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Dilma Rousseff: The Rise of Brazil’s Far Right Threatens Democratic Gains Since End of Dictatorship

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The imprisonment of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has shaken up this year’s presidential election. Lula is the front-runner but will likely be barred from running if he is not released from prison. Polling second is the far-right former military captain Jair Bolsonaro. We speak to former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff about the rise of the far right and the recent assassination of Brazilian human rights activist and Rio City Councilmember Marielle Franco.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to our exclusive interview with the former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. I spoke to her while she was in Berkeley, California, this week. She’s on an international tour to raise support for the imprisoned former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who’s the front-runner of this year’s election.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right presidential candidate, who’s been running in second place in the polls. On Friday, he was charged with inciting hatred and discrimination against blacks, indigenous communities, women and gay men and lesbians, trans people. He’s facing three years in prison, if he were convicted. Going back in time, during his vote in favor of your impeachment, as you pointed out, Bolsonaro dedicated a moment to one of the men who tortured you while you were imprisoned, while you were a political prisoner? Can you talk about both?

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.

The history of humankind has already shown that it is repeated. But in recent years democracy has been growing worldwide. And today what we are bearing witness to, unfortunately, in Brazil, is the return of the far right, which, since the redemocratization of the country, has never expressed itself in such clear terms. And that is due to the fact that to bring about political conditions to carry out a coup by means of an impeachment, when there’s been no high crime or misdemeanor, they had to open up that box of monsters. And the Brazilian far right pushed that and has now destroyed the political center and the center right, because the center right was pro-coup, and as it dropped out of the picture, the far right gained strength. This is the main result of the coup in Brazil—a strengthening of the far right—because having a democratic political center was always crucial in Brazil for guaranteeing governability. And that center, which was always democratic, since the 1988 constitution, since the democratization, that political center in Brazil has played a huge role in the process, in terms of its social base, and it’s now been swallowed up by the far right.

It was unimaginable that a candidate of the far right might run in presidential elections and be in second place or polling second, and the political parties were always of the center left and the center right. Lula is not a radically minded person. He’s a conciliator. He has not compromised on his commitment to the poorest of the poor, the workers and the national sovereignty. But he is known as someone who builds bridges. Now you have no way to build bridges, when those with whom you had been building bridges became coup mongers and are suffering a huge defeat.

This is what resulted from a process that began in 2016 with my impeachment. This coup is not just my impeachment. The coup is a process that began with my impeachment. It has a second phase, which is adopting an agenda that was defeated in the elections. The effect of all this, with no doubt, is to destroy the center right in Brazil, to lift up the far right, and therefore they only have one way to win, which is to believe that if they remove Lula, a candidate of the center right might be constructed.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see, President Rousseff, a victory by Bolsonaro? Again, he’s been charged with hate crimes; we’ll see what happens. Could the Brazilian military come to power through him? The Brazilian military dictatorship, of course, you knew well, imprisoned during that period and tortured yourself.

DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] Yes, indeed. I was a prisoner. I was taken prisoner in 1970 by the military dictatorship, and I was in prison for three years. I believe that, in Brazil, there is no situation of a military coup today. I think that the far right in Brazil is a civilian far right. It may include Army officers, such as Bolsonaro, but the far right is not a result of the military. It’s not a military product.

What is the far right in Brazil? It has very deep roots in Brazil’s history. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery. We abolished slavery formally in 1888. Unlike the United States, we had slavery in every state of Brazil. In Brazil, we have a tradition of violent control of the population. And there is an appearance of what I would say is a softer sort of situation, because violence is suffered by those who are at the bottom of the social scale, and here is much less violence faced by those who are middle-class and up.

What is the situation in this impeachment process? Well, all of those routes, many of them encouraged by different organizations and foundations in Brazil and outside of Brazil, they create movements such as the so-called MBL, movements that are introducing a very major form of violence. For example, we had a caravan going through the south of Brazil 20 days ago. Now, to prevent us from reaching the cities and the public plaza and to keep us from talking with the people, they didn’t want to let our caravan enter the cities, and so they shot at our buses.

I don’t believe that violence in Brazil has military roots. This man, Captain Bolsonaro, was expelled from the Army for lack of discipline and misconduct. I’m not sure if I understood your question exactly, but this is my answer to what I understood the question.

AMY GOODMAN: I just meant: Could his becoming president be a path for the military to take more power?

DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] It’s hard to know. But I believe that if he were to win the election, it’s not a question of the military gaining power. The civilian right in Brazil is extremely violent. Even during the military dictatorship, it was civilians who also instigated the coup. After they instigated the 1964 coup, the military came to power because it was the right-wing political leadership that instigated the coup. They went to the military barracks to instigate the coup. They believed that they would come to power after the coup. It was the military powers that assumed control of the process and ran Brazil for 21 years.

I believe the situation is different today. There is a part of the armed forces—the majority, I would say—which I believe defend the constitution and defend democracy. But there are obviously segments that do not. And that could indeed align with a government under former Captain Bolsonaro. Now, I can assure you, he is sufficiently far-right to come up with and present a fascist proposal for Brazil, with all of the characteristics of fascism. For example, defending the idea that conflicts can be resolved simply by resorting to violence, this is a major characteristic of fascism. They consider—for example, all women’s issues, they consider to be a deviation. They have a position that is very much against the LGBT population, especially gays. At this time, they are insisting that they have no racial prejudice. But throughout their history, they displayed great prejudice against blacks in Brazil, who represent the majority of the population.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, President Rousseff—as you talk about attacks on gay men and lesbians, I wanted to ask you about the leading LGBT activist, human rights activist. I wanted to ask you about the assassination of Marielle Franco and her driver on March 14th. Just this past weekend, thousands of people took to the streets once again—she was assassinated in Rio—took to the streets once again, demanding answers in her murder. Interestingly, Flávio Bolsonaro, the son of the presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, when she was killed, wrote a tweet that said, you know, “my sympathies to her family and the family of the driver. We disagreed politically,” but he condemned the assassination. And then he deleted the tweet. He’s a state legislator in Brazil. But can you talk about the significance of Marielle’s assassination, and what you feel needs to happen right now?

DILMA ROUSSEFF: [translated] I believe that Marielle Franco’s assassination shows a moment of opening the door to open violence in Brazil, for two reasons. First, because of Marielle’s importance in the struggle for racial equality and against prejudice in Brazil. She was a tough militant activist who defended principles that helped make us more civilized, who defended the rights of black women to control their own lives. She’s fought in the peripheries of Rio de Janeiro, in the peripheral areas. She fought against all of the mechanics that subjugate black people, all of the mechanics that function in this way in the life of the city. And she was very committed to evaluating processes that would associate crime with politics. So, first, Marielle’s assassination is a barbaric crime against a black woman activist. She represented a new moment in the life of the country. And since she was a member of the city council, it is a very open way to challenge power. Why? Because the illegitimate president had decreed federal government intervention.

I believe that the most important thing is to realize that Marielle’s assassination, supposedly by the militia, should be considered a very important moment. Those responsible must be investigated and punished. Thus far, not a single detail of the investigation has been made known to the public to say that they’re getting anywhere close to punishment. We hope that the Brazilian state will punish the assassins as soon as possible.

Now, it’s important to note that the assassination of Marielle is part of a rising wave of violence, violence against activists and social organizations, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement, such as students, such as homeless persons. Those persons have also been subject to imprisonment. Some have been killed. And I believe that it’s part of this general picture of institutional lack of control that was created by the recent coup, so much so that the state of Rio de Janeiro is under federal intervention, an extreme measure that was never adopted in Brazil ever since the return to democracy. The federal government has intervened in the public security situation of a state, has assumed control by deploying the armed forces. I believe, as is being denounced in Brazil by all progressive sectors, that this was a maneuver by the illegitimate president to hide his own irrelevance and the great unpopularity of the president. We all know that one of the solutions often turned to by unpopular presidents or presidents facing problems is armed intervention in other countries. In Brazil, it’s a military intervention within the country itself. Well, it was during this intervention that Marielle was assassinated. So, it’s an extreme situation.

What do I think we need to do first? We have to know that in Brazil, the Brazilian population always won when there was democracy. The rights of the population were recognized. Conditions to struggle for better opportunities improved for services, that would be more broadly acceptable. The rights of the population were recognized. Conditions to struggle for better opportunities improved for services, that would be more broadly assessable to the population as a whole. Today we are living in a mitigated, corrupted democracy. We have to struggle to expand the democratic spaces. They often told me the following: “Why are you going to the Senate, if you know the outcome? It’s like you’re playing with a marked deck of cards. Accepting the conditions of impeachment?” No. Respecting the country’s institutions and denouncing and going by opening up more space is fundamental. And today we have to fight for honest elections, clean elections. It is typical of a coup situation. Coups d’état tend to repress. They seek to keep people from talking.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the first female president of Brazil. She was impeached in 2016. She has said, “The first chapter of the coup was my impeachment. But there’s a second chapter, and that’s stopping President Lula from becoming a candidate in the presidential elections.” While Lula is now in prison, Rousseff is running for the Brazilian Senate.

When we come back, it’s Earth Day. The theme: ending plastic pollution.

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