- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is finally free from prison, and he is beating President Jair Bolsonaro in the polls for this year’s presidential election. But many of the conditions that brought Bolsonaro to power remain. Agribusiness leaders control the economy. Brazil has one of the largest incarcerated populations in the world. The working class still associates politics with corruption.
In a recent interview on The Dig, a Jacobin Radio podcast, host Daniel Denvir spoke with Sabrina Fernandes, an eco-socialist organizer and sociologist, and Andre Pagliarini, an assistant professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College. They discuss how the Brazilian left can confront its past and win this year’s elections. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity, and updated with new developments.
Bolsonaro’s presidency was made possible by Lula’s imprisonment after “Lava Jato,” a politically motivated anti-corruption investigation. Now, Lula is free and in the lead for this years’ presidential election while Bolsonaro’s ratings are in the toilet. What has changed since 2018?
Lava Jato really fell apart. It’s not credible anymore. Bolsonaro did not deliver on all of his promises of privatization to the financial market. The handling of the pandemic was also a complete disaster, even for people who supported Bolsonaro before — over six hundred thousand people dead, a lag in vaccines at the beginning, denialism, and a terrible management of public services. A lot of people perhaps supported Bolsonaro thinking, “He is anti-systemic and will fight corruption, so we should try this guy.” But it became even more obvious than before that his family was corrupt.
Bolsonaro has not grown in the position at all. A lot of people voted for Bolsonaro knowing that he was a legislative backbencher and that he had never distinguished himself for any palpable agenda. He was just reactionary. But they thought that he might grow in the position and surprise them given that they knew the alternative — the Workers’ Party (PT).
It is similar to how some people in the US held their nose and voted for Trump. They thought, “We know how the Clintons and the Democratic Party are. We should give Trump a shot.” Then, a number of Trump voters swung back to Biden in 2020. What we’re seeing with Lula’s rise is the recognition that Bolsonaro did not surprise us pleasantly. If anything, he was worse than we could have imagined.
Bolsonaro convened mass protests in September 2021 attacking the judiciary for investigating him. Beforehand, many were concerned that the protests could be a dry run for a coup attempt. What were the protests intended to accomplish and what actually happened?
The protests were underwhelming considering that there was a lot of money from capitalist partners poured into them. His entire network was on it, and the Bolsonarista online network is really strong. It is embedded in fake news schemes and tries to make sure that people are sent Bolsonaro’s narratives.
There were enough people to show that Bolsonaro is not completely irrelevant. I had a feeling that some parts of the Left thought, “Bolsonaro is not a problem anymore.” I absolutely disagree with that. The demonstrations were perhaps a dry run and a display of power against the judiciary. He has had problems with particular ministers in the Supreme Court who investigated his corruption and got in the way of his dealings. Earlier in 2021, he tried to get the air force to fly fighter jets and blow up the windows of the Supreme Court.
Bolsonaro is clearly upset with the Supreme Court because one minister refused to shield his son from investigation. The one consistent message in Bolsonaro’s career is not to mess with his family. He is going to have other justifications for his anger, but really there are personal, material issues at stake. Part of the movement of September 7, 2021 aimed to intimidate the Supreme Court.
It was underwhelming because it is just so hard to follow what to be angry about if you’re a Bolsonaro supporter. Why is he mad at the Supreme Court? What is it that they’re blocking? What’s the drama about his son? People don’t see his personal squabbles with individual Supreme Court ministers as urgent or reason enough to take to the streets. September 7 was either the beginning of a dry run or, alternatively, the first sign of a disconnect between Bolsonaro and his ability to mobilize his base around his personal interests.
Do you think that Bolsonaro is weak, a major threat, or a threat because of the ways in which he is weak?
He is a threat because he is the president of Brazil. This man should never have been in power in the first place. As long as he is there, he is a major threat to life and the country. Bolsonaro has to be stopped in any way.
One of the reasons he is in power is that we underestimated him. We said, “The traditional right is not going to go with a guy like this.” But the Right figured out that going with a guy like Bolsonaro was the easiest way to get rid of the institutional left. Now, people on the traditional right are struggling to fill those shoes because Bolsonaro is still stronger than what they thought he would be.
