Author: Magdalena Scharf
Taking my first breath of warm, muggy, Jacarandá-scented air after stepping off the plane from 24 hours of travel which took me and my family from Berlin to Porto Alegre (Southern Brazil), I immediately experienced a deep feeling of familiarity.
I grew up in Porto Alegre the 1980’s and caught the last gasp of the military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. During these 21 years, labor unionists, clergy, academics, and the country’s tiny contingent of leftist guerrillas were brutally persecuted.
It was December 30th, 2022, two days before the inauguration of the re-elected President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, (2003 to 2011). He was later imprisoned for alleged corruption in 2018, charges he denied, insisting that he was the victim of a political agenda seeking revenge. His political rights were restored by the Supreme Court in 2021. Later that year, Judge Sergio Moro, who had overseen the court case convicting Lula, and who later became Minister of Justice and Public Security in Jair Bolsonaro’s government, was found to be biased by the Federal Supreme Court.
After the bitterly contested and polarized elections in October, I was curious to find out what people were expecting of the first Brazilian president to have been elected to a third term and the first to have defeated an incumbent president. On the way to a friend’s house, I engaged in a friendly, open conversation with our taxi driver, something so typical for this country. There is a reason Brazilian’s are said to be some of the warmest people in the world.
After a few minutes, I ventured to ask the taxi driver what he thinks of the soon to be new government, a coalition between the Workers’ Party and members of center-right, neo-liberal political parties. “That guy is going to drown the poor in charity programs,” he practically spat. “One should just execute this useless bunch of vagabonds.” (When Lula became president in 2003, there was tremendous economic growth and millions of people were lifted out of poverty with help from his government-run social programs.) Given my obvious shock, he softened his stance: “Or at least sterilize them.” For the rest of the ride I changed the subject and we had an affable conversation about his German ancestors.
His comments mirrored former president Bolsonaro’s hate filled slogans. Bolsonaro had been elected in 2018 by using populist rhetoric against the establishment, the Worker’s Party, abortion rights, same-sex marriage, sex education in primary schools and acting as a strongman, promising to combat crime and corruption, a promise he blatantly broke. Throughout his time in office, he waged ideological battles, strengthening social and cultural divides, separating society into two groups: the supposedly honest hard-working people on the one hand and the corrupt elite, in cahoots with Black activists, the indigenous population, the LGBTQIA+-community and environmental protectionists on the other. (Brazil ranks as the deadliest country for environmental activists.)
Another characteristic of Bolsonaro, as for many other rightwing populists, is to insult his opponents. There is a long list of controversial quotes from the “Trump of the Tropics”. To a female legislator he said that she was “not worth raping, she is too ugly.” He dubbed African refugees coming to Brazil “the scum of the earth.” On the subject of homosexuality, he said he preferred if his son “died in an accident than showed up with some bloke with a moustache.” Talking about the legacy of the past, he said that the military had not gone far enough—that, if only they had killed thirty thousand more people, Brazil’s problems with leftists would have been solved. He also explained “I am in favor of torture, you know that. And the people are in favor as well.” His cruel response to the covid-19 pandemic, with nearly seven hundred thousand reported deaths, second only to the US, was “Everyone has to die one day. We have to stop being a country of sissies.”
I did not yet know that precisely on the day of our arrival in Brazil, the outgoing President Bolsonaro was leaving for Florida, two days before the end of his term, in order to avoid the official handover to Lula and therefore breeching customary democratic procedure.
After that initial taxi ride, our first week in Brazil was relaxed. We spent time with friends: artists, academics, environmental activists. We spoke to many people about their hopes for Brazil’s future as a country. That it would one day become a place of social justice, where no one went hungry, the rain forest was protected, and the enmity between races and classes was dissolved.
Just 10 days later, I realized that we were moving through the country in a bubble. Although Bolsonaro had left Brazil, his supporters refused to recognize his defeat. Wearing yellow and green T-shirts and waving Brazilian flags, they stormed Brazil’s government buildings on January 8th, reminding us of the events that took place in Washington on January 6th, two years earlier.
The new government responded swiftly and got the situation under control within hours. Many other countries condemned the terrorist acts immediately, among them most South American countries, the EU and the U.S.
Since then, fake news has been circulating on social media, replete with conspiracy theories, about how the left-leaning government had organized the riots in order to blame it on Bolsonaro and his followers. Victimhood very much the playbook of the real Trump.
While economic factors are surely linked to the rise of populism, Brazil’s political history, from Getúlio Vargas in the 1930 to Lula in the early 2000s, always tended toward strong men governments. This made it easy for Bolsonaro to root his political strategy in populism as well, albeit this time in a nationalist, chauvinist style. In a recent YouGov-Cambridge survey, no nation had a higher percentage of populists than Brazil.
While the populist techniques might be similar – accusing elites of corruption while praising the moral virtues of the people – there are big differences between Lula’s leftwing policies and Bolsonaro’s far-right agenda. Lula’s followers tend to be younger, more multiracial, and lower-income, with a considerable LGBTQIA+-contingent; Bolsonaro’s are older, “whiter”, and wealthier. On the left, Lula implemented one of the largest social protection programs in the world, which led to a reduction of poverty and inequality and a sharp rise of the percentage of Black students in universities. Bolsonaro’s government, on the other hand, is internationally reviled for anti-democratic and anti-environmental policies on a gargantuan scale.
Given recent development in Brazil, there are now fears that the rise of Bolsonaro’s populism could reverse decades of progress and threaten democracy itself. His movement remains strong and this will most likely continue for the foreseeable future. Lula will certainly need to struggle to heal the rift in Brazilian’s society and the fear that in four years’ time bolsonarismo could come back with force, is palpable.