The strongman syndrome

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling’s Brazil: A biography (2018), an 800-page history that first appeared in Portuguese in 2015, finished on an optimism note: while there was still much left to do, the authors acknowledged, the country had finally emerged from its authoritarian past and stood at “the beginning of a new chapter.” That chapter is now playing out, and not in the way that anyone – least of all academics on the left – had remotely expected.

Jair Bolsonaro’s loss in last week’s presidential elections was narrow: just over 58 million Brazilians voted for a man who has openly threatened democratic institutions, right down to his protracted, passive-aggressive silence and his grudging refusal to openly acknowledge the result in the aftermath of his defeat. Bolsonaro took the richer, more populated and developed states in the southeast and the south, comfortably winning both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and the advanced agricultural states of the central west. Elsewhere, powered by enormous pre-election giveaways, he ran Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva close, falling just short (by a margin of 0.4 per cent) in the pivotal swing state of Minas Gerais. And this was not an apathetic election: turnout was high, at about 80 per cent.

Nowhere have the culture wars been fought as viciously as in Brazil. Bolsonaro and his committed, often fanatical base co-opted Brazil’s famous canary-yellow national football team jumper as they contested the street, the traditional space of left-wing protest. His crude, populist invective was poured on swathes of the population: women, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, LGBTQI groups – even, at one point, critically ill Covid patients, whom he mimicked in their struggle for air.

Beyond his boorish theatrics Bolsonaro succeeded in creating a solid electoral base that, even in defeat, has reconfigured Brazilian politics. This coalition is made up of the precarious lower middle classes and right-wing business elites in the cities; the booming agribusinesses of the interior and land-grabbers in the Amazon; the police and the military; and, above all, the county’s fast-expanding, socially conservative evangelical demographic.

Bolsonaro’s brand of left-baiting populism might feel familiar. He consciously copied Donald Trump, at times word for word, including the former US president’s repeated, baseless accusations of electoral fraud. His slogans – “Deus, pátria, familia e liberdade” (“God, fatherland, family and liberty”) and “Brasil acima de tudo, Deus acima de todos(Brazil above all, God above everyone; cf. “Deutschland uber alles”) – echo those used in Mussolini’s Italy, Salazar’s Portugal and Nazi Germany. But in her new book, Brazilian Authoritarianism: Past and Present (translated by Eric MB Becker), Schwarcz contends that Bolsonaro’s “aesthetic” is highly specific to Brazil: a troubling synthesis of some of the country’s darkest historical tendencies.

The Brazilian sociologist, historian and politician Gilberto Freyre (1900–87) once mused, with a hint of nostalgia, looking back to the power structures of the nineteenth century, that he was seeking update and moderate: “the past never ended; it lives on.” For Schwarcz the idea is a good one, but in a different sense: Brazil is haunted by a history that has cast a dark shadow and has now re-emerged like “a wandering ghost, unsure of its destination”. Colonial rule set the template. Brazil was run as an “exploitation colony”, with vast single-crop estates ruled over by monopolistic land-owning elites. They established a violent slave-holding system with a “near total absence of a public sphere or State” and a complete lack of interest in collective welfare. Pioneering bandeirantes have been portrayed throughout history as heroic frontiersmen, but they were the “razor edge of colonization”, waging a war against indigenous peoples that continues to this day. Oversight from Portugal – then a declining empire – was lax, fueling corruption that “grew like a weed”. Seventeenth-century seafarers were said to prefer being robbed by pirates on the high seas to docking in Brazilian ports; prospectors smuggled powdered gold from the interior inside wooden figurines of saints rather than have it processed by corrupt officials.

The slave-holding system remained in place throughout the empire, ending only twelve years short of the twentieth century. When the only monarchy in South America gave way to the republic in 1889, it was a group of military officers who took, later consolidated by the presidency of the “Iron Mar”, Floriano Peixoto. Periods of martial law followed until Getúlio Vargas’s Estado Novo (1937–45), modeled on Salazar’s Estado Novo in Portugal, ushered in a ban on opposition parties and a climate of mass political surveillance and xenophobia.

