Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro could institutionalize hatred in Brazil

Update: On the evening of October 28th, Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal confirmed that Jair Bolsonaro won the country’s presidential election, with approximately 55% of the vote (compared to Fernando Haddad’s 44%).

On October 28th, Brazil is likely to elect as president a man who has said that he would like to see the country’s military slaughter 30,000 of its own people, and told supporters at a political rally to start shooting members of an opposing political party[1]. The horrifying and dangerous language of the candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, hardly stops there. He has also said he would rather find out his own son had died, than learn that he was gay. He has suggested that parents of gay children ‘reform’ them with whips,[2] implied that Afro-Brazilians are farm animals,[3] and said black protesters should “go back to the zoo.”[4]

On numerous occasions, Bolsonaro has attacked women, verbally or physically. In 2002 he told congresswoman Maria do Rosário that he would not rape her because she was “not worth it,” pushed her backwards, called her a “slut,” and said to “cry! Go cry!” After repeating the comment in 2014, he proudly posted videos of both encounters online, commenting that he “[put] do Rosário in her rightful place.”[5] He also told a crowd that he had a daughter due to a “a moment of weakness” after having four sons,[6] and once screamed at a woman journalist to shut up because she was an “uneducated idiot.”[7]

Bolsonaro also has a pattern of targeting members of non-white populations inside and outside of Brazil, dehumanizing them and suggesting that they threaten the country. He has described immigrants from Haiti, Senegal, Bolivia, and Syria as “the scum of the world.”[8] After visiting a qilombo (a settlement of black Brazilians, originally founded by escaped slaves), he called one man there “not usable even as a breeder” because he weighed too much: 7 arrobas[9] – a weight unit used in Brazilian agriculture, especially the cattle industry. He has accused indigenous environmental activists of being agents of foreign corporations and colonial powers, and said that instead of protesting, minority groups should “bend down to the majority,” and “either adapt or simply vanish.”[10]

Some of Bolsonaro’s most naked bigotry is directed toward LGBTQ Brazilians. In 2002 he suggested that parents whip gay children to reform them.[11] He opposes adoption by LGBTQ people, claiming that would-be parents groom children for future sexual relationships.[12] At least twice, he has promised or called for violence against LGBTQ people. In 2002, Bolsonaro said he would attack any same-sex couples he saw in the street, and in 2017, when controversy arose surrounding an LGBTQ art exhibition in the southern city of Porto Alegre, he went so far as to suggest that the organizers be shot.[13]

For outsiders, it may be hard to imagine why so many Brazilians would support a candidate who has said so many terrible things – but Bolsonaro’s appeal revolves around his hardline proposals to reduce violent crime, which in recent years has reached unimaginable levels. In 2017 alone, 63,880 people were murdered in Brazil.[14] In Rio de Janeiro, 30% of people reported that they were caught in a crossfire,[15] and many residents navigating through the city rely on smartphone applications that alert them to shootings along their route.[16] Bolsonaro’s policy prescriptions revolve around his belief that “you can only combat violence with violence.”[17] For example, he has suggested giving the police “free rein to kill,”[18] even saying that “a police officer who does not kill is not a police officer.”[19] Another indication of his approach is his praise for the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose ostensible “war on drugs” has involved widespread summary executions by the military, and who said he’d be “happy to slaughter” 3 million drug addicts.[20] Bolsonaro says Duterte “did the right thing for his country.”[21]

Just as he claims to have the solution for violent crime, Bolsonaro frames himself as the alternative to a chaotic political status quo. For over two years, Brazil’s entire political class has been engulfed in scandal due to a wide-ranging investigation involving politicians’ corrupt dealings with Petrobras, the state-run oil company. The investigation even led to the 2016 ouster of then-President Dilma Rousseff and the 2018 imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (or simply “Lula”), both representing the major left-leaning Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT).

After winning a plurality of votes in the first round on October 7th, Bolsonaro now faces PT candidate Fernando Haddad in a runoff on the 28th – a contest he is likely to win, as he has consistently polled over 50% (even as his lead has shrunk in the past several days).[22] While Haddad has been dogged by his association with Rousseff, Lula, and other PT politicians caught up in scandal, Bolsonaro has benefited from an outsider image and his membership in a minority party (the Social Liberal Party) that has not faced the same scrutiny. This has allowed his campaign to dodge much of the criticism targeting his statements, while unloading its own attacks on PT. One ad online taunted those who compare his rhetoric to past dictators, using the slogan, “Hitler? Mussolini? They call him everything but CORRUPT!”[23]

Social media has been one of the most powerful tools of the Bolsonaro campaign, especially the WhatsApp messaging platform, which pro-Bolsonaro users have flooded with content that is often false. Much of the WhatsApp traffic has been organic, as over 120 million Brazilians use the platform – over half of the country’s population. But Haddad alleges that wealthy Bolsonaro supporters, encouraged by the candidate, illegally paid millions of dollars to marketing firms who then disseminated millions of manipulative propaganda messages.[24] One group of Brazilian researchers found that of the 50 most-circulated images on the platform during the election, 56% were misleading or false. It is extremely unlikely that Brazilian courts will be able to address the potential scandal before the election, but the researchers, in an op-ed published by the New York Times, asked WhatsApp to intervene and limit the extent to which manipulative people could disseminate disinformation.

Even in the final days of the campaign, Bolsonaro has ramped up his hateful and Dangerous Speech to rouse supporters. In a video address on October 21, Bolsonaro pledged in front of a cheering crowd to purge the country of his leftist opponents, saying that “either they go overseas, or they go to jail … These red outlaws will be banished from our homeland. It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.” He and his supporters can do this, he says, because they “are the majority. We are the true Brazil.”[25]

Statements like this one are particularly dangerous, not only because of their implications for a Bolsonaro presidency, but because some of his supporters have already expressed a willingness to to engage in political violence. In the month of October alone, over 70 politically-motivated attacks occurred, the majority of which involved Bolsonaro supporters targeting others – journalists, LGBTQ people, politicians, and PT supporters.[26] Two supporters committed murder – one stabbed a pro-PT capoeira instructor, and another stabbed a transgender woman.[27] Bolsonaro has not explicitly condemned any attacks, choosing instead to deny that he is connected and point out that he himself was also victimized. Indeed, during a rally in September, a man almost killed Bolsonaro by stabbing him – an incident that may have increased support for the candidate, who continued to campaign from a hospital bed.[28]

Bolsonaro’s approval of political violence extends to state violence against citizens. Many times, he has expressed strong admiration for the leaders of Brazil’s former military dictatorship – a regime which tortured thousands of people and killed at least several hundred. It was “a time of glory,” according to Bolsonaro,[29] who has portraits of the five military presidents from the period hanging in his congressional office (which he saluted during a recent Reuters interview).[30] The only thing it did wrong, he said in 2016, “was to torture but not to kill.”[31] Since he first became a politician, he has criticized his country’s democratic structures for being less responsible and efficient compared to dictatorship – or, as he said in 1985, “we will never resolve serious national problems with this irresponsible democracy.”[32] What will redeem Brazil, according to Bolsonaro, is a civil war in which the military kills tens of thousands of civilians.[33] Not only has he been an apologist for the dictatorship; he has also mocked its victims. In 2009, he had a poster in his office which read, “dogs are those who search for bones,” in reference to people who to this day do not know what happened to loved ones whom the regime tortured, killed, or disappeared.[34]

Though Bolsonaro has tried to distance himself from his pro-dictatorship statements during the presidential campaign, his running mate has also expressed an alarming hostility to democracy. In a lecture last year, vice presidential candidate and retired army general, Antonio Hamilton Martins Mourão mentioned that he has discussed “well-made plans” to overthrow the government with his military colleagues. Impatient with the government’s seeming inability to tackle the intractable problem of violent crime and the enormous corruption investigation, Mourão proposed that “either the institutions solve the political problem through the courts, removing those elements involved in illegal acts from public life, or we will have to impose the solution.”[35]

If he is elected president as expected on Sunday, Bolsonaro’s hatred and desire for violence will be institutionalized in the highest office governing the fifth-largest population in the world and the largest economy in Latin America. With this power, Bolsonaro could trigger even greater violence than that which has already terrorized Brazilians for years – either by ordering his military or his followers, or by inspiring them with his Dangerous Speech. Any of his targets could be at risk, whether they are his political enemies or LGBTQ people, indigenous people, or people of color. Even more concerning is the potential that Bolsonaro’s government will systematically use the same violent tactics (such as torture, mass imprisonment, and mass murder) as the past and present dictatorships that he so admires. At the very least, Brazil would join the ranks of countries like the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, and the United States, where reactionary, xenophobic, and anti-democratic right-wing leaders have grown popular, and where hatred has become as loud as possible.

