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As Bolsonaro Threatens to Criminalize Protests, a New Resistance Movement Is Emerging in Brazil

StoryOctober 31, 2018
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Brazil is continuing to reel from the election of far-right leader and President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, the former Army captain who won 55 percent of the vote Sunday, easily defeating Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party. As Bolsonaro prepares to take office in January, many fear Brazil’s young democracy is now at risk. Bolsonaro, who has often praised Brazil’s former military dictatorship that ended just 33 years ago, has promised to appoint many military officers to his Cabinet. We speak with Bruno Torturra, founder and editor of Studio Fluxo, an independent media outlet based in São Paulo, and James Green, professor of Brazilian history and culture at Brown University, about how the election will affect social movements, the environment and democracy across Latin America.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Brazil to look at the implications of the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former Army captain who won 55 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, easily defeating Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party in a runoff. Many fear Brazil’s young democracy is now at risk. Bolsonaro has often praised Brazil’s former military dictatorship, which ended just 33 years ago. He has also spoken in favor of torture and threatened to destroy, imprison or banish his political opponents.

Bolsonaro has vowed to fill his Cabinet with many military officers once he takes the reins of the presidency on January 1st. His vice president, Antônio Hamilton Mourão, is a four-star general who just retired from active duty in February. Former General Augusto Heleno is expected to become Bolsonaro’s minister of defense.

There’s also growing fear that Brazil could move militarily against Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela. On Monday, a newspaper in Brazil quoted an unnamed high-ranking official from the Colombian government saying that if Bolsonaro, quote, “wants to topple Maduro with a military intervention, he will have Colombia’s support.”

AMY GOODMAN: Bolsonaro has announced he also wants Sérgio Moro to serve as justice minister. Moro is the judge who convicted the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a controversial corruption case that prevented Lula from running for president, though, when he was running, before he went to prison, he was the most popular candidate.

On the economic front, Jair Bolsonaro has tapped an economist who was taught at the University of Chicago to oversee his economic plan, which includes slashing pensions and the mass privatization of many state-run companies. The economist, Paulo Guedes, once taught at the University of Chile during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has alarmed environmentalists by vowing to merge the ministries of agriculture and the environment as part of his move to industrialize the Amazon and open it to more agribusiness and mining. Amazon Watch has described Bolsonaro’s plan as reckless, saying it will bring untold destruction to the planet’s largest rainforest and the communities who call it home, and spell disaster for the global climate.

Human rights groups are also alarmed over Bolsonaro’s past comments about women and the LGBT community. He once told a female lawmaker she was too ugly to rape. He also said he would rather hear that his son had died in a car crash than learn his son is gay.

For more, we are joined by two guests. Bruno Torturra is a journalist and photographer, founder and editor of Studio Fluxo, an independent media outlet based in São Paulo, Brazil. He also founded the Brazilian digital collective Media Ninja. James Green is professor of Brazilian history and culture at Brown University, past president of the Brazilian Studies Association here in the United States, author of several books, including We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bruno Torturra, let’s begin with you in São Paulo. Your response to the election of Bolsonaro, who won by quite a margin. Why? And what do you think?

BRUNO TORTURRA: Well, it’s hard to overstate, Amy, the significance of his election to such a young and fragile democracy such as ours. I think he won for several reasons. It’s very difficult to pinpoint just a single one. But I think it’s the result of many, many years of a criminalization of the political class in Brazil. This is a long time coming. It started with big operations that the police, the federal police and the judiciary did in Brazil. But the fact is, many saw this coming, but the political establishment couldn’t believe it was possible.

Bolsonaro also represents the military dictatorship nostalgia in the country, which is pretty strong. But I also have to say something that not many people put on the table, which is, there is a mass psychology thing happening here in Brazil. There is the fact that the left in Brazil is being criminalized and demonized for quite a while. So Bolsonaro is the result of many, many things. It’s hard to pinpoint just one reason.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Professor James Green, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the impact of the Brazil elections, which did not get a whole lot of coverage here in the United States, on Latin America and, really, democracies across the world, because, people forget, Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world in population. It’s got more people than Russia or Japan. And so, what happens in Brazil really has a big impact, certainly across Latin America, because it represents about half of all of South America’s population.

JAMES GREEN: I think that the election in Brazil reflects an international trend that we’ve been following, in Russia, in the Philippines, in Poland, in Hungary, in the United States, and conservative governments that have come to power in Chile and Argentina and Paraguay. And the Bolsonaro government, which I would consider worse than the Trump administration, is probably going to be implementing a series of extremely reactionary changes to the country, which will see a decline in the standard of living for ordinary people, of working-class people, in addition to attacking the environment, tearing up international agreements, deforesting the Amazon region and challenging the democratic rights of LGBT community, the women, the black movement in Brazil, all of which have been fighting for the last 30 years for full democratic rights in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, here in this country, I think a report said something like 75 percent of the Brazilian ex-patriots, around three-quarters of the Brazilian ex-patriots, voted for Bolsonaro, this former Army captain who praises the military dictatorship, attacks gays, attacks women, and then talks about the issues you do. Explain this, Professor Green.

JAMES GREEN: So, there’s no question that there is popular support for Bolsonaro, who seems to be the savior for the country, who is going to offer simple solutions to very complex problems. His solution to increased violence or criminality is to arm all citizens. His solution to criticisms by human rights activists of the police excessive violence is to eliminate any investigations of police when they go into a community and shoot to kill.

In this regard, I think immigrants, people who have left the country in other moments, fall into the category of those in Brazil who are listening to these ideas that Bolsonaro has and hoping that they will solve very complex problems with his simple solutions. The community is very diverse in this country. I think there are a large number of Brazilians who have been very consistently supporting the fight for democracy in Brazil and have been very vocal, but they do remain a minority of the community in the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bruno Torturra, in terms of the racial and class implications of this election, clearly, under—certainly, under the Workers’ Party, for the first time indigenous people and Afro-Brazilians started to have more rights and more attention in services and affirmative action from the government. What do you envision happening under Bolsonaro?

BRUNO TORTURRA: He’s not the president yet, but if you follow the last couple of days here in Brazil, there is already violent attacks on indigenous peoples in the Amazon. And the fact is that this man made his political career inciting a very strong aspect of the Brazilian history, which is the oppression of the—I’m sorry because I’m stuttering a lot—the oppression of the minorities in the country. And he unleashed, he authorized the military police in Brazil, which is very ideological to act, even if he’s not giving the proper order. So, it’s going to be hard. You know, it’s going to be hard. It wasn’t something that was unclear. And this dark aspect of the Brazilian spirit won the election. So, it’s going to take a lot of organization and a lot of support from the international community to put—

AMY GOODMAN: So, how are—Bruno, how are people organizing?

BRUNO TORTURRA: —pressure on Brazil to stop this.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruno, how are people organizing? He has threatened to criminalize all activism in Brazil?

BRUNO TORTURRA: Yes. Yeah, he’s saying this. He’s saying this for quite a while. He’s saying that he will put in prison, kill or send to the exile his opposition. And he said that he will put a final stop on all kind of activism. So, people are starting to reorganize. And we don’t know yet what our response will be. Yesterday, there was the first peaceful protest to say that we won’t stand this. And there was a lot of police brutality here in São Paulo. There were people who were arrested, people who were really beaten by the police, which I think will be the main problem here in Brazil. The military police has become an ideological—an ideological militia and gave a lot of support to his election. And, you know, it’s going to be hard times—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to—

BRUNO TORTURRA: —to be an activist here in Brazil, but we need it more than ever.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Bruno Torturra is a journalist, photographer, founder and editor of the Studio Fluxo, an independent media outlet based in São Paulo, who faces very serious pressure. James Green, with us from Rhode Island, he’s a professor of Brazilian history and culture at Brown University, past president of the Brazilian Studies Association. Among his books, We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States. We’ll be back with them in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re talking about the election of the far-right Army captain in Brazil right now, Jair Bolsonaro. Our guests, in São Paulo, Brazil, Bruno Torturra, journalist and photographer, founder and editor of Studio Fluxo, an independent media outlet based in São Paulo, also founded the Brazilian digital collective Media Ninja; and James Green is with us from Rhode Island, professor of Brazilian history and culture at Brown University, past president of the Brazilian Studies Association. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Professor Green, I’d like to ask you—you’re an expert on the history of Brazil, especially the period of the military dictatorship, that most young people in America today have no knowledge of. And clearly, this past election, not only is Bolsonaro talking about bringing many military into his Cabinet, there were about 20 military officers that were elected to the Brazilian Congress, as well. And could you talk about the role of the military in Brazil in the past, especially in light of the fact that many right-wing governments begin as elected governments? And we’ve seen that, whether it was Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy. They were elected to office initially and then seized power using the strength of the military, as well.

JAMES GREEN: So, if we have, in this country and around the world, Holocaust deniers, who deny the existence of the Holocaust, Bolsonaro is a dictatorship denier. He denies that there was a military dictatorship in the country. He denies that it was censorship. And actually, when he admits there had been torture, he argues that instead of torturing people during the military regime that was in power from 1964 to ’85, they should have killed all opponents of the government. He defends the use of torture today. And if he could do so, I would assume he would try to implement the practice as a constant pattern against political oppositionists. Now, we have to keep in mind that the police have consistently used torture and violent means against poor people, especially people of color in Brazil, as part of their police enforcement.

