Military coups have been a periodic feature of Brazilian politics, from the putsch that felled the monarchy in 1889 to the military coup in 1964 that ended Brazil’s Second Republic. Coups in Brazil are usually portrayed as necessary defenses of democracy against the threats of authoritarian demagogues. The 1964 coup was justified as a preemptive measure against a communist-backed coup to install president João Goulart, a moderate social democrat proposing basic reforms, as a dictator. The momentum for the tanks on the streets was created through the historic “March of the Family with God for Liberty,” in which hundreds of thousands of middle-class Brazilians took to the streets against the Goulart government.
Once again, Brazil is facing a threat to its fragile democracy experiment, this time from a sitting president, the extreme-right Jair Bolsonaro, who is mobilizing his supporters in what has been dubbed the “Fuck You March” against Brazil’s Supreme Court and Congress.
Bolsonaro’s online supporters have been flooding social media for weeks with propaganda targeting institutions and individuals perceived as hostile to the president’s far-right agenda, and have called on people to follow security minister General Augusto Helano to the streets. The head of Brazil’s Military Club also called on “patriots,” claiming that “congress won’t let the executive govern!” A sample of the cheery democratic sentiments on display includes calls for “a final solution” to Brazil’s Congress and the execution of Supreme Court justices. This is a campaign funded by pro-Bolsonaro businessmen, many of whom were implicated in the illegal funding of fake news campaigns during the 2018 election campaign.
The rhetoric emanating from the Bolsonaro camp focuses on the institutional sabotage of the president’s agenda and the need for a violent solution to the intractable problem of corrupt democracy. Bolsonaro himself was sending a video to his friends on WhatsApp, calling for supporters to mobilize against Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court. The video informs viewers that Bolsonaro “is fighting the corrupt and murderous left for us. He endures smears and lies because he’s doing his best for us . . . Let’s show that we support BOLSONARO and reject the enemies of Brazil.”
He followed this up by calling on his supporters to take to the streets last Saturday, claiming that it was slanderous to label this march “anti-democratic.” He is even asserting that the elections he himself won in 2018 were fraudulent, without offering a shred of evidence. This claim was amplified by pro-Bolsonaro media outlets and supporters of the president.
Bolsonaro’s large and slow-witted sons are mobilizing support for the march and have been at the vanguard of attacks against Congress and the Supreme Court. The younger failson and Trump superfan, federal deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, took to Twitter to ask: “If an H-bomb landed on congress do you really think the people would shed any tears?” He has been using such rhetoric for years. During the 2018 elections for instance, he boasted that “One wouldn’t even need a Jeep. Sending a soldier and corporal would be enough to close the [Supreme Court].”
This isn’t the first time in Brazilian history an embattled president has tried to rally his base in a desperate attempt to save their presidency. In 1992, Brazil’s first directly elected president playboy, oligarch Fernando Collor de Mello, called for his supporters to march wearing yellow and green, the colors of the Brazilian flag, to defend him against possible impeachment.
Collor’s ill-fated reign was collapsing in the wake of revelations that he and his consigliere, ex–used car salesmen Paulo Cesar Farias (who also allegedly dabbled in major narcotics trafficking), were shaking down companies for millions of dollars funneled into a secret slush fund. His brother, Pedro, had given an interview to the magazine Veja revealing the president’s corruption scheme and love for cocaine — an act of revenge for the president’s attempt to seduce his wife. Collor had won the 1989 election posing as a modernizing anti-corruption outsider, but his desperate gambit proved a disaster as Brazilians took to the streets wearing black. Facing a final vote for his impeachment in the senate, Collor resigned, but under popular pressure, the Senate proceeded with the trial and convicted him of official misconduct by a margin of seventy-six to three.
It remains to be seen how effective Bolsonaro’s campaign will be, but the more likely scenario is closer to Collor than the “March of the Family with God for Liberty.” The Bolsonaro movement is more based in WhatsApp groups than real grassroots organizations, and previous pro-government demonstrations in 2019 failed to mobilize significant numbers of people. There is also the chance that he might call off the march altogether, given the threat of coronavirus. But at the time of writing, Bolsonaro has doubled down, using official government communication channels to call his supporters to the streets.
