Is Brazil Headed for a Dictatorship?
Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro could become the next Brazilian president.
The eyes of the world are on Brazil. For a long list of reasons, an autocratic candidate is the frontrunner in the presidential election on October 28. Considered the “most misogynistic, hateful” politician in the democratic world, Jair Bolsonaro is at the top of all election polls, aided by WhatsApp chains, fake news and defamation.
On October 18, an investigative piece by the renowned newspaper Folha de São Paulo exposed a scheme involving illegal funding for a virtual smear campaign against Bolsonaro’s election rival, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party’s (PT). The scheme is based on techniques spearheaded by the infamous Cambridge Analytica and was inspired by Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who met Bolsonaro’s son in August.
Bolsonaro’s shameful performance as a congressman over the past 27 years does not affect the dedication of his supporters. Condemned for racism, homophobia and misogyny, his followers seem to dismiss his serious crimes as easily as they ignore his life-long fight against democracy. For decades, Bolsonaro has been vocal in his admiration for the last Brazilian military dictatorship and support for torture. For him, the solution to poverty and crime is to get rid of favelas (shanty towns) using automatic weapons, make women earn less because they “get pregnant” and fill up prisons to the brim.
Brazil: A long romance with dictatorships
Democracy in Brazil is young and frail. The country became independent of Portugal in 1822, but was ruled by Peter I, the son of the king of Portugal, John VI. Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw slavery, and one of the few that did not implement reparative measures afterwards. Freed slaves had no other option than to continue their unpaid work as land reform was never on the cards.
Peter II, emperor of Brazil, was removed by a military coup orchestrated by Marshall Deodoro da Fonseca in 1889. The movement incited troops against the aristocratic enemy and was inflamed by an economic crisis after the promulgation of the “golden law” in 1888, which ended all forms of slavery in Brazil. The five-year military dictatorship was so bloody that it is known today as “republic of the sword.”
This was followed by military legislative rule for another four years. Both periods ended in economical and social bankruptcy, leading to revolts all over the country. This continued for two decades under right-wing governments that were not concerned with growing poverty in the countryside. Rural areas still lived as they lived in imperial times, with most poor people working in conditions analogous to slavery.
President Washington Luís, a civilian, was removed by a military coup known as the 1930 Brazilian Revolution. The stock market crash in 1929 escalated the internal economic crisis, and generals from three corners of the country took power in a coordinated move. The military junta elected Getúlio Vargas, a civilian co-conspirator. Vargas was more progressive than his military counterparts, and he implemented workers’ policies and benefits that did not exist in Brazil until then. His constitution of 1937 was authoritarian and industrialist, and it mainly benefited large coastal urban centers rather than inland areas.
Inequality grew exponentially, and the impoverished flooded the cities. Favelas established during the old republic multiplied throughout Brazil, especially in Rio de Janeiro, the country’s capital at the time. Vargas was in charge for 15 years and ended his period with such approval that he was re-elected as president in 1951, this time by popular vote. He is still regarded as a hero in Brazil, despite the autocratic measures he took in his first term.
Brazil’s most recent dictatorship (1964-1985) was not the result of an economic crisis, although the economy was not doing well. Instead, it was concocted against a fabricated enemy: communists who wanted to transform Brazil into a new Cuba. This fear of communists was imported by American diplomatic personnel, fomented by Irish priests and the media, and funded by the US government through the Central Intelligence Agency as a means of blocking the nationalization of oil, which was announced by the 1961 presidential election winner, the left-wing João Goulart.
The 1964 coup d’état was a bloody one: censorship of communication channels, arbitrary arrests, over 500 deaths in military custody, 1,100 native Brazilians of several ethnicities killed, and countless other deaths among guerrillas, criminals and poorer people. It is claimed that mayors used military helicopters to dump “undesirables” in high seas to “clean the city,” as was happening in Chile under Augusto Pinochet. In Brazil, there was arson in favelas, police massacres and political repression. Most of the country’s intelligentsia went into exile, and artists were arrested, tortured or deported. Media organizations were severely controlled. One of the most powerful Brazilian networks, Rede Globo, only recently apologized for collaborating with and promoting the regime.
Oppression by decree
The tools that the last dictatorship used were called “institutional acts” or AIs. These were constitutional amendments that could go over the rather progressive 1946 constitution without approval by congress or the senate. Some of the most decisive decisions to remove civil rights came from these acts, including the formalization of political repression, published in AI-5 of 1968. The military dictatorship enforced 17 AIs between 1964 and 1969, which gave total powers to the state over the people’s public, political, religious and individual rights. In June 1964, the National Information Service (SNI) was created, unifying investigative and repression forces all over the country and abroad. Although instituted as a crime repression organization, its tools were used mainly to persecute and kill dissidents and political adversaries.