One real concern is that the same dynamics that propelled Bolsonaro into power in 2018 will be revived as we get closer to the election. Rekindling antipetismo [opposition to the Workers Party] will be Bolsonaro’s main task. The onslaught of antipetismo sentiment could fortify Bolsonaro. But Bolsonaro looks weak right now. It was easier in 2018 for Bolsonaro to fan flames, let everything burn, and say, “Everything’s going to hell.” Maintaining that stance in 2022 is more difficult. I tend to be hopeful about his defeat.
The problem with antipetismo is that the Left doesn’t know how to handle it. Sometimes the Workers’ Party’s support base mistakes any sort of criticism, even constructive criticism, as antipetismo.
At the same time, some portions of the Left, in trying to oppose the PT, find it easier to claim that the PT is right-wing or dishonestly rewrite the history of the Workers’ Party and Lula. They take away the gains of the PT and place everything under the same cover that the Right has used for a long time. Or, they play into the idea that the Workers’ Party is corrupt without doing a proper analysis of the problem of corruption within Brazilian society. The PT also has a lot of fighting within its ranks over class conciliation, Lulism, how to govern, and how to share spaces with the rest of the Left.
In Brazil, a dynamic exists that pits institutional, legal authority on the one hand against Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism on the other — the very institutional, legal authority that seemingly would have long since discredited itself as a defender of democracy given its complicity in paving the rise of none other than Jair Bolsonaro. Has the PT put forward a left-wing critique of Bolsonarismo that extends beyond institutionalist attacks on Bolsonaro’s illiberalism?
Lula is attempting to articulate a more substantive, leftist critique of Bolsonarismo, and it’s working. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s urgently important. But reclaiming a notion of institutional normalcy as if normal was working for most Brazilians when it wasn’t — this is the debate that Lula and the PT have to face head on going into next year. Is going back to normal enough? Or will preventing a future Bolsonaro require a deeper reconsideration of these institutions?
For a long time, people thought that the Supreme Court was neutral and technical because it just looked at the laws. Supreme Court ministers were trusted. The Lava Jato investigation got a lot of support, even within leftist ranks, because the Supreme Court was investigating things that people had not investigated in a while.
The belief that politicians and political parties were all thieves had been a problem before, but in 2013 some people decided to place their faith in the judiciary because the political party system felt rotten. Sometimes the Left falls prey to this, but this is so dangerous because the law is after all bourgeois and oppressive. We have to be careful when we think we can focus on the judiciary when politicians like Bolsonaro are not playing fair. The Supreme Court could prefer Bolsonaro over some leftist alternative, especially if we try to push it in a more radical direction.
[Sergio] Moro’s prosecution of Lula raised a lot of awareness among the Left of the need to tackle a politicized judiciary. I hope this critique gets built out — because right now it is restricted to Lula’s case. There are thousands of Brazilians who are incarcerated. They do not get the same exposure or public displays of support that Lula got, but they are also victims of a judiciary system that is callous and indifferent to the vast majority of Brazilians.
In 2013, there was a massive, left-wing social movement against the left-wing government’s shortcomings. People demanded free transit and better public services. But by 2015, Brazilian politics was dominated by anti-corruption sentiment. Corruption had been popularly equated with the Left and the PT in power. How did such a massive transformation take place between 2013 and 2015?
The cycle that we saw between 2013 and 2018 was not exceptional in the long history of the twentieth century. In fact, there were moments in the middle of it where it felt incredibly instructive of incompetence, corruption, and how amorphous forces of discontent get weaponized, particularly for a generation that did not witness the 1964 coup. In 1964 and in 2013, the basic question was, “Who is going to benefit from this political moment and conjuncture?”
When Dilma Rousseff narrowly won reelection in 2014, the Left was still onto a winning formula that was very hard to beat. The electoral frustration of Brazilian conservatives and the Right, combined with an opportunistic reading of the current situation, provided an opening. In 1930, a similar opening, moment of fragility, and turning point brought Getúlio Vargas and the provisional government into power.
The protests in 2013 were more class-based when they began. As they grew, the message got diluted. The middle class, which had been listening to these narratives of the Left being corrupt, jumped in. Corruption unified these crowds and became the big enemy. The Right took advantage of this enemy because the Left had not done the proper base-building work to imagine what an anti-corruption fight could look like. When the Right came out and said, “Corruption is the main problem destroying Brazil,” it provided the opportunity to mobilize and capitalize on the crowds.
