Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Is The Far-Right Authoritarian He Promised He’d Be

Bolsonaro used the first year of his presidency to undermine Brazil's democracy. But he was only getting started.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty

As Jair Bolsonaro surged to victory in Brazil’s presidential elections 14 months ago, a steady chorus of observers there and abroad warned the world that the racist, sexist, homophobic former military captain posed a massive threat not just to the country’s most vulnerable populations, but to its very democracy ― the largest in Latin America, and the fourth-largest in the world.

But there was also a school of optimists ― most of them members of Brazil and the world’s elite establishment ― who insisted that the guardrails of Brazilian democracy would constrain Bolsonaro’s worst impulses, and that responsibility, moderation and economic reform would win the day over impassioned, quasi-populist, authoritarian rhetoric. Many of them even voted for him.

Now, at the dawn of the second year of Bolsonaro’s presidency, it is clearer than ever that the alarmists were right ― and that if anything, their warnings were not dire enough.

Since taking office last January, Bolsonaro has followed through (or attempted to) on nearly all of his ugliest promises, with troubling and disastrous consequences for Brazil’s environment and the Amazon rainforest, its already-marginalized Black, LGBTQ, Indigenous and poor communities, and the institutions that form the backbone of any democratic society.

“Bolsonaro is attempting to carry out everything he promised. His electoral promises were real and he attempted to implement all of them,” said James Green, the director of the Brazil Initiative at Brown University. “Different forces have tried to limit his full agenda, but he’s going full force ahead.”

The congressman and Army captain who has for decades expressed an affinity for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and at times longed for its return is, in other words, exactly who his most ardent and fearful critics said he would be.

“The key dynamic we expected pretty much played out, which is that we have a president that is actively seeking to undermine democracy,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. “It’s not a question of whether the president is seeking to undermine democracy, or if he’s putting democracy at risk, it’s a question of to what extent institutions and society can constrain the president.”

Violence And Oppression

With a bandage on his ear, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a military ceremony in honor of Sailor Day in Brasilia, Brazil, on Dec. 13, 2019. Bolsonaro said to the press on Dec. 11 that he has a possible skin cancer after he had a mole removed from his ear.
With a bandage on his ear, Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a military ceremony in honor of Sailor Day in Brasilia, Brazil, on Dec. 13, 2019. Bolsonaro said to the press on Dec. 11 that he has a possible skin cancer after he had a mole removed from his ear.

Nothing drew more attention to Bolsonaro and Brazil in the first year of his presidency than the record number of fires that raged across the Amazon rainforest in August and September, highlighting the threat his policies posed to the forest and the global fight against climate change. Bolsonaro has loosened environmental regulations and further gutted agencies in charge of environmental oversight, both of which have led to drastic reductions in environmental enforcement and contributed, experts say, to the outbreak of fires and increases in deforestation.

It was evident even before he took office that Bolsonaro’s presidency would, at a minimum, make Brazil a more dangerous place for its most vulnerable citizens, and the fires were proof of the dangers he posed to Brazil’s Indigenous people ― who warned early on that Bolsonaro risked subjecting them to “genocide.”

Raids by wildcat loggers and miners who no longer fear government fines or retribution have led to the murder of numerous tribal leaders attempting to defend the lands Bolsonaro pledged to strip protections from. In 2019, killings of Indigenous Brazilians reached their highest levels in more than two decades.

The fires, and Bolsonaro’s continued denial of them to international audiences, proved that “all the claims that Indigenous peoples of Brazil have been making are true,” Dinaman Tuxa, the executive coordinator of the Association of Indigenous People of Brazil, or APIB, said during a September press conference in New York.

Similarly vulnerable groups have found themselves in the same situation as Indigenous Brazilians. Of the groups that have drawn Bolsonaro’s ire across his nearly three decades in Brazil’s National Congress and during a violent and chaotic 2018 presidential campaign, few have been spared the wrath of he and his supporters since he took office.

