Brazil is falling into an abyss

The images of that fateful day, 8 January 2023, are still vivid in my mind. It was Sunday, I was at my house in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil, and I turned on the TV live as usual. The scenes I saw on CNN were ones of barbarism and destruction at the Three Powers Plaza, in Brasília. While watching the images of the police allowing a free passage to the horde of Jair Bolsonaro supporters, I felt fear and outrage. They destroyed all the buildings of the National Congress, the Federal Supreme Court and the president’s house, the Planalto Palace.

According to Alexandre de Moraes, Minister of the Supreme Court Federal (STF), at least 140 of the 1,500 Bolsonaristas arrested for the attacks are accused of terrorist acts, criminal association and threat and incitement of violence. For Moraes, the crimes are “very serious” and were committed “evidently out of step with the guarantee of freedom of expression”, provided for in Article 5 of the Constitution.

But it is precisely freedom of expression that Bolsonaristas claim as an argument for – and justification of – their dissemination of hate speech and fake news, acts of racism or any type of violent action. And now, after the arrests of the perpetrators of the attacks in Brasília, they claim to be victims of “censorship”.

In the days leading up to the attacks, inflammatory rhetoric intensified on social media and included a series of thinly veiled metaphors. The main one was an invitation to “Selma’s Party”.

“Selma” is a play on the word selva, which means jungle in Portuguese, and is also used by the Brazilian military as a greeting or war cry. This vocabulary is the result of long exposure to a sea of fake news broadcast on Bolsonarist’s profiles and channels, especially on WhatsApp, Telegram, YouTube and Twitter, always in the name of “God, homeland and family” – that’s why they self-styled as “patriots”. The daily gaslighting is also promoted via TV channels, radio and Jair Bolsonaro himself, who has long been raising doubts about the electoral process and promoting the cult of violence and destruction of the “enemy”.

It became so serious that even I began to worry about what would happen on 31 October 2022, the day of the elections: social media posts said that anyone who voted for Lula would be identified by their hair or the colour of their clothes and would die. (Those who are Bolsonaristas usually wear the shirts of the Brazilian soccer team.)

The result of this social media intoxication is a subsect of people who are detached from reality: of these some think that the elections were rigged by the STF, that Lula is dead and the person in his place is a double, that Brazil will become a communist country. They even prayed collectively to be saved by extraterrestrials and, of course, said that the attacks in Brasília were carried out by “infiltrators of the left”. It’s a collective psychosis.

By inverting rational logic, the Bolsonarist discourse sounds like a delirium, and it is tempting to classify it in the realm of the ridiculous. But the concrete results of the denial of reality and the proclamation of hatred have now come to fruition.

Today, by saying they’ve been censored, the Bolsonarist camp is basically calling for revenge. They say they are victims of political persecution and that the Lula government and the STF are disrespecting the Constitution, which, by the way, had copies stolen and torn in the attacks. They’ve been led down an even darker path, saying that Brazil is living under a dictatorship. Censorship, whether real or imaginary, has become a useful tool for a Bolsonarist who wants to continue promoting chaos.

That said, the response to the attacks has been troubling. On the surface, it seems reasonable for the STF to repress disinformation and suspend profiles on social networks, even more so now, after the attacks. The justification for suspending Bolsonarist profiles has a legal basis in the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet (Law 12,965/2014).

In addition to suspending profiles, the STF and the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) have ordered the removal of posts (especially on Twitter) that attack democracy and spread conspiracy theories. Among them was the influencer “Monark” (1.4 million followers) and Nikolas Ferreira, a federal representative from the state of Minas Gerais, with two million followers, both of whom were suspended from Twitter for their perceived role in the coup.

There is also the “Democracy Package”, launched on 26 January. It is a series of measures prepared by the Minister of Justice, Flavio Dino, including the regulation of social networking platforms to curb “political crimes” and ban content judged undemocratic. It is not yet known what the criteria will be, but it is clearly a proposal to limit freedom of expression and the plurality of speech online. This set of measures will be sent to the National Congress for a vote.

On the surface reasonable yes, but in reality the “deplatforming” is dangerous because it already serves as a basis for the extreme right to say they are being persecuted and censored, and this gives even more fuel for a violent civil insurrection with military support. Also where will it end? Where is the line?

