Brazil’s stride into authoritarianism

August 9, 2019
Cartoon by Carlos Latuff.

Since Brazil’s 2016 parliamentary coup d’etat, in which former president Dilma Rousseff was removed on a later-exonerated technicality, Brazil’s ultra-right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro has made every effort to destroy any remnants of the legacy left by the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT).

More than just replacing logotypes and email accounts, Bolsonaro’s administration has taken steps to remove environmental protections on the Atlantic and Amazon forests to allow his wealthy rural base access to slash and burn, evict and even kill Indigenous peoples, introduce extreme farming and to use an exhaustive list of toxins on local produce.

This affront has been widely broadcast by the media.

What has been less discussed, however, are Bolsonaro’s policies against society, especially: harming the poor and minority groups; infringing human rights and the free press; and destroying democratic values. In short, a conservative march has transitioned into large strides towards an authoritarian regime.

Recently, Bolsonaro threatened The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald with jail time for investigating newly-appointed Justice Minister Sergio Moro. Greenwald had led the investigation into phone leaks that raised suspicion about Moro’s contact with prosecutors during the trial against former president Luis “Lula” Inacio da Silva, which coincided with Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign in 2018.

The Intercept published transcribed conversations that suggest Moro colluded to jail Lula on flimsy, circumstantial proof, while flouting constitutional laws. With Lula out of the competition, Bolsonaro’s win was followed by his immediate appointment of Moro as his justice minister. The president’s threat has also turned to the hackers that leaked the conversations and texts to Greenwald.

The president’s interest in condemning the journalist and the hackers is designed to imply that the president and his ministers are protected no matter what wrongdoing they may have committed, while those that investigate any illegal activity are the real criminals.

Not only is the press under attack — a dangerous move towards authoritarianism — voicing one’s personal opinion on the government has been put back on the list of punishable offenses.

Recently Rogério Lemes Coelho, a supporter of the Sao Paulo soccer team Corinthians, was arrested and beaten by police for having sworn out loud in a soccer arena against the president. He was forcibly removed in handcuffs, taken to a private room, beaten and harassed until the game was over then released after being charged with swearing against the president.

No sympathy was shown for his prosthetic leg, nor were his constitutional rights to free speech upheld.

When you are prohibited from airing your personal opinion on your government, an authoritarian state is just a hop, skip and a jump away.

Bolsonaro is no slouch when it comes to dictatorial regimes. During his election campaign and Rousseff’s impeachment process, he openly praised the 1964 coup and celebrated one of Brazil’s infamous torturers Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.

In one TV interview, Bolsonaro bellowed his support of torture, saying the only way Brazil could move forward is to “kill off 30,000 or so … if some innocent people die in the process, so be it.”

In another, he explained the mistake during the dictatorship was “to torture and not to kill”.

Bolsonaro’s latest legislation is in the same vein, pushing to protect police officers who shoot first and ask questions later. He believes that legal cover for the authorities will allow them to kill criminals in the streets “like cockroaches … and that’s how it should be”.

Robert Muggah, head of Brazilian think-tank Igarape Institute, said police shootings are at an all-time high: in Rio de Janeiro alone, police gunned down 434 people in the first three months of this year and this total was at 881 for the first six months.

In 2018, police in Brazil killed 6200 people, up from the 5225 slain in 2017. Human rights groups are increasingly concerned. These shocking numbers beg the question: how can legal cover for police reduce the number of killings?

Yet, the new legislation would forego that question, preferring a shootout and some body bags.

Having proclaimed on TV in 1999 that, if elected, he would implement a military coup, it has been a surprising 200+ days since he took office and the military has been kept at bay — for now.

After being tried and eventually acquitted by a military court for his involvement in a failed bombing in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1980s, Bolsonaro left the military. However, his political career has always centred around the army.

Bolsonaro fought for better military salaries and retirement rights but achieved little in terms of new laws. Still, his backing by the military always hints at the possibility of another military coup.

At the moment, however, the coup is taking a leisurely stroll; Bolsonaro prefers the tactic of whittling down democratic values one by one. Free speech, a free press and the right to representation are being crushed under Bolsonaro’s boot. It is just a matter of time before his malicious stomp treads on other rights.

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