The Good Fight
Tabata Amaral on Brazil’s Future

Tabata Amaral on Brazil’s Future

Yascha Mounk and Tabata Amaral discuss how Lula won and what he now needs to do to put Brazil on a better path.

Tabata Amaral is a Brazilian politician currently serving as a federal deputy for the center-left Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), representing the state of São Paulo.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Tabata Amaral discuss her journey from a childhood of poverty to her admission to Harvard and her election as one of the youngest congresspeople in Brazil; how Lula’s ideologically diverse coalition was able to oust President Jair Bolsonaro; why Bolsonaro continues to enjoy broad support; and how Brazil can unlock its future by fighting corruption and improving basic education.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Editor’s note: This conversation was recorded on December 20th, 2022.

Yascha Mounk: We had the pleasure of meeting when we did an event together, and I thought you had so many interesting things to say and that you would be the perfect person to explain Brazil to our audience. 

People were very, very worried about Bolsonaro possibly being reelected, and possibly refusing to accept the outcome of the presidential election. As we speak, it looks pretty good. Tell us a little bit about the state of Brazilian democracy at this crucial hinge moment.

Tabata Amaral: Brazil is a complex country. And, for sure, we are leaving one of the most complex moments in our recent history. I'll do my best to try to explain what's going on. 

It took a very broad coalition to beat Bolsonaro in the voting booth, and it was a very tight election. There were two rounds, and that is how it works in Brazilian federal elections. In the second round, there were almost 120 million voters, and the difference was only 2 million votes. And after everything my country went through—all the hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have been avoided from COVID, all the deforestation, all the attacks against journalists, Bolsonaro’s announcement that, if he won, he would increase the size of the Supreme Court, just as Chavez did in Venezuela—it's shocking to me that so many people still voted for Bolsonaro after those four years—

Mounk: —And why do you think that is? I want to get to why the opposition managed to beat him, but why was Bolsonaro, despite being quite unpopular and having a very rocky time in office, able to sustain the support of about 49% of the people who voted in the election a few months ago?

Amaral: There are many factors. Even though things have been peaceful, there are still thousands of people in front of military facilities asking for a military intervention. About a week and a half ago, some Bolsonaro supporters set fire to cars here in Brasilia, where I am right now. They tried to occupy the hotel where [President-elect] Lula was staying. 

There is a big chunk of the population that feels that democracy doesn’t work for them. They don’t seem to be voting because of economic reasons (our economy did really badly in the last four years), and they don’t seem to be only voting about corruption either. If you ask Bolsonaro supporters why they vote for Bolsonaro and why they hate PT (the Labour Party), they will usually tell you that it's because of corruption, that PT was so corrupt in power that they cannot support PT. But, actually, the biggest corruption scandal of the last decades happened under Bolsonaro. It's called the “secret budget.” The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. 

But I think Bolsonaro’s support is less about corruption, less about the economy, and not so much about what people tell you in the polls, and more about the social changes that Brazil went through, that made people feel they didn't belong anymore. Bolsonaro was an answer not only to the PT but to the whole system: “You guys, from the left to the right, you don't represent us. You are so corrupt that we would prefer to implode the system than to support any of you.” The PT was defeated in the previous election, but so were center-right parties like PSDB. 

Brazil is changing. Some decades ago, someone like me, who comes from a poor background, who is a woman, would not be here in Congress. And I think those changes are scary to some people. Because Brazil did not do well economically, some people will blame those changes and say that they are being left behind. But the most important point is the perception that there's a lot of arrogance among those in power, among the politically correct—“You cannot say that anymore. You cannot think like that. I am better than you. I’m morally more evolved.” And those things really speak to the hearts and minds of people who support Bolsonaro. To stop supporting him would be to deny their own identity. 

Mounk: I agree with you that wherever these populist insurgents win, a big part of the reason is that the existing political establishment has lost the trust of the people—as always with “Throw the bums out!” The more shocking a newcomer is, the more different they are from the political class, the more appealing they are, nearly by definition, because if all these people that I distrust hate this person, there must be something okay about them. I also find plausible your account of those social and cultural changes. 

But I have a question about that, because this fits easily into a narrative where these far-right populist parties are supported mostly by people who used to have a relatively good position or were dominant in that society—there are some people like that who support Bolsonaro. It is interesting that he is one of the very few populists who does better in affluent parts of the country, in the country’s south. But it also seems to be a lot more complicated than that. Bolsonaro also does quite well in the favelas. There are a lot of people who are not white who support Bolsonaro very strongly. Does that story of rebelling against cultural change fit for those voters, because they themselves seem to be part of a cultural change?

Amaral: I would say yes and no. There are many people, as I said, who just don't want to get used to the idea that now we have more black people, more women, more young people, more people who come from the periphery, who are taking their place in politics. I say that with a lot of certainty, because of all the death threats I have received. It has a lot to do with what I represent, and not so much with how I vote. It’s: “You shouldn't be there. We won't allow it.” 

But, as you said, there are lots of poor people, black people, and working people who support Bolsonaro. I come from a very large family. My mom has 26 siblings, and I have many uncles who support Bolsonaro. None of my uncles had the opportunity to attend college. Many could not finish high school. So it's not about, “We don't want the poor to do well.” It has more to do with their identity, their moral identity, that they feel is threatened. I come from a religious community. I come from a very conservative family. I went to Harvard for college, and I remember the first time I went back home. I viewed myself as a progressive woman. I had all these ideas and all these beautiful words in my mouth. At first, I was very arrogant with people around me, and I remember pointing my finger and saying, “You are bad, what you said is unacceptable,” and a friend told me that Harvard was brainwashing me. I felt very bad, because I wanted to belong in my community. I had to find my way of being very strong in my positions against sexism, racism, and homophobia and so on, but not to act as if I were better than my family members or my friends. I just was going on a very different path, a very different journey. 

Some black, poor evangelicals will vote for Bolsonaro because they feel that Bolsonaro represents their family values while the left, especially, is threatening those values. My father had a drug addiction—it's a very big problem in the favelas and in the poor communities—and I myself never felt that the left had anything to offer to my father. Here, if you are a poor person, you cannot be admitted to clinics unless they are religious ones, so those are the clinics that my father was referred to. The left will only speak about legalizing drugs—which is a very important theme when you talk about security policies—but it's not a health policy. You turn to me, you turn to my mom, and you say, “OK, we will solve everything. We will legalize drugs”—I, myself, can even have that conversation. But the only thing I really want to know is how you make sure that young people in the favelas won't have access to drugs, and that those who are already sick have treatment. I think the discussion has become so much about Twitter and so eliticized, that people say, “Okay, you just want to destroy our families, and you have nothing concrete to offer us.”

Mounk: When you talk to your uncles who voted for Bolsonaro, or when you go back to that community that feels that the left is missing some important part of their social reality, how do you try to do better? How do you try to argue for your values and persuade people without falling into what you call this “eliticized” discourse?

Amaral: The first thing is not to act as if I am better than them. I don't remember fighting with anyone in my family or my friend circle because of the election, and that's really rare to find in Brazil. I'm still friends with those people, because they are not fascists. They are not what Bolsonaro is like. They voted for Bolsonaro, they are not Bolsonaro. I won't stop talking to them because of that. 

I am hurt by some of the things they say, especially some of my uncles. But for me, it's more about trying to understand where they come from. For instance, there is someone in my family who has worked really hard to maintain his small business. He has this feeling that the whole system is against him, that left and right are united to make sure he pays as much as he can to the government. He doesn't receive the basic income funds. He works really hard to pay for private medical care and private education for his children, and he feels like the whole system is there to steal and to harm his family. I tried to convince him that they are not all the same. I don’t say, “You are wrong.” I’m more like, “Yes, I understand. It sucks. It's horrible. But Bolsonaro is also stealing. Bolsonaro is also corrupt. You cannot say that he's different. You know me. You know how I'm doing my work. There are some different people there.” 

I was one of the authors of the material that came before the Supreme Court, saying that the secret budget was unconstitutional, and one of my daily jobs is to tell people about all the corruption that's going on in this government. I always try to explain to people I know that my life is more in danger because of Bolsonaro and because of all the times that he and his sons aired fake news about me. But in public, the work has more to do with showing people what Bolsonaro really is. It's important to understand that Bolsonaro is no different in terms of corruption. He's doing the same or worse, given his authoritarianism and his violence.

Mounk: You've alluded a few times to your personal story, but I'd love to hear a little bit more about it.

You grew up in a poor family, a very large family, in a religious community. What has been your path from a community that's far from power and influence to being one of the youngest congresspeople in Brazil? 

Amaral: My story is a story about education—from beginning to end. Both my parents and their families come from the northeast, which is the poorest region of Brazil. My mom got pregnant when she was in high school, and she was not supported by my biological father. She then met my father, who was the most amazing person I've met in my life, but who was a very sick person. My father was bipolar. He had a drug addiction (very normal to my context) and, for us, church was always very important. I think that's what made me understand that you cannot just say that the problem is the church, because the church is also the solution in those poor communities. The church supported us with food when we needed it. It was in church that I spent all my weekends doing service, learning and so on. 

I had a very unique opportunity with a math olympiad when I was 11 years old—this big national math olympiad that was created by the Ministry of Science and Technology, during the Lula government. I got a scholarship in a private school because of the medal I received, and my life changed for good.

Mounk: You talk about coming from a very religious community, and my understanding is that you're Catholic. My imagination of Brazil is as one of the most Catholic countries in the world. And I imagine that a lot of listeners to this podcast will have this image of Brazil, which was true 30 or 40 years ago. But the religious landscape in Brazil has radically changed. We're now at—depending on different data points—nearly 40% evangelical. It may be that Brazil, within a relatively short number of years, will be majority evangelical. 

Tell us a little bit about this phenomenon. What is the cause of this deep social and religious transformation, and how does it explain some of the political trends we see? How does that interact with the strength of somebody like Bolsonaro?

Amaral: I am a Catholic, but I can speak a little bit about that because my church is not, in many senses, very different from an evangelical church. It's a church very rooted in the poor community. There are no rich people attending my church. A majority of the people there are black. We have all the dancing and all the singing. I remember the first time I went to Mass at churches that were more in the center of São Paulo, and there were so many blonde people, and people were not dancing, and not singing. They were so serious. So I think that I can speak about the experience of attending a church in the periphery. And, of course, there are differences between evangelicals and Catholics, and we’ll have to invite an evangelical to the conversation.

But to me, it was all we had. Brazil has many social policies, but not all of them reach people. Right now, we have, in theory, a basic income that guarantees that people have up to 600 reais per family. But we have 30 million people who are in hunger at this moment. I remember that when we needed it, it was the church that provided us with meat and food. Even to this day, there is no single public facility near my house. It was at church that we had all those competitions, sports, language lessons, group meetings and choir. Because of my father's addiction, my mom was so scared that my brother and I would go down that path that she made sure we were in church every single hour we had to spare. I think churches give you a community. They give you support when you need it. And, of course, there are some very, very conservative parts of the church, even in the Catholic Church. I remember this experience in one particular branch—the reality they were portraying was so homophobic, so sexist, that even I was like, “Okay, this is not what Jesus is teaching me.” There are those horrible things, but to me church is so much more positive. 

There is this idea that if you are rich and enlightened, and you have studied a great deal, you cannot be religious. I think the reason why people have only a bad image is because they have never attended a church like mine. They have never been there to see what it's like. So it doesn't scare me if evangelicals will be the majority, and I think it's really, really bad that some left leaders see that as a threat to democracy. It's ridiculous. Churches are the only thing that people have to go to. When we have the government helping people get their jobs, their education, their basic needs attended to, we'll have a healthier relationship between those communities and their church. Then churches can attend to the spiritual needs of people, and not to all their needs, as it happens today, because if you live in a place like where I live the alternatives are crime or church. You cannot count on the state. I think that's what we should be concerned about, and not the fact that evangelicals will surpass Catholics in numbers.

Read: “Why Bolsonaro Is Going Quietly” by Francisco Toro

Mounk: There's a new government coming in, and I have the sense that you feel a little ambivalently about it, in the sense that you're very, very happy that Bolsonaro is out of office (you campaigned for Lula), but you also have some concerns about the new government, and how to overcome division rather than deepen it and make it worse. 

What do you think we should expect for Brazil in the coming five years? Where are the points where you really hope that the new president is going to take path A, but you're worried that he might take path B?

Amaral: I'm a hopeful person, and I'm cheering for my country to do well because people are tired. There is a limit to how much suffering a country can go through. But I'm mostly scared that some people haven't learned their lesson. Bolsonaro was elected for a reason: people distrust parties and politicians (often for very good reasons). We haven't had one single government since the democratization that was not corrupt, that didn't have—and I'm not saying the presidents were involved themselves—very, very big corruption scandals. The thing with Bolsonaro and Trump and all those authoritarian leaders that make us all unite to defeat them is that the threat is so big that we stopped looking at smaller things. We were so focused on defeating Bolsonaro, and that was the right thing to do, but I'm not sure if my elders in politics took the time to understand why Bolsonaro was elected and what role they played in that election. 

Yes, we prefer anything to Bolsonaro. But Brazil was not perfect before Bolsonaro. People want change. They went to the streets in 2013 asking for change. One change is related to corruption and the fight against corruption. The Supreme Court voted recently on whether to end the secret budget, which is 20 billion reais that are in the hands of politicians in Congress. It's from our budget, and we have no idea what they do with that money. While the voting was happening in the Supreme Court, Congress passed a law changing some of the mechanisms to prevent the judgment from having an impact—

Mounk: —To do an “end run” around the Supreme Court, so that even if the court ruled that this has been unconstitutional or illegal, they can continue keeping up the secret budget.

Amaral: And I was very pissed off, because I have spent the last two-and-a-half years fighting against that. And Lula supporters and Bolsonaro supporters voted the same way!

Mounk: Why is it that in this very polarized political system, supporters of both Lula and Bolsonaro voted to keep it?

Amaral: The secret budget was very important for Bolsonaro’s election, because it's 20 billion reais. It's a big chunk of the public budget that's in the hands of the leaders of both chambers, and there is no transparency in how that money is used. A handful of parliamentary members will decide which municipalities will receive that money. The mayors, for example, don't have to tell society how they use the money. And there are all sorts of accusations and scandals: super-overpriced robotics kits that were supposedly for schools which didn't even have internet access, or, in some cases, water. There is no transparency, and there are many reasons to believe that around 50% of that money is going into the pockets of politicians. But the leaders of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate will support whoever is in power. That's what we call the centrão. They have used that money to support Bolsonaro’s reelection. But they will support whoever is in power. 

We spent the last years saying that this was the biggest corruption scandal, that we needed to defeat Bolsonaro to end the secret budget. And then when we finally have an opportunity, most of PT’s base votes with the secret budget. What's the message that that sends to the population? That they are all the same. I voted against it, and we lost by about 18 votes. But the Supreme Court insisted and said that, regardless of how the law is written, it is still illegal and unconstitutional. This was a big defeat to Congress’ leaders. Corruption is not the major reason why people voted for Bolsonaro, because he's corrupt, too. But it's one big reason. We cannot give them that reason again.

Brazil has changed in the last twenty years, between Lula's first inauguration and the second. We have more women. We have more black people. We have so much more diversity in general. And I'm scared that voters will go with the same players, and we'll see all the same white, rich men in power, just older now. If you have only one type of representation in the executive, those people don't connect with the real people. They don't connect with my community. They don't have the perception that corruption matters to people; that some girls would miss school because they don't have access to sanitary pads, which was one of my biggest fights here in Congress. I'm just scared that they will be out of touch with the population in the same way they were before, and that people will just get more and more mad.

Mounk: I haven't spent as much time in Brazil as in some other countries in South America, but when you meet the political elite, whichever country you’re in, it's easy to get the sense that they are a little bit out of touch. I've always had that sense in a more extreme way in South America than in just about any other part of the world, in the extent to which the traditional ruling class is able to insulate itself from the realities in the country and in the rest of the population. That's perhaps especially true on the right, but also on the left. 

What about the basic ideological direction of the new government, both in economics and in foreign policy? The coalition with which Lula has come to power is, as I understand it, very broad. It includes center-left people like you, and it also includes people who are further to the left; people who, like you, are very critical of how Hugo Chavez and his successors have transformed Venezuela, as well as people who are sympathetic to the governments in Venezuela and Cuba. 

What can we expect on economic policy? And what can we expect on foreign policy and the attitude towards those far-left governments in Latin America that have done a lot of damage?

Amaral: First, just one comment—I'm here highlighting all the things I'm scared of, because I think someone has to say, “Hey, look, don't go down this path, it didn't work last time.” But I do think that President Lula himself is a broad-minded person. Even in previous governments, he invited people who didn't support him to be ministers. He's also someone who knows hunger and who attended technical school. I carry the belief that this matters, the experience that you went through yourself. 

PT, the Labour Party, was elected in a much broader coalition this time than in 2002 or 2006, the first Lula governments. I think that the direction of the economy and the foreign policy, and everything that really matters in the federal government, will depend on how much this broad coalition is present in government. There are people who defend communism and revolutions (I’m definitely not one of them), there are people in the center-left. There are important political leaders from the center-right who supported Lula in the second round. Up to this moment, we are not sure whether these people will have a voice in the future government or not. 

But I have this belief that a politician should know how they got elected, should know their base. I was not elected with social media. I have lost 100,000 followers after a single vote. But I had this belief that they didn't represent my voters, and I think I was quite right, because I was able to increase my result this election. I'm praying that the future government remembers how they were elected. They were elected in the broadest coalition Brazil has seen in the last decades, and this broad coalition should be in government, should be in power. Because Lula, and the government, represent those people too. That's not exactly what we have with the minister announcements. They are great ministers, but they are close to the Labour Party. I think if Lula is as broad-minded as he has been throughout his political life, he'll fight within his party to make sure that those people are in government, too. We should expect to have economic and foreign policies closer to what we had under Lula—a moderate vision of the economy, I would say. In terms of foreign policy, yes, I'm really mad when left leaders will just not acknowledge how terrible is what is happening in Ukraine, or the very bad humanitarian crisis we have in Venezuela. But PT was very democratic in power, every single time it was in power. So that's what I hope. That's what I voted for. That's what I tried to get votes for in the streets for so many months. But this chapter we are yet to see.

Mounk: Let's focus on the positive for a moment. Where does opportunity lie in Brazil? If you could set the governing agenda for the next five years, what kinds of economic policies and social changes do you think could help improve the lives of people in poor communities in Brazil, reduce socioeconomic inequality, but also reduce the extent of social polarization, so that Brazil doesn't just escape the threat of extremist forces for five years, but actually gets onto a sounder political footing for the next 20 or 30 years?

Amaral: My hope comes from this diversity I've been speaking so much about. The University of São Paulo (USP) is the best university in Brazil. When I was a child, I thought, “Okay, I'll never go to that university. It's only for the elite.” And I think two or three years ago was the first time that half of the students at USP came from public schools. That's huge. USP is like our Harvard, forming the future politicians and the future scientists, and half of its students come from poor backgrounds, from poor families. They are diverse. And I do not think you can just put that back in the box. I do think that's a change in itself. Politicians are working really hard to fight this diversity. But that's my source of hope, knowing that we'll have so many amazing women, black people, LGBT people occupying all sorts of places of power. That's my biggest hope. 

And in terms of the future, we have to bet on education. Bolsonaro was the worst president for education, ever. Brazil went back 20 years in dropout rates. Half of our children don't know how to read and write at this moment. But maybe this is our opportunity to make basic education a priority, to see all these diverse talents that we have out there, and understand that this is the best social and economic policy you can have. I had all my projects vetoed by Bolsonaro and questioned in court, but I was able, with a broad coalition, to have over ten projects that were approved. But I would joke that there are 120 that I wasn't able to approve! Brazil has walked a very good path in terms of making the whole society accept basic income. It was very questioned in the past. There are so many studies showing that if you give high school students some amount of money after each year they finish, you decrease dropout rates by one-third. That's one example. There's so much we can do. There were so many discussions that were frozen under Bolsonaro, and I have this big hope that we'll have dialogue again, and that we, the society, will be able to make this bet on basic education.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.