Of course it’s not easy to decide the limits of free expression at this moment. Still, have authorities got the balance right? Since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, I’ve never come across such a fine line between liberty and punishment, as well as surveillance on social media – and I fear where it will lead.

On 12 December, 2022, the date of Lula’s inauguration as president-elect, hundreds of Bolsonaristas promoted a riot in Brasília, culminating in the invasion of the Federal Police building and burning of vehicles, including several buses, one of them hanging on the side of an overpass where traffic was flowing. Then, on 24 December 2022, a truck loaded with explosives was located near Brasília airport. The man behind the truck bomb confessed to being a Bolsonarist and said the act was planned by a group that had been camped in front of the Army General Headquarters for more than two months.

The military has been accused of assisting in the execution of plans by the far right. Even President Lula himself claimed that there was “evidence” of collusion between them and Bolsonaro’s supporters.

If you say this to a Bolsonarist though he will laugh in your face and say it’s all a lie from the media. He will believe that the people dressed in green and yellow in Brasilia, on 8 January 2023, were members of the left who wanted to carry out a “self-coup” days after being victorious in the elections in a pledge to crack down on Bolsonaro supporters.

This is the abyss Brazil has plunged into since Bolsonaro lost the election. On top of refusing to accept defeat, he has sought refuge in the United States since 29 December 2022, maintaining a strategic and deliberate silence for his supporters. Meanwhile, faced with immense challenges –  maintaining democratic values while punishing those who broke the law – Lula finds himself walking in cotton shoes on glass. It’s hard work and the events of early January are not over yet.

Can a familiar face herald a new start in Brazil?

On 30 October, Brazilians took part in one of the most fiercely contested presidential elections in their country’s  history. It divided the country right down the middle:, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Workers Party) received more than 60.3 million votes (50.9%), winning the support of more voters than any president in the history of Brazil, defeating the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party), who was seeking four more years in power.

“Democracy has spoken in Brazil”, wrote the French newspaper Le Monde. For many, it was the victory of respect for democracy, against the intolerance represented by the extreme right personified in Bolsonaro. 

I have been living in the United Kingdom since 2020 but travelled to Brazil a few days before the first round of the elections, which took place on 2 October. I was able to vote in both rounds and was glad to do so, as I believe we don’t vote only for ourselves. Voting is a collective action, especially in Brazil, where it has been mandatory since 1932. It is also easy and quick, as we vote using electronic machines where we type the candidate’s number, press confirm and it’s done. That’s why the counting of votes in Brazil is fast and allows the country to announce the results on the same day. 

As soon as I arrived in my home town of Curitiba, in the south of Brazil, I noticed people were getting ready for the elections. Many homes and cars were decorated with Brazil’s flag, a sign of support for current president Jair Bolsonaro. Although in smaller numbers, I could also see people backing Lula, especially in pubs and neighbourhoods linked to the left-wing. This support for Bolsonaro was evident in the final results: in the second round, Bolsonaro won 720,322 votes in Curitiba, while Lula won 391,675. Curitiba is not alone in being pro-Bolsonaro; the incumbent president enjoyed some of his strongest support in the white-majority southern state of Paraná in which it is located. But the North East of Brazil, where he obtained 69% of the vote, proved decisive for Lula’s victory. 

Throughout the presidential race, Bolsonaro tried to delegitimise the electoral process. More than once, the outgoing president tried to discredit the electronic voting machines, which make the elections in Brazil one of the most transparent and safest in the world The legitimacy of the elections was confirmed by international observers from the Organisation of American States. In the week before the second round, Bolsonaro said that without the presence of the Armed Forces it would be impossible to give a stamp of credibility to electronic voting machines. His supporters, encouraged by his anti-democratic speeches, pushed for a return to printed voting papers, where the possibility of fraud is higher.

As the elections approached, knowing his chances of re-election were diminishing, Bolsonaro began to take populist measures, such as increasing the value of Auxílio Brasil (Brazil’s social assistance programme) and lowering the price of petrol. Even so, Bolsonaro became the first president to fail to be reelected since reelection was instituted in 1997.

Historically in Brazil, the defeated candidate calls the winner on the same day the results are announced, wishing the future president luck, as well as making a statement to the press, recognising the result and respecting democracy. This was the first time that the defeated candidate had not spoken right after the result was confirmed since the adoption of electronic voting machines in the presidential elections of 1998. Bolsonaro broke his silence two days later, saying that as president, he would continue to respect Brazil’s Constitution. He did not mention his rival Lula and didn’t answer questions from journalists. Lula’s victory signals Brazil’s return to the international stage at a time of global crisis. The Guardian wrote that “his victory over the current right-wing extremist, Jair Bolsonaro, is also good for the world”. Norway has already announced that it will once again send financial resources in the fight against deforestation of the Amazon l, as Lula reinforced during his campaign the importance of preserving the rainforest and the lives of indigenous peoples. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak congratulated Lula on his victory and said he wanted to work together with Brazil to strengthen the global economy and promote democratic values. Joe Biden also sent his congratulations to the future Brazilian president and stressed that the elections were fair and free. Emmanuel Macron said that Lula’s election opens a new page in the country’s history and wants to join forces to renew the bond of friendship between France and Brazil. 

Since the beginning of his term in 2019, Bolsonaro has tried in every way to divide the country and promote hatred. Families have been fighting over politics and bonds have been broken because people can’t stand the other side anymore. When Bolsonaro took over the presidency, he said that minorities would have to bow to the majority. Lula, shortly after being officially declared the next President of the Republic, said that as of January 2023 he will govern for 215 million Brazilians and not just for those who voted for him. 

“There are not two ‘Brazils’. We are one country, one people, one great nation,” said the president-elect. 

As for freedom of expression and the press, it is expected that Lula’s victory will improve both. Many Brazilians opposed to Bolsonaro have not expressed support for their preferred candidates for fear of reprisal and violence. It was not uncommon for Lula supporters to be physically attacked or even killed, as in the case of Marcelo Arruda, treasurer of the Workers Party, who was shot dead in Foz do Iguaçu, at his own birthday party, by a supporter of Jair Bolsonaro. Likewise, journalists were constantly attacked by Bolsonaro in his speeches. 

Shortly after Lula’s victory was announced, Bolsonaro supporters began to demonstrate on the country’s roads and introduced illegal blockades on 227 federal highways, in protest against the election results and asking for military intervention and new elections. The newspaper O Estado de São Paulo reported, on Telegram, that groups who support Bolsonaro claim to be at war against Communism and that they will use violence if needed. Some protesters were seen using Nazi salutes. On Tuesday, 1 November, the Federal Court of Justice ordered the unblocking of the occupied highways. One day later, Bolsonaro asked everyone to clear the highways, saying he believed this was not a legitimate demonstration. 

Bolsonaro’s legacy is clear. Almost 700,000 deaths from the Covid-19 pandemic, disrespect for science, more than 33 million Brazilians going hungry, support for the 1964 military coup and a contempt for democracy and freedom of expression. On the night of 30 October, thousands of people headed to Avenida Paulista, one of the most important in the city of São Paulo, to celebrate Lula’s victory and await the future president. 

“This country needs peace and unity,” Lula said. The front cover of O Estado de São Paulo quoted one of Lula’s phrases after his triumph: “time to put down our weapons”. The hope is that Lula will once again bring international respect to Brazil. 

Brazil: tragedy, farce and fascism

It seems incredible but Brazil is becoming a hotbed of fascism, something we thought was more of a European phenomenon. Michel Gherman, a member of the Far Right Observatory, a collaboration between academics from more than 10 Brazilian universities and from other countries, says that Bolsonaro’s election has created a “Disneyland of neo-Nazism in Brazil”, because those who defend him “begin to feel more at ease”.  It is true. After the end of the Brazilian dictatorship in the 1980s, the extreme right was ashamed of itself or remained silent. Now its demons are loose, attacking democracy, killing democrats, because it feels protected by the individual in the presidency and the police around him.

To understand some of the reasons for Brazil reaching this state of affairs, it is well worth reading the book Passengers of the Storm: Fascists and Denialists in the Present Time, by professors Francisco Carlos Teixeira da Silva and Karl Schuster Sousa Leão. Published by Cepe, the second largest publishing house in Brazil, we can learn about the history of fascism in Italy, Germany and Japan, which did not remain in the past, because fascisms (that’s right in the plural) work until today on the great masses with irrationality, lies, the implausible and fear, according to the authors. During the research in the book we come to the Brazil of 2022:

“The current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, corroborates the authorisation of the indiscriminate use of violence by constructing and using social devices as a tool and policy. When he uses social media to state that ‘reporters should really be beaten’, being replicated by his supporters, seconds later, with the statements ‘journalists should be beaten’ and ‘journalists deserve to be beaten, YES’, he instrumentalises politics through a personal, authoritarian, and charismatic abuse of power that aestheticises sociability with the normalisation of the use of force.”

