufficient across all important economic categories. Despite its vast commodity exports, Brazil’s total exports as a percentage of GDP are only at 20% as of 2022, the lowest of any major economy except for the U.S. and Japan.12 For comparison, the total exports of most European countries are well above 50% of GDP, while some commodity exporters like the United Arab Emirates reach above 95%, as do low-labor-cost manufacturers like Vietnam. Russia, as a large resource exporter with an otherwise diversified domestic economy, is at 28% and was as high as 44% in 2000.13
As recently as the early 2010s, Brazil’s exports as a percentage of GDP were around 10% and have trended up and down since the 1980s, indicating an autarkic economy that can occasionally vastly increase commodity exports.14 As a result Brazil’s real economy is somewhat untethered from global economic trends, but its GDP figures are very sensitive to global commodity prices. Following a sudden drop in commodity prices in 2014, an attendant financial crisis saw Brazil’s nominal GDP drop by a whopping -40% from 2014 to 2020.15 Per capita GDP adjusted for purchasing power only fell about -5%, however, and has since recovered and reached new heights.16
Brazil’s strong geopolitical fundamentals go even further than natural resources. Much like the U.S., Brazil is separated from other major military powers by thousands of kilometers of ocean and faces no existential threats in its backyard. The country has a long coastline and many natural ports. Speaking Portuguese, the country is linguistically homogeneous and, until recently, was also highly religiously homogeneous via the Roman Catholic Church. While Brazil has racial politics and a legacy of slavery, it never implemented racial segregation like the U.S., but in fact encouraged the opposite, with the result that the vast majority of Brazilians self-identify as either white or mixed-race.
Brazil has had some limited industrial successes. The Brazilian corporation Gerdau is one of the world’s largest steel producers.17 Brazil manufactures more motor vehicles than France or Spain, though less than Mexico, which benefits from offshoring from the U.S.18 Brazil has its own aircraft manufacturer, Embraer, which is the tenth-largest worldwide by market capitalization as of July 2023.19 In 2004, the Brazilian Space Agency successfully launched its first rocket into space. There is even a minor industry for manufacturing ancillary semiconductor components.20 But taken together, these limited successes rather demonstrate the inability of Brazilian institutions to turn strong fundamentals into large-scale industrial growth and an advanced economy.
Brazil’s Infighting Elites and Dysfunctional Institutions
Political stability is a key prerequisite to economic growth and development. Whether a country has a weak state like Egypt, turmoil between elites like Pakistan, or outright armed rebellion like Ethiopia, or even often a combination of all three, political instability draws the attention and resources of live players away from development, towards winning costly and usually existential political battles. When political stability is achieved, whether through a strong monarch like in Morocco, or through a broad elite alliance over social democracy like in Sweden, live players are able to build functional institutions with economic missions.
Brazil fought multiple internal revolts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and saw a succession of attempted or successful military coups throughout the mid-20th century. Since democratization in the 1980s, Brazil has avoided political instability, but still lacks strong factions, centralized institutions, or live players in politics to guide or govern the country’s future. The result is a strategic landscape where power is very decentralized in practice and costly elite political struggles cannibalize major institutions, like the judicial system or state-owned enterprises, in the pursuit of political objectives.
The 77-year-old Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, more commonly known as Lula, has been the President of Brazil since January 2023. Lula previously served as president from 2003 to 2010. He was succeeded as president in 2010 by his former chief of staff Dilma Rousseff, in what would have seemed like a successful solving of the succession problem. Uneducated and from a working class family, Lula himself was something of a live player, rising from being a metalworker to a labor union organizer, before cofounding his Workers Party in 1980 and entering a career in politics. In office, he became very popular for his generous social welfare programs.
But in 2016, Rousseff was impeached and removed from office in the wake of a vast corruption scandal uncovered by the so-called “Operation Car Wash” police investigation. In short, starting in 2014, a branch of the Brazilian federal police pursued a sweeping investigation into corruption that would eventually result in over 150 convictions of top Brazilian political and business figures for money laundering, embezzlement, and bribery, especially in regards to $2.5 billion misappropriated from Petrobras, the state-owned oil and petrochemical company and also Brazil’s most valuable company, to fund various political patronage schemes.21 While Rousseff was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, Lula was sentenced to nearly ten years in prison.
