By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
The landowning class in able to exercise violence with impunity. They control entire regions in rural areas and are almost never held accountable for the murder of indigenous and environmental activists or intentionally starting forest fires. Authorities do not pursue landowners as vigorously as grassroots popular leaders. Right-wing journalists and politicians have accused the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of terrorism, stealing, and violence far more frequently than they were actually accused of doing so by the police and the courts.
The Bolsonaro Story
The Supreme Court is hearing a case that activists fear could lead to the removal of protections for native lands. Some 170 different ethnic groups united in protest of the hearing and against allegations of systematic persecution under President Jair Bolsonaro's administration.
Organizers said it was the biggest Indigenous protest in the country's history, as about 6,000 attendees carried bows and arrows and wore traditional headdresses.
The case centers on the constitutional protection of Indigenous lands.
The agribusiness lobby has argued that protection should only apply to native populations who can prove they have lived in an area since at least 1988 when the constitution was adopted. This is a legal argument known as Marco Temporal.
Indigenous groups have argued that there is no cutoff date in the constitution and that native inhabitants have often been forced to move from their ancestral lands.
The Supreme Court case specifically looks only at a reservation in the southern state of Santa Catarina, but it will set a legal precedent for dozens of similar cases.
The government of Santa Catarina has filed an eviction notice for the Indigenous territory of Ibirama-La Klano, where the Guarani and Kaingang peoples live in addition to the Xokleng.
But that is more to the Brazil and Bolsonaro Story. On 3 June 2020, the Brazilian far-right activist Sara Winter arrived outside the country’s Supreme Court with fifty armed followers. Proclaiming their support for Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, and calling themselves the ‘300 Brazilians’, a reference to the small force of Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae, they pitched tents, attacked journalists, launched fireworks at the building, and then stormed it, getting as far as the roof while the police stood helpless.1
In a YouTube video, Winter, a 27-year-old former sex worker turned anti-abortion activist, promised potential recruits they would become part of a far-right guerrilla movement and receive training in ‘subversion’. The stunt was part of a wave of protests against the Supreme Court, over its attempts to investigate President Bolsonaro for interference in a police investigation concerning his business dealings.
Winter’s avowed aim was to ‘Ukrain-ize’ Brazil, that is, to overthrow its Congress and Supreme Court in a revolution modeled on the Euromaidan protest of 2013.2 She threatened one judge via Twitter:
We are going to make your life hell. We will find the places you go to. We will find the cleaners who work for you. We will discover everything about your life. 3
Winter herself does not conform to the typical image of a fascist. Nonetheless, her group fits the typology of the fascist militia perfectly. They were armed, in face masks, with burning torches; even Winter’s name, a pseudonym, is borrowed from that of a wartime British Nazi. But Sara Winter was not the main problem for Brazil’s beleaguered judiciary. For among the wider mass of demonstrators who assembled outside the Supreme Court to demand its dissolution early that June was President Bolsonaro himself.
Bolsonaro rose to power because of a double collapse: the collapse in commodity prices and wages after 2008, which ended a decade of growth and improvements for the poor; and the collapse in support for the ruling left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) as its leading members were engulfed in a corruption scandal in the mid-2010s. This scandal culminated in 2016, with the impeachment and removal from office of Brazil’s then-president, Dilma Rousseff, as millions of right-wing demonstrators took to the streets, while prosecutors also jailed the PT’s iconic leader, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula).
The anti-Rousseff movement mobilized all those who had lost out under the left’s redistribution program: landowners, big farmers, the financial elite, and parts of the urban middle class. But it also mobilized poor people who felt betrayed after the global economic downturn made further social reforms impossible.4 And now, alongside its traditional propaganda channels, the Evangelical churches, newspapers, and clandestine publications advocating military rule, the right-wing elite had social media, above all YouTube, which helped to create a mass, popular, far-right ideology.
A 2019 investigation by the New York Times found that YouTube’s algorithm, whose rules for video recommendations have never been disclosed, systematically promoted and expanded the far-right video universe in Brazil, facilitating its merger with a pre-existing subculture of anti-vaccination (‘antivaxx’) conspiracy theorists. In the process it normalized the practice of linchamento: online lynch mobs targeting doctors, teachers, journalists and left-wing politicians, sometimes inciting physical attacks. One of linchamento’s main exponents was Bolsonaro himself.5
Long before Covid-19, Brazil became a laboratory for what happens when social media algorithms reward, amplify and bring together ideologies promoting irrationalism and hate. Even the atmosphere in schools changed, with teachers suddenly finding basic scientific facts challenged in the classroom by pupils who’d been exposed to far-right propaganda on YouTube. The result was Bolsonaro’s 2018 election victory, after which he set out to intimidate and degrade the judiciary and parliament, repeatedly inciting violence and calling for a military coup.