A small version of this happened again in 2014 during the World Cup protests, with smaller leftist parties and movements struggling to keep a high level of critique against the violations and the corrupt politics of the FIFA mega-event. But by then, there was also the risk that critique of the World Cup would be seen as attacks on the PT government. The elections happened in October [four months after the World Cup], and the Right was not accepting defeat.
The Left had an opportunity to transform the discourse of anti-corruption and anti-privilege into a broader critique of the ways that capitalism plays out in Brazil. But, as always, the state was captured by forces with organic links to capital. The Right recognized the appeal of corruption critiques as anti-political arguments, and the prevailing notion became, “[Politics] is all privilege and corruption.”
Eventually, we saw individuals run for office as if they were upstart outsiders and not representatives of the same old interests. The discourse might have been able to go in a certain direction, but by then the PT was sclerotic as a party. It was unable to redirect or channel anger in the face of that movement and was caught flat-footed.
Dilma was worried about these threats. But rather than come up with a cohesive strategy to fight the threat of a coup, she gave in a little bit more and she now acknowledges that this was a mistake. The Workers’ Party only started mobilizing against the  coup when the impeachment process became quite real with the support of the vice president, Michel Temer. But they should have been mobilizing from 2014 onward. The PT had a lot of self-confidence given its history of building alliances left and right, but after 2013, this was not the case anymore. Part of the PT’s base and its intellectuals have claimed that the coup began in 2013 as a right-wing reactionary moment, but a lot of things happened in between and the Workers’ Party was also an actor in how it handled these contradictions with its allies and the people.
Have Brazilian political subjectivities been radically altered since the PT first came to power?
There was a serious change — change that is now under threat — at the lowest end of the social pyramid. What the lowest-income Brazilians could expect to consume and how they could live their lives were measurably improved under the Workers’ Party.
The reactionary middle class had a certain degree of status anxiety. The broad, urban, middle social force was hit with the sense that they were better than the favelados, the people they saw begging for change in the streets or at the spotlight. They hoped to one day to reach the heights of economic magnates, especially those who did well during the PT years.
Now, the bottom rung has seen their economic fortunes fading. Bolsonaro has canceled Bolsa Família. He is talking about a new transfer program to replace Bolsa Família, but there’s a sense that the bottom could fall out. I think Lula will campaign around restoring the progress that happened at the bottom under the PT. But I worry that the PT has not found a way to counter the reaction that we know is coming. It’s a different world than it was between 2003 and 2006. The political forces have changed.
It is a different world because billionaires figured out that they could be even bigger billionaires under Bolsonaro. They don’t need to play Lula’s game and give him something so that he gives them something in return. This is the curse of the dependent capitalist class in a place like Brazil — it doesn’t matter whether they have a working class that can consume goods and services domestically. The currency is devalued right now. This is great for those who just want to export commodities. Meat is being stored in containers rather than used to fulfill people’s needs because corporations want to export it to places like China.
It’s often said that Boslonaro has three constituencies: beef, bible, and bullet. Let’s start with “beef,” or the large-scale, agricultural capitalists who are rapidly deforesting the Amazon rainforest and murdering land defenders. Has this constituency changed at all because of its commitment to Bolsonarismo?
It’s odd to label the agribusiness class as a constituency, because, in the end, it is the autocracy that has been running the country for so long. In a way, agribusiness [capitalists] are not the support base for Bolsonaro — they are Bolsonaro, and Bolsonaro is with them. Bolsonaro needs agribusiness to govern and get things done because it holds an enormous amount of power around land, property, the financial market, and the entire export system.
The rural class has a lot of power in countries that are under-industrialized like Brazil. It had a lot of power under Lula and Dilma. Dilma’s minister of agriculture was a direct representative of the agribusiness ruling class. It is complicated to imagine a government in Brazil that is not playing along with agribusiness. It would have to be absolutely aligned with popular power coming from social movements to ensure agrarian reform.
Before the campaign period, I knew that Bolsonaro had a huge shot when he started posting photos of meetings with members of the agribusiness class. Bolsonaro is against agrarian reform and the territorial claims of indigenous and traditional communities. His anti-ecological policies are connected to this relationship with the agribusiness class.