After becoming a democracy once again in 1985, a new, more democratic constitution was promulgated in 1988, but all legal instruments that gave ultimate power to the president of were preserved. In fact, there are some ways to change the constitution, with or without the input of the legislative or the people. These loopholes were very seldom exploited and, when they were, the aim was to improve democratic decisions.
Amidst the political turmoil that Brazil has faced since 2013 — when a students’ movement against bus fares saw hundreds of thousands protesting — extreme right-wing movements called out the communist threat of the Workers’ Party and hijacked the popular movement to suit their agenda. Ultraconservative writers and journalists joined the call, and liberal bloggers multiplied on social media.
In congress, a law typifying criminal organizations was sanctioned, with the presidential veto on a dubious article that could interpret international charities as terrorist organizations. The Workers’ Party had given full investigative powers to the federal and civil police forces against corruption, and scandals started to emerge. Mainstream media, mostly conservative, suppressed scandals involving all other parties except PT. President Dilma Rousseff was re-elected in 2014 by a tight margin, but Brazilians also elected what was described as “the most conservative legislative since 1964.” In 2016, rich entrepreneurs of São Paulo organized enormous protests for the impeachment of Rousseff, which were widely supported by white upper classes who were concerned about wealth distribution and labor rights pushed forward by PT’s agenda.
In March 2016, the president signed an anti-terrorism law as part of an international agreement to host the Rio Olympics. Rousseff vetoed two articles that could compromise the activities of civil society movements, such as human rights groups and grassroots organizations. To ensure the law was not used to curtail political rights, the second article clearly typifies terrorism as acts perpetrated by “reasons of xenophobia, discrimination or prejudice of race, color, ethnicity and religion.”
In August that year, Rousseff was impeached on flimsy charges, and negotiations for her unfair dismissal were recorded and shown openly in the media. All members of the Workers’ Party were removed from higher levels of government. Michel Temer, the vice-president who took the position because of PT’s alliance with his party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement, immediately implemented a new economic plan called “A Bridge for the Future,” which was a compilation of ultra-liberal austerity measures. Unemployment rates went from 4.8% in January 2015 to 12.1% in September 2018. The Brazilian public, bombarded daily by scandals involving PT, still blames the crisis on the party’s policies, more than two years after its officials were removed from power.
On October 15, 2018, incumbent President Michel Temer signed decree 9,527, creating the Intelligence Taskforce (FTI) “to confront organized crime in Brazil, with the competences of investigating and sharing data, and producing intelligence reports, aiming at subsidizing the creation of public policies and governmental action to fight against criminal organizations affronting the Brazilian state and its institutions.” The taskforce, directly controlled by presidential orders, counts on the Brazilian Intelligence Agency (ABIN), the democratized remnants of the SNI and other intelligence offices, the militarized remnants of the SNI and financial investigation offices from the civil government. The FTI will act according to an action plan yet to be defined, created without legislative input but needing its approval. It could criminalize a political party, for example, that has been accused of being a criminal organization. This term has been applied by conservative media to most left-leaning parties in Brazil, especially the Workers’ Party.
If this was not enough to make democrats uncomfortable, two bills were given urgency for voting at the legislative houses — both suggested by ultraconservative politicians. Law 5,065 removes the second article of the anti-terrorism law and typifies terrorism as acts motivated by “ideological, political, social and criminal” reasons, which effectively gives decree 9,527 the same powers of AI-5. Law 212/2016, proposed by a senator, considers all acts of political protest and active dissidence to be terrorism, and it prescribes long reclusion sentences. The law defines sheltering, helping, talking and giving money to a terrorist as crimes that are as serious as terrorism itself.
Taken together, the decree and these two laws could end all forms of activism, public manifestations, social organizations and opposing political parties in Brazil.
One week before the most crucial election in Brazil’s modern history, Jair Bolsonaro appeared in a video address to his supporters to affirm that he will purge members of the Workers’ Party and imprison whoever stays in the country. His supporters used the slogan of the 1964 dictatorship: “Brazil: love it or leave it.”
Facebook and WhatsApp have removed thousands of accounts that pushed fake news for Bolsonaro. His controversial speech alerted international experts and may have irked many of his moderate voters. Recent polls show a strong swing toward Fernando Haddad, with the progressive candidate winning in the northeast and north regions. Southern Brazil, however, still shows an advantage for Bolsonaro.
With a conservative legislative and more members of the Bancada BBB (Bullets, Beef and Bible) group in congress and the senate, an eventual Bolsonaro victory will give him autocratic powers. By now, Brazilians can only hope for people to have some sense on October 28 as they head to the polls. Voters hold all the power to avoid a worst-case scenario for Brazil.
*[Updated: October 30, 2018.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.