The military came to power in 1964, overthrowing a popularly elected government who was trying to carry out a series of minor reforms or moderate reforms, and promised to clean house and leave office within six months to a year, and they ended up staying in power for 21 years and carried out severe or gross violations of human rights, which were documented and clearly pointed out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other international organizations.

So, we’re facing a person who believes in the military, was a captain in the military—although he was retired forcibly from the military for being insubordinate—who believes in authoritarian policies. And we’re expecting him to strengthen the role of the military in the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And wasn’t—

JAMES GREEN: I think one of the concerns of many of—yes?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and wasn’t one of the requirements of the return to democracy that the military insisted that there would be no attempt to seek justice for those who participated in the tortures and the killings during the dictatorship?

JAMES GREEN: So, in 1979, as part of a negotiated kind of agreement between sectors of the opposition and the military regime, an amnesty law was passed, which released some political prisoners and allowed some exiles to return. But it also barred any prosecution of anyone involved, by the state, in gross violation of human rights. Now, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Human Rights Court have declared that you cannot grant an amnesty for people who have committed crimes against humanity or gross violations of human rights. But unfortunately, the Brazilian Supreme Court has declared that the amnesty law is valid. So, basically, we have had a dictatorship of 21 years in which hundreds of people were killed and thousands of people were tortured, including former President Dilma Rousseff, and the military has never been punished for the crimes they’ve committed. And so, this has given them a notion of superiority and invulnerability and the possibility of coming into the government with impunity.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a quote of Jair Bolsonaro—this is from like 1999—speaking on Brazilian television. He said, “Through the vote you will not change anything in this country, nothing, absolutely nothing! It will only change, unfortunately, when, one day, we start a civil war here and do the work that the military regime did not do. Killing some 30,000 [people], starting with FHC [then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso], not kicking them out, killing! If some innocent people are going to die, fine, in any war innocents die.” Which brings us back to Bruno. Most people, after an election, when your side loses, you just organize, you know, for the next election and try to lay a groundwork. Are you actually afraid, and other journalists and activists afraid, for your life right now? How are you preparing?

BRUNO TORTURRA: It’s hard to say, Amy. We are talking a lot about this. There are meetings happening all over the country now. But I think the people who are really in danger in Brazil, it’s not people like me. It’s people who live on the middle of the country, people who have to face the rural elites that have the support of the military police, and on the outskirts of the cities and on the favelas, which is where the police actually still are brutalizing people. It’s important to say that even during the Workers’ Party government here in Brazil, it’s very hard to be an activist here. It’s one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be an activist, especially if you live in the middle of the country, where there’s no press, there’s no journalism, and the police is very—are interlinked with the economic interests of the rural elites.

So, I think we have to talk a lot. We have to protect ourselves. And we have to call for the support of the whole world, actually. I think the only way to stop this man to become a dictator, which is his only intention, clearly, is that the world put economic and journalistic, political pressure here in Brazil, because we have very weak institutions. We have a media that is not well spread. And it’s going to be very hard for the fragile and very discredited institutions here in Brazil to hold this man and his very broad political base that he built around himself.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask James Green—meteorologist Eric Holthaus issued a dire warning on Twitter Sunday after Bolsonaro’s election win. He wrote, quote, “This is worth repeating over and over. The most horrific thing Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has planned is privatization of the Amazon rainforest. With just 12yr remaining to remake the global economy and prevent catastrophic climate change, this is planetary suicide.” I’m wondering your comments about the impact of Bolsonaro on Brazil’s ecology and also the impact on the battle over climate change.

JAMES GREEN: This is a very serious issue. Bolsonaro built a coalition to come to power that included large agribusiness, which want to not only expand the deforestation of the Amazon to allow soybean and cattle production, but also to eliminate the protection of indigenous people living in the Amazon by stopping the guaranteeing of borders, of territories reserved for indigenous people.

And I must say that scholars, not just the environmentalists, around the world are very alarmed by this situation. In fact, there is a movement in the United States for thousands of academics to sign a statement alerting the Brazilian government that academics in this country and in Europe and around the world are going to be watching very closely the attacks on academic freedom, which is another important point to make out, because the government is really already clamping down on universities, which tend to be voices of clarity and warning about the dangers in the country. There’s immediate—there’s been immediate threat to academic freedom and university autonomy in the country. And we, as scholars who work on Brazil, in the United States and around the world—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

JAMES GREEN: —are extremely alarmed.

AMY GOODMAN: James Green, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of Brazilian history and culture at Brown University, and Bruno Torturra, journalist and photographer in São Paulo.

That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Check all our coverage of Brazil at

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