Military troops occupy Rio's Rocinha favela. Photo: Fernando Frazão/ABr
brazil authoritarianism military dictatorship censorship

Military troops occupy Rio’s Rocinha favela. Photo: Fernando Frazão/ABr

On October 12, which is a national holiday in Brazil, a group of roughly 1,000 people took to the streets of São Paulo asking for military intervention in the federal government. “We need strong leadership to promote a cleansing in our political system,” said Fatima Soares, a 55-year-old lawyer who traveled from Rio de Janeiro solely to attend the demonstration. She continued: “We’re fed up with so much incompetence and corruption. No more, we say!”

A group of 1,000 is certainly not representative of a country that features a population of 207 million. Nevertheless, it offers us a glimpse into how radicalism has risen in Brazil. Previously, nostalgia for the military regime was something that people kept quiet – or at least chose their audiences very carefully. Now, it seems that more people are comfortable expressing their desire for a return of the generals. During the 2013 demonstrations against the political class, interventionists made up only a handful of people, and were often ridiculed by other protesters. But in 2017, they’re calling their own demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the political system has been discredited by the successive corruption scandals tarnishing all major parties. The sitting president, Michel Temer, is facing accusations of leading a criminal gang. Next week, he risks becoming the first head of state to be formally prosecuted while still in office (an unlikely scenario, but still possible). Brazil’s most popular – and polarizing – politician has been recently convicted of corruption and money laundering, and is sentenced to 9 years and 6 months in prison. A mere 7 percent of Brazilians trust our parties and politicians.

Imposed “solution”

Given the gravity of the situation, several army generals have publicly called for a military intervention. An “intervention,” of course, is just a nicer way of saying “coup d’état.”

Just a month ago, Army General Antonio Hamilton Mourão gave a speech during a freemasonry meeting, stating that military intervention might be “necessary.” He continued: “Either our institutions solve the political issue, and the justice system takes [politicians] involved in wrongdoings away from the public life, or we will have to impose [a solution].”

And Mourão wasn’t the only one sharing the belief. Retired General Luiz Eduardo Rocha Paiva published an op-ed in Estado de S.Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest newspapers, declaring that “if a convicted felon is to take power in 2018, the military should intervene.”

The newspaper subsequently ran an editorial to explain its decision to publish the op-ed. Estadão stated that it meant only to illustrate the thought process of “citizens disenchanted with politicians”, but then wrote: “The Armed Forces, according to what is understood from the article, wouldn’t act willfully, but rather out of a duty to defend the motherland and restore law and order.” Coups d’état are, of course, often justified as being carried out “in the name of the people.”

It is worth remembering that Estadão, as with most media groups in Brazil, supported the 1964 coup. Even if the paper says that its intention was to provoke debate, it hits a bit too close to home.

Lula v. Bolsonaro

When Paiva mentions a “convicted felon,” he means former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula was convicted in July by a Federal Court for corruption and money laundering, and received a sentence of over nine years. Lula is currently appealing the decision, and has not been shy about his desire to serve a third presidential term. A divisive figure, Lula holds the lead in all presidential polls – but also the highest rejection rates. If a court of appeals confirms his conviction, Lula would be ineligible for 2018.

But if the right wing isn’t open to dialogue, the left also doesn’t seem too keen. Senator Gleisi Hoffmann, chair of the Workers’ Party (Lula’s political family), said that the left should boycott the election altogether if Lula is not on the ballot.

Lula has historically relied on an ‘us v. them’ narrative. When his administration was cornered by accusations of corruption, he put blame squarely on the economic elites who couldn’t bear to see a member of the working class in the presidency. Of course, there might be some truth to that statement – but one cannot overlook the numerous cases of corruption involving the Workers’ Party.

Trailing behind Lula is Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain. Until recently, Bolsonaro was seen as little more than a radical representing an antiquated version of the military and police officers nostalgic for the years of the dictatorship. Now, he is polling better than any other candidate aside from Lula da Silva – and there’s room to grow. El País recently called him a Brazilian Donald Trump, and the similarities are indeed striking.

bolsonaro president brazil authoritarianism

It might seem odd that a man who called fellow congressmen a “bunch of faggots,” or who said that a congresswoman was “too ugly” to be raped, would actually receive votes. It is also easy to dismiss Bolsonaro’s supporters as uneducated bigots. But, as the world learned in the wake of Trump’s election to the American presidency, there is more to the picture than meets the eye.

