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Jair Bolsonaro and the threat to democracy in Brazil

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Yesterday Brazil voted for a fascist. Jair Bolsonaro is now the President of Brazil.  He comfortably outpolled his nearest rival, Fernando Haddad, a former Mayor of Saõ Paulo and Minister for Education in the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva by 55 to 45 per cent.  Although his lead appears to have narrowed in the final days before polling, it was still a decisive victory. The fourth largest country in the world could now slide from democracy to dictatorship.

Jair Bolsonaro, a former military officer, was first elected as a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro 30 years ago, in 1988.  That year marked the formal transition of Brazil from a military dictatorship to democracy with the adoption of a new Constitution. The Generals had been forced to yield power in the face of widespread unpopularity and growing street protests led by Lula and his Workers Party (PT), of which Fernando Haddad is a member. Lula had been briefly imprisoned during these protests. He is now in prison again accused of corruption. This sentencing ruled him ineligible to stand in the election, which the opinion polls predicted he would have won. 

Lula first ran for the Presidency in 1989 but he was defeated by Fernando Collor, who was subsequently impeached for corruption. He was finally elected to the presidency in 2002, easily re-elected four years later, and left office in 2010 with record popularity ratings. His handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla who had been imprisoned and tortured under the dictatorship, was elected to succeed him. She was re-elected in 2014 but impeached and removed from office in 2016.  Casting his vote for the impeachment, Bolsonaro dedicated it to the memory of Colonel Carlos Ustra, head of intelligence of the dictatorship, responsible for the illegal imprisonment and torture of over 100 political dissidents including Dilma. Bolsonaro now stands poised to assume the highest office in Brazil.

Last night I sat down with my Brazilian wife and son and we discussed whether we should leave the country and the personal risks that might make us have to flee.

It is almost an accident that I am not a Brazilian. My parents left Ireland in the great post-war wave of emigration and settled in London.  My father was a civil engineer who worked on some of the brash modernist design projects of the early 1960s. Three years before my birth, one of his friends and colleagues decided to go home to Brazil and tried to persuade my father to come with him. Brazil was the epitome of chic at the time. Its football team had won the world cup twice in a row in 1958 and 1962 and went on to win it again in 1970. Bossa Nova had just been invented, and its Carnivals had not yet abandoned their souls to commercial tourism. The classic Girl From Ipanema was released, with Frank Sinatra doing a cover version, while Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, were ‘flying down to Rio’ to relax. 

Brazil’s President Juscelino Kubitschek had pledged that Brazil would achieve ‘fifty years in five’ of economic development and the country was experiencing a period of extraordinarily rapid economic growth.  During the three decades from 1950 some twenty million rural Brazilians moved to its cities, the fastest urbanization in the world at the time.  São Paulo became one of the world’s largest metropolises and Brazil’s annual economic growth rate placed it on a trajectory to overtake the United States by the end of the twentieth century.  Kubitschek’s show-piece was to create a new capital city, Brasília, which was built from scratch in the country’s interior and has been my home for the last 15 years.

Engineers were in demand and my parents had few ties to England, their adopted country. They started to learn Portuguese for the trip, but the birth of my older sister postponed things. Then, in 1964, a military dictatorship overthrew the elected government. Our family lost contact with their Brazilian friend and feared that he might have been arrested or ‘disappeared’. The trip was cancelled and London became a haven for many students and professionals fleeing the dictatorship. Caetano Veloso´s song London, London was to become almost an anthem for a generation of refugees.

A period of brutally enforced wage restraint brought back prosperity, at the cost of massively increased inequality, but the oil price shocks of the 1970s pushed the country back into recession. The dictatorship had borrowed heavily to finance state-led development projects and as global interest rates rose, the debt became unpayable. Inflation went over 110 per cent in 1980 and kept climbing. In 1983 Brazil had to seek aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which demanded steep cuts in public spending in return for a loan. Popular protests mounted and the dictatorship was forced to negotiate a transitioned hand-over to civilian rule.

Democracy re-emerged haltingly in the mid-1980s. Inflation continued to spiral, peaking at over 3,000 percent and growth fell to zero in what became known as the lost decade. Brazil’s nefarious political class polished up their democratic credentials while looting the national treasury in private. Inequality continued to widen and unemployment, crime and emigration soared. By the mid-1990s Brazil was a byword for urban violence and rural destruction with a homicide rate higher than that of most war zones. Police death squads murdered street children in the cities. Pistoleiros, or ranchers’ paid assassins, dispatched environmental activists and landless workers to the same fate.

