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Brazil: A Downstairs Perspective

November 15, 2018 by

young people in MontevideoNancy (second from left) with friends in Uruguay

Uruguay, like the rest of Latin America, communicates with WhatsApp. The last few weeks, my chat threads, at least, have been lively with conversation about Brazil and their president-elect Jair Bolsonaro. Commentaries go something like this: “worrying,” “they’re surrounding us,” “if he gets elected, Brazil’s going down” (translated literally: they’re in the oven).

Brazil, by the way, looks pretty different from underneath: what I as a North American didn’t used to grasp is just what a giant it is. Covering a staggering 47 percent of South America’s land mass, it borders every South American country except Chile and Ecuador. In other words, if something happens in Brazil, the entire continent rocks.

Right now it seems to be rocking to the right.

I don’t pretend to understand the politics of this stuff – that’s the kind of conversation I normally embarrass myself in – but recent events seem to confirm a continent-wide phenomenon that is clearly worrying people here in Uruguay. In fact, in a class on Populism in South America that I’m taking this semester, my professor compares South America to a pendulum: “First we all go way left, then we all go way right. We can’t ever just stay in the middle.”

Uruguay is very conscious of its position on the continent: a little port nation squeezed between the two biggest countries on the block. As Argentina’s economy crumbles on one side and Bolsonero takes executive office on the other, many Uruguayans feel trapped.

I have no idea what the future holds for Brazil but I see the human reaction and it’s enough to have me casting in my prayers for the thousands of Brazilians whose future is far more uncertain than mine.

The geopolitics makes for an interesting relationship: Argentina’s the big brother who Uruguay pretends to definitely not have everything in common with, but eventually ends up imitating anyways. If Alpha bomber jackets are cool in Argentina, Alpha bomber jackets will very soon be cool in Uruguay. If Argentina’s economy crashes, Uruguay’s is going down too. Brazil, on the other hand, is somewhat of an enigma, the estranged uncle who doesn’t even speak the same language (are Brazilians even Latino?). Nonetheless, it’s a pattern-setter and an economic lifeline whose upheavals Uruguay, a country with a population just a third the size of New York City, watches with unease. The slightest breeze from either of these two is enough to ruffle Uruguay’s hair.

Not everyone here is concerned though. So far, the implications of Bolsonaro’s win are distant and easy to dismiss. But it’s more than that. Yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine, a Uruguayan with a childhood of poverty, a dictatorship and decades of rollercoaster power changes behind her. She sees many Uruguayans as just too comfortable, willing to turn a blind eye to Bolsanaro’s troubling discourse for the sake of personal security, their own salary, their new car, or that vacation they’d planned. And she’s right: if that’s all that matters to you then Bolsanaro doesn’t necessarily present a problem. The people alarmed are those who are worried by suffering that isn’t yet theirs, those who care about the socially marginalized, the environment, the poor; who care about the fate of women, indigenous communities, and minority groups across Brazil, all of whom Bolsonaro seems to despise. His rhetoric is inflammatory and intolerant. Which to me, as someone from the US, unfortunately sounds pretty familiar.

I have no idea what the future holds for Brazil, for Uruguay or for the rest of Latin America – or the world, for that matter. Neither do I have an intelligent assessment of recent events, but I see the human reaction and it’s enough to have me casting in my prayers for the thousands of Brazilians whose future is far more uncertain than mine.


Nancy Clement is twenty-two and lives in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she is studying humanities and communications at the University of Montevideo.

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