Peace Magazine: Brazil's Politics of Scorn: Understanding Bolsonaro's Authoritarianism

Peace Magazine

Brazil's Politics of Scorn: Understanding Bolsonaro's Authoritarianism

• published Jul 18, 2023 • last edit Jul 22, 2023

By Thaissa De Arruda

“Brazil is not for beginners.”

- Antônio Carlos Jobim

The phrase “If we want things to stay as they are, everything will have to change” from Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book Il Gattopardo perfectly captures the troubling political history of Brazil, including the recent presidency of the demagogue Jair Bolsonaro. To comprehend his popularity, one must examine the country’s long history of governance failures.


Brazil has a long-standing system of institutional power protection that favors the privileged few. This system, marked by political conflicts among various elites, perpetuates a recurring pattern of inequality.

In 1888, Brazil became the last Western country to abolish slavery, having been the largest destination for enslaved Africans. However, the abolition came without any reparations for the victims, and it was accompanied by a process of “ethnic cleansing.” This involved encouraging extensive white-European immigration, which led to instances of debt slavery among settlers. Despite the formal change in Brazilian law, a structure of privilege remained intact.

In 1889, a military coup ended the monarchy and established Brazil’s first Jair Messias Bolsonaro, former president of Brazil republic. However, this new republic was marred by a tumultuous relationship with democracy and the inclusion of the population in public and political life. The second president also came to power through a coup, and this period of Brazilian democracy was dubbed the “Republic of Swords” due to its military, authoritarian, and anti-democratic nature. Subsequent years, known as the “Republic of Landowners,” were characterized by widespread electoral fraud orchestrated by the “Coffee with Milk Politics,” a bourgeoisie movement from S ão Paulo and Minas Gerais that produced numerous presidents and federal officials. Despite decades of national sovereignty, little changed for either the general population or the elites.

In 1930, GetÚlio Vargas rose to prominence as Brazil’s most recognized political leader, albeit through non-democratic and military means. Vargas, known as the “Father of the Poor,” initiated a process of extended democracy aimed at securing widespread support and containing dissatisfaction. However, his measures were seen as concessions rather than genuine attempts at reform.

Towards the end of his second term, Vargas overthrew the existing governing institutions and established the “New State,” heavily influenced by Italian fascism. The inherent contradictions of this administration, coupled with Brazil’s strategic alignment with the United States during World War II, despite its closer political proximity to the Axis powers, eventually led to the end of Vargas’s autocratic rule and the re-establishment of democracy.

Between 1945 and 1964, Brazil experienced a more democratic albeit turbulent period. State-owned companies were established during this era, with Petrobras being the most famous, under the leadership of the elected Vargas. However, Vargas’s alleged suicide raised suspicions and created political difficulties that undermined the country’s democratic institutions. This was followed by an exaggerated and fraudulent economic growth, leading to an inflation crisis and socio-political chaos aggravated by the Cold War.

In 1964, a military coup ousted the left-leaning government of João Goulart, popularly known as “Jango,” with his opponents accusing him of favoring communism. While the coup received significant support from the population, it was only a brief transition, paving the way for over twenty years of a corrupt authoritarian regime that oppressed society and the media. When mounting public debt and escalating protests forced the military to relinquish power, amnesty was granted for all crimes against humanity committed during the regime. Furthermore, the “democratic transition” occurred through an indirect election, with the “first democratic president” after the dictatorship being elected by the Congress, not the general population.

In 1988, on the centenary of the abolition of slavery, Brazil introduced its new Constitution, significantly expanding political, social, and labor rights, and finally adopting universal suffrage. The rights of Indigenous peoples, previously persecuted during the dictatorship, were also recognized. For the first time in the country’s history, a solid foundation was laid for the broad exercise of democracy by the entire population.

From 1988 to 2016, Brazil enjoyed its longest uninterrupted democratic period. While some presidents faced impeachment, corruption accusations, or inefficiency, the democratic institutions themselves were never in question.

In 2016, during the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff, Brazil witnessed an explicit dispute over the legitimacy of its constitutional framework. This sparked a clear polarization in national politics, culminating in a divided 2018 presidential election.


