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Are Brazilians sleepwalking into disaster?

The run-off between Bolsonaro and Haddad on 28 October will provide the answer


São Paulo,12 October. Are we heading for a repeat of the fiasco which followed previous elections of so-called salvadores da pátria – messianic figures who promise to put an end to corruption? In 1961 it was Janio Quadros with his broom, in 1989 it was Fernando Collor, the caçador dos marajás, or hunter of the mandarins – both governments ended prematurely, and both were succeeded by their vice-presidents. Jair Bolsonaro’s candidate for vice president is a garrulous ultra-reactionary general, Hamilton Mourão, and he has surrounded himself with other generals, who are his advisers and future ministers. The military could return by the back door. There is also the largely undiscussed question of Bolsonaro’s health. Although his image is that of a strongman, the ex-army captain is still recovering from an assassination attempt during a campaign rally on 6 September which caused serious internal damage and obliges him to wear a colostomy bag. Doctors say they will have to operate on him again in January, after his inauguration, if he wins. Which means Brazil could face another Tancredo-like situation, with the country being run, or not run, from a hospital bed. Although his delicate health is the justification for his refusal to take part in debates, he spoke for 25 minutes at a rally in Rio, dressed in a black shirt. Bolsonaro’s campaign is largely conducted on social media, with heavy use of fake news. As Trump’s campaign adviser Steve Bannon is advising him, this is hardly surprising. His son, Eduardo Bolsanaro, photographed with him, said, ‘It was a pleasure to meet Steve Bannon….. we share the same worldview. He said he was an enthusiast of Bolsonaro’s campaign and we are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural Marxism.’ The result of Bolsonaro’s campaign, aided by Globo’s daily dose of anti-PT rhetoric laced with the misleading message that both candidates are equally extreme, was that Brazilians have unwittingly voted for the return of the dictatorship.

Shades of fascism

Historians and political scientists find alarming similarities between Bolsonaro’s discourse and the European fascism of the last century. One said: ‘There is intolerance of any sort of agreement… and the exaltation of open violence as a form of solving conflicts. But while Mussolini and Hitler defended the strengthening of the state, Bolsonaro wants to weaken it, in a sort of tupiniquim [Brazilian], neoliberal fascism. His programme is ultraliberal, with the reinforcement … of social repression.’ Although it has to be noted that Bolsonaro is also under strong pressure from nationalist military sectors, not to sell off strategic state-owned giants like Petrobras and Eletrobras. In other words, contradictions abound.
Bolsonaro in 5 minutes: be very afraid. Video: Mídia Ninja Like fascism everywhere, Bolsonarism blames the social movements for the very issues they denounce. If the black movement denounces racismo, it’s the movement itself which is spreading racial division in Brazil; it’s the feminists who are the cause of violence against women, and so forth. Yet even Marine Le Pen, the French National Front leader, finds Jair Bolsonaro’s remarks about women and homosexuals ‘extremely disagreeable’. ‘They look back to a past which never existed, an idyllic past, the military dictatorship. It’s very similar to the fascist discourse, which created a past where all was perfect, until someone spoilt it. In Bolsonaro’s case, it was the PT which spoilt it, the popular movements, the black movement,’ said a political scientist.

Empowering the foxes

Bolsonaro wants to reduce the number of ministries, to cut costs. So the Environment Ministry will be merged with the Agriculture Ministry, which is like merging the fox with the chickens. Bolsonaro has also talked about withdrawing Brazil from the Paris Climate agreement, following the lead of Donald Trump, whom he admires. And he talks about ‘banning activists’, as part of the plan to provide a clear field for big farmers, mining corporations and logging companies. The present environment minister, Edson Duarte, no radical, said ‘Instead of spreading the message that he will fight deforestation and organized crime, he says he will attack the ministry of environment, IBAMA and ICMBio. It’s the same as saying that he will withdraw the police from the streets.’ He went on, ‘The increase in deforestation will be immediate. I am afraid of a gold rush to see who can get there first. They know that, if they occupy illegally, the authorities will be complacent and will grant concordance. They can be certain that nobody will bother them’.
Bolsonaro speaking on 10 February 2017 Indigenous groups are also threatened by Bolsonaro’s racist views. In a speech last year, he said: ‘Minorities have to bend down to the majority… The minorities [should] either adapt or simply vanish.’ And, expressing a view common in military circles, he has claimed, without evidence, that indigenous land rights are part of a western plot to create separatist Amazonian states supported by the UN.

The upsurge of violence

This discourse of intolerance has already caused violence on the streets. In Salvador a well known black capoeirista and composer, Romualdo Rosário da Costa, known as Moa do Katende, who stated that he had voted for Haddad, was stabbed to death by a self-declared Bolsonaro supporter. In Castelo dos Sonhos, Pará state, an MST lleader, Aluisio Sampaio, was shot dead in his home by two gunmen. A young women in Porto Alegre turned up at a police station with a swastika carved on her stomach, saying she had been attacked by two men because she was wearing an EleNão T-shirt. But the delegado in charge decided it was not a swastika, but the Buddhist peace symbol, although why anyone would forcibly mutilate someone with a peace symbol, was not explained.
Caetano Veloso laments the barbarism that killed Moda do Katende. Video: O Globo 9 October At least 50 attacks and threats against people wearing pro-PT or Haddad clothing or symbols have been registered up and down the country in the last 10 days. In Rio, candidate for governor and former judge Wilson Witzel, a Bolsonaro supporter, threatened that he would arrest his opponent, Eduardo Paes, if he was criticised by him in their TV debate the next day.  
‘Roger Waters: forgive Brazil’. Video: Meteoro Brasil 10 October 2018. At a show in Sao Paulo, Pink Floyd’s Roger Walters was booed as well as cheered when he put up on the giant screen a list of countries with neofascist leaders, and included Brazil and Bolsonaro.

The myth of the outsider

But why, ask many, are Brazilians opting for someone so obviously intolerant and divisive? Some analysts attribute Bolsonaro’s success to his ability to tap into a generalised dissatisfaction with government, with the system. ‘We have a regime which wants to be democratic, but acts in benefit of the few. We have a highly unequal society and political institutions which protect this inequality more than they threaten it’, said another commentator who is not a Bolsonaro supporter. The left allowed this space to be occupied when they went for conciliation, rather than a radical discourse. Trump won by using the discourse, ‘Us against Washington’. That is what Bolsonaro, aided by Bannon, has done. Although, like Trump, he is actually part of the system he attacks, he has convinced people he is an outsider. Brazilians have one more chance, on 28 October, to stop him, by voting for the PT’s Fernando Haddad, but the latest polls indicate this is not going to happen. The election of Bolsonaro will mean a vote for the unknown, and that is where we seem to be heading.

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Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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