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    Brazil: What Happened to South America’s biggest democracy?

    IN FOCUS: Julia Willemyns explores the democracy of Bolsorano's Brazil

    This summer, social media fell into a state of shock as the Amazon rainforest burned. Facebook and Instagram were inundated with photos of dystopian scenes, providing a horrifying glimpse into our future world. What much of the coverage failed to mention, however, is that the fires were far from accidental. The tropical inferno was part of a systemic effort by the government and corporations to clear the forest and make space for cattle ranches. 

    Although discussions surrounding environmental lobbying and individual action are undoubtedly important, it would be Eurocentric to redirect the conversation away from the country in which these shocking fires are taking place. This event is part of a larger disintegration of the regulatory systems that formerly protected Brazil, and a symptom of the political issues plaguing its society today.

    A thorough exploration of the state of politics in Brazil will perhaps allow us to understand how such an event could happen in South America’s biggest democracy.

    As a Brazilian, in the last three years I have seen an incredibly divisive miasma fall upon the country. Most nights, sitting at a mahogany table and tepidly grasping a glass of white wine, I breathe in deeply as familial warfare threatens to break loose. Such vehement discussions have plagued dining rooms all over the country. The Americans have Trump, and, with historically significant mimicry, the Brazilians have Bolsonaro. 

    In October 2018 Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the 38th President of Brazil. The biggest democracy in South America made a disturbing move from electing its first female president to electing someone who infamously said, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” to a congresswoman. 

    What happened?

    Ironically, the rupture in the country’s democratic processes and institutions began with an investigation into corrupt politicians. Operação Lava Jato is an ongoing investigation into allegations of corruption at Petrobras (a state-led oil company) that was judicially commanded by Judge Sérgio Moro. The public were elated. It felt as though, finally, a stand was being taken against a system that had been forever riddled with corruption. 

    These hopes quickly dissipated, however, when it became clear that the investigation was partial. Through claims of corruption, Judge Moro was incriminating a large part of the Brazilian political left. Both Worker’s Party former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff were investigated, which led to the jailing of the former and the impeachment of the latter. 

    There was no evidence that Rousseff was involved in the Petrobras controversy. But in the age of ‘fake news’, the facts became irrelevant when allegations started flying around WhatsApp and Facebook. The public signed her off as a criminal.

    Rousseff’s administration was, however, found to have committed fiscal pedalling, by using state-owned banks to front funds without officially declaring a loan. It was on these grounds that, with a disapproval rating of 71%, Dilma was removed from office on 31stAugust 2016 and succeeded by Michel Temer, one of the central plotters of her downfall. 

    On 17th May 2017, recordings were leaked by O Globowhich revealed Temer discussing hush money pay-offs with Joesley Batista, the businessman who runs the country’s biggest meat-packing firm, JBS. This sparked protests and calls of impeachment, with 81% of Brazilians favouring his indictment. Unlike Rousseff, there was coherent evidence of Temer’s corruption. Yet, he was shielded in Congress, unveiling the duplicity of the system. 

    The ramifications of the investigation extended to the 2018 presidential race. The frontrunner Lula, a former president of Brazil, was barred from running. Prior to being disqualified, Lula led the polls for the election, with a projection of winning 45% of the vote compared to Bolsonaro’s 15%. A number of international intellectuals, activists and political leaders, from Noam Chomsky to members of the US Senate, complained that the legal proceedings against Lula were designed to manipulate the election results in 2018. An investigation by the UN Human Rights Committee “requested Brazil to take all necessary measures to ensure that Lula can enjoy and exercise his political rights while in prison, as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections.” This formal request was completely ignored.

    More recently, Judge Moro has been implicated in what looks like a political conspiracy against the Workers’ Party. An investigative journalist, Glenn Greenwald, has uncovered excerpts from the app Telegram that suggest Moro collaborated with prosecutors to jail Lula. For many observers this is proof of the ‘plot against the left’ and malpractice in the 2018 elections. 

    Lula’s indictment, alongside an extensive misinformation campaign on Whatsapp, was considered to be the main reason why an ‘antipetista’ sentiment proliferated in Brazil. From the perspective of voters, they had allowed the Workers’ party 13 years to deliver on a promise made to them in 2003: the promise of a democratic, egalitarian and transparent government. Yet, here were the party’s leaders, accused of the same crimes they spent their political careers denouncing. 

    It was the oldest trick in the book. If you cannot beat your adversaries, get rid of them – then destroy their reputation and legacy.But this wasn’t just a strategic move in a game. These actions have real political, economic and social ramifications. 

    As a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, environmental regulations, abortions and secularism, at first sight Bolsonaro is not very different from other right-wing strongmen we see dominating the political world today. But Bolsonaro goes a step further than Donald Trump. He has instigated violence against the LGBTQI+ community, stated that it was a “shame” that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Indian-exterminating Americans, and suggested that “the poor” should be sterilised. 

    If his inflammatory comments aren’t enough, Bolsonaro also opposes the very system that allowed him to rise to power. Bolsonaro is a supporter of the Brazilian military dictatorship that was in power from 1964 to 1985, having even suggested that the armed forces should march through the streets of Brazil to commemorate the beginning of military rule.The President enthusiastically celebrates a regime that was notorious for torture, censorship and murdering its critics. In a statement so sickening as to be unbelievable, heargues that torture is a legitimate practice, and that “the error of the dictatorship was that it tortured but did not kill”. This is a far cry from the former president, Rousseff, who was a member of the resistance during the dictatorship and was tortured by the regime. Bolsonaro didn’t forget this, and paid homage to Colonel Brilhante Ustra, who headed the torture unit where Rousseff was held.