Bolsonaro is the only presidential hopeful who has placed public security as a primary focal point of his agenda. In a country that saw 61,619 murders in just 2016, it’s a topic that strikes a chord. Violence has become one of our number one concerns. One-third of the adult population knows someone who was murdered; in Rio de Janeiro, 7 out of every 10 residents want to leave the city because of its rampant violence.

Of course, Bolsonaro offers all the wrong solutions. He wants to arm more people and do away with gun control legislation. He also believes that “violence must be fought with more violence, not human rights”. Notwithstanding these outrageous statements, Bolsonaro is tackling an issue that is significantly personal for many Brazilians.

Censorship and obligatory prayer

Not even art shows have escaped reactionary politics. In September, right-wing groups protested an exhibition displaying 270 LGBTQI-themed works at the Santander Cultural Center, located in Porto Alegre. The show, called “Queer Museum,” was accused of promoting blasphemy, pedophilia, and bestiality. After an intense online campaign to boycott the exhibition – and the bank – led by Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement, MLB), Santander decided to pull the plug on the show.

LGBTQ activists protest Brazil authoritarianism

LGBTQ activists protest the Queermuseu’s closing. Photo: Editorial J/flickr, CC BY-ND

MBL is a right-wing pressure group created in 2014, in the wake of the political crisis that engulfed the defunct Dilma Rousseff administration. It presented itself as a libertarian movement, but has since turned itself into an infantry group for the more reactionary sectors of society. Pablo Ortellado, philosopher at the University of São Paulo, highlighted that change in an op-ed published last month in Folha de S.Paulo: “[they] carry the word ‘free’ in their name, and yet they celebrate the censorship of an art exhibition.”

But MBL’s case is far from the only example of a silent and scary sea of change in Brazil. In Barra Mansa, a small municipality in the state of Rio de Janeiro, students of public schools are now obligated to recite the Catholic prayer “Our Father”. According to the city’s Education Secretariat, “Our Father” is a “universal” prayer – and therefore accepted by all religions. The Brazilian Report reached out to the city’s administration, but it declined to comment.

Meanwhile, in Brasília, President Michel Temer has already complained about the “exaggerations in the exercise of free speech” after the press published an audio recording in which he discussed the payment of bribes to a former house speaker.

At the beginning of the month, Congress approved a bill to allow parties to take down, without any judicial order, website content that is considered “hate speech, fake news or offensive content against a party or a candidate.” The text was deliberately vague. It establishes that parties can remove whatever content they don’t agree with – a flagrant attempt to reduce free speech in Brazil. After enormous backlash, however, President Michel Temer vetoed the bill.

Prone to authoritarianism?

Earlier this month, the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety (FBSP) published an alarming study. The NGO wanted to measure how prone Brazilians are to authoritarian beliefs. The research used Theodor W. Adorno’s 1947 F-scale, a test to measure the authoritarian personality.

“We measured three aspects: submission to authority, authoritarian aggressiveness, and conventionalism. The authoritarian personality combines these three aspects – which are fairly harmless when isolated,” says Renato Sérgio de Lima, a sociologist who oversaw the study.

Over 2,000 people from across the country were surveyed on 17 questions. Respondents rated their level of agreement with statements such as “policemen are warriors of God,” or “Homosexuals are almost as bad as criminals.” The result was an index varying from 1 to 10. Brazilians scored a staggering 8.1. “What shocked us the most was how high the scores were for the youth – they were right below senior citizens,” says Lima.

He explains the result as a revolt against the poor quality of public services and the deconstruction of the left-wing due to corruption scandals and Dilma Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment. “As the right-wing rises, young people are increasingly seeing conservatism as a possible solution for our social problems,” he concludes.

But for José Álvaro Moisés, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo, Brazil is not yet on the edge of authoritarianism. “These authoritarian actions are still isolated and have not yet proven to be enough to overthrow our democracy. However, if institutions like Congress and the judicial system continue to lose public support, the situation could soon degrade.”

BY Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist with experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets.