Brazil’s Election Was No Surprise

No one in Brazil was surprised when Jair Messias Bolsonaro was elected president on Sunday. He nearly won in the first round of voting on October 7 and was far ahead in the polls leading up to the final election.

However, the international community is in shock at the election results although it’s not the first time the rest of the world is in the fog as to what’s happening in Brazil. Most Americans think Spanish is the language here.

Bolsonaro was so impressed with his own popularity that when the English-speaking media dubbed him the “Tropical Trump” he took it as a compliment. It’s worth noting that Bolsonaro’s middle name is Portuguese for messiah. He has all the markings of a man to be reckoned with, in other words, potentially dangerous.

In my opinion, Donald Trump may not be the best choice for role model. He is so insecure as a world leader that during his first two years in office, he has spent as much time outside the White House as inside.

Trump claims his weekends at his golf resorts are designed for business meetings, and he holds meetings in the clubs’ restaurants where anyone sitting nearby can eavesdrop on international secrets.

Trump has given dozens of rally speeches to his followers during his two years in office because these are the only people he can still trust to support him. He is reviled by the mainstream American media as well as congress in Washington and even some of his own staff members.

Desperate to avoid impeachment, Trump has begun collecting donations for his reelection in 2020. Thus far, he has raised about U$100 million, some of which he began spending sixteen days after he was elected in November 2016, two months before he actually became president. No president, not even Nixon, has been this paranoid about getting reelected.

Trump’s closest advisors are his daughter and son-in-law; he’s fired all of the other advisors he hired when he was inaugurated. Rather than leading the country with carefully thought-out decisions, Trump spontaneously spits out his anger and disappointment on Twitter.

Some fear Trump’s paranoia could lead to disaster, but I would suggest if most of your colleagues either disagree with your ideas and/or are afraid of you, then you’re not paranoid, you’re realistic.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro said it was an honor to be compared to Trump, and Trump called Bolsonaro after the election to congratulate him. Bolsonaro promotes a similar populist leadership style promoting anger and violence. His plans for saving Brazil include disenfranchising the LGBT community and eliminating the Environment Ministry.

With Bolsonaro winning the election by a clear majority, the Brazilian populace has been condemned in the international media as ignorant or misguided. The media clearly has amnesia; it’s only been two years since Trump was elected.

Aren’t Americans supposed to be better informed and more politically engaged than Brazilians? If so, why did they elect Trump? To be fair, Trump did lose the popular vote and wouldn’t have been elected were it not for the archaic and arcane electoral college system.

Yet Trump did gather 63 million votes, so Hillary’s triumph was hardly a landslide. Her margin of victory was under 3 million votes.

Brazilians, like the rest of world, cannot get their brains around the system that allowed Trump to win while losing the popular vote. As a result, most people outside the US are under the impression Trump was the people’s choice.

Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton, not to mention the 100 million US voters who were too busy to vote at all in 2016, have a different opinion of the election results. Americans were as shocked as Brazilians at Trump’s victory.

While many Brazilians, particularly women and gays, are disappointed Bolsonaro won, no one here is shocked or even surprised. Most Brazilians envy Americans and admire the strength of the US. If “mental-midget” Trump had enough momentum to succeed, was it any surprise that Bolsonaro won?

Sadly, we’ve been witnessing the political winds blowing from the far right all over the world, bringing Brexit and new conservative governments in Eastern Europe, not to mention the Philippines, and scary leadership in Russia and Venezuela.

Brazil’s turn to the right this election was clearly a reaction to major missteps made by the leftist leadership of PT during its 13 years in power, particularly when it comes to corruption. PT did, however, make great strides in elevating the living conditions for the poor and working class, such as getting the country’s children into school and vaccinated.

However, the Brazilian middle class is suffering under crippling unemployment. The rapid fall of the booming economy into recession was equally helpful in pushing voters away from their support for the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, who finished second. “People vote with their pocketbooks” is a well-known election maxim in the US.

Brazilians admire American culture, everything from Minnie Mouse to underground telephone wires. However, what’s been happening during Trump’s two years in office is the US is beginning to imitate Brazil, rather than the usual vice versa.

It seems every week there’s a corruption scandal in the US, from tax fraud to embezzlement to #MeToo victims forcing resignations like New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, who was on the fast track to the governor’s office and from there to the White House.

A common occurrence in Brazil that is happening now in the US is indicted congressmen running for re-election. In November this year, there will be two of them who hope they can fool the voters as they often do here. In Brazil the saying is, “He’s corrupt, but he gets things done.”

While all governments get sucked into corruption scandals thanks to the never-ending allure of suitcases full of cash, few scandals can compete with Brazil’s Lava Jato, which contributed to Brazil’s worst recession and is the overwhelming message behind Bolsonaro’s victory – change. “I’m not PT.”

Along with the increase in corruption during Trump’s two years, there have been increased arrests for racist and homophobic attacks. Also, were there daily headlines about fake news before Trump arrived in the White House?

Conspiracy theorists have always been popular, even more so now with the unrestricted Internet, but few Americans seriously considered that the moon landing was staged, that 9/11 was sponsored by the US, or the Unabomber was also the Zodiac Killer.

Today, thanks to his refusal to see any other point of view besides his own, Trump has relegated 95 percent of the world’s journalists to the slag heap of fake news. However, Americans are mere adolescents compared to the adult world of fake news in Brazil.

The week before Bolsonaro was elected, fake news through social media became so severe the Supreme Court of Elections was asked to investigate. Facebook shut down one hundred thousand accounts on WhatsApp.

While oral cultures like Latin America’s are particularly susceptible to fake news via gossip, the plus side is the verbal dexterity of Brazilians places them in the highest rankings among world diplomats. Brazilians’ ability to avoid conflict is cited as a primary reason why people here are so happy and seemingly carefree.

One of the first things visitors notice when they come here is Brazilians don’t raise their voices in public. In cafes or at the supermarket, all is calm. Other than in the football stadium, a loud voice attracts concern. It’s not a coincidence, I suspect, that there is no Portuguese word for ‘struggle.’

It is his loud, angry demeanor that has many people terrified of Bolsonaro. Older Brazilians remember the horrors of the military regime that imprisoned and tortured active leftists during the two decades of dictatorship in Brazil.

Unlike other countries in Latin America, who have put retired military officers on trial for their abuse of political prisoners using torture like electric shocks to the genitals, Brazil has allowed former military leaders to avoid punishment for their transgressions.

Thanks to Brazil’s fluency in conflict resolution and silencing uncomfortable topics, many young Brazilians are unaware of the transgressions that occurred under the military government.

Rita Sipahi, an 80-year-old lawyer who was imprisoned by the military in the early 1970s, said she was struggling to comprehend how Bolsonaro, who praises military dictatorship, could be leading the world’s fourth-largest democracy.

Sipahi is one of 30 former political prisoners to appear in “Torre das Donzelas” (The Maiden’s Tower), a new Brazilian documentary film that tells the story of a dictatorship-era women’s prison in São Paulo.

In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Sipahi said she did not hold millions of young Bolsonaro voters – born after the dictatorship and ignorant of its realities – responsible for backing him. “How can I, when they are not told [about that period]?”

Amid Brazil’s highly divisive presidential election, one book shot to the top of’s local bestseller list – the Portuguese translation of “How Democracies Die.” One of the book’s co-authors, Harvard University professor Steven Levitsky, said it was “unfortunately” selling well in Brazil.

In a video address to supporters one week before the election, Bolsonaro pledged to use the presidency to launch a frontal assault on his “red” political rivals. “Either they go overseas, or they go to jail,” he told thousands of cheering supporters who had packed Avenida Paulista in São Paulo for a pro-Bolsonaro rally last week.

Crooks from Brazil’s landless workers movement (MST) would be designated as terrorists, Bolsonaro vowed, while Lula – whom he mocked as a “drunkard” – would be left “to rot in jail,” along with other top PT politicians including Haddad.

The Washington Post ran a story a few days before the election with the headline, “Brazil’s Version of Trump Makes Trump look like Mr. Rogers.”

Not surprisingly, among Bolsonaro’s biggest supporters are former military. For over a year, 70-year-old Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, a retired four-star Army general, has led a group of about a dozen other retired generals and conservative academics known as the Brasília Group.

