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Fascism and Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro and his volunteers envision a state of war for Brazil: that is the experiment they are hoping to deliver to the world. Português Español

Flash MOB style demo to distribute street signs in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday March 14. Photo: Courtesy of Liv Sovic.

Extreme right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, poised for victory in the run-off on October 28, was not the most surprising winner in the first round of Brazilian elections. Christian Democrat former judge Wilson Witzel won 41 percent of the vote for governor on October 7, more than twice as much as Eduardo Paes, the bon-vivant former mayor of Rio de Janeiro, who governed before and during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games and oversaw an enormous flow of money for urban reforms and building projects.

Paes is a consummate professional politician who has somehow emerged unscathed from Operation Car Wash, the judicial investigation of federal government corruption that began in March 2014 and is still under way. He was by far the best debater among the candidates, he had ample television advertising time and vastly more name recognition than any candidate other than footballer Romário.

But Witzel’s resounding victory in the primary let the cat out of the bag: something odd was happening in these elections. The surprise was accompanied by the question, “Who is Wilson Witzel?”

The answer about Witzel soon circulated on social media: he was a third, pudgy figure, fist in the air, microphone in hand, initially absent from a widely distributed photograph of two beefcakes in the national colours, celebrating because they had taken down and broken a street sign purporting to rename a square in Rio de Janeiro in homage to Marielle Franco, the human rights activist and town councilwoman shot to death on March 14 this year.[1]

Bolsonaro runs a social media campaign, focusing especially on WhatsApp groups. In a country of 208 million people, 120 million have accounts on WhatsApp.

Of the other men, one was elected to the state legislature with the largest vote of any candidate and the other will be a federal deputy starting in January -- one of 52 from Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL, which at the moment has only eight deputies.

For weeks Witzel was confined to the scrum of candidates with single-digit poll ratings. His last minute surge is attributed to his endorsement of Bolsonaro and the latter’s invisible (to people unlikely to sympathise) social media campaign, focusing especially on WhatsApp groups. In a country of 208 million people, 120 million have accounts on WhatsApp.

The campaign successfully targeted, for example, WhatsApp groups related to sports activities like martial arts and marathons, alongside the groups belonging to neopentecostal churches.

An example of the effectiveness of fake news in these groups is the reaction by the Bolsonaro campaign to the demonstrations organized by women on September 29 under the slogan “not him”. By posting photographs from slut walks and forwarding sexist comments by Eduardo Bolsonaro about the protesters, the campaign actually raised Bolsonaro’s approval rate among women.

Bolsonaro’s supporters receive fake news directly through the campaign’s WhatsApp groups, many of whose administrators have US telephone numbers.[2] When that fake news is repeated elsewhere – in family, church, and club groups - its veracity seems guaranteed.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, Jair’s son, announced that Steve Bannon would act as an advisor to the Bolsonaro campaign, “giving internet tips, analysis, interpreting data, that type of stuff” and joining in combat against “cultural marxism”.

An effort to bring Cambridge Analytica (the company that stole Facebook data to manipulate voters in the US presidential campaigns and the Brexit vote) to Brazil was short-lived,[3] in August of this year, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, Jair’s son, announced that Steve Bannon would act as an advisor to the Bolsonaro campaign, “giving internet tips, analysis, interpreting data, that type of stuff” and joining in combat against “cultural marxism”.[4]

In September the Bolsonaro campaign hired Arick Wierson, an Emmy Award-winning television producer and former communications aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Apparently, his role was to soften the image of the candidate.[5] The success of all of this has been considerable and on October 10, Bannon said in an interview that The Movement he is organizing to exchange ideas and “tools for victory” between nationalist populist parties, mostly European ones, could include Brazil.[6]

These tools explain Witzel’s surge, but there is also a particularity of Brazilian elections, in which each candidate is assigned a number and it is the number, not the name, that the voter must remember when prompted by a voting machine. In an election with many candidates, it is essential to bring a list of numbers to the voting booth to avoid voting wrongly or spoiling one’s vote.

 Pentecostal churches are important actors in this scene, handing out lists of numbers of approved candidates.

This means that enormous numbers of people who, while legally obliged to vote, do not follow politics, accept suggestions in the form of lists of candidates. Pentecostal churches are important actors in this scene, handing out lists of numbers of approved candidates.[7] Rumour has it that Eduardo Paes had been an option on churches’ lists, as candidate for governor, but just before October 7 his name was removed, leaving only Witzel.

Looking for safe hands

The extreme right’s campaign rides on scapegoating the Workers’ Party (PT) for the endemic corruption that has long been part of negotiations between political and economic elites, and blaming this corruption for the current economic crisis.

Operation Car Wash has targeted PT government officials and waged a campaign to jail former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, reiterating accusations based on testimony by a construction company executive that was made in exchange for a lighter sentence. The judiciary’s persecution of the PT and its persistent silencing of former president Lula, who has consistently been at the top of presidential election polls, have been challenged by UN bodies and renowned intellectuals, from Noam Chomsky to Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, with little effect locally.

