It is claimed that the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, had a prophetic start to his political career: he was accused (a controversial trial found him not guilty) of devising an aborted plan to press for higher wages by detonating bombs in his army barracks. Decades later, he finally seems to have managed to blow something up: his country’s image overseas.
Given his government’s thoroughly irresponsible handling of the pandemic, Brazilians are now seen as a walking biological threat. Since 27 May, they have been banned from entering the US. It is already one of the nations worst hit by Covid-19 and studies indicate that the number of deaths may surpass 125,000 by August. Bolsonaro has dismissed the disease as a ‘little flu’.
Indigenous peoples in the Amazon have warned that Covid-19 might lead to their extermination, since the government gives them no protection and their lands have been invaded by land grabbers and illegal miners, incited by Bolsonaro’s anti-indigenous rhetoric. Satellite data has shown deforestation of the world’s largest tropical forest is out of control.
An already weakened economy is heading for a depression, possibly the worst crash in the country’s history. Some days ago, the veteran journalist Elio Gaspari cited a Brazilian businessman who works on international markets: “The way Brazil’s reputation is going, in a while I’ll only get responses from answering machines.”
Brazil used to be seen as a kind of colourful giant, with plenty of sun, good football, great music, friendly people, and favelas where more daring visitors could spend their dollars on “real-life tourism”. While such an image might have been a cliche, it was one that gave the country a degree of soft power on the international stage. Nobody used this image better than the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “Our people’s souls, their eyes, their warmth, their rhythm, their colour and their smiles are unbeatable. The world has finally recognised it: Brazil’s time and turn have come,” he said in 2009.
In June 2013, with an economic crisis knocking at the door and the uncharismatic Dilma Rousseff in power, the world watched on as protests erupted across Brazil. The period of euphoria over the country’s redemocratisationafter the 1964-1985 military dictatorship had petered out. The Workers’ party, which had symbolised the country’s best hopes, had grown corrupt in power, buying votes in congress mostly paid by construction firms in exchange for building contracts. There was a growing sentiment that democracy was not delivering what it had promised in such areas as public security, education and health.
Three years later, Rousseff was impeached ostensibly for window dressing government accounts, although this was a pretext for political reasons. Lula was convicted on charges of personal corruption in 2017 as part of a controversial judicial process. The former president has always maintained his innocence and argued the case against him was also politically motivated.
In the years before Bolsonaro’s ascent, marginalised communities demanded their place at the country’s political centre. The black community and women fought to have power in a country built on racism, and where violence against women and members of the LGBTQ+ community has reached alarming levels. Assassinated in March 2018, Mariele Franco embodied this hard-won power: the leftwing city councillor was female, black, lesbian and from a favela.
No one has better leveraged hatred, fear and frustration than Bolsonaro. He has done so especially among sections of the white middle-class, who have suffered the erosion of their buying power and watched as the black community refused to return to its historical subaltern position. And especially among men challenged by women who decried sexual harassment and misogynistic jokes. Perceiving that its cultural, racial and class privileges were threatened, a slice of Brazilian society has sensed quicksand beneath its feet.
In his election victory speech last year, Bolsonaro promised “liberation from socialism, inverted values … and political correctness”. His own advocacy of violence, including praise for torture and the assassination of opponents, is interpreted by his followers as “authenticity”. He has spoken out against black people, indigenous peoples, women and the LGBTQ+ community along with his adversaries, all labelled “communists”. Brazilians who had hidden their prejudices deep in the internet’s sewers began displaying them in daylight and on social media like trophies. Bolsonaro, in power, had redeemed such people.
Now the price is being paid – in human lives, and in Brazil being made into a global pariah – for this investment in hatred. The world watches as Brazil grows more militarised and authoritarian. Nine ministers are from the armed forces and almost 3,000 members of the military hold second-echelon positions.
Signs of an olive-green coup abound. On Sunday, Bolsonaro arrived by military helicopter to join a protest against the supreme court and congress, which have tried to limit the president’s abuses. He then rode through the crowd on a police horse. One of his main groups of supporters, 300 do Brasil, has camped in the capital. They are armed and use Nazi symbols.
Augusto Heleno, a retired general and national security adviser, drew support from retired military officers when he warned of “unpredictable consequences” for the country if the court pursued its demand for the president to hand over his mobile phones in a case involving fake news. In a public letter, the officers intimated that there was a possibility of “civil war”. The press is also under attack, transformed into an enemy of Brazil by Bolsonaro.
The real Brazil never corresponded to the cliched image of a gentle giant, projected for export. But not even the most pessimistic Brazilian could have predicted that in 17 months Bolsonaro would hijack all the country’s joy and creative power. A rising number now think it is easier to survive the virus than the president.
Brazil today is masked in hatred. But there are other Brazils, and they resist. This weekend, previously irreconcilable figures from the left and right and from all walks of life released a manifesto in which they declared that two-thirds of Brazilians want a government that respects the constitution and want to feel “joy and pride in being Brazilian once again”. Jurists from across the country published a statement in the country’s leading newspapers demanding the armed forces respect democracy. It is not just the country’s image that is being contested: it is the country’s soul.
• Eliane Brum is a Brazilian journalist, author of The Collector of Leftover Souls – Dispatches from Brazil. This piece was translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty.