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Meet the New Brazil. A Lot Like the Old Brazil.

History helps explain Jair Bolsonaro’s surge to the cusp of the presidency, writes AQ’s editor-in-chief.
Dario Oliveira/NurPhoto via Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO  What’s happening in Brazil this week shouldn’t really be a surprise.

It’s happened many times before.

Here in Rio, the capital from 1763 to 1960, you see the evidence most clearly:

The imposing old Ministry of War downtown. The fort at the end of Copacabana Beach. The military base in Urca, with its privileged view of the Sugarloaf. The staggering number of streets named after generals, colonels and dictators. 

Indeed, for much of Brazil’s history, and as recently as 1985, it was the military who held or shared power. Who acted as the supposed guarantors of “order.” Who “intervened” when civilian leaders mucked things up.

Most of us thought those days had ended with the Cold War. But the extraordinary crisis of the last four years has led many Brazilians to consider the once unthinkable. Soaring crime, the worst recession in at least a century, the constant scandals out of the capital Brasília, and the fear of another incompetent leftist government have much of the country screaming out for order yet again.

The beneficiary in 2018 is Jair Bolsonaro, the former army captain who has surged in polls in recent days and now has a 10 percentage point lead over his closest rival. Whether he wins outright in Sunday’s election, or faces a runoff on Oct. 28 against the Workers’ Party’s Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro now seems on the verge of becoming Brazil’s next president. He no longer wears his uniform, but make no mistake: He is the modern-day heir to Brazil’s long tradition of soldiers in power. His would be a military government in many ways. 

An exaggeration? Well, you can start with Bolsonaro’s past rhetoric  his fetishization of the 1964-85 dictatorship, his enthusiastic support for torturing leftists and other political opponents, the numerous times he advocated closing down Congress entirely. But there is more recent, and arguably more relevant, evidence as well. Bolsonaro picked as his running mate Hamilton Mourão, a recently retired general who has since raised the possibility of a “self-coup,” in which the military would help the president secure greater powers. Bolsonaro’s aides say a majority of ministries  defense, education and the chief of staff's office among them  will be held by military personnel. A September report by UOL counted nine retired generals, and just one civilian, among the key figures planning policy in an eventual Bolsonaro government.

Yes, Donald Trump has put retired generals in his cabinet as well. It’s possible a new Brazilian military government would not be as heavy-handed as the past one. Bolsonaro has insisted he will respect institutions, and pointed to his 27 years in Congress as proof he values that body’s importance. Civil society, the judiciary and other Brazilian institutions are all more vibrant than they were three decades ago. The military itself has evolved, and is filled with several modern figures who reject authoritarian rule. Some are reputed to hold Bolsonaro in low esteem.

But the truth is that, if elected, Bolsonaro will have tremendous power. And  sadly  he will face relatively little pressure from society to respect human rights or democratic rules of the game. After the multiple crises of recent years, just 8 percent of Brazilians now say representative democracy is a “very good” form of government  the lowest of 38 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center. In contrast, nearly 40 percent of respondents told Pew that military rule would be good for the country. 

Even if Bolsonaro loses, this reawakened side of Brazil seems here to stay. If he wins, there are signs that what’s coming could be a vindictive, bloody regime. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has not moderated as the election draws closer. On national TV in late August, he said criminals are “not normal human beings,” and that police “who kill 10, 15 or 20 (people) with 10 or 30 bullets each … should be decorated, not prosecuted.” His approach is also spawning imitators  João Doria, the frontrunner to become the next governor of São Paulo, said this week that state police under his watch “will shoot to kill.” Two weeks ago, a founder of the Facebook group “Women United Against Bolsonaro” was severely beaten by three men waiting in the doorway of her house in Rio. Leftist legislators in Rio have related a sharp rise in death threats and other intimidation as the election draws closer.

Many think they see the writing on the wall, and are already making plans. At least a dozen people I spoke to this week spontaneously mentioned the possibility of exile. One said his young daughter had attended last Saturday’s women’s march against Bolsonaro. “I’m afraid she’s going to have a very difficult adolescence,” he said, shaking his head. One activist said he was already training colleagues on clandestine forms of communication, fearing greater monitoring by intelligence agencies. Journalists are worried about pressure to self-censor, and fall in line behind a candidate who has strong support from the business world. “We’ve seen this film in Brazil before,” one editor told me. “But I never thought we’d have to actually live it.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Winter is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly magazine and the vice president for policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. A best-selling author and columnist, Brian is a leading expert on Latin America and a frequent speaker for international media and events.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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