He arrived at a Turkish coffee house in a swank district of São Paulo looking very prince-like, with a navy-blue cardigan precisely draped over a freshly-pressed light blue dress shirt. Before pleasantries had run their course, Luiz Philippe de Orléans e Bragança launched into one of his favorite themes, sounding very much like Donald Trump as he commented about the recent influx of impoverished Venezuelans and Haitians into Brazil. “You can now come into our country without any documentation whatsoever,” he stated in perfect English, “and that creates tremendous havoc for security. If you don’t have control of any kind over migration, your country can simply be over-run and your territory is no longer valid as a sovereign place for your own people.”
The charismatic and youthful 49-year-old enjoys the highest public profile of any living symbol of Brazil’s former monarchy, which governed the country as an independent nation-state from 1822 to 1889. Orléans e Bragança is a direct descendant of Dom Pedro II, who ruled as emperor for 58 years until being deposed by the military and exiled to Portugal. Although Dom Pedro II remains a much-revered historic figure in Brazil – there are more praças and public institutions bearing his name than anyone can count – monarchists have wielded little political influence in the modern era. In a 1993 constitutional referendum voted on by over 67 million Brazilians, support for restoration of the monarchy tallied barely 10 percent of votes cast.
These days, Orléans e Bragança is looking to enter the political ring by democratic means. When I interviewed him for this article last September, he denied any interest in actively seeking elective office. Yet in April, Orléans e Bragança announced his candidacy for Congress as a member of the Social Liberal Party – the party of Jair Bolsonaro, a retired right-wing Army captain who is running first in most polls for Brazil’s October presidential election. Brazilian media reported this week that Orléans e Bragança is now a leading candidate to be Bolsonaro’s running mate. Several other politicians – some of them reportedly put off by Bolsonaro’s views on minorities and guns – had previously turned down the offer.
I did not ask Orléans e Bragança about Bolsonaro during our interview. But he did expound at length upon a vision of a Brazil with a smaller state – a model which Bolsonaro too has embraced in recent months. And it’s clear he would bring to the campaign skills he has acquired as a provocative political commentator and a keen sense of how to use social media. He counts over half a million Facebook followers and likes – approximately the same number enjoyed by the incumbent president, Michel Temer, and six times the interest in the official Pró Monarquia Facebook page.
He has also embraced more traditional means of communication, publishing Por que o Brasil é um país atrasado? (Why is Brazil a Backward Country?) (Novo Conceito 2017) – a bestselling book that offered a withering critique of the country’s political and economic systems and their catastrophic recent failures. A Stanford University graduate with a master’s degree in political science, he worked as an investment banker in the U.S. before returning to his native land where today he operates a motorcycle parts importing firm.
“It’s incredibly hard to be a businessman here,” he stated. “In Brazil, big ideas cannot be explored by the small entrepreneur. In the U.S., an entrepreneur can become a billionaire. Most of the opportunities here are only for the big companies where the state can be a factor.”
Orléans e Bragança sees his nation’s current state of political chaos and economic stagnation as the direct result of an oligarch-dominated structure and centralization of government power. “If you look at Latin American regimes over the past century, particularly Brazil, you’ll see that an oligarchical system has been involved. It’s not really a dictatorship, as the oligarchs might change. But the region never really changes. It’s been difficult for civil society to be in control of the common good – there’s always an oligarchy that’s using the system for their own interests. As a byproduct of their own interests, you might have some incremental wealth being created by the country, but it’s a terrible system for entrepreneurs and free enterprise.”
Reflecting on the history of Brazil’s monarchy, Orléans e Bragança cited examples of leadership that could benefit the country today. “The monarchy of the 19th century was based on liberal principles and highly influenced by the U.S. constitution,” he commented. “The impetus was to create a very small structure at the top, and that structure would be only responsible for security, justice and public order. Everything else should have been delegated to the states and municipalities. The power should come from the bottom up, from the people, and they decide what kind of government they want to maintain.”
Things changed, he asserted, when the initiatives favored by the royal family conflicted with the desires of the country’s growingly-powerful oligarchs. “At the end of the 19th century, the monarchy was old while the oligarchs were rich and young,” he added. “At that point, the monarchy was playing a progressive role, as it wanted to end slavery and industrialize the country. The agriculture-based oligarchs, however, were against industrialization and for slavery.”
In the modern era, he proposed, in both political and economic terms, Brazil could benefit through governmental decentralization and downsizing. “Four years ago, when I saw people begin to demonstrate against the president, corruption, and political parties, I said, ‘Guys, it’s less of a government issue than it is more a state issue – it’s how we are organized. Let’s focus on that.’ I started making public appearances to discuss this theme, and people began attending.”
He alleged that most of Brazil’s intellectuals and political commentators are on the wrong track when it comes to diagnosing the country’s problems. “We are in the midst of a severe political crisis but look at the books that are being published,” Orléans e Bragança said dismissively. “There are no thinkers in Brazil – not just in philosophical terms but in the terms of political organization. It scares me that so few people in Brazil are thinking along these lines.” He would love to see a structural revolution and lamented that the country is still working within the framework of 20th-century concepts. “We have a very interventionist style of government,” he charged. “But, we had a liberal system as our foundation; we became a big government later. We totally disregarded the fact that we once had the same principles and structure as the United States.”
Although the Orléans e Bragança name still makes some Brazilians misty-eyed for the return of the monarchy and the order and progressive initiatives it represented, Luiz Philippe has no illusions that the country will ever return to that form of government. “My first uncle is the heir of what would be the Brazilian throne,” he explained, adding some detail to the familial structure of Brazil’s aging royal descendants. “But, before my father got married, he basically disinherited himself and is no longer a part of the line of succession. So,” he shares with a wink, “I was born free!”
Holston is a longtime journalist who has written about Latin American and Caribbean topics for The Wall Street Journal, the journal of the Organization of American States, Hispanic Magazine and other publications.