Bolsonaro: More a Pinochet than a Trump

Brazil’s president-elect seeks to emulate military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Even before Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential elections last month, he was being touted as the ‘Brazilian Trump’ by the international media. Yet his outward statements and behind-the-scenes machinations indicate something far more sinister than just the vulgar right-wing populism of Trump. Bolsonaro may be incredibly vulgar himself, but his politics don’t stem from populism, regardless of how much they might seem to on the surface. Instead, they’re based on an old, established model: the South American military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s that he has openly praised.

During that period, Chile (1973–90), Argentina (1976–83), Uruguay (1973–85), Paraguay (1975–89), and of course his own Brazil (1964–85) were all ruled by far-right military dictatorships that took power in coups. With both direct and indirect support from the USA, as well as heavy collaboration between themselves, these dictatorships kidnapped, detained, tortured, and/or murdered upwards of 100,000 leftists and forced more than a million more into exile. Each of them were very concerned with preserving and expanding ‘Western, Christian values’, framing leftism as antithetical to this goal. And in all except Brazil itself, they immediately introduced sweeping free-market economic reforms.

If you’ve been paying attention to what Bolsonaro’s been saying and doing, all of this might sound familiar. One of his first actions after winning the election was to give a video address where he promised to purge Brazil of “leftist outlaws”, a position that he’s also espoused in the past. In fact, he’s openly stated that he actually believes the military dictatorship in Brazil (during which he was a captain in the army) didn’t go far enough, saying that its mistake was to torture leftists rather than kill more of them. Back in 1999, he commented that he believes elections are useless, as the only way forward for Brazil is to ‘purge it of at least 30,000 leftists’ — a not-so-subtle reference to the number killed by the military dictatorship of neighbouring Argentina, who were far more lethal than their Brazilian counterparts. Bolsonaro’s admiration of the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships in particular is clear.

Memorial wall for the 30,000 people murdered by Argentina’s civic-military dictatorship. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, he’s also an unabashed religious social conservative with a large evangelical base. He believes that abortion is murder and has gone on record stating ‘yes, I’m homophobic, and proud of it.’ And while there might not be any evidence of direct support from the USA this time around (though Trump did seem uncomfortably overjoyed at his victory), foreign investors are certainly salivating at the prospect of the free-market reforms promised by a Bolsonaro presidency.

To help him make the market freer, Bolsonaro has picked up Paulo Guedes to be his Minister of Economy. While Guedes has no direct links to the old dictatorships, he nonetheless studied at the Chicago School of Economics in the 70s. This was a time when dozens of the school’s alumni, now known as ‘Chicago Boys’, were collaborating with the Chilean and Argentine dictatorships to push through neoliberal reforms. Later, during Pinochet’s dictatorship, he taught classes in Chile that espoused the virtues of the same economics that were being forced upon the country at the barrel of a gun. Somehow, 40 years later, Bolsonaro managed to find himself his very own Chicago Boy.

Bolsonaro’s base are, by and large, the country’s richest people: those who stand to gain the most from these reforms. You can see this very plainly in voter demographic surveys, which show that he received 97% of the second-round vote from the richest areas of the country, yet only 2% from the poorest. As you might expect, the dictatorships he hopes to emulate also enjoyed wide support from well-off people — and even despite the very well-disseminated knowledge of the rampant human rights abuses during that period, it’s not too difficult today to find upper or upper-middle class people who nostalgically long for the return of those dictatorships.

Images of people ‘disappeared’ — kidnapped, detained, tortured, and murdered — by Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to them, though, Bolsonaro did win an election — but only after Lula, the most popular candidate who likely would have won by upwards of 20% of the vote if he had been allowed to run, was targeted for incarceration by Sérgio Moro, a judge already known to lean right. Whether Lula is truly guilty or not, Moro ensured that he, specifically, was prosecuted in the lead up to the election. That’s in spite of the fact that corruption spreads so deep in Brazil that he could have gone after pretty much anyone, including the current right-wing president, Michel Temer. You might look at this and think ‘well, too bad, corruption should be dealt with’. You’re correct, but we can nonetheless question the motivations behind going after Lula with such specific zeal right before an election in which his main opponent was (and I don’t use this word lightly) a fascist. Indeed, in the wake of the election, Moro’s motivations have become clear as day: he almost immediately joined Bolsonaro’s cabinet as his Minister of Justice.

While the dictatorships of the past came to power in military coups, Bolsonaro’s path to the presidency was cleared with Moro’s help in a judicial coup.

Judge Sérgio Moro, Bolsonaro’s new right-hand man. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

Trying times ahead

Bolsonaro’s vision for Brazil is a terrifying one. He wants a government heavily connected to — if not controlled by — the military, the violent purging of political opposition, the persecution and denial of rights to LGBT people and women, institutionalised racism, police and citizens empowered to carry out arbitrary street justice, the dismantling of Brazil’s famous anti-poverty programs, the list goes on.

Even the best case scenario from here is a bad one, far worse than any comparison to Trump could aptly communicate.

Whether he can actually pass enough of his platform to institute the dictatorship he so clearly wants is another matter entirely. Brazil’s congress should prove an impediment, but at the end of the day, if the military were tempted by Bolsonaro’s invitation, there would be little to stop them from handing him, or some other right-wing military men emboldened by his success, absolute power. Whether Bolsonaro will respect the democratic process remains to be seen — though his open contempt for it insinuates that he won’t. Either way, even the best case scenario from here is a bad one, far worse than any comparison to Trump could aptly communicate.

Democracy in Brazil and the Southern Cone countries that suffered through the dictatorships of the 70s and 80s is scarcely 30 years old, and Bolsonaro presents one of its biggest challenges yet. Anyone who cares about this part of the world should be looking on with grave concern.