As early as the election campaign of 2018, Bolsonaro declared, “Let’s shoot the petralhada”, petralhada being a reference to left-wing supporters.

And then came the assassinations.

On Sunday, 18 October 2018 in Salvador, capoeira master Moa do Katendê was killed with 12 stab wounds in the back after defending voting for the Workers’ Party (PT) and declaring himself opposed to Bolsonaro.

In 2019, 61-year-old Antônio Carlos Rodrigues Furtado died of cardiac arrest in Balneário Camboriú, Santa Catarina after being kicked and punched by Bolsonarist Fábio Leandro Schwindlein.

In July 2022, Marcelo Aloizio de Arruda, 50, was shot to death at his birthday party by federal criminal police officer Jorge Guaranho. A Bolsonarist, the killer invaded Marcelo’s private party – which had the PT as its theme and images of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – shouting “here is Bolsonaro”, shooting the host three times.

In early September, according to the Civil Police of Mato Grosso, Benedito dos Santos, a Lula voter, was killed by an attacker wielding an axe.

Before this wave of political crimes committed by Bolsonarists, Brazilian fascism presented both the stimulus and the approval for aggression against democracy. The book Passengers of the Storm says that in 2020 “35 per cent of officers and 41 per cent of military police soldiers throughout Brazil interact on social networks supporting President Jair Bolsonaro”. The authors go on to say, “Their positions in favour of the president, who for at least two years has openly discoursed against several governors, with the Northeast as a focus, make the issue even more politicised and instrumentalised.”

Karl Marx, in writing about the French coup of 1851, noted: “Hegel observes in one of his works that all the facts and characters of great importance in the history of the world occur, as it were, twice. But he forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

For Brazilians, we are now in the second phase of the tragic dictatorship that began in 1964. This is presented in two ways: the tragic destruction of lives by Covid, for which the president said he was not a mortician, and by the destruction of the Amazon.

In 2022, there is talk that garimpo (artisanal mining for precious commodities that is common in the Amazon and often illegal) has “lost its shame”. Under Bolsonaro’s barbarism, openly favourable to the interests of this illegal activity in the forest, the defenders of garimpo are circulating in the corridors of power in the Amazon’s capitals and in Brasilia, and intend to fly even higher: to occupy elective positions in the Legislative Assemblies and in the National Congress, in addition to the governors’ palaces.

Bolsonaro’s attacks on Brazil’s education system, the persecution of artists and the press are tragic but are farcical at the same time. Bolsonaro is ridiculed for being imbrochable, a man who never loses sexual potency, yet he revels in it and this shows in his shouting and speaking. We have reached the point where the animals speak. This is tragedy and farce in unity, the lowest and grossest comedy.

Bolsonaro, in one of his latest farces, has turned historian. He said, “I want to say that Brazilians have gone through difficult times, history shows us. 22, 65, 64, 16, 18, and now 22. History can repeat itself. Good has always won over evil”.

What are these dates he is referring to? It cannot be Modern Art Week because he doesn’t even know what that is. But how has good always triumphed over evil? With murder, torture and cold executions in the dictatorship? With wars and holocausts? Or with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or with the recent killings of Bruno and Dom in the Amazon? Or does good overcome evil when the forest is devastated? We understand the new language, an absolute inversion of values: good is evil, and evil must be the hope and struggle of the resistance.

For now, we can hope that this barbaric farce can be overcome. We, united, have the streetcar, the ship, the ship of future democracy, whose name is Lula, hopefully winner of the election’s first round. If it is not Lula, then we will sink in the darkness of Brazilian-style fascism.

‘Bolsonaro represents death’ reflects Brazilian journalist ahead of elections


President Bolsonaro has taken over the Brazilian flag as a symbol of patriotism to the country. Photo: Marcos Correa/Zuma Press

I was born in the city of Curitiba, in the south of Brazil, and I was always proud to be Brazilian. Since Jair Bolsonaro came to power on 1 January 2019 though it has been very upsetting to watch what has happened to my country.

Bolsonaro was elected – it wasn’t a coup – but he is not in favour of democracy. In fact he represents everything that a democracy isn’t — an enemy of women, Black people, the LGBTQ+ community and  Indigenous peoples. During his election campaign he propagated hatred with homophobic, misogynistic and anti-environmental rhetoric. Then, as soon as he began his term in 2019, he put all of his words into actions.

To begin with, firearm registration grew in the country. Support for carrying a weapon was one of the pillars of Bolsonaro’s campaign back in 2018. This worries me, as I am totally against arming the population. It makes me distressed to think of the danger that people I love are in with more guns out there. Bolsonaro relies on the premise that Brazilians have a way to defend themselves against bandits and criminals, but he forgets the main focus, which should be greater investment in public safety, better working conditions for police officers and more educational resources — the only possible way to reduce crime in the country.

An incident on 9 July in the city of Foz do Iguaçu is one example of how gun ownership can have terrible consequences. Municipal guard Marcelo Arruda, treasurer of the Workers’ Party, was celebrating his 50th birthday at a private party when he was shot dead by federal prison agent Jorge Guaranho, a supporter of Bolsonaro. It was a political crime. Arruda supported left-wing candidate Lula and Bolsonaro has been known to promote violence against those with opposing political views, as he did in 2018 when he encouraged his supporters to “shoot the petralhada” (a reference to left-wing supporters) on a visit to the state of Acre.

This incident also raises concerns over freedom of expression in Brazil. Is it no longer possible to support a candidate who is against the current government without automatically becoming the target of violent and radical people?

Bolsonaro is clearly not concerned about the high rates of deforestation in the Amazon and Pantanal region. The situation in the Amazon received a lot of attention in June with the murder of British journalist Dom Philips, together with Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira, who were exposing the scale of environmental destruction at the moment. Their murders were awful, in general and for their families. They also spoke more broadly of Bolsonaro’s disregard for the lives of Brazilians.

For me, Bolsonaro represents death. It is difficult to forget his neglect of the Brazilian people in the worst moments of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic started he adopted denialism. He encouraged the use of ineffective drugs and delayed the purchase of vaccines. As a result, people close to me saw family members and friends die from a disease even after the vaccine became available. My family and best friends received their first dose of the vaccine months after those in the UK did, a wait that made me anxious. (As an aside, because of Bolsonaro’s reckless actions, Brazil was on the UK travel red list for almost a year. I couldn’t go back to Brazil and no one could visit me in England. It was 10 months of loneliness, not knowing when I would see the ones I love the most.) In the end, Bolsonaro is partly responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands in Brazil from Covid. How can I not be disgusted by a president who, when asked if he had any words of solidarity with the victims’ families, said “I’m not a gravedigger, OK?”

In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, journalism has also been devalued and attacked with alarming regularity. The president himself has verbally attacked journalists. Examples date back decades and are many, but you don’t have to go back decades to find them. A couple of weeks ago will do. On 28 August, during a presidential debate when journalist Vera Magalhães criticised Bolsonaro’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, he called her a “disgrace to Brazilian journalism”. And just this week, he lashed out at the journalist Amanda Klein. When Klein asked Bolsonaro about his finances related to property acquisitions, he said:  “Amanda, you are married to someone who supports me”. The journalist promptly answered by saying that her personal life was not on the agenda, which was followed by Bolsonaro questining why his was. “Because you are a public person. You are the president,” she responded, correctly.

These two journalists also shared another thing in common – their gender. Bolsonaro’s contempt and awful treatment towards women is widely known in Brazil. In 2003, for example, he told the politician Maria do Rosário that he wouldn’t rape her because she didn’t deserve it. Eleven years later, he elaborated by saying that she didn’t deserve to be raped because she was ugly and not his type. And yet there are still women who vote for him, something I just can’t understand.

Bolsonaro took over the Brazilian flag with his motto “God above all, Brazil above all”. Before him, when I saw the green and yellow flag – which I think is one of the most beautiful in the world – in houses or on the streets, it was usually people cheering for Brazil on the day of a World Cup match. Today, it’s difficult not to associate the flag with Bolsonaro supporters.

Bolsonaro does not represent me, nor the millions of other Brazilians who have taken a stand against his atrocities. Brazil is much bigger than Bolsonaro. It is a country of exuberant beauty and many kind and generous people. I am proud to be Brazilian and that will never change. One day Bolsonaro will be held accountable for all his actions. Hopefully that day is soon.