Anti-PT sentiment is a political factor, then, and in response to demands for a mea culpa for the corruption in which party members and government officials were involved, PT president Gleisi Hoffmann has said that there was a difference between a church and a political party, but that difference seems to escape common sense.

Even Marielle Franco is offered for burning on the bonfire of public indignation: the extreme right says she was killed because she was part of the criminal underworld.

The mainstream press, whose ownership is concentrated in seven families and some churches, continues to channel public rage over the economic crisis onto ex-president Lula, the PT’s years in power and the left in general. The middle class has embraced this narrative and the limits of reasonable discourse have long been broken: there are mentions of the threat of communism, the Cuban model, the PT as an umbrella organization for criminals, the Venezuelan meltdown as a possible future for Brazil.

Even Marielle Franco is offered for burning on the bonfire of public indignation: the extreme right says she was killed because she was part of the criminal underworld.

More could be said about the underworld’s participation in Brazil’s representative democracy since the early 1990s and its relationship to neopentecostal churches in jails and favelas, its different interlinked currents and organizations, but by now the reader may find all of this incredible and in any case the reality is greyer.

Social income policies generated prosperity for a time, but growth peaked, the international crisis loomed and everyone but the rich has felt the pinch. In Rio de Janeiro, where Bolsonaro and his son Flávio – just elected to an eight-year term as senator – were particularly successful, the Car Wash investigation threw Petrobras and its contractors into crisis, just as oil prices fell.

The same investigation found that former governor Sérgio Cabral had pocketed seemingly endless amounts of money during the preparations for the World Cup and Olympic Games.

All of this led the state government to go bankrupt. State employees, including teachers, endured months-long delays in the payment of salaries starting in December 2015 and lasting into 2017, with riot police facing them off with tear gas and rubber bullets, day after day, in the streets of downtown Rio as the state legislature cut back the cost of the payroll at their expense.

The press said nothing. Meanwhile the desire of some for radical change and others for “firm hands” could only grow. The military have stepped up. They found a pretext for a military intervention in the city in February 2018 and in Bolsonaro’s government, the president of his party recently said in an interview, four or five ministers out of a total of fifteen will be generals.

The atmosphere of violence reaped its strange fruit in the week following the first round of elections.

The atmosphere of violence reaped its strange fruit in the week following the first round of elections. Afro-Brazilian cultural activist Moa was killed in a bar in Salvador on election day, by a Bolsonaro voter who interrupted his conversation with a brother and a cousin to argue about politics. He paid up, left and returned minutes later to stab Moa twelve times from behind. This is the most serious of many reported cases of violence inspired by Candidate Bolsonaro. (8).

 The view from Brazilian universities

Some of the PT governments’ most effective policies for greater social and racial equality over the long term have focused on higher education. For many years, since the dismantling of a quality public school system under the 1964-1985 military regime, the student body was made up graduates of private high schools, almost always white.

Today, there is a generation of Black intellectuals with MAs and PhDs, Black students who are able to navigate racist academia, and discussions of racism in class where before there was the silence of indifference or intimidation.

Policies designed and implemented while PT presidential candidate Fernando Haddad was Minister of Education have promoted a greater regional mix (the entrance exam became national) and the admittance of more Black and poor youth through entrance quotas, while expanding the number of university places.

Today, there is a generation of Black intellectuals with MAs and PhDs, Black students who are able to navigate racist academia, and discussions of racism in class where before there was the silence of indifference or intimidation.

In the last days of Dilma Rousseff’s government, the Ministry of Education ordered postgraduate courses in public universities, where most of Brazil’s best research and education are carried out, to adopt entrance quotas. Diversity has a way of proliferating and they now exist for Black, indigenous, disabled and trans students.

The federal government cut federal university operating budgets at the end of 2015, suddenly informing vice-chancellors that promised money would not arrive after all. The reduced budget for 2016 had to cover accumulated commitments from 2015, as well as the year’s operating costs.

One result of the budgetary squeeze on maintenance was the fire that burned down the National Museum. Research funding has also been cut, and all of the reductions have been made permanent by a constitutional amendment passed in December 2016, limiting federal expenditures on health and education to 2016 levels adjusted for inflation, for the next twenty years.

To make things more difficult still, there is a thicket of rules designed to inhibit graft and a law attributing individual responsibility to public administrators for the public money they control. Tight schedules for spending make rules difficult or impossible to follow, so bending them is a fact of life.

In a context and the general climate of cynicism, the judiciary has flexed its new sense of power and charged university administrators with wrongdoing.

A wrong move, a bend too far, can mean years of exchanges with the authorities or even personal responsibility for fines and restitution when nothing was actually stolen or even mismanaged. There is graft, too, and universities often have foundations that take a slice of grants in return for administrating them, and sometimes kickbacks from contractors.

In this context and the general climate of cynicism, the judiciary has flexed its new sense of power and charged university administrators with wrongdoing, divulging investigations to the press with no concern for the consequences and some evidence that accusations were politically motivated, sometimes by internal quarrels.

The most dramatic such case is that of Luis Carlos Cancellier de Oliva, the recently elected vice chancellor of the Federal University of Santa Catarina who jumped from the seventh floor of a shopping mall to his death because he was being investigated and felt he would never clear his name. No evidence against him was ever found.