The investigation also resulted in criminal charges against Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, who served as president from 2016 to 2018 after being her vice president. Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil’s president from 1990 to 1992, was also convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison in June 2023.22 Eduardo Cunha, then serving as essentially Brazil’s speaker of parliament, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Marcelo Odebrecht, the CEO of the Brazilian family-run conglomerate Odebrecht, was sentenced to nineteen years in prison for bribery, as was Eike Batista, formerly the wealthiest person in Brazil through the conglomerate EBX Group. A long list of current or former parliamentarians, governors, mayors, and their family members were also implicated, charged, or convicted.
Arguably the key figure behind Operation Car Wash was the magistrate Sergio Moro, who zealously authorized investigations, detentions, and interrogations of suspects and, eventually, rapidly imposed sentences. While Moro claimed he was apolitical during the investigations, in 2019 he became the first Minister of Justice in President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration. Bolsonaro would have faced Lula in the 2018 Brazilian presidential election, which he won, if not for Lula’s imprisonment by Moro. In 2019, Lula was released from prison and, in 2021, the Supreme Court annulled all of Lula’s convictions. Lula defeated Bolsonaro in the 2022 presidential election. Bolsonaro himself is now under criminal investigation for allegedly forging COVID-19 vaccination certificates, among various other offenses.23
That one judge and one police investigation could imprison so many of Brazil’s top government and business figures so quickly, thus affecting the presidential election, and then the courts could effectively reverse these decisions in an equally short span of time, and again affect the election, is a testament to the weakness of all of the institutions involved, including the police, courts, elected officials, and political parties, when compared to their counterparts in, say, the United States. The list of extreme political actions in Brazil in recent years is long, and include a nearly successful assassination attempt of Bolsonaro in 2018, and, in 2022, the granting of unilateral authority to censor online and social media to a single justice of the Supreme Court who simultaneously serves as the country’s elections chief.24 This suggests all the factions involved are relatively evenly matched, since even after taking extreme measures, fortunes still reverse easily.
These vicious political battles are exacerbated by several factors. Brazilian political parties are numerous and frequently dissolved, reformed, or rebranded, with seemingly little ideological coherence or organizational continuity. This might be exacerbated by voting being compulsory in Brazil. The current ruling coalition, for example, is composed of at least eight different parties. Bolsonaro himself has been affiliated with a dozen different political parties during his political career, many since dissolved. Well-developed and powerful political parties can solve succession problems in government and provide a stable base of government power in democracies and non-democracies alike. This then allows such countries to pursue long term development, as was the case with Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, Germany’s Christian Democrats, Singapore’s People’s Action Party, or the Communist Party of China.
The absence of such a national party means that political power is highly dependent either on personal cults of personality or extremely large patronage machines, both of which incentivize political polarization and looting the state’s coffers. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Brazil has increasingly imported the cultural and social politics of the United States, but without the strong centralized institutions to restrain them. Evangelical Christianity has reached an incredible 31% of Brazil’s population, displacing Catholicism, and is correlated with support for Bolsonaro, whose dispute over the legitimacy of his election loss in 2022 is a clear imitation of Donald Trump, and whose supporters stormed Brazilian government buildings in January 2023 in a clear imitation of the January 6th riot.25
Brazil’s two historical periods of relative centralization also saw political stability and the country’s most significant development. The first was the reign of Dom Pedro II, who ruled as Emperor of Brazil for nearly sixty years, from 1831 to 1889. Pedro II was, importantly, not a dictator, but a constitutional monarch. He self-consciously viewed his duty as being an impartial power broker between Brazil’s many institutions and factions. In this, he was very skilled and ultimately extremely successful, navigating Brazil through three victories in war, mass immigration from Europe, and the introduction of industrial technology and infrastructure to the country. Pedro II was himself a gifted intellectual who spoke a dozen languages, patronized the arts and sciences out of personal interest, and corresponded with Friedrich Nietzsche, Victor Hugo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and many other literary and scientific figures of the time.
Despite his popularity, Pedro II was overthrown in a military coup in 1889, which he did not contest out of his own personal exhaustion with governing. The following decades would see a military and planter oligarchy in power, punctuated by multiple bloody rebellions and internal conflicts like the Federalist Revolt or the Contestado War. In 1930, the politician Getulio Vargas seized power in a military coup. Though he survived three separate coup attempts against him, he was ousted in 1945 on the fourth attempt, then returned to power democratically in 1950 before committing suicide in 1954 over yet another brewing coup attempt.
