Jair Bolsonaro’s name went global. As a traditionalist, the Brazilian president sees himself as a saviour and governs the country by creating chaos with statements disparaging, for instance, the relevance of the corona pandemic or the pain caused to people by the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. Such statements flood mainstream and social media, so any room for a relevant political agenda is lost.
The public debate converges onto his image and voice. Bolsonaro is also a traditionalist in the sense that he believes in the legend of a long lost, Christian, pure Brazil soiled by the enemy, i.e., the Left, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) and the communists. For Bolsonaro, a communist is anyone in any given situation who enters the radar of the name-and-shame scheme set up in the core of the government that the media calls the Hate Cabinet (o Gabinete do Ódio). If this sounds familiar it’s because it comes from the same source that sustains Putin (Alexander Dugin), upheld Trump’s insurrectionists (Bannon, QAnon, OathKeepers etc), made Brexit possible and has been shaking the European Union’s political pillars since, at least, 2013.
This is the president’s profile, but also the backdrop to current social rage in Brazil.
Bolsonaro was inaugurated in January 2019, promising to destroy the legacy of ’40 years of communist rule’ in Brazil. For that purpose, he called for a Nova Política (New Politics), which was translated concretely as no room for institutions in the setting up of the political agenda: no Parliament, no political parties, no trade or workers unions, no civil society, no judiciary: only a direct relationship with the people. From the day he was elected (November 2018), democratically representative institutions faced the threat of being excluded from setting the political agenda.
‘Nova Politica was soon shown to have no content or tool to advance any agenda other than actually fulfilling the promise of destroying public policies …’
However, his Nova Politica was soon shown to have no content or tool able to advance any agenda other than actually fulfilling its promise of destroying public policies in key areas such as social security, labour, human rights, the environment, education and foreign relations. While the traditionalist wrecking-ball strikes in the thick dust raised by the President’s statements, other powers take the stage and contribute to the uncertainty about who sets the political agenda. Brazil’s Supreme Court has been a political protagonist since the mid-2000s, when a war against corruption started with the Federal Police and the Prosecutors’ Office working together on wide-ranging investigations that affected the whole political spectrum, a scandal called Mensalão. This evolved into lawfare against the centre-left government when operations were captured by a far-right political project within the so-called LavaJato Operation,1 a tropical version of the Italian Mani Pulite.
Brazil has rarely been a democratic state in the sense that people and government are submitted to the rule of law and that adult citizens are granted effective participation in political decision-making processes, with freedom of thought, speech, association and political representation. The longest period of Brazilian democracy-building was between 1988 and 2016. In 2013, public demonstrations evolved from a right-wing surge, with far-right groups flooding the streets and threatening the stability of the young democracy whose demise started with the successful escalation of a regime change plot against the then incumbent president (Rousseff, removed from office in 2016). This was followed by the now publicly exposed LavaJato lawfare strategy against the major opposition leader, Lula. He was arrested in 2018, a few months before the presidential election, preventing him from running for a third presidential mandate. All this gave way to the ascension of a far-right leader that set off the ongoing process of incapacitating the Brazilian political system to build a political agenda or to respond to any relevant public issue in an informed and capable way.
Enter the pandemic. Bolsonaro first denied the existence of any pandemic (‘It’s just a little flu’), then went on to deny the relevance of the rise of the number of deaths (’Everybody dies’), going on to say, as death rates escalated, that he was not a grave-digger, so he had nothing to do with the deaths. Meanwhile, governors and mayors decided to adopt restrictive measures, even lockdowns. Here, Bolsonaro took a gamble, positioning the economy over health: work is freedom; death cannot stop the economy. He positioned himself as the champion of those who cannot resort to home- working. His gamble was that the pandemic would be short and with little impact, thus putting the governors and mayors to ridicule. But now Brazil has one of the highest death rates in the world and a deadly slow pace of vaccination. Unemployment, famine, widespread bankruptcy, supply-chain erosion; they all add up to an economic and social disaster. The Minister of Economy insists on maintaining a fiscally conservative policy, while reality calls for public spending to maintain the economy and avert famine. Coming back to any sort of normalcy is not on the horizon.
