Brazil’s road to neo-fascism

Pedro Rocha de Oliveira considers the context of Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power in Brazil

January 1, 2019 · 17 min read

The current Brazilian political system was born in the 1980s, when the business and US-backed military regime that had governed for 20 years began to decline. The dictatorship ended of its own accord though – it was never overthrown, and that made all the difference. When the new constitution was drafted, authoritarian elements intermingled with the formally democratic structures. A strong, unassailable judiciary formed. And, purportedly in the name of plurality, the creation of political parties was facilitated. Today, there are over 30 of them operating in congress.

Brazil is a big country; our society is fairly diverse. The number of parties does not represent that diversity, however, but is an index of political clientelism. Through their nomenclature, most parties pay lip service to some ideology (mostly centre and right) but they’re really nothing more, nothing less, than political machines. Politicians at the local level, allied with businesses or an occasional drug cartel or paramilitary group (businesses of a kind, one might argue), create networks of favouritism based on the distribution of resources (fix that specific street; expand the sewage system into that specific neighbourhood; give out food at these specific locations). This gets mayors and councillors elected, and these local officials influence their clientèle into voting for deputies at state and national levels.

In a sense, that’s how it should work, isn’t it? In the UK, MPs are expected to defend their constituencies’ interests, and so on. But the key to our version of legislative representation is that we are one of the most economically unequal countries in the world. Clientelistic officials play with scarcity: they episodically and continuously ameliorate the ills of chronic poverty.

On the national level, these various political machines get together in the national assembly. Any one of them is intrinsically incapable of forming a majority on its own; so, in order to govern, whichever manages to elect a president has to form a coalition. This is where corruption comes in. Since party ideologies are either non-existent or very similar, the real bond for such coalitions is, on the one hand, the distribution of national resources for the successful management of local clientelistic networks, and, on the other hand, payments made by corporations. These payments are either made semi-legally, through so-called ‘campaign funds’ (largely what is legalised elsewhere as ‘lobbying’), or illegally through bribes distributed to influence both policy and implementation (who will build a road, hire the personnel, and so on). So post-dictatorship ‘coalition presidentialism’ is basically paying people to let you govern.

An exception of sorts

Not all political parties are equal, even if most are fairly alike. For historical reasons, some are stronger in certain regions, or among certain interest groups, such as gun manufacturers or pentecostal bishops. There is an ideologically consistent but politically minuscule left. And there is PT, our Workers’ Party, which is also an exception of sorts – not because it doesn’t play the coalition game (it ruled, therefore it sinned) but because its origins lie not in clientelistic networks but in real social movements.

PT originated in the ‘democratic reopening’ days from the labour organisations that resulted from the military’s push to industrialise. Other social forces began to coalesce around that ‘new unionism’: agrarian reform and urban neighbourhood movements, liberation theology-inspired Catholic groups – the sort of organisations whose radicalisation in the 1960s prompted the military coup to begin with. In the 1980s and 1990s PT played a significant role in Brazilian politics, as a consistent opposition to right-wing governments, as well as electing several governors and mayors, including in important state capitals.

The transition from that grassroots PT to what the party had to become to win a presidential election with Lula in 2002, and rule the country until 2016, was a complex process. It ultimately involved forging connections and alliances with entrepreneurial sectors – banks, contractors, agrobusiness. Unsurprisingly, those alliances imposed huge limitations on much of PT’s original working-class agenda – and deepened the party’s embroilment in the vote-buying routine. The vast extent of that embroilment became obvious in the mensalão vote-buying scandal of 2005, whereby congressional deputies were paid large sums from state-owned companies’ budgets (mensalão is a neologism translating roughly as ‘big monthly payments’) to back government legislation.

Brazilian politics is stricken through by such scandals, but their constancy doesn’t really reflect some special level of crookedness among our politicians. Still, coalition presidentialism is a tough game, and whistle-blowing is embedded in its structure. There are too many parties; even within a coalition, knife-point disputes for payouts are bound to happen. Frustrated vote-sellers have thus often come forward to denounce the immorality of it all to an ever-indignant corporate media, which, of course, can dose out its indignation quite deliberately. In the case of the mensalão scandal, it dealt it out with delighted ferocity: the political forces behind the corporate media never forgave PT for winning the presidential election and bitterly resented policies such as the steady increase in the minimum wage, the democratisation of higher education, and so on.

