How the Radical Right Takeover in Brazil Has Parallels with Trumpism
BRICS, 11 Dec 2017
The hard right is running the country without being elected after Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment last year. It has surprising support among the new lower-middle class. There has never been a time when those defending the interests of the big landowners, evangelical Christians and the army have been so strongly represented in the National Congress.
7 Dec 2017 – There was victory in the air at the opening of the Liberty Forum in Porto Alegre this April. The city is known outside Brazil as the first municipality to come under the control of the leftwing Workers’ Party (PT) in 1998 and as birthplace of the World Social Forum, but has also hosted this annual meeting of Brazil’s ultra-liberal right for 30 years; the forum used to be restricted to insiders, but has now turned into a jamboree.
With the 2,600-seat auditorium full throughout the event, the speakers were happy: ‘Neoliberal thought has never figured so prominently in public debate,’ said Helio Beltrão, president of the Mises Institute Brazil, a thinktank that is officially apolitical but follows economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), a major figure in the Austrian School. ‘We got thousands of young people out into the streets to demonstrate against the PT, and drove the left out of power. For the first time, I feel we can win the 2018 presidential election.’
This may not be an idle boast. After 13 years of PT hegemony, a hard right is governing Brazil without being elected. Former vice-president Michel Temer, who became president after Dilma Rousseff was impeached last August, is following the forum’s neoliberal map, with an amendment to the constitution that limits public spending growth to the rate of inflation in the previous year; privatisations; greater flexibility in labour legislation; plans to reform pensions that will deprive many of a pension; and a narrower definition of slave labour, still widespread in Brazil.
This year’s forum was opened by the new mayor of São Paulo, businessman João Doria of the rightwing Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). Doria presented himself as an entrepreneur who works 15 hours a day. His plans included ‘lower taxes, less market regulation and zero restrictions on free enterprise.’ He also promised to privatise as soon as possible those areas of public services still under public management (including parks and sports stadiums), so as to eliminate ‘slowness and bureaucracy in public administration … I am changing the habits of the political world by using Uber instead of official cars,’ he declared to loud applause.
Doria is a favourite of Brazil’s new right, which sociologist Laurent Delcourt calls a ‘tropical Tea Party’, after the anti-tax movement in the US. He embodies the myth of the self-made man from a humble background, and has won support from the working class in São Paulo’s suburbs and privileged residents of its smarter neighbourhoods by describing himself as an ‘honest worker’. Doria ended every rally of his 2016 election campaign with a message to his PT opponent, Fernando Haddad: ‘Let him go and show himself in Cuba.’
Cold War Rhetoric
Rhetoric that recalls the cold war is characteristic of this new right. As in the past, the enemy is communism, trying to take control of Brazil through the PT. Rodrigo Tellechea Silva, a former director of the Entrepreneurial Studies Institute (IEE) said, quite seriously: ‘The Bolivarian ideology of the PT has infiltrated culture, education, NGOs and a large section of our youth. If we had not managed to impeach President Rousseff, Brazil would be communist today.’ He seems to have forgotten that former PT leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (‘Lula’, president 2003-10) charmed both the stock market and the favelas.
Many of the young who attended the forum were wearing clothes from Vista Direita (Look Right), a brand that offers an anti-communist range, including t-shirts with slogans such as ‘Be cool, not communist’ and ‘Communism has been killing since 1917’. Most were members of the Brazilian branch of Students for Liberty, a global neoliberal organisation present in Brazilian universities since 2010. In 2014 it gave rise to the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), which led the calls for Rousseff’s impeachment from the moment she was re-elected that year. The MBL’s young leaders are setting a new trend in Brazilian politics. They are known for sarcasm, insulting their opponents and violent rhetoric. In April 2015 a key figure, Kim Kataguiri, said: ‘We must not stop at wounding the PT, we need to put a bullet through its head.’
Brazil’s radical right is surfing a wave of polarisation and anti-PT sentiment that has been growing since June 2013. That year saw the biggest demonstrations since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. The demands were initially for greater investment in public transport, healthcare and education. Delcourt said: ‘Unexpectedly, the right demonstrating at the time brought together two major currents: one extreme, in other words identitarian and racist, the other neoliberal. Together they managed to take over the protest movement, and turn it into opposition to the PT, especially by harnessing the theme of the fight against corruption.’ Just 10 days after the movement was launched, the demonstrators’ targets were no longer just budget cuts and the lack of public services, but also public buildings in Brasília (the seat of the federal government) and any symbol of the PT or of a political world they denounced as corrupt.
In 2015 the inquiry into corruption at the state oil company, Petrobras, revealed a system of illegal financing of political parties that involved major construction and public works enterprises. Every party in Brazil was mentioned as Petrobras senior executives began their testimony, but media and the prosecutors conducting the inquiry initially focused only on the accusations concerning the PT, which had been in government since 2003; they claimed it had invented the system.
Privileged and White
The demonstrators were less and less representative of the average Brazilian: according to surveys by sociologists from the Federal University São Paulo (Unifesp), they were white, urban and from privileged backgrounds. Esther Solano, in charge of the surveys, said: ‘The aim for 90% of these demonstrators was to bring down the PT. They were opposed to its social programmes: the flagship family allowance, the reservation of university places for black, Amerindian or mixed-race Brazilians, and even the More Doctors programme, which recruited medical practitioners from Cuba. Their rhetoric called for meritocracy rather than welfare dependency, which they said was the mark of the PT.’
Hatred of the PT and what it represents can be seen on social networks in the mockery of people from Brazil’s Northeast region. They are portrayed as retarded, lazy or scroungers, in a mix of racism (northern Brazil is blacker than the south) and classism that is sometimes expressed openly. In the eyes of its well-born detractors, the PT is guilty of having given certain rights to people historically discriminated against, and so eroding the privileges of the more affluent.
Besides allowing these former social outcasts to travel by air (many of Brazil’s wealthy did not like sharing the same plane), the PT made an irreparable error in 2015 when it got legislation passed requiring employers to declare their domestic employees, pay them a minimum wage and observe legal limits on their hours. Delcourt said that anti-PT feeling binds the privileged together ‘like cement, just as anti-communism was the uniting factor for opposition to the leftwing government of President João Goulart, deposed by the military coup of 1964. It’s the same social class, white and privileged, who demonstrated against Goulart in the 60s and more recently against Rousseff.’
Though far-right activists calling for the military to return to power were a minority in 2015, most demonstrators favoured a more repressive policy. According to Solano, ‘70-80% of survey respondents supported harsher sentences for criminal offences, and a reduction of the age of criminal responsibility to 16. They also expressed great admiration for prominent figures in the justice system, and for the federal police, who were leading an inquiry into corruption that seemed to be focused on the PT alone.’
Camozzato ‘Knew Nothing about Politics’
The data confirmed the results of polls conducted between 2010 and 2016 by Ibope (Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics), to measure conservative values in Brazilian society. Support for lowering the age of criminal responsibility rose from 63% to 78%; support for the death penalty from 31% to 49%; and the ratio of respondents who considered themselves strongly conservative from 49% to 59%. Political scientist Maurício Santoro of Rio de Janeiro State University said: ‘Under these conditions, it was to be expected. Since the end of the dictatorship, there has never been a time when conservative parliamentary groups, those defending the interests of the big landowners, evangelical Christians and the army have been so strongly represented in the National Congress.’
The popular demonstrations began to infiltrate Brazil’s institutions. At the municipal elections of October 2016, the MBL, which until then described itself as civic and apolitical, presented 45 candidates on a range of tickets. Ten were elected as municipal councillors, and one as mayor of Monte Sião (population 25,000) in Minas Gerais state. At Porto Alegre, Felipe Camozzato was elected councillor for the New Party (PN), which has links to the MBL: ‘Until 2015 I knew nothing about politics. I had no interest in it,’ he said, laughing. Camozzato joined the opposition to the PT when he and friends formed a batucada band they called The Crazy Liberal Gang. They took the tune from a football chant and gave it new words: ‘Weep, Bolivarian PT-ist’; it was sung at demonstrations in 2015. Camozzato said: ‘When [Rousseff] came to Porto Alegre, we used to stand under her window and sing all night to prevent her from sleeping.’
The notoriety Camozzato gained from this kind of provocation helped his election campaign, which was based on a single issue: to stop public funding for political parties. In 2015 the Supreme Court banned private financing of political organisations after the Petrobras corruption scandal broke. Until then, 70% of funding had come from the private sector; now the amount allocated to a public fund to finance campaigns is decided by the congress before elections. Next year, when Brazil will hold elections for president, state governors and members of national and local assemblies, the fund will be $350m. ‘It’s not right,’ said Camozzato. ‘Parties should find their own funding, like businesses.’
Camozzato, now 29, admits he understands nothing about his city’s problems, but he does claim to have searched the municipal regulations for anything that might hinder free enterprise. He has defended the right of ‘righteous citizens’ to bear arms, and attacked ‘judges motivated by Marxist ideology’ for granting bail to defendants. In August he called activists of the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) ‘bandits’ and ‘good-for-nothings’. Raúl Pont, 73, a co-founder of the PT and former mayor of Porto Alegre, said: ‘MBL supporters are very good at spreading hate. And people follow them. Last year, for the first time in my life, I was attacked by a group of angry youths, who called me a communist and a Bolshevik.’
Attacks linked to the MBL happen mostly on social networks, where the organisation claims to have more than 2.5 million followers, and where it repeats the propaganda published on its ‘news’ websites. Brazil is familiar with ideological bias in major media, and has many websites where aggression triumphs over journalistic rigour. Conservative sites outdo the rest. The sociologists from Unifesp found that 71% of respondents believed former president Lula’s eldest son was the owner of JBS-Friboi, one of the biggest meat processing multinationals, while 53% thought that Brazil’s largest criminal gang, First Capital Command (PCC), acted as the armed wing of the PT.
Attacks on Media
In July Brazil’s investigative journalism association, Abraji, reacted to these sites’ repeated attacks on journalists. For example, the MBL had attacked Agência Publica, an investigative journalism site, because it had exposed the errors in an MBL video on crime, and the MBL had accused Agência Pública of being ‘far-left activists disguised as journalists’.
One of the political leaders most successful with this rhetoric is Federal Deputy Jair Bolsonaro, a major figure of Brazil’s far right who is running second in opinion polls as a presidential candidate, though he has only 16% of voting intentions, according to a September poll. Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has been in public office since 1990. He has yet to distinguish himself in his parliamentary career, but has acquired a high media profile.
During the congress vote on Rousseff’s impeachment in April 2016, broadcast live on television, Bolsonaro justified his vote for impeachment as being a stand ‘against communism, for the armed forces and for the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, Dilma Rousseff’s worst nightmare.’ Brilhante Ustra tortured Rousseff (then a member of a far-left organisation) for 22 days in 1970, when she was arrested for her political activities. The courts condemned Bolsonaro for derogatory statements on women, black people and homosexuals, but ‘today he is the most popular politician on Facebook, with more than 4 million followers,’ said sociologist Pablo Ortellano.
Bolsonaro welcomed recent statements by General Antônio Hamilton Martins Mourão that terrified Brazil’s population, and not just the victims of the military dictatorship (1964-85): ‘Either the institutions solve the political problem through the courts, removing those elements involved in illegal acts from public life, or we will have to impose the solution.’ He said that all his high command colleagues agreed with him. A few days later, army commander General Eduardo Villas Bôas, claimed that the constitution allowed the military to intervene in the event of chaos.
Historian Maud Chirio wrote: ‘Of course the 1988 constitution, drafted after the end of the dictatorship, doesn’t permit the armed forces to intervene in politics autonomously. But President Michel Temer is so weakened by an approval rating near zero that he no longer has the authority to impose his will on the army’.
Dreams of the New Lower Middle Class
The rightwing movements (far right, neoliberal right, classic right) are fighting over the PT’s traditional voter base, especially in the outskirts of cities, where the standard of living has risen over the past decade — thanks to the left. Sociologist William Nozaki said: ‘The new lower middle class dream of being entrepreneurs and consumers.’ He coordinated a study by the Perseu Abramo Foundation (linked to the PT) to understand why the party had lost ground in the São Paulo suburbs when Doria was elected. ‘They are very sensitive to the meritocracy rhetoric of the right and the evangelical churches, and less affected by the PT message, which is still aimed at the poor.’ A majority in the outer suburbs of Rio de Janeiro voted for Bolsonaro and new mayor Marcelo Crivella (Brazilian Republican Party, right), a bishop in the evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
The evangelical churches are far better established in poor areas than the Catholic Church, and promote a largely conservative and individualist worldview. To win over these voters, the liberal right has widened its targets to include contemporary art. In September the MBL forced the closure of the Queermuseuexhibition: out of 264 works, three were, according to the young liberals, ‘apologies for paedophilia, zoophilia and blasphemy against Christian culture.’ The MBL also attacked the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art over a performance featuring male nudity. Ortellano said: ‘It’s a strategy that looks forward to the coming elections. They have realised that cultural warfare is an excellent vector for mobilisation, and that a rhetoric which is hostile to the feminist, black and LGBT movements can be a way to win conservatives over to the liberal cause.’
According to the Unifesp sociologists, who repeated their survey during São Paulo’s traditional March for Jesus, which attracted nearly a million participants, the evangelicals are not susceptible to liberal ideas. Solano said: ‘The faithful don’t know where they stand, right or left. Those are concepts that don’t mean anything to them. They describe themselves as conservative, but that doesn’t mean they approve of Michel Temer’s economic programme.’ Yet this may not be peculiar to evangelicals.
There is no guarantee that the radicalisation of the right will bring electoral success. Opinion polls show that the people of Brazil are opposed to the government’s proposed labour and pension reforms. Solano said: ‘We also observed this during the demonstrations in favour of Rousseff’s impeachment. The vast majority are not in favour of small government. They want better education and healthcare.’ This should temper the confidence of the Liberty Forum’s ultra-liberals. Though the far right, military and civilian, now speaks its mind freely, though the classic and neoliberal right is in government, and though the right that wants to regenerate the government promises to be even more radical, Lula still leads the polls for the presidential election, with more than 35% of voting intentions.
Anne Vigna is a journalist based in Rio de Janeiro.
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