What about the “bible” constituency? Did the same factors that led to the rise of Bolsonaro drive Brazilians to convert from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity? It’s a sea change from one of the most Catholic countries in the world not that long ago.
Over the past three decades, the pursuit of power and growth were the driving agendas of the coalition of Evangelical churches in Brazil. From their perspective, that entailed an uneasy alliance with the largest ascendant political force at the time: the Workers’ Party and the broader coalition that the Workers’ Party still represented.
Over the past five years, Evangelical churches realized that they no longer needed to make concessions on matters of theology, because their reactionary Evangelical project has always been subsumed into the broader project of growth. Under Bolsonaro, like with other capitalist forces, that need to concede has diminished.
When it comes to nominating people and pursuing policies, if one of these constituencies is going to be cut, it is the Evangelicals. Bolsonaro promised an Evangelical Supreme Court minister, but he has been willing to retreat on that, possibly because of economic imperatives. The Evangelicals are important but seem not to centrally figure into the broader project of power that Bolsonaro represents.
Bolsonaro gives the Evangelicals things, like having Damares Alves as his minister for women, family, and human rights, and allowing Evangelical missions within indigenous communities. But the question is, “Does Bolsonaro need these people to govern all the time?” The Evangelical community is not his strongest pillar. It is important to mobilize for elections, but if Bolsonaro says no to them he can still keep going. Evangelicals had been upset by Bolsonaro’s delay in appointing Alves, but they were not able to mobilize crowds to pressure Bolsonaro and make it happen.
The Left does not know how to handle the Evangelical shift. In many communities, Evangelical leaders are there for people going through difficulties instead of leftist organizations. Some organizations are disdainful of people’s faith. It is stupid to be disdainful of something that matters so much to people because of the belief that they are simply manipulated.
However, it is also not the correct strategy to praise the Universal Church, one of the biggest Evangelical institutions, go to their temple, say that this nation is ruled by God, and hurt secular relationships as Dilma did. This matters a lot for women’s and indigenous rights in particular. Abortion rights do not advance in Brazil primarily due to the influence of these fundamentalist institutions.
Evangelicals are not going anywhere. If anything, they are growing in importance, and the Left needs to contest and convince them. The PT grew as quickly as it did in early years partly because it was deeply rooted in these ecclesiastical communities. The progressive Catholic Church was in neighborhoods playing the same role that Evangelical churches are now. As the PT and the progressive Catholic Church fade from those positions, there is a power vacuum. It should not surprise us that faith can be operationalized — not necessarily nefariously — and that people vote in line with their faith.
Moving onto the “bullet” constituency, how did armed agents of the state become a tool of reactionary political actors and a core constituency of reaction in and of themselves? How does that armed constituency relate to penal populism across Brazilian society?
For a technically civilian government, the military is way too involved in the Bolsonaro government. The military has to go back to just doing military work. It has been running the show in the health care ministry and in many other areas of government, which has caused conflicts within military ranks. We have a military vice president who does not agree with a lot of other generals, but who is also a Bolsonarista.
Brazil has high rates of crime and impunity. People do not believe that crimes will be solved. At the same time, it has one of the largest incarcerated populations in the world, which shows how the penal process is absolutely absurd. The military police is embedded in the Bolsonarista ideology of power and the notion that a good criminal is a dead criminal. Expressing violence and being free to do so are parts of this institution.
Before Bolsonaro came to power, these circumstances were already quite real. Some argue that for people in the favelas of Brazil, things didn’t change much because there were slaughters before Bolsonaro and they continued with Bolsonaro.
But we have enough evidence that the Bolsonaro family is connected to militias. Militias are another level of power eroding democracy in Brazil. We know their connection to the murder of city counselor and black feminist Marielle Franco. We are still asking who was really behind her assassination. The crisis of democracy is not just institutional. Because the Bolsonaro militias are so powerful in parts of the country, they are a much harder problem to tackle.
Bolsonaro has innovated Brazilian politics in this area. In a lot of ways, he is an incompetent mediocrity. But on this question, he is different, because of his rise in politics as a military everyman. He first ran for city council in the late 1980s on the issue of remuneration for public security forces like cops, who got paid very little, put their lives on the line, and didn’t get appreciation or respect from politicians. He quickly became a popular spokesman among this segment.