This is part of an escalating campaign against Brazil’s increasingly fragile democracy. More dangerous than online bigots and troll farms are Bolsonaro’s supporters within the state, in particular Brazil’s military and Military Police.
What Is Bolsonaro Up To?
Bolsonaro is currently enjoying the highest approval ratings of his presidency so far, despite dismal economic performance and his government’s record of idiocy and incompetence. By passing pension reforms last year, he secured the support of Brazil’s elite. President of the Congress Rodrigo Maia — a key target of the “Fuck You March” — was able to cobble together the congressional support to pass pension reform despite Bolsonaro’s own political incompetence, in effect saving his presidency.
Bolsonaro’s relatively strong position is made even more astonishing by the fact that he left his own party last year — the Social Liberal Party — and is still trying to form the new, extreme-right Alliance for Brazil.
A whole section of respectable opinion has invested significant political capital and energy in softening Bolsonaro’s image, attempting to transform him from a foaming bigot preaching politics by way of the gun to a necessary protector of markets and opponent of corruption. Many have said again and again that he would be more moderate after taking power, but instead, Bolsonaro has governed by manufacturing his own crises in government while testing the limits of Brazilian democracy. So far, this has been tolerated by the Brazilian elite because he has allowed his finance minister, Paulo Guedes, to implement their economic agenda.
Bolsonaro’s support base among Brazil’s upper and middle classes remains firm. The military appears firmly behind him, as do the powerful evangelical churches and the institutions of finance capital. Much of the Brazilian bourgeoisie appears to have red-pilled Bolsonarismo, reluctantly getting behind the brutish former army captain, only to later discover the open bigotry and dismantling of public institutions to feed the furies of the market to their taste.
The president enjoys the strong backing of Brazil’s Wall Street, Faria Lima, and the most important industrial association in the country, the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP). Big capital is still united behind him, even if international investors are growing weary of the president’s antics, such as sending an impersonator to hand out bananas to journalists waiting for news about the growth predictions for the coming year.
The menagerie of grotesqueries that populate the Bolsonaro cabinet cannot be divided, as some apologists continue to claim, between pragmatists like ex-Chicago boy finance minister Paulo Guedes, and ideologues such as education minister Abraham Weintraub — a strong contender for the most incompetent minister in the world. Rather, these are simply different factions of antidemocratic ideologues. Despite being the darling of finance capital, Guedes has mishandled Brazil’s economic woes, engaging in a mix of conspiracy and vitriol similar to his boss.
Far from being a force for liberal modernization and democracy, Brazil’s historic Lava Jato anti-corruption investigation — along with its chief protagonist, justice minister Sérgio Moro — is, according to leading journalist Mônica Bergamo, the most important center of support for authoritarianism. Moro has been at the forefront of an attempt to effectively render police immune from prosecution for killing anyone perceived as a threat. Chief investigator Delton Dallagnol has also been publicly attacking Congress in the buildup to the march, claiming they are the single greatest obstacle to the fight against corruption in Brazil.
Allied sections of Brazil’s judiciary have targeted journalists, most notably Glenn Greenwald, for exposing the dirty secrets of Lava Jato. Journalists like the Folha de São Paulo’s Patrícia Campos Mello have been openly targeted by Bolsonaro and his brood of brutish sons who mobilize their fake news and bot machines — paid for by pro-Bolsonaro businessmen — to harass and threaten the president’s critics.
While Bolsonaro’s support is holding firm, he still faces several threats to his presidency. The economy is in crisis, coronavirus is fast spreading, and he faces a possible impeachment challenge. It may be the case that the circle is closing in over his clan’s connections to a recently slain hitman, ex–police captain Adriano da Nóbrega — a key member of a group of assassins known as the Crime Bureau.
