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Could Brazil Return to a Dictatorship? Glenn Greenwald on Possible Election of Far-Right Demagogue

StoryOctober 05, 2018
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Voters in Brazil head to the polls on Sunday in an election that could reshape the political landscape of South America. Polls show the current front-runner is the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army officer who has openly praised Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. Bolsonaro has a long history of making racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments, and has risen in the polls since September 8, when he was stabbed while campaigning. His campaign directly benefited from the jailing of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in April, who had been leading in all presidential polls before being forced to drop out of the race. Lula’s handpicked successor, Fernando Haddad, is currently placing second in most polls. We speak with Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and one of the founding editors of The Intercept. He has been covering the election from Rio de Janeiro.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Voters in Brazil head to the polls Sunday in an election that could reshape the political landscape of South America. Polls show the current front-runner is the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army officer who has openly praised Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. Bolsonaro has a long history of making racist, misogynistic, homophobic comments. He has encouraged police to kill suspected drug dealers. Most polls show Bolsonaro winning on Sunday but failing to win enough votes to avoid a runoff election on October 28th. He has risen to the polls since September 8th, when he was stabbed while campaigning.

Bolsonaro also directly benefited from the jailing of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in April, who had been leading all presidential polls. Lula remains in jail on what many consider trumped-up corruption charges to prevent him from becoming president. Lula, the head of the Workers’ Party, was then forced to drop out of the race. Lula’s handpicked successor, Fernando Haddad, is currently placing second in most polls.

On Saturday, tens of thousands took part in women-led rallies in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and other cities to protest Bolsonaro. The theme of the protests, “Not Him.”

PROTESTER: My name is [indiscernable], and I’m here because Bolsonaro is dangerous. He represents hatred for our country, because he represents the loss of the few rights that the people he targets, such as the black people, the indigenous people and the LGBT community and women, have conquered so far. He represents a threat to democracy in our country, a democracy that we are still building.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us in Rio de Janeiro is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, who co-founded The Intercept.

Glenn, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of what is happening right now in Brazil, and particularly on Sunday, the election?

GLENN GREENWALD: To begin with, the significance is that Brazil is a country of 210 million people, so it’s the fifth most populous country in the world, right behind the United States, the second largest in the hemisphere and the most influential in all of Latin America. It’s also the seventh-largest economy in the world, with major oil reserves.

And what the Western media has often been doing and talking about Bolsonaro is calling him Brazil’s Trump, which drastically and radically understates the case. He is much closer to, say, Duterte in the Philippines, or even General El-Sisi in Egypt, both in terms of what he intends to do and wants to do, and what he is able to do, given the fragility of Brazil, which is an extremely young democracy that exited a military dictatorship only 33 years ago, and therefore doesn’t have the same kind of institutions to limit what someone would want to do, the way, say, the United States or the U.K. would. So it’s an extremely dangerous moment for this country.

Polls do show that he’s unlikely to win in the first round on Sunday, but there is a possibility that he might, rhat he could actually just get 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff entirely. But even if he does make the runoff, the signs are really showing that he is likely to win against Lula’s handpicked successor because of how much animus has been built up by the media and the business class toward PT in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk more about just exactly what Bolsonaro represents, his homophobic comments, his anti-women comments, his support of the Brazilian military dictatorship?

GLENN GREENWALD: And you can go through the whole list of shocking comments. He once said in an interview that he would rather hear that his son died in a car accident than hear that his son is gay. He told a colleague in the lower house of Congress where he served for 30 years, when she accused him of defending torture and rape, which he did during the dictatorship, that she need not worry because, in his words, she didn’t deserve to be raped by him, meaning that she was too ugly to deserve and merit his rape. There’s a whole slew of comments like that about black people, about the indigenous.

But the much more worrying aspect are not these kind of comments, but the policies that he is explicitly endorsing. His model for how he wants to deal with crime are the world’s worst dictators, people like Pinochet. He’s advocated that we do things like in the Philippines, where we just send the military and the police to just indiscriminately slaughter whatever—whoever they think is a drug dealer or a criminal, without trials. He believes in military rule. He doesn’t regard the military coup of 1964 and the 21-year resulting military dictatorship as a coup or as a dictatorship. He regards it as something noble and wants to replicate it. And he has the entire top level of the Brazilian military supporting him and behind him.

So, you really don’t have institutions the way you do in the U.S., like a strong Supreme Court or a kind of deep state of the CIA and the FBI or political parties that would constrain him in what he wants to do. And especially given how much popular support there now is behind him, there’s a substantial part of the country that is genuinely terrified about what he intends to do, and intends to do rather quickly, and probably can do—namely, bringing back the worst abuses of the kinds of dictatorships that summarily executed dissidents, that shut down media outlets, that closed congresses, that we thought was a thing of the past here in Latin America but is now on the verge of returning to its most important and largest country.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, the world-renowned dissident, linguist Noam Chomsky met with Brazil’s imprisoned former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his visit coming shortly after Lula officially pulled out of the presidential race. Speaking outside the prison after a visit, Noam Chomsky condemned the right-wing media in Brazil.

