On October 28, Brazil elected its 38th President, Jair Bolsonaro, making a core of his 57 million supporters extremely happy while more than 90 million Brazilian citizens face his election with concern about the country’s future. Embracing extreme, far-right opinions, Bolsonaro received the highest percentage of votes since president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s second mandate in 2006 and his election platform was responsible for dividing the country even more than the highly charged finals of a national soccer championship.
Bolsonaro’s reactionary politics did not start with the presidential campaign. He served as a Congressman representing the state of Rio de Janeiro for more than three decades defending the same traditionalist and exclusionary ideas. A military captain in the reserve, his political achievements included only two approved projects, the inclusion of his sons in the political life, and a claim for the return of the military dictatorship, which according to him was the golden age of Brazilian history. For years, his controversial statements made him a joke not only among politicians, but also in the media. Indeed, he often served as the basis of laughs in comedy shows, most often cast as a freak defending absurd ideas. Nobody then, thought of him as a future contender for president.
But Bolsonaro’s January 1 inauguration shows he is no longer a laughing matter. His movement from the margins of Brazilian politics to the mainstream resulted from the transformation of the nation’s political climate, especially in the wake of corruption accusations involving the Partido dos Trabalhadores and former President Dilma Roussef. Once the media started a campaign especially after Roussef’s second mandate, against the Partido dos Trabalhadores and in favor of the opposition (at the moment represented by the candidate Aecio Neves), Bolsonaro began to move from political obscurity and comedic absurdity to the political mainstream.
As part of a wave of the expansion of far-right politics worldwide, Bolsonaro’s extremely conservative position earned him a legion of voters that follows him unquestioningly. Considering the new leader positionality, defining the current political moment of the country is difficult and anticipating its future bleak. Modern Brazilian democracy is relatively new. From 1964 to 1985, Brazil was under a military dictatorship and although the democratic opening started in the late 1970s, culminating in the process of the “Diretas Ja,” in the middle of the 1980s, when the dictatorship ended, Brazil didn’t hold its first direct presidential elections until 1989. In addition, when observing the re-elections that gave second rounds to different parties in the past years, Bolsonaro is only the sixth elected president of Brazil since the end of the dictatorship. His backward position is certainly a threat for a young democracy, one that only began to make baby steps toward a robust democratic tradition in the 1980s.
If on one hand Bolsonaro’ supporters are following him blindly, on the other hand his controversial statements continue to generate strong opposition from groups that are standing up for the rights that he promises to suppress. The majority of Brazilians did not vote for Bolsonaro, including more than 30% of voters who decided to abstain although voting is mandatory in Brazil. Throughout his presidential run, Bolsonaro included the opposition to minority groups as one of his main agendas. The president-elect made offensive comments about women, the LGBTQIA community, indigenous people, and the Afro-Brazilian population. He stood as a staunch opponent of affirmative action, reproductive rights, and human rights. According to Bolsonaro, racial tensions, among other conflicts such as gender issues and LGBTQIAphobia were actually created by the political Left in a country that was previously harmonious.
As Afro-Brazilian activists, we are aware that Bolsonaro’s positionality against rights for oppressed groups directly affects the Afro-Brazilian population, especially considering his defense of the idea that Brazil is a country without racism. Preaching the antiquated doctrine of racial democracy that was initiated in the thinking of early twentieth century social scientist, Gilberto Freyre, this dangerous fiction has already been refuted by decades of Afro-Brazilian activism.1 Indeed, Bolsonaro’s controversial statements should actually be considered open threats to our lives. In a recent interview to one of the most important journalistic television programs in the country he vehemently denied the Transatlantic Slave Trade and refuted the need for reparations and the debt that Brazilian society holds with the Afro-Brazilian population regarding slavery. In his own words: “What debt? I never owned a slave.” He also continues to affirm the outrageous and reactionary position that Portuguese colonizers never stepped onto the African continent and that Africans were solely responsible for selling each other into slavery. Bolsonaro’s erasure of the history is a direct attempt to close out the small improvements that emerged after the 2001 United Nations conference in Durban, South Africa, when the state began considering reparations for Afro-Brazilians, including among other things, affirmative action and land rights for quilombo communities.2
Bolsonaro stands vehemently against the rights of traditional communities, affirming that quilombolas—members of more than 6000 communities comprised of descendants of runaway enslaved people—do not need to have land rights or other public protections. In April 2017, Bolsonaro declared “I visited a quilombo community and the thin African descent there weighed 7 ‘arrobas,’”—a measure that refers to cattle. He brazenly compared Brazilian quilombolas to animals, called them lazy and negated their claims to land rights and other forms of governmental support. Although, Bolsonaro was sued for racism and ordered to pay 50,000 reais as indemnity, the president never apologized for the comment and even used it to bolster his campaign. The impact of his reactionary position has been immediate, when in addition to his removal of the LGBTQIA agenda from the Human Rights Ministry, he transferred the efforts to protect indigenous and quilombolas’ rights to the Ministry of Agriculture, further fueling tensions between land owners and Afro-Brazilians and Indigenous communities.
In a similar way, Bolsonaro’s embrace of the military dictatorship, especially his affirmation that only “thieves and thugs” were incarcerated or murdered during the regime, erases the regime’s violence and directly disrespects the pain of families who had relatives assassinated during the regime. Those murdered during that era were disproportionately Afro-Brazilians. Although not considered political prisoners ,Afro-Brazilians were the primary victims of police brutality and assassination. As well, during the military regime, Black bodies remained under constant surveillance and various kinds of Black social spaces were dismantled. Although, this repression moved Afro-Brazilians to create the Movimento Negro Unificado (Black Unified Movement) in 1978, it took a decade for the transformation to materialize, beginning in 1988 with the creation of the new constitution that reclassified racism in Brazil as a crime.3 Bolsonaro’s embrace of the military dictatorship is a direct appeal to unmake these limited gains.
His erasure of the history of slavery, his embrace of the military dictatorship, his rejection of affirmative action, and his attempts to delegitimize the land rights of quilombas replay the troubling history of Brazilian racial inequality and its denial. While Bolsonaro began as a joke, his policies in effect call for the epistemological erasure and physical death of Afro-Brazilians and there is nothing funny about it.
- Gilberto Freyre was responsible for the creation of the social democracy theory, later presented by other authors as the idea of Brazil as a racial democracy. He mostly propagated this theory in his book The Masters and the Slaves (Casa Grande e Senzala) which has been exposed as a myth and refuted by sociologists and Afro-Brazilian activists. ↩
- Before affirmative actions, Afro-Brazilians represented less than two percent of the students in free public universities, and less than 0.1 percent of the faculty in the same institutions. The fact that even if affirmative actions have been effective to create inclusion, the number of Afro-Brazilians in higher education still corresponds only to 16 percent of the totality. Yet compared to the earlier period, this gain is enough to justify the existence of these policies. ↩
- MNU is Black political and civil rights organization created by Afro-Brazilian activists from different background as a response to the constant violence and oppression suffered by Black Brazilians. Its initial mark is dated as 1978, when activists protested the death of Robson Silveira da Luz, killed by police officers in the East side of Sao Paulo and other victims of police execution (MNU.org.br) ↩