Interviewed by Orestis Velmachos and Konstantinos Poulis
During the pre-election season in Brazil, there were instances of assaults, batteries and even murders propagated by Bolsonaro supporters. Are these instances indicative of a new direction in Brazilian politics? Do you think that they will continue to get worse?
The cases reported both by the press and individual posts on social media happened all over the country, especially during the elections, but it’s difficult to assess the real measure of aggressions – whether they really represent in quantitative terms the violence that occurred or if more situations went underreported. Endangered groups, such as women, black people and the LGBTQ community, were particularly afraid, also because microagressions were more widespread during this period. In the case of big urban regions, such as in Rio de Janeiro, where I live, this was even more palpable. Indeed, violence against minorities and also against left-wing individuals had major examples in the assassination of city council member Marielle Franco, earlier last year, and also of Matheusa Passarelli, a non-binary artist who was brutally executed in a favela weeks after Marielle’s death.
Fear has a formidable effect when you feel unprotected and threatened from all sides. Not that we felt that safe before, but the perception of targeted violence grew immensely with these reports. The elections brought about a huge divide in Brazilian society, including families that broke apart and friends who started seeing each other as enemies after such sharp political polarization. We had never seen anything like this before, not even during the dictatorship – blame it perhaps on social media and Whatsapp family groups, which are ubiquitous in Brazil.
Verbal threats came mostly from radical white men, eager to own and use guns (one of the promises of Bolsonaro as a candidate was to ease the rules for gun ownership, which he just did today – 15/01). Things seemed to go back to “normal” these last few weeks, but mostly because everybody seems to be waiting to see what happens to the government. Any spark from new radical policies is expected to bring some turmoil, either because they will reinforce misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, or, if it turns to be the case, the government happens not to manage economy growth and create more jobs. Also, the role of the military in this government is still unclear, although it will clearly be central.
There have been accusations that Bolsonaro’s military police have threatened university employees and confiscated teaching materials. As an academic, are you concerned about the regime trying to put an end to academic freedom, given that Bolsonaro has made clear his intentions to fight socialists and whomever else contradicts him, and his agenda to stop “leftist proselytising” in universities?
I was teaching one day when a frightened student from another class came over to the door and told us to rush and leave because the Federal Police was going to raid the building. My class was about ancient Pompeii, and I had no campaign material for the leftist candidate (Fernando Haddad), but I felt violated in my right to teach with dignity. I was afraid for the class, too, because the police are always violent with young poor black university students, which was the case for some there, so I told them to leave right away. In the end, my particular campus wasn’t raided, but fear and anger had spread already…
It’s very clear that this government will try to censor academia and implement a conservative agenda for basic education. Reports of teachers in all levels being filmed and denounced in right-wing groups is already a reality, although this doesn’t yet constitute a legal basis for arrest – maybe it will in the future. The historical situation we have for comparison is the military dictatorship period (1964-1985), but the organization of groups today by means of the internet and social media may represent a major difference, for bad but also for good. Publicizing persecution and articulating resistance strategies is much easier now, so I hope this helps us overcome the dark days to come.
The intellectual discourse of this new Right, led mainly by astrologer and “philosopher” Olavo de Carvalho and by evangelical groups, is so frenzied that it’s hard to believe they are being serious. Carvalho’s followers are the new foreign minister Emanuel Araújo, who believes that globalization derives from “cultural Marxism” and that the climate catastrophe is a Marxist plot; new education minister Ricardo Vélez Rodriguez, a Colombian who represents private interests in the area, defends privatization and wants to stop the “current leftist brainwash” allegedly taking place at universities; and the unbelievable Murilo Resende Ferreira, new director of Higher Education Evaluation Office responsible for public university entrance exams, who maintains that “Descartes was the creator of gender ideology.” Among the evangelicals, the head of the new “Ministry of Family, Woman and Human Rights”, Damares Alves, is a pastor who believes that women should stay at home and that “boys wear blue and girls wear pink”, and who has reportedly claimed that gays want to forbid the sale of the Bible in Brazil.
How much of this is truly threatening or a joke to be dismissed will depend on how much all this fire-hosing represents a capable repression system or just a bunch of buffoons who soon will have to compromise in order to govern a sharply divided society. To put it simply, it looks too bad to be true.
Bolsonaro is an open advocate of neo-liberal politics. He has appointed ministers such as Paulo Guedes, who will likely work to widen the pay gap even further. Are his voters aware of that? How do they come to terms with the idea that these politicians may be working against their own interests?
