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Wed Oct 10, 2018, 11:10 PM


OCTOBER 10, 2018

Jair Bolsonaro’s rise shows the worrying possibility of a return to military rule…


On October 7th, Congressman Jair Messias Bolsonaro secured a place in Brazil’s presidential runoff election. Bolsonaro is competing against Fernando Haddad from the center-left Workers’ Party (PT). Haddad is a moderate college professor and the former mayor of São Paulo, chosen by the PT to replace the popular but highly divisive former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva who remains jailed under corruption charges. Bolsonaro entered the presidential race in a minuscule political party—the Brazilian system is full of them—called the Social Liberal Party (PSL), which had only one representative in the lower house before this election. His campaign, improvised and informal, focused on distributing memes and spreading fake news on WhatsApp. Nonetheless, Bolsonaro swept the first round with forty-six percent of the votes against Haddad’s twenty-nine percent, disproving every pundit and opinion poll. Until weeks ago, this outcome seemed unlikely. Yet, a closer look at Brazil’s history of military rule helps explain the appeal of Bolsonaro’s deeply reactionary politics.

While voting to impeach Dilma Rousseff, the first woman President of Brazil, on the Congress floor on April 17, 2016, Bolsonaro declared: “They lost in ‘64, they lost now in 2016 … against Communism, for our freedom … in memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff … for our Armed Forces, I vote yea.” Carlos Ustra was a colonel in the Brazilian Army and the head of the DOI-CODI, a torture center that terrified Brazil while the country lived under military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. During Ustra’s tenure from 1970 to 1973, DOI-CODI tortured more than 300 people, including pregnant women and children as young as five. Like most Brazilians, Bolsonaro was also well aware that in 1970, military officers had arrested and tortured former President Rousseff for twenty-two days for being a member of an urban guerrilla group that fought the dictatorship. By evoking the memory of a torturer, Bolsonaro knew which buttons to press.

Bolsonaro has spent his three-decade career in the Brazilian Congress building a public profile as an apologist for the military regime. His discourse reproduces a more pedestrian version of the mentality of the generals who ruled Brazil when Bolsonaro spent as an Army captain, following his graduation from the Agulhas Negras military academy in 1977. It reflects a shallow nationalism and an obsession with persecuting internal enemies—“communists,” “f—-ts,” “subversives,” and “Indians”— and appeals to using clandestine violence to purge the nation of them. It shows an extreme reverence for the Armed Forces, particularly the Army, as the bedrock of the republic, and displays bitter contempt for the electoral process based on the belief that the “rabble” does not know how to vote. In a now famous TV interview from 1999, Bolosonaro declared that the military dictatorship— its hundreds of extra-judicial killings and thousands of people tortured notwithstanding—had failed to “finish its job.” He continued, “You are not going to change anything through voting.” Change, whatever that meant, would only come through a “civil war,” with the Army resuming the dictatorship’s campaign against internal enemies and “killing at least 30,000” more, including most of the political class. In his rhetoric, LGBT and other minorities must learn their place and disappear from the public sphere. Political adversaries are crooked subversives who should be straightened with a “good” beating and electric shocks. And death squads are the permanent solution for common criminals.

There is no question Bolsonaro is a fascist. But he is a Brazilian kind of fascist, astute at drawing upon the aesthetics of violence of the Southern Cone military regimes for his own political gain. Bolsonaro spent most of his political career as a fringe politician. He was a joke to the mainstream media and nothing more than a curiosity nationwide. For a while, his appeal seemed limited to a niche electorate of retired military, police officers, and the then-minuscule far right in Rio de Janeiro. His rallying point, besides diatribes against democracy and human rights, was to improve the salary of personnel in the Armed Forces. This helped elected him to Congress seven times.


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