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Bolsonaro Is Criminalizing the Brazilian Left

With the help of liberals and centrists, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has politicized the military and the courts to hold onto power. For Brazil’s establishment, authoritarianism is preferable to socialism.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro during a speech in Brasilia, Brazil, 2021. (Andressa Anholete / Getty Images)

Throughout his time in office, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has taken many pages from Donald Trump’s playbook. The most recent: the right-wing demagogue has repeatedly claimed that his opponents have rigged the electoral system, and that unless the country moves to a paper ballot, he will not recognize the legitimacy of a defeat. Although Brazil’s congress has managed to block this proposal, the authoritarianism behind Bolsonaro’s effort to change the law should worry us all.

Threats, intimidation, censorship, and criminalization have been the tools with which Bolsonaro has exercised power over individuals and organizations critical of his government. In the lead up to the vote, Bolsonaro attempted to drum up popular support for the electoral reform by staging a military parade in front of the Federal Congress in Brasília. Close ties between military and political leadership have been a hallmark of Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism since the start of his tenure.

At times, the president has attempted to leverage his connections to the military in ways that have come close to parody. For instance, in March of this year, Bolsonaro ordered supersonic fighter jets to fly over Brazil’s Supreme Court and shatter the building’s windows as a show of force. The president eventually abandoned the plan but not before high-ranking members of the army, navy, and air force quit in protest.

The arrest of former president Lula da Silva is perhaps the most well-known example of Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism. In April 2018, police arrested the ex-leader of the Workers’ Party (PT) on corruption charges following an investigation led by the judge Sergio Moro. Moro, who rose to fame by making a name for himself as a scourge of corruption, helped to fast-track Lula’s conviction. Heralded by the Financial Times as one of the fifty individuals that helped to shape the last decade, Moro was in fact a standard-bearer of Brazil’s corrupt judiciary. The investigative reporting of the Intercept revealed that the celebrity judge illegally tapped the phones of ex-presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff to gather evidence for his investigation.

Thanks to Moro, Lula was unable to run against Bolsonaro in 2018. The populist pro-incarceration and anti-corruption discourses peddled by the media — seemingly nonpartisan, but actually designed to kneecap the Left — helped turn public opinion against Lula. These discourses drowned out the many social movements that denounced Moro’s persecution and the unjust terms of Lula’s conviction. Bolsonaro rewarded Moro for his services by making the judge a “super” minister of justice, a position which merged the justice and public security ministries. A year later, the two would fall out over internal political disagreements. But the damage was done.

Lula has since been released from prison and the car wash anti-corruption investigation has been discredited, due in a large part to the outstanding investigative reporting of Glenn Greenwald and the Intercept. Moro’s judgements have also been overruled by the Supreme Court, and the same court has admitted that its previous ruling against the former president was biased. Nevertheless, despite his growing unpopularity in the wake of several corruption scandals and one of the world’s worst responses to COVID-19, Bolsonaro remains in power.

An ongoing parliamentarian investigation has revealed corruption around vaccines and exposed the Bolsonaro’s government promotion of quack medical treatments for COVID-19. The Ministry of Health and the military are both implicated in the government’s cover-ups and disinformation. Under his premiership the armed forces have become another wing of government.

Military involvement in politics runs deep in Brazil. The military, working in tandem with a civilian elite, led the 1964 coup that plunged the country into dictatorship. Bolsonaro’s cabinet currently includes more generals than any of Brazil’s previous military governments; his administration differs from previous military-backed regimes in the fact that the judiciary rather than the armed forces was responsible for orchestrating the 2016 parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff that brought him to power.

Three motives underlie that coup. It was an attempt by the ruling elite to shield themselves from responsibility for the impending economic crises; it was an attempt to avoid corruption investigations led by the PT or other progressive factions; and finally, it was a revanchist attempt to roll back the social advances made by the previous PT government.

Lula, who was in power from 2003 to 2010, adopted a conciliatory approach to governance. The ex-head of the PT attempted to combine market-friendly economic policies with redistribution in favor of the poor and the working class. Despite the caution with which Lula pursued his agenda, the moderate social reforms he proposed still managed to irritate an elite which pushed for a series of austerity measures and brutal neoliberal reforms that the PT, despite its history of trying to reconcile class interests, was not willing to pass.

In Bolsonaro, the Brazilian elite found a leader willing to defend their agenda through antidemocratic measures. Bolsonarismo inaugurated a new period of authoritarianism in Brazil. Its method: using courts and the law to criminalize the Right’s opponents.

The endemic corruption around Bolsonaro’s government may lead us to think that the Left should adopt the punitive politics used against them by the right. In this scenario, socialists could then launch a challenge to Bolsonarismo on the back of a left-wing anti-corruption movement. As attractive as this strategy may seem, the Left should be weary of adopting it.

The Dangers of Punitive Politics

Punitivism is a moral as well as a legal ideology. It promotes an uncritical support for authorities by assigning the judiciary, the police, the military, and political leaders, elected or not, a superior status. As a result, it is an ideology which presupposes that some groups — the working class, indigenous communities, and social movements — are inherently criminal.

Because punitive politics has an implicit bias against the oppressed, it legitimizes the criminalization of political resistance and the justification of criminal violence when committed by elites. For example, in Brazilian elections police militias can openly run their own candidates, coercing the public in order to win votes — like when militias worked to influence Rio de Janeiro’s local elections in 2020. These armed gangs intimidated radical left political candidates and prevented them from campaigning in areas where militiamen held influence.

The landowning class are, similarly, able to exercise violence with impunity. They control entire regions in rural areas and are almost never held accountable for the murder of indigenous and environmental activists or intentionally starting forest fires. Authorities do not pursue landowners as vigorously as grassroots popular leaders. Right-wing journalists and politicians have accused the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of terrorism, stealing, and violence far more frequently than they were actually accused of doing so by the police and the courts.

The point of these accusations is to reinforce a punitive ideology by creating a large section of society that sees activists arrested by the police not as victims of political persecution, but as criminals. Referring to activists as criminals normalizes repression during demonstrations and occupations, whether this repression occurs at random or because demonstrators engaged in some form of direct action that fits into the criminal code.

Liberal and Far-Right Authoritarianism

Brazilian politics offers a perfect case study of liberals’ willingness to get into bed with authoritarian leaders to implement their own agenda. Even after Rousseff accepted many of the conservative economic policies pushed for by her opponents in an attempt to keep her government together, both the progressive liberals and the Right still launched a coup against. Rede, the Brazilian Green Party (PV), and the Democratic Labor Party (PDT) collaborated with the Right to impeach the former president.

By adopting such a conciliatory approach, Rousseff was merely emulating Lula, who managed to hold together the broad-based political coalition on which his government was dependent by making economic concessions to the Right. Lula combined market-friendly economic policies and redistribution by making the latter dependent on economic growth. Emboldened by years of appeasement, liberal centrists found it easier to force Rousseff out of power and have a less conflicted interim president do the dirty job of pushing forward a neoliberal agenda, opening the way to an elected right-wing government.

In the 2018 election, the media chose Bolsonaro over PT’s Fernando Haddad. Part of the reason that the media favored Bolsonaro was that his new minister of the economy, Paulo Guedes, had clear allegiances to the political right. Even before the 2018 election, however, liberals, the center-right, and center-left supported the persecution of social movements and fought vehemently against anti-racist politics in Brazil.

Now, almost three years into his tenure, the so-called liberal conservative right have abandoned Bolsonaro. The Free Brazil Movement (MBL), connected to the Koch family–funded Student for Liberty organization, actively campaigned for Bolsonaro and against the PT. The MBL later retracted its support for Bolsonaro after clashing with the president over his style of government, though the conservative political movement continues to support Bolsonaro’s neoliberal economic agenda.

In practice, parties in the center, all of whom are defenders of the view that liberal democracy is the only option, continue to flirt with right-wing authoritarianism in order to uphold the pro-austerity agenda of Bolsonaro’s minister of the economy, Paulo Guedes. In fact, Bolsonaro has continually negotiated with centrists over deals and political positions in order to stay in power. Seemingly progressive members of the PDT such as Tabata Amaral, continue to vote with the government on matters such as a regressive pension reform and privatization initiatives. Amaral has since left the party due to conflicts over her open support for Bolsonaro’s neoliberal agenda.

Given the tendency of liberal parties to tolerate, or even go into partnership with, authoritarian political forces, the growing criminalization of social movements and the opposition in Brazil is hardly surprising. Bolsonaro’s government has also suppressed dissent through criminalizing its political opponents, lending institutional legitimacy to state violence and the elimination of critical voices through the judiciary.

The punitive ideology underpinning such criminalization serves to convince an entire population that incarceration is the only solution to social problems. Throughout Brazil’s history, political candidates have always been able to garner support by promoting this punitive ideology. Supporting law and order, being tough on crime and endorsing relaxing gun ownership rules have been the platforms on which right-wing candidates in Brazil have run for decades. It is therefore no surprise that Brazilian politics has normalized the authoritarian dictum that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.”

Pro-punitive ideology is so dominant within Brazil that it is even accepted by progressives who similarly believe that no authority is greater than the rule of law. Naturally, this legalistic conception of politics has disproportionately harmed the Left. Social movements and other left-wing organizations that resort to forms of civil disobedience or direct action are de facto criminal.

The Ongoing Criminalization of the Brazilian Left

Conservative politicians and journalists have attacked Lula because social movements, which right-wingers see as criminal organizations, support him. These same reactionary forces organized the coup against Rousseff’s government based on trumped up charges of financial corruption. It may seem tempting for the Left to use this criminalizing politics to their advantage by promoting a penal populism. However, we should bear in mind that in practice it is the working class and its defenders that suffer most from the dominance of penal ideology.

Brazil’s right-wing media paints the national coordinator for the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), Brazil’s largest anti-homelessness social movement, and former presidential candidate Guilherme Boulos as a dangerous criminal and a terrorist. Mainstream news outlets do not go as far as their extremist counterparts, but they do maintain that MTST’s participation in land occupation and other forms of direct action is an illegal “invasion of private property.”

This legalistic framework impacted voters’ perception of Boulos during his 2018 campaign, when he was often forced to explain the legal basis of occupying vacant property in Brazil. Without referencing any particular article of the criminal code, right-wing pundits and politicians accuse activists of illegal activities which serves to further criminalize the Left in the eyes of the general public.

Haddad, who stood against Bolsonaro in the 2018 federal election, was also a target of a smear campaign. In the lead-up to the general election, his opponents made the libelous accusation that he had raped an eleven-year-old child. Following the murder in 2018, the right-wing opponents of the slain activist and socialist city councilor in Rio de Janeiro, Marielle Franco, insinuated that she kept company with drug dealers. The aim of accusing Franco of wrongdoing is clear: to prevent solidarity by labeling her a criminal by association.

Unfortunately, false accusations are not only made by the Right in order to score political points, but by legal authorities themselves. In 2019, members of a volunteer firefighting brigade were randomly arrested by local police, accused of setting fire to the Amazon Forest in Alter do Chão. In response to a popular mobilization against the unfair arrest, police released the firefighters a few days later. Despite their release, the judicial process against the firefighters continued — even though there was no evidence to sustain the charges.

The politically motivated arrest provided Bolsonaro with a way of perpetuating his own false narrative that the people responsible for fires in Brazil’s rainforests were environmentalists and indigenous leaders, not wealthy landowners. Activists, according to the president, that wanted to make him look bad.

Prior to the arrests, the progressive and leftist media had criticized Bolsonaro’s government for its inaction over the rise of forest fires and deforestation. Even the traditional press published stories revealing the connection between the fires and Bolsonaro landowning supporters. Arresting the fire brigade members helped to further two of the president’s political aims. It lent credibility to his conspiracy theory that the Left was at the heart of environmental destruction in Brazil, and it legitimized his criminalization of activists.

