SAO PAULO— Rafael Orleans e Bragança says he'll probably have to marry a princess to preserve his rightful claim to the throne. But it's a family tradition that he's willing to keep alive, even if there aren't many eligible princesses to choose from in Brazil.
"I need to find someone who will complete me,” the would-be heir to Brazil's throne says. “And that means I have to find someone who is capable of following me on this path.”
We're sitting at a neighborhood bar that specializes in rabbit meat. But we're not here to eat. I came here to learn about Prince Rafael's life, and the unusual political movement that hopes to restore his family's monarchy.
The handsome 30-year-old is the great-great-great-grandson of Brazil's last emperor, Dom Pedro II. The monarchy is gone, but not forgotten. And given the wretched state of Brazil's democracy, there are some people who think it's time to give the crown another shot at governing. It's an idea that fits nicely with Prince Rafael's future plans.
“It's an old fashioned idea, but I think it works,” Prince Rafael, dressed in a smart blazer and dark jeans, tells me over coffee. “Some of the most successful countries in Europe are parliamentary monarchies.”
Brazil's monarchical movement is still quite small, and critics scoff at the notion that one of the world's largest economies will ever return to a system of government that has been discarded throughout the Americas.
But recently there has been a notable uptick in online interest in the movement, as Brazil reels from multi-billion dollar corruption scandals and a crippling congressional power struggle that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
Supporters of the monarchy argue that Brazil's political class has lost all credibility, and think somebody with a greater calling needs to watch over them.
“From the time they are children, monarchs are taught to defend their country and defend the interests of the people,” says Oscar Capra, a monarquista who carried an imperial flag at a recent Brazilian Independence Day parade in Rio de Janeiro. “Politicians only represent the interest of their parties, and trade favors with their donors.”
During the parade some 60 monarquistas braved the scorching sun as they waved imperial flags and handed out stickers featuring the 19th century seal of Brazil's monarchy. When it was over, the loyalists lined up patiently near the port-o-johns to take pictures with Prince Pedro Alberto, one of Rafael's cousins, who is not in line for the throne.
“People are looking for something else, and they are remembering there was something else,” Prince Rafael told me.
The young prince is fourth in succession to the throne, but the three princes who precede him are all in their 70s and early 80s, so he might not have to wait too long to move up a few spots in line.
The would-be emperor insists his family is ready to once again lead this South American nation of 200 million…if Brazilians vote to put them back on the throne.
“We don’t want to use military force to overthrow the government,” he assured me, in all apparent seriousness. “And we are not talking about an absolute monarchy…the head of government would still have say over policy.”
Monarquistas say the royal family would serve as a fourth branch of government. A hereditary institution that would “represent the people” and provide an additional check and balance on congress, the judiciary, and the executive, besides representing Brazil at international events.
One of the movement's ideas is to give the monarch the power to dissolve congress and call for new elections during times of political gridlock, or whenever congress has become too infested with corrupt politicians. (Related: every story about Brazil from 2016)
Monarquistas also want Brazil to remember that royalty rule is already in the country's DNA.
Unlike the U.S. and the rest of Latin America, which booted European dynasties to become independent republics, Brazil's independence came by replacing one crown with another. The country initially broke away from Portugal under the leadership of a Portuguese prince who established his own throne in Rio.
That prince became Emperor Dom Pedro I, and he was succeeded by Dom Pedro II, who ruled Brazil from 1831 until his abdication in 1889.
Monarquistas argue that Dom Pedro II was an enlightened leader who unified the country and helped it to become one of the world's leading economies of the 19th century. Brazil's position of strength allowed it to expand its territory at the expense of its weaker South American neighbors that were mired in civil wars and internal political squabbles.
Critics say the monarquistas are romanticizing the past and omitting the ugly details of dynastic rule. Laurentino Gomes, a journalist who has written three books on Brazil's imperial period, says that the monarchy tolerated slavery in Brazil in order to secure the political support of wealthy landowners. (Eventually the emperor backed an anti-slavery law)
The monarchy's record on education wasn't exemplary either.
“It was a time when 90% of Brazilians were illiterate,” Gomes says.
The scholar thinks the recent surge of interest in the monarchical movement reflects Brazilians' tendency to look for “miracles” in troubled times.
“Brazilians are always trying to find quick fixes for our problems,” Gomes said. “Even if we changed the name of our system from democracy to monarchy, it would be the same political class running Brazil.”
Monarquistas, however, insist their movement is serious and viable. During a 1993 plebiscite that asked Brazilians what type of government they wanted, 13% opted for a parliamentary monarchy. Though monarchy lost to presidential democracy by a landslide, the movement's followers say the idea hasn't been forgotten.
The regal-minded group holds several conferences around the country each year, and has recently started using social media to expand their reach and promote their cause. Several pro-monarchy Facebook pages have popped up over the past two years, and a couple of monarchical political parties have tried to register to run in future elections.
It's still a minority movement. The monarquistas largest Facebook page has only 29,000 followers, a drop in the bucket for a country with 100 million internet users. But hope springs eternal.
“We may not be so well known, but if we educate more people I think interest will grow,” said Charlo Ferreson, a hairdresser who came to the independence day parade to show her support for the monarchy.
Monarquistas complain that for much of the twentieth century, their movement was banned. That only changed with the restoration of democracy, and a new constitution in 1988.
“The republic has tried to extinguish our history,” says monarchy supporter Oscar Capra.
Prince Rafael says that while his movement grows, he'll continue to keep his job as a sales executive at a multinational beer company. And somehow he'll have to find a wife in Europe, since noble families are difficult to come by in the New World.
“I don't want to end up marrying a cousin,” he says, jokingly.
In the meantime, he'll continue to act like royalty.
“I've always been taught that I have a different position than anyone else,” Rafael said. “So I have to be serious and responsible about it.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.