How Brazil Was Taken Over by Flat-Earthers, Religious Fundamentalists, and Far-Right Ideologues
With all the chaos going on in the United States right now due to the spread of COVID-19, Americans could be forgiven if they forget that there are billions of people out there who aren’t American, and they have problems of their own, just like we do. It might seem a little odd that, in the midst of an insanely messy quarantine, I decided to write an article about Brazil, but there are actually very good reasons I decided to write this. Brazil, where I lived for about two-thirds of my existence on this planet, is the fourth largest democracy in the world, home to over 200 million people. It’s also the world’s fifth largest economy, the largest exporter of coffee, beef, orange juice, and a whole bunch of other things that we’re currently Instacarting to our apartments right now. It’s also the latest country to be taken over by Steve Bannon’s far-right movement in the form of President Jair Bolsonaro, as well as an important cautionary tale that we’d be foolish not to learn from.
Now, the interesting thing about this story is, even though Bolsonaro is the president of Brazil, he’s actually not the main character in our story. That title, however, does belong to a guy by the name of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, Brazil’s former president from 2003 to 2011. If that name sounds familiar to you, you may have heard that he was recently released from jail after serving part of his sentence for corruption and, believe me I will get to that. Lula da Silva is a union organizer who was extremely active in protesting the military regime that dominated Brazil for 21 years. He eventually started his own political party, the Worker’s Party (PT), ran for president four times and lost every single time.
Many historians suggest that Lula was unable to gain traction in Brazil in the early days of his political career beyond a small cult following because he portrayed himself as an uncompromisingly radical socialist, and before he ran for president a fifth time, he completely reinvented his image into “Lulinha paz e amor,” or “Peace and Love Lula.” The new Lula still kept the working-class and populist rhetoric he had always had, but also made clear he’d give concessions to the rich and Brazil’s largest financial institutions. And, surprisingly, it worked. Lula won the 2002 election by a landslide 23 point margin of victory, adding to the so-called pink tide which swept Latin America in the 2000s.
Here’s the one thing though I didn’t mention, Lula da Silva is extremely corrupt. Like, to a truly ridiculous extent. He’s so obviously and hilariously corrupt that watching him on a day-to-day basis makes House of Cards look boring. For example, shortly after entering office on a wave of excitement, he was immediately involved in a corruption scandal called Mensalão, or “the big monthly payment,” where members of his cabinet laundered money from state-owned companies to bribe members of Congress $12,000 a month to vote the way that Lula wanted them to vote. Although Lula was somehow never implicated in the scandal (a legal decision that perplexes Brazilians to this very day), multiple members of Congress resigned and Lula’s chief-of-staff, José Dirceu, was thrown in prison and replaced by Dilma Rousseff, who we’ll talk about later.
The more internationally-minded of you may retort with perhaps Lula’s biggest claim to fame in his eight years as Brazil’s head-of-state, the thing he would brag about at every opportunity on the world stage: lifting 40 million people out of poverty. If you’ve ever heard of Lula, you’ve undeniably heard that claim. There’s just one problem though, it’s not true. What Lula did in fact do was lower the poverty line threshold so people who used to be considered low-income would then be considered middle-class. If that sounds familiar to you, that’s because Trump actually considered doing the exact same thing.
After his eight-years in the presidency, Lula was term-limited out of office and recruited Dilma Rousseff to take up the mantle and run on the PT ticket. This was notable because she was involved in a far-left paramilitary operation during the military dictatorship in which she was brutally tortured by Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra and designated a terrorist by the state. She was never seen as the obvious successor to Lula’s throne, and people weren’t really excited by her in any real way. Nevertheless, Lula threw his full effort behind her and she won the presidency anyway, albeit by a much smaller margin than her predecessor.
If you ask any Brazilian, their go-to memory from Rousseff’s administration are her numerous gaffes, and, when I say numerous, I mean sounding like the lovechild of Donald Trump, George W. Bush and Joe Biden. She would constantly give rambling speeches that really didn’t make any sense whatsoever, like for example giving an address on International Women’s Day where she commended women for “keeping balance” by dominating the inside of the house while men would dominate the outside. She also said “the environment poses a threat to sustainable development,” renewable energy proponents need to find a way to store the wind, and gave an address where she declared the cassava as “one of Brazil’s greatest accomplishments.” She was so staggeringly incoherent that Brazilians came up with a new phrase for her ramblings, “speaking Dilmese.”