Over the course of his time in Congress, Bolsonaro eventually embraced more generic, right-wing causes without ever losing his core as the military guy on the front lines who has to deal with the reality of law, order, and violence — who feels constrained by human rights. Bolsonaro embodies the idea that if you are on the front lines of violence in the public imagination, you have got to put a bullet in someone’s head. Bolsonaro and his administration are marrying public security and politics. There is a self-indulgent and self-reverential narrative of the dictatorship, which establishes that intervention is necessary, democracy leads to bad, messy things, and you need a firm hand.
There is also a grassroots security mentality of the cop on the corner, and that cop is Bolsonaro. He is not the top general. He is the everyman. That is why he has such scary loyalty among rank-and-file members of the security forces. On September 7, there were reporters of colonels urging their battalions of military police to go to the streets to support Bolsonaro.
Is this a reemergence of the ideology and politics of the dictatorship, or is it more the product of contradictions that were never reconciled by democratization?
It seems like we are going around in circles because of the way that Brazil came out of the dictatorship. Democratization resulted not from an unrestricted victory by Brazil’s democratic movements, but from a process of making deals with a lot of stakeholders to ease out of the dictatorship.
The military was going through an economic crisis and a lot of challenges at the time, so it was advantageous for it to cut deals. It wanted to make sure that it would not be held responsible for its actions under the dictatorship. The traditional media still does not care about accountability either, partly because some of them are also to blame. Globo, one of the major media networks in Brazil, was complicit in the military dictatorship.
The concept of “dictatorship” is being thrown around all the time. After the coup against Dilma Roussef, people, especially those within the PT base, started saying, “We are living under another dictatorship under Temer.” Those statements were depoliticizing because they made it harder for us to assert, “That was a dictatorship, while this is a crisis of democracy that we need to prevent from getting worse.”
Sometimes they use as examples things that are terrible now but were also terrible under Lula or Dilma. Murders by the police and violence against indigenous communities are getting worse, but they were also a reality a couple years ago. On the Left, we have a lot of responsibility for the way we have handled this. We need to reinvent the memory of dictatorships in Brazil. This country has only had five directly elected presidents actually finish their terms in the last ninety years.
Bolsonaro and Bolsonarismo represent a continuity of a part of the dictatorship. The dictatorship had a vision and an argument about Brazil’s place in the world that Bolsonaro does not care about. But the line that we might be able to trace to Bolsonaro is a phenomenon that occurred later within the military regime and is represented by Esquadrão da Morte, which was a death squad or a roving gang of prototype militias at the time.
They represented a view within security forces toward the end of the regime — the period during which Bolsonaro himself was in the military — that the government was getting soft and the generals were letting their guard down when talking about returning to democracy. In becoming soft, they were supposedly encouraging criminality, theft, impunity, and corruption. They believed that they needed vigilance at the ground level, represented by these death squads and more recently by the militias.
Up until very recently, Bolsonaro and his family were praising the militias as those forces on the ground holding the line in the face of a large, faceless state riven by corruption and impunity. The connection between Bolsonaro and the dictatorship is that the military, security forces, and dictatorship worried that the regime was not lethal enough or doing enough to combat the boogeyman of corruption and leftism.
Bolsonaro used the tiny Social Liberal Party (PSL), as his vehicle to win office in 2018. Has he built anything like a party machine around his presidency since?
He has not been able to. After he broke with PSL, he was party-less. He needed to figure out how to build a party. They are trying to do so now, but they can’t get enough signatures to make it the home of Bolsonaristas. So Bolsonaro went looking for a party and is now with the Liberal Party (PL).
There are conflicts on the Right in Brazil because some people in the parties do not want to be associated with Bolsonaro. They want to have their own project, or they are afraid that Bolsonaro might use their party as a platform and implode it. Bolsonaro has been to other parties before. It is common in Brazilian politics to jump between parties, particularly common from the center to the Right, but you find the same problem even on the center-left and radical left. We have over thirty viable parties in Brazil to run from today.