Brazil barely registered on my consciousness when I was growing up. I remember seeing a photograph of Lula addressing a strike meeting in the mid-1980s and heard about PT, which seemed to offer a refreshing alternative to the vanguardist revolutionaries of Cuba and Nicaragua. By the mid-1990s I was working for Amnesty International UK with our section´s responsibility for ´combating impunity´ during the extradition hearings against the former Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet. The Pinochet case coincided with NATO´s intervention in Kosovo and I was asked to run training courses in refugee camps during the war on bringing war criminals to justice. After the war I was seconded into the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kosovo and was there on 11th September 2001. Half of my colleagues were dispatched to Afghanistan almost immediately, to respond to the humanitarian crisis that was to come. I returned to Britain to take my Masters (LLM) and then worked in Afghanistan for two years from 2003, setting up legal aid clinics for returning refugees. In between those two field missions I met my now wife, Gláucia, a Brazilian judge.  We married in December 2004 and Brazil became my new home.

A few months later, in mid-2005, José Dirceu, President Lula´s chief of staff, and a friend of my wife´s family, was charged with corruption in what became known as the mensalão (big monthly) scandal. It emerged that various opposition MPs had been bribed to vote with the government on a regular basis. This scandal crystalized the discontent of a number of PT members with Lula´s record in government. The party suffered splits and losses of high-profile members, including Marina Silva who went on to run for the presidency against both Dilma and Haddad. Lula replaced Dirceu with Dilma as his chief of staff and she then succeeded him to the presidency in 2010. 

Brazil shrugged off the world´s financial crisis of 2008 with economic growth ticking along at 7.5 per cent that year. The government ran primary surpluses year-on-year, paying down its national debt and funding innovative social programmes like Bolsa Familia (family purse) and Minha Casa Minha Vida (my house, my life), while sharply raising the minimum wage.  Millions were lifted out of poverty, inequality decreased slightly and Education Minister Haddad dramatically increased access to further and higher education. Brazil won the right to host the World Cup and the Olympics and Lula´s tenure in office also coincided with the discovery of huge reserves of oil. ´God is a Brazilian´ Lula declared.

By the time Dirceu came to trial in 2012, however, the popular mood was changing. With the world mired in recession, the commodities boom that had funded much of Brazil´s economic growth had turned to bust. In response, Dilma first raised and then cut interest rates and then raised them again as inflation picked up. Subsidies were introduced to cushion the impact of global price rises but attempts to faze these out sparked popular protests, starting with protests in São Paulo in 2013 against a proposed increase in bus fares. Dilma was re-elected in 2014, fending off challenges from the centrist PSDB (social democratic party) and Marina Silva (running this time as a Green), but back in office she implemented an austerity programme that she had pledged to fight. Interest rates rose sharply, public expenditure was cutback and the country plunged into its deepest ever recession with unemployment soon reaching 13 million. 

Brazilian politics are notoriously corrupt, and no party has ever had a majority in its fractured Congress. Vote buying is routine. The verb malufar (named after one of São Paulo´s most nefarious politicians) was created to describe ´one who steals public money´ while the phrase ´rouba mas faz´ is often applied as a political compliment, meaning ´he steals but he gets things done´. Brazilians, not surprisingly, are sick of this state of affairs and the impact of the mensalão trial, together with the economic crisis, provided a mutually reinforcing narrative that corruption was bankrupting the country. The demonstrations that had started in São Paulo about bus fares now morphed into more general protests about corruption and the quality of public services.

Before Lula´s election, PT had gained a reputation as a ´clean hands´ party and amongst the party´s achievements in office was a strengthening of the independence of the country´s public prosecutor´s office and a law banning politicians convicted of corruption from running again for office. Ironically, both reforms had probably been achieved with the support of MPs through the mensalão scheme. With this strategy no longer available, PT turned to the more traditional means of horse-trading with the numerous parties that make up Brazil´s Congress, stitching together support for its legislative programme by doling out ministries and key positions in its state-owned industries. Once in office the politicians had an effective licence to loot.

Brazil´s judiciary had traditionally proved as ineffective at holding its corrupt politicians to account as it had been in challenging the human rights abuses carried out by the dictatorship.  But in 2013 a wire-tap on a currency exchange house in a car wash led to the arrest of a black-marketeer in Brasilia.  He was placed in protective custody in Curitiba, in the south of the country, and started naming his clients and the sources of their money. The heads of Brazil´s nine top construction company and its state-owned oil company were soon facing charges along with fifty senior politicians, including members of Congress and state Governors. By the end of 2017, over 300 people had been charged with criminal offences and over 1,000 warrants had been issued for search and seizure, temporary and preventive detention and coercive measures.

A group of young judges in Curitiba, led by Sergio Moro, devised a prosecution strategy, dubbed Operation ´car wash´. The scale of the fraud that they uncovered was staggering – almost $10 billion US dollars – but some of their measures were controversial. Suspects were placed in pre-trial detention and offered plea-bargains as inducement to testify. In some cases family members were also arrested. Evidence gathered in this way was used to target more suspects and the unsubstantiated word of alleged accomplices has been deemed sufficient for conviction. Moro also provided the Brazilian media with selective briefings about the evidence facing key defendants or tipped them off about police raids so that these could be televised. The effect on public opinion was electric. Street protests were becoming bigger and more widespread across Brazil, with a vocal minority calling for Dilma´s removal from office and some even supporting the return of a military dictatorship.

