Glenn Greenwald on Election of Bolsonaro: Democratic Values & Human Rights Are At Risk in Brazil

Web ExclusiveOctober 29, 2018
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Web exclusive conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald about the Brazilian election. Far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro has been elected Brazil’s next president, marking the most radical political shift in the country since military rule ended more than 30 years ago. Bolsonaro, a former military officer, openly supports torture and dictatorships, has a history of making racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments, and has threatened to destroy, imprison or banish his political opponents.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at Brazil, where a far-right former Army officer who openly supports dictatorships and torture has been overwhelmingly elected president. Jair Bolsonaro’s election marks the most radical political shift in Brazil since military rule ended more than 30 years ago. He won 55 percent of the vote, easily defeating Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party.

Still with us in Rio de Janeiro for Part 2 of our discussion is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the founding editors of The Intercept.

Glenn, we spoke to you before this election. Now President Trump has just tweeted, congratulating Jair Bolsonaro. But, Glenn, while people protested in the streets as his victory was announced, 55 percent of Brazilians—and you can explain who votes and who doesn’t—voted for this far-right former Army official.

GLENN GREENWALD: Exactly, and I think that’s a critical point. It is true that Bolsonaro won wealthier neighborhoods, predominantly white regions of the country. So the upper class was absolutely, at least in the second round, supportive of Bolsonaro. He wasn’t the primary choice of the establishment in the first round, but in the second round they were behind him. But Brazil is a country with massive inequality, and a tiny percentage of its population is rich. So the only way you win 55 percent of the vote in a country where voting is mandatory is if you also win a huge number of people who are anything but rich and anything but white and anything but ensconced in safe enclaves. So, I think that it’s very important to avoid the storyline that fascism won because rich white people got behind it. They did get behind it, but a huge number of other people got behind it, or else he wouldn’t have won.

And the reason they got behind it is not necessarily because they support fascism. A lot of them have spent the last 16 years voting for the center-left Workers’ Party. It’s because they feel like the ruling class of Brazil, which includes not only the oligarchical class but also the center-left establishment of PT that has governed the country for 14 years, has turned their back on them and failed them. And when that happens, when enough people in the country perceive that the ruling and establishment class do not care about their futures and don’t care about their welfare, they’re going to run into the arms of demagogues, who, rightly or wrongly, accurately or inaccurately, are portraying themselves as outsiders to that system and are threatening to burn it down. And that’s the lesson of Brazil, but also of the U.S. and European democracies, as well, that we are very reluctant to embrace.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what the jailing of Lula, the previous president—well, before Dilma Rousseff, who also was impeached, his successor—what this meant, since he was the front-running presidential candidate but then was jailed?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, Lula is obviously a singular political force. There’s almost nobody like him, even in the entire democratic world, when it comes to charisma and the ability to connect with people on a visceral level. There’s certainly no leftist leader anywhere in the world like him. And so, the project of Brazilian elites for the last three or four years has been to destroy PT and finally remove them from power, because they thought they were going to get this center-right, banker-friendly party and candidate in their place. It all backfired terribly.

But that plan could only work if Lula was banned from running. The only way you could ban Lula from running is if you quickly imprisoned him on [corruption] charges and then upheld that conviction in a very fast and dubious way, which is what happened. So, Lula’s imprisonment was done under very questionable circumstances, to put that mildly. It was obviously carried out with the intention to bar him from running.

And it is true that public opinion polls showed him as the front-runner. I think we should be cautious, though, about assuming that had Lula been able to run, he would have won. It’s certainly possible. But even those early polls showed him at 35, 38 percent. A lot of these polls showed early on that Bolsonaro was very, very low in the polls, at 20 percent, not really able to get over that. I think it’s very possible that the climate of the country was such that they were going to reject anyone associated enough with the old political system, even Lula. But certainly, just because of his personal charisma and connection to the populace and the popularity that he had because of his success, he was by far the candidate most likely to win from the left, which is why, for sure, they ended up imprisoning and barring his candidacy.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to comments Bolsonaro made earlier this month, speaking to a crowd of supporters through his cellphone, when he pledged a cleansing never seen before.

JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] We are the majority. We will build a new nation. They lost in 2016, and they will lose again next week. Only the cleansing will now be much wider: Either they leave or go to jail. These red outcasts will be banished from our homeland. And, Lula da Silva, you’re going to rot in jail. Wait for Haddad to get there, too. Since you love each other so much, you’re going to rot in jail. … It will be a cleansing never seen before in Brazilian history. You will see proud armed forces, a civilian and a military police with legal backing to enforce the law against you. Criminals from the Landless Workers’ Movement, criminals of the Homeless Workers’ Movement, your actions will be typified as terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Jair Bolsonaro right before this election. Talk about the significance of what he is—what he means by this “cleansing” and the military and the police going after—and for those who aren’t familiar around the world—the landless movement, the Workers’ Party, etc., Glenn.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. So, I hope nobody needs me to explain how terrifying that language is. I mean, I wasn’t personally surprised by it, but a lot of people who had declared their neutrality—I’m talking about prominent, influential people in Brazil who have long been in the center or even the center-right and hate PT—were so alarmed by that unhinged rhetoric that they actually declared their support for PT, saying, “I never thought that I would do this ever in my life, but I’m voting for PT, because although PT has robbed me for the last 15 years, they’ve never threatened me this way.”

So, as I said in the first part of the show, what’s not being fully appreciated about Bolsonaro is that he’s not part of this newer “alt-right” movement, but instead comes from the military regime that ruled the country for 21 years during the Cold War and carried out, like all of these far-right anti-communist regimes did, atrocities that they thought were justified in the name of fighting communism. And there’s a really moving and remarkable op-ed in this morning’s New York Times that I would encourage all of your viewers to read, by a Brazilian writer named Marcelo [Paiva], whose father, during the dictatorship, was an elected member of Congress, a socialist—not a communist, but a socialist. And when the military junta took over Brazil, with the help of the U.S. and the U.K., they simply canceled his mandate in Congress. They removed him from Congress. And then, one day, a couple years later, they came to his house, arrested him, his wife and his 15-year-old daughter, in front of their three small children, took them to where people were tortured, and they never saw their father again. He was tortured to death over the next 48 hours.

Those are the kinds of atrocities that were committed by the very people that Bolsonaro—who are still alive today, and that Bolsonaro intends to empower and who he explicitly wants to replicate. So, again, it’s hard to put into words the kind of threats that are posed to basic human rights and the right of dissent and democratic values, as he made very clear in that speech that you just played.

AMY GOODMAN: Brazil’s dictatorship ended in 1985. Do you think Brazil’s Congress, the Legislature, the Supreme Court are strong enough to keep him in check, or even to survive?

GLENN GREENWALD: I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that. First of all, the Congress, it’s important to point out, has been flooded with the far-right movement of which Bolsonaro was a part. People that no one had ever heard of two months ago were swept into office by virtue of nothing other than affiliating themselves with Bolsonaro. So he has huge support in the Congress for whatever it is he wants to do.

The question of the court, his son got caught on tape just three months ago—it was just released and found in the last week—when he was asked what he would do if the Supreme Court tried to impede his father’s ascension to power or his agenda, basically said, “Well, we could just send a tank and an army to outside of the Supreme Court, and I don’t think anyone’s going to go into the street in support of the Supreme Court.”

So, the only faction that can really impose limits on Bolsonaro is the military. And that is the big looming question, is, on the one hand, you have a military that obviously ran the country under the dictatorship and is still connected to the people who did it; on the other hand, they now have had three decades of being inculcated with the idea that their principal patriotic duty is to defend democracy and the constitution from anyone who might threaten it. And so, they’re now definitely consolidated behind Bolsonaro. For a long time, they hated Bolsonaro, because they thought that he made the military look bad, when they were trying to rehabilitate their reputation. They’re now united behind him. But that is the big mystery, is: To what extent will the military kind of be a backstop, protecting democracy and the constitution against Bolsonaro, the way, say, the Turkish Army used to do, before Erdogan, when it came to protecting Turkish democracy? That’s the question no one knows the answer to.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Glenn, what role did both social media play, and also the stabbing of Bolsonaro, what effect did that have?

GLENN GREENWALD: Social media played an enormous role. And in this country, in Brazil, for a long time, the corporate media was even more dominant than it was, say, in the U.S. in the 1980s and the 1990s, before the proliferation of cable news and the internet. All of the information was centralized in the hands of a tiny number of television outlets, owned by the same four or five rich families that had the same political ideology. It was impossible to win the election without their support.

