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Political polarization helps Brazilian far-right groups make a quick buck

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hate speech political polarization brazil far-right online store e-commerce brazil

Far-right stores have become “trendy” in Brazil

After mapping political polarization online, researchers Pablo Ortellado and Márcio Moretto Ribeiro stated that right-wing and left-wing people seem to exist in “wholly different universes” on the internet. In a phenomenon which is not exclusive to Brazil, social media has become a battleground and political differences have evolved into aggressive polarization. Within this strained political environment, there are a few groups looking to make an easy buck.

If it has now become cliché among leftist militants to wear t-shirts emblazoned with the faces of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, or other communist symbols, right-wing Brazilians are also starting to display their political beliefs on their clothing, and online far-right merchandise retailers are thriving in Brazil’s rising tide of conservatism. These stores began to emerge in 2014, a year in which Brazil witnessed its ugliest and most aggressive presidential campaign to date.

The stories behind those e-commerce “conservative clothing” spots are familiar. Most got the idea when looking for – and not finding – merchandise for their own use. “We made Bolsonaro-themed t-shirts to wear at rallies, and people wanted to buy them from us,” said the owner of one such shop in January.

Celebrating torturers

While many famous conservatives are celebrated, none has the star appeal of Jair Bolsonaro, the radical congressman who leads presidential polls. With one exception, perhaps: the late Army Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. In a country that refuses to deal with the human rights violations perpetrated during the military dictatorship, Mr. Ustra became the first member of the military to be officially recognized as a torturer.

The colonel died in 2015 at the age of 83 – without ever being punished or even prosecuted. His legacy, though, is celebrated in the most radical of right-wing circles. In Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again), a book which documents hundreds of episodes of torture during the military years, Mr. Ustra is singled out as being responsible for 500 torture sessions and roughly 2,000 political arrests.

far-right brazil election eduardo bolsonaro colonel carlos alberto brilhante ustra

Far-right congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro: “Ustra lives”

Still, online stores don’t see a problem in associating their image to the late Colonel. “I don’t think he is guilty of those accusations. The same people who point the finger at him were accused of terrorism in the 1970s and now are involved in corruption scandals,” said José Leão Sousa, the owner of Direita Store (Right Store).

Despotic regimes in other South American countries are also praised by right-wing retailers. Camisetas Libertárias (Libertarian T-shirts) sells a “Pinochet’s Helicopter Tours” t-shirt, a reference to a widely employed killing practice during the government of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1988). During so-called “death flights,” political prisoners were thrown out of aircraft to their death. In 2001, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos informed the nation that during Pinochet’s rule, 120 civilians had been tossed from helicopters.

Rothbard, Thatcher, Burke…

Some websites, it’s true, pander to a more intellectual audience. Their references are more subtle, including characters such as the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, the American libertarian Murray Rothbard – a founder and developer of modern anarcho-capitalism -, or even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The t-shirts, which are sold at roughly BRL 60, include puns and slogans which mock socialism and left-leaning thinking. One t-shirt is emblazoned with an adapted Portuguese version of Ms. Thatcher famous quote: “The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” The target of these websites, though, are generally 35 years old or younger – people who grew up decades after Ms. Thatcher left office.

Weapons are also a recurring theme on these websites. There are dozens of t-shirt models featuring AK-47 machine guns. Retailers claim they are making their case for fewer gun control laws and more individual freedom. But it does come across as bad taste in a country where over 60,000 people are murdered every year. In Rio de Janeiro, the AK-47 is a popular weapon among drug cartels – at least 499 assault rifles were seized by the police in 2017.

jair bolsonaro gun control proposals election brazil

Far-right candidate teaches a child how to make a finger gun gesture

Can the “free speech” card bail anyone out?

Whenever asked they feel about rendering a public homage to human rights violators, many of the retailers play the same card: they are protected by free speech laws. “We can’t allow any kind of censorship, just because we have different ideas from the majority,” says Mr. Leão about the merchandise he sells on Direita Store.

While the Brazilian Constitution does grant freedom of speech to all, this comes with caveats and responsibility. Celebrating or inciting a crime is illegal in Brazil – and the perpetrator could face up to six months in prison – plus a fine.

Hate speech can also be punished. In June 2017, a federal judge ruled that a Facebook user who published that “all Muslims should be killed” should face trial for inciting murder. While the prosecution wanted to drop the case, stating that the social media post was an exercise of free speech, the judge had a different opinion.

“Freedom of speech is undoubtedly paramount for the rule of law. However, that freedom has its boundaries. Racist or discriminatory speech shouldn’t be tolerated on the simple grounds of freedom of speech, as it harms people’s dignity – a sacred principle for Brazil’s Constitution.”

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About the author

Maria Martha Bruno

Maria Martha is a journalist with 14 years of experience in politics, arts, and breaking news. She has already collaborated with Al Jazeera, NBC, and CNN, among others. She has also worked as an international correspondent in Buenos Aires.