Dreams of Dictatorship and the Nightmare of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro

THE 2018 ELECTION of Far-Right politician Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency shook the Federative Republic of Brazil and rippled across the globe in a way similar to the shockwave caused by the US election of Donald Trump two years earlier. Supported by the “law and order” lobby, economic elites, and evangelical leaders, Bolsonaro’s victory was seen as a threat to human rights and to the country’s volatile democracy. Since taking office, he has been trying to make good on those threats.

Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, as well as the largest economic force in South America. One of the most diverse societies globally (with a population over 211 million people) is now being led by a man who promotes military dictatorship, violence against political opponents, and strengthening the rule of the rich at the expense of the poor and the oppressed.

Wrapping himself in the Brazilian flag (figuratively speaking), Bolsonaro preached a political gospel of liberating the country from socialism, from “gender ideology,” and from “political correctness” with his inaugural speech on January 1, 2019. He called on “each congressperson to help me in the mission of rebuilding and restoring our homeland.” The term “homeland” here has more sinister connotations than “patriotic populism”—it’s a move into fascist territory. His vision of a country “whitened by iron and fire” is a more obvious example of such rhetoric.

Bolsonaro won the popular vote in both rounds of the 2018 election, which were held on October 7 and 28. To many on the outside, what transpired was a demonstration of Brazil’s democracy in action, that it was the people’s will to elect Bolsonaro and those who share his views. Others viewed the results as a protest against the Workers’ Party (PT), which led the country for thirteen years under presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), popularly known as Lula, and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016). But, as usual, there is so much more to the story.

From Army Captain  to Career Politician

Jair Messias Bolsonaro was born in Campinas, Brazil, on March 21, 1955. He attended the Preparatory School of the Brazilian Army, graduated from the Agulhas Negras Military Academy in 1977, and went on to serve in the Brazilian Army, rising to the rank of captain. Shortly after leaving the army, he was elected to a seat on the Rio de Janeiro city council in 1989. Two years later, he represented Rio de Janeiro in the federal Chamber of Deputies in the first of seven consecutive terms. His thirty-year career in politics had been, for the most part, unremarkable.

An ineffective legislator with very few bills listed to his credit, Bolsonaro was widely viewed as a fringe character—so much so, that Rio de Janeiro’s largest newspaper, Globo, printed cartoons depicting him as a dinosaur wearing army boots. During this time, he displayed the personal thuggery and political extremism he would later use to construct his future presidential platform, as evidenced by numerous inflammatory statements.

In 2014 Bolsonaro told Chamber of Deputies member Maria do Rosario, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” and later told a local newspaper she was “too ugly” to sexually assault. Back in 2011, he said he “would be incapable of loving a homosexual son.” When speaking about immigrants in 2015, he said, “The scum of the earth is showing up in Brazil, as if we didn’t have enough problems of our own to sort out.” On the subject of human rights, he said in 1999, “I am in favor of torture, you know that. And the people are in favor as well.”

In a 1993 speech to the Chamber of Federal Deputies, Bolsonaro did not mince words when revealing the true foundation of his political beliefs, scorning the very system that granted him his seat in the first place: “I am in favor of a dictatorship. We will never resolve serious national problems with this irresponsible democracy.”

A 1964 coup established a military dictatorship in Brazil that lasted until 1985, casting a dark cloud over the country for two decades. The regime was responsible for the imprisonment and torture of thousands, as well as the disappearances and deaths of hundreds. While many Brazilians view this period as a time of terror, Bolsonaro has expressed a desire to return the country to such a state. His critics fear he might be successful in this task.

In March 2019, as the fifty-fifth anniversary of the coup was approaching, Bolsonaro ordered the defense ministry and the army to host “appropriate commemorations” for the occasion. This was disrespectful to those who suffered and perished under the regime, but also sent a message of what could be in store for Brazil if it continues on the course the current president is navigating.

Trump of the Tropics

Bolsonaro has been nicknamed “Trump of the Tropics” and “Brazil’s Answer to Donald Trump.” Though usually intended as insults, Bolsonaro embraces such names and said he’s been a “great admirer” of Trump “for quite some time.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Bolsonaro soon after the election to congratulate him on his victory and subsequently traveled to Brazil to attend the inauguration ceremony in January 2019. Trump lauded Bolsonaro in his customary manner, via Twitter, with a message that read: “Congratulations to President @JairBolsonaro who just made a great inauguration speech—the U.S.A. is with you!”