They didn’t support Bolsonaro, at least from the beginning. He really was a candidate of the internet. He was created and driven—his movement was—by young people who were very internet savvy. They circumvented the establishment media institutions. They used WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned free telephone communications service, to spread all kinds of mass information, much of which were just outright lies about PT and about Bolsonaro. So, their ability to exploit these new means of communication, to disseminate their messaging, but also lies, was a huge part of why he won.

And the stabbing of Bolsonaro, which really came very close to killing him—had he arrived at the hospital two minutes earlier, he would have been dead—created a huge amount of sympathy for him. It humanized him as a victim. And it also made it impossible to attack him for almost a full month, because it’s very hard to attack somebody who is in a hospital bed with tubes connected to them. And so it created a vacuum where he was kind of just seen as this humanized victim who you felt sorry for and who also seemed to be a victim of the violent crime that he had spent his whole campaign denouncing. It gave him the excuse to avoid all political debates. And so he was never really forced to defend the types of things that he has been advocating or the things that he said. And obviously, we’ll never know what would have happened, had he not been stabbed, but there’s no question that ended up being a huge help to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see his victory as part of what’s happening in Latin America—you have the right-wing electoral victories in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru—and then, you know, globally, as well, including places like Hungary with Orbán?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. I mean, look, politics is really no longer domestic. Politics is regional, and politics is global. It’s in part because we live in a globalized world, and it’s in part because the internet is so pervasive in places where, until very recently, it didn’t exist. And so, ideologies that thrive in the most powerful and richest countries in the world—in the U.S., in Canada and in Western Europe—now infiltrate much more easily into places that had previously been immune to them. So, I absolutely see what’s happening in Brazil, in one sense, as being the byproduct of unique Brazilian dynamics, the convergence of these multiple scandals, in a way that really doesn’t exist elsewhere. But I see it more so as part of a regional and global trend that has a lot of the dynamics that we already discussed.

But I want to add to that the fact that I do think that the left needs to ask itself why it is increasingly failing to be able to communicate to and provide answers for the fears and the anxieties and the resentments that huge portions of the population, who are not really ideologically entrenched on the right, are harboring. And I think that is a major question that the Brazilian left needs to ask itself, but also the Western left, which is: Why is it that the people who live in the interior, who are economically repressed, who feel unrepresented by the power structure—why are they turning away from the left, which sees itself as representing those kind of people, who are marginalized and economically repressed, and turning instead to this kind of nationalistic, populist right? The instinct is just to call those people names, to accuse them of xenophobia and racism and misogyny. A lot of that may be true in a lot of cases. But there’s a lot more to it than that. And I think that that kind of soul searching needs to be done on the left, if any of these dynamics, that are obviously disturbing, are to be stemmed and then reversed.

AMY GOODMAN: I mentioned all these countries. And, of course, here in the United States—and elections are coming up in just a week, and we’ll see what effect these attacks of the last—just of the last week, of just hours, will have, from the killing of African Americans in Louisville to the bomb threats sent to Trump opponents all over the country, a kind of Trump hit list, attack list, and of course the Pittsburgh massacre.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. And, you know, I think that one of the things that’s likely to happen, unfortunately, in the U.S.—I mean, fortunately and unfortunately—is that, in general, parties that are out of power do very well in the midterm elections. And there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm on the part of the Democratic base because of the anti-Trump sentiment that has been building up over the course of more than two years. So I think Democrats are likely to do very well in the midterms, probably will take over the House.

And while that’s very good in one way, because that will serve as a much-needed limit and check on what Trump’s able to do, on the other hand, I think that’s going to end up masking the fundamental problems of the Democratic Party—who it’s funded by, whose interests it serves, its messaging. It never really engaged in much of a self-critique after 2016, even though it collapsed as a national political force. And I think that its likely victory in 2018, at least in the House, is probably going to give it the excuse needed to justify continuing to push off this kind of reckoning that’s needed if the Democrats are going to start to recapture so many of their old voters who have turned away from them.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, one of the founding editors of The Intercept. If you want to see Part 1 of the discussion, go to This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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