The mensalão payouts were in many respects a predictable outcome of the need to oil the gears of coalition presidentialism. When the scheme became public, though, the media treated it as something unforeseen. The left itself was (or acted) surprised. They felt betrayed, they said; they never thought a party inspired by proletarian politics could go so low. Artificial outrage, calculated cynicism and harmful naïveté thus began to give shape to the idea of PT as the epitome of Brazilian corruption: a ‘criminal organisation’. And that is when Brazilian politics began to play openly with authoritarianism.

In the favelas

The right has long known how to capitalise on the fear of crime. But in Brazil there is a fundamental interconnection between ordinary urban violence, heavily-armed drug cartels, economic inequality expressed in extreme spatial and racial segregation, a collapsed social support system and political clientelism. Picture 15-year-olds armed with Belgian automatic rifles circulating freely in Rio de Janeiro neighbourhoods where the bare-brick houses have been built by their own residents on patches of land to which they have no legal claim. These are neighbourhoods where no sewage system exists, the mail service doesn’t deliver, electricity is obtained through illegal connections and cable TV is distributed through deals made with the heads of the local drug gangs. Public transport is supplemented by van services supervised by paramilitary groups that extort the localities in exchange for ‘protection’ and monopolise the distribution of cooking-gas cylinders. Proper public hospitals are non-existent. Makeshift infirmaries are rare, overcrowded, understaffed and unequipped.

In these areas – the favelas – inhabited mostly by a black population, the state is present largely in its repressive form. Schools in many of them were closed half the time in 2017 due to conflicts between the state police and the armed kids. The UPPs, Pacification Police Units, have turned indiscriminate stop-and-search into a daily routine. Police helicopters have been filmed swooping over dense neighbourhoods firing machine guns. Dozens of ordinary folk going out to work with their electric drills or folding umbrellas have been mistaken for armed thugs and shot dead. Stray bullets wound, maim and kill thousands each year. Summary, on-site executions during ‘conflicts’ are ordinary expedients, publicly endorsed by the police spokesmen, and normalised by systematic judicial omission.

At the same time, officially-recognised local neighbourhood associations are generally known to be points of contact between government, the clientelistic system and drug cartels and paramilitary groups – useful connections each time there is an election. And there is the well-known practice of paying ‘arrego’, or ‘surrender-money’ to local police patrols in exchange for their turning a blind eye to the comings and goings of drug sellers and buyers.

For most people reading – and writing – articles like this, such a world sounds like a nightmare, maybe comparable to life under fascist regimes where the rule of law has been suspended. But this has been going on for decades – even under Lula’s acclaimed presidency. It is painful to admit that, during the time PT was in power, the death toll of the ‘war on crime’ rose steeply – currently, 14 people are killed every day on average by the police countrywide – even if such increases took place alongside a small reduction in inequality. Brazilian society has thus been functioning for a very long time with a very high degree of normalised state violence against the black and the poor. The worst-off of our citizens have had daily encounters with systematic state lawlessness and downright autocracy uninterruptedly since the dictatorship days.

Cultural complement

As one might expect, the system of state violence has a cultural complement. This includes TV shows in which helicopter footage follows police cars speeding through narrow streets shooting at swerving motorcycles as commentators urge the men in uniform to ‘annihilate’ the ‘insects’. Elite Squad 1 and 2 – record-breaking film productions of the 2000s, in which torture, ridicule of human rights activists and double-barrels to the face all play a role in the self-justified war on drugs – glamourised the myth of the incorruptible black-clad SWAT officer who acts lawlessly when the situation demands in order to catch bad guys. A particularly eloquent scene has the main character railing at the Rio legislative assembly that the elected officials are all corrupt and immoral. In an interrogation scene, he threatens to insert a broomstick in the anus of a drug cartel ‘soldier’. Finally, there is aerial footage of the national congressional buildings, while a voiceover speaks of ‘where the real enemy is’.

This is the cultural environment in which the ‘criminal organisation’ discourse began to be used against PT in the aftermath of the mensalão scandal. The profoundly authoritarian and intrinsically racist forces brewing then took their first clearly-defined political shape during the countrywide demonstrations in July 2013.