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said Lula was willing to give concessions to big business? Well, Dilma took that to a whole other level. She appointed one of the most corporate-friendly politicians in the country, Michel Temer, to be her Vice President, chose a literal banker to be her Finance Minister, and under her presidency she implemented the highest interest rates in the world and Brazil’s four largest banks grew by about 800 percent between her and Lula’s presidencies.
And then, it all came crumbling down.
In 2013, federal police were investigating a car wash and gas station in Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia. They found that a known money launderer, Alberto Youssef, was reporting money from illegal sources as gas station earnings, and then give the money to third parties so it would become hard to trace. He was eventually caught and offered a plea deal to disclose who he was laundering the money for, and he allegedly told his attorneys: “If I speak, the Republic is going to fall.” He was right. He eventually disclosed that he was laundering money not for criminals, but for executives at Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras. How it worked was essentially Brazil’s largest construction company Odebrecht would overcharge Petrobras for construction contracts and then use the profits to bribe politicians and executives who gave them that contract.
Now, to say that this scandal, which became known as Operation Car Wash, was huge is kind of an understatement. The scale of the investigation was so enormous that hundreds of Brazil’s most powerful business executives went to jail, as well as the Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, multiple governors and mayors and, by 2014, sixty percent of Brazilian members of Congress were under criminal investigation of some kind, ranging from money laundering to homicide to slavery. It was literally the largest corruption scandal in the history of the world, with the amount of money stolen from the public coffers in the dozens of billions of dollars.
And, what does this all have to do with Dilma Rousseff? Well, Rousseff claims to this day that she had no idea this was going on, but that’s a little hard to believe considering that she was sitting on the Petrobras Board of Directors as the scandal was taking place. That would be like Bill Gates claiming not to know about a criminal scheme taking place at Microsoft. It’d be preposterous to suggest as much. To make matters worse for the PT, Lula was involved in Operation Car Wash as well. The accusation against him was that he accepted a bribe from Odebrecht in the form of a beachside apartment in Guarujá, near São Paulo in exchange for contracts from Petrobras, as well as several more criminal charges including money laundering and corruption, and being one of the chief architects of the entire scheme along with José Dirceu, who was already in jail for Mensalão, remember.
So, as you can imagine, there were enormous anti-corruption demonstrations all around Brazil. Rousseff’s approval rating cratered into the single digits, and when asked, a majority of Brazilians said they believed that Lula da Silva should be in jail for corruption. Unemployment and inflation both soared, and Brazil entered the largest recession in their history. Crime in Brazil also got so out of control that Brazilians literally invented a phone app that tells you if there’s a mass shooting happening nearby so you can plan your morning commute. Millions mobilized on social media and in every major city in the country in support of the task-force investigating Operation Car Wash, and faith in Brazilian democracy and democratic institutions was rocked to its very core.
And through the cracks in Brazil’s democratic system, a new figure seeped through, a little-know congressman from Rio de Janeiro by the name of Jair Bolsonaro. Until then, he was basically a guy who would call into Brazilian talk shows to tell them stories about how he raped a chicken on his grandfather’s farm as a child. He also gained national attention for the first time when he responded to a female critic who accused him of rape by saying “I’m not a rapist but if I was, I would never rape you because you don’t deserve it.” He also said he doesn’t have to worry about his son falling in love with black women because “my sons were very well-educated,” he said he’d rather his children die in car crashes than be gay, and said he wanted to expand Brazilians’ access to guns so they could fight crime themselves, adding that “a policeman that doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.” He’s also best friends with Steve Bannon and Michele Bachmann, and also quite literally worships the ground Donald Trump walks on. This guy is so extreme that The Intercept actually did a compilation of every single certifiably insane thing he ever said, which you can read here after taking your anti-nausea medication of choice.
Bolsonaro showed up at every single anti-corruption rally he could physically get to, did multiple interviews referring to the PT as a criminal organization (which, to his credit, he’s kind of right), and built a loyal base of young people that allowed him to catapult himself into a national conversation and became one of the frontrunners for the 2018 presidential election, with the campaign slogan “Brazil above everything, God above everyone.” Besides all his insane and draconian views, the one issue he hammered on more than any other was corruption. For many, he became the only viable option for the everyday Brazilian who was fed up with the corrupt status quo of the PT.
Dilma Rousseff was eventually impeached, albeit not for corruption. She was removed from office for budget fraud and using state-run companies as though they were the public treasury. She was replaced by her Vice President, Michel Temer, who is also so horrifically corrupt that I literally do not have the time to explain to you all of the mafia boss level stuff that he did (do a Google search for “Michel Temer JBS scandal” if you want a small taste of it). Lula was sentenced to nine years in prison for money laundering and corruption in the Guarujá beach house scandal, and that conviction was upheld by an appeals court, which added an additional three years to his sentence. This appeal was very significant because it also meant that he was deemed ineligible to run for president again under Brazil’s constitution, which states that anyone who has a criminal conviction upheld by an appeals court cannot run for office for eight years.
With Lula in jail, Bolsonaro immediately shot up to the top of the polls and won the presidency easily. On his first day in office, he lowered the minimum wage to about 91 U.S. cents an hour, ended civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ Brazilians, and appointed an agriculture lobbyist to protect the Amazon, which is basically the political equivalent of asking Ted Bundy to be your sister’s prom date. He also appointed as his chief advisor and mentor Olavo de Carvalho, a flat-earther who is a huge fan of Alex Jones. Yes, that Alex Jones. Carvalho has repeatedly said that Jones is the best source of news about the United States, which makes it all the more puzzling that he lives in Atlanta and not somewhere with less gay frogs.
And on the state level, the politicians are even crazier. Wilson Witzel (ridiculous name, I know), an obscure politician no one had ever heard of, won the gubernatorial election in Rio de Janeiro in a landslide by out-flanking Bolsonaro to his right on law enforcement and essentially creating a brutal police presence where a staggering one-third of homicides in Rio are committed by police. Again, people were so fed up with the PT’s corruption that they overwhelmingly elected a guy who didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until after he won the election.
Now, this article is already an eternity long, so I won’t go on much further but I will make one more point. Eduardo Jorge, who used to be a card-carrying PT member but now is a member of the Green Party, has criticized Lula for enabling the far-right insanity of Bolsonaro, and summarized his argument thusly:
Bolsonaro is a Lula creation. Let me repeat that, Bolsonaro is a Lula creation, but in what way? Firstly, by the shipwreck of the Dilma/Temer Titanic that threw Brazil into the worst recession and the most brutal cause of suffering for the Brazilian worker, the Brazilian business owner and the Brazilian salesman, and that creates an environment of desperation where people grab onto the first lifeboat they see. Secondly, it is the result of the ethical failings of a party that claimed to be a champion of ethics and today has three former treasurers in prison, and one, two, three, more with criminal convictions. Thirdly, it is the result of a daily sermon Lula conducted, dividing the country into “us and them.” Us, Lula’s team, the good guys, the friends of the people, and they would be the enemies of the people, the traitors of the country. And that right there is putting your back against the wall. People who are classified like that react, organize, and fight to survive. And that’s what happened. Lula created Bolsonaro and the resurgence of an aggressive right-wing in the country that we thought was a thing of the past.
I hope this story of Lula, Dilma and Bolsonaro serves to show one simple truth: they are all two sides of the same coin. Bolsonaro would not have been able to get elected if it wasn’t for the catastrophic failures of the PT on almost every level, failures that turned the country of samba into a neofascist dumpster fire. If Lula had left his personal enrichment aside and actually governed as a working-class hero, Bolsonaro would have found it difficult to get even one percent of the vote. But he didn’t. He chose to be corrupt instead. This is not only a cautionary tale, but also a learning experience for every single country on Earth. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.