Bolsonaro, who once said he would rather have a dead son than a gay one, began his presidency by rolling back legal protections for LGBTQ people, and his raging against leftist “gender ideology” has led to efforts to eradicate programs to teach LGBTQ and gender equality in schools. In July, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that anti-discrimination laws covered LGBTQ people. But reports suggest increases in the number of attacks on LGBTQ people under Bolsonaro, and the fear that caused Jean Wyllys, one of Brazil’s first openly gay federal lawmakers, to resign his seat and flee the country is widespread in LGBTQ communities.

Bolsonaro promised to unleash Brazil’s already-deadly police to kill with impunity to combat violent crime, and he has done exactly that. Even though proposed legislation to codify that indemnity never passed, the signal that police were free from scrutiny was received. The number of police killings from 2019 is widely expected to exceed the more than 6,200 that occurred nationwide the year prior.

In Rio de Janeiro alone, the violent police force Bolsonaro promised to further unleash has killed more than 1,600 people ― more than any other year in which data is available. Bolsonaro and his supporters, including Rio’s right-wing governor, credit these policies with modest drops in violent crime, but the reality is that crime rates were already falling from their peak three years ago, and the vast majority of the victims of police ― who are responsible for more than 30 percent of all homicides in Rio, according to researchers there ― were young, Black people whom police can easily wipe away as drug dealers deserving of their murders. (The police killing that drew some international news, that of 8-year-old Rio girl Agatha Sales Felix, stood out precisely because police couldn’t credibly claim she was a drug dealer.)

Under Bolsonaro, who never misses an opportunity to appeal to the most virulent strains of machismo that run through his base of support, the number of femicides ― killings of women simply because they are women ― increased 4 percent in 2019 even as overall homicide figures fell. It’s possible those increases are due to more accurate reporting under Brazil’s femicide law; still, in a country where domestic violence rates are also on the rise, women have warned that Bolsonaro’s efforts to relax gun ownership laws would put them more at risk.

‘People Are Worried About The Next Three Years’

Bolsonaro was widely considered one of the most immediately dangerous of the far-right leaders who have risen to power across the world over the last decade. Though he mimicked President Donald Trump and even embraced the nickname that he was “The Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro assumed control of a much younger democracy with much weaker institutions than exist in the United States.

Bolsonaro, who relentlessly attacked the legitimacy of the press during his campaign, has continued to do so as president, and not just with his ubiquitous cries of “fake news.” He has threatened to cancel government advertising contracts with large newspapers he doesn’t like, and even tried to bar government offices from subscribing to Brazil’s biggest newspaper. He has emboldened supporters to attack journalists, too, both online and in person: Patricia Campos Mello, an award-winning reporter for Folha de S.Paulo, said at a New York ceremony this year that reporters, and especially female reporters, are more at risk now than they have been at any time since the end of the dictatorship.

His attacks on the press have gelled with his broader agenda: When The Intercept Brazil exposed potential corruption within the very anti-corruption probe that helped pave the way for Bolsonaro’s election, he launched into a homophobic tirade against Glenn Greenwald, the gay American journalist who helped launch the outlet, and his husband, leftist congressman David Miranda.

Bolsonaro, too, has targeted civil society, as he promised to do on the eve of his election. He has baselessly blamed nongovernmental organizations for setting the Amazon fires and any number of other problems he perceives. He has cut government funding for nonprofit groups and organizations and waged an ideological battle against universities and the liberal arts.

His culture and religious war has inflamed attacks on the arts and cultural institutions that espouse more progressive views or criticize his policies ― in December, a right-wing fascist group took credit for an attack on a theater that produced a play that portrayed Jesus as a gay man. Bolsonaro himself has threatened to censor or shutter Brazil’s film agency.

Bolsonaro has also worked around the Congress rather than through it, relying more on presidential decrees than any of his predecessors since the return of democracy. And he has turned his ire on both the Congress and the judiciary when either acts against him.

One of the major fears that existed at the outset of Bolsonaro’s presidency was that he may slowly usher in a new period of militarized rule, given his over-reliance on generals and Army men in his Cabinet. That hasn’t come to pass: The military, in fact, has been largely marginalized in his ruling coalition ― Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a former general, has barely been heard from in months.