Dilma Rousseff, formerly part of Lula’s technical staff, was in the second year of her first term as president. On leaving office, Lula had an almost 90 per cent approval rating; Dilma had taken office on the back of that popularity. She had been an unlikely choice, but much of the party’s leadership had been jailed in the mensalão scandal, many of them through questionable judicial processes based on little or no evidence: the judicial system had begun to openly display its political bias, with full support of the media. When the demonstrations broke out, initially inspired by bus fare increases in Rio and São Paulo, changes in the international economic situation were beginning to be felt in Brazil.

The media took the vague feeling of discontent and vigorously mixed it with an anti-corruption discourse. Minuscule right-wing organisations, previously unheard of, got money from business lobbies to organise their own anti-government demonstrations, which the media treated as indistinguishable from the bus fare movement. Protesters began to suggest that Dilma be ousted and replaced by Joaquim Barbosa, a supreme court judge famous for indicting politicians implicated in the mensalão – an institutionally absurd suggestion, which the media nevertheless popularised. By now, judges and federal police were on the news constantly, idolised as guardians of morality and probity. Barbosa, often seen on TV wearing his ceremonial gown, was sometimes referred to as the ‘man in black’, in allusion to the Elite Squad film character.

Presidential impeachment

Then came Dilma’s impeachment. In 2015, she was at the beginning of her second term as president after narrowly defeating Aécio Neves. The economy had been deteriorating from the heights reached during Lula’s presidency, especially due to plummeting commodity prices. Brazil faced serious fiscal issues, and inflation was returning. State judge Moro, another ‘man in black’, had tried and convicted Lula for allegedly being granted a free apartment refurbishment by a contracting business during his presidency. The evidence was flimsy – a non-signed real-estate purchase proposal was used to ‘prove’ that the apartment belonged to Lula. It was a political, not a criminal indictment, but the charge stuck and it was to debar Lula from the 2018 presidential election, which he had been favourite to win.

Meanwhile, congress had been making Dilma’s presidency impossible, taking its cue from Aécio Neves, who had himself been implicated in a couple of scandals involving cocaine-smuggling but against whom the supreme court repeatedly refused to open investigations. The central bank was in open rebellion, its head having refused to lower the national interest rate when ordered to do so by Dilma’s cabinet.

Dilma’s impeachment was another instance of the increasingly overt intervention of the judiciary into politics. The accusation levelled against her revolved around accounting technicalities for which, institutionally speaking, she was really not responsible, and which specialised consultants claimed had no consequence for budgetary policy. But another corruption scandal, this time involving Brazil’s giant mixed-capital oil company Petrobrás, had been all over the news. The media explored to the utmost any connection, however flimsy, between the incessant reports on the ongoing investigations and the subtleties of budget accounting. From watching the news, one got the feeling that Dilma was being impeached because of Petrobrás, even though no connection existed. While declaring their impeachment votes, congress members vituperated against PT and corruption; none of the hundreds of ‘yes’ votes made any allusion to the accounting technicality on which the bill was founded.

By the beginning of 2018, the political tide was flowing firmly rightwards and violent forces were becoming increasingly emboldened.

In March, the Rio councillor Marielle Franco was assassinated. She and her driver were shot as their car stopped at a traffic light. The assassins used silencers; nearby street cameras had been turned off. Franco belonged to PSOL, a small left-wing party. She was a human rights militant from the Maré favela complex, known for denouncing the involvement of city councillors in paramilitary groups.

Investigations of her murder have got nowhere. It is noteworthy that, since February, Rio has been under federal intervention, with key aspects of security and policing under direct command of the armed forces. It all sends a sinister message to the left as a whole.

Illustration: Luke Carter

From clown to king

Taking all this background into account, it comes as no great turn of events that a character like retired army captain Jair Bolsonaro should rise to the presidency. Despite his ‘new politics’ discourse, he has been in congress since 1991, continuously re-elected on his far-right ‘the only good bandit is a dead bandit’ platform. In the 1990s and most of the 2000s, the media treated him as a clownish extremist who spoke absurdities on second-grade talk shows – but also gave him the chance to do so repeatedly. That is how he gained notoriety for his open endorsement of the dictatorship, his belief that torture is efficient and useful, and that the whole thing should happen again. At least 30,000 people had to be killed, he once said on TV, if Brazil was to be fixed – including the centre-right then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, at the time implementing a thoroughly neoliberal programme. Ironically, ‘parliamentary immunity’ devised after the dictatorship to protect politicians’ free speech made such declarations unchargeable.

