The Evolution of Authoritarianism in Bolsonaro’s Brazil

By Antra Jain 

“The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”- George Orwell

All over the world, various countries have fallen under the spell of authoritarianism. In such situations, the politicians have given rise to many populist movements to gain power and authority over the people. This has been done by curtailing the freedom of the judiciary and the media because these institutions have the ability to check and question their authority. Such autocratic world leaders, across the globe, share a vocabulary of intolerance and intimidation. A similar situation is being witnessed in Brazil under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro whose aristocratic practices are being considered as an enormous threat to democracy.

 

BRAZIL’S POLITICAL HISTORY (1964-1985):

It was during the Cold War in April 1964, when the Brazilian military, guided by doctrinal fears of Communist-inspired insurrection and civil war, reacted to the perfect storm of soaring inflation, student unrests and the apparent ineptitude of civilian leaders by staging a coup and imposing a military authoritarian regime.

The Military rulers then stabilized the existing economy, strengthened the country and expanded their role within the economy and imposed press censorship and a state of siege. 

The Brazilian transition to democracy was gradual. It was in 1989 when Fernando Collor de Mello became the first directly elected President since 1960. However, despite introducing many radical economic reforms, inflation remained out of control in Brazil and he resigned the office. In 1994, Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected as the president after having brought inflation under control as the finance minister. Finally, in 2018, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro wins the presidential election and takes office in 2019. 


The Brazilian president was born into an Italian middle-class family. He studied at many prestigious schools all over Brazil and served as a captain in the army before moving to the capital city to establish his political career. He has an infamous reputation for making inflammatory statements and his targets mainly include women and the LGBTQ+ community. Due to his service as a captain in the army, in various instances, he has expressed his nostalgia regarding the country’s past as a military dictatorship. He has changed his party affiliation numerous times and recently launched a new party called the Alliance for Brazil. Despite defecting so many times, no change has been brought in his political ideas which are based on an authoritarian, nationalist and religious discourse. 


AUTHORITARIAN REGIME UNDER THE CURRENT PRESIDENT: 

During his first six months in power, he introduced many changes: He lifted gun control regulations and during his first year in office, gun ownership rocketed by 98%. Brazil has one of the largest numbers of homicides anywhere in the world and the President believes that relaxing the laws would allow citizens to own guns and defend themselves. 

He allowed the use of many agricultural pesticides which were banned in most developed countries, attacked labour rights, and appointed 3000 members of the military to government positions. He cut down college education and research budgets extensively, draining the Brazilian environmental protection agencies of their wealth. Nothing illustrates his image better than the catastrophic Amazon fire which was the consequence of coordinated action among farmers induced by the President’s project to destroy the forest. 


Since taking office, Bolsonaro has put various democratic institutions under attack. He has undermined the freedom of various scientific, cultural and educational institutions as well as the press. His government has already decided to transform schools into extensions of military barracks and plans to censor school textbooks to promote a more conservative attitude among the children. During the Amazon fires for which the President received a lot of flak, his administration threatened various scientists who dared to present facts. The Bolsonaro government is also very hostile towards the press and the media. For instance, he launched a baseless investigation into an American journalist as a response to a series of articles published by him suspecting corruptive practices taking place in Bolsonaro’s circle. Since there are many similar cases such as this, in 2019 alone, there were 208 reported cases against journalists and media personnel in Brazil. Dissemination of fake news to slander his opponent's reputation takes place under his administration. This practice was widely used during his presidential campaign and continues to play an important role in distorting the public debate.  

During the 1964 coup d’état, the political rights of the people were revoked along with the establishment of widespread censorship. Bolsonaro has praised the era of military dictatorship and called that phase of Brazil’s political history “a very good period”. He continues defending the military takeover by saying that it was not a coup and the regime implemented that year which remained in power until 1985, was not a dictatorship. He has repeatedly called the worst dictators in history a ‘hero’. The changes brought by him since his two years in office- limiting the political, cultural rights, repressing dissenting voices, curbing the freedom of the press and media- show many similarities with the military regime that took place during 1964-85.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro contracted the virus after months of downplaying it. Despite falling victim to the virus, he refused to adhere to instructions to isolate himself. Instead, he accused his opponents and the media of ‘tricking citizens’ about the threats the virus poses. Although Brazil had the third-highest number of Coronavirus cases in the world and the authorities had declared that the state’s health system had collapsed, he advocated that social distancing measures be relaxed and commerce to gradually return. Bolsonaro’s push to reopen commerce gave rise to anti-Bolsonaro protests all over Brazil which increased fears that such protests could lead to social unrest. 

 

The present situation in Brazil under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro is extremely dire. It is also important to understand that these attacks on democracy are not the results of chances or mere excesses but have major repercussions. The strategy of constantly undermining the freedom and independence of various democratic institutions presents an underlying authoritarian idea. It's important to understand that a decade ago, Brazil was prospering. The President at that time was very popular and had instituted generous domestic programs and paid off a fifteen-billion dollar loan to the International Monetary Fund, ahead of schedule. When Bolsonaro, on the other hand, was elected as the President, in an interview, he claimed that he did not harbour a good relationship with his father and did not speak to him till the age of 28. Later, when he was accepted into the Army’s Cadet Corps and thousands of Brazilians were tortured in detention camps, while he played no part in the repression, he didn't condemn it either and said that the biggest mistake of the military regime was ”to torture and not kill”. During a dispute with a fellow legislator, he grew violent and addressed her by using pejorative terms. Bolsonaro glorifies authoritarianism and believes that police officers that kill troublemakers should not be prosecuted but decorated. He continues to exploit the country’s conservative sentiments and this has resulted in an exponential increase in homophobic attacks and inspired fears among the mass that the country is “going back to 1964”. A culmination of all these factors could be the reason why the once-prosperous country of Brazil is now under the autocratic hands of Jair Bolsonaro. The people of this nation must come together and raise their voice against the President’s unacceptable impulses or what is happening right now, which will have disastrous and inconceivable consequences while making Brazil an excellent example of how a modern democracy can collapse.

 


Sources:

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Hagopian, F. (2015). Brazil’s Transition: From Constrained Liberalization to Vibrant Democracy. In Bitar, S. & Lowenthal, A.F. (Eds.). Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders (pp. 5-11).

Platt, D. (2020, June 17). Is Brazil on the verge of a dictatorship?. Retrieved from Is Brazil on the verge of a dictatorship?

Xavier, A. (2020, Jan 24). As Brazil’s Bolsonaro meets India’s Modi, which strongman is a greater threat to democracy? Retrieved from As Brazil’s Bolsonaro meets India’s Modi, which strongman is a greater threat to democracy?

Zimmermann, F.B. (2020, April 16). COVID-19 in Brazil: Bolsonaro’s Far-Right Authoritarianism in a Pandemic. Retrieved from COVID-19 in Brazil: Bolsonaro's Far-Right Authoritarianism in a Pandemic - Australian Institute of International Affairs

Anderson, J.L. (2019, April 9).  Jair Bolsonaro’s Southern Strategy. Retrieved from Jair Bolsonaro's Southern Strategy