    This isn’t simply rhetoric. Bolsonaro ran on the promise to restore the Brazilian economy by exploiting the Amazon’s economic potential, whether it be in mining, logging or ranching. Since his inauguration in 2018, he has stripped the indigenous affairs agency FUNAI of the responsibility to identify and demarcate indigenous lands, worked zealously to privatise the Amazon and generally deregulated the economy. A climate change denier, his budget cuts on Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency have amounted to a scandalous sum of 23 million dollars. Recently, Bolsonaro fired the head of Brazil’s National Space and Research Institute when his findings reported a sharp increase in environmental devastation.

    These policies are calamitous not only for the environment but also for those living in the rainforest. The ingenious population is being gradually stripped of its rights and its land, in a Machiavellian attempt to pawn off the Amazon to corporations. 

    On July the 23rd, Amyra Wajãpi, an indigenous tribal leader, was found dead in Amapá. The Wajãpi tribe say he was stabbed to death by 15 non-indigenous invaders as they invaded the area to set up mines. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights characterised the murder as part of a systemic encroachment into indigenous land, expressing her fears that such violence could be used to “scare people off their ancestral lands.” 

    This isn’t a lone event. All around the country land is being recklessly stolen. The Xikrins, an indigenous population in Pará, have taken things into their own hands. On August the 25th, armed with rifles and knives, they took back their property from land-grabbers. However, this was met with fierce hostility, and messages threatening to “hunt the Indians” circulated WhatsApp. The Amazon has become a battleground. The images of smoke and flames we saw so frequently splayed across our telephone screens this summer came with a body count – a fact that was sadly edited out of the prevailing narrative.  

    In August, Amnesty International stated that the Brazilian government was responsible for the raging fires in the Amazon.The group has documented various illegal land invasions and arson attacks in the rainforest, and it has been reported that the majority of the fires in the Amazon were caused directly by human actions. Local sources claim that it is Bolsonaro’s regressive politics and pro-business attitude that has inspired such a surge in arson attacks. While there is no apparent proof of Bolsonaro’s directinvolvement in the fires, it is undeniable that, at the very least, his deregulation and rhetoric have contributed to the eruption of illegal operations in the Amazon. Regardless, the discussion around the fires is much more intricate than a vegan panacea or an immediate regression to discussions about the Paris Climate Change agreement. The specific context of the fires matters, just as Brazil matters. 

    This tragedy is symptomatic of a larger stain on the society, and this administration’s noxious effects can be felt on all fronts. In 2018, Brazil has reported an alarming rise in racial abuse, sexual assault, femicide and violence against LGBTQI+ people. 180 rapes per day are being registered, with 54% of the victims being less than 13 years old. These figures make Bolsonaro’s comments about Congresswoman Maria do Rosário even more poignantly horrific. Indeed, the executive director of the Brazilian Public Security Forum, Samira Bueno, cites Bolsonaro’s inflammatory language as a potential cause of this epidemic of violence, stating that “people are more prejudiced because we have political leaders who articulate this.”

    Bolsonaro’s political decisions often appear to arise out of a desire to be controversial. The President is currently proposing laws that provide legal cover to police officers who use lethal force. In the first six months of 2019, Rio police killed one person every five hours. A similar trend can be seen in São Paulo, a city that has experienced its highest number of killings since 2003. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticised his proposals, saying that rejecting state crimes can “entrench impunity and reinforce the message that state agents are above the law”. Bolsonaro, with his infinite propensity for wit and diplomacy, responded by taunting her father’s torture by the Pinochet regime.

    Brazil is a country with intrinsic inequality – the rich fly around São Paulo in helicopters, while the poorest don’t have enough to eat. Bolsonaro’s administration has only exacerbated this disparity, cutting back on workers’ rights and education spending.

    Bolsonaro promised economic prosperity. He assured the public that by deregulating the economy and reducing taxes the Brazilian economy would thrive. However, these electoral promises have proven to be empty, with the growth forecast being lowered from 2% to 0.8%. His economic and social policies have caused fear to spread widely within the international community, and investments into the country to steadily slow. For all his talk of job creation, the situation looks dire, with the unemployment rate still lingering at 12%.

    On his 100thday in office, Bolsonaro had the lowest approval rates in the country’s history, and it is currently wavering at 29%.

    It is easy to say that democratic processes can protect a society from a certain politician and his administration, and whilst they may be curbed by the senate and a limited term, a society cannot go back after electing a leader. Once a leader is elected they are acknowledged as a spokesperson for a nation; their actions and statements have real, tangible impacts. As Bolsonaro frequently dispenses shockingly homophobic, sexist and racist opinions, he validates these opinions, and such endorsements have the power to completely alter the culture of a society. Because of this, we cannot ignore Bolsonaro as a ‘blip’ in Brazil’s democracy; we must seriously consider the long-term impacts of a president who entirely rejects the democratic due process and watches as the Amazon burns. 

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