Captain Adriano is suspected of being the man who pulled the trigger on the socialist Rio de Janeiro city councilor Marielle Franco and had close connections to Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Senator Flávio, who employed the hitman’s wife and mother as phantom employees as part of an embezzlement racket. In February, Captain Adriano was killed by Military Police in the northeastern state of Bahia in what is widely regarded as “cleaning the archive,” as they say in Brazil, meaning getting rid of the evidence.
While so far these remain allegations and rumors, Brazil’s congress is set to discuss the possible impeachment of Bolsonaro on March 16, after congressman Alexandre Frota put forward a motion for impeachment on the ground that Bolsonaro had a committed a “crime of responsibility” by attempting to mobilize his supporters against Brazil’s democratic institutions.
Bolsonaro is almost uniquely ill equipped to handle the coronavirus, doubling down on his characteristic brand of conspiracy theory and crude threats, declaring it “a media fantasy.” At the time of writing, there are more than fifty reported cases of the virus in Brazil. An editorial in Globo sums up the situation well: “Coronavirus is not on Bolsonaro’s agenda,” adding that the president “continues to operate on a different frequency, far from the reality of facts.”
The economic situation, too, is fast worsening: growth predictions are declining on a weekly basis, the Brazilian real has collapsed to record lows against the dollar, and the markets are in free fall as foreign investors are pulling out of Brazil. If there is any time that the population will lose faith in this type of politics, it might be when they are facing economic crisis and a global pandemic.
Bolsonaro’s gambit of mobilizing his supporters against the Congress and Supreme Court is part of a deliberate strategy of attempting to consolidate his position by manufacturing political crisis. This style of governance matches what Richard Seymour terms “disaster nationalism,” manufacturing crisis after crisis to pit Bolsonaro against the “establishment.” Betting on the continued radicalization of the country has so far proved a winning hand for Bolsonaro and his supporters — the wave of polarization unleashed in the country since 2013 has consumed everything in its path so far and has yet to subside.
The Military Police Take to the Streets
The most dangerous movement in Brazil comes from within the state. There is an emerging movement among Brazil’s 450,000-strong Military Police (PM) that seeks to build political power through the barrel of the gun.
Brazil’s PM has always been the vanguard of criminality and political repression in Brazil, and a law unto themselves. But since Bolsonaro took office, the PM has been killing at record numbers, while the Militias — powerful paramilitary Mafias — have been expanding their hold across the country. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Rio de Janeiro, the base of Bolsonaro’s support. But this movement is spreading across the country.
In an attempt to further their political power, state PM — often led by politicians aligned with Bolsonaro — have been launching illegal strikes across the country. These strikes are not just about their stated aims of salary increases, but about using violence to establish political power over civilian politicians. The Military Police has been transformed into a political force with their own network of politicians and agenda.
A recent fourteen-day strike in the northeastern state of Ceará, for instance, saw PM take to the streets wearing balaclavas and threatening local businesses, while random violence increased across the state. There were 241 people killed during the strike, many of these murders being the work of suspected police death squads. In a vainglorious attempt to end the strike, Senator Cid Gomes (brother of presidential candidate Ciro Gomes) of the center-left Brazilian Labor Party charged a line of striking masked cops in a bulldozer and was shot twice with a .40 caliber handgun for his efforts. Similar campaigns have taken place throughout the country, particularly in states governed by parties considered hostile to Bolsonaro.
As Matthew Richmond and I argued in a Jacobin article last year, Bolsonaro’s true threat lies in the extent to which he is able to promote a parastatal form of authoritarianism that is already growing in the country. In order to understand the threat posed by Bolsonaro, “We need to understand fascism not in terms of its mid-twentieth-century European prototype, but in its contemporary Latin American guise. To properly identify the threat of violent authoritarianism in Brazil, we must look beyond both the state and popular mobilization, to the ‘para-state’.”
