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Jair Bolsonaro and The Rise of the Ultra Right in Brazil

Updated: Oct 27, 2019


In 2018, Brazil elected ultra-right wing nationalist, Jair Bolsonaro. While many people are quick to label him the ‘Trump of the Tropics’, in reality he is much, much more extreme.

Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro

Almost fifty-five years to the date, newly elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro called on the nations armed forces to celebrate the anniversary of Brazil’s most infamous military dictatorship. As Bolsonaro began to shake hands and embrace his supporters, Brazilian soldiers flooded the streets of Brasilia in memory of the coup d’etat that led to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. However, not everyone in Brazil is proud of this grim period of history. This commemoration has sparked outrage throughout the country. While the celebrations were underway, in other parts of the country citizens staged protests in defiance of this dictatorship that was known for its censorship, suppression of freedoms and speech, its violence, and its torture of those who were brave enough to stand up against the oppressive regime.


A staunch supporter of the military dictatorship in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro began his career as an army captain for said regime. As a young man, his values and beliefs became shaped by the oppressive nature of this regime. A regime that even enacted a new constitution which restricted certain human rights and freedoms, mainly to prevent political opposition. Aside from the violence and oppression, the playbook of this regime was based on nationalism, economic development, anti-immigration, and a ruthless attack of those on the left; raise your hand if this sounds familiar. These are the same platforms that American President Donald Trump had campaigned on, as well as newly elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Perhaps Bolsonaro is even taking the economic development part a little far, advocating for the opening of the Brazilian amazon to agribusiness, which would tear apart the amazon. This would have devastating consequences for both wildlife and the environment. As Bolsonaro chooses profits over preservation, he is facing a lot of resistance from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). However, Bolsonaro couldn’t care less about NGO’s, having once been quoted as saying that if he were to become President, there “would be no money for NGO’s”, declaring that these “useless people will have to work”.


I suppose Bolsonaro believes that the International Rescue Committee is useless as well; an organization that is committed to global humanitarian aid. As well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has had an incredible global impact in helping cure diseases, lift people out of poverty, and helping build sustainable economic and social programs in underdeveloped countries. Bolsonaro’s outlook on NGO’s is incredibly dangerous for many reasons, but minority groups in Brazil may feel these effects the most. His demonization of NGO's and the people that work for them is hard to comprehend.


Thirty-four years removed from power, Bolsonaro still stays true to the ideology of this dictatorship, while he advocates for even more power to be given to the police, effectively giving them the ‘green-light’ of the use of violence against suspected criminals.

Despite being the President of Brazil, Bolsonaro still represents anti-democratic and dehumanizing values. In 2016 he was quoted as saying “the dictatorship’s mistake was to torture but not kill”. He echoed similar comments back in 1999 when he was quoted as saying “Through the vote, you’ll change nothing in this country [Brazil]”, “We’ll only get change, unfortunately when we go into a civil war here someday and do the work the military regime didn’t do, killing as much as thirty thousand people”. He followed that up by suggesting that “It’s alright if some innocent people die”.

It may be hard to believe, but it gets even worse.


Throughout the years, Bolsonaro has made some horrific comments and remarks that have been misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and dehumanizing. Let’s go through some of them:

In 2011, Bolsonaro was quoted in ‘Playboy’ magazine as saying “I would be incapable of loving a gay son. I wouldn’t be a hypocrite. I prefer that he die in an accident than show up with some guy with a moustache”.

In 2014, he was quoted in an interview talking about Brazilian congresswoman Maria do Rosario, “She doesn’t deserve it [to be raped] because she’s very bad, because she’s very ugly. She’s not my type”, “I’m not a rapist, but if I was, I wouldn’t rape her because she’s not worthy of it”.

In 2015, he referred to migrants coming to Brazil from Bolivia, Syria, Iran, Haiti, and Senegal as being “the scum of the world”.

When asked about equal pay for women in 2016 he said, “I wouldn’t hire them with the same salary. But there are many women who are competent”.

When discussing the minority of descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves in Quilombo settlements, Bolsonaro was quoted as saying “They don’t do anything. I don’t think they even serve for procreation anymore”.


 Despite these homophobic, misogynistic, discriminatory, racist, and hateful comments, Bolsonaro was elected the President of Brazil in 2018. And trust me, there’s more where that came from.


One can’t help but wonder how such a hateful person came to be democratically elected by a major country. Since his emergence on the political scene, with such radical views Bolsonaro has polarized a Brazilian society that is fed up with corruption and violence. Although, while only winning 55% of the vote in the 2018 election, Bolsonaro has seen a gradual decline in his approval ratings. In fact, leading up to the 2018 election, beloved former Brazilian President simply known as ‘Lula’ was actually polling better than any other candidate, even though he was barred from running again due to his alleged involvement in the corruption scandal. A corruption scandal that appears to have sparked the right-wing populist movement inside Brazil.


Unfortunately, the echoes of corruption are nothing new in Brazil. Historically, Brazil has had a long history of corruption both in politics and in the military. Dating back all the way to the ‘old republic’ (the first Brazilian republic), the Brazilian military saw themselves as having a moral obligation to protect the nation. Now that makes sense given the fact that they are an ‘army’, but they used this moral ideology to extend their reach into the political and economic realms of the Brazilian nation. To the military, corruption was morally justified. In order to destabilize the power of the military, Brazilian elites would attempt to bribe and buy off officials. Thus, corruption has been a part of Brazil since its very inception, and it’s believed to have been continuing ever since.

However, in 2014 it reached its peak when a nation-wide money-laundering scheme by the state-owned oil & gas company ‘Petrobas’ was uncovered in an investigation known as “Operation Car Wash”. This investigation became both a blessing and a curse for Brazilians, as it led to the indictment of 179 people, including both politicians and business persons, and it is estimated to have exposed the illegal movement of over $9 billion US dollars. However, it has fractured the trust between Brazilian citizens and their government, completely at the fault of those who were involved in the corruption.


For all the good that this investigation led to, it left Brazil in a state of disarray, which left the country very vulnerable to a populist movement.


Caught up in the middle of this is former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This guy was a Rockstar. The complete opposite of Bolsonaro, Lula went on to become an incredibly important and beloved leader. He even had President Obama gushing over him, who has been quoted as saying “I love this guy”, and at one time referring to Lula as “the most popular politician on Earth”, and from 2003 to 2011 that may very well have been the case. During his time in office, Lula pulled approximately 30 million people out of poverty, as he would go on to revamp Brazil’s educational system and facilitate greater international trade relations. Brazil was known for exporting their commodities and with the help of new-found oil & gas reserves, Brazil’s economy was one of the fastest growing in the entire world, as they became a model of development to the rest of the underdeveloped and developing world. And Lula, well he became a star.

Former Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (simply known as Lula), amongst a crowd of supporters.

Lula became a symbol of the Brazilian working class, having grown up with very little he had to work for everything, which is something most Brazilians can relate to. Ever since his emergence onto the political scene, Lula has been a champion of the labor movement in Brazil. As a union leader, he was even briefly arrested in the 70’s for organizing labor strikes in the midst of the military dictatorship. In fact, the labor court in Brazil found strikes illegal during this time period, perhaps this was because the leading officials in the military dictatorship realized that the basis of one labor movement, could spark a broader political movement that would threaten the stability of the regime. Hence, the repression of worker’s rights.


Regardless, Lula had to fight tooth and nail in order to rise to power but perhaps his largest support came from the fact that Brazilians were able to identify with him. This all culminated with the creation of the leftist ‘Worker’s Party’ in which Lula helped create. After so many years of right-wing leadership in Brazil, it came as a surprise too many that the leftist Worker’s party even got elected, let alone to have the success they had afterwards.


However, the countries success under Lula would not last forever. Things have drastically changed for the Worker's Party, who have become shaken by the corruption scandal and an economic recession in 2015. Nowadays, Lula remains as one of the most prominent political prisoners in the world. Although, the alleged evidence against Lula remains weak since his sentence is based on accusations and plea-bargaining, while Lula insists that he did no wrongdoing. Lula’s sentence becomes even more curious when we consider the fact that he was not granted the entirety of the appeals process as a citizen of Brazil. The Brazilian Supreme Federal Court voted 6:5 to deny Lula of his full rights to appeal with Presidential elections right around the corner. Lula would even bring his case to the UN Human Rights Committee after members of the Human Right’s Commission in Brazil were denied access to Lula in prison to gather information. Lula’s right as a Brazilian citizen to be assumed innocent until proven guilty appears to have been taken away from him. These events lead one to question the impartiality of the judicial process, as well as the possibility of political interference involving the case of Lula.


