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Brazil on the Eve of Authoritarian Rule


It’s all true: life in Belo Horizonte before the election of Jair Bolsonaro

The rise of Jair Bolsonaro has been a slow, sulfurous arc, like a warning flare that Brazil’s three-decade democratic project stands on a crumbling foundation. During the past five years of political and economic chaos in Brazil, Bolsonaro slithered from the fringes of national politics to center stage, using social networks and religious media to rally the country’s “Bullets, Beef, and Bible” caucus of gun advocates, ranchers, and evangelicals around a promise that military discipline will return the country to order and progress. His racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and fascist statements have entranced millions of voters who are desperate for change at any cost. Now, in the wake of Bolsonaro’s victory, Brazil waits to see whether he will turn back the clock to the bloodiest years of the military dictatorship, when university students and other dissidents across the country were shot, abducted, tortured, and disappeared.

The night before what was scheduled to be the final, pivotal debate between Bolsonaro and Workers’ Party opponent Fernando Haddad, twenty-nine-year-old Sarah, an emergency room doctor, and her girlfriend Lívia, a twenty-eight-year-old industrial engineer, were unwinding with beer and cigarettes outside a pub in Savassi, a trendy enclave of restaurants, bars, and cafés in Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city in the country. Underneath her unbuttoned flannel, Sarah wore a Roger Waters T-shirt, purchased at his concert a few days earlier. For two weeks, Waters had been rousing stadium crowds on a nationwide tour by displaying anti-fascist messages and the anti-Bolsonaro slogan #EleNão (“not him”) on a giant screen onstage, and during his show in Belo Horizonte, the crowd booed the children’s choir accompanying Waters on “Another Brick in the Wall.”

“I was scared,” Sarah said. “We tried to yell above them. ‘No fascism here!’ But people were so angry. They were booing kids!”

Sarah showed me one of the fake images making the rounds on social media, a photo of baby bottles topped with penis-shaped binkies. According to the post, this was how Haddad, an academic and former mayor of São Paulo, indoctrinated the children of his city into homosexuality. This homophobic propaganda struck a chord in Minas Gerais, which is the bastion of the “traditional miner’s family,” a rigid, centuries-old Catholic archetype of conservative, heterosexual, nuclear domestic life.

The longtime couple no longer felt safe in their own neighborhood. Outside their shared apartment nearby, strangers accosted a passerby with homophobic slurs, saying he needed to get beat up to become a real man. “My own brother will barely speak to me,” she said. “I tell him, ‘I respect your opinion, I respect your point of view, but I just want you to be my brother,’ but he’s not listening.” She took a swig of beer and tried to laugh off the pain. “I’ve thought about leaving, but I’m not going anywhere. This is how we resist, right? Many people died before me for these rights. I have to stay here.”

She lit another cigarette, looked off into the street. “I can’t even count on my family to stand with me. What this election has taught me, is that for us gays, we’re the only ones we have.”

A Workers’ Party rally in Praça Sete de Setembro on October 25, 2018

The story of Belo Horizonte in the twenty-first century is emblematic of the rise and fall of Brazil’s middle class. In the year 2000, the over 2 million people who lived there had registered a little more than 600,000 vehicles; by 2018, the about 2.5 million people claimed more than 2 million vehicles. It was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a hardscrabble former labor leader and co-founder of the Workers’ Party, who ushered his country into a new era of state capitalism and first-world consumerism. During his two-term presidency of 2003-2010, Lula’s populist, center-left policies lifted about twenty million Brazilians from poverty and brought water, light, and other basic infrastructure to some of the most remote corners of this enormous country. Buoyed by worldwide demand for commodities like oil, beef, and iron ore, Brazil dodged the worst of the 2009 global financial crisis. Lula and his Workers’ Party basked in the near-religious devotion of their followers during the boom, and both fell from grace when the boom went bust.

Frustrations first boiled over during the summer of the Confederations Cup in 2013, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets, at first to protest rising bus fares, then to protest corruption and mismanagement in every sector of their young democracy. Even in conservative Belo Horizonte, one hundred thousand people joined the largest demonstrations in Brazil’s last twenty years. Despite the massive offshore oil deposits discovered off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, public schools and hospitals around the country remained underfunded and overcrowded. Hundreds of millions of reais were spent building and renovating stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, while roads, sewer systems, and other critical infrastructure projects were neglected. During the group stage of the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, a hastily constructed overpass near the city stadium collapsed, killing two people and injuring twenty-three others.

Systemic corruption has been an open secret in Brazil since colonial times. As a popular saying here goes, “Rouba mas faz.” He steals, but he gets things done. A massive wave of capital had flooded Brazil during its decade of runaway investment, and when that wave receded, the elites on the beach were exposed: too much stealing, not enough getting stuff done. Beginning in 2014, a multibillion-dollar graft scandal engulfed the country’s most influential companies, state enterprises, businessmen, and politicians, including President Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla and Lula’s handpicked successor. In one of many wiretapped phone calls leaked to the press as evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the Workers’ Party, Lula told President Rousseff that he believed the corruption accusations served a more sinister purpose: “They are convinced that, with the press heading the investigation process, they can found the republic again.”

Lula’s pronouncement may prove true. After two years of partisan law-fare, President Rousseff was impeached for using budgetary sleight of hand to conceal deficits and fund social programs. Many on the left considered her ouster a legislative and judicial coup. During the impeachment proceedings that were broadcast live across the nation, Bolsonaro praised the military coup of 1964 and cast his vote in honor of the Armed Forces, singling out the colonel who had orchestrated the surveillance and torture of dissidents during Brazil’s regime, including Rousseff herself. “They lost in ’64, and they’re losing now in 2016,” he yelled over the din of his congressional colleagues. “In memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff … I vote yea!”

Two more years of political and economic dysfunction later, Bolsonaro was greeted at airports and rallies across Brazil like a rock-star savior, and former President Lula sat in a federal jail cell in Curitiba, serving a dubious twelve-year sentence on corruption charges. Days after Lula was jailed, Jair Bolsonaro took his campaign to the northern state of Roraima, where refugees from neighboring Venezuela were pouring across the border by the thousands. Bolsonaro circled the scene like a hawk, rallying against socialism and open borders.

“In every era, God lifts a man,” said the evangelical pastor who introduced him to a crowd of supporters. “Once, in the desert, he lifted Moses. Now, in these times, to lift Brazil, God is lifting Jair Bolsonaro!”

For a few months after his arrest, Lula stubbornly coordinated his campaign from prison while his case awaited appeal. From jail, he continued to poll higher than any other candidate in the race. The UN Human Rights Committee released a statement that he should be allowed to exercise his electoral rights until his appeal process was complete, but Brazil’s foreign ministry disregarded the ruling as not legally binding.

Bolsonaro crisscrossed Brazil to rally supporters with increasingly fanatical and violent proclamations. “We’re going to machine-gun down the petralhada,*” he shouted at a rally in the Amazon state of Acre, holding a camera tripod like an imaginary machine gun, a gesture that has become an act of solidarity among his acolytes. A few days later, while being carried on the shoulders of fans at a rally in southern Minas Gerais, Bolsonaro was knifed in the gut by a man who said he was acting on “orders from God.”

* A portmanteau of Workers’ Party and The Beagle Boys

Facing multiple surgeries, it was unlikely that Bolsonaro would return to the campaign trail, but he continued posting messages on social media from his hospital bed. Less than a month before the election, Lula formally withdrew from the ballot, and chose Fernando Haddad, his onetime Minister of Education, as his replacement. Haddad dutifully took to the streets, positioning himself as a loyal understudy, ready to carry the Workers’ Party torch, but Bolsonaro gained ground week after week, capturing 46 percent of the votes in a crowded thirteen-candidate first round of elections. Reveling in his comfortable lead and post-stabbing media attention, Bolsonaro refused to participate in any scheduled debates, relying instead on regular Facebook Live broadcasts from his home to millions of followers, who tuned in to see him and his guests cast aspersions on the left, a Brazilian flag duct-taped to the wall behind them.

