Our Brazilian friends are going to be needing us, a lot, in the coming years. We, and what is left of global civil society, have to be prepared and give shelter to those under attack.
We have to prepare for the day after.
Brazil is already suffering from a tide of unbearable verbal and symbolic violence, and the incendiary hate speeches are already claiming their share of victims. Bolsonaro’s victory seems indisputable and is forcing us to get ready for a double action.
The first thing will be to protect ourselves and prevent verbal attacks from turning violent under the cloak of euphoria for the victory of a candidate who considers the losers not ideological or political rivals but enemies who must be eliminated. Communist worms, they call them.
Second, the narratives and the strategies of the progressive forces will have to be rethought through and through. We will have to come up with a contingency plan to minimize the damage, and then rebuild the political space and prepare for standing up and going into battle and winning in an urgent near future.
A dangerous moment
But protection will now be the top priority. We must protect ourselves against the danger that the ultra-aggressive statements which one could perhaps be tempted to excuse in the light of the heat of the electoral battle, can serve as coverage for hot-headed individuals to attack all that has been demonized by the Bolsonarista discourse:
“We shall put an end to all kinds of activism“, he shouted recently. This is a direct threat to LGBT communities, afro-descendants, indigenous people, feminists, environmentalists… Anyone whom they consider hateful and smells of leftism, of “petism”, of tolerance and diversity today is being attacked unscrupulously. Social leaders are now most vulnerable.
The virulent wild talk that we see in social media is not as innocuous as its “virtual” nature would suggest. We know that the online and the offline universes are separate realities, but in an atmosphere of exaltation and impunity, the distance between them is dangerously shortened.
Warnings have been raised for quite some time now that overexposure of personal data – identitarian, social and also political – of free citizens in their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts is a double-edged sword. The data can be sold for spurious political purposes (the Cambridge Analytica scandal is the tip of an iceberg), but also perhaps can be used to identify, detect and persecute unwanted persons by an authoritarian regime.
Social media are certainly helpful for the purpose of sharing emotions, hobbies, and games, for promoting solidarity causes, or feeling part of a community, sharing ideas and mobilizing politically.
But if all that information gets into the hands of an authoritarian regime bent on repression, or downright oppression, there is no getting away. It is already a cliché to say that, in the era of social media, Anne Frank would not have survived for more than a couple of days. But in Brazil, Orwell’s nightmare might seem a fairy tale.
The irresponsibility of the Right
The dazzling rise of such an eccentric figure as Bolsonaro was unthinkable until very recently. Since Aécio Neves, the center-right presidential candidate, was defeated by a very narrow margin in 2014, the conservative groups reacted furiously.They used their majority in both chambers, the support of the highest spheres of economic and financial power and their friends in the judiciary, to launch a devastating attack.
The mainstream media, concentrated in very few hands and led by the powerful O’Globo conglomerate, assumed a clear mission: the PT had to be done away, as soon as possible, at whatever cost. What nobody perhaps figured out was that, by establishing the PT as the culprit of all evils and attacking Roussef until they beat her out of the presidency, they endangered democracy itself to such an extent that, instead of installing their right-of-center candidate , they would end up hoisting up an autocrat. What an irresponsibility!
The damage has already been done and the urgent question now is: how much and how far will the Bolsonaro regime repress and persecute? Much will depend on how the Brazilian Right, including the Pentecostalists, administer the victory, and on up to what point will Bolsonaro temper his penchant for inflaming the political debate with concepts verging on fascism.
Once he is appointed president, and after the initial euphoria, the weight of that high responsibility could bring out his shortcomings and lack of experience in government and force him to moderate his speech. The need to find support in the House of Representatives (his party, the PSL, has only 52 out of a total of 513 deputies) will be key.
At least in principle, Bolsonaro could count on a heterogeneous majority of about 300 deputies from a dozen parties on the Right and right of center, but in practice this will mean that he will be forced to be in constant search for balance. His massive privatization plans, for example, could meet some resistance, not to mention the constitutional reforms he advocates, which would require a highly unlikely two-third majority of the chamber.
On the other hand, the support he enjoys from the financial sector, the majority of the great families, the large mass media and the military could have as a condition that he keep up appearances and that he preserve, for formality’s sake, the functions of the democratic institutions.
They will wait to see the economic results, which should come in quickly if the markets, in their unnuanced opportunism and their characteristic impatience, are to keep on giving their support. But neither Jair Bolsonaro nor Paulo Guedes (his Chicago Boy for the Ministry of Economy) have a silver bullet to relaunch raid political instability like the plague.
A great fragility
In addition, since Bolsonaro is not Trump, and Brazil is not the United States, the Brazilian institutional fragility has all the alarm bells sounding. Trump, with all his weight, eccentricity and contempt for Democrats, women, blacks, and Latinos, cannot get away with everything he wants.
Brazil’s constitutionality, on the other hand, is only 30 years old and was agreed upon after a dictatorship (1964-1985) which Bolsonaro admires. He considers, in fact, that the regime was too soft on opponents and that it should have cleared the way by eliminating 30.000 activists.
Brazil’s checks and balances are still too weak and its political system is so fragmented that it is inefficient and prone to compromises and corruption (as witnessed by the crossover corruption discovered by the Lava Jato operation).
To this institutional fragility are added important social dysfunctions. Advances in rights are very recent and the protection of minorities is only incipient. The reduction of poverty is also too recent a phenomenon, as is universal education and access to higher education.
The well-being of the new middle classes is very volatile, as shown by the last recession. Heavily in debt, they are afraid of relapsing into the poverty they got out of with so much effort.
The protection of the environment is also very fragile, despite the efforts to establish indigenous areas and biosphere reserves, which are constantly threatened. In this sense, Bolsonaro’s threat to the Amazon is a threat to the whole planet.
A violent society
And, behind all of this, lies a very violent society. This should be our greatest concern now. To the structural violence on which Brazil was built, and to a very solid and consolidated system of privileges since colonial times, and slavery, we must now add a society based on inequality and unlimited exploitation, racism, inequality, and a predatory and neoextractivist economy, hungry to devour resources to the last.
On top of this, what might be called the banalization of violence (more than 63.000 violent deaths registered in 2017) is an incorporated element of the daily life of millions of Brazilians, as is the presence of a militarized police which enjoys total impunity. Finally, the map of political violence in Brazil reveals an alarming situation throughout the country.
In a country as violent and emotional as Brazil, it is only too easy to think that the situation will get out of hand. And if, in addition, as Bolsonaro advocates, the legal requirements for firearms possession are relaxed, slaughter could be around the corner.
“A coragem é o que da sentido à liberdade” (Courage is what gives meaning to freedom) says a graffiti on the walls of the public university in Cachoeira, in the state of Bahia, on the banks of the Paraguaçú River. When I took the picture of that painted wall a little over a month ago, I did not think that this slogan was going to resonate so strongly on the eve of these dramatic elections.
Our Brazilian friends are going to be needing us, a lot, in the coming years. Coragem: here we are.
Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Founder, Director and Lead Editor of democraciaAbierta. Francesc is an international affairs expert, journalist and political analyst. His most recent book: “Order and disorder in the 21st century. Gobal governance in a world of anxieties“. He Tweets @fbadiad
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.