Brazil has a civil law system in which judges have an investigative as well as an adjudicative function. This means that judges sitting without juries both have overall direction of a criminal investigation and then determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The highly politicized nature of Operation car wash stretched perceptions about the impartiality of the Brazilian justice system as the PT complained that they were the real targets of Moro´s investigations. In fact, politicians from all parties were charged, and the investigation ruptured the system of alliances that PT had constructed in Congress. In October 2015 investigations revealed that the leader of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, had stashed over $16 million US in various foreign secret bank accounts. Cunha, a strong opponent of PT and Dilma, gave them an ultimatum, curb the investigation or he would set in motion a move for her impeachment.

The legal grounds for Dilma´s impeachment were slender. She had been condemned by a fiscal accounts monitoring body for manipulating the public accounts to make her government´s financial situation seem better than it was. This was a fairly routine government practice, which had previously not been considered sanctionable and there was no doubting that the main motivation for the process was political. It was also supported by many MPs under investigation under Operation car wash. Get rid of Dilma some were recorded as saying and we can get rid of the investigation as well. In December 2015 Cunha accepted a petition for Dilma´s impeachment with a vote scheduled to take place in the next parliamentary session.

By this stage I was working as a consultant for the International Bar Association, designing a series of training courses for judges, with the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, on the safeguards needed to protect criminal suspects against torture. The work was difficult to plan because the government was almost completely paralyzed by the political crisis. My counterpart in the Ministry took leave of absence to act as legal advisor in Dilma´s re-election campaign in 2014. The Minister for Justice then resigned to become Dilma´s legal advisor in the impeachment proceedings. He was replaced by Eugenio Aragão, who had been best man at our wedding.

Aragão´s inauguration was scheduled for March 2016. A couple of weeks beforehand, police officers arrested Lula in an early morning raid, that Moro had informed the press about in advance, and took him into custody. The following week huge demonstrations throughout Brazil called for him to be prosecuted and for Dilma to be impeached. Dilma then announced that she was appointing Lula as her chief of staff, which would have given him immunity from prosecution as a serving government minister. Moro promptly leaked wire-tapped conversations that the two had held to discuss the appointment and another Judge, who had posted photos of himself participating in the pro-impeachment demonstrations, blocked the nomination. 

Dilma´s impeachment took place in April 2016. I was attending a seminar in São Paulo on justice sector reform and met some friends in a bar off the elite Paulista Avenue, the country´s financial centre that had been the scene of a pro-impeachment demonstration earlier in the day. The bar was packed with its participants who cheered on the lengthy roll-call process as MPs cast their votes. The atmosphere was overtly racist, sexist and aggressive as the crowd hurled abuse at the MPs who voted against the impeachment. The biggest cheer of the night came for Bolsonaro with his theatrical declaration and overt support for the military dictatorship who he claimed to have ´saved Brazil from communism´. 

Even at the time, though, the overwhelming majority of Brazilians regarded Bolsonaro as an anachronistic joke. He is an insider who has spent 30 years as a professional politician and been affiliated with a variety of different parties. In the elections of 2010, the Social Liberal Party, which he now leads, only succeeding in having one member elected to Brazil´s national Congress. He has never distinguished himself as a lawmaker and the same accusations of graft and corruption swirl around him as the rest of Brazil´s political class. His notoriety comes less from his political career than from a series of bizarrely offensive statements he has made: telling one woman that she was too ugly for him to rape her, saying that he would rather his son died then told him he was gay, taunting black people, indigenous communities and those from the poorer states of the north east, and saying that the dictatorship´s only mistake was that it did not kill enough of its political opponents.

However as violent crime, which had fallen slightly during the boom years of Lula´s second administration, picked up again as the economy crashed, Bolsonaro´s hostility to gun control and support for shoot-to-kill and torture of criminal suspects did begin to strike a chord amongst some. A new generation of mainly middle-class Brazilians was emerging too young to remember the dictatorship and impatient with the sclerotic inefficiency of the Brazilian state. Social media became their key mobilizing tool and some linked up with the tea party movement in the United States that was soon to become the driving force of Donald Trump´s presidential campaign. Bolsonaro´s supporters also included many evangelical Christians, an extremely conservative and rapidly growing movement in Brazil.

Dilma’s Vice President from a rival party, Michel Temer, replaced her and under his leadership Brazil tacked sharply to the right on economic policy. The recession deepened and Temer has proved a hapless and massively unpopular incumbent. Under investigation for corruption himself, he fumbled the handling of a national lorry drivers’ strike that paralyzed the country and his reforms seem to have made the economic situation worse. PSDB joined his government and suffered by association, which as to badly damage the chances of their candidate in this year´s presidential election, Gerald Alckmin.

