Brazil’s presidential election in late October witnessed the rise to power of a far-right congressman whose host of controversial statements considered to be misogynistic and racist is roiling the politics of the world’s largest Catholic country.
The election of Jair Bolsonaro, 63, a former military officer, capped one of the most polarizing and violent campaigns in Brazil’s history. It also followed a prolonged economic downturn, widespread government corruption and increasing rates of violent crime.
Bolsonaro’s comfortable victory — he defeated his leftist opponent by 10 percentage points — could not only mean significant changes at home, but also for the rest of Latin America, given Brazil’s size and historical influence in the region.
Political analysts who study Brazil and Latin America told Our Sunday Visitor that Bolsonaro’s election is consistent with an international trend of far-right candidates, seizing on voters’ frustrations with government corruption and the global economy.
“I think he rode a lot of frustration that Brazilians felt when they had a decade or so of economic growth, and that started collapsing around 2014 as Brazil entered into a pretty serious recession,” said Benjamin Penglase, a cultural anthropologist from Loyola University Chicago who has research experience in Brazil.
Penglase told OSV that Bolsonaro effectively rode a wave of resentment about the wealth redistribution policies instituted by leftist Workers’ Party (PT) administrations. The country’s middle and upper-middle classes tolerated those policies, which expanded access to higher education and home mortgages to poor people, when the economy was doing well. But when the recession hit, the mood soured.
“He really did a good job of feeding that kind of resentment,” Penglase told OSV.
Brazilians were also disillusioned with the corruption scandals that exploded under the PT, which had governed Brazil since 2003. Under the PT’s watch, many politicians, including former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, were swept up in a four-year anti-graft probe. Despite his arrest and conviction on corruption and money-laundering charges, for which he has been sentenced to serve 12 years in prison, Lula, as the former president is known, was running for a third time. He was leading in the polls until the country’s top electoral court in September barred him from running. His running mate, Fernando Haddad, took his place on the ballot.
After more than a decade of leftist PT rule, Brazilians are definitely getting something different in Bolsonaro, who comes from outside Brazil’s traditional two leading parties, the PT and the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party.
Bolsonaro, a member of the Social Liberal Party, positioned himself as an outsider who would “break the system.” He ran on an anti-corruption and anti-crime platform, which resonated with voters amid frequent gun violence in Brazil’s cities and a soaring national homicide rate.
But while he appealed to voters’ frustrations with the PT and used social media to attack his opponents and blame them for Brazil’s struggles, Bolsonaro could find governing to be more difficult. The National Congress of Brazil is highly fragmented, with more than 30 political parties. The Social Liberal Party holds the most seats, but has only 10 percent of the seats.
“It requires some political deal-making skills that he’s shown no evidence of having,” Penglase said. “He’s kind of like Trump without a Mitch McConnell.”
Because of his authoritarian style and affinity for nationalism, Bolsonaro has often been compared to President Donald Trump. On Twitter, President Trump said he congratulated Bolsonaro for his victory, and added that they agreed in a phone conversation to work together on trade, military and other matters.
Like his U.S. counterpart, Bolsonaro has also made headlines for controversial statements. According to published reports, he implied that indigenous and Quilombolas communities, who are descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves, are lazy “and don’t even manage to procreate anymore.” He reportedly once told a congresswoman that she did not deserve to be raped because she was “very ugly,” and said he would prefer to see his son “die in an accident” rather than have a relative be homosexual.
The rhetoric boiled over to actual violence. During a rally in September, a man stabbed Bolsonaro in the abdomen. Bolsonaro was seriously injured and left the campaign trail for weeks, but the attack raised his profile and made him a sympathetic figure to many. And intense polarization and Bolsonaro’s abrasive style of politics are helping to fray longtime social and communal bonds in Brazil, a country of more than 209 million people, about 70 percent of whom are Catholic.
“The worst part about the election has been not the policies, but the demons (Bolsonaro) has unleashed in the population, where you have people feeling free to walk up to others who look different and threaten them,” said Paolo Barrozo, a Boston College law professor who is a Brazilian native.
Barrozo told OSV that the rising profiles of far-right candidates like Bolsonaro in Latin America, North America, Europe and elsewhere is similar to a global wave from 100 years ago that saw the rise of fascist governments.
“There is a growth in complexity that has made people feel that they are losing control over their lives,” Barrozo said. “Something similar happened as the world was emerging from World War I. People wanted simplicity. Political leaders proposed simple solutions to complex problems, and a lot of people fell for it.”
Conflict with the Church?
Bolsonaro’s promises to roll back protections for the Amazon rainforest and indigenous communities run counter to the vision of the Synod of Bishops’ for the Pan-Amazon Region, which is scheduled to meet in Rome in October 2019. As announced last year by Pope Francis, the synod’s key themes will include concern for indigenous peoples who are experiencing the destruction and exploitation of their natural environment.
“This is not just an issue of concern for the South American pope but a concern for the whole Church as well,” said Father Juan J. Molina, OSST, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ director for the Collection for the Church in Latin America. “How do we protect the natural resources in an area that produces a fifth of all the oxygen the world consumes?”
Father Molina said taking a strong stance in defense of the Amazon rainforest and the rights of indigenous people to live on their lands may place the Church in a difficult situation with the president.
“But at the same time it’s going to be a very prophetic moment,” Father Molina said. “For it tells not only Brazil, but also the rest of the world that this is our common home.”
Brian Fraga is an Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor.