Is Brazil’s Soft Power Under Threat?

The right-wing government of Jair Bolsonaro threatens to undermine Brazil’s cultural exports that constitute its far-reaching soft power.
Brazil news, Brazil culture news, Brazil soft power, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Jair Bolsonaro news, Brazil carnival, global soft power, Brazil soap operas, Brazil football, Bolsonaro homophobic remarks

© Catarina Belova / Shutterstock

February 21, 2020 09:12 EDT

An image isn’t just worth a thousand words. A good public image generates better market positions, healthier interpersonal relationships and, of course, profits. When it comes to a country’s image, its importance is even bigger, not only for economic growth but for the safety of its citizens. After all, who feels safe in a country that emanates a racist and xenophobic attitude?

Over the decades, Brazil has built a very positive international image. It was seen by a large portion of the world as a happy, multicultural, multiracial country fond of parties, high-spirited and exuberant in nature. This may not be true, but it doesn’t matter because in business, image sometimes counts more than reality itself.

Image is power — soft power. The term was created by the American political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1980s to designate the ability to attract rather than coerce (through hard power), to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction, through culture, sport, idiom, political values, religion, science, etc. Hollywood, the biggest cultural soft power in the world, was able to destabilize closed regimes, like that of the Soviet Union toward its collapse, through its films.

Jair Bolsonaro’s Image Crisis


Efficient soft power brings profits, tourism and social and technological gains to societies. Renaissance art not only softened the image of the Catholic Church but also shaped Italy — which didn’t even exist as a unified country at that time — as one of the greatest international tourist destinations of the world.

The popularity of the English language brought many benefits to countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, facilitating, for example, the international sales of cultural products like films and TV shows. Ballet is a common “business card” for Russian diplomats, seducing the world with art instead of sanctions and guns. The Japanese MAG (manga, anime and games) culture is voraciously consumed even by historic archenemies such as China and South Korea. 

Soft Power vs. Hard Power

Although Brazil doesn’t have a universally spoken language or great technology to serve its cause, it accumulated massive reserves of cultural soft power over the last decades. And this doesn’t even include the obvious — football, whose soft power withered somewhat after its humiliating 7:1 loss against Germany in the 2014 World Cup. But all this great cultural soft power is currently being dilacerated by the hard power installed in Brasilia last year, in the shape of the country’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Carnival is one of the most efficient forms of soft power, one that helped build an image of a friendly and tolerant Brazil. It attracts millions of tourists from all over the world, and footage of its parades is sold to hundreds of TV channels worldwide. This year, President Bolsonaro decided to talk about the event on Twitter. But instead of using it in Brazil’s favor, he posted a video of a man stripping naked and making obscene gestures during a street party in Sao Paulo.

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His tweet drew international attention and contributed to weakening Brazil’s soft power. Instead of reinforcing an image of a happy celebration, Bolsonaro created a pornographic and chaotic image of carnival in just one tweet. An isolated and unfortunate case took on an international dimension when the country’s president singled out this angle for comment.

The president again made international headlines when he declared that Brazil should not become a “paradise for the gay world.” At a meeting with journalists last year, Bolsonaro said that “whoever wants to come here to have sex with a woman, feel free. … Brazil cannot be a country in the gay world, with gay tourism. We have families.” For a president who wants to make Brazilian economy grow, this is not only homophobic, but ill-considered. Sao Paulo is the home of the biggest LGBT parade in the world, inspiring shows like Netflix’s “Sense 8.” This year, the parade attracted over 3 million people, with hotels fully booked for days. While some developed countries fight to attract more tourists, Brazil closes its doors to one of its most profitable and democratic events.

Then, late last month, Brazil’s Ministry of Citizenship not only announced an abrupt reduction of investment in cultural events and products like theater plays, musicals, films and TV shows, but also started an ideological campaign against all cultural manifestations that undermine “traditional family values.” But culture only becomes soft power when it’s free to manifest ideas creatively. Hollywood became a soft power giant because no American president tried to boycott its products internationally, even when the studios produced films that went directly against the interests of Washington, like the Vietnam War films of Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone.

The witch-hunt also affected Apex, the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency that works to promote Brazilian products and services worldwide. The dismissal of its president, Mario Vilalva, following a clash with Brazil’s foreign minister, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to far-right ideological control that the Bolsonaro government wants to exercise over an agency that, in order to be efficient, needs freedom, rationality and business flair to sell Brazil’s products abroad.

Everything’s Not Lost

But not everything is lost — yet. Brazil still has two other great cultural icons that, for now, are immune from hard-power attacks. Bossa Nova is still widely listened to, bought and used in films, soap operas and shows in places as distant from Brazil as the US, Japan and Australia. For now, no Bossa Nova artist is being undermined by the government, although Bolsonaro is not a big fan of Brazilian singer and composer Chico Buarque, a close friend of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Another source of Brazilian soft power is its soap operas. Just like the carnival, they helped shape Brazil’s image as a friendly, welcoming place. TV Globo — the channel of the largest media group in Latin America — has been exporting its soap operas to over 100 countries since the 1980s, becoming an important cultural symbol. “Escrava Isaura” (“Isaura the Slave”) was sold to 80 countries, watched by some 1 billion viewers in China alone.

A street market in Angola’s capital Luanda was named Roque Santeiro in 1991 because of the success of the eponymous soap opera. Paladar, the restaurant owned by Raquel (Regina Duarte) in the soap “Vale Tudo,” gave its name to many of the newly authorized private restaurants during Cuba’s economic opening in the 1990s. There are even reports that the screenings of “Sinhá Moça” interrupted fighting during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Nicaragua. This is soft power at its best.

However, TV Globo seems to be more and more in opposition to the Bolsonaro administration, especially because the president is giving clear preference to the second-largest broadcaster, TV Record, owned by Edir Macedo, the billionaire founder of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, whose religious and ideological views are openly aligned with the president’s. TV Record is also famous for producing religion-themed soap operas like “A Terra Prometida”(“The Promised Land”) and “Jezebel,” which are far less creative and inferior in terms of production and narrative.

Who knows, Jair Bolsonaro might use his hard power to give his favorite TV station a push to become a soft power to rival the leading channel he never gives interviews to. But that’s now how soft power works in arts and entertainment: Creativity must walk hand in hand with freedom. And Brazil’s new president is not a big fan of the last one.

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

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