In March, Bolsonaro flew to Washington, DC, to meet with Trump. The Brazil-based human rights non-government organization Conectas Direitos Humanos (CDH) and the US-based Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) published a joint analysis on the meeting, referring to it as “a convergence of right-wing political trends in terms of their agendas, the strategies used in their rise to power, and their repeated use of controversial rhetoric.”

Describing Bolsonaro as an “Authoritarian with a fascist tint,” WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli told the Humanist that Bolsonaro is “less interested in the United States overall” and is “more interested in Trump.”

“It’s basically a lovefest between the two of them because they see themselves in each other,” Sánchez-Garzoli says. “In foreign policy terms, it means that there will be more agreements between the two countries. So far most of these are linked to private investment and shared ideas on how to handle migration, law enforcement, etc. and not public funds. However, in the future we may see more security cooperation in terms of funds.”

Or, to use the glossed-over phrasing of US Department of State spokesperson Heather Nauert, the US and Brazil have a “mutual commitment to promote security, democracy, economic prosperity, and human rights.”

Along with Bolsonaro’s professed admiration for Trump, he and his campaigners drew heavily on the playbook Trump’s team used for the 2016 presidential election. He also sought help from a man often regarded as the chief architect of that campaign, former White House strategist Steve Bannon.

Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News who worked in the White House for the first seven months of Trump’s presidency, has a close relationship with Jair Bolsonaro and his son Eduardo, a Brazilian member of Congress. Bannon endorsed Bolsonaro for president in 2018 and has dined with both men as a special guest on a number of occasions.

Early on, Bolsonaro’s team sought Bannon’s political guidance. According to McClatchy, the former senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, Fernando Cutz, said, “Some of the Bolsonaro team on the right see themselves as disciples of the Bannon movement and representatives of Bannon for Brazil and Latin America.”

Eduardo Bolsonaro declared himself a South American representative of the effort founded by Bannon called The Movement, which has been described as “a united consortium of European representatives who support populist nationalism and reject the influence of globalism.”

Bannon worked alongside Brazilian anti-communist polemicist Olavo de Carvalho, dubbed by the Americas Quarterly as “Jair Bolsonaro’s guru.” Though Carvalho’s name is not well known in 
the US, he was credited by Eduardo 
Bolsonaro with his father’s electoral victory. The Washington Post called Carvalho “the Rush Limbaugh of Brazil,” and while there are certain similarities, Carvalho appears to have more in common with Infowars shock-jock Alex Jones, who served as a mouthpiece for the Trump campaign and remains one of the most zealous defenders of his administration.

Carvalho, a former astrologer turned ultraconservative ideologue, is a proponent of Far-Right crackpot musings and pseudoscience that would be laughable if they didn’t enjoy such wide acceptance. He calls climate change a hoax, referring to it as “Climategate,” created by “the new world order.” When it comes to the Spanish Inquisition, he said this terrifying chapter in world history “is a fictional invention of Protestants.”

Carvalho left Brazil in 2005 and resides in Richmond, Virginia, which serves as his base of operations. Channeling his views through various platforms (a website, a YouTube account, and assorted social media platforms), he propagates debunked beliefs such as the claim that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, cannot infect heterosexuals and that vaccinations cause illness or “madness.”

Bannon has praised Carvalho as a source of inspiration for fellow travelers in the American faction of the international Far-Right, and was quoted by the Financial Times as saying, “In the US, the conservative movement has peaked-out of good ideas. That is why Olavo is so important.”

Prior to his election, Bolsonaro was endorsed by the Wall Street Journal, which has been known to publish sympathetic accounts of South American dictators before. Case in point is a 1998 essay on General Augusto Pinochet with a headline that would have raised a smile on the late despot’s face: “Chile’s Pinochet Fought Marxist Violence.”

To this day, Bolsonaro remains unmoved by the testimonies of victims and the historical record concerning Pinochet’s dictatorial rule in Chile. He told the São Paulo-based magazine Veja in 1998, “Pinochet should have killed more people,” expressing a similar opinion regarding the dictatorship that had ruled Brazil.

The “Bull, Bullet, and Bible Benches”

A collection of essays titled In Spite of You: Bolsonaro and the New Brazilian Resistance edited by Conor Foley, a professor of Law and International Relations at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, was published by OR Books in 2019. Foley told the Humanist there were two urgent goals for the book, which was conceived and published within a span of only five months.