Then, in April 2018, Lula was arrested and sent to prison having been convicted of corruption by Moro the previous year, and all political calculations changed.

Lula´s trial, like Dirceu´s before him, raised several legal concerns. He was charged with accepting bribes in the form of improvements to a beach front house that he was also alleged to have received in ownership. The only evidence against him, however, was the word of alleged accomplices. No documents showed that the house actually belonged to him and he claimed the trial was a political witch-hunt. After appearing at a series of massive rallies with his supporters, he eventually handed himself in to start his sentence, but also announced his determination to contest the presidential election, which opinion polls soon showed him to be leading.

Lula´s criminal conviction barred him from standing in the elections by the law that his own government had created. Campaigning from his prison cell, however, he was soon the easy front-runner with between 30 and 40 per cent of the vote. Bolsonaro trailed him in second place at 15 per cent. Centrist candidates like Silva and Alckmin barely made it to double figures.

In September 2018, having exhausted his last legal challenge, he officially dropped out of the election and was replaced by Haddad. The electoral strategy was simply to associate the two candidates as closely as possible together; ´Lula is Haddad and Haddad is Lula´ was the campaign slogan. Haddad´s support rose steadily, but with Lula out of the race, Bolsonaro was now the front-runner and support for the centrist candidates shriveled still further. 

On 6 September Bolsonaro was stabbed while he was taking part in a rally, and he subsequently spent most of the rest of the campaign in hospital, unable to participate in any of the presidential debates. Under Brazilian election rules his narrow base of party support means that his propaganda received little airtime although this has been supplemented by a vigorous use of social media. His support continued to rise, first to 22 per cent and then 28 per cent, with Haddad some 10 points behind. In the final days before the first round of the election, Moro announced that he was considering bringing more charges against prominent PT figures, for campaign financing issues based on the word of one of their imprisoned members. This time Dilma and Haddad were allegedly implicated.

One week before the election, impressively sized demonstrations took place across Brazil organized by women's groups protesting Bolsonaro´s sexism and misogyny using the hashtag #elenão (not him). His own supporters held smaller motor cavalcades for him the following day.  Then in the final week of the campaign his support suddenly surged. Opinion polls showed him registering 35 and then 39 per in the days leading up to ballot. An exit poll gave him 45 per cent on the evening of the vote and as the ballots were counted it looked like he would win an outright overall majority. He comprehensively outpolled Haddad in the economically developed south and east of the country and it was only the votes of the impoverished north-east, which were amongst the last to be counted that forced a second round.

Prior to the election Bolsonaro´s party only had two MPs. In the current election he has lifted this to over 50, but this still gives him nothing like a majority with which to govern. The fragmented nature of Brazil´s Congress, the powers of patronage of the presidency and the undiminished appetite for graft of Brazilian politicians, however, could allow him to stitch together support for some populist measures. Even if he is unable to get much of his legislative programme through, Trump has shown how the bully pulpit can be used as an effective platform for dominating the political agenda. It would be wrong, however, to think that Bolsonaro wants to govern through Congress. As he said in one interview in the 1990s, if he ever became President, his first task would be to shut the Congress down:

I have no doubts – I would begin the coup on the very first day! And I am sure that at least 90% of the people would commemorate or give me an ovation. The Congress today is good for nothing, they only vote in favor of the president's projects. If he is the person who makes the decisions, who calls the shots, who laughs at the Congress, then start the coup at once, and let's make this a dictatorship.

During the campaign Bolsonaro was to deny that he still held such views, although video recordings of one of his sons showed him calling for the Supreme Court to be shut down and its judges arrested just a few months ago. At a final campaign rally a week before the vote Bolsonaro explicitly echoed one of the old slogans of the dictatorship - ´Brazil: love it or leave it´ - when he said that his government would ´sweep the reds out of the country´ and threatened to imprison his opponents. 

Amazingly, the Centre of Brazilian politics refused to join any type of progressive alliance for the defence of democracy in the second round of voting. Marina Silva belatedly endorsed a vote for Haddad a few days before the election, having previously pointedly refused to do so. PSDB declared its neutrality, although many of its leading members have openly defected to Bolsonaro´s camp. A number of other centre-left politicians who had previously pledged their support to such an initiative appear to have been intimidated into silence.

Bolsonaro´s own political broadcasts have also taken on an implicitly more fascist theme. Previously, PT was the main target of his campaigning ire. However, in the final week of the campaign he widened this to a more generalized attack on the politicians who have governed over the last 30 years. His real target is not just the Brazilian left, but Brazilian democracy.  For once we have to hope that a politician does not mean what he says.