The New Face of Military Authoritarianism in Brazil
In 1964, Brazil experienced a dramatic disruption in democracy. Fearing that the social policies defended by president João Goulart (a moderate left reformist, who assumed the office after the resignation of the former president) would turn the country into a socialist dictatorship, conservative civil groups—represented mainly by national and international businessmen, the middle class, big media corporations, landowners, and sectors of the Catholic Church—called for a political intervention of the military forces. The National Congress, formed mostly by Goulart adversaries, engaged with the army to collude against the president. Their opportunity came when Goulart traveledto his home state; in an unconstitutional action, the Chairman declared the presidency vacant, calling a military command to take on the position.
Initially, the military command claimed to assume the government only temporarily, until the socialist threat was over and Brazil’s political environment was “back to normal.” However, the regime quickly assumed authoritarian features and implemented a dictatorship: political mandates were revoked, elections were controlled, media and arts were censured, and objectors were brutally repressed—through illegal imprisonment, torture, and execution. It was only in 1985 that the military command, constrained by internal and external crises, opted to leave the power.
For more than 30 years, Brazil has had a democratic regime—a turbulent and precarious democracy, to be sure, but still a democracy. Overall, civil and political liberties were respected, and social inequalities were gradually addressed by the successive governments. The controversial 2016 impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and the contested imprisonment of the former president Lula da Silva seemed to be a major breakdown in our constitutional regime. Little did we know that the 2018 elections would make these episodes preludes to a greater authoritarian threat.
Jair Bolsonaro, a retired military captain, won the presidential elections on 29th October 2018 with nearly 57.8 million votes (55.1% of the counted votes), a difference of almost 11 million votes more than his adversary, Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro is regarded as a far-right politician, famous for his ultraconservative agenda and rampant hate speech. He gained popularity by his defense of “moral” values, his tough-on-crime discourse, and his relentless—but flimsy—accusations against leftist ideology. His election marks the return of the military to the head of state and represents a convergence of the Brazilian people with anti-democratic ideals—an authoritarian menace that resembles 1964’s political environment.
Consider Bolsonaro’s own statements, voiced in a speech transmitted online to simultaneous rallies on October 21st, one week before the Brazilian elections:
This gang [the opposition], if it wants to stay here, will have to be subjected to our laws. They either go away, or they will go to jail. These red bandits will be banned from our homeland.
This is our land, it does not belong to that brainwashed gang that carries a red flag.
Petralhada [a derogatory way to refer to members and supporters of the Workers Party (PT)], all of you will be sent to Ponta da Praia [a navy base in Rio de Janeiro, where political prisoners were executed during the military dictatorship]. You will have no chance in our homeland and I will cut all your privileges.
This will be the most effective “cleaning” ever experienced in Brazil.
You will experience a proud Military Force, that will collaborate with the future of Brazil. You, petralhada, will experience a police force with legal safeguards to enforce the law on your shoulders. Criminals from MST and MTST [social movements that struggle for land distribution], your actions will be classified as terrorism. You will no longer spread terror in the countryside or in the cities.
This was not the first time he has professed violent and intolerant positions; his racist, sexist, homophobic, and authoritarian declarations are well known in Brazil and have been criticized widely in the international media. This time, however, he directly threatened his political adversaries, their supporters, and, ultimately, every left-wing activist and social movement in the country. His words acquired an emblematic meaning, directly targeting the opposition in his government.
Bolsonaro’s Political Trajectory
After serving in the military during the dictatorship, Bolsonaro started his political career in 1987 as city councillor in Rio de Janeiro. In 1991, he was elected federal deputy, a position he kept until his decision to run for the presidency. Bolsonaro has been a member of fringe political parties, composing what was called the House of Representatives’ “lower clergy”—with the exception that from 2005 to 2016 he was in the relatively large Progressist Party (PP—a party that, name aside, could not be further from being progressive), highly involved in corruption scandals. His political performance has been lackluster: in nearly 30 years, only two of his legislative proposals were approved.
Public security has always been Bolsonaro’s flagship policy, taking advantage of the general state of fear and violence that has spread throughout Brazil largely as a consequence of the constant warfare against drug trafficking. Bolsonaro supports agendas of law and order such as the death penalty, increasing jail time for robberies, reducing the age of criminal liability, shielding police forces from criminal prosecution for killing during operations, and—his latest rallying cry—facilitating gun ownership. His projects aim to toughen repression in a country that already has alarming rates of violence: Brazil has the world’s third-largest prison population and the highest incarceration rate; in 2015, its rates of violent deaths were higher than Syria’s civil war, and the majority of victims are young Black men; police interventions often rely on violent approaches, which results in an astounding number of civil deaths. Bolsonaro’s real contribution to public security, however, is more rhetorical than material: throughout his seven mandates as the state’s representative, violence and crime rates in Rio de Janeiro have only increased.
Bolsonaro’s fame was minimal outside the state of Rio de Janeiro until recently. He would occasionally steal the spotlight, especially after making offensive claims against social minorities; possibly the most egregious incident was in 2003 when he said he would not rape a peer congresswoman because she was not worth it and threatened to slap her in the face. Around 2010, he made appearances in comedy TV shows such as CQC, Superpop, and Pânico, in which his conservative ideas and his authoritarian way of speaking would be depicted as a joke. Nevertheless, these “jokes” gave Bolsonaro public notoriety. His most controversial statements went viral on social media. It is no wonder that many privileged white men who oppose social policies made Bolsonaro their idol. He was elevated to “myth,” a label still used by his supporters.
PT’s Fall and Bolsonaro’s Rise
From 2002 to 2016, Brazil was governed by the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores—PT), a center-left political party and a major player in Brazilian politics. Under President Lula’s charismatic leadership, PT knew how to take advantage of the 2000’s commodities boom (the international rise in prices of many physical commodities, particularly oil and foods) to implement social policies that aimed to reduce socioeconomic inequalities. Despite some criticisms—such as enforcing social inclusion through economic consumption and not fully securing social rights or political participation—PT was successful in obtaining important achievements: reducing extreme poverty and hunger, reducing violence against women, and using affirmative-action programs to reduce the race and class gap in higher education, to name a few.
As can be expected, conservative and privileged groups felt directly impaired by such policies, creating a backlash. At first, their ideological frame was not authoritarian; they identified with neoliberal and laissez-faire ideals, criticizing PT for intervening excessively in the economy and for promoting an artificial social inclusion. The 2014 elections reflected this polarization: PT’s candidate Dilma Rousseff won by a close margin against Aécio Neves, who had a more liberal and pro-market orientation.
Around that time, however, PT’s project started to crumble. Back in 2013, social movements began protesting the government’s excessive expenses with the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics—movements that started as left-wing protests but were later co-opted by right-wing middle-class and elite groups. Simultaneously, economic optimism dwindled when Brazil’s GDP growth decelerated and unemployment rose. In 2014, a police investigation against political corruption, named Operation Car Wash, eroded public trust in its political representatives and, ultimately, in democracy. Although the operation involved all the major parties, PT was targeted with the hardest retaliation. Due to this increasing unpopularity, Dilma Rousseff was impeached from the presidency in 2016—even though she was not implicated in the scandal. The vice-president, Michel Temer, assumed the position and implemented an austerity project, reducing social expenditures, revoking labour rights, and threatening the social-security system. Less than a year after taking office, Temer was directly accused of accepting bribery but was shielded from investigations by Congress. Consequentially, Temer was widely rejected by Brazilians; in April 2017, for example, his government had the humiliating approval rate of 3 percent.
With corruption scandals and the rising unpopularity of executive leaders and Congress, prosecutors and judges were raised to the status of celebrities. One judge in particular, Sergio Moro, was acclaimed as a national hero after he sentenced former president Lula for crimes of patrimonial concealment. The trial, however, was filled with legal irregularities and the evidence was weak, which signalled political intention behind the judgment. Lula’s imprisonment revoked his political rights, blocking him from running in the 2018 elections—a decision that was contested by the UN’s Human Rights Panel. Until that moment, Lula was leading the polls, with Bolsonaro in second place. Not coincidentally, after the elections, Moro accepted Bolsonaro’s invitation to assume the position of Minister of Justice.
This governmental crisis fueled the already intensifying popular dissatisfaction with representative political tradition. Despite the gradual improvement of the welfare system in recent decades, people are unhappy and feeling that their demands are not heard. In face of this frustration, support for authoritarian alternatives rose. Recent research shows, for example, that “55 percent of Brazilians say they wouldn’t mind a nondemocratic government as long as it ‘solved problems’” and that the most trusted institutions are the military forces, the Catholic Church, and social media.
The atmosphere of political scandal and popular distrust was the perfect scenario for Bolsonaro, who forged the image of an outsider. He claimed to be capable of changing traditional politics marked by corruption and immorality. Moreover, his professed strong grip on executive administration appealed to people who saw the former democratic governments as weak and ineffective.
Bolsonaro’s Campaign and Political Ideals
Since 2014, Bolsonaro took advantage of the PT’s popularity crisis—and ultimately the generalized distrust against all the traditional parties—to present himself as its main opposition. He became a polarizing figure by quickly blaming PT for the economic crisis, the rising unemployment rate, and the social conflicts Brazil experienced. As social scientist and anthropologist Rosana Pinheiro-Machado notes, Bolsonaro managed to mobilize followers based on their “feelings of frustration, aggression, andconservatism by offering simple explanations to complex problems like urban violence and the increasing power of drug traffickers.”
Bolsonaro’s attacks are not limited to PT. Just like other far-right representatives, Bolsonaro also targets PT supporters, leftists, communists, “Bolivarians,” and feminists. Chico Alencar, a congressman from the Socialism and Liberty Party, argued that Bolsonaro’s political career relied on pointing fingers to the left wing: “I have never seen him participating in debates about the electricity grid, the environment, education, health, urban mobility, housing. He’s mono-thematic. Everything is about a communist threat. He hasn’t left the Cold War era yet.”
Behind that empty rhetoric, however, lies a dangerous ideology that closely resembles fascism. In order to facilitate understanding this phenomenon, I propose four major principles that compose Bolsonaro’s discourse; nevertheless, they are not fixed categories that exist independently of each other. On the contrary, Bolsonaro’s radical philosophy often combines them, articulating these arguments as a cohesive utterance.
1. Anti-leftism and anti-activism
Bolsonaro’s disgust for leftist ideas is notorious. He has long opposed PT’s welfarism, which, for him, is a disastrous policy that proliferates laziness and harms the economy. He opposes basic human rights because they shield criminals from their due punishment. He opposes social movements and their intentions of disrupting order and will likely use police force to repress them. The list is long and Bolsonaro has made it clear that his government will be harsh against any form of leftist manifestation.
In opposition to traditional left-winged economic plans, Bolsonaro proposes an ultra-liberal approach. His economy advisor, Paulo Guedes, is a graduate of the Chicago School of Economics; market deregulation, renunciation of labour rights, reduction in public pensions, and privatization of state-owned companies compose his economic agenda.
In the international field, Bolsonaro often rails against countries governed by left-winged politicians, particularly Cuba and, more recently, Venezuela. During the campaign, Bolsonaro capitalized on Venezuela’s economic crisis to slander PT and his candidates. It is not a coincidence that the Venezuelan opposition celebrated Bolsonaro’s electoral victory and saw in him a supporter for a possible international intervention against Nicolas Maduro.
Thus, it is important to note that Bolsonaro’s rejection of leftist ideas is not limited to extremism, radicalism, orthodox Marxism, or anything along these lines. He repudiates basic democratic tenets such as human rights, inclusion of minority groups, and the right to protest. Bolsonaro argues in favor of a state concerned only with its sovereign power, without any kind of social provisions.
A compelling example of Bolsonaro’s aversion for social agendas can be found in his reaction to Marielle Franco’s assassination. Marielle was a favela-born Black woman, lesbian, and activist for social causes. She was elected Rio de Janeiro city councillor in 2016 and in 2018 she was appointed to lead a commission that would investigate the military “peace-keeping” operation in Rio’s favelas. One month later, she and her driver were shot at point-blank range by an unknown perpetrator. Evidence indicates a political reason for the action, with the possible involvement of police officers and opposition councillors, but the case remains unsolved. Marielle was honoured with a street sign with her name in the square where the city council is located. In October, however, members of Bolsonaro’s Party shattered the sign during a rally, as a “retaliation to left-wing groups.” Bolsonaro avoided any official statement, but it is clear that his toxic rhetoric against leftist activists nurtures the manifestation of violence and hostility.
Universities and schools will have their intellectual freedom threatened under Bolsonaro’s government. Episodes of censorship have already been seen in universities across Brazil, which include the removal of antifascist flags, apprehension of material in favour of democracy, and the banning of academic events. Police control on universities was a common practice during the military dictatorship, which aimed to target “subversive groups.” Since democratization, universities have been guaranteed political autonomy and restricted police presence on campuses. Such safeguards are very likely to be stripped down in the near future.
Furthermore, Bolsonaro has extremely regressive plans for elementary and high-school education. Bolsonaro and his party members are strong believers that Marxist and leftist indoctrination happens in schools, a brainwashing conducted by biased teachers. In response, Bolsonaro’s proposed minister of education, General Ribeiro Souto, defends the revision of the school’s curriculum in order to remove “ideologies.” Souto has also argued that education should prioritize the traditional family and should not impose any form of political thought—which includes critical thinking. Among his plans, Souto has proposed that history books should present the military point of view regarding the 1964 dictatorship and that science teachers should teach creationism as a valid evolutionary theory.
Education regarding gender and sexuality is another concern for Bolsonaro’s supporters. One of Bolsonaro’s main arguments during the campaign was against the premature sexualization of kids and incitement to homosexual practices through what he called the “gay kit”—the educational program “School against Homophobia,” praised by UNESCO and aiming to inform educators about values of tolerance and non-discrimination for sexual diversity. Due to conservative lobbying, the kit was never implemented.
Concerned about school indoctrination, Ana Campagnolo, a newly elected lawmaker and member of Bolsonaro’s party, launched a campaign to encourage students to snitch on teachers who express opinions against Bolsonaro’s election. Clearly, teachers will constantly face all kinds of political persecution under Bolsonaro’s regime.
3. Anti-globalization and pro-U.S. foreign policy
Bolsonaro’s foreign policy is still uncertain. He has made muddled statements that he later regretted and backed down, such as leaving the Paris Climate Accord. However, he is clearly a notorious critic of international institutions. For instance, he accused the United Nations of being a communist assembly and affirmed that Brazil will quit the organization under his government. He has expressed xenophobic ideas against poor countries: for example, he accused Haitian immigrants of bringing diseases to the country and called Syrian refugees the scum of the world.
Bolsonaro has also criticized PT’s decisions in the international realm. Following Lula’s government, Brazil diversified its trade partners, strengthening its relations with countries in Africa, Middle East, Asia, and Europe. In 2009, for example, China became Brazil’s main export destination, which reduced the U.S.’s participation from 25% to 14%. Brazil has also embraced a South-South Cooperation agenda, giving priority to developing countries in its technological and political cooperation. Furthermore, Brazil’s participation in the BRICS group places the country as a prominent stakeholder in a multipolar world order. Bolsonaro, however, saw this movement as an ideological gesture towards a socialist partnership.
Bolsonaro clearly disavows Brazil’s distancing from the U.S. in favour of pulling back instead from its BRICS partners and giving less importance to South-South cooperation—which has already been decreasing under Dilma Rousseff’s government. Brazil will likely reconnect its foreign policy to the U.S.and its allies. A few days after his victory, Bolsonaro stated his first action in this direction: moving Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, following Trump’s decision.
4. Militarism and support of the 1964 dictatorship
Lastly, Bolsonaro’s adoration of militarism distinctly influences his policies. As a retired military officer himself, Bolsonaro has strong alliances with military officers, many of which will be named his ministers. Furthermore, he is a strong defender of the 1964 military dictatorship and has repeatedly congratulated dictators and torturers in his speeches.
One of Bolsonaro’s most infamous declarations happened during Dilma Rousseff’s dubious impeachment. At his time, he voted favourably to her impeachment and dedicated his vote to Coronel Alberto Brilhante Ustra. The coronel is one of the most famous torturers of Brazil’s military dictatorship and was directly involved in torturing Dilma when she was detained asa political prisoner. Ustra was the commander of Doi-Codi (Department of Information and Operations, a police institution of detention, torture, and execution) and was publicly named as a torturer by Brazil’s Truth Commission. At the occasion, Ustra admitted to the use of torture, justifying it as a patriotic duty of combating communist terrorists. In neighboring countries that also had military dictatorships, such as Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, endorsing torturers would be unacceptable and punishable; however, as Brazil has never exorcized its dictatorial ghosts—that is, never truly investigated its dictators and held them accountable for crimes against humanity—speeches such as Bolsonaro’s are praised by his peers.
