On Sunday night, the ultra-rightist candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the second round of Brazil’s Presidential elections. With fifty-five per cent of the vote, Bolsonaro, a former Army paratrooper who has been in congress for almost thirty years, handily defeated his rival, Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo, by a margin of ten percentage points. In his acceptance speech, which he delivered, as has become his custom, from his home via Facebook Live, Bolsonaro promised to “pacify and unify the country,” and, in a gesture to his supporters in Brazil’s burgeoning evangelical community, bowed his head in prayer with a Protestant priest, who wore a Bolsonaro T-shirt.
Bolsonaro’s victory, though not a surprise after his strong lead in the first round of voting, on October 7th, represents a seismic shift in a country that has been governed by the left for most of the past fifteen years, and it further underscores the dramatic rightward trend underway in Latin American politics. A mere six years ago, much of the hemisphere was ruled by a like-minded fraternity of left-of-center leaders that included Hugo Chávez, in Venezuela; Cristina Kirchner, in Argentina; and, in Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the head of the Workers’ Party, or PT. Today, Chávez is dead, replaced by the hapless Nicolás Maduro, and Venezuela is in a state of economic and social collapse; former President Kirchner facing a corruption trial; and Lula is in prison after being convicted on corruption charges.
The exception to the current trend is the recent electoral victory of the veteran Mexican leftist politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who takes office on December 1st—a month before Bolsonaro’s inauguration. Just as Bolsonaro has won office because of the widely perceived failure of the political left in Brazil—and by successfully mimicking some of Trump’s pathway to success—López Obrador won in Mexico because he was seen as the antidote to a political system that had fallen prey, and become subservient to, Trump’s bullying and caprices.
Globally, Bolsonaro’s imminent ascension to Brazil’s Presidency has appended Brazil to the growing ranks of nations ruled by authoritarian populists who openly espouse bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic and anti-immigrant views, as well as violence as a means of problem-solving. Bolsonaro, a far-right extremist who has spent years shouting insults from the fringes of Brazil’s politics at women, blacks, gays, and leftists while lauding the use of torture and calling for a restoration of military rule, now represents the new mainstream.
For Brazil, it is a sea-change on the scale of Donald Trump’s ascension to power in the United States, with some key differences: Trump has insulted women; Bolsonaro has publicly abused a female lawmaker, shoving her and telling her she was “too ugly to deserve rape.” Trump has dog-whistled his approval of police officers using rough tactics; Bolsonaro has openly advocated a gloves-off policy regarding Brazil’s “criminal” problem in the same deadly fashion as Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, saying recently, “This kind of people you cannot treat them as if they were normal human beings, O.K.? We can’t let policemen keep dying at the hands of those guys. If he kills ten, fifteen, or twenty, with ten or thirty bullets each, he needs to get a medal and not be prosecuted.”
After the results came in, Trump called Bolsonaro to congratulate him. On Monday morning, he tweeted, “Had a very good conversation with the newly elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who won his race by a substantial margin. We agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else! Excellent call, wished him congrats!” Italy’s ulra-rightist Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, expressed his delight by tweeting “the friendship between our people and our governments will be even stronger,” while Marine Le Pen, of France, also wished Bolsonaro “good luck.” Last week, Steve Bannon called Bolsonaro “a Brazilian patriot, and I believe a great leader for his country at this historic moment.”
In other echoes of Trumpish nationalism, Bolsonaro has promised to keep China at bay in Brazil’s energy and infrastructure sectors, and to retreat from Brazil’s multilateral engagements, such as the regional trade bloc known as Mercosur. He has excoriated the United Nations, calling it a “gathering place for communists,” and threatening Brazil’s withdrawal. Bolsonaro promises to align Brazil closely with Trump on foreign policy in other ways, as well. He has promised to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to close down a Palestinian office in Brasilia, and to seek regime change in neighboring Venezuela.
The value of the Brazilian real and Brazil’s stock market have both soared on Bolsonaro’s rise, spurred, at least in part, by his promises to lift environmental controls and to open up parts of the country—including the protected Amazonian wilderness areas and the indigenous reserves—to development by large-scale mining and agribusiness interests. Reflecting Big Money’s enthusiasm, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal recently hailed Bolsonaro in an editorial entitled “Brazilian Swamp Drainer,” with an opening line that chortles at “global progressives having an anxiety attack” over his looming victory. The editorial goes on to assert that “Mr. Bolsonaro, who has spent 27 years in Congress, is best understood as a conservative populist who promises to make Brazil great for the first time.”
Perhaps the personality whom Bolsonaro most resembles is Roberto D’Aubuisson, the late Salvadoran politician and former National Guard major who, in collusion with the security forces and conservative landowners, ran the death squads that captured and killed thousands of suspected leftists in a campaign of terror aimed at “purifying the fatherland.” (D’Aubuisson’s most prominent victim was Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was recently canonized by Pope Francis.)
Not since the early nineteen-eighties, when much of Latin America was in the grip of anti-Communist dictators who formed a cabal to kill and disappear the hemisphere’s leftists, has a politician emerged with such a vituperous discourse. Indeed, from 1964 to 1985, Brazil was part of that cabal, led by a military dictatorship that claimed the lives of several hundred of its citizens while inflicting torture and imprisonment on many thousands more. The former president Dilma Rousseff was herself a youthful guerrilla during the period, and was captured, tortured, and imprisoned by the military. During the voting for her impeachment, in 2016, a proceeding organized by her conservative political rivals, Bolsonaro, then a congressman, cast his vote in the name of the military officer who commanded the unit that was responsible for Rousseff’s mistreatment.)
Since the restoration of democracy, however, Brazil, unlike its neighbors, has refrained from holding anyone to task for that era’s human-rights abuses. As a result, few Brazilians alive today have much of a memory, or even an opinion about, the dictatorship that Bolsonaro has spent his career nostalgically applauding. His Vice-Presidential pick, Hamilton Mourão, a former Army general, is an unrepentant fellow best known for his remarks justifying military intervention in Brazil’s politics, if necessary, to rescue Brazil from “anarchy.”
Bolsonaro himself has promised retribution against his political foes, swearing that he will see Lula “rot” in prison and will eventually put Haddad behind bars, too. He has also pledged to go after the land-reform activists of the M.S.T.—the Movimento Sem Terra—the Landless Worker’s Movement, whom he has referred to as “terrorists.”
In a speech last week, Bolsonaro called Brazil’s leftists “red outlaws,” and said they needed to leave the country or else go to jail. “These red outlaws will be banished from our homeland. It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.” Later, referring to his supporters, he said, “We are the majority. We are the true Brazil. Together with this Brazilian people, we will make a new nation.”