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As Brazil’s Bolsonaro Takes Office, Opponents Warn of Regressive Policies & Threat of Dictatorship

StoryJanuary 02, 2019
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Far-right former Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as president of Brazil on New Year’s Day. His election marks the most radical political shift in the country since military rule ended more than 30 years ago. We speak with Fernando Haddad, former Brazilian presidential candidate on the Workers’ Party ticket who lost in a runoff to Jair Bolsonaro. Haddad is the former mayor of São Paulo and served as education minister under former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

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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, where far-right former Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in as president of the world’s fourth largest democracy on New Year’s Day.

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: [translated] I state before everyone today, the day when people were liberated from socialism, this is our flag, and it will never again be red.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bolsonaro was sworn in as Brazil’s [38th] president, marking the most radical political shift in the country since military rule ended more than 30 years ago. Many fear Brazil’s young democracy is now at risk. Bolsonaro has announced Brazil will withdraw from hosting this year’s United Nations climate change conference. This comes as environmentalists fear he will speed catastrophic climate change by opening up vast swaths of the Amazon to agribusiness giants. Brazil’s new foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, has described climate change as a plot by cultural Marxists aiming to help China.

AMY GOODMAN: So far, Bolsonaro has named five former military officials to serve in his Cabinet. For years, Bolsonaro has praised Brazil’s former military dictatorship, which ended 33 years ago. He has also spoken in favor of torture and threatened to destroy, imprison or banish his political opponents. 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 his son died in a car crash than learn that his son is gay.

But Bolsonaro has been warmly received by the Trump administration. National security adviser John Bolton described Bolsonaro as a “like-minded” partner. Bolton and Bolsonaro met in Rio in November, where they reportedly talked about trade, Israel and Cuba. During the meeting, Bolton invited Bolsonaro to come to Washington.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: 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, taught at the University of Chile during the reign of General Augusto Pinochet.

Bolsonaro recently picked 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 in last year’s election. This helped pave the way for Bolsonaro’s victory.

AMY GOODMAN: Lula remains in prison, serving a 12-year sentence.

Well, Democracy Now! recently spoke with Fernando Haddad, who ran against Bolsonaro with the Workers’ Party once Lula was barred from running. Bolsonaro beat him 55 to 45 percent. Haddad is Brazil’s former minister of education, the former mayor of São Paulo, one of the largest cities in the world. I began by asking Fernando Haddad about the comparisons between Bolsonaro and Donald Trump.

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] Bolsonaro is a tropical Trump. They have a very common agenda, a very regressive agenda, when it comes to civil rights, social rights and environmental rights.

But from the economic standpoint, there is a major difference between the two of them. Bolsonaro is adopting a regressive policy as regards rights, but a neoliberal policy when it comes to economic policy. Paulo Guedes, who you mentioned, who is going to be his minister of the economy, was trained at the University of Chicago. And he maintains the belief, his belief, in that sort of thinking, which was actually defeated by history, of total liberalization.

You talked about the massive state assets, particularly oil companies that are managed by the state today. Well, next year there’s likely to be a savage privatization of those assets and an unbound struggle against workers’ rights and social rights in Brazil, and gutting the public budget that protects the poorest of the poor and workers in relation to their employers.

So, from an economic standpoint, there is a difference that should be noted. Brazil is once again adopting a neoliberal agenda, a very strong neoliberal agenda, beyond what happened in the 1990s.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the Cabinet that Bolsonaro is putting together now, five former military officials serving in his Cabinet, praising the former military dictatorship?

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] It’s really unprecedented. Certainly, in Brazil, it’s very difficult to attain modern democracy with the appointment of so many military people, as is going to happen in the future administration of Bolsonaro. Therefore, it is an alliance that involves, externally, alignment with Trump policies, highly regressive, as I’ve indicated, from the economic standpoint, radicalized version of neoliberalism.

But I would also draw attention to Bolsonaro’s appreciation of a fundamentalist agenda from the standpoint of customs. He is very close to neo-Pentecostalism, which in Brazil recently has been adopting positions hostile towards political minorities in Brazil, but even against majorities, such as blacks and women. There are hostile messages in his discourse. And it would be very difficult for this to happen without strong military support. To be consistent with this discourse of lifting up the military dictatorship in Brazil, the dictatorship that extended from 1964 to 1985, Bolsonaro, his whole life, has been uplifting not only the dictatorship itself, but also the methods that the dictatorship used to stay in power, including torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolsonaro has threatened to destroy, imprison or banish political opponents. Certainly, you would be chief among them. You ran against him for president. And the man he was running against before, Lula, is in prison. Are you concerned?

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] I am more concerned about the consequences of Bolsonaro’s discourse on regular citizens than its impact on myself, because what is happening in Brazil is that regular folk—journalists, university professors, LGBT—members of the LGBT community—are all feeling insecure in Brazil. And my concern—well, I have sufficient means to protect myself. And those who get involved in politics in Latin America nowadays cannot be afraid of anything, because they really don’t have a right to be afraid. But my concern is with common citizens, common citizens who may be suffering anguish at this time because of no assurance for their lives on the part of the state. This is the problem that Brazil is facing.

And the resistance will also be based on those persons, because, Brazil, the situation is very complex. Forty-five percent of the voters, that I won, are going to organize and resist threats of that sort. So, I believe that in Brazil there will be, as there is in the United States, an organizing effort to defend rights that have been defended for 200 years in the Western world, the expansion of civil, political, social and environmental rights. Well, after 200 years of struggle, they can’t just disappear.

AMY GOODMAN: When you first came into our studio today and I asked you what you’re doing here in the United States, you said, well, Trump has been in power for two years; you guys are preparing for Bolsonaro. Talk about that, what that means to you.

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] Well, look, I consider the Trump administration to be serious backsliding in relation to what I believe is the objective of politics. The objective of politics is always to build scenarios in which persons’ horizons can be expanded evermore. Any political action that is aimed at restricting individuals’ horizons is, as I see it, a regressive action in relation to the political values that I embrace.

Bolsonaro, in that regard, is an ally of Trump. He is a person who is constantly announcing restrictions on rights. And I would include environmental rights in that. As I see it, the right to a healthy environment is a human right, because disrespecting the future of future generations—well, safeguarding the ability of future generations to live on a healthy planet is part of the expansion of horizons in Western democracies for ourselves and for future generations.

So, I would like to understand what’s happening in the United States. As a university professor, I foresaw Trump’s victory because of the movements I was observing around the world. I am a professor of political science. But I believe that the United States has become a laboratory for us, for us to organize an opposition, which is not opposition to the country, but rather in favor of humanism, in favor of the human species, in favor of expanding the space for freedom and for the emancipation of each and every one of us.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump calls the media the enemy of the people. Talk about the role of the media in Brazil; also, in your campaign, running for president, who it served.

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] The media in Brazil is very conservative. First of all, it’s in the hands of just a few families. It’s practically a cartel, the media. And it operates ideologically as though it were a monopoly. Now, even though it’s four or five families that dominate the circulation of information in Brazil, from an ideological standpoint, they are very much aligned with the same purpose. In the 1964 coup d’état, the media was consistent with it. In the 2016 coup that resulted in the impeachment, the media all acted with a single voice. It’s as though they were all Fox News. Nothing really different from Fox News in Brazil.

So we don’t really have a plurality of opinions being voiced as in the United States, so it’s even tougher than here. And even so, the incoming administration, the Bolsonaro administration, criticizes the little bit that is left of effective journalism in Brazil. The little bit that has remained of critical thought is the target of hostility by the incoming administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Bolsonaro calls media in Brazil fake news, just like President Trump calls the media here in this country. What impact do you think Facebook had on the election? Facebook owns WhatsApp, the popular message site that was widely used to distribute false news leading up to the election.

