Foreign Affairs

The people have elected a “monster”: A report from Brazil

“Elections won’t change anything in this country. It will only change on the day that we break out in civil war here” – Jair Bolsonaro, 1999.

Iany smiled as she walked out of the hostel, before turning to me and saying, “It’s my last night living in a democracy”. Iany lives in São Paulo, in the world’s fourth largest democracy, yet after Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro on Sunday night, Brazilians are fearing a repeat of the country’s twenty-year military dictatorship that fell thirty-three years ago. Cleiton, also of São Paulo, voices similar concerns – “my only fear is not having the right to democracy…this could bring a civil war”.

I’m staying in Itacaré, Bahia as the final stop on an eight-month trip through Latin America. This is the first time I’ve experienced such a seismic political event during my travels and the Brazilians, typically very open and exuberant people, aren’t afraid to make clear their political sway. Whilst Bahia state is majority anti-Bolsonaro, I see two Brazilians proudly bearing Bolsonaro t-shirts in the style of ‘The Godfather’. Another woman shouts out of her window a slogan used throughout Bolsonaro’s campaign – “Brasil acima de tudo, Deus acima de todos”, “God above all, Brazil above all”. I feel fortunate that I’m staying in a sleepy coastal village where Paulistas and Cariocas escape inner-city tension. Isabel, who lives in Rio, informs me of a shootout between pro and anti Bolsonaro protestors just two blocks from her flat in Laranjeiras district.

The election has been one of the most divisive in the country’s history, with Bolsonaro eventually seeing off Fernando Haddad of the left-wing democratic socialist Workers’ Party. Unlike similar moves to the right in the Trump election and Brexit referendum, it’s difficult to draw voting lines between gender, age, class or ethnicity. Bolsonaro is a misogynist, racist and homophobe, yet with a 54% share of the vote clearly this hasn’t prevented women, black citizens or homosexuals from voting for him.

What is clear is that Bolsonaro succeeded in capturing the popular vote for his hardline security approach. A record 63,880 Brazilians were killed in violent crime last year and between March and September of this year police have killed at least 922 people in the state of Rio de Janeiro alone. Bolsonaro’s litany of hardline soundbites therefore appeal to many Brazilians frightened to leave their homes. On his campaign he stated that “a good criminal is a dead criminal” and in August he proclaimed that police officers who gun down armed criminals with “10 or 30 shots need to be decorated, not prosecuted”. Insecurities about violence are widespread across the country and with voting mandatory, perhaps this is the best way of comprehending why Brazil has elected a “monster”.

Back in Itacaré, the liquor is pouring as my newfound Brazilian friends are trying their best to forget about the result. The overwhelming feeling is one of resignation. Brazilian politics is steeped in scandal and corruption, the last elected President Dilma Rouseff was impeached for corruption and her successor Michel Temer narrowly avoided the same fate, and this has evidently led to a feeling of disenchantment. Whilst Bahia had the potential to vote down Bolsonaro, I learn a day later that 20% of Bahians failed to vote. Brazil doesn’t have a postal vote and operates an electronic system which only stokes the fire of corruption fears. While the threat of Bolsonaro is becoming globally known with his brazen far-right policies, the danger that isn’t published is this knock-on effect of political disillusionment.

I spend the last day of my trip in Salvador, Bahia’s capital city. A couple of hours before my flight I meet Lionel, a black American who left his country in the mid-nineties to escape a place he no longer felt racially comfortable in. Lionel resides on the island of Boipebe, a tranquil oasis where you could be anywhere in the world, and his feeling of retreating from a political system he simply can’t live in is returning. “It’s up to the white people to sort this out. We [black people] have our own problems”. I find Lionel’s matter of fact manner refreshing, yet this only adds to my fears of political disillusionment. Whilst there have been protests in Brazil’s main cities since the election, Lionel shares my sentiments in that it is too little too late and favours a more hardline approach: “When people turn to stupidity, there are only two things you can do: beat it or kill it”. He sounds not dissimilar from Bolsonaro in 1999. It’s concerning for the whole world if perhaps this is the only way Brazilians are going to awake from their political slumber.

Passion must replace disillusionment. Fuelled by the knowledge of what Brazil can be.

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