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Brazilian populism: good for politicians, bad for the poor

By Augusto Zimmermann - posted Friday, 22 May 2009

Populism reflects the rhetorical style of political leaders who claim to govern directly for the people. In the context of Latin America, populism can therefore be used to describe "mass-popular movements ... based on an emotive call ... and often organised around a single charismatic leader". As the political theorist Carlos Alberto Montaner puts it:

Populism is an ideological trend and a form of governance that amalgamates all the errors and political vices blithely practiced by Latin Americans throughout the 20th century: strong-man rule, patronage, statism, collectivism and anti-Americanism.

Politicians whose view can be described as populist wish their people to regard them as endowed with real or imaginary attributes of goodness, generosity, courage, and concern for the poor. These are politicians who pretend to speak for the people even though, as the late historian José Honório Rodrigues observed, socio-economic problems in Brazil have been aggravated by such "false leaders of the agitator type, restless and dominated by feelings of shame and guilt".


During the colonial period, the Portuguese Crown was largely dependent on the landed aristocracy for the development of Brazil's economy and for its military security. Landowners administered justice across their lands and possessed their own private militias for the purposes of maintaining public order. Being independent of the law, they became paternal protectors of the population surrounding their homes.

Hence, as history professor Márcio Valença points out, "a patron-client relationship was based on mutual exchange and the expectation of both sides that it would provide future yields. The patrão provided resources, protection and links to the outside world ... The ‘client’ offered support and obedience ... The patron-client system depended on the interaction between individuals and favoured informal flexible relationships."

With the fall of the Brazilian Empire on November 15, 1889, local rural bosses became the mediators between citizens and the government. These local bosses maintained their traditional power by demanding the personal loyalty of those under their paternal protection. The economic security and social well being of individuals flowed directly from their bosses' personal dominion. There was indeed a certain sense of noblesse oblige on their part, with their vassals developing an attitude of personal loyalty to them.

As the late American anthropologist Charles Wagley explained:

Frequently the local political boss, the coronel was a sort of patrão to his followers, who received favours and expected future favours. A lower-class worker without a patrão of the kind or another was a man without a protector in time of need. The patrão provided some measure of social security - generally the only form available to the worker.

An important text for those interested in understanding, in detail, the role played by the political boss in Brazilian society, and in particular the way political power has been exercised since the beginnings of Brazil's colonisation, is the classic text, Os Donos do Poder (The Owners of Power) written in 1957 by the late Brazilian jurist Raymundo Faoro. In one of the last and most important paragraphs of this seminal book, Faoro provides a general explanation of why personal power is of such significance in Brazil:


The chief protects particular interests, grants privileges and incentives, and distribute jobs and benefits. It is expected that he will make justice without any attention to objective and impersonal rules. In the person of the sovereign is concentrated all the hopes of the rich and the poor, because the state is the centre of all power in Brazilian society ... The chief is not subject to the landed aristocracy or the bourgeoisie. He governs ... directly over the nation.

He speaks directly to his people, not intermediaries ... He is the people's father, not ... a legal and constitutional ruler. He is the good prince who ... carries out welfare-state policies in order to guarantee the support of the masses. To avoid any [real] popular participation, he often appeals to street mobilizations; public rallies where the only thing left behind are the dust of his meaningless words.

As the son of state providentialism, he strengthens the state power by using all the means this [statist] tradition offers. In extreme cases, he will become the social dictator of a socialistic type, who satisfies popular aspirations by calming down the people with bread and circus.

The process of industrialisation initiated in the 1930s created a large urban class which developed apart from the old influence of the landed aristocracy. This period of internal migration saw political power transferred from a landed oligarchy to urban political leaders. The rise of populism is identified as a by-product of that industrialisation process emerging on the political scene when the popular masses migrated to the urban centres in search of new opportunities.

However, all this change of socio-economic structure did not modify traditional patterns of behaviour, since those who moved from the countryside to the cities preserved the tendency to view all relationships, including those with public officials, in personal rather than impersonal (legal) terms. In other words, those in power were still expected to be "generous" towards supporters and personal acquaintances.

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First published in on February 6, 2009.

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About the Author

Augusto Zimmermann, LLB, LLM, PhD is a Lecturer in Law at Murdoch University, Western Australia.

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