Bolsonaro’s attempts to mobilize his supporters in conjunction with the Military Police movement are further expressions of the rise of the parastate. We have already seen in the murder of Marielle Franco and the shooting of Cid Gomes that the potential for increased violence against the Left is lurking behind the online hate mobs and targeted harassment campaigns. Journalists and activists regularly receive death threats from sources more than capable of turning them into reality.
Brazil’s military have revealed themselves as enthusiastic supporters of Bolsonaro’s ideological project rather than protectors of order and democracy, as many have insisted they are. Since taking office, Bolsonaro has increased military spending by 10 percent and appointed military officers to eight out of the twenty-two cabinet positions — more than even during the harshest years of the military dictatorship. Far from being a moderating force, these officers have actively stoked the fires of extremism. The military and capital have failed to moderate Bolsonaro and have enabled the continued radicalization of his government.
A Fragmented Opposition
The irony is that it falls to the embattled Left to mobilize in defense of Brazil’s democratic institutions — the same institutions that toppled President Dilma Rousseff in the 2016 congressional coup and jailed the leading candidate in the 2018 elections, former president Lula da Silva, to make way for Bolsonaro’s election.
By their own admission, the left opposition is fragmented, despite Lula’s release from prison last year and the large mobilizations in defense of public education. The most effective political opposition to Bolsonaro has emerged from the ranks of Brazil’s gangster political class. These include president of the Congress Rodrigo Maia, capo of the Northeastern state of Alagoas Senator Renan Calheiros, and the most notorious member of the Supreme Court, Gilmar Mendes — Brazil’s greatest defender of congressional immunity. It was this class that toppled Dilma Rousseff in the congressional coup of 2016. The Supreme Court and Congress now serve on occasion as a check on Bolsonaro’s government. It is for this reason that they are being threatened with a “final solution.”
The Brazilian left has been given the unenviable task of forming a united front with the same forces that cleared the way for Bolsonaro’s rise to power. It now has to share the title of defenders of democracy with the likes of Brazil’s wannabe-Michael-Bloomberg, São Paulo governor João Doria, who campaigned in 2018 as a Bolsonaro supporter.
Many of his former allies have embraced a “resistance”-like politics against Bolsonaro, from former porn star Alexandre Frota to the psychopathic governor of Rio de Janeiro state Wilson Witzel. Their opposition to Bolsonaro does not stem from any political principle, but rather from their own political ambitions.
The 2020 municipal elections are set for later this year, and the Left faces not only the threat of the extreme right, but also the center-right, which is attempting to consolidate the narrative of resistance to justify a Joe Biden–esque return to normality, despite having directly helped Bolsonaro’s rise to power.
Bolsonaro has proved himself an unreliable ally, one prepared to turn against anyone who poses even a mild irritation to him and his sons. His political vision is centered on the prospects of his untamed and slow-witted sons rather than any sort of collective project. His opposition to the traditional horse trading of politics is not out of a moral objection to corruption; he and his clan have long been involved in the petty corruption of small-time politicians.
Despite Bolsonaro’s long and consistent record of open hostility to democracy, Brazil’s centrists continue to depict the moderate Social Democratic Workers’ Party as an equally dangerous threat to democracy as Bolsonaro. For instance, the center-right Estado de São Paulo newspaper infamously published an editorial declaring the election “A Difficult Choice” between the Workers’ Party’s candidate, Fernando Haddad, and Bolsonaro — in other words, a choice between social democracy and far-right authoritarianism. This proved too much for Brazilian liberals, who preferred to either cast a blank ballot or covertly vote for Bolsonaro.
If Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic project is to be thwarted, it will require the collective mobilization of the Left and the continued resilience of Brazil’s political class. Brazilian liberals have proved again and again that, if push comes to shove, they will side with Bolsonaro.
The Left is weakened and facing an enemy bent on its extinction. The line is being held in Brazil against full-blown authoritarianism — but only just, and there are no guarantees that it will hold. Perhaps now, with the world entering a new crisis, Bolsonaro may have bitten off more than he can chew.