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A Disaster for Brazil: Noam Chomsky on Brazil’s New Far-Right President Jair Bolsonaro

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As Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro prepares to take office on Tuesday, we return to our conversation with world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author Noam Chomsky shortly after the election. Bolsonaro’s impending presidency marks the most radical political shift Brazil since military rule ended more than 30 years ago. Bolsonaro is a former Army officer who has praised Brazil’s former military dictatorship, spoken in favor of torture and threatened to destroy, imprison or banish his political opponents. Bolsonaro has also encouraged the police to kill suspected drug dealers, and once told a female lawmaker she was too ugly to rape. Noam Chomsky calls Bolsonaro a “disaster for Brazil.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned professor, linguist and dissident. Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I recently spoke to Chomsky in Tucson, Arizona, where he now teaches at the University of Arizona. He's also institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for more than half a century. I began by asking Professor Chomsky about President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton’s recent praise of Brazil’s newly elected far-right President Jair Bolsanaro, a former Army captain who has embraced Brazil’s former military dictatorship and has a history of making racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, it’s entirely natural for Bolton to welcome Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is definitely his kind of guy. He’s vicious, brutal, a strong supporter, enthusiastic supporter of torture. He was a little bit critical of the military dictatorship—because it didn’t kill enough people. He thought it should have killed 30,000 people, like the Argentine dictatorship, which was the worst of the U.S.-backed dictatorships in Latin America. He wants to throw the country open to investors, turn Brazil into a kind of a caricature of a country. This includes opening up the Amazon to his agribusiness supporters. It’s a serious blow, if not even a death knell to the species. It means virtual genocide for the indigenous population. According to Bolsonaro, they don’t deserve a square centimeter. But, by and large, just the kind of guy that Bolton would greatly admire.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Among the Cabinet ministers that Bolsonaro is likely to appoint is Paulo Guedes. Could you say something about his background? He’s going to be Bolsonaro’s chief financial adviser, the head of the so-called super ministry combining the current planning, finance and industry ministries. What is this person’s background?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, Guedes is a ultra-right-wing Chicago economist. He’s spent time in Pinochet’s Chile. He’s been very frank and open in interviews in the Brazilian press about his plans. It’s very simple: As he puts it, privatize everything—everything, infrastructure, anything you can think of. The reason, the motive, is to pay off the debt which is owned by the predatory financial institutions that have been robbing the country blind. This will give away the resources of the country for the future. And as I mentioned, one part of it is Bolsonaro’s favorite program of opening the Amazon to agribusiness. So, he’s exactly the kind of person who succeeded in driving Chile’s economy to utter disaster within only a few years.

It’s rarely remembered that when the Chicago boys took over the Pinochet economy, they had every conceivable advantage. There couldn’t be any dissent. The torture chambers took care of that. They had the advice of the top stars of the Chicago economics, right-wing economics system. They were clever enough not to nationalize—not to privatize the major—one of the major bases of the Chilean economy, the highly efficient, nationalized copper corporation, the biggest in the world, Codelco. So they really had every conceivable advantage. Within about five years, they had created such an economic disaster that the state had to take over the economy. People, as a joke, used to call it the Chicago road to socialism. They have left a residue which is pretty bitter. The pension system doesn’t work. The educational system has collapsed.

So, this is the man who’s one of their great admirers, is now taking over the Brazilian economy. And it will be a heyday for investors. Stock market loves it. They think they’ll be able to rob freely. Brazil does have enormous wealth and resources, which they’re glad to get their hands on. For the future of Brazil, it’s a disaster, I think; for the region, quite harmful. One of the things that Guedes has already said is that they may pull Brazil out of Mercosur, the South American trade system that had been established and, in fact, Lula had pushed forward. And for the world, it will also be a potential disaster. Destroying—if they proceed to destroy the Amazon, that is a very serious attack on the environment.

But again, that’s just in line with Bolton, Trump, exactly what they’re doing right here. It’s their counterpart to recently opening up huge areas of the West for further exploitation of fossil fuels to accelerate the race to disaster, which is not very far off. So, again, two peas in a pod, they should get along fine with one another.

AMY GOODMAN: During an interview with a Brazilian TV program in 1999, Jair Bolsonaro 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, 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.” That’s a quote from Bolsonaro from 20 years ago, but the description of what he is known for in Brazil right now. For decades, he has openly praised the country’s former military dictatorship, once saying the dictatorship should have killed 30,000 more people, as we just heard. He also has a history of making racist, misogynistic, homophobic comments; has spoken in favor of torture; threatened to destroy, imprison or banish his political opponents; has encouraged police to kill suspected drug dealers; once told a female lawmaker she was too ugly to rape. He also said he would rather hear his son had died in a car crash than learn that his son is gay. You were just recently in Brazil, where you also visited Lula in jail, one of the few people who have been able to do that, high-profile people, and actually speak about it to the press after. Talk about who exactly Bolsonaro is, are you afraid that the country will descend into a military dictatorship, and where Lula stands in all this today.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, let’s start with Lula. There has been a long, slow, right-wing, what’s often called soft coup. One step was impeaching the president, Dilma Rousseff, 2013. She was impeached on derisory charges by a parliament of thieves. The most dramatic vote for impeachment was in fact Bolsonaro’s. When he voted for impeachment, he dedicated his vote to the chief torturer of the military regime, who in fact had been the responsible for the torture of Dilma Rousseff herself. So that was his dedication when he voted for the ridiculous impeachment. It’s a competitor for one of his most vile moments. There’s plenty of competition.

The next step was to ensure that Lula would be put out of commission. He was far and away the most popular political figure in Brazil, so in order to carry off the right-wing soft coup, it’s necessary to get rid of him. He was sent to prison for 12 years, virtually a life sentence, solitary confinement, barred from receiving books, press or journals, and, crucially, the courts decided, not permitted to make a public statement, unlike, say, a convicted murderer. So he’s silenced, put away. Then comes the next step, a huge—there has been a major—in fact, I think he should be regarded as probably the most important political prisoner in the world today.

Then came the—there had been, for years, by the media oligopoly, which is quite right-wing, a demonization of his party, the Workers’ Party, PT. Towards the end of the campaign, there was a massive increase in demonization and lies over social media, which was utterly scandalous. That’s where most Brazilians get their information, so-called.

So, and it was—I should say that you should look at the charges against Lula, for which he was sentenced to this imprisonment and permanent silencing. He was charged with an accusation on a plea bargain—already dubious—that he had been offered an apartment, which he never lived in and to which he didn’t have a key. Well, OK, that’s something. Maybe you get a tap on the wrist. But what was done was so utterly disproportionate to the nature of the alleged crime. And that, given the timing, makes it clear that—pretty clear, I think, that he should simply be regarded as a political prisoner—last step in this soft coup.

I should say that the PT gave an opportunity to the right wing to carry off these maneuvers that we’ve been seeing. They did—we should recognize that the years of Lula’s tenure in office are what the World Bank called a golden decade, a unique period in Brazil’s history in which there was enormous progress in reducing poverty and social inclusion, new opportunities for the oppressed. So, that’s the golden decade. That’s been completely suppressed. But at the same time, the PT, regrettably, did not make significant changes in the structural system under which Brazil and much of Latin America has suffered for a long time. Elites in Latin America simply have no responsibility for the welfare of the country. They don’t pay taxes, export capital, import luxury goods—radically different, say, from East Asia, which has developed with much less resources. The PT did nothing to change this. They also did nothing to open up more possibilities for a less monopolized media which would have other voices. And, very unfortunately, they fell prey to the corruption which is endemic in the Brazilian political class, bad enough, not to the extent of their accusers, but bad enough. And all of that has given an opportunity for the far right to carry out this process that I just described, which led to the election of the most malicious and vicious creatures of the current range of pretty ugly characters that we see around the world.

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