content warning: political violence, racism, classism, misogyny, sexual violence, homophobia, transphobia, death, torture
Public statements made by Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the frontrunner in this year’s presidential elections in Brazil:
“I had four sons, but then I had a moment of weakness, and the fifth was a girl.”
“I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly” – to a Congresswoman from the Workers’ Party.
“I’d rather have my son die in a car accident than have him show up dating some guy.”
“I’m pro-torture, and the people are too.”
“They don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation anymore” – referring to quilombolas, members of traditionally black communities descending from escaped enslaved Africans.
“If it’s up to me, every citizen will have a gun at home. Not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves or quilombolas.”
“You won’t change anything in this country through voting—nothing, absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, you’ll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military regime didn’t do. Killing 30,000, starting with FHC [former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso]. Killing. If a few innocent people die, that’s alright.”
Brazil was already undergoing a political and economic crisis when I left for college in 2015. The national currency was drastically devalued, dissident politicians were being prosecuted on corruption charges, and the right and center-right were seriously flirting with the plan to impeach then center-left president Dilma Rousseff.
More than three years have gone by, and today the country in which I was born and raised, and where most of my family and friends still live, is in an even greater political crisis. Jair Bolsonaro, a reserve captain in the army with an inflamed far-right rhetoric and an insidious political agenda, is the clear frontrunner of this year’s presidential elections. These two moments are set of the same thread, but represent distinct ruptures with the democratic order established in 1985, at the end of the 21 year military dictatorship. If anything, the status of democracy has become even more fragile, and the collective feeling of defeat even more entrenched. My friend, in conversation, was trying to pinpoint the main differences between the crisis of Dilma’s impeachment and Bolsonaro’s imminent election: “Well, the most obvious one is that now we are on the brink of electing a fascist. That was never the case. And it also feels personal when you know that people close to you will be concretely affected.”
In Brazil, the circles I found myself in were usually left-wing, privileged, and highly politicized. We tried to speak against the incessant attacks on the country’s social and racial minorities, which had been the rule even before Brazil became Brazil, from the very moment, five centuries ago, that colonization ensued. One of the main mechanisms through which the Portuguese colonial project in Brazil operated consisted in keeping the racial “other” under control—through genocide, enslavement and finally, the transition from mercantile into industrial and financial forms of capitalism. We struggled, in whatever capacity we could, for the removal of privileges from the white, wealthy elites that many of us belonged to, but we never quite thought that we ourselves would ever feel unsafe—in fact, the “trust” that we would be personally shielded from right-wing backlashes makes our position of privilege even more evident. Aware of the conservatism, racism, and classism intrinsic to Brazilian society, we thought that race or social status would shield those of use who identified as women, LGBTQ+ or leftist from conservative threats arising from political instability. This no longer seems like the case, and this means two things: we are more vulnerable than we deemed ourselves to be, and those minorities that we already knew to be oppressed are in even greater danger right now.
Dialogue among those on different ends of Brazil's polarized political scenario has always been close to unintelligible. Now, even conversations between third-party voters who, in the second round, will have to choose between the two most voted candidates in the first round —Fernando Haddad, from the center-left Workers’ Party (PT), and Jair Bolsonaro, from the extreme-right Social Liberal Party (PSL)—are reaching an impasse. What ultimately establishes whether someone will be voting for Haddad or Bolsonaro has to do with what they consider more dangerous: the corruption that some think Haddad’s party represents, or the fascism that Bolsonaro openly embodies. This is why the second round, and the limited options it presents the Brazilian society with, has become the stage on which our fundamental values are exposed and confronted against each other.
PT has made countless mistakes, not only in the present campaign—among which is the radicalization of their discourse towards the left, which further drove centrist prospective voters away—but also in the 14 years during which their party was in power. To some, these mistakes—which many point as a main force behind Brazil’s most recent economic collapse—are unforgivable. Like many of PT’s faithful supporters claim, the anti-PT discourse known as “antipetismo” is partly rooted in the Brazilian’s socioeconomic elites’ discontent with shifting class dynamics. Under PT, national social mobility levels went up: the Gini coefficient (which measures economic inequality) went from 58.1 in 2002, before Lula’s election, to 51.3 in 2015, when Dilma was removed from office. Further, poverty was drastically diminished: in 2002, 12.5 percent of Brazilians lived below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day, a number that dropped to 3.4 percent in 2015. It was also during PT’s government that historically marginalized voices finally started to reach a level of public recognition; racial, sexual and political minorities became increasingly organized, which prepared the terrain for more direct political confrontation that more conservative sectors of Brazilian society were not ready, or willing, to face.
On the other hand, the Workers’ Party was involved in corruption schemes on both the local and national levels, and the economic boom experienced during the earlier stages of PT’s government has been largely undone. It is on those grounds that the right-wing denounces the party, and that Bolsonaro’s electorate justifies their vote.
But the center-right’s impassioned denouncement of corruption glosses over the fact that, even in the present moment, corruption is not limited to the center-left. In 2015, the Movement Against Electoral Corruption (MCCE) in Brazil, a group in favor of the Carwash Operation, which lead to the imprisonment of many PT representatives, released a dossier revealing that PT only occupies the ninth position in the ranking of “most corrupt parties” in Brazil.
Attacks on PT also rest on the argument that the government should prioritize economic concerns over other public responsibilities such as education, healthcare and the protection of the socially vulnerable. Advocates of former president Dilma Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment process—which her supporters see as a constitutional coup—weaponized the tripod of widespread corruption, fiscal irresponsibility and economic collapse in the discourse weaved against her and PT.
Besides, the party’s radicalism waned off as it grew accustomed to its power-bound establishment position. Even during the “golden years of PT,” torture and arbitrary police-enforced killings continued to be the rule for the country’s marginalized strata—namely for low-income and Black and brown Brazilians, and affecting women and LGBTQ+ folks at even more disproportionate rates. In 2016 alone, the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety registered 4,224 deaths due to police interventions in the country, an increase of 27 percent compared to the preceding year. Out of these victims, 99.3 percent were male, 82 percent were between 12 and 29 years old, and 76 percent were black. According to the Gay Group of Bahia, an LGBT activist association, 445 members of the LGBTQ+ community in Brazil died as victims of homophobia in the country, an increase of 30 percent from the previous year. Further, a Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide report rates Brazil as the most deadly country in the world for transgender people by far: in 2017 alone, Brazil reported 1,071 murders, which accounts for almost half of the world total (the US, which occupies the third position, reported 181 murders on the same year.)
The military dictatorship might have ended in 1985, but most fundamental aspects of democracy—equality before the law, safety, freedom of expression, political voice, education, transportation, and health services—never fully reached the peripheries of the cities or the deep corners of the countryside, where the country’s urban and rural poorest live in precarious conditions.
In the years following the corruption schemes that lead to PT’s demise, a number of smaller, anti-establishment right-leaning parties began to arise. These anti-corruption voices, which initially lacked a more coherent political discourse, hurt more moderate forces in the center-right as well. The Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), PT’s sturdiest adversary in all elections following the return of the democratic regime, watched its numbers plunge in these year’s general elections: Geraldo Alckmin, former governor of the richest state in the country through PSDB, and one of the “bets” for this year’s race, obtained less than five percent of valid votes. In a country where voting is mandatory, this means less than five percent of the country. PSDB also lost a vast number of seats in Congress, which for the next four years will be dominated by PT and PSL, Bolsonaro’s party. While PT’s numbers in the Congress saw a moderate but meaningful fluctuation downwards (from 70 in 2014 to 56 this year), PSL’s numbers leaped from 1 in 2014, to an astonishing 52 in the current election.
Originally PSL's only representative in Congress, Bolsonaro was elected with the largest number of votes in 2014. His politics gained so much traction in the past few years, that a barely-known nationalist, ultra-conservative party became one of the chief forces in Congress within one electoral cycle. The “bancada BBB”, which stands for the front in Congress integrated by the “bullet,” “bull,” and “Bible” groups, has elected the largest number of Congressmen in Brazilian republican history. Because he is backed by the institutional support of his conservative base in Congress, his ascension to power marks an effective sway towards the right. Bolsonaro is the product of a deep-rooted history of oppression, a deep-seated craving for fascism, and PT’s inability to efficiently defy the dominant forces and discourses at play.
Originally aligned with the left, the strongest periods of PT’s government were precisely those in which Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s ex-president and former union leader—who is currently in jail on accounts of corruption—made concessions to the economic elites of the country. Although many on the right see Lula as the personification of a Venezuelan-style “communist threat,” his success lays precisely in his ability to forge a compromise between socially-concerned politics and a centralized but liberal economic agenda. He implemented a series of long-needed social policies while ensuring that the industrial, financial, and rural elite of the country did not lose most of its privileges. The fact that some of the “reforms” he promoted were read as “revolutionary” should only point to the scarcity of radical change and social mobility that Brazil had undergone in the years preceding him.
Paradoxically, one of the most powerful means of exposing the absurdity of a political creature such as Bolsonaro is to let him talk—which is perhaps the reason why he has been evading official presidential debates. Although Bolsonaro got over 46 percent of valid votes in the first round (Haddad, the forerunner and his match in the second round, had 29 percent), there is reason to believe that a significant number of the people voting for him in the second round are not active supporters of his cause. The center and southern parts of Brazil are traditionally the wealthiest and most politically conservative portions of the country, whereas the Northeast and chunks of the North, the poorest regions, are strongholds of the Workers’ Party. Indeed, the demographics of Bolsonaro’s electoral base on the first round consisted largely of 25-to-35 year old middle-class, white, “southern” males. On the second round, this demographic demarcation is not as clear cut.
A number of people who voted for one of the other 11 candidates in the first round now argue that their vote will not be “pro-Bolsonaro, but anti-PT.” In the current state of affairs, a “protest vote” against a center-left party running against an extreme-right, ultra-conservative fascist shows a disregard for the costs and responsibilities that voting implies in a representative democracy. To vote for Bolsonaro is, in practice, to support him, regardless of the theoretical implications and personal explanations embedded in the vote. Conversely, Haddad’s second round supporters, who previously voted for candidates from other parties, respond, “Don’t let your ‘antipetismo’ elect a fascist.” Bolsonaro’s less staunch voters claim not to believe that the right-winger will do what as he claims, and are voting for him “so that Brazil does not become another Venezuela.” They are voting for a candidate that poses a palpable threat to an already-fragile democracy because they think he is “lying,” and refusing to take the only way out of electing a fascist due to the unfounded fear that Brazil might turn “communist” under PT.
There comes a time when you can no longer say: my God.
A time of absolute purgation.
A time when you can no longer say: my love.
Because love proved futile.
And the eyes don’t cry.
And the hands do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.
—Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazilian poet
Have you noticed that you can only begin to understand why you are crying after the first crying fit has ended? The first long breath you take before plunging back into tears is the body’s whisper that “this,” whatever it is, is not over. The realization that, for a moment, even your tears have deserted you, and that more tears will come, creates an essential, desolate space in which change may take place. But expansion needs contraction, and contraction takes time and effort.
There is little Bolsonaro could say that would make his rhetoric less overtly violent. It is with an attitude of frank disappointment, mixed in with some sort of primordial, outraged (albeit hopeless) desire to react, that I write this statement. Some have tried to console me by saying that history comes in cycles. It does, it is not going “upwards” or moving “beyond” anything. We clearly are not better than we were thirty, fifty, a hundred years ago. And yet it is not in the argument that we should now be “better”—which we are not—or that this kind of phenomenon should be an “anomaly” in the 21st century—which it is not—that I find my will to write. I write not because we are or should be better, but because we could be, and I believe can be, if we reorient ourselves and start working towards another conception of the world, another understanding of politics, and another position towards history. And then, with justice, we might be able to heal as a nation.
Years ago, in the context of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi and SS lieutenant, following the atrocities of the Second World War, Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, in The Banality of Evil, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” At the crossroads we find ourselves in—in the context of Brazil, but also in the United States and elsewhere—most of my Brazilian Facebook friends want to announce their side, and their reasons for supporting whichever candidate they decided was the best (or “least worst”). I see the importance of understanding the causes of people’s political behavior, unearthing the roots and subterranean developments of disaffection towards establishment politics, making sense of the ideologies underlying their ideas, and undoing the narratives sustaining all of the above. Bolsonaro is, after all, only a vessel to a much more complicated history. However, at the current junction, it does not matter whether your vote for Bolsonaro is one of active support for Bolsonaro or active opposition to PT.
As Arendt points out, the issue we should be worrying about is not how “adequately” the label of fascist applies to each of Bolsonaro’s electors individually, but rather how much evil will be caused by their voting for him. Even those who say they are just voting for him due to his promise of appeasing the market, or liberalizing the economy to lead Brazil out of our economic mayhem. Even those voting for him in a naive attempt at the redemption promised by a “messiah,” as his name falsely advertises. Even those who believe he will not have the institutional support (which he already does) to pass the laws and policies he is proposing, or the political strength to do what he says. Even them: because if he passes but a small fraction of what he promises in his statements, too much damage will be caused.
To vote for him is to have the privilege of doing so. Much harm has already been caused by what he represents, and by the discourse he embodies. Just this weekend, Moa do Catendê, a capoeira master in northeast Brazil, was murdered after disagreeing with one of Bolsonaro’s supporters. Now that people feel entitled to shout what they never quite stopped whispering, the mediocre “monster” that Arendt wrote about decades ago is back in sight. Hopefully, now that we can see the face of fascism, we might be able to stare it down.
GABRIELA NAIGEBORIN B’19 wants you to go to http://democracybrazil.org and sign the petition defending democracy in Brazil.