It is no coincidence that Bolsonaro came of age during military rule (1964–85). He participated in its latter stages as a young army captain and continues to be nostalgic for the dictatorship years – as seen in his open support for torturers, his threats of violence against political opponents and his strange, Cold War-style fear of “communist” takeover.

In theory, the 1988 constitution marked the beginning of a more progressive cycle. But as Schwarcz shows through a battery of statistics drawn from academic studies violent, institutional analyses, NGO reports and census data, Brazil is still an extremely, fundamentally unequal society, with huge income disparities between black and white. Some of these figures are shocking. More than half a million Brazilians have been murdered in the past decade – over twelve times the number in the European Union; the infant mortality rate of Indigenous Brazilians is almost twice that of the national average; 40 per cent of the Black population under fourteen lives in poverty, and 7 per cent of Brazilians are illiterate (mainly older people in the poor northeast).

Age-old authoritarian power structures persist. After Bolsonaro’s shock victory in the 2018 elections, a third of the country’s Congress had family links to traditional oligarchical families. The phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the northeast, where dense networks of relatives dominate the state legislatures. In many ways the Bolsonaro family, whose members have long worked as a unit, spanning municipal, state and federal politics, typify Brazil’s historical tendency towards dynastic rule.

Electoral manipulation has also been the norm – not in the sense of Bolsonaro’s Trumpian claims of electoral fraud, but through the curral eleitoral (electoral corral), by which poor citizens are “corralled” into blocks by influential elite families and offered jobs, cash, favors – even food, housing, clothing – in exchange for their votes. The custom originally related to the old republic (1889–1930), but it continues in various forms today, including in favelas, which are often dominated by militias who deliver block votes to local politicians. (The Bolsonaro family has murky links to some of these militias.) In an echo of the practice, in the run-up to the 2022 elections Bolsonaro pumped enormous welfare payouts, and more mysterious unaudited allocations from Congress’s so-called orçamento secreto (secret budget), into Brazil’s pro-Lula poorer districts in search of votes. Corruption runs like a thread through each phase of Brazilian history, down to the present, only seeming to grow with each successive era. Presidential candidates – including both Lula and Bolsonaro – have often run on anti-corruption tickets, only to become enmeshed in new sets of scandals during their tenures.

For Schwarcz, Bolsonaro weaponized Brazilian myths by appealing to a past that never was, even as his regime echoed and found resonance in true histories of oppression and injustice. His “flirtation with nostalgia for dictatorship” centered on a celebration of patriarchy and strength, but evoked a time of cowardice, when rule could only be secured through torture, killings, disappearances and mass exile. Lula, too, is in a sense locked in the past, albeit a very different one. On the campaign trail he was criticized for his constant appeal to his past achievements and his lack of vision for the future.

The left once had a narrative of its own: redemocratization. Even with Lula’s win this narrative has badly frayed over the past, not least because of the Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption scandal that so tarnished the Partido dos Trabalhadores’s previous period in office (see TLS, May 20, 2022). Any sense of liberal progress must be tempered by the new political realities. Brazil’s three most populous states – São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, comprising 40 per cent of the country’s population and over half of its economic output – will be run by pro-Bolsonaro governors. Last week Bolsonaro’s political base made significant gains in Congress, in the senate and the lower house. If nothing else Bolsonaro has succeeded in reinjecting historical strains of authoritarianism into the body politic.

For Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, Bolsonaro’s time in office represented a huge setback – “a democratic recession” – undoing efforts since the 1970s to create “a more diverse, plural, inclusive and secular country”. She concludes that her country needs “fewer charismatic leaders and more conscious and active citizens”. The pity is that, as in other parts of the world, some of the most engaged, active citizens are at the far right. While there is also great spirit on the left, which on this occasion was lifted into power by a much broader coalition of pragmatic center and centre-right politicians, Lula will face enormous political constraints and cultural challenges as he takes the helm of this bitterly divided country.

Patrick Wilcken is the author of Empire Adrift: The Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–18212004, and Claude Lévi-Strauss: The poet in the laboratory2010

Browse the books from this week’s edition of theTLSat the TLS Shop

The post The strongman syndrome appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment