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Brazil’s Eroding Democracy: Rise of Far-Right Demagogue Follows Ouster of Dilma & Jailing of Lula

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In a stunning upset that may radically alter the political landscape of Latin America, far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote in Sunday’s presidential election in Brazil in a far more decisive victory than expected. The former Army officer has a long history of making racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments and has openly praised Brazil’s military dictatorship. He will now face Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party in a runoff on October 28. Haddad won 29 percent of the vote Sunday. Many are warning that the future of democracy in Brazil hangs in the balance. We speak with Maria Luísa Mendonça, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, who says Bolsonaro is a “fascist” and that his election would create “a very dangerous situation in Brazil.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where a far-right former Army officer is moving closer to becoming the next president of the world’s fourth largest democracy. On Sunday, Jair Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote in a far more decisive victory than was expected. Because he didn’t hit 50 percent, he will now face Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party in a runoff on October 28th. Haddad won 29 percent of the vote Sunday.

Many critics of Bolsonaro warn the future of democracy in Brazil is now at risk. Bolsonaro has openly praised Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to '85. He also has a long history of making racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments, once telling a female lawmaker she was too ugly to rape. He has encouraged police to kill suspected drug dealers. In April, he was actually charged with hate speech over his tirades. But Bolsonaro's popularity has soared in recent weeks after he was stabbed while out on the campaign trail. On Sunday, he briefly spoke after casting his vote.

JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] All of this has brought and awoken the people to the idea that Brazil can’t continue on the path to socialism. We don’t want to be tomorrow what Venezuela is today.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Jair Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party won unexpected victories across Brazil. In Brazil’s lower house, Bolsonaro’s party won 52 seats, up from just eight. It’s now the second largest party in the chamber. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo received more votes than any congressional candidate in Brazil’s history. Meanwhile, Brazilian voters ousted a stunning two-thirds of incumbents Sunday.

Jair Bolsonaro also directly benefited from the jailing of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had been leading all presidential polls earlier this year. Lula has been in jail since April on what many consider trumped-up corruption charges. His handpicked successor, former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, now faces an uphill fight against Bolsonaro in the October 28th runoff. On Monday, Haddad traveled to meet with Lula in his cell and discuss strategy. Afterwards, he said he was ready for the next round of voting.

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] We’re very excited for the second round, because the second round offers an opportunity that we didn’t have in the first round: to debate the projects that each one of the remaining candidates advocate for the country. We will have an important opportunity to compare these two projects, so that voters have an opportunity, in my opinion, that they didn’t have in the first round, of comparison.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the Workers’ Party suffered major defeats in legislative races. Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff lost her bid for a Brazilian Senate seat, winning just 15 percent of the vote.

We’re joined right now by Maria Luísa Mendonça. She is director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil, joining us in our New York studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what took place on Sunday? And the significance of Bolsonaro’s—not outright victory; he still has the runoff, but he got many more votes than was expected?

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes. That’s a very dangerous situation in Brazil that I think is very important to monitor, because that could have an impact in the whole region. Like I said before, former President Lula, actually, if he was able to run, he would probably win very easily. But there was a vacuum created because he was put in jail with charges of receiving a bribe, but actually there is no evidence that he received the bribe. So, since the parliamentary coup against President Dilma Rousseff two years ago, we are in the situation of a limbo. We cannot consider that we have a democracy in Brazil right now. And so, Bolsonaro is the result of a series of attacks on democracy that started two years ago with the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dilma Rousseff is couped out—she is forced out of the presidency—and then Lula, who decided to run for president, is imprisoned.

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Exactly, yeah. We said that there was a coup because there was no evidence that she committed any crimes, but she was impeached anyway. And Bolsonaro at that time voted as a congressmember, voted for the impeachment in the name of the person who tortured her during the military dictatorship when she was in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, he supported the impeachment in his honor?

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes, because during the vote in Congress, most congressmembers voted in the name of the God, in the name of their family, and Bolsonaro voted in the name of the person who tortured Dilma during the military dictatorship.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I want to go to Dilma Rousseff. I interviewed her in April here. She was ousted in 2016 in what she has described as a coup. And I asked her about the rise of the far right.

DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] Yes, I can, indeed. The far right in Brazil, like the far right everywhere, is anti-woman, anti-black, anti-indigenous persons. And it is in favor of ending all oversight. And they struggled for this. They want to end any oversight of labor work situations, analogous to slavery, that continue to exist in Brazil. They are full of prejudice and intolerance. And they believe that they can resolve the most complex problems using brute force or violence, open violence.

What happened in the vote in the impeachment process that I suffered, well, legislator Bolsonaro cast his vote, paying tribute to the military dictatorship and torture and a torturer whose name was Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. In casting his vote, he paid tribute to this man who was a torturer in São Paulo, and he was recognized in all of the processes of truth and justice that unfolded in Brazil. He said the following, to pay tribute to someone who brought terror to President Dilma Rousseff. A person who’s capable, during an impeachment proceeding, to justify his vote in this manner is a person who sows hatred. He spreads hatred because he only understands one language: the language of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dilma Rousseff, the former Brazilian president, who was impeached. I was speaking to her when she was at University of California, Berkeley. Maria Luísa Mendonça, she describes Bolsonaro. If you can talk more about Bolsonaro’s history and what exactly he represents?

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yeah. He represents the sector of the military that is openly fascist. Like I said before, he talks about raping women openly. He said that he’d rather have a dead son than a gay son. He praises the military dictatorship. He said that he will give the police—the police should be free to kill. So, it’s a very—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to him in his own words—


AMY GOODMAN: —a 2013 interview with then—well, he was Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, on BBC.

JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] I went into battle with the gays because the government proposed anti-homophobia classes for the junior grades. But that would actively stimulate homosexuality in children from 6 years old. This is not normal. Your culture is different to ours. We’re not ready for all of this in Brazil, because no father would ever take pride in having a gay son. Pride? Happiness? Celebrate if his son turns out gay? No way.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jair Bolsonaro, the front-runner in Brazil. Also, as you said, told a congresswoman she was too ugly to rape.

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Exactly, yeah. So, yeah, what happens now also is there is a lot of media manipulation. Since the impeachment of President Dilma two years ago, there is constant attacks on the PT, on the Workers’ Party. It was almost like all mainstream media in Brazil is like Fox News. There is no alternative. And also now, during the campaign, Bolsonaro started a campaign of fake news, especially on WhatsApp, that is not controlled. For example, Facebook has closed several accounts that were spreading fake news against Fernando Haddad and against the candidate for vice president, Manuela. So, you know, also Steve Bannon is one of the advisers for Bolsonaro. So there is a lot of misinformation and manipulation.

AMY GOODMAN: In August, Jair Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo posted a photo on Twitter of him with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Eduardo Bolsonaro wrote, quote, “It was a pleasure to meet STEVE BANNON, strategist in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. We had a great conversation and we share the same worldview … and we are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural marxism.” The significance of Eduardo himself, Jair’s son?

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yes, exactly. And, well, I think that it’s also important to understand that the media in Brazil is portraying Fernando Haddad, the progressive candidate, as far-left, but when he was the mayor of São Paulo, actually, what he did was he built several daycares and more than 30 hospitals, and he tried to make the traffic in the city better, for example, having infrastructure for bikes. When he was ministry of education under the Lula administration, he created more than 18 new federal universities, more than 300 new campuses, university campuses, and there was much more incentive and fellowships for education at all levels. So, you know, he comes from an educational background. And, you know, he doesn’t come from any type of extreme-left background.

And so, what we have now is a very extreme, fascist candidate running against a moderate candidate. And our hope now is that three other candidates, progressive candidates, have said that they would support Fernando Haddad now in the runoff elections in a few weeks. So, hopefully, between now and then, they will be able to—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that could make up the difference in, then, the runoff?

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: I think so, because those progressive candidates together will probably get about 20 percent of the votes, and if they are able to convince people that this is a dangerous path. And the challenge is how do we deal with media manipulation, not just mainstream media, but the manipulation on social media.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Noam Chomsky, who just recently went to Brazil. He met with Lula in prison, and when he came out, Chomsky condemned Brazil’s right-wing media.

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’s the world-renowned linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. As we wrap up and leading into this runoff, the significance of the media in shaping popular opinion in Brazil?

MARIA LUÍSA MENDONÇA: Yeah, that’s very important, because during the administration of Dilma Rousseff, just an example, unemployment rate was 4 percent, and now it’s 15 percent. So, of course, you know, there is an economic crisis, but instead of looking at the future, the mainstream media plays this role of giving incentive to fear, and that creates the space for a fascist candidate like Bolsonaro.

So, the question is how the—because the left-wing parties already announced they’re going to unite, be united for the second round. The question is how the neoliberal parties, let’s say, the mainstream conservative parties that are implementing structural adjustment policies—how, let’s say, the mainstream conservative, neoliberal parties would then—what decision they’re going to make, because it’s a risky decision to support a far-right fascist candidate. So I think that’s the main question.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Maria Luísa Mendonça, we want to thank you so much for being with us, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights in Brazil.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Manchester, England, to speak with Dr. Kevin Anderson about a new U.N. climate report, as a monster hurricane bears down on the Panhandle in Florida and the Alabama governor declares the whole state an emergency. Stay with us.

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