Bolsonaro, Brazil on the Brink

The situation in Brazil could not be more serious. The consequences of the election tonight are grave for black people, women, the LGBTQ community and the whole left. Democracy is at stake. The rainforest and indigenous lands are on a platter for the multinationals. And the neoliberals are behind the fascists.

I spent the eve of the election in Rio to get a sense of the political atmosphere. In the taxi from the airport to my accommodation I see two things which seem to speak to the overall situation. One: a contingent of military police, with balaclavas and machine guns at the ready. And the second: a lone women at a busy intersection waving a Haddad flag.

Bolsonaro, a neo-fascist who claims the mistake of the military dictatorship in Brazil was that it did not kill enough people, is set to come to power. Comparisons have been made with Donald Trump. And it is true that Trump and Bolsonaro are connected. But Bolsonaro represents something of a different order – in a situation that is more advanced for the far-right than in the US or Europe.

He has openly said in his campaign that the political opposition should fall in line or face jail or the airport. Recently a left-wing councillor in Rio was shot dead. Universities have been invaded by military police in relation to anti-fascist material.

The crisis in Brazil is energised by corruption, but charges of corruption have been applied as a method to depose particular figures on the left. Lula – who remains the most popular politician in Brazil – languishes in a jail cell as a result. His image is visible everywhere in Rio. Posters, pictures in bars, on graffiti. He has not only been jailed, but silenced as all communication has been shut down between his cell and the outside world.

Polls show Lula would beat Bolsonaro. For this reason he is not allowed to contest the election from prison – despite a UN intervention stating that he should have the right to stand. Such interventions are simply ignored. Bolsonaro himself has been subject to corruption scandal and is connected with the most corrupt networks in Brazil. But at the same time he has the support of elites, and in the end that’s what matters at the level of the institutions – themselves in decline and crisis.

What we have seen unfold in essence amounts to a neoliberal coup, underwritten but the force, aggression and divisive bigotry of the far-right. The collapse of the centre behind the far-right is seen by “moderates” as a better alternative to the left.

Bare in mind that the Workers Party is centre left. We are talking basic reforms, not overturning the whole system. The Wall Street Journal is backing Bolsonaro. Little wonder, they backed Pinochet too. The markets are full square behind him. It is worth noting that the currency stabilises whenever an increase in support for Bolsonaro is reflected in the polls.

Some neoliberals, especially outside of Brazil, claim that the left is exaggerating the threat posed by Bolsonaro. Such complacency couldn’t be more dangerous. He once told a left-wing congress woman that she “didn’t deserve to raped” and is a public supporter of Colonel Brilhante Ustra, the infamous torture chief during the military dictatorship.

The torture conducted then is about as grotesque as you could possibly imagine. Indeed, it is difficult to write about the detail, and how deeply the regime denigrated basic humanity.

This is not just rhetoric. Already there have been serious incursions in relation to political intimidation. A young woman wearing an “Ele Nao” t-shirt was recently assaulted by a fascist gang who used a pen knife to engrave a swastika on her stomach.

The social forces being unleashed are a direct threat – and are on the verge of being institutionalised. Bolsonaro will bring political violence and intimidation into the structures of the stage writ large. And give a green light to grassroots far-right groups to unleash boots and fists.

And yet, walking around Rio in the run up to the election, I only saw one pro-Bolsonaro presence. A large stall selling Bolsonaro T- Shirts. The Haddad campaign on the other hand was very visible. Stickers on lampposts, graffiti, people wearing badges and walking around with flags. I went to a bar full of Haddad supporters who were about to start a samba night. Some spirit considering the circumstances.

The lack of street presence is partly explained by Bolsonaro running an almost exclusively social media campaign. He has come into conflict with election rules after it was found that an elite network of the super-rich were funding a massive fake news campaign on WhatsApp, triggering literally millions of messages to the phones of Brazilians. He has 7.5 million Facebook likes on his page, compared to 1.5 million on Haddad’s.

But the lack of presence is also because many voters don’t want to admit they are supporting Bolsorano. There is a substantial “quiet vote” which will go Bolsonaros way.

The propaganda is fake. Photoshop images portray the left and progressive artists and other figures as sub-human. As social engineers who want to force all children to be gay, or some other such tropes falling under the rubric of “cultural Marxism.” This plays well with a substantial component of the Bolsonaro coalition – the Christian Right. Pastors urge huge congregations to vote for Bolsonaro to “restore dignity.”

As if they are following the same formula, it is reminiscent of the Trump meme base. No doubt that Bannons hands are involved. He has met with the Bolsorano campaign where his son lavished him with praise, saying the shared the same world view. But in a sense this kind of politics has a logic of its own: bludgeon political discourse to death in a web of lies, and contemptible rhetoric. Back it up with threats and violence. And tear up the social fabric to sow discord into the population.

In an age where political and economic institutions are in decay – this has a special resonance which connects with revulsion at the status quo.

In recent weeks there have been massive anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations. These huge events have given their campaign a level of confidence. The mood has to a degree transformed the messaging of the movement to that of “the turn” – a late turning of the tide in the polls.

A Brazilian social media star, Felip Neto, who has millions of followers on a variety of platforms is well-known for his opposition to the Workers Party. But he has come out at the very end to advocate a vote for Haddad, because of the threat to democracy posed by Bolsonaro. Such things have an impact – especially as social media is a key battle ground.

But the truth is that alongside the inspiring mobilisations, the Ele Nao (Not Him) women’s movement and the glimmer of hope that Haddad has a fighting chance, there is real fear around the impending Bolsonaro victory. People know how dangerous this moment is.

Families have been torn down the middle. I’ve seen this in Scotland in during the referendum, where family members take different positions. But such comparisons are futile. Young people I spoke to were aghast that their parents of grandparents may vote Bolsonaro. Unfortunately, he will receive many votes from people who simply don’t believe that things will get as bad as the left make out.

Tragically, this mistake will have grave consequences. “I speak to Bolsorano voters,” an activist tells me, “it is not the case that they are all fascists, and tragically many are in for a shock.”

Brazil is a concentration of a wider, global process. Neoliberalism has failed, and capitalist accumulation is running up against democracy and the environment. Bolsonaro is set to open up huge new tracts of the Amazon to exploitation, and to open mining operations in indigenous lands.

Here, an echo of the Dakota pipeline in North America. The madness of the short-term thinking in relation the super exploitation of rainforest makes sense only under a system based on the need to accumulate more and more profit, and without the ability to plan.

This process is hard-wired into the global system, and in particular US imperialism. As Marko Zero writes: “It is absolutely vital to US geopolitical interests and those of international capital committed to exploiting Brazil’s vast natural resources, that Bolsonaro wins the elections. Between moderate reformism and fascism, they chose fascism”.

The tipping point in relation to inequality of wealth and a failing system means that there are two options: massive redistribution of wealth and power and a new economic model, or authoritarianism and an attack on democracy itself to discipline society in punitive fashion.

This is not a new phenomenon, since neoliberalism has as part of its DNA an erosion of workers rights, trade unionism, corporate capture and so on. But it is taking on more overtly repressive and toxic forms.

In Brazil it is clear. The markets and leaders of industry are backing Bolsonaro. They prefer, and need, the state to become more repressive in its approach to burying alternatives to their economic system. This kind of formulation is not limited to Brazil.

It is necessary to recall the much used “socialism or barbarism” quote from Rosa Luxembourg. In a situation like Brazil, and indeed across the world, this is the eventual choice, because of the way capitalism relies on profit at any cost to people, planet and on preventing democratic control of the worlds resources.

What we are seeing take place now should sharpen minds in this regard. Anyone who thinks the crisis is going to snap back to a pre-2008 era, and that things will return to “normal” are mistake.