In the 2010s, Bolsonaro played a major role in the anti-PT spectacle. He voiced the far-right view that ‘the communists’ were ruining the country and trying to turn it into a second Cuba or Venezuela. He once threatened to hit a (female) journalist for being asked something he didn’t like; and in a parliamentary discussion on the penal code he yelled at PT congresswoman Maria do Rosário that she was too ugly to be raped. On another occasion, he described members of ex-slave black communities in terms alluding to the cattle market. As he declared his ‘yes’ vote in the 2016 impeachment process, he praised a known torturer, calling him ‘Dilma Rousseff’s terror’, in allusion to the fact that she had been involved in the short-lived armed struggle against the dictatorship in the 1960s, and had been arrested and tortured.

The list goes on, to the point that one might ask how such a repulsive figure was allowed to continue saying these things in a civilised, democratic country.

It is all a matter of context. Take, for example, Bolsonaro’s statement during the presidential campaign that, under his government, the police would be authorised to shoot to kill at will. The fact is, though, that the police in Brazil already shoot to kill at will, albeit unofficially. Amnesty reports have repeatedly shown that the Rio state police is the most lethal police force in the world; other Brazilian state forces aren’t far behind.

As for Bolsonaro’s insinuations that the left should be wiped out, a recent Global Witness report says Brazil is already the deadliest country for environmental defenders in the world, with similar dangers for land-reform and human-rights activists. The statistics for crimes against women and the LGBT community are horrendous. The left has long been barred from organising in communities controlled by drug cartels or paramilitary groups. With regard to Bolsonaro’s racismo, Brazil is about half black but of its 60,000 gun deaths in 2017 about two-thirds of victims are black.

Worse not different

Scary as it may be, then, a Bolsonaro presidency, with all its promises of violence and repression, isn’t going to introduce fundamental changes in Brazilian society so much as making what exists already even worse.

There have been hints of fresh horrors ahead during the presidential campaign. A young woman in Porto Alegre was punched and held by a group of men while one cut a swastika on her stomach with a knife. University students were beaten with iron bars while giving out fliers for Bolsonaro’s PT opponent Fernando Haddad. And as a trans woman was knifed to death, her killers cried out that, under a Bolsonaro presidency, there will be an open war against gays.

But what is really new in horrors such as these? The racists, chauvinists and homophobes doing this now have, for decades, been acting out their hatred in an environment in which economic inequality mingles with racism to create a very clear social divide between citizens and expendables. Examples abound. A few years back, in a middle-class Rio neighbourhood, a group of white people beat a young black man, stripped him and tied him by the neck to a street post with a bike chain after he allegedly tried to steal from someone; none of the aggressors was charged. Back in the 1990s, in Brasilia, a similar little group set fire to a Pataxó indigenous man who was sleeping rough at a bus stop. The perpetrators later said they thought he was ‘just a bum’; decades later, after dodging most of his prison sentence, one of them became a police constable.

Members of our judiciary mostly come from that same background and operate fully within it. So, in 2014, a judge made use of her discretionary powers to create an instrument by which every inhabitant of the Maré favela complex – home to hundreds of thousands of people – was deemed a suspect in a drug cartel investigation, authorising the police to enter any house without a warrant (not that they didn’t already do so whenever they wanted).

So the Bolsonaro phenomenon is really about broadening the spectrum of systematic, unaccountable social violence to include not only black people and the poor, but also the LGBT community and the left. Probably not since the 1920s and the 1930s in Brazil, when anarchists and fascists fought in the streets, did civilians feel culturally authorised to beat up someone because of their political beliefs.

What is really horrifying, then, is not that Bolsonaro is president, but that neo-fascists like him do not represent a break with the norm but a natural development of social conditions that are common in contemporary capitalism: long-lasting economic inequality, a culture of systematic state violence, strong-arm policing and unaccountable officials. Far from being some aberration, this seems increasingly to be the face of modern capitalism.


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