JOHN GLEDHILL, Anthropologist/UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM//In recent weeks I have participated in two academic events dominated by bleak appraisals of the conduct of government by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Participants not only offered strong critiques of the negative social, political, geopolitical, and environmental implications of the government’s actions to date and plans for the future, but also expressed considerable concern about the sheer ineptitude of the President and the nature of his ministerial team, which combines a number former soldiers without precedent since the return of democracy with civilian figures whose ideological postures have already created disquiet, not only in Brazil but in Europe as well.
The first of these events was a conference in London designed to celebrate the achievements of Brazilian anthropologists and find out what British anthropologists could do to help our colleagues in the National Museum following its destruction by fire in September last year. Organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute and supported by the British Academy, which hosted the event, this was held in London on February 21 and 22. The second was an international conference on “Brazilian Politics, Policies and Citizenship: Anthropological Perspectives”, hosted by Radboud University at Nijmegen in the Netherlands from the March 13 to March 15, with funding from the European Research Council. This conference coincided with the first anniversary of the assassination of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco, and the arrest as the material authors of the crime of two former police officers turned professional hit men belonging to a group known as “the Crime Bureau”. The links between politicians and Rio’s paramilitary militias have a long history. The militias are associated with a broad and lucrative range of extortion and protection rackets and illicit land transactions, and they also coerce votes for their political patrons from residents of the favelas that they control. But the investigation of these suspects revealed a series of direct and socially intimate links between the accused men and Jair Bolsonaro and his sons that went far beyond their numerous past public endorsements of the role played by police associated with militias, and even the militias themselves. In an atmosphere of deep scepticism about whether the arrest of the perpetrators would be followed by any effective investigation into who actually contracted these killers and why, we all posed for a group photograph with the “Rua Marielle Franco” street signs that have become international protest symbols of homage to her achievements and indignation at the brutal cutting short of a remarkable life that reflected everything that a Brazil freed from grotesque social inequality, racism, homophobia and hate could still become.
The photo was taken in the auditorium of Nijmegen’s Afrika museum, the venue for the second day of the conference. Some of the younger Brazilian participants expressed considerable disquiet about what they saw as an unreflective colonial framing of African culture by the museum. This reminded me of what João Pacheco de Oliveira had said in London about the possibilities of radically rethinking the museology of Brazil’s indigenous peoples now that the fire had potentially liberated it from enclosure by the former imperial palace in Rio de Janeiro. But as the only British participant I spent the entire Nijmegen conference feeling the presence of a different kind of elephant in the room, especially during my conversations with a representative of the Dutch foreign ministry and colleagues from other European countries. This was, of course, Brexit. If the Bolsonaro government is inept and socially regressive, might we not say exactly the same about the government of Theresa May? Thinking about what the two national situations have in common rather than saying “Well, at least we Brits are better off than Brazil” may help us to think some deeper thoughts about the deepening crisis of liberal representative democracy in both Europe and the Americas.
First a little more on the Bolsonaro government. In its still relatively short life, its effectiveness has been impeded by conflicts that have led to a virtual “war of all against all” amongst the forces that are supposed to carry forward the agenda of the 2016 coup. There have been innumerable conflicts between ministers, and Bolsonaro himself seriously mishandled dealing with the fallout from revelations about how the now inaptly named Social Liberal Party (PSL) that provided his platform for the presidential election abused federal funding for election campaigns by fielding fake candidates (known as “oranges”, laranjas, in Brazil). The PSL scarcely provides a model for a “new” and “cleaner” politics, but Bolsonaro explains his third problem, an apparent incapacity to build an effective articulation between the executive and congressional legislators precisely in terms of his contempt for the “old politics”, despite having been immersed in it himself for quarter of a century. This rejection of the past excludes the military dictatorship, of course. The President has created even more controversy by ordering the armed forces to hold celebrations to commemorate the fifty-fifth anniversary of the 1964 coup.
A congressional figure who should be a key ally, given that he has declared his support for Bolsonaro’s deeply socially regressive version of “pension reform”, is the house leader Rodrigo Maia, from the right-wing Democrats (DEM). Maia has publicly criticised the executive’s lack of engagement with the legislature and continuing failure to articulate a coherent and comprehensive program of government. Following the arrest of ex-president Temer and his former minister Wellington Moreira Franco, who is the second husband of Maia’s mother-in-law, the House leader might have had reason to fear that he could be next in line for persecution following the installation of former Lava Jato judge Sérgio Moro as Justice Minister in return for the (US-sponsored) services that he performed for the coup by politically incapacitating ex-President Lula. But so far, Maia has kept his nerve. When Bolsonaro expressed the view that Maia’s spirits might have been dampened by what happened to Moreira Franco, Maia responded by saying: “It’s the Brazilians who are getting depressed, after waiting since the first of January for a government that works. There are twelve million unemployed, 15 million Brazilians living below the poverty line, the investment capacity of the Brazilian state is falling, 60 thousand homicides a year, and the President is just playing at presiding over the country.” Maia unquestionably has a point. Paulo Guedes, the ultra-neoliberal Economics Minister, withdrew from a commitment to discuss the pension reform with congressmen when he learned that there would be an unrestrained question and answer session. The “markets” responded badly, with the stock market falling 3.6% and the value of the real dropping to its lowest value against the dollar for six months. Further bad news for an executive that is doing much of its governing by decree is that the lower house voted almost unanimously on the same day to take greater control of the federal budget.