They have gathered weekly in an unmarked conference room at the Brasília Imperial Hotel, plotting strategies and offering guidance for Bolsonaro’s campaign.

Bolsonaro is not the only former military man entering politics. One of his confidantes, former Army General Paulo Chagas, was inspired to run for office. (Chagas failed in his bid to become governor of Brasília.)

Nearly 64,000 people were murdered in Brazil last year, the most in the world. “Organized crime rules Brazil right now,” said Kenyson Santos, a 24-year-old retail worker in the capital. “You think I am worried about the military taking over? Given our reality, they would be a great alternative.”

Not only will Brazil’s future be taking a right turn, but Bolsonaro would like to rewrite Brazil’s history books as well. He has said he wants the nation’s school books to call the 1964-85 period a movement to battle communism rather than a dictatorship.

For the past several months, political analysts have been discussing what to expect if Bolsonaro is elected. The truth is nobody knows what lies ahead.

Lula co-founded the Workers Party based on socialist principles, but after losing his bid for president three times, when he was finally elected, PT compromised and formed coalitions, as every political party must in Brazil when operating with 30 elected parties.

In the spirit of Brazilian optimism, I would like to offer some hope for those inside and outside Brazil. In every democracy, politicians are pushed toward the center after they are elected. Lula moved from leftist to center-left, and Bolsonaro could end up being center-right, forced away from his far-right positions by cooler heads in congress and public pressure.

As Bolsonaro and Trump have a similar style, the US may offer an indication of what lies ahead for Brazil. Americans who voted for Hillary as well millions who didn’t vote have become politically energized during the past two years in their opposition to Trump.

Contributions to liberal activist organizations in the US have seen a huge increase, such as Planned Parenthood. Additionally, social media has helped hundreds of thousands of young Americans to register to vote for the mid-term elections coming in November in the US. Young people, 18 to 24-year-olds, are traditionally the least likely to vote in the US.

In 2013, millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest the government’s endemic corruption. It’s conceivable that opposition to Bolsonaro, depending on what legislation his party attempts to pass, could again bring millions of protestors to the streets.

Given the vocal opposition to Bolsonaro that was evident before the election especially from educated women and the LGBT community, it wouldn’t surprise me to see mass demonstrations again, hopefully to protest Bolsonaro’s plan to ease gun ownership laws.

Like other populist leaders in history such as Trump, Bolsonaro has promised solutions to all the country’s problems. He claims he can end corruption in government, grow the economy, and keep Brazilians from committing more murders than any other country in the world.

If Bolsonaro is unable to live up to his broad promises, an engaged youthful population may once again take to the streets as they did in 2013. When people openly announce their political opinions with public protests, it’s the sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy.

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Brazil. He is the editor of the online magazine Curitiba in English.


  • Show Comments (1)

  • Eva Caesar

    Michael: you are correct to point out that the young in Brazil–not all, but quite a majority of them–don’t know about the horrors of the dictatorship. Maybe, if Brazil had done what South Africa did confronting the horrors of apartheid, everyone would know. The sad fact is also that many Brazilians who benefitted directly from the generous scholarships the PT government designed to encourage young scientists, and who went to college thanks to the universities created under the PT government, suddenly turned against anything PT. I am not saying there was no corruption. Yes, there was. But certainly not more than what existed during the military dictatorship, when so many of the ministers got absurdly rich, and when the military left an enormous debt for the country to deal with. Yep, there was “safety” during their reign. But it was a reign of terror. Everyone lived looking over their shoulders. We, who were young at that time, knew that any uniformed creep could “arrest” one of us under any pretense. I once taught at a Catholic high school, and the army planted one of their spies there, among us, to “check us out.” The school was powerless to prevent him from enmeshing himself in our midst. Fortunately, by that time–the end of the 70s–we knew better than to go spilling our thoughts to a newcomer that we knew had no business teaching there. He got nothing on us, but the fear was palpable among everyone, because as a matter of fact, the military didn’t need anything to “pick someone up.” Just a hunch. Let’s hope these same young people who were cheering Bolsonaro don’t have to live through this. I hope you are correct and the man tones down his rhetoric and his calls to violence. Of course, violence has a mind of its own in the hands of mindless people.

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