One Week, Two Portraits of Brazil


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January 17, 2023

One Week, Two Portraits of Brazil

  • Bolsonaro
  • Brazil
  • Elections
  • Lula
Photo: Gabriela Bilò

The first two weeks of January 2023 let us see the recto and verso of Brazil. On Sunday, January 1st, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in for his third presidential term. A week later, on the 8th, self-proclaimed patriots attacked the buildings of the three branches of government. How do these two events help us understand Brazil at this critical moment?

For almost a decade now, writing about Brazilian politics has been a challenging task. The election of the far-right candidate Jair Messias Bolsonaro added three potentially lethal plagues to a situation that was already unstable: illegality as a way of governing, ambiguity as a communication strategy, and the promotion of conflict between groups as a way of managing society. For this reason, Lula’s victory over Bolsonaro seemed to end a dangerous political process. Given that Lula led the formation of a broad coalition against Bolsonaro for the second round, his victory by a margin of less than 2% shed light on a fracture in Brazilian society.

This fracture seemed to be decisively exposed in the first days of the year. Lula’s inauguration yielded pictures full of lyricism. In one of them, by photojournalist Eduardo Anizelli, Lula and Janja, the first lady, vice-president Geraldo Alckmin, and Dona Lu, the second lady, appear alongside an influential Indigenous leader, a disabled and gay man, a laborer, a black woman garbage collector, and a black boy. The photojournalist captures them with their back to Palácio do Planalto while standing in front of a crowd in red. On the one hand it was a picturesque representation of the people as a social unity, which can be read critically for reducing it to those that the left and urban strata of Brazilian society perceive as disenfranchised: They are excluded, but they are not the only ones. On the other hand, the scene efficaciously communicated a shared desire to integrate the margins of Brazilian society into citizenship. It was a tableau vivant of the constitutional letter. 

The pictures of the violent and criminal acts by mostly white, middle-aged or older men and women vested in the colors of the national flag can be read against the image of Lula’s inauguration. Videos on social media and in the mainstream press show them shouting triumphantly “Sovereignty to the People”. Judging by the warlike scenario that photojournalists captured in detail, the insurrection left a trail of destruction of buildings and furniture, crystal tables and chairs by modernist designers, a clock brought to Brazil by Dom João VI, and paintings by Brazilian artists such as Di Cavalcanti. The agents stabbed, in short, works of art and architecture that materialize our modernity’s political and aesthetic convention.

If in some time from now we look back and realize that the attacks weakened the far-right, the image of that January 8 will pop up as the Bolsonaro period in a nutshell. In this period, we have witnessed the invasion of Indigenous lands by miners, loggers, and illegal fishermen; the estimated risk of dying for Covid-19 in Brazil was three times higher than in the rest of the world, according to national records; a dramatic increase in poverty, which currently affects 46% of children under the age of 14 in Brazil. This all goes against the Constitution and can be seen as an inspiration for Lula’s inauguration bringing to the center stage individuals who could iconize the groups that were most negatively affected by Bolsonaro’s policies. Be that as it may, one of the means Bolsonaro used to implement his anti-constitutional policy was institutional stress and the promotion of institutional erosion. He worked to destroy them from within whereas from the outside they remain intact. 

This process resulted in the interruption of public policies for education, health, the environment, and the economy built throughout the Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula, and Dilma Rousseff administrations. Curiously, these three former presidents of Brazil were persecuted by the military regime that Bolsonaro has not missed the opportunity to praise and emulate. His administration was also harmful to the country, only differently. How do they differ? The military regime was dictatorial. It directed a mortal attack on democracy, with the closure of the political system, the promotion of indirect and non-free elections, and the suppression of individual rights and guarantees. 

In the late 1960s and 70s, the military committed serious human rights violations, which the Brazilian Armed Forces have both denied and tried to justify. However tacitly, denial and justification at least imply a recognition that the acts committed were in general illegal. Bolsonaro, in turn, tried to cast his deliberate and illegal acts in a positive light, portraying them as appropriate and desirable behavior. To this end, he not only promoted institutional erosion, as mentioned above, but also restricted funding and promoted the military occupation of the state apparatus.

The military’s crucial role is a distinct element of Brazil’s far-right attack on democracy from the attack on the U.S. Capitol, on January 6, 2021. This role consists in complicity, if not leadership. The political tension Brazil is going through can hardly be imagined without the participation, by action or omission, of the Armed Forces: action, when reformed military and even their active personnel come out to publicly attack institutions; omission, for not dismantling the gatherings of all sorts of ‘protesters’ in areas under their control. In Brazilian history the Armed Forces evoke legality, rationality, and modernity; at the moment, however, it is closely associated with so-called “loucos de quartel”, i.e., “crazies at headquarters”. 

It is not easy to make sense of this association. The most prominent of the high-rank military personnel in the Bolsonaro administration have graduated from the Military Academy of Agulhas Negras (AMAN) before the Brazilian transition to democracy. In many cases, they are related to officials who reached the top of the hierarchy during the dictatorship. Educational and familial context, however, are unchanging aspects of life; so, what changed? The turning point in the more recent history of the relationship between the military and the Republic in Brazil was when the Dilma administration decided to bring to light the dictatorship’s serious human rights violations. More specifically, the alarm sounded to the military when former president Dilma created the National Truth Commission in compliance with a decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the Brazilian state. The measure sparked fear of democracy among the high-ranks in the military and encouraged them to seek to regain political prominence regardless of the cost. 

Bolsonaro, a reformed Captain, offered his former superiors an opportunity to wield power within the framework of democracy. It is true that barriers Brazilian law put up against military interference in domestic politics in the 1990s and early 2000s had already begun to erode by the 2010s, as troops and tanks were over and over deployed in cities for public security purposes. But this process took a dramatic turn in the middle of the decade with the instrumentalization of law for political purposes by the Car Wash operation and the rise of Michel Temer to power after the traumatic impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. In the Temer administration, the military acceded to strategic positions in the state apparatus and freed themselves of legal or social constraints to participate in national politics.

Looking at this move from a distance, it is not surprising that the military joined the lumpengechäftsmannschaft, portions of the financial system and agribusiness, religious leadership, and significant portions of Catholics and Evangelicals in a far-right coalition in 2018. Each of these forces have shown great concern with order, even if with different aspects of it. In that election, Bolsonaro’s vice-president was the reformed four-star general Hamilton Mourão, recently elected senator for the state of Rio Grande do Sul. More surprisingly is that, although the conditions for a coup are not present, the military and sectors of Brazilian agribusiness have contributed to maintaining post-electoral tensions through the provision of material and symbolic resources.

To some extent this is feasible because Bolsonaro, like Donald Trump, has cast doubt on the security of the voting system from day one of his mandate, and since 2020 he has systematically attacked the National Congress and the Supreme Court. A survey by the Brazilian newspaper O Globo shows that there were 46 attacks between 2020 and 2022, i.e., the equivalent of one every 23 days; 29 of the 46 were directed against the Judiciary. Bolsonaro has insisted on portraying the other branches as thieves of popular sovereignty, and he seems to have succeeded. As the January 8 event shows, people do see institutionalized politics as an unending theft against the People by the powers of the Republic.

It was only predictable, then, that Bolsonaro’s questioning of the integrity of the ballot boxes used in the elections would cause distrust among Brazilians. In 2021, the then-president of the Superior Electoral Court Justice Edson Fachin was compelled to invite the Army to join a transparency commission into the 2022 elections. Still, the election took place under tremendous tension, and after the votes were counted, Bolsonaro’s Defense Minister, a general himself, insisted that he could not guarantee that no fraud had occurred. Instead of acknowledging Lula’s victory, military officials said they could not rule out the possibility of fraud. Some went even further, to say that the election had been rigged.

Bolsonaro himself has not recognized the victory of the PT candidate. To the last day of his term, he remained silent and private, while his party, the Liberal Party, contests the result of the polls before the Electoral Justice. In the paths opened by the long and unfounded sowing of doubt, self-proclaimed patriots thus built an absolute certainty of electoral fraud with the leading role played by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. As there was no room for doubt, the ‘patriots’ went to the fronts of the Brazilian Army all over the country to protest electoral fraud. There they camped and took part in daily activities, such as raising the Brazilian flag and keeping Christian-military vigils. Chemical toilets and the abundance of meals in a prolonged stay made the first impression of improvisation vanish and provoked suspicion that the campings had financial sponsors and the backing of the military.