Instead, a cadre of conspiracy-minded “anti-globalists” ― of the sort who believe everything from climate change to the United Nations is a communist plot against Brazil and Bolsonaro ― has dominated the president’s ear. That wing includes Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo and Bolsonaro’s sons ― three of whom are also lawmakers. The one general who has remained influential has folded himself into the anti-globalist faction; the neoliberal plank of Bolsonaro’s coalition, meanwhile, has either radicalized in concert with the conspiracy theorists or ignored them in an attempt to plow ahead with drastic reforms to the economy.

The influence of the anti-globalists may be even more dangerous, and portend even worse things to come. It is this wing of his support that has the least respect for democratic institutions, as evidenced by Eduardo Bolsonaro’s comments in October 2018 that his father could move to shutter the Federal Supreme Court if necessary. This year, Eduardo Bolsonaro also suggested that the government could institute a new version of Institutional Act Number Five ― the dictatorship-era decree that closed the Congress, effectively legalized torture and is largely regarded as the harshest of the military junta’s policies.

Bolsonaro hasn’t taken such a drastic step yet, but the mere mention of AI-5, as the decree was known, sparked panic among Brazilians who remember the darkest days of the dictatorship, and it followed the tried and true formula Bolsonaro has used for years: His sons or surrogates suggest increasingly radical ideas, shifting the discourse in an ever more menacing direction. Sure enough, the supposedly more responsible figures in Bolsonaro’s government ― particularly Paulo Guedes, the University of Chicago-educated neoliberal economic minister who helped bring the country’s financial elites into Bolsonaro’s fold ― also suggested that a new AI-5 could be a justifiable response to opposition.

There remains a steady resistance to Bolsonaro’s worst anti-democratic impulses inside Brazil, even if its leftist political parties have not formed much of one on their own. The Brazilian press has acted critically and forcefully; artists and musicians like Caetano Veloso, the famous singer who was imprisoned during Brazil’s dictatorship, have formed a backbone of resistance to Bolsonaro, while warning of the dangers he poses to democracy and free expression.

Movements of LGBTQ people, Black Brazilians and the Indigenous have taken their concerns to the world: Bolsonaro’s government has been on the receiving end of 37 formal complaints to the United Nations alleging various human rights abuses ― a marker, the journalist Jamil Chade wrote recently, of “the realization ... that Brazil is experiencing its worst international human rights moment since the re-establishment of democracy in 1985.”

The world, as a result, is more aware of the risks Brazil faces now than it was when democracy fell apart there a half-century ago.

But it’s possible that Bolsonaro may be setting up even harsher responses to such opposition ― the threats of a return to the harsh tactics of the military regime, Green of Brown University said, were a signal that the response to any outbreak of protests like those that have rocked Latin America this year “will be repression.”

And while Bolsonaro’s reliance on decrees limits his effectiveness as a leader, given that they remain temporary unless the Congress ratifies them, they have also potentially set up a convenient fight between the president and the legislative branch in which Bolsonaro could argue, as Stuenkel of the Getulio Vargas Foundation said, that “all of the problems that exist in my government exist because this system doesn’t allow me to get things done, and that’s because of the legislature and the Supreme Court.”

Bolsonaro, Stuenkel said, may be pushing to argue that he needs “special powers to get things moving.”

That may sound alarmist. But given Bolsonaro’s track record, and his affinity for authoritarians of yesteryear and today (he once said Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s only shortfall was that he didn’t kill enough), there is little reason to shrug this all off. Not in a country where support for democracy was declining even before Bolsonaro’s election; where protests calling for the closure of the Congress and the Federal Supreme Court have broken out in Brasilia and elsewhere; where support for Bolsonaro remains relatively high, even if it has declined from its peak; and where the opposition parties to his left have yet to coalesce into any meaningful counterbalancing force.

The alarmists, after all, have proved to be correct about Bolsonaro so far, and their fears have only deepened.

“People are worried about the next three years,” Stuenkel said. “I expect it to get worse.”

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