Brazil, with a population of 211 million, has had what many experts argue is the second worst response in the world to the novel coronavirus. Regardless of where it places under this grim metric, the country is closing in on 300,000 deaths and now faces a little understood local variant that seems to be driving rising infection rates.
The country’s president has reacted to the ongoing tragedy not with compassion but with exaggerated toughness, telling Brazilians in a speech earlier this month, “Enough fussing and whining. How much longer will the crying go on?”
Even before the pandemic, the country’s democracy was under attack from it’s answer to the rightwing populism that’s displaced traditional conservatism in countries as diverse as India and the United States. Under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro, critics have faced harassment in various forms, from the relatively recent phenomenon of online trolling mobs to investigations under the National Security Law, a product of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship that Bolsonaro served in as a junior officer and often seems to wish to restore.
As an editorial in the newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo put it earlier this month, “The president, his family, his administration and his followers… are blatantly promoting an intimidation campaign against his political opponents, as if free thought and free speech did not exist in this country.”
Like other leaders on the right who call themselves populists, Bolsonaro takes an especially aggressive rhetorical approach to the press, using his social media channels to attack corporate outlets and independent investigative reporters alike. Similar to Donald Trump, who he appeared at times to idolize, his attacks are amplified online and in popular Brazilian What’s App groups by his followers.
Many of those inflamed by the Brazilian president have then taken it upon themselves to send threats to reporters and other media, others have done much worse.
In one example of the latter, in Rio de Janeiro on June 12th of last year, an unidentified man with a knife took reporter Marina Araujo hostage in the studios of Globo Television after screaming a slogan against the network promoted by the president. As reported by Slate at the time, representatives of the network blamed mental illness for the incident but, considering the man’s use of the slogan, ‘Globo Lixo’, (‘Globo is Garbage’) it’s hard to believe that online incitement played no role.
Bolsonaro has spoken in ways that make the former U.S. president seem subtle in comparison. In an early January Facebook live stream he attacked both Globo and a newspaper, the Folha de São Paulo, blaming them for the country’s response to the health crisis and concluding, “The press is responsible for the panic in the country and the loss of lives during the pandemic, a national disgrace.”
It seemed unlikely just a few years ago that such a marginal figure, who appealed to a tiny reactionary minority over a 27 year career in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, could have ever become president if it wasn’t for the faux populist path revealed by his American counterpart, a large amount of luck and the work of some in law enforcement and the judicial branch reportedly most focused on bringing down the leadership of the PT or Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party) as part of what was advertised as an investigation into widespread government corruption across party lines.
What we might call a preemptive judicial coup took place in Brazil prior to the 2018 election when a person intimately involved in these investigations, Sergio Moro, who was a judge at the time, used his position initiate proceeding against Luiz Ignacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, allegedly aiding the prosecution along the way before convicting the former president for corruption. Lula, as he is most often referred to, was imprisoned from April 2018 to November 2019 and was prevented from running in an election he was almost sure to win.
The former president’s removal from the race opened a wide lane to Bolsonaro, who, despite his history of racist, sexist and anti-LGBTQ invective, was even endorsed by the Wall Street Journal prior to the election as the safe choice for business interests in the country and abroad.
Just as Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, DC, Bolsonaro promised to take on the corruption revealed by the Lava Jato (‘Car Wash’) investigations. Also, just like his American counterpart, once in power, he began working with many in the country’s political establishment who might have been targets of unbiased investigations (including three of his own sons) themselves. Despite his talk, Bolsonaro and his ministers promote standard conservative policies like deregulation and opening public lands, including those promised to indigenous peoples under law, to exploitation by corporations and the country’s oligarchic landowning class.
Bolsonaro brought the ‘Lava Jato’ investigations to an end in the spring of 2020, making the claim that under his leadership, “there is no more corruption in the government.”
Moro, who became Bolsonaro’s justice minister for a short time before leaving this post in 2020, has watched as his two convictions against Lula were overturned by the country’s Supreme Court, opening up the possibility that the former president could run again in 2022.
Another recent high court decision found that Moro’s convictions of the former president were biased. As explained by BrasilWire, the former judge may now face a felony investigation on the basis of this decision, which alleged some evidence tampering and collusion with prosecutors on Moro’s part.
Reacting to this news, Senator Jean Paul Prates, a PT Senator, was quoted as saying, “Moro enters history as a judge who, for motives alien to the justice system, opted to strip the political rights of a great leader with whom he didn’t agree.”
Lula, is, in my opinion, that rarest of things in politics and beyond, an example of someone who rose to great heights on the basis of merit. The former head of state had a long history as an organizer in the metal workers union in the suburb of Sao Paulo where he grew up, Sao Bernardo do Campo, and left school and started supporting his family at age 12. His is very different upbringing from most of his contemporaries in national politics who attended elite private schools in the country and abroad and his closeness to real working people showed in the progressive policies he championed.
One program, the Bolsa Familia, implemented during his first term in office, which supplements the incomes of the poor and ensures that children are in school, halved poverty in the country between 2003 and 2014.
Beyond Brazil’s borders, Lula’s imprisonment launched an international progressive campaign for his freedom that brought together a coalition including political figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, left podcasters and activists on the streets and online who helped secure his release in 2019. These efforts that kept the former president’s case in the public eye should not be forgotten and showed that there are some fights the international left can win.
Lula has not yet announced whether he will run in the 2022 elections or choose to do something else. If he does run he could join a renewed wave of leftist victories in the region that began in Bolivia and Argentina and potentially help touch off a new ‘Pink Tide’ that offers a different path to the austerity politics of the center or the reactionary nationalism of an increasingly radical right. During this time of crisis in Latin America and the world, both of these paths have clearly failed.