As Noam Chomsky wrote recently: “Bolsoranos ideas represent a deadly threat to freedom, fundamental rights, achieving any Earth balance to climate change and Brazil’s young democracy,” is part of an international moment, where choices about the future direction of humanity are going to have to be made. Because one way or the other, it cannot go on like this.

I got in touch with some left-wing activists and arranged to meet. They kindly let me stay with them, and were keen to talk into the night about the political situation to a non-Brazilian. It is obvious that the notion of international solidarity is something which they see as being central and necessary.

We talked about Europe, about Trump, about the similarities in the methods adopted by the far-right from country to country. But it was the human stories that began hit with the reality of things.

A gay couple, for example, who are afraid to hold hands in the street, or even to go to nightclubs. Because Bolsonaro with his brutal homophobic views now offers legitimacy to attacks. “There is a chance someone could just turn up to a club with a gun.”

A woman tells me about proposals for the police force which will essentially let an officer shoot without being questioned in the aftermath. Carte Blanche for the most reactionary sections for society, with a direct operational link to the force of the state. She cannot believe her father will vote for Bolsonaro.

Will their be a response to a Bolsonaro victory on the streets? “I’m not sure, but if there is we will run the risk of getting beaten.” At this point I’m wondering what the best course of action might be. Such tactical and strategic questions are not political games, but matters of life and death, a jail cell or your own home.

And what if Bolsonaro loses? “they are already claiming a loss will be fraudulent, and if Haddad wins, I think there will be a violent backlash from the fascists”.

The conversation gets to a point where I’m compelled to ask: will you consider leaving Brazil? Here people are torn. Life under Bolsorano will be dangerous, stressful and oppressive. The idea of leaving is appealing. But there is a sense that Brazil cannot be abandoned to the far-right.

I’m struck by the spirit of the activists. They are operating under the most difficult circumstances. The left-wing councillor that was shot dead, referred to earlier is called Marielle Franco. Her image appears on posters across Rio. “Franco Lives.” A young woman, who spoke truth to power on a daily basis. She was hated by elites. As she left a meeting, she was murdered in cold blood. The police don’t want to know.

We must always remember that fascism relies on political violence. Just as Trump backs up a congressman who attacks a reporter, his followers see open season for deploying violent methods. In Brazil that dynamic is accelerated. And Bolsoranos solution to security? To give people guns. You can see where this could end up.

The story doesn’t stop there, however. In the place of Marielle Franco, three black women from the Favelas have been elected in response. Where there was one thorn in the side, there are three. An activist tells me “she left many seeds.” I ask about the new councillors. “Poor and fucked in life – but they enter politics to take on the system. That’s courage.”

I can see when this issue is discussed how much it means. It is symbolic of the immense struggle they are engaged in. That someone could be killed, and yet more step up to the plate to continue the fight. That’s leadership.

So there is resistance, and there is fight. But there is a needed realism too. There is a sense of looking out for each other, and developing capacity to deal with the violence of the far-right. The massive fake news campaign is only one element in the situation. But it is a key one. With huge funding into social media, and viral videos and memes, the Bolsonaro campaign has reached every corner of Brazilian society.

Many young people support him as a result. Whatever happens the situation has changed for good, now that the poison is in the bloodstream.

I’m told, it’s easy for white middle class men to respond to the fears around a Bolsonaro regime as hyped up “fake news.” Of course, since “they don’t have to consider the consequences of being LGBTQ or black, or a woman.”

Brazil needs solidarity. We need an international left to emerge too. And it will have to be independent. It’s not going to be good enough to hope that establishment institutions will withstand the far-right insurgency. Brazil shows the relationship between the two in stark terms. Yes – there are specifically Brazilian features. But the central dynamic is the same.

Today we will find out the final result. I am leaving Rio to go to Sau Paulo to meet campaigners there. Millions of Brazilians are praying Bolsonaro can be kept from power. This would make a huge comeback down to sheer grit on behalf of the Bolsonaro opposition and avert an immediate disaster. But whatever happens, the election will not resolve matters.

As one activist I spoke to said: “even if Bolsonaro doesn’t win, politics has changed, and we will have to fight no matter what.”And yet, despite everything,the Brazilians I met give us all an example to follow. There is courage, solidarity, mass mobilisation, patience, determination – and yes even at this grim time, there is samba too.


Comments (5)

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  1. william thomson says:

    Brilliant article Jonathon.

  2. Mathew says:

    Say goodbye to the Brazilian rainforest. It’s as if humans have forgotten that we breathe oxygen.

  3. Kenmath says:

    A very interesting and thought-provoking article. Now that Bolsonaro has been elected it’s clear that democracy in Brasil is not under threat: it will be systematically undermined and dismantled. I lived in Brasil in the 1970s when the Military Dictatorship, which Bolsonaro idolises and whose methods and ideologies he wishes to replicate, was in power and saw first-hand how it affected every aspect of life there.

    Under the military the reality of life was a sham democracy consisting of a 2-party system: the governing party (the generals and their allies) and the opposition (whose candidates had to be approved – and sometimes nominated – by the military). Voting at elections was compulsory (although meaningless) and the results portrayed as “the people’s democratic choice.” Nobody would discuss politics outside of their homes since a variety of secret police forces were everywhere (in today’s digital age, private homes are probably not safe from surveillance). Normal processes of law were bypassed and ignored, so people simply disappeared without judicial process. When the Queen visited Brasil, the police rounded up street children and homeless adults and many were victims of police/army killing squads. Road blocks were common: I felt the cold steel of an automatic weapon held against my head and was told not to do anything hasty while opening the glove compartment to show them my papers. A family with young children in the car in front of us was led away to a nearby quarry for interrogation about some perceived fault in their papers. The output of the press was subject to government control and censorship. Crime levels were supposedly lower under the military, but this was in part due to a shoot-to-kill policy (so cases never came to the courts or appeared in statistics) and partly due to press suppression. Corruption existed at every level: at the bottom of society families couldn’t survive on the minimum wage, but among the elite vast sums changed hands to “facilitate” contracts and deals. Dissenting voices were silenced by violent and non-violent means: many artists and intellectuals were offered the choice of exile or imprisonment (a no-brainer if ever there was one)and that’s now back on Bolsonaro’s agenda.

    That was the Brasil that Bolsonaro wants to return to and I find it hard to believe that the majority of Brasilians would have voted for this. My figures may be out of date now, but back then 99% of the nation’s wealth was owned by less than 1% of the populace and it was clear that the country couldn’t progress in any meaningful way until this imbalance was addressed. It was equally clear that the Military would do nothing to tackle the imbalance. This is the direction of travel once again and it would be interesting to know how Bolsonaro’s campaign was funded. The Brasilian elite aren’t short of wealth, but it’s also unimaginable to me that the USA wasn’t involved too: they’ve repeatedly interfered in South American politics to prevent left-leaning governments from taking power across the continent, or undermining them if they do, even going as far as instigating coups (just think about the anti-Allende coup in Chile).

  4. Ian says:

    Incredibly, there is no mention in this article of the 63,000 people murdered in Brasil last year, far less the estimated 1.4million individuals who have had right to life unlawfully removed since 1980 with little chance of the perpetrators ever being brought to justice.

    Bolsonaro has a vile worldview, but among other things, he ran on a law and order ticket and it’s not hard to see why this appealed to a swathe of voters weary of violence and slaughter.

    Also, PT are up to their eyes in the scandal that has gripped Brasil for years. Lula’s protoge, Dilma Rousseff, was chair of the board of the state owned oil company, Petrobras, when mismanagement and graft was rampant – corruption that has cost Petrobras and, ultimately, Brasil, $17billion. PT are utterly complicit in the current, desperate state of affairs.

    1. Jonathon Shafi says:

      Hi Ian,

      Good points. Writing something more detailed about PT.



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