‘Brazil on Fire’: How fake news, culture wars and the United States put a fascist in power

January 28, 2021
Still from Brazil on Fire. Inset: Michael Fox.

Once at the centre of the left turn that began sweeping the region two decade ago, Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, has for the past two years been governed by a far-right president.

Under Jair Bolsonaro, the country has seen many of the gains made during 14 years of Workers’ Party rule wound back, while social movements have come under increasing attack.

Brazil on Fire is a forthcoming investigative podcast that seeks to explain Brazil’s authoritarian turn. The 11-part series hosted, recorded and produced by Brazil-based journalist Michael Fox takes a deep look at Bolsonaro’s rise to power, what drives his support and the communities that are fighting back.

Fox recently launched a new documentary Dismantling Brazil, produced with Brasil Wire co-editor Brian Meir. He spoke to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about the podcast and the significance of events in Brazil for the left internationally.


What is it about the events in Brazil over the past few years that make them of such importance for left and progressive activists around the world?

Brazil was a country where the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) had won four consecutive elections between 2002 and 2014. While in government, the PT implemented progressive policies that lifted millions out of poverty and projected the country onto the global stage, swapping dependency on the United States for greater South-South relations. Domestically and internationally, Brazil had begun to chart a different path.

But in just a few years, all of this has been completely gutted and undone as a result of the [2016] congressional coup against PT president Dilma Rousseff. The combination of an anti-corruption investigation led by the biased judge Sergio Moro [later a minister in Bolsonaro’s cabinet], fake news, culture wars, a parliamentary coup and a media campaign against the left and PT, led to a complete rollback of the tremendous social gains that had been achieved and opened the door to a fascist president: Jair Bolsonaro.

My forthcoming podcast series focuses on the rise of Bolsonaro’s far-right government that is setting the country ablaze and how the US helped him do it. In the podcast, I try to show the reality of two worlds — those of his supporters and the resistance to his government. I try to take the listener on a journey, switching from outside Bolsonaro’s house the night he wins as I stand alongside his supporters to understand where they're coming from, to the world of the Rural Landless Workers Movement (MST), indigenous communities in the Amazon, traditional Black communities in the country’s north east, and urban movements fighting evictions.

I think one big takeaway from all this is how culture wars have been used to take down the left and, in Brazil’s case, help lift Bolsonaro to power. That, and the connection between Bolsonaro and the US — as we walk through these different worlds, the details of the connection and parallels with the US become clear.

Take for example Bolsonaro’s philosophical guru, Olavo de Carvalho. Very few people in the US know him, but he lives in Virginia. In the mid-2000s, he started his own online school through which he trained up far-right activists in Brazil. Many of those same people were or are top members in Bolsonaro government. He played a critical role in training up a far-right movement and helping to spread far-right ideology in Brazil.

Then there is the connection between Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former aide, and Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son, who is now the leader of the Brazil section of Bannon's organisation, The Movement. This is where fake news and culture wars come into it: Bolsonaro was in many ways inspired by Trump — some call him the Trump of the Tropics.

There is also the growth of the libertarian movement in Brazil that helped push Dilma from power in 2016; many libertarian student groups were funded by the Atlas Foundation and libertarian groups in the US.

We need to understand these linkages and how the Bolsonaro presidency aligns with fascism and fascist movements abroad. This is really key because we need to understand where these movements come from and how these fascist movements can take off in moments of political crisis that the left is blamed for, which is what we saw here.

There's a very clear media bias that seeks to blame the left, blame the PT for all of Brazil's problems. This was intentional; its aim was to taint the public’s opinion of the PT and the left. That's not to say there wasn't corruption, of course there was. But the PT was one of many parties involved in corruption. The Bolsonaro government, which came in with the goal of eliminating corruption, has shown itself to be just as corrupt.

Brazil is one of the largest countries in the world, so it's important to understand the power that Brazil potentially has and its deep connection with the US. This is why it had to be a podcast developed over a long period of time, because there are so many layers to this story.

Could you tell us a bit more about the kind of voices of resistance that we will be able to hear from in the podcast?

The podcast series is an attempt to understand how a fascist could win the presidency and quickly move to sell off the country to multinational corporations and roll back social and even constitutional rights that the country set in place in 1988. It is important to understand how this happened, to understand Bolsonaro’s supporters and where they're coming from.

But it is equally important to understand the grassroots resistance to his government, whether we are talking about the PT or those involved in land occupations, indigenous communities, traditional Black communities, human rights defenders, the LGBTI community, the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are so many different layers, that is why it needed to be a podcast series — to tell the stories of how people are being attacked, how they are having their rights rolled back by the Bolsonaro government, how in many cases they have been left in fear for their lives, but also how they are responding to all this and continuing to resist.

Even in the lead up to the 2018 elections, it was clear that Bolsonaro wanted to launch a war on the left and its base. That is why labour rights have been rolled back and pension reforms have been enacted to attack unions. The idea is to attack unions as much as possible because they formed a major base of left activism and political organising in the country.

We have seen a similar thing with the rollback of the social right to land, whether that's to do with housing in the city or land in the countryside. In Brazil, there has always existed a strong tension over the right to land, over whether land should be viewed as private property or as a social right. These two concepts are delicately balanced in the constitution.

But Bolsonaro has clearly come out in defence of the right to private property, rolling back as much as possible the idea of social property through actions such as evictions. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, eviction numbers have continued to rise. The podcast takes a look at housing occupation movements, focusing on how the state has attacked them and how they have been able to organise.

Based on your discussions and interviews, what do you believe are some lessons we can learn from Brazil?

There are many lessons to be learnt from the way grassroots activists have resisted the Bolsonaro government, though many of these lessons are still being developed. I think one lesson is how to remain in resistance, how to remain active, in the face of violent attacks against the left.

In the weeks leading up to Bolsonaro’s election, grassroots movements made it clear they would resist his government. This did not necessarily mean that they were going to go out onto the streets to protest, because of the danger that entailed, though, of course, they have taken to the streets when necessary. But they made it clear they were going to continue resisting in their housing settlements, encampments, land occupations, to hold onto what they had achieved and continue to organise.

There's a lot of layers to this and I try to peel them back, to understand how organising continues to happen by taking the listener to the events as they unfold. That's what is beautiful about a podcast like this, that you are able to hear the protagonists speak, to be there in the moment when things are happening and really grasp the intensity of what is occurring in Brazil, but also the hope that still exists.

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