‘… a far-right leader … incapacitating the Brazilian political system to build a political agenda or to respond to any relevant public issue in an informed and capable way.’
Fear, political hatred and apathy, not revolt, define the Zeitgeist. Brazilian streets have nevertheless seen some political activity. The Bolsonaristas gleefully embraced a negationist stance in the face of COVID-19 and defied restrictions to mobility and economic activity. They staged demonstrations, car parades and even laid siege to politicians’ residences and institutions. That makes them the visible force confronting not the inactive central government, but rather state and city authority restrictions including curfews, the wearing of masks and, especially, lockdowns.
In early March 2021, criminal procedures against former president Lula were dismissed and he got his political rights back. He came out of prison with a message that struck large on the national soul. As a response, at the end of March Bolsonaro tried to enact a putsch, changing the heads of the military in an attempt to cement their support. The military, however, simply accepted the change but continued to keep Bolsonaro in line. The president is now dependent on old-fashioned centrist politicians who are moderates in terms of decision-making, but immoderate in their appetite for power and privilege.
‘Effective opposition to Bolsonaro in Parliament … comes from his own political base, which attempts to limit his radicalism.’
Until the decision to release Lula, the agenda of the Left was focused on feminism, racism, human rights and defending Lula. It was unable to directly oppose Bolsonaro’s positions and policies because of the extreme level of polarization in the public debate, in which any opinion expressed by a leftist voice is immediately disenfranchised. Effective opposition to Bolsonaro in Parliament came, and still comes, from his own political base, which attempts to limit his radicalism. Support for Bolsonaro is stark among followers of the Theology of Prosperity2 and still comes from strident social voices on the right, namely neo-pentecostals3 – business owners, militarists, couriers/uber drivers and truck drivers.
As whole sectors of the economy collapse, a heavy influx of the newly unemployed pour into delivery services, swelling the pool of cheap unskilled muscle on wheels. There is a significant presence of antifa couriers among them, autonomist anarchists. They are active among the precariat but have no institutional representation or support. Though relatively low in number, they are very active, militant and historically ready to confront. Truck drivers, for their part, are fragmented, but Bolsonaristas at heart. Yet the surge in diesel prices make them a political threat.
The Left has opted to organize solidarity networks and are out in the favelas and among the workers and the destitute. Movements such as the Squatters’ Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto), the Landless Movement (Movimento dos Sem Terra), favela self-help organizations, Mães de Maio, sectors of the popular Catholic Church and many other non-institutional workers’ associations have built solidarity networks and are very active out there with the grassroots.
In the most recent poll, Lula appears to be topping the 2022 presidential election race, while a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee in the Senate is about to be created to investigate Bolsonaro’s disastrous response to the pandemic. His allies intend to use the same committee to expose cases of corruption in the states and municipalities, creating an ever-growing political tension between central and regional governments, while cases of famine, homelessness, poverty and bankruptcy escalate: the proverbial powder keg lies under a knot of raging sparks.
1. A group of public prosecutors unveiled a corruption scheme at Petrobras, the Brazilian oil giant. For years, the country was shaken by weekly news reports of politicians of all colours and top executives of major companies going to jail.
2. A form of Pentecostalism believing that faith can lead to riches.
3. Pastors of the Gospel of Wealth.
Header image: ©Gavin Adams
Caio Leonardo is a lawyer in Brasília with over two decades of practice in Government Relations, monitoring , collaborating with and commenting on decision-making processes in Brazil.
Gavin Adams is an artist and activist, and has consistently reported on public demonstrations in Brazil since 2015.
All illustrations are of public demonstrations in São Paulo. Instigated by discussions and political agents that did not make the headlines, Gavin Adams tried to identify the new actors and their agendas, noting down messages in banners, flags, speeches, chants and T-shirts, recording elements of visual culture that indicate social origin, alliances and enmities that impact political action and discourse.