It is not easy to start a party from scratch. Marina Silva discovered that when she tried to set up her own party in 2014. It is a sign of hope and of his weakness that Bolsonaro is trying to set up his own party. At the end of the day, he lacks the focus or competence to see through the complicated process of creating one’s own party.
He is the president and he should have been able to adhere people to himself. But talks with the Liberal Party were falling apart because he insisted that his son be put in charge of the São Paulo office of the party. The head of the party told him, “You may be the President, but the person in charge of my party is me.” Bolsonaro wants deference from a party, but if you are the head of one of these little parties, you have a lot to gain just by being there.
He is struggling to convince people that it is worth it to run him for office next year. This is urgent because he needs to be affiliated with a party to run for office.
Traditionally in Brazil, no party, including the party holding the presidency, ever holds anything close to a legislative majority.
That is one of the reasons that the PT claims that there is no option but governing with agribusiness, banks, and construction companies. If you have over thirty parties, not all of them make it into Congress. They have to make alliances. They can form blocs or ideologically aligned groups, or they can try to play the game with all the other parties there. That has been normalized.
In Brazil, there is this concept centrão or “the big center,” which consists of mostly right-wing parties and representatives. They are so tied together by their own corporatist interests that you can only pass certain bills if you get their support. Every president is always trying to court centrão, and centrão is responsible for the coup against Dilma.
On the Brazilian left, the Socialism and Liberty Party [PSOL] has become increasingly prominent. Their candidate for mayor of São Paulo in 2020, Guilherme Boulos, made it to the runoff against the conservative mayor from the PSDB, or the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy.
The PSDB won, but was it significant for a PSOL candidate to go up against a PSDB candidate rather than a PT candidate and that the PSDB candidate had Lula’s support? Have the Bolsonaro years changed the balance of power on the Left?
In São Paulo, the race is usually the PT versus the PSDB. For a while, people thought that Boulos would win the mayoral race. Then his plans were to run for governor of the state of São Paulo, but he’s now running for federal congress instead, so Fernando Haddad will be the leftist candidate for the government of São Paulo.
The Workers’ Party has a hard time giving up some of its spaces and letting other candidates run. The PSOL tried to support “Free Lula” and other PT campaigns. Perhaps the impression was that they would get more support from the PT to run their own candidates in certain places, but that does not seem to be the case. Lula did not give support to Boulos for governor. The PSOL still operates under the shadows of the PT. The PSOL wants to position itself as a radical leftist party. To do so, it had to criticize the PT, but it is not big enough to isolate itself.
This has turned into a larger conversation about how fragmented the Brazilian left is and the contradictions within each party. The PT and the PSOL are parties of tendencies. There are many different organizations within these parties, and they fight over different ideas during their own internal congress and everyday politics. Some people within the PSOL believe that the party should be more forceful. Others think that the PSOL needs to tag along with the PT because that is the only option it has.
The good news for the PSOL is that it grew in membership over the past years. It is unclear whether this will translate into major electoral gains because the PSOL does not have the same infrastructure as the PT and is torn between electoral pursuits, base-building, movement-building, and the other jobs that a radical leftist party needs to take on to promote a different project for society.
Lula had been criticized by the PSOL for a lot of negotiations and deals he made with some unsavory characters. Lula responded, “I love the PSOL. They are great. I want them to win a major city or state and govern because I want to see them learn how to swim.”
Lula is arguing that you can talk a radical left line but will hit a ceiling. The PSOL is navigating whether that is a false choice or dichotomy. The PT would argue that its experience in power shows that you need to make concessions. Other political figures like Marcelo Freixo and Flávio Dino are not completely getting on that train. But they are showing a willingness to negotiate for the sake of governability and winning that much of the PSOL resists.
Bolsonaro has consistently and deliberately raised doubts about Brazil’s ability to carry out a free and fair election, laying the groundwork for a rejection of the outcome if it does not go his way. How seriously should we take concerns about the election in October?
In my view, one of three things will happen. The first and most likely is an election campaign carried out under the cloud of Bolsonaro’s threats and institutionalized intimidation. This could involve street demonstrations similar to those stoked by Bolsonaro last September in an attempt to intimidate members of Brazil’s Supreme Court.