Yet there are lingering questions about the outsized impact of Bolsonaro’s folksy, DIY campaign methods. The country’s largest newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, revealed that private firms spent millions of dollars buying WhatsApp message packages shortly before the first round of elections in a deliberate attempt to spread misinformation, a violation of Brazilian electoral law. Leftwing commentators have argued that there was no way the Bolsonaro campaign could have pulled off such a sophisticated scheme alone, and that the operation stinks of CIA psyops and the foreign meddling that assisted the 1964 military coup. Bolsonaro denied any involvement, threatening that once he was elected president, he would revoke any public advertising dollars earmarked for Folha de S.Paulo.

In the frenzied week leading up to Brazil’s presidential runoff election, federal police targeted seventeen public universities across the country on suspicion of forbidden political activities on campus. In operations that echoed the “Years of Lead,” authorities interrupted classes, interrogated professors and students, confiscated campaign materials and anti-fascist manifestos, seized teachers’-union hard drives and computers, and demanded the removal of banners like the one that hung over the Institute of Exact Sciences in Belo Horizonte: pela democracia #elenão. (“For democracy, not him.”) Bolsonaro’s position on the campus protests was unambiguous: “The university is no place for this.”

The Friday before the election, at the Museo e Bar do Clube da Esquina in the hilly, bohemian neighborhood of Santa Tereza, the café buzzed with talk of the university raids and Bolsonaro’s latest tirade. “These red outlaws will be banished from the fatherland!” he told supporters on Sunday, phoning in to a rally. “The fatherland is ours! It’s not for that brainwashed gang with the red flag. Petralhada, you’re all going to the edge of the beach,” he said, in what critics called an allusion to a naval base where dissidents were executed during the dictatorship. “It will be a cleansing like nobody has seen in the history of Brazil!”

The café is family-owned, a beer-soaked shrine to the Clube da Esquina movement of the 1970s, a multiracial musical collective that began when Afro-Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento met the Borges family, a crowded house of eleven brothers in the throes of having their minds blown by the Beatles. In the years to come, Milton and the Borges brothers countered the brutality of the dictatorship by singing songs of peace, fraternity and brotherhood in the face of censorship and threats. Tonight was a special family show: white-haired seventy-five-year-old Marilton Borges on the keys, and his scruffy forty-three-year-old son Rodrigo on guitar, carrying the torch of the Clube da Esquina school for a new generation.

Their harmonies washed over the room, allowing the audience to sing together—and to forget the chaos outside for a moment. Between sets, people whispered about election news and shared the rumors blowing up their phones. What was going on at the university? What did Bolsonaro mean about the edge of the beach? Who did he want disappeared into the waves?

“It’s important to position our work politically at this time,” Rodrigo said offstage. “What we’re seeing is a return to censorship. Journalists being accused of being liars. These aren’t just Brazilian themes, these are global themes. The artistic class has a responsibility to the resistance.”

His father saw parallels to the mood on the streets in ’64, but something more had gone haywire: “In ’64,” Marilton said, “it was the military against students, against the youth. Today, it’s not the young versus the military; it’s the right versus the left. Us versus them. The rich hate the poor. The poor hate the rich. We have to be very careful not to have a civil war in Brazil.”

The crowd called them up for two encores, as if nobody wanted to go home. Father and son harmonized, bathed in blue, pink, and purple light. The crowd sang along to lyrics that had been coded and censored during the dictatorship years:

When I would speak of those morbid things
When I would speak of those sordid men
When I would speak of this story
You didn’t listen
You don’t want to believe
But that’s so normal.

During the heaviest of the Years of Lead, when censors threatened to block the release of an entire album, Milton and his collaborators resolved to release their music without lyrics, only hymnal melodies. When the government condemned the mere tone of his voice as too “aggressive,” Milton boasted that the impact of his vocals was “como uma armalike a gun.

Fifty years later, during those wordless melodies, the audience improvised their own new lyrics: Ele Não … Ele Não, Ele Não, Ele Não.

