Fascism at Home: The rise of the right in Brazil

As Brazil elected rightwing Jair Bolsonaro as their new leader, one writer looked on from Scotland at the rise of fascism in his home country

Feature by Sam Gonçalves | 09 Apr 2019
  • Demonstration against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Porto Alegre Brazil. 29 September 2018. by Caco Argemi

On my first day of high school, back in Brazil, the talk was that a new kid joining our class was a neo-Nazi. He was small and skinny, with a shaved head and oversized steel-toe boots. Soon enough, we all got to witness his contributions in history class which always included some reference to his 100% European heritage (though he had never actually left the country himself). I don’t even remember being that angry at him, just curious at how any Latin American person could do the mental gymnastics to also be a Nazi.

Since then, Brazilian blends of fascism have become a less peculiar commodity. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, much like Trump’s in the US, has become a gateway for fringe rightwing ideology to take centre stage in Brazilian politics. Amongst Bolsonaro’s many deranged declarations, he vowed to sell as much Amazonian land as possible, decrease accountability of police officers, remove sex and LGBTQ+ education from public schools and terminate social programmes supporting some of the poorest in the country. 

Besides policy bullet points, Bolsonaro was often seen proclaiming his slogan that “good criminals are dead criminals.” He was once caught on video telling a congresswoman that she was not worthy of being raped by him. He defended torture, dictatorship, shoot-to-kill policies, police brutality and mass incarceration. 

Personally, I did not think he was going to win. Though I’ve been in Scotland for the last 12 years, I always took a certain kind of pride in having seen life in some of Brazil’s toughest places back in São Paulo. Being one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of income inequality, yet having one of its strongest economies, Brazil is a land that encompasses some of the richest and the poorest people on Earth – and though some opinions and circumstances may differ, I’ve always had the feeling that the people around me knew we were all in the less fortunate group. In a country with this shared understanding of oppression and solidarity, how could we ever willingly side with a candidate so clearly playing for the other team?

The first warning sign came early and loudly. WhatsApp became a key battleground of the elections: its easily shareable attachments meant that every family conversation via the app turned into a shouting match of content designed to prove the other side wrong or just simply annoy them. The first of these shared in my family group chat came from my aunt. It was an audio recording of a poem. The narrator paints a picture of what the country would look like if the left won the election and Bolsonaro lost. He terrorised: “Imagine the day after the election. Street parties are filled with LGBT groups, Feminists, Unions, Landless Movements and Marxists. They're all celebrating. They’re all laughing at you.” 

I tried to figure out why I found this sentence so funny – God, do I wish a party like that would actually happen! If anything, he’s made me more hopeful by describing what I think is an aspirational vision of the future. But amusement soon made space for dread as I realised my aunt shared the audio because this vision did terrorise her. 

This revelation shook a bigger foundation in my understanding of Brazil than I expected. This side of the family is not the usual choir pseudo-dictators like Bolsonaro can preach to. They are working-class, mixed-race people who raised me with warnings of Brazil’s many dictatorships and abuses of power. Together we swapped stories of police overreach and commiserated on the poverty and violence so often happening at our doorstep. Now, the shared solidarity I had assumed was nowhere to be seen.

Eventually, the WhatsApp messages became altogether more surreal. As the debate reached a Brexit-like fever pitch, Bolsonaro was elected President. 

Looking back, my family was not a one-off. Many demographics you’d never expect voted against their own interests and elected the new president. I angrily got back on WhatsApp and with a trigger-happy index finger, blamed anyone who’d dare get in touch for throwing our country back into the hands of dictators and making life so difficult for so many. I genuinely think I lost some friends by doing this, which, I reluctantly admit, felt great.

São Paulo overwhelmingly voted for Bolsonaro, and what had previously felt to me like nostalgia for a country of underdogs making the best out of impossible situations, now feels like everything I ever mistook for safe has been corrupted. 

In the tumultuous few days after the election, I thought back about the first person I had ever met who subscribed to ideals similar to Bolsonaro: the neo-Nazi kid in school. In one particular history class he was chiming in a little more than usual. The tenaciously calm teacher finally seemed frustrated and before moving on to a different topic, responded: “That’s fine if this is the side you want to argue for, but I would just ask you to do something before you commit to it. Go over to Europe. Visit Germany. If you can walk out of their airport there without changing your mind, then go right ahead and don’t listen to my objections.” 

We were confused at the time, but a few years later my classmate did go travelling in Germany and on the day he arrived, he updated his Facebook status about how, at the airport immigration control, his documents described him as Latin American/Mixed Race. In Brazil, he and everyone else identified him as white, but the airport worker saw someone whose family had lived in Brazil for years and who did not have any overpowering Caucasian features.

Thinking back to what my teacher said, privilege is central to this issue. It’s often easy to forget the amount of privilege we personally have – to discount it. But it’s way easier to recognise and identify with that privilege, to let it define us. Sure my family are in no way the elite in Brazil, but they are also not the people who will be most hurt by Bolsonaro’s policies. Privilege can shield us from empathy and it takes some key encounters, sometimes at airports, to reframe some assumptions. 

I carry an even greater privilege than my family living in Brazil. I’m now a dual citizen in a country with excellent free healthcare, education and many other advantages over where I came from. I don’t think my family’s support for Bolsonaro comes from a good place, but the telling thing is, I felt more readily prepared to lose my temper at them than taking time to understand what’s happening in their lives. My privilege shielded my own openness to empathy.

Any meaningful assessment of what is happening in Brazil right now requires even the most basic exercise of empathy, specially with those who truly have everything to lose during a presidency like Bolsonaro’s. Though there have been surprising supporters of his policies, the numbers since the election show that the people truly on the edges of the society we’ve built overwhelmingly did not support Bolsonaro – migrants, native-Brazilians, ethnic minorities, working-class women, LGBTQ+ communities and so on. I can choose to look back in self-centered grief or I can look and listen to these voices, out there taking the brunt of it, and follow their charge towards change. 

Putting empathy on co-pilot is a sure way to forget it, and we are too privileged to be that lazy. I’m sure I’ll eventually make some peace with my family and most of my friends back home – that’s for us to work out. As for the future of my country, now I know to rely on a different authority, one that lives in the frontlines.