The second scenario is one in which an intensely partisan campaign results in actual violence. Already Bolsonaro’s administration has seen a marked increase in violence against indigenous people and environmental activists, as well as threats of violence against prominent critics of the president in academia and the press. The president foments this harassment and violence and does very little to reign in his most dangerous supporters. In fact, he insists on his right to pardon anyone he chooses. Given that the president has cast the election in apocalyptic terms, we should not be surprised if his most zealous followers embrace violence as a political tactic.
Finally, the worst-case scenario is a situation akin to a civil war. This would likely involve forces in the police and possibly the military aligned with Bolsonaro cracking down on social movements aligned with progressive causes, who might then respond in kind. Thankfully, this does not strike me as especially plausible.
It is imperative that anyone invested in the health of democracy abroad pay attention to the situation in Brazil as campaign season gets underway. Rapid action will be key in containing the possible damage from Bolsonaro’s reckless antidemocratic behavior. Among other measures, swift recognition of the results of the election by the Biden administration is key. This symbolic act would go a long way toward demonstrating to those close to Bolsonaro, including senior members of the armed forces, that they face grave international opprobrium if they go along with Bolsonaro’s authoritarian plotting.
The right-wing fake news machine is running very well. It was a key element in the 2018 elections, it never stopped running under Bolsonaro, and it is again targeting leftist organizations and demands. The biggest target, of course, is Lula.
One important accomplishment of Bolsonarismo was the depoliticization of the meaning of democracy itself. When he claims to govern for the good kind of citizen, he appeals to the racist tradition of Brazilian society and other elitist aspects. His hardcore base understands democracy as more militarism and the maintenance of Bolsonaro in power. Bolsonarismo managed to take the association of Lula with corruption, with the fact that he was in prison, and paint him as the biggest enemy of all.
Lula is loved by many parts of Brazilian society, respected by many others. There are also those who can’t stand him but will vote for him just to get rid of Bolsonaro. But there is a lot of room in between. To try to manage this, Lula brought in Geraldo Alckmin, a right-wing politician with a record of corruption and attacks against the PT, as his vice presidential candidate. It is a huge contradiction, but the PT is willing to bet on it so that Alckmin may turn some votes in their direction and help to contain the possibility of a Bolsonaro coup by gathering allies from the Brazilian elites.
In early May, Reuters reported that CIA director William Burns explicitly told high-ranking Brazilian officials very close to Bolsonaro that the US would not support any attempt by Bolsonaro to contest or hamper the results of a democratic election. What do you make of this development?
The point of this recent news, in my opinion, is not that the CIA is suddenly “the good guys.” It’s that the CIA — and, by extension, the Biden administration — sees no benefit for US interests in having Bolsonaro call into question the 2022 election’s results. This is the level at which Burns’s move is best understood. It’s not that the CIA is issuing a mea culpa for its previous behavior nor is the Biden administration offering a tacit endorsement of Lula’s candidacy.
Concerned about threats to democracy and its own legitimacy at home, the Biden administration has no reason to back the claims of a would-be dictator in Brazil. For those concerned about the fate of democracy in Brazil during what is sure to be an intense election year, this concern from the CIA — and the fact that that concern was expressed clearly and unequivocally to those close to the Brazilian president — is, in a way, encouraging. This alert from the CIA, which Bolsonaro supporters regard as the kind of hegemonic interventionism the Left usually criticizes, seems to have had an effect: well-sourced journalist Andréia Sadi reported that most active-duty generals are saying they will not go along with Bolsonaro’s “craziness” should he try anything after losing the election in October, which every current poll shows he will.
Unlike 1964, loudmouth generals most eager to carry out a coup, those closest to Bolsonaro today, don’t actually have troops under their command. The CIA has no interest in stoking antidemocratic fervor in Brazil in 2022 as it did almost sixty years ago.
Just to add two things: one, Lula will be good for normalizing relationships with powers such as the United States and the European Union. Lula’s tour in Europe in 2021 showed that there is a lot of admiration for the kind of statesman he is. This comes with the good and the bad, but also signals that Bolsonaro is too hard to control and not as good for business as international institutions and foreign states may have thought before.
But also, the United States still holds too much power when it comes to elections in Latin America. When such a statement by a CIA director sounds reassuring, this is more evidence that the US can make or break coup attempts at our elections, and sovereignty is still a dream far away in our political horizon.