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Episode 49. Brazil's War in the Favelas

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South America's largest nation is currently in the middle of a tumultuous period, with war at home and a looming financial crisis on the horizon. What does the next decade hold in store for the heart of the continent, and will the military retake control of the country? We ask our expert panel.



Christoph Harig

  • Research Fellow at the Helmut Schmidt University

  • Security specialist focusing on Brazil

  • Author an expert on the wider Latin America theatre.

Victor Pougy

  • Independent journalist formerly with The Intercept Brasil

  • Writing for years on the geopolitical situation in Brazil and the role it plays on day-to-day life in the country.

Christopher Sabatini

  • Senior Fellow specialising in Latin America for Chatham House

  • Former Editor of Global Americans

  • Founder of independent publication Americas Quarterly


Part 1: A Dirty Carwash (1:42)

  • Harig takes us through the history of Brazil, from colonialism and the slave trade, to its role in the Cold War, to the Pink Wave/tide and to today.

  • Brazil is a deeply complex country across an enormous area of land. The various peoples and culture within it have long been a source of difficulty for establishing centralised rule. We look at how this has evolved over time, and the ongoing challenges it presents today.

  • We track the details of the pink political movement in the early 2000s that saw left-wing governments come into power across Latin America; its fundamental reforms, corruptions, and ongoing impact. The growth of the conservative wave that emerged in the 2010s is sometimes correlated with the failures of the pink wave.

  • Finally Harig helps us understand the current political climate, and the likely events in the near future. The growth of the so called "Third Way" in Brazil is presenting a significant challenge.

  • However with Bolsonaro actively undermining faith in democratic institutions and growing intensity in the political environment, we are likely to see violence following the next election.


Part 2: Pacification (17:01)

  • Pougy takes us through the intersection of politics, security, public safety, and violence that are key to understanding urban Brazil.

  • We look in particular at Rio De Janeiro, and its Favelas. Unusually, the poor and rich areas of Rio are very intertwined, which is a profitable opportunity exploited by the drug trade.

  • With little central governance however, Pougy helps us understand how services from water to rubbish collection are provided in the favelas. Increasingly, this governance is being influenced or organised by paramilitary gangs, who have a tumultuous history with the cartels, and regularly engage in violence.

  • To respond, in 2008 the central Brazilian government sought to take control of these areas by force with tanks and troops through a process called Pacification. The ambitious goals of providing social services and stability were quickly ignored in favour of just violence and killing, plunging the favelas back into chaos, and failing to resolve the issue in any long-term way.

  • We analyse the deeply violent tendencies of the state and police in Brazil and their greatest supporter, Jair Bolsonaro. We look at the unusually high acceptance of state violence within the Brazilian population, and overview the career of Bolsonaro from soldier to President.

  • His narrow victory came on the back of his promise of not doing politics as usual, and while that was possible while the going was good, as soon as things got tough, he handed over the keys of government to the same old bloc. His response to COVID-19 is among the worst in the world, and recently the corruption at the core of his regime has come to light.


Part 3: The Heavy Crown (49:38)

  • Sabatini helps us understand the fundamental truth of the line that "Brazil is the next global power, and always will be". Despite a huge population, a strong regional geopolitical position, enormous wealth of resources, and generally strong economy, Brazil has repeatedly failed to move from a regional power into a global one.

  • We trace Brazil's recent high under President Lula which saw the country at the forefront of the developing world, exporting successful products and raising the country's international reputation, to the lows of the current Bolsonaro regime.

  • Drawing on Sabatini's region-wide expertise, we analyse Brazil's role of leadership in Latin America and the extent to which this is threatened by the damage to brand Brazil. This includes the historical competition with Argentina and the buffer state of Uruguay and the disastrous events in Venezuela and its aftershocks in Colombia.

  • Further out, we look at the ongoing role Brazil plays globally, including in Africa due to President Lula's efforts to put the country at the forefront of the developing world. Of key importance however is Brazil's relationship with its largest trading partner: China.

  • Bolsonaro and his allies' early criticism of the country has been silenced by how critical China is to Brazil's success. We look at how Chinese demand has evolved, and the huge investments that have been made in Brazil

  • We look at the relationship between Brazil and the United States. The parallels between Trump and Bolsonaro are fair, but particularly so in their lack of interest in foreign policy. We look at the US' interests in Brazil particularly in its relations with China and development of 5G.

  • Finally we analyse the economic outlook for Latin America and Brazil. Historically a more closed economy than many others and one of heavy subsidies, there is a great deal of potential for growth and development in productivity in Brazil. Sabatini predicts that it will improve well in the short term, but that the fundamental issues of its economy that keep it from rising to global power status will not be addressed.


The Red Line's Brazil Reading List:

We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Brazil.


Aspirational Power: Brazil on the Long Road to Global Influence

David R Mares and Harold Antanas Trinkunas

Participatory Democracy in Brazil: Socioeconomic and Political Origins

Ricardo Tranjan

Brazil, the United States, and the South American Subsystem: Regional Politics and the Absent Empire

Carlos Gustavo Poggio Teixeira



For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Guy Adler.


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