Brazilians handed over their fragile democracy to a president with dictator potential

Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, won by tapping into many aggrieved citizens’ resentments.
Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, won by tapping into many aggrieved citizens’ resentments. Getty Images

Even before Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in an Oct. 28 runoff, the merely three-decade-old democracy already was as fragile as the paper that the 1988 Constitution was written on. Following the country’s transition from military rule, Brazilian politics has been marred by telenovela-worthy scandals and rampant corruption at every level that has implicated politicians on both the left and the right.

Of the last four presidents, one ran for re-election from a jail cell in the last election, and two were unceremoniously impeached. One politician helped key witnesses flee from jail; another’s murder was covered up after she spoke out against corruption and police brutality in the favelas.

In a story that is familiar to most Americans, Brazil’s period of prosperity largely concentrated wealth in the hands of the 1 percent. Brazil made strides in lifting 28 million people out of poverty only to have a recession pull 3.6 million of them back to living below the poverty line. Meanwhile the concentration of income at the top increased. The richest 10 percent account for 61 percent of economic growth in Brazil. Its six richest men have the same wealth as poorest 50 percent of the population; the richest 5 percent have the same income as the remaining 95 percent of the country.

Brazil’s tax system further exacerbates inequality by providing a vast array of tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor pay proportionately higher taxes and face cuts in the social safety net because of attacks on programs like worker pensions.

Those years of rapid economic growth in the early 2000s have been followed by a recession that’s squeezing the poor and middle class, while wealthy Brazilians fled the country with their money. A sharp rise in evangelical Christianity has clashed with Brazil’s reputation as an open-minded nation as LGBTQ rights, African religions and reproductive rights have come under attack. The blurred lines between police violence and gang violence in poor black neighborhoods is the response to the fear of crime in affluent white enclaves. With 175 murders per day, the country remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for women, indigenous groups, people of African descent and gay and trans people.

Still, nothing Brazil has been through since the military dictatorship is as bad as Jair Bolsonaro.

His policy agenda — or lack thereof — reads more like a hit list: He has denied Brazil’s role in slavery, attacked its affirmative action program and proposed sending troops into black favelas to combat crime. He’s in favor of stripping indigenous communities of their land rights and derailing environmental protections in order to speed development. He has compared defending human rights to criminality. He’s said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son and insulted a female colleague as unworthy of even being raped. He’s sent death threats to another member of Congress and said that the military regime that ruled Brazil for 30 years should have killed more people.

Bolsonaro, like President Trump, understood that citizens were willing to forfeit the freedoms of their neighbors in exchange for the promise of economic growth for the few, security with caveats and abandoning the most vulnerable members of society. His opponent could not inspire enough hope to defang the fear and loathing that fueled Bolsonaro’s base.

Brazil faces the worst economic recession in its history, with 12 million people unemployed. A coalition of the aggrieved that Americans would find familiar came together to elect a man who embodies the worst elements of society. The coalition comprised those who resented that the golden era of economic growth and borrowing in the early 2000s had passed them by; those filled with righteous anger that they no longer recognized their country racked by violence and corruption and who romanticized the days of the dictatorship; white women who were white first and women second; the religious right that pushes its religious intolerance as state policy; and your average racist, sexist, xenophobes and homophobes.

“We can’t continue with this social democracy here in Brazil,” Bolsonaro said during an interview. Brazilians is now the latest citizens on a growing list to willingly hand over its democracy to a demagogue that has no regard for the integrity of democratic institutions or ideals that the country espouses.

One can only hope that Bolsonaro’s will be a benevolent dictatorship rather than a brutal regime.

France Francois is a Miami writer and activist who has worked in international development throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. She is currently the policy director at Catalyst Miami.