Brazil’s second, though brief, period of centralization was under the military dictatorship that took power in 1964 and ruled until democratization in 1985. The dictatorship managed to unify the senior military leadership with the Catholic Church and anti-communists in the Brazilian elite, as well as acquire the tacit support of the U.S. It also brutally repressed dissent through censorship and extrajudicial killings. For a few years, however, Brazil managed to achieve the so-called “Brazilian Miracle,” which saw high economic growth rates and development in industry and infrastructure. This era saw the construction of Brazil’s largest hydroelectric dam, the Itaipu Dam; Brazil’s first and only nuclear plant, located between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with help from U.S. company Westinghouse; and a unique and wildly successful government program to replace gasoline fuel for cars with domestically produced ethanol fuel made from sugar cane. To this day, over 80% of vehicles sold in Brazil can use ethanol for fuel.26
Brazil’s Natural Resources Supply Chinese Industry
In the absence of functional institutions to direct industrial growth, Brazil's natural resource base has increasingly become a major input for the industrial economies of East Asia. For both imports and exports, Brazil’s largest trading partner by a significant margin is China. As of 2020, just over 32% of Brazilian exports went to China and just over 22% of Brazilian imports came from China.27 While Europe as a whole constitutes a slightly larger share of Brazilian imports, just 18% of Brazilian imports come from the U.S. and 15% from the rest of Latin America. The U.S. is the destination for only about 10% of Brazilian exports and Latin America only 15%. This means that Brazil, despite being halfway around the world from China, has proportions of total imports from and exports to China comparable to that of South Korea, one of China’s immediate neighbors.28
Such large trade relationships with China are no longer an uncommon story in the developing world, but Brazil stands out from its peers of large emerging economies. While they all have Chinese import shares similar to Brazil, all of the large emerging economies—including Russia, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia—export far less of their total exports to China. For its part, China imports more goods from Brazil than from Vietnam, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, even with the latter two being key oil and gas exporters.29
While China plays the dominant role by far, this is in fact part of a wider shift of Brazil’s external trade from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1990, East Asia as a whole constituted about 10% of Brazilian imports and 15% of exports.30 The sum of trade with the U.S., Latin America, and Europe—Brazil’s historical and geographical partners—made up about 63% of imports and 68% of exports, decisively placing Brazil in the economy of the Western Hemisphere. By 2020, the combined share had declined to 58% of imports, but just 43% of exports. East Asia now accounts for nearly half of Brazilian exports at 44%. Back in 1990, China was literally under 1% of Brazilian imports and only 1.2% of exports.
This transition has occurred at the same time that Brazil’s exports as a percentage of GDP have more than doubled from 8.2% in 1990 to 20% in 2022.31 This implies that the expanded trade with Asia, especially China, has not come at the expense of exports to the Atlantic world, but only added to it. Brazil’s economic growth since 1990 has been supported by new trade with Asia, not new trade with Europe, the United States, or the rest of the Americas. By default future economic growth in Brazil is then also more likely to rely on Asia. This pattern makes sense given that Brazilian exports to Asia are mainly natural resources like minerals, hydrocarbons, and food.
The single largest Brazilian export to China appears to be soybeans, making up about one-third of all exports.32 China consumes about half of all global pork production and its demand for meat continues to rise along with Chinese living standards. Soybeans are the key input for China’s large and growing pig farms, since they are used for pig feed. While China can almost feed itself in terms of wheat, rice, and corn, it imports about 90% of its soybean consumption, mainly from the U.S. and Brazil. Specifically, China imports about 60% of soybeans from Brazil.33 While the Chinese government is attempting to raise domestic soybean production and substitute soybeans in feed with other grains, this large dependence on Brazil is unlikely to go away anytime soon. China also imports lots of beef from Brazil, like many other countries.
Similarly to Australia, Brazil is a major iron ore producer and thus also a major exporter of iron ore to China. Iron ore is a key raw material needed to smelt steel, one of the basic alloys needed for modern industrial civilization. In 2020, China alone produced an incredible 57% of all steel worldwide.34 While China is itself the third-largest producer of iron ore in the world, its demand is so vast that it also simultaneously imports about 80% of Australia’s iron and an estimated 60% of Brazil’s iron.35 While Australia is, Brazil is notably not a major producer of rare earth metals, used in electronics, nor of lithium, used in batteries.36
Finally, Brazil is a minor oil exporter to China. In 2021, Brazil provided an estimated 6% of China’s crude oil imports.37 This however constituted nearly half of all Brazilian oil exports, so the oil trade is more important to Brazil than to China.38 The combination of food, minerals, and hydrocarbons made up an estimated 90% of Brazil’s exports to China in 2022, with the remaining tenth a wide mix of other staple Brazilian exports like wood, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and coffee, as well as minor amounts of manufactured or industrial products like chemicals and machinery.39
Brazil Will Remain an Unremarkable Ally of the United States
Despite Brazil’s rapidly growing trade ties to China, Brazil has not, and is unlikely to, convert these from a narrow economic alliance into a broad political alliance. This is despite both Brazil and China theoretically desiring to form such an alliance. Both Brazil and China are part of the so-called BRICS, along with Russia, India, and South Africa. BRICS is commonly perceived to be a rising counterweight to the U.S.-led international order, but in practice it amounts to an annual meeting between state leaders from these countries and not much else. BRICS has resulted in a development bank and a currency liquidity support mechanism, but also hopes to create an international payments system that can compete with the Belgium-based SWIFT.
Economically, BRICS amounts to China and some of its suppliers of natural resources, namely Brazil, Russia, and South Africa. By nominal GDP, China makes up 70% of the grouping, as well as 40% of the population, with most of the rest from India.40 This might make a solid basis for a political and even military alliance, but China is deeply averse to interfering in the political affairs of other states and lacks an ideological justification for non-Chinese states and elites to become Chinese allies or clients. China, moreover, is a military ally to Pakistan, which has a sore and frozen conflict with India, as does China itself. Meanwhile, Russia has a long-standing military procurement relationship with India. No matter the level of economic integration, then, BRICS will almost certainly remain a non-political alliance.
Brazil, for its part, is an official treaty ally of the United States through the Rio Pact, a collective military defense treaty between the U.S., Brazil, and many other Latin American nations. In 2010, the U.S. and Brazil signed a defense cooperation agreement and, in 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump legally designated Brazil a “Major Non-NATO Ally,” the status afforded to other U.S. allies like Japan, Australia, and Israel.41 The response to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is a litmus test of Brazil’s independence from U.S. foreign policy. Brazil voted for a UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and Lula, as of 2023, is trying to broker a peace deal that involves returning occupied territory to Ukraine, with possibly the exception of Crimea.42 Brazil has however not imposed sanctions against Russia over the invasion, nor has it sent any kind of aid to Ukraine.
Like the U.S. or Western Europe, Brazil has informal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. From 2003 to 2018, Brazil purchased a small proportion of Russian arms and no Chinese arms, with the vast majority of weapons procurement coming from Western Europe and the United States.43 Brazil has resisted U.S. pressure to ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from building infrastructure in the country. Taken together, Brazil’s foreign policy is most reliable to China, not the U.S. or Russia. But since China’s interests are strictly economic, this puts Brazil squarely in its stated position of being a neutral country.
The U.S. does not and will not have a strong economic interest in Brazil. What Brazil offers, namely a vast natural resource base, is something the U.S. already has. China does have an interest in Brazil, because it does not have the same vast natural resource base and still has growing demand for resource inputs both from consumers and from industry. As a broad resource exporter to China, Brazil is in a similar position as Australia. Unlike Australia, whose political economy is robust to the influence of a resource extraction industry, Brazil’s much weaker institutions and elites seem demonstrably willing to take actions to preserve the economic relationship with China.
But the U.S. has taken a strong stance against the influence of foreign great powers in the Western Hemisphere since the early 19th century, for example through the famous Monroe Doctrine. Brazil remains a U.S. ally on paper, as well as a noted receptacle for U.S. cultural influence. Brazil’s appetite for disregarding U.S. preferences seems limited to preserving its economic and diplomatic relationships with other countries, but there is no indication this would extend to political or military cooperation, which would result in a harsh U.S. response.
Only a live player can reform Brazil’s political economy to allow for the strengthening of Brazil’s governmental and economic institutions. This would most likely take decades, but would be the most realistic scenario to jumpstart Brazil after essentially a century of stagnation. In the absence of deep and broad political reform, Brazil will remain on its current trajectory as a large but strategically unremarkable country, whose dysfunctional institutions and chaotic political landscape mean that the country is just an acceptably inert geopolitical buffer zone for the United States and an accessible supplier of natural resources for China.
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