Surprisingly, the favored candidate did not align with either of the two major political factions. In the current global trend toward populist governments, the emergence of a political outsider as a new leader is often observed. Brazil deviated from this pattern by electing Jair Bolsonaro, a relatively obscure but controversial congressman of 30 years. Bolsonaro positioned himself as an anti-establishment candidate. However, it is important to note that Bolsonaro had been part of the political base of every Brazilian president since the country’s return to democracy, irrespective of their political ideology. He belonged to a coalition known as the “lower clergy,” a group of low-profile parliamentarians who traded their support for minimal political power.

Bolsonaro’s election served as the culmination of the country’s decline. His family’s connections to Rio de Janeiro’s militias were well-known. Bolsonaro’s clan was implicated in the 2019 murder of Marielle Franco, a black, impoverished, homosexual, and human rights activist congresswoman.

Furthermore, Bolsonaro himself is a former military officer and openly advocates for the Brazilian dictatorship and military intervention, endorsing state violence and police brutality. His campaign in both 2018 and 2022 was characterized by the dissemination of fake news, hate speeches, incitement of violence against minorities, encouragement of environmental crimes, and attacks on Brazil’s democratic institutions. He repeatedly targeted the Supreme Electoral Court, electronic voting machines, the media, and any other institution that stabilized the nation’s politics. He reintroduced the extreme right and military influence into the country’s administration.

Bolsonaro dismantled many of the social achievements Brazil had made in the previous decade, leading to record levels of extreme poverty in 2021. Environmental devastation reached unprecedented levels, with constant erosion of environmental protection agencies and support for land grabbers and agribusiness, further marginalizing Indigenous peoples. Brazil continues to lead in the number of transgender people murdered globally.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro consistently downplayed the importance of masks, discouraged vaccinations, and advocated for ineffective treatments. He made jokes and callous remarks about the rising death toll, which was a direct consequence of his negligent actions. Bolsonaro allowed fraudulent use of funds allocated for healthcare supplies and emergency aid distribution from the national budget.

Bolsonaro’s divisive rhetoric, reckless behavior, and lack of political skill isolated him to the extent that he was even rejected by his own party. The entire country found itself ostracized internationally, leading to the loss of commercial contracts, diplomatic agreements, and strategic partnerships.

The 2022 presidential elections in Brazil were marked by polarization and animosity, as the left-wing populist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returned to run for office. Lula’s candidacy in 2018 had been thwarted by Judge Sergio Moro, who later joined Bolsonaro’s government as Minister of Justice. The elections witnessed various violations of a fair and transparent electoral process, including the spread of fake news. Incidents such as Bolsonaro’s deputy Carla Zambelli chasing and shooting at a black man in the street the day before the elections further heightened tensions. On the day of the second round, Federal Highway Police established roadblocks across the country to hinder Lula voters from reaching the polls on time.

Bolsonaro, whose presidency focused on targeting minorities and promoting straight, cisgender, white, male, and Christian supremacy, inflicted deep wounds in a nation historically plagued by chauvinism, racism, misogyny, and paternalism since the arrival of Portuguese colonizers. Although Bolsonaro was not re-elected, his legacy persists, and his defeat was followed by hate and riots against the democratic process.

Following his electoral loss, Bolsonaro fled to the United States and coordinated the planning of a criminal takeover intended to impose a terrorist government on Brazilians starting on January 8th. This power-play, involving partial involvement of the Armed Forces, was even more severe than its US counterpart. Bolsonaro remained in Florida until late March, seeking visa extensions and evading legal repercussions for his crimes against humanity and democracy.

Brazil now faces its most significant political crisis since its return to democracy, and Lula’s governance and decision-making may face persistent obstacles. The country’s institutions will be tested as they resist Bolsonaro’s anti-democratic legacy. Brazil’s population is divided, and nearly half may support military authorities if “convincing justifications” are presented to overthrow the current government for a second time.

Thaissa De Arruda is a Brazilian student in the Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies Program, University of Waterloo.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.39, No.3 Jul-Sep 2023
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