Readers may already be starting to see some parallels with Britain here in terms of the difficulties that a government struggling with its own internal divisions (and ineptitude) is likely to experience in managing its relationships with a multi-party legislature in which its own party does not enjoy a majority.
Guedes aside, we already know that Bolsonaro himself tries to avoid hard questions at any cost, both at home and abroad, and appears to be following Trump in attempting to govern via Twitter. This may be his best bet for keeping in touch with his popular base and continuing to cultivate the negative politics of hate and “political incorrectness”, which is the only politics that he appears to have fully mastered. But that popular base already seems to be shrinking to judge from the most recent poll findings on Bolsonaro’s rejection rates as well as the plummeting approval ratings for his government as a whole. Ill-advised tweeting during Carnival may have contributed to increasing rejection. Bolsonaro posted a pornographic video on Twitter in a pathetically homophobic and somewhat revolting effort to paint participants in this year’s festival as degenerate and immoral. The choreographers of some carnival parades had produced some truly memorable critiques of the President and his allies, and all that they and Brazil’s elites stood for. These provoked enthusiastic responses from revellers on streets throughout the country. In Olinda, in Pernambuco, effigies of Bolsonaro and his wife were carried through the streets and insulted. The British press seems to have tastefully refrained from offering an accurate translation of the most popular anti-Bolsonaro chant throughout the country during these exceptionally politicised festivities, no doubt in the interests of setting the Brazilian president a better example of how to maintain public decorum.
Tweeting without thinking seems to be something of a family malady to judge from the frequent scandals created by Bosonaro’s politician sons Flávio, Eduardo and Carlos on social media, but some of his ministers are more than capable of creating a storm by their ill-judged official pronouncements. Leaving aside those of Damares Alves, the Minister for Human Rights, the Family and Women, who even manages to scare some of her fellow evangelical pastors in politics, a notable low point was the suggestion of the education minister, Olavo de Carvalho protégé Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, that schools should hold morning assemblies in which pupils would sing the national anthem whilst saluting the flag and being read Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan, “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”. He also asked schools to send videos of this affirmation of patriotism and Christian faith to the Ministry. Although Damares Alves predictably applauded the move, the minister was forced to concede that this instruction violated both the constitution and laws pertaining to filming minor children without explicit parental permission. His “mistake” backfired doubly since both teachers and children did send videos to the minister. These focused on the crumbling infrastructure of public education: films of rain pouring through roofs onto broken desks and teachers rescuing small children from flooded classrooms were a popular theme. A few added the national anthem as soundtrack for ironic effect. Given that Vélez Rodriguez has not only repeated shown himself gaffe-prone but has also failed to define any meaningful solutions for tackling the very real problems of the Brazilian public education system, a task for which he never seemed properly qualified in terms of either knowledge or experience anyway, his removal from office might have seemed on the cards. Globo News journalist Eliane Cantanhêde went so far as to announce that the decision had actually been taken, only to be contradicted and accused of peddling “fake news” by Bolsonaro himself.
As an external voice ever present in social media, ultra-right wing “guru” Olavo de Carvalho himself has made several unscripted pronouncements and given interviews that have added to the confusion and turmoil within Bolsonaro’s government. But at this point readers may be thinking that at least this lunatic fringe aspect of contemporary Brazilian politics is something that we don’t have to deal with in the UK. Think again.
Conservative MP Suella Braverman, who resigned her junior Brexit minister post in the May government last year over May’s “deal” with the EU, made a speech to a Eurosceptic group in which she echoed Olavo de Carvalho and Vélez Rodríguez in declaring that “as conservatives we are engaged in a battle against cultural Marxism”. She reaffirmed this in the Q&A session even after someone pointed out to her that the idea of a “cultural Marxist conspiracy” was associated with the European ultra-right, including Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivick (for further details on this somewhat under-reported story click here for The Guardian’s account). This earned Braverman a sharp rebuke from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who drew her attention to the fact that the idea of “cultural Marxism” representing a conspiracy to subvert Western capitalist democracies by making left-wing ideas hegemonic in education had always had strong antisemitic undertones, focused on the scholars of the Frankfurt School.