That was the background to the scenes of violence we watched, between stunned and horrified, on January 8, when thousands of Brazilians traveling by bus from all over the country joined the ‘patriots’ to “take back Brasília.” From the headquarters, they headed to the Praça dos Três Poderes, where they brought irreparable damage to the buildings of the three powers of the Republic: The seat of National Congress, the Alvorada Palace, seat of the Executive Branch, and the Supreme Court.

The Federal Police, the Federal Supreme Court, and the press are trying to clarify the circumstances of the attacks, including their preparation. The security of the institutions that house the federal government in Brasília is partially the responsibility of the district government, and it is already known that the scheme agreed upon with Lula’s Minister of Justice, Flávio Dino, had been changed that Sunday. The then-Public Security Office of the Federal District and former Justice Minister of the Bolsonaro administration, Anderson Torres, would not have changed it without the approval of the heads of the armed forces based in Brasília. Had Lula been in Brasilia on January 8, he could have been kidnapped and killed by the mob, or he would have been compelled to deploy the armed forces to restore order. As journalist Maria Cristina Fernandes pointed out in her weekly column, we still do not know if Lula was not captured because he was out of Brasília, or if he was out of Brasília in order not to be captured.

In a long interview with journalists on the morning of January 12, Lula said that at the moment his government sees the security forces with mistrust, especially those closest to former president Bolsonaro. The reason for mistrusting them is not that they might be loyal to Bolsonaro but that they are not loyal to the Constitution and take the Lula administration as an enemy. Hence the government’s strategy seems to be to restore authority, rebuild order, and point out responsibilities, though acting prudently. After all, this is not the time to speak loudly but firmly.

In this sense, the government has articulated actions that mobilize the three powers of the Republic, especially the Judiciary. Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered the temporary removal of the governor of the Federal District from office, and the federal government issued a decree to take control of public security in Brasília. Justice Moraes also ordered the arrest of more than 500 people involved in conduct that has been framed as a ‘crime against democracy’. On social media, the ‘patriots’ claim to have been victims of arbitrary arrest and mistreatment, comparing their situation to that of the Nazi concentration camps. Finally, Justice Moraes decided to preventatively arrest the former Public Security Secretary of the Federal District, who was in Florida while Brasília was under attack. In a police action that took place in his house on January 12, officers found the draft of a decree that Bolsonaro would allegedly issue in the middle of the electoral process to suspend the elections under accusations of irregularities and would also create an Electoral Regulatory Commission. This Commission would be composed mainly of military personnel, who would supposedly call a new election.

One detail that seems to have gone unnoticed is that the decree would eventually lead to the arrest of, if not all, at least most members of the Superior Electoral Court and members of the Supreme Federal Court. The supposed Electoral Regulatory Commission would thus assert itself as an authority above the Supreme Court. This element makes one think that the decree was not the idea of some clueless person with little constitutional knowledge. On the contrary, as the journalist Miriam Leitão well observed, the intention was to distort articles of the Constitution to give the coup act a semblance of constitutionality.

The challenge ahead for the Lula administration is to build bridges and re-establish the democratic conversation without giving the Armed Forces the chance to play the role either of moderator or restorer of order. On the brighter side there is a wide-open horizon for this. In its immense majority, the press has been courageous and firm in covering and condemning the attacks. Civil society is attentive. The political system is aware of the risk it runs. On the government side, extreme concern coexists with the joy shared by the majority of society that the country is returning to the path from which it should not have left. The Lula administration has put together a remarkable body of ministers, which is plural in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, and opinions, and with cadres of extreme technical and political competence. Ecology, education, and the reduction of socioeconomic inequality seem to have gained centrality on the agenda. As the inauguration ceremony put it, representation seems to find new possibilities to fulfill constitutional promises. And so we go, without imagining that it is the day of the hunt against the hunter, exhuming the skeletons from the military closets, punishing those who must be punished, at the same time as we build a new Brazil, a new democracy, the one that was agreed upon in the 1988 Constitution.

Daniel Peres is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia – Brazil.

Renata Nagamine is a fellow researcher at CEBRAP (São Paulo/Brazil)  and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. 


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