NOAM CHOMSKY: We have just had the great privilege of spending an hour with Lula. And one of the points that he emphasized was that during his entire tenure in office, there was just a constant flood of attacks from all the media, constantly, thousands of attacks from every direction, which, of course, confuses and undermines public opinion. So the answer to your question is, something is needed to counter the concentrated power of right-wing media, which, particularly in Latin America, just overwhelms everything.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Noam Chomsky. Glenn Greenwald, a couple questions about that. How is the media allowed to cover Noam Chomsky visiting Lula in prison? And also, the significance of what’s happened to Lula, and then who Haddad, the person, the handpicked successor to Lula, is?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I met with Noam Chomsky after that meeting in São Paulo, and we talked a lot about the dynamics that have brought us to this point. And one of the things we focused most on during our discussion was the fact that the dynamic is so similar to what’s happening in the U.S., the U.K. and in Western Europe, where you see this spread of extremism and this rise of right-wing fanaticism, and the media outlets and the establishment factions that have laid the groundwork for its rise refuse to take any responsibility. And that’s definitely the case here in Brazil, where a very oligarchical media is in the hands of a small number of very rich families and has sewn the seeds and has kind of created the climate in which Bolsonaro’s victory is possible.

Even to this very minute, even though these journalists are themselves afraid of a Bolsonaro win and are not supporting him, they nonetheless continue to endorse this narrative, that is the biggest asset for Bolsonaro, which is the idea that PT, the Workers’ Party, and Bolsonaro are just opposite sides of the same coin: You have left-wing dictatorship or right-wing dictatorship, and both are equally bad. PT ran this country for 14 years, and whatever else you might want to say about it, whatever mistakes they made, you certainly had a very free and open press that constantly attacked it. They impeached one of their presidents and put the other one in prison. So, the idea that it’s a dictatorship on par with what Bolsonaro wants to do is grotesque, but it’s the sort of thing that’s normalizing Bolsonaro.

And the thing that he has done, Bolsonaro, that’s probably the smartest, is he has chosen as his kind of economic guru, the person he said he was going to put in charge of the economy, a kind of classic, right-wing, University of Chicago, neoliberal economist that the international market and that the oligarchic class absolutely adores. And so, it’s kind of neutralized what otherwise would have been the opposition to them.

And what they’ve done to Lula, not just putting him in prison when he was leading the polls, but since then, what they’ve done is they’ve banned all media outlets from even being able to interview Lula. We’ve tried. Others have tried. There’s a prior restraint order on the part of the Supreme Court to prevent Lula from being able to speak out at this crucial moment. It’s not enough just to put him in prison and to stop him from running when people wanted him to be president; they’ve silenced him through censorship orders that apply not just to him, but to all of us in the media. And so, Brazilian institutions, the Brazilian establishment bears a lot of blame, just like U.S. institutions do for the rise of Trump, British institutions do for Brexit, and just the general globalization policies of Europe does for the rise of right-wing extremism in that part of the world, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to former Brazilian president—or, the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva himself, front-runner until he was jailed. I spoke to him right before he went to jail, and he was talking about the presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] He is a member of the federal Congress. He was an Army captain in the Brazilian Army. The information that we have is that he was expelled from the Brazilian Army. And his behavior is far-right-wing, fascist. He is very much prejudiced against women, against blacks, against indigenous persons, against human rights. He believes that everything can be resolved with violence. So, I don’t think he has a future in Brazilian politics. He has the right to run. He speaks. He projects a certain image to please a part of the society that is of the extreme right. But I don’t believe that the Brazilian people have an interest in electing someone with his sort of behavior to serve as president of the republic.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he was happy with Marielle’s death?

LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] I think so, because he’s preaching violence every day. He preaches violence. He believes that those who defend human rights are doing a disservice to democracy. He thinks that those who defend women’s rights are doing a disservice to democracy, likewise those who defend the rights of the black community. He is against everything that is discussed when one is talking about human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaking in March on Democracy Now! for the hour. You can check it out at And at the end, he was talking about the assasination of Rio City Councilwoman Marielle Franco. Your comments on what he said, as we begin to wrap up, Glenn?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I mean, just the last part about the assassination of Marielle Franco, which I have spoken on your show about before, just to give you a sense of what the climate is like here, just this week, two candidates from Bolsonaro’s party, including one of whom who is running for Congress and ran as the vice-mayoral candidate of Bolsonaro’s son, who ran for mayor of Rio four years ago, took a street sign in commemoration of Marielle Franco and broke it in half, and wearing shirts that had pistols on them, pointed directly at the camera, displayed it proudly for the camera. And then, the last line of the post on social media that they wrote to accompany the photo was, “For you scumbag leftists: When we take over, your days are numbered.”

Exactly as Lula said, the climate is one of violence. Bolsonaro’s signature gestures for his campaign is to put his fingers in the position of a pistol. They want to use violence to solve political problems here. They’re very explicit and open about that. But, unfortunately, everybody who’s been in charge of Brazilian society, including PT, including the establishment, needs to also ask itself what it has done to make this country lose so much hope and faith that it’s willing to abandon democracy and turn to a demagogue and an extremist like Bolsonaro. That’s the key question that I think needs to be asked if he does end up winning.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, we’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion and post it online at on a number of issues. But in this last minute—you are a constitutional lawyer—your thoughts, as you look north to the United States—you are an American citizen—on the nomination and possible confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, in just 30 seconds, if you can?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I do think there are real due process questions when it comes to accusations about somebody that we ought to take very seriously. At the same time, there’s a lot of credible evidence. And I think, even more important, the behavior that he displayed and the very partisan messages that he’s been delivering his whole life and at that hearing make it impossible to imagine him on the Supreme Court in a way that could be—have that institution be a credible, apolitical body. I think that’s the real overarching issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Glenn, for being with us. Again, we will do Part 2 and talk about a number of issues, including President Trump and Vice President Pence’s attacks on China, saying they are the real threats to the midterm elections, the indictment of Russian hackers, as well as more on Judge Kavanaugh and what’s happening in the world today. Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, one of the founding editors of The Intercept. Also, you can go to for our hour with Lula, who is now in prison in Brazil.

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