Will Brazil be the next Venezuela?

Or will Venezuela follow Brazil’s oligarchic path?

Venezuela protests
An opposition supporter holds a shield that reads 'No more deaths' as clashes break out in Caracas on July 30 [Reuters/Christian Veron]

Lately there have been quite a few alarmist headlines in Brazilian media suggesting that Brazil might be “the next Venezuela”, comparing its current political crisis to that of its northern neighbour.

The growing polarisation between the left and the right in Brazil has reached a point where – just like in Venezuela – no compromise appears possible, the argument goes. Brazil could, therefore, succumb to a similar vortex of violent protests and instability.

Another line of comparison between the two countries has been the dramatic process of de-industrialisation. The overdependence on oil left the Venezuelan economy in a shambles after the collapse of the oil prices. Similarly, Brazil’s economy relies heavily on the export of commodities such as soybeans and iron ore. Without a strong industrial base, the country faces the danger of falling prices destroying the agricultural and mining sectors and perhaps causing a breakdown as in Venezuela.

But while on the surface these comparisons portray Brazil as heading for a serious crisis, it is unlikely that it will become “the next Venezuela”. With all its problems, the country is unlikely to face a full collapse of its governing system.  Nor will the economy – which is far more complex and diverse than Venezuela’s – be indefinitely stuck.

In fact, it is possible that Venezuela will become “the next Brazil”. Recent developments suggest that the traditional Brazilian elites have regained their ground and are currently taking measures to entrench their rule. And as Nicolas Maduro’s government faces instability, it is likely that in the future Venezuelans will wake up to a Brazilian-style oligarchy ruling their country.

Venezuela in the old days

In 1958, three major political parties in Venezuela signed a pact called “the Punto Fijo” to “preserve the country’s new democratic regime and prevent single party hegemony”. Yet the pact transformed Venezuela into an oligarchical paradise and ushered in a period of exclusionary politics in which the political system – and the president’s office – was dominated by the elites from the leading political parties.

This plan did work well for almost three decades. Venezuela, which had had no fewer than 25 national constitutions up to 1961, suddenly became a “stable democracy” in the heart of troublesome Cold War South America. The developmental model adopted by its leaders, which was fuelled by the abundant money flowing from oil exports, transformed the Caribbean nation into a relatively successful rentier state.

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However, with the exhaustion of the Punto Fijo paradigm and the economic deterioration caused by liberal policies, socioeconomic tensions boiled over and waves of protests swept through the country in the 1990s. After a decade of instability, confrontations and failed coup attempts, in 1999 Colonel Hugo Chavez became the president of the country following not a coup, but a landslide election victory.

Soon after taking office, Chavez ousted Venezuela’s old-time oligarchs from power. As a result, during Chavez’s three consecutive mandates (he died in the beginning of his fourth term in 2013), most of the families who used to run the country during the 20th century fled to either Miami or Madrid.

The self-professed “Bolivarian” experiment in Venezuela achieved some encouraging results for a while, and people seemed happywith wealth redistribution policies and welfare. From 2004 until 2008 – before the advent of the global financial crisis – the Venezuelan GDP grew by an impressive yearly average rate of 10 percent.

But after Chavez’s death, Venezuela’s Bolivarian experiment started to crumble. And at the moment, under Nicolas Maduro, nothing seems to work properly in the country.

Venezuela was severely hit by the end of the commodities boom and the oil price downturn that followed suit, and this led to an unprecedented economic and social crisis in the country. As a result, authoritarianism on the part of the incumbent government reached new heights and the country has plunged into violence and instability.

And once Maduro’s government comes to an end and the Venezuelan economic elite in exile comes back home, the “Bolivarian” experiment will be denounced and killed – and anti-welfare policies will possibly come back.

A Brazilian Venezuela

To imagine what future is possibly coming for their country, Venezuelans can peek across their southern border. In Brazil, the oligarchs are back in power, doing as they please while hiding behind the promise of much-needed economic reforms.

After imposing budgetary constraints to education and health, the ruling class in Brasilia started investing all of its energy against labour laws and the pension system. A plan for privatising state-run companies could also be on the radar screen.

At the same time, the judicial system is nowhere near reigning in the pervasive corruption. Last week, the National Congress of Brazil absolved President Michel Temer of corruption charges and allowed him to continue his ill-supported mandate.

And Brazilians are stuck with Temer although an overwhelming majority of them want him out (just 5 percent approve of his government). The congress would simply not listen to the wishes of the public that elected it. This is “business as usual” for Brazil’s powerful.

There is a widespread feeling that Brazilian citizens are being deprived of their fundamental democratic rights, but there is no substantial societal reaction to all this corruption, impunity and oppression at the moment.

As Brazil is turning to its old ways, it is becoming the yardstick of what will happen to the rest of Latin America. And Venezuela will very likely follow in its path.

Dawisson Belem Lopes is a professor of international and comparative politics at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and a researcher of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development in Brazil.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.