Not limiting itself to targeting political activists, Bolsonarismo has also criminalized journalists. Former editor of the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, received death threats after Bolsonaro accused him of illegally obtaining information in his investigation of Moro’s wrongdoings in the Car Wash corruption trial. This accusation was incredibly ironic given that it was Moro, and not Greenwald, that had obtained information illegally through wire taps. Attacks on the press in Brazil are part and parcel of Bolsonaro’s style of governance. Even the liberal media that supported him in 2018 now denounces the diminishing freedom of the press.

On July 28, 2021, police arrested members of the Periphery’s Revolution collective in São Paulo for setting fire to a statue of Borba Gato, an infamous slaver or bandeirante, responsible for the death and rape of indigenous people as well as the theft of their land. Despite the damage to the statue being superficial, the judge labelled the activists responsible for the damage as terrorists and refused to follow release orders from a higher court, forcing the legal team to appeal and social movements to fight the criminalizing discourse against the activists. Police have used the arson as a pretext for arresting opponents of the current government.

Labeling political activists “terrorists” allows conservatives to equate life-endangering attacks on the public with direct action. Brazil is, of course, not alone among nations in massively expanding the list of crimes for which individuals can be prosecuted under anti-terror laws following the start of the US-led global war on terror. In earlier drafts of Brazil’s anti-terror legislation under Rousseff, the political motivations of individuals were one of the criteria used to classify a crime as terrorist. Fortunately, this consideration did not make it into the final version of the bill.

Bolsonaro’s government now wishes to correct this shortcoming by changing the anti-terror legislation so law enforcement can use it to restrict the right to protest. Under the revised bill, lawmakers would increase the powers of intelligence and security forces. The law would classify vandalizing statues for political reasons an act of terrorism, for which the activists involved could serve twelve to thirty years in prison.

If Bolsonaro manages to pass his revised anti-terror law, then the consequences for the Left will be disastrous. In the meantime, Congress finally chose to replace another law that has been used to persecute the opposition with a proposal that had been ignored since 1991. This “new” law replaces the National Security Law inherited from the military dictatorship by instead including in the criminal code a list of crimes against the “lawful democratic state.” The alternative bill has not yet been sanctioned into law by Brazil’s president.

We should not take Bolsonaro’s moderate framing of the bill, an attack on the two extremes of communism and fascism, at face value. Unambiguously, the aim of the legislation is to criminalize the Left and to give a veneer of impartiality to this criminalization by nominally targeting the Right. Under this legislation, authorities would have the right to remove the memorial of Carlos Marighella, a communist fighter and former congressman assassinated by the dictatorial regime in 1969 — providing a legally sanctioned way to erase Brazil’s radical history.

Despite his appeal to anti-extremism, much of Bolsonaro’s support comes from the far right. Brazil’s president has even gone as far as to publicly express admiration for Hitler’s style of leadership. Pressure from the media forced Bolsonaro’s special secretary for culture, Roberto Alvim, to resign after giving a speech which made strong allusions to Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi-era screeds. In the televised address, Alvim, echoing the words of the Nazi minister of propaganda, claimed that Brazilians needed to create a form of art that was “heroic and national.”

If Eduardo Bolsonaro actually wished to target the far right, the congressman would turn his attention to his own government. Eduardo Bolsonaro’s actual intention is, of course, not to root out extreme views but to stir anti-communist panic; a task which he knows can be more easily accomplished if he associates the latter with fascism. Even if the bill never passes, by repeatedly drawing a connection between the two ideologies, the Right is able to further the marginalization of the Left by casting their politics as beyond the realms of acceptable opinion.

The weaponization of the law against opponents of Bolsonaro’s government presents serious problems for the Left. Brazilian progressives have sometimes attempted to use this punitive politics against the elite. For instance, the motto “prison for Bolsonaro” has come to prominence in recent years. The fact that grassroots movements still hold onto the naïve belief they can abolish political oppression by criminalizing it is deeply worrying.

In Brazil, the police and judges work to reproduce oppressive social structures. If the country’s left is to overcome its present malaise, it cannot hold onto the hope that it can rely on a corrupt and elitist judicial system to serve justice.