Endgame

There are evidently regional variations to what is described here and versions of this story that can be told from different institutional vantage points. But the point is the danger of this moment. Only a victory by Fernando Haddad on October 28 has a chance of returning Brazil to legitimate government, through new, broad alliances. If Haddad loses, the future is not only uncertain but frightening.

Bolsonaro admires the military regime’s worst torturer, and he has yet to condemn Marielle Franco’s assassination. His racism, misogyny and homophobia are well documented, but minimized by some supporters and touted as necessary rectifications of current deviance by others.

Bolsonaro intends to loosen controls on police, giving them the “juridical basis to be more active.” He has made it clear that this means killing more people. He has threatened to expel Amnesty International from Brazil so it “won’t interfere in our internal life in this country.” On the evening of election day, he said “we are going to put a full stop to all of Brazil’s activisms.”[9]

Jair Bolsonaro and his volunteers envision a state of war for Brazil: that is the experiment they are hoping to deliver to the world, an experiment that sacrifices conviviality to cruelty, censors criticism, finds in death a solution.

Brazil has not infrequently been the staging ground of political and social experiments. When the Temer government took over in 2016 and instituted reforms and cutbacks, some thought that the global plan was for the population to become a mere market for private insurance, health and education services that were previously the responsibility of the government or subjected to strict regulation.

But that was optimistic. The political theorist and philosopher Achille Mbembe writes of the state of war as “a general cultural experience that shapes identities”, an “instituting imagination” of Africa, whose violence is “a question of abolishing, once and for all, the very idea of a debt owed to life.

This death is not only that of the enemy and those one has judged to be guilty. It is also that of one’s neighbour and fellow creature.”[10] Jair Bolsonaro and his volunteers envision a state of war for Brazil: that is the experiment they are hoping to deliver to the world, an experiment that sacrifices conviviality to cruelty, censors criticism, finds in death a solution.


[1] See Jorge de la Barre, “Rio of darkness: a war of excluding narratives”, 5 October 2018. https://www.opendemocracy.net/democraciaabierta/jorge-de-la-barre/rio-of-darkness.

[2] Mídia Ninja. “Curral de fake news!” 12/10/2018. https://www.facebook.com/MidiaNINJA/videos/1789981244451905/.

[3] “O marqueteiro brasileiro que importou o método de campanha de Trump para usar em 2018”. El Pais – Brasil, 15/11/2017. https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2017/10/11/politica/1507723607_646140.html.

“Empresário brasileiro suspende parceria com Cambridge Analytica”. Exame.  22/03/2018. https://exame.abril.com.br/negocios/empresario-brasileiro-suspende-parceria-com-cambridge-analytica/.

[4]“Steve Bannon to advise Bolsonaro campaign”. TeleSur, 15/08/2018. https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Brazil-Steve-Bannon-to-Advise-Bolsonaro-Presidential-Campaign-20180815-0003.html.

[5] “Equipe de Bolsonaro contrata empresa de marketing para dar rumo novo à campanha”. Blog Jovem Pan, 14/09/2018. https://blog.jovempan.uol.com.br/direto-da-redacao/2018/09/14/equipe-de-bolsonaro-contrata-empresa-de-marketing-para-dar-rumo-novo-a-campanha/. For Wierson’s view of Brazil and political campaigns, see “O 'Estúdio Veja' recebe Arick Wierson, estrategista político de Michael Bloomberg”. YouTube, Vejapontocom Channel, 09/05/2018.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDRFYOQv1OM

[6] “Steve Bannon on Populism, China and Kavanaugh”. Bloomberg Politics channel, YouTube, 11/11/2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Idpxb_Gp3GI.

[7] On the political importance of neopentecostal churches and the way they attract memberes not only through the “theology of propsperity” but the “logic of solidarity”, see Lamia Oualalou. Jésus t’aime. Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2018; and Eduardo Febbro. “Los evangelistas en el Brasil ocuparon el espacio del Estado”. Página 12. 16/10/2018. https://www.pagina12.com.ar/149017-los-evangelistas-en-brasil-ocuparon-el-espacio-del-estado. 

[8] Haroldo Ceravolo Sereza and Lucas Berti. “Relatos de violência com motivação política se espalham pelo país; veja mapa”. Carta Maior, 11/10/2018. https://www.cartamaior.com.br/?/Editoria/Antifascismo/Relatos-de-violencia-com-motivacao-politica-se-espalham-pelo-pais-veja-mapa/47/42004.

[9] “Organizações sociais se unem em repúdio à declaração de Bolsonaro sobre ativismo”. RBA Rede Brasil Atual. 10/10/2018. https://www.redebrasilatual.com.br/cidadania/2018/10/organizacoes-sociais-se-unem-em-repudio-a-declaracao-de-bolsonaro-sobre-ativismo.

[10] Achille Mbembe. “African Forms of Self-Writing”.  Identity, Culture and Politics. Vol.2, No.1, 2001, p.28.

About the author

Liv Sovik is a professor of Communication at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. She has written about Brazilian popular music and racial and gender identities while thinking about cultural difference and cultural politics.


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