Famous linguist, professor, author, and widely respected commentator Noam Chomsky, has been very vocal about what he considers to be the unjust imprisonment of Lula, even going so far as to call it a ‘soft coup’ led by the political and judicial right to remove Lula from the political picture. Having been one of the very few people that have been awarded permission to visit Lula in prison, Chomsky points out that Lula has been in solitary confinement, he has not been a loud any media content, and he has been unable to make a public statement. The gripping irony being that the man who stabbed Jair Bolsonaro at a campaign rally has been awarded more rights than Lula, which would suggest judicial bias.


The natural suppression of political opponents dates back to history’s most ruthless and oppressive regimes, yet it appears to still be in practice.

On a more positive note, just recently Brazil's second highest court reduced Lula's jail sentence from 12 years, down to 8 years and 10 months. Regardless, Lula’s party and his legacy will remain behind as the base of the Brazilian left for future generations.


Whether or not Lula really is guilty of corruption remains uncertain due to the lack of hard, credible evidence that would directly prove Lula's alleged guilt. However, the premise of Lula being politically persecuted by the Brazillian right, remains entirely possible. A large part of Brazil now remains divided between those who believe in Lula’s innocence and those who don’t.


While amidst the largest corruption scandal Latin America has ever seen, Brazil had entered into an economic recession in 2015. This was because of Brazil’s lack of economic diversification which made them vulnerable to fluctuations in the global buying market, especially since Brazil was so export reliant. To add on to the troubles, Brazil is facing a problem with drug trafficking, the countries crime rates have soared, and in 2016 their former President and Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff was impeached. In 2017, Brazil actually had more homicides than Canada, Mexico, and the United States of America combined. So taking all of this into account, as well as the countries long history of corruption at the highest levels of authority, understandably, the frustrations of many Brazilians are at a breaking point. This becomes clear with the election of Jair Bolsonaro.


 Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on a right-wing populist platform; maybe a little more right-wing than most. Appealing to those who feel disenfranchised with the Brazilian government and there was no shortage of those people, considering the amount of corruption and violence that has and currently still is sweeping the country. Many Brazilians are fearful for their family’s safety with violence in Brazil being so high. Bolsonaro’s hard line on violence, anti-corruption, and empowerment of police have come at an opportune time, as many Brazilians are willing to put up with Bolsonaro, despite him being such a radical and offensive figure, if it means that the country will be safer. However, whether or not Brazil will actually be safer with Bolsonaro in power is an interesting question.


The election alone of Jair Bolsonaro teaches us so much about populism and human nature. About how much we value and prioritize safety, as well as about how much we have progressed as a society, considering how in most parts of the world human rights and freedoms have become a sort of expectation. But it is clear that globally we are not at that point yet, with so many leaders, like Bolsonaro, having authoritarian tendencies. This also teaches us about populist movements and how they can build-up within a society over a long period of time and then explode into radical changes.


Political Scientists remain divided on the issue of whether or not populism is a malfunction of democracy or whether populism is an attempt to rescue democracies that have been hijacked by wealthy elites. Some even say that is the purest form of democracy, however the dangers of populism remain clear. As a populist movement often puts the needs and rights of minority groups aside for the manufactured will of the majority. Populism even has a tendency to often demonize certain people or groups that oppose a certain issue that the populist advocates most heavily for. For example, this is seen during the campaign trail of American President Donald Trump, as he campaigned on an anti-immigration platform. Which sparked an ugly right-wing nationalistic movement that just happens to be his electoral base, while also polarizing the American public. A similar thing is happening in Brazil, as Bolsonaro is seen demonizing minority groups, in favor of his nationalistic right-wing agenda.

Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro (left) and American President, Donald Trump (right) shaking hands.

If it wasn't clear already, during Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment proceedings, it became clear the kind of person that Jair Bolsonaro is, as he dedicated his vote to impeach to Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the general who was responsible for the torturing of political dissidents during the military dictatorship, including Rousseff herself. The radical ideology Bolsonaro represents is incredibly dangerous for the future of Brazil, as it threatens the survival of Brazilian democracy, minorities, and basic human rights.


The judge that is responsible for the prosecution of Lula, Sérgio Moro, now sits as the Minister of Justice and Public Security in Bolsonaro’s cabinet. While Bolsonaro has also appointed Paulo Guedes as his Minister of Economy, who advocates for the privatisation of every economic sector, and who spent time in Chile under the ruthless dictator, Augusto Pinochet.


At a time when the truth can be so hard to find, if one thing is true, it is that Brazilians are fed up with the violence and corruption in their country, and rightfully so. However, as a result, the Brazilian public has taken drastic measures by electing Jair Bolsonaro.

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