Is Bolsonaro a fascist? Not by most definitions offered in political science. But if he is a right-wing populist, sharing the same category as Nigel Farage or Italy’s Matteo Salvini, he is at the extreme end of it.
The main problem, ultimately, is neither Sara Winter nor Jair Bolsonaro, it is the process of political disintegration and polarization they are exploiting. A quarter of Rio de Janeiro, the country’s biggest city, is effectively controlled by ‘community self-defence’ militias, armed and trained by the police and prepared to kill left-wing politicians who get in their way.6
In the Amazon, meanwhile, vigilantes protecting the interests of farmers, mining companies and loggers killed twenty-four environmental activists in 2019 alone.7
When Covid-19 hit Brazil in 2020, all Bolsonaro had to do was mobilize the pre-existing machinery: the parties, the Evangelical churches, the junior officer networks, the extreme right and the paramilitary groups. Defying science, Bolsonaro declared the virus was ‘mild flu’ and, despite catching the disease himself, began agitating against the public health lockdowns desperately mandated by regional governors. Bolsonaro led his supporters to protest outside army bases, calling for military interventions to lift the lockdowns, at one stage appearing on horseback. At the time of writing Brazil has suffered one of the worst death tolls from Covid-19, at 384,000 and rising.8
Sara Winter’s attack on the Supreme Court was intended as a stunt. Police action eventually dispersed the 300 Brazilians and broke up their camp. She was then arrested and banned from Facebook. By October 2020 she was posting tearful videos on Instagram, claiming that Bolsonaro had abandoned her.9 But Winter’s protest had served its purpose: to send a message that if Lula, now released from prison, makes any kind of serious bid to form a democratically elected left government, all the forces of disorder are prepared to attack Brazil’s democratic institutions for real.
Olavo de Carvallo
It is not a secret that Olavo de Carvallo was one of Jair Bolsonaro's important mentors.
Given the label "alt-right guru" of Brazil he is also considered the architect of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right vision.
Not surprisingly Bolsonaro displayed one of Carvalho’s books during his election night victory speech. He followed his counsel when he appointed two little-known but ultraconservative candidates recommended by Carvalho to be his ministers of education and foreign affairs. He sat beside Carvalho at an official dinner at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington. And in May, he awarded him with one of Brazil’s highest distinctions, alongside the country’s vice president and justice minister.
In his first speech to the nation after his election, Bolsonaro placed four books on his desk: the Bible, Brazil’s constitution, Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War, and a book by Olavo, The Minimum You Need to Know to Not Be an Idiot. “What I want most is to follow God's teachings alongside the Brazilian constitution,” he said. “I also want to be inspired by great leaders, giving good advice.”
Despite lacking an academic degree that would give him the title of philosopher, he has become recognized as such within Brazil’s far-Right intellectual circles, and is particularly well known for teaching an online philosophy course., Through this, he disseminates the notion that the Left’s Marxist ideas are behind the country’s perceived degeneration. He is perhaps Brazil’s most successful example of how a person can use social media to spread political ideas and conspiracy theories under the guise of scientific knowledge. The ‘scientific knowledge’ produced by Olavo de Carvalho has been reproduced by dozens of institutions, causing a domino effect that could ultimately influence the 2022 elections.
Bolsonaro's relationship with Olavo started almost a decade ago when Olavo's online accounts came to the attention of Bolsonaro’s children, who are themselves, politicians. In 2012, the Brazilian leader’s eldest son, Flavio, who was a representative in Rio de Janeiro’s state assembly, traveled to Olavo's house in Virginia to award him the Tiradentes medal, the legislature’s highest distinction. Five years later, another son, Eduardo, a national legislative representative, broadcast a video from Olavo’s house wearing a T-shirt that read olavo tem razão (“Olavo is right”). Protesters chanted that same slogan in street demonstrations against the federal government before Bolsonaro’s election, decrying the corruption scandals that helped propel him to power.
“We couldn’t have won the election without Olavo,” Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo said in March. “Without Olavo, there would be no President Bolsonaro.”
Enter Steve Bannon and the German AfD
Two weeks after Bolsonaro’s inauguration in January, Steve Bannon met with Olavo at his Petersburg home, and a couple of months later, Olavo was the guest of honor at an event hosted by Bannon at the Trump Hotel in Washington, where the former White House chief strategist introduced him to a select group of about 100 conservative guests. “Olavo is one of the great conservative intellectuals in the world,” Bannon has said.
Meanwhile in Brazil Bolsonaro met with the main representative (granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister) of the extreme right-wing Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) which was placed under surveillance by the German Government.
Pressure from the media forced Bolsonaro’s special secretary for culture, Roberto Alvim, to resign after giving a speech that made strong allusions to Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi-era screeds. In the televised address, Alvim, echoing the words of the Nazi minister of propaganda, claimed that Brazilians needed to create a form of art that was “heroic and national.”
Bannon stated he has met with Carvalho frequently and wanted to install him as a lecturer at his training camp in Europe for the next generation of right-wing thinkers, housed in an Italian monastery transformed into an academy for right-wing populists. U.S. President Donald Trump backed the project. In March 2021, however, a Council of State on Monday ruled against proceeding with the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) right-wing Academy plan.
As for Bazil, given the above example of Sara Winter, Bolsonaro’s push to the right has deep roots in Brazilian history, and it has not happened overnight. Democracy and citizenship were achieved for the wealthy and white, while the black and the poor have never been integrated to receive their benefits. Brazil, like many of its South American neighbors, remains a veiled authoritarian and racist country. Within a short time, Bolsonaro proved to be unfit for the position he occupies. There is a feeble understanding of a long-standing and central issue in Brazilian politics: rampant inequalities. It will not take long until it comes back to the center of the public debate, whether Bolsonaro likes it or not. The tight budget for social investment and the depletion of the ‘new middle class and the upward social mobility (based on rising income, formal jobs, more schools, better employment opportunities, etc.) experienced during the 2000s will bring political consequences to this right-leaning electoral realignment. He ignores the role of income, the proper understanding of the composition of the Brazilian economic pyramid, and the position of the poor and the middle class.
Bolsonaro, a COVID-19 skeptic and initially dismissed the virus as "little flu." He also regularly contradicted health officials over the necessity of social distancing measures and has come under fire over the country's vaccine purchase strategy. Prosecutors launched a probe against him last week for dereliction of duty over the acquisition of Indian-made vaccines. In fact, just yesterday, Brazil registered 31,024 new coronavirus cases and 920 additional COVID-19 deaths.
Bolsonaro, who during the election in 2022 is expected to face a serious challenge from left-wing former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, and Bolsonaro under pressure amid corruption allegations and the country’s COVID-19 crisis ahead of presidential polls scheduled for next year, wants a receipt to be printed after each vote on the electronic ballot box to allow the votes to be recounted physically.
The country’s electoral tribunal has said the current voting system is completely transparent and never showed widespread irregularities. Still, Bolsonaro has alleged without evidence that fraud marred the 2018 presidential election that he won.
Hence experts have accused Bolsonaro of seeking to sow doubt ahead of next year’s election, much like former United States President Donald Trump, whom the Brazilian leader had emulated.
Also, other questions have surfaced about alleged irregularities in his government’s coronavirus vaccine procurement process, alongside accusations of past corruption.
In July, the Supreme Electoral Court issued a statement calling Bolsonaro's comments "lamentable" and stating that any action to prevent the election violates the constitution and is a "dereliction of duty."
Brazilian progressives have sometimes attempted to use these punitive politics against the elite. For instance, the motto “prison for Bolsonaro” has come to prominence in recent years. It is deeply worrying that grassroots movements still hold onto the naïve belief they can abolish political oppression by criminalizing it.
The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture called on President Bolsonaro to revoke the decree that “severely weakened” the national anti-torture mechanism and criticized the governor of São Paulo for vetoing the creation of a state anti-torture mechanism.
As detailed in a 2021 report, in Brazil, the police and judges reproduce oppressive social structures. If the country’s 2022 elctions is to overcome its present malaise, it cannot hold onto the hope that it can rely on a corrupt and elitist judicial system to serve justice. But all of the above and its interconnections to elsewhere show why the political climate in Brazil might indeed matter to the rest of the world.
As reported by the BBC today, Bolsonaro is currently trailing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the polls. He said he sees only three possibilities for his future: death, prison, or winning the 2022 presidential elections.
But the former military officer added there was no chance of prison because "no man on Earth will threaten me."
Bolsonaro also mentioned an indigenous protest taking place in the capital, claiming not to understand the reasons for the demonstrations.
"There are now approximately 5,000 people camped in Brasília. The vast majority, almost all, don't know what they are doing there," Bolsonaro asserted.
"They are people that are gathered by the MST (Rural Landless Workers Movements), people that are gathered by Cimi (Indigenous Missionary Council, linked to the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil), indigenous people who are there protesting against no one knows what," Bolsonaro added.
4. Barbosa dos Santos, Fabio Luis, Uma História da Onda Progressista Sul-Americana (1998–2016), São Paulo, 2018
5. Fisher, Max and Taub, Amanda, ‘How YouTube Radicalized Brazil’, New York Times, 11 August 2019