Bolsonaro’s admiration for Ustra is far from the only dictatorial statement he has ever expressed. In 1999, for instance, in a TV interview, he openly defended torture, argued that the military dictatorship should have executed more prisoners (“at least 30,000 more”), and accused democracy of being ineffective. In addition, during a rally in 2017, he expressed his opinion about minority groups: “Let’s make a Brazil for the majorities. Minorities have to bow to the majorities! The law must exist to defend the majorities. Minorities must fit in or simply disappear!”
A Threat to Democracy
Beyond his specific political positions, Bolsonaro’s election fits the international context of a worldwide spread of far-right populist governments. Yet Brazil’s historical experience with a military coup makes it a unique case, as its transition to democracy did not address its wounds: the agents involved in the dictatorial regime (military and civilians) did not answer for their violence, victims were not redressed, and social injustices were not fully acknowledged. Bolsonaro represents a risk of returning to that dark past, to the time of police state, surveillance and control, freedom restriction, and intellectual censorship. The young and fragile democracy of the world’s fifth-largest county walks on a tightrope.
Many voters say that Bolsonaro is more bark than bite, that he would never implement authoritarian policies. His offensive declarations, however, have already encouraged supporters to take extremist actions. The tension before and after Bolsonaro’s election has already resulted in scores of physical assaults against adversary electors, journalists, and activists. Confronted with this fact, Bolsonaro has merely stated that he cannot control the violence of his supporters.
National and international media have portrayed Bolsonaro as the Brazilian version of Donald Trump. That comparison, however, may not be the most appropriate. Despite all Trump’s flaws, he does not pose the same threat of democratic breakdown as Bolsonaro; the U.S. does not have a long recent history of military dictatorship for anti-democratic forces to look back to. The podcaster João Carvalho argues that Bolsorano is closer to other far-right leaders: Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte for his law-and-order discourse; former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori for his actions against democratic institutions when confronted by the opposition; and George W. Bush for his conservative-moralist domestic policies and war on terror. Bolsonaro’s vice-president, General Mourão—yes, another military officer—has already stated in a television interview that the government, supported by the armed forces, can enact a self-coup in a situation of anarchy. Bolsonaro is not just a “bad” right-wing politician; he is a serious menace to political liberties, not to mention individual and social rights in Brazil.
Moreover, Bolsonaro is not only dangerous for Brazilian people. He boosts nationalist far-right discourses worldwide. Ultimately, he poses an existential environmental threat to the world: his close alliance with the agro-business lobby will push further his deforestation and mining agenda, threatening the precious Amazon rainforest and the global climate. He has already announced the merging of the Environment and the Agriculture Ministry, which will surely weaken preservation policies and put the lives and lands of many Indigenous people at risk.
Brazilian freedom supporters, left-wingers, critical thinkers, progressives, and even right-wing democrats now face the challenge of resisting this potential autocratic regime and denouncing power abuses. At the same time, they have the mission of winning back people’s trust in a democratic future; otherwise, they will not be able to stop the cycle of violent governments.
To the international community, all we can ask for is solidarity and support. You can help with simple daily actions: educating yourself and sharing the news about human-rights violations, demanding that international companies operating in Brazil comply with high environmental standards, and exerting buyer-sided pressure such as requiring fair-trade labels from imported commodities. Pressure government and media to resist normalizing Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic regime, despite the short-term economic benefits, and fight the rise of authoritarianism in your own country.
As Brazilian YouTuber Sabrina Fernandes implores: “We need you to stand with Brazil for us to keep our solidarity channels open. We need Brazil’s new president to know that the whole world is watching and that we won’t allow our democracy to erode any further.”
João Victor Krieger is a Brazilian graduate student at the University of Alberta, enrolled in the MA Program in Sociology. He holds a BA in Law from the Federal University of Santa Catarina. His research interests are critical criminology, government, and power.