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Large protests in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, September 29, 2018 against Jair Bolsonaro, saying #NotHim.
There are communities in Brazil living in a state of terror. The country’s new president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, is a proud proto-fascist. Imagine Donald Trump with the volume turned up to eleven, in a country with far weaker democratic guardrails against authoritarian tendencies.
Bolsonaro traffics regularly and proudly in openly racist comments, calling black activists “animals” who should “go back to the zoo.” He once bleated that a female political rival wasn’t “worth raping.” He vowed as a candidate that political opponents faced either exile or jail, and said he would “put an end to all types of activism in Brazil.”
Already, political repression has reared its head in Brazil’s universities, with reports of classes being invaded by troops, books on fascism being seized, and banners being torn down. This is a President who aspires to be a military dictator in a country that has only been a political democracy for three decades. (Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has chillingly called this “a welcome development in the region.”)
It’s a terrifying moment and many are wondering how this rightwing authoritarian clawed his way to power. This question has many complicated answers rooted in Brazil’s history and politics.
But one aspect is the nation’s hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Both mega-events were ushered in by the social democratic PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party) under the leadership of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Both cost billions of dollars to stage. Both arrived with a remarkable amount of promise, as the economy was on a historic hot streak, with unprecedented growth in the GDP.
When securing the Olympics, Lula boasted that “Brazil has left behind the level of second-class countries and entered the rank of first-class countries. Today we earned respect. The world has finally recognized that this is Brazil’s time.”
But the World Cup and Olympics did not bring glory and monetary largesse. Rather they brought, as they invariably do, corruption, displacement, and hyper militarization. And each of these factors helped lay the groundwork for the rapid rise of the once fringe figure of Jair Bolsonaro.
As Brazil’s economy stalled, the glittering new stadiums became a highly visible symbol of corruption. As big corporations landed sweetheart contracts and the rich looted the public coffers, promised social programs were neglected and ordinary Brazilians took to the streets in mass protests. Some of these protests were led by rightwing forces, others by political groups to the left of the PT.
As Chris Gaffney, a former professional soccer player who was a professor in Rio de Janiero as the World Cup and Olympic build up commenced, told me, “The corruption that unfolded as part of the mega-events could be considered an important part of the growing dissatisfaction with the PT and their inability to deliver on enduring structural reforms.” It set the stage, Gaffney said, for Bolsonaro to “rip down the remnants of representative democracy in Brazil.”
In truth, the erosion of democracy had already begun during the lead-up to the games. In the “state of exception” of frenetic construction and forced displacement of communities such as Vila Autodróomo, democratic checks were openly flaunted for the sake of accomodating the World Cup and Olympics.
The ability of Bolsonaro to “rip down the remnants” was also aided by the billions of dollars in surveillance technologies and crowd-control weapons brought into the country for the World Cup and Olympic Games. The companies most responsible for selling and educating Brazil in the brutish arts of “counter-insurgency” have been Rafael and Elbit, two Israeli firms that sell the idea that they have the tech most able to corral and oppress restive populations.
Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not surprisingly, have developed an instant mutual admiration rooted in rightwing nationalism, arms dealing, and bigotry, with Bolsonaro announcing he will follow Trump’s lead and move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Brazil remains more violent than ever with 63,000 murders occurring in 2017. This has been another key factor fueling the rise of Bolsonaro—who promises to rule with a strong hand and has told police that they should shoot “criminals” on sight.
The World Cup and Olympics have beaten Brazil down. It is a distraction with bright lights and a festival atmosphere, with something far more sinister lurking in the shadows.