As happens with market speculation in the beginning of every liberal government, the Brazilian stock market is thriving and the Real has gone up against foreign currency. This is probably only temporary, though. A small fraction of Bolsonaro voters, the financial elite, will surely profit from privatization, decreased taxation and depriving workers of their rights, such as paid leave and full Social Security benefits. Many people who voted for him are unaware of what an ultraliberal economy really is, though. Many of these voters just chose anything that wasn’t the Workers Party, which they regarded as the pinnacle of corruption due to Operation CarWash and the arrest of former president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva.
The appointment of judge Sérgio Moro, whom these voters see as a hero, as minister of Justice shows clearly that Operation CarWash ended up being a huge excuse to arrest Lula by any means. All other major investigations have ceased since his arrest, which, by the way, many international legal experts have considered a miscarriage of justice. The mainstream media played a crucial role in this, since they insisted on portraying Lula as guilty of corruption, although the charges against him were both incredibly mild compared to those against other politicians, and also never fully proven.
It remains to be seen in the next few months whether Brazilian average workers will rise up against the restrictions imposed by policies to come. Since 2013, Brazilians from both political sides in bigger cities have gotten used to demonstrations, which are always organized “horizontally” and with the aid of social media like Whatsapp. Only left-wing protestors, however, ,have suffered police repression. Perhaps poorer Bolsonaro voters will soon realize what’s on the menu for them, and that, if they take to the streets, they will probably start receiving the same treatment. This remains to be seen.
Is there a movement against Bolsonaro? Do you see people organising to resist Bolsonaro’s policies?
In my social circles, both academic and feminist/LGBTQ, people have been organizing resistance ever since the end of the first round of elections, if not earlier. Practical measures are hard to envisage or even to share right now, because we don’t know how far this government will go.
It’s interesting also to notice the fickleness of many of regular Bolsonaro voters – people who voted for whatever against corruption, not the most radical conservatives. Accusations of corruption and nepotism around Bolsonaro are already numerous, and many people are feeling disillusioned, and concluding that the promised “savior” is, in the end, just “more of the same”. This group, like I said before, can be a major player if they articulate in protests in the near future.
As a teacher, how would you suggest that young people resist this regime?
I teach History, the most subversive of subjects. Beyond teaching about ancient Greece and Rome, which is my field, I teach my students how to be critical thinkers. One thing I like to tell them is “you can disagree with me, but you have to really know what you’re saying.” But we’re in a general crisis of authority in knowledge… The Right has hijacked the idea of the validity of multiple discourses, a revolutionary idea that helped to give voice to marginalized groups, and decided that whatever they say is equally valid, according to this reasoning. Indeed, they understood this postmodern contradiction and used it to their benefit, but their discourse is intentionally garbled and dishonest. So, we need to find a way to break this discourse and the techniques they use to spread it.
The extremely conservative views of Bolsonaro’s government are part of a bigger picture. We’re organizing in horizontal networks here in Brazil and bracing for whatever comes, but the rise of the extreme Right is a worldwide phenomenon, so I think we should also connect internationally to create strategies of resistance. This wide networking movement is exactly what the Right has been doing for some years, and it’s the main difference between our world and the experience of fascism in the 20th century.
There’s also another element that needs to be put into account. Global economic situation is critical – it hasn’t fully recovered from 2008, and it’s deeply connected with the sharply increasing environmental problem. Most people are not connecting these dots yet, but global warming and ensuing crises like migrations may lead in political terms to an opposing movement of keeping the status quo, that is, capitalism in its current state. We must connect the big picture and think of alternate political strategies while keeping this in mind.
Bolsonaro has recommended that parents beat effeminate boys. He has also said that he would prefer a dead son to a gay one. What is it like to be a member of the gay community right now in Brazil? How open can you be about it? Were you out before the advent of Bolsonaro? How do your colleagues react? Has the climate changed at all in recent months?
I heard relatives saying the same things when I was a kid, these ideas are typical macho clichés… Right after the elections, during the fearful days when we all seemed hopeless and vulnerable, some friends remembered that we actually have always been at risk and struggling. Lula’s government was a good time, but our social and legal achievements and recognition did not come directly from his government’s policies – legalization of same-sex marriage in Brazil came through a Higher Court decision, based in legal precedents from many past struggles. Still, Brazil is a world leader in killings of the LGBTQ community.
There’s a protest chant in Portuguese that says “Mulheres não voltarão para a cozinha, gays não voltarão para o armário, e negros não voltarão para a senzala” – “Women won’t go back to the kitchen, gays won’t go back to the closet, and blacks won’t go back to the slave quarters”. And, no matter what, that’s how it it’s going to be.