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] WhatsApp in Brazil played a crucial role, a decisive role, in the elections. We have a two-round election in Brazil because we have many political parties. And so, there are two rounds for the presidential election. Until one week before the first round, all of the polls said that I would be winning in the projections for the second round. The polls said not only would I go to the second round, but that I would likely win in the second round. Now, that ended in just a week, with a massive triggering of false messages that did not use Twitter or Facebook but did use WhatsApp. And it was very difficult in the second round to turn back or to undo the damage done in the last week of the first-round election, leading up to the first-round election. And we don’t know what was behind all of this, the resources behind this, who are those who financed these actions.

And these occur not only in Brazil. There are several specialists in the United States, as well, who have said that Brazil, Brexit, Trump, Salvini in Italy are all part of a single process that might now occur in Western Europe. So, the elections in Western Europe in the coming year and issues such as climate, European Union, all of that is up for discussion, multilateralism. These are several issues that will be debated of the utmost importance. And for those who would like to see a plural world in which there is no hegemony of one power or another, but rather spaces for people to organize more freely and to act democratically as citizens, well, the dark actions of unknown groups is very worrisome, groups which, based on money, operate in the social networks.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Brazil’s indigenous people. The Amazon is about the environment and also about the indigenous people of Brazil, in the Amazon and beyond. Bolsonaro once said, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry wasn’t as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated their Indians.” Fernando Haddad?

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] As you noted, and quite rightly so, the indigenous question and the environmental question are intimately interconnected in Brazil, because the best way we have found to preserve our forests was precisely to preserve the indigenous reserves. There is an intimate connection between the deforestation of the Amazon that occurred throughout the 20th century and the question of indigenous peoples’ rights to self-preservation. When the new administration has announced that it’s going to step out of the climate agreement and stop demarcating indigenous lands, well, those two are totally interconnected.

There is resistance to this in Brazil, even on the part of the most lucid leaders of agribusiness, because the more lucid persons in agribusiness understand that the certification of our products depends on environmental certification, that our buyers will continue to be—will not be attracted to us anymore if we don’t maintain a commitment to the climate. A part of those who buy Brazilian products are interested in knowing where those products come from and how they’re being produced. Now, if we, to the contrary, gamble on deforestation to expand the agricultural frontier, which is totally unnecessary—we have enough open land to produce more without having to fell a single tree—if we do this, we might even be compromising our foreign policy agenda, so nor would we have any economic gain by this agenda proposed by Bolsonaro.

But there is a reaction in Brazil. He had announced that he was going to do away with the Ministry of the Environment, but he had to step back from that decision, precisely because of the commitment to the environment on the part of a large part of our society. So, we cannot consider anything lost. We have to resist all of those regressive proposals and clarify to society what it is that is at stake, because they have not even pointed out short-term economic gains from that proposal.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you plan to run for president of Brazil again?

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] I don’t have personal plans. I always believed in collective projects and plans. I think that, over time, the forces that I belong to will be able to figure out who can best represent us. I hope that I answered to the desires of those forces in the last election, and hopefully we’ll make a good choice in 2022.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you visited Lula in jail? And how is he?

FERNANDO HADDAD: [translated] Always. I was Lula’s attorney; I am Lula’s attorney to this day. And I act on his behalf in Brazil and outside of Brazil, because I really believe that he was the target of an unfair trial. And I recognize that after the election he felt the pressure of history, you could say, with the electoral outcome.

But he has a great capacity for regeneration. It’s not the first time he is in prison. He was imprisoned as a trade unionist in the 1980s—or, I’m sorry, late 1970s. He lost his wife to cancer, or he overcame a case of cancer. He was defeated three times before he was elected president. So, his history is of strength and of being able to overcome, and I hope he overcomes this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Fernando Haddad, former Brazilian presidential candidate of the Workers’ Party, who lost to Jair Bolsonaro in a runoff election in October. President Bolsonaro was sworn in to office on New Year’s Day, declaring liberation from socialism.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! has an immediate job opening for a full-time social media manager here in New York. Résumés are being reviewed as received, so apply online today at democracynow.org.

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