Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on far-right nationalism, romanticizing military dictatorship and making explicit appeals to racism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. His politics has drawn comparisons to President Trump—gaining him the title of the “Trump of the Tropics?”—but his embrace of extreme policies veers beyond populism and toward outright fascism. Bolsonaro’s history of inflammatory remarks have been much noted and do not bear repeating. His campaign and election have already led to violence and plunged the country into its worst crisis since the establishment in 1964 of the military dictatorship that he so loves.
Often described as a populist, he starkly demonstrates the central feature of all populist movements: a very limited definition of who the people are. His election has already had consequences for the most vulnerable members of Brazilian society, including more than 70 attacks against LGBT people, women, journalists, and opponents of far-right candidates in the first 10 days of October alone. His supporters are encouraged by his frequent calls to violence, which he prescribes as a solution to all of society’s ills. Bolsonaro’s support for the police and extrajudicial killings have drawn comparisons to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has killed thousands. As with other authoritarian leaders who promise to crack down on corruption, he himself has benefitted tremendously from corrupt and illegal funding of his campaign from corporations and businessman.
Bolsonaro’s proud and open embrace of Brazil’s former military dictatorship is perhaps his most chilling feature. He has openly praised some of the dictatorship’s most infamous torturers. As a member of Parliament, he dedicated his 2016 vote to impeach President Dilma Roussef, who was imprisoned and tortured by the dictatorship in the 1970s, to the officer who oversaw her torture. He plans to fill his cabinet with former military officers, and openly flirts with a return to military dictatorship. Brazil was not unique in Latin America for having a Cold War-era military dictatorship, but unlike many, it failed to prosecute perpetrators and created a pact of silence over the military’s crimes in democratic Brazil. This lack of accountability and failure to confront and deal with the past, combined with the country’s large youth population, created the opening for a pro-torture populist to take power.
Bolsonaro’s attitude towards the environment and the rights of indigenous people have been particularly alarming in light of the recently released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighting the perils of the climate change. He has announced plans to increase the conversion of the Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest terrestrial carbon-sink and home to more species than any other ecosystem on the planet, into farmland and open it up for mining. He has launched racist attacks on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and promised to limit their land rights. This spells peril for Brazil, for the Amazon and its people, and for the world’s climate.
Bolsonaro is the latest in the line of populists that have ridden a wave of nationalism and xenophobia to power. His backward-looking calls for authoritarianism and oppression manage to be both novel and stale, surprising and entirely predictable at the same time. His promises are false and hollow and will, once again, only lead Brazil and the world further from peace and prosperity. His election shows how failure to confront the horrors of the past inevitably lead to their repetition.
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