  1. Andreoni, M. 2018. “Brazil’s bitter presidential race leads to scores of assaults.” The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/17/world/americas/brazil-attacks-bolsonaro-haddad.html
  2.  Greenwald, G. and Fishman, A. 2014. “The most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.” The Intercept. Available at: https://theintercept.com/2014/12/11/misogynistic-hateful-elected-official-democacratic-world-brazils-jair-bolsonaro/
  3.  “Bolsonaro: ‘Nem um centímetro para quilombola ou reserva indígena.’” 2017. De Olho Nos Ruralistas. Available at: https://deolhonosruralistas.com.br/2017/04/04/bolsonaro-nem-um-centimetro-para-quilombola-ou-reserva-indigena/  
  4.  Forrest, A. 2018. “Jair Bolsonaro: the worst quotes from Brazil’s far-right presidential frontrunner.” The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/jair-bolsonaro-who-is-quotes-brazil-president-election-run-off-latest-a8573901.html
  5.  Greenwald and Fishman. 2014.
  6.  Londoño, E. 2018. “Right-wing presidential contender in Brazil is charged with inciting hatred.” The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/14/world/americas/brazil-president-candidate-hate.html
  7.  Greenwald and Fishman. 2014.
  8. Azevado, R. 2015. “Bolsonaro chama refugiados de ‘escória do mundo.'” Exame. Available at: https://exame.abril.com.br/brasil/bolsonaro-chama-refugiados-de-escoria-do-mundo/
  9.  “Bolsonaro: ‘Nem um centímetro.” 2017.
  10.  Maisonnave, F. 2018. “Amazon at risk from Bolsonaro’s grim attack on the environment.” The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/09/brazils-bolsonaro-would-unleash-a-war-on-the-environment
  11.  Sullivan, Z. 2018. “‘We’re afraid’: Advocates say Brazil’s presidential frontrunner a threat to gay rights.” NBC News. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/we-re-afraid-advocates-say-brazil-s-presidential-frontrunner-threat-n917111
  12.  Greenwald and Fishman. 2014.
  13.  “Bolsonaro em MG: saída para o mar, licença para matar e tumulto.” 2017. Veja. Available at: https://veja.abril.com.br/politica/bolsonaro-em-mg-saida-para-o-mar-licenca-para-matar-e-tumulto/
  14.  Darlington, S. 2018. “A year of violence sees Brazil’s murder rate hit record high.” The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/world/americas/brazil-murder-rate-record.html
  15.  Gardiner, C.H. 2018. “Rio residents support military intervention, but doubt it will help.” InSight Crime. Available at: https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/rio-residents-fear-violence-support-intervention-doubt-it-will-help/
  16.  Nolen, S. 2018. “Rio’s killer apps.” The Globe and Mail. Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-rios-killer-apps-how-brazilians-rely-on-crowdsourcing-to-stay-safe/
  17.  Cowie, S. 2018. “Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro is headed for victory on Sunday — and he’s bringing his shock troops with him.” The Intercept. Available at: https://theintercept.com/2018/10/05/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-election-stabbinng/
  18.  Cuadros, A. 2017. “Open talk of a military coup unsettles Brazil.” The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/open-talk-of-a-military-coup-unsettles-brazil
  19.  Gonçalves, A. “Bolsonaro: ‘Policial que não mata não é policial.’” Veja. Available at: https://veja.abril.com.br/politica/bolsonaro-policial-que-nao-mata-nao-e-policial/
  20.  Villamor, F. 2016. “Duterte, citing Hitler, says he wants to kill 3 million addicts in Philippines.” The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/01/world/asia/philippines-rodrigo-duterte-hitler-drugs.html
  21.  Sandy, M. 2018. “Jair Bolsonaro loves Trump, hates gay people and admires autocrats. He could be Brazil’s next president.” Time. Available at: http://time.com/5375731/jair-bolsonaro/
  22.  Forrest, A. 2018. “Brazil election: Far-right candidate Bolsonaro has lead cut in polls as left-wing rival Haddad makes gains.” The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/brazil-election-2018-polls-jair-bolsonaro-fernando-haddad-latest-far-right-a8602626.html
  23.  Winter, B. 2018. “System failure: behind the rise of Jair Bolsonaro.” Americas Quarterly. Available at: https://www.americasquarterly.org/content/system-failure-behind-rise-jair-bolsonaro
  24.  Boadle, A. 2018. “Facebook’s WhatsApp flooded with fake news in Brazil election.” Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-election-whatsapp-explainer/facebooks-whatsapp-flooded-with-fake-news-in-brazil-election-idUSKCN1MU0UP
  25.  Phillips, T. 2018. “Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro threatens purge of leftwing ‘outlaws.’” The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/22/brazils-jair-bolsonaro-says-he-would-put-army-on-streets-to-fight
  26.  Andreoni. 2018.
  27.  Long, C. 2018. “Brazil presidential election: Political violence sweeps across country as electorate prepares for divisive vote.” The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/brazil-presidential-election-violence-jair-bolsonaro-fernando-haddad-workers-party-a8594876.html
  28.  Andreoni. 2018.
  29.  Sandy. 2018.
  30.  Boadle, A. 2017. “Far-right presidential hopeful aims to be Brazil’s Trump.” Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-politics-bolsonaro-interview/far-right-presidential-hopeful-aims-to-be-brazils-trump-idUSKCN1C2384
  31.  Forrest, A. 2018. “Jair Bolsonaro: the worst quotes from Brazil’s far-right presidential frontrunner.” The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/jair-bolsonaro-who-is-quotes-brazil-president-election-run-off-latest-a8573901.html
  32.  Brooke, J. 1993. “A soldier turned politician wants to give Brazil back to army rule.” The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1993/07/25/weekinreview/conversations-jair-bolsonaro-soldier-turned-politician-wants-give-brazil-back.html
  33.  Sandy. 2018.
  34.  “Cartaz contra desaparecidos do Araguaia irrita deputados.” 2009. O Estado de S. Paulo. Available at: https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,cartaz-contra-desaparecidos-do-araguaia-irrita-deputados,378349
  35.  Cuadros. 2017.