First, to “tell an English-speaking audience what had actually happened in 
Brazil, to contextualize Bolsonaro’s victory and discuss its significance.” Second, “to give a voice to those involved in the fight against him: political activists such as Dilma Rouseff and Fernando Haddad, feminists such as Marcia Tiburi, and others in the anti-racist movement, land rights and indigenous rights activists, human rights campaigners, and those working for justice reform.”

The book’s title was inspired by the protest song “Apesar de Você” (“In spite of you” when translated from Portuguese into English) by Brazilian musician and poet Chico Buarque. The song criticizes the country’s military dictatorship, the same regime Bolsonaro so fondly reminisces about.

“[‘Apesar de Você’] became a rallying cry for the campaign for the return of democracy, and its message of defiance—in spite of you there will be another day—seemed appropriate to the mood of the time that we were thinking about producing the book,” Foley says.

Shortly after Bolsonaro’s meeting with Trump in March, he met with nearly a dozen American evangelical leaders who joined hands in prayer on behalf of Bolsonaro. Pat Robertson concluded with the invocation, “Lord, uphold him, protect him from evil. And, use him mightily in years to come.”

As referenced earlier, the three main pillars of Bolsonaro’s campaign were the “law and order” lobby, agribusiness, and the evangelical lobby, a trinity of political power commonly referred to in Brazil as the “Bullet, Bull and Bible benches” (BBB). During Rousseff’s second term, BBB united in an anti-government coalition that helped unseat her.

As the “law and order” candidate, 
Bolsonaro called for reinstating the death penalty and lowering the age of criminal responsibility. He equated concerns of civil and legal rights as defending criminality. His campaign slogans included “Brazil: love it or leave it,” repeated calls to “do away with activists,” and the phrase “bang! bang!” in support of killing alleged criminals on sight without legal proceedings.

Bolsonaro caters to the country’s mostly white economic elite, and was rewarded with the financial support of the wealthy and “better off.” His embrace of corporate interests and policies of deregulation were in full view with his response to (and responsibility for) the more than 40,000 fires that burned in the Amazon rainforest in 2019.

The Bolsonaro government gutted the budget for the Ministry of the Environment, reduced environmental inspections, and ended the Amazon fund, among other measures. Bolsonaro accused non-governmental organizations of setting the fires, while the biggest culprits, as reported by Vermelho, have been “cattle ranching, illegal timber trade and soy production,”

The Amazon Environmental Research Institute published a technical note in August 2019, which reads, “Amazon firestorms have increased incidence of respiratory illness, crop and infrastructure losses, and forest degradation, when deforestation and management fires ignite wild fires.”

As for Bolsonaro’s theocratic leanings, I’ll first note that Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, with nearly 65 percent of the country identifying as such. The religious demographic has shifted over the last decade, with a strong evangelical movement spreading throughout the country. Bolsonaro’s sexist and homophobic speeches had a strong impact upon both evangelical and Catholic voters, as did his climate change denial.

On June 20 of last year, three-million people congregated in the streets for the largest evangelical event ever held in Brazil
 (and one of the largest such gatherings in the world), the “March for Jesus.”

“We cry out for Brazil, for the families, for the end of corruption, for the afflicted hearts,” said march president Estevam Hernandes in his address. “Our country belongs to Jesus Christ.” Bolsonaro, a Roman Catholic whose wife and children identify as evangelical, was in attendance and told the crowd, “You were decisive in helping change the destiny of Brazil.”

In Spite of You contributor Vanessa Maria de Castro, a professor at the University of Brasilia, writes,

The quasi-religious overtones to Bolsonaro’s discourse are fundamental to his appeal. His campaign was heavily supported by Brazil’s increasingly influential Evangelical movement, whose use of social networks, such as WhatsApp, have enabled them to reach an ever-growing number of “disciples.”

A feature article in the December 9 Washington Post paints an even darker picture of Rio de Janeiro as the center of Brazilian neo-Pentecostalism, described as “a zealous strain of evangelicalism more frequently linked to intolerance” and increasingly embraced by drug gangs. The article details acts of persecution and violence by these self-named “soldiers for Jesus” and “Jesus drug dealers” against practitioners of minority Afro-Brazilian faiths, including Candomblé. According to the Rio-based Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, more than two hundred temples have closed due to threats by these gangs. (Incidentally, the mayor of Rio is a bishop in a Pentecostal church.) The article ends chillingly with the words of a Candomblé priest who shuttered his temple after receiving violent threats:

Looking out across the neighborhood—where his faith had been “prohibited”—he saw the future. “Theocracy,” he said.

Evangelicals played a critical role in Trump’s election in the US, so it comes as no shock that a large number of them also revere Bolsonaro. Shortly after 
Bolsonaro’s meeting with Trump in March, he met with nearly a dozen American evangelical leaders. The meeting was led by televangelist and conservative political provocateur Pat Robertson, with notable attendees including the likes of Jerry Falwell Jr. and author Joel Rosenberg. They joined hands in prayer on behalf of Bolsonaro, as Robertson concluded with the invocation, “Lord, uphold him, protect him from evil. And, use him mightily in years to come.”

A Nation’s Future

For the last few years, a major national corruption investigation into government contract allocations known as Operation Car Wash has ensnared hundreds of Brazilian politicians and business leaders. Despite claims of the probe being “neutral,” there is evidence that investigators targeted PT leaders for political reasons, leading to the imprisonment of Lula and the impeachment of Rousseff. The judge leading the investigation, Sergio Moro, was later appointed to Bolsonaro’s cabinet as minister of justice.

Lula, who was ahead in the polls when planning to run for office again in 2018 as PT’s candidate, was imprisoned and later deemed ineligible to run. According to Foley, what has occurred over the last three and a half years is not an old-fashioned military coup d’etat, but “its outcome has been much the same” and “is shocking from a democratic standpoint.”

“A left-of-center reforming government was ousted from power by unconstitutional means, its previous president imprisoned on trumped-up charges and disbarred from running in an election that every opinion poll showed he would have won easily,” Foley says. “The justice system has been perverted for blatantly political purposes and a neoliberal social and economic agenda is now being imposed on the Brazilian people.”

Bolsonaro’s presidency suffered a setback when the Federal Supreme Court ruled that people who haven’t exhausted their appeals could not be kept in prison, meaning thousands of people who weren’t properly represented or afforded the presumption of innocence would be released. Among them was Lula, who walked free on November 8 after serving 580 days of a twelve-year prison sentence.

Today, Bolsonaro’s government stands accused of using the military and police as tools of political repression, abusing elected office and the judiciary, attacks on free speech and a free press, subservience to oligarchs, and general disregard for human and environmental rights, all of which are the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime.

On December 10, 2014, the Comissao Nacional da Verdade (National Truth Commission) released a detailed report documenting the human rights violations perpetrated by the military dictatorship. This was the Brazilian government’s first formal attempt to recognize the atrocities and honor its victims.

Rousseff, who had been a political prisoner tortured under the dictatorship in the 1970s, said upon the release of the report, “We, who believe in the truth, hope that this report contributes to make it so that ghosts from a sad and painful past are no longer able to find shelter in silence.”

Sánchez-Garzoli says the commission did not succeed in educating the populace about

the perils of authoritarianism, dictatorship, and the abuses that took place such as torture and the complete closing of civic space…As a result, it is possible that, little by little, a return to authoritarianism could take place if there is no push back within the country by civil society and the international community.

Bolsonaro’s ascension to the presidency represents a disturbing trend not only in Latin America but in the US, Europe, and across the globe.

“While Trump and Brexit have received a huge amount of coverage in the last few years, right-wing populists have also seized or consolidated power in India, Turkey, and the Philippines,” Foley says. “We are experiencing a global political crisis, and understanding that we live in a multipolar world where progressive forces should work together in genuine alliances is part of that process.”

Sánchez-Garzoli says there need to be broader human rights and environmental solidarity networks that support Brazilian civil society and oppose Bolsonaro’s policies, including human rights organizations, indigenous and quilombo authorities and groups, trade unions, and journalists.

“They are the people who know how best to change Brazil, so supporting them by helping them strengthen their efforts or get attention internationally is important.”

The fate of the New Brazilian Resistance, and that of the country they hope to rescue from the grasp of a would-be dictator, remains to be seen. It’s important to remember the following lines from Chico Buarque’s song, written in the voice of a lover whose heart was broken in an act of betrayal: “Apesar de você/Amanhã há de ser/Outro dia” (“In spite of you/Tomorrow will be/Another day”).