The streets were eerily quiet on Election Day. Downtown, Paulo Camargos, a fifty-two-year-old real-estate investor with a large belly and a hearty laugh, stood outside the polling station, embracing friends and family as they passed. A proud supporter of Bolsonaro, he was untroubled by the candidate’s radical talk. “He’s not against homosexuality,” Paulo said. “He’s just against teaching it in school.” After a year with nearly sixty-four thousand homicides on record, the critical issue for him was public security—and the solution was gun rights. “For thirty years, we’ve had a completely disarmed population here. And look what’s happened!”

After sundown, fireworks popped off across the city. In the most consequential vote since the ratification of the Citizen’s Constitution in 1988, 42.1 million beleaguered Brazilians had abstained from the polls or cast blank ballots. Bolsonaro cornered the majority of those who bothered to choose a candidate, ending thirteen years of leftist Workers’ Party rule.

Bolsonaro supporters congregated in Praça Sete de Setembro in downtown Belo Horizonte, a square named after the date of Brazilian Independence, traditionally the epicenter of leftist street demonstrations in the city. Waving flags and wearing national soccer jerseys, fanatical voters shut down traffic until almost midnight. When cars resumed flowing, the mob took over the intersections during red lights, doing pushups, taking selfies with flags and pistol fingers, spraying imaginary machine guns into the sky. One man wearing an ustra lives T-shirt walked the streets with a grim smile on his face. The crowd cheered and saluted any sight of a military police vehicle or fire truck. These were their public servants.

Sócrates Antonino Ferraz, a forty-seven-year-old printmaker who voted for Bolsonaro, watched from the sidewalk with his arms folded across his chest, resigned to whatever came next. “I’ve voted in this country for thirty years, and none of those bastards have done anything for me,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s a fascist or not. All I know is that I believe in God first and foremost.”

As the party dissipated, scavengers wandered about with plastic bags to collect empty beer cans. A group of college kids, dressed and painted as zombies for Halloween, slumped on their chairs near a food truck. On social media, news circulated that Bolsonaro supporters had invaded the federal university and vandalized the college of liberal arts. From its official account, the university dismissed the news as fake. Students decided the proclamation of fake news was fake news, and claimed that the university was covering up the damage to quell a panic.

Bolsonaro supporters in Praça Sete de Setembro on October 28, 2018

The morning after the election, the right-wing media were elated by the possibility of social-security cuts and expansive gun rights, and Donald Trump’s praise of Bolsonaro on Twitter, complete with two exclamation points. From his residence in Rio de Janeiro, using a bodyboard as an impromptu lectern, the president-elect announced plans to collapse the Planning, Finance, and Industry Ministries into one Super Ministry, led by University of Chicago–trained economist and political neophyte Paulo Guedes. The Ministry of Environment, founded on the first day of the New Republic to guard the nation’s natural patrimony, would be merged with the Ministry of Agriculture. For the first time in the Democratic era, the Ministry of Defense would be headed by a general.

In the cafeteria of the college of liberal arts at the federal university, twenty-four-year-old literature student Íris Ladislau sat alone at a corner table, quietly reading the collected works of Russian poet Anna Akhmátova. “A lot of people are uninformed,” said Íris, a young woman of color. “They don’t understand the gravity of the situation. We have to find a way to organize, but I feel at risk. I don’t even walk alone anymore. I make sure my friends are with me.”

Across the cafeteria, twenty-four-year-old education major Aline Almeida, another young woman of color, sat alone on a break between classes, looking ready for a nap. Before saying whom she voted for, she glanced over her shoulder. “Bolsonaro,” she whispered, holding a finger to her lips as if it needed to be a secret. “I think his ideas are … interesting.” Almeida grew up in one of the outer regions of Belo Horizonte. “It’s very violent. Very unsafe. I’ve seen it in person. Robbings. Violence against women. People go to jail, but they get out in three days. I want somebody who takes the prison system seriously.”

For Almeida, the federal raids at the universities are nothing to be worried about. She likes her professors, but her fellow students make her feel like she can’t speak up. “There should be freedom of expression here, but I prefer to stay quiet,” she says. “It feels really lonely.”

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