What does the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro mean for Brazilians of African descent?
With the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil, one of the darkest periods in the country’s history has begun. We don’t know if it will last only the four years of Bolsonaro’s term, or if it signals a whole new era of repressive dictatorship.
Bolsonaro’s election represents a serious political rupture, unlike any other in Brazil’s chaotic history. Supported by the Brazilian military and evangelicals (particularly the neo-pentecostal crowd), and protected by the legal system and media, the election of Bolsonaro is a severe threat to democracy. It is, in effect, the institutionalization of barbarism. It will see the repeal of important social rights introduced during the administrations of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), especially for Afro-descendants and indigenous Brazilians.
In Brazil, poor, black and illiterate were and are to an extent attributes that are synonymous. As a result, there was little distinction between economic plunder, racial discrimination and socially imposed ignorance. The Constitution of 1988 affirmed a precarious social pact that slowly permitted fundamental land rights to these populations, previously trapped in terrible living conditions and social misery.
The Lula and Dilma governments expanded on this and brought dignity to tens of millions of poor Brazilians, including the majority of Afro-descendants. This was done by increasing the minimum wage and spending on social programs such as the “Bolsa Família” (a basic income grant) and “Minha Casa Minha Vida” (a housing program aimed at low-income Brazilians).
However, actions aimed at the African descendant majority would have political repercussions. The PT governments, despite their many mistakes in governance, affirmed basic human rights through myriad legislation and programs, including the Constitutional Amendment Project (PEC) of domestic employees (mostly black), granting them the same rights as other workers; The National Pact to Combat Violence against Women, the Women Living Without Violence Program and the Maria da Penha Law (to combat domestic violence against women). All were historical milestones in the struggle of mainly black Brazilian women against violence and employment inequities. The Racial Equality Statute, passed by the PT, imposed restrictions on Brazil’s culture of racial slurs and apologia for racism. Fundamental reforms were also implemented in education, such as the compulsory education of African Brazilian and African history and culture in basic education. The “Juventude Viva” program, for example, sought to address the genocide of black youth in Brazil. According to UN figures for November 2017, 23,000 young black men are killed each year in Brazil. Finally, one of the most important advances was the Quotas Law, which ensured that the university network and federal institutes filled half their vacancies with students from public schools, with differentiated access for low-income, black and indigenous students. The quotas and funding programs increased access to higher education for black Brazilians by 268 percent.
The governments of Lula and Rousseff awakened a “sleeping giant” in the heart of the Brazilian elite, which in turn roused the ghost of Brazil’s history of slavery and colonialism.
The rise of Bolsonaro
Bolsonaro is the chief representative of the most extreme faction of the Brazilian right wing. The rise of his political group to power might seem like Berlusconi’s opera-buffa in Italy, but as some political analysts are already suggesting, in reality it is much closer to the government of the bloodthirsty Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1974-1990).
Inevitably, there is a narrative highlighting the similarity between the election of Bolsonaro and that of Donald Trump in the United States. Nobel Peace laureate José Ramos-Horta has argued that “Donald Trump’s US election was partly a reaction from conservatives to the election of a black man, Barack Obama. The Bolsonaro phenomenon is a reaction of the conservative, racist Brazilian elite.”
However, the difference between the US and Brazil lies in the fact that Brazil is an underdeveloped country. The Constitution is under threat following the impeachment of Rousseff in 2016 and a significant proportion of the population have no particular fondness for democracy, whereas in the United States democracy has more solid support.
It is also alleged that the phenomenon in Brazil occurred because of a tendency of “democratic fatigue,” to quote the analysis of the European Commissioner for Economic Affairs, Pierre Moscovici. Moscovici argued that what happened in Brazil is part of a trend of “backtracking” in liberal democracies “around the world,” caused by economic crises and increased social inequality.
Be that as it may, Bolsonaro’s election took place in the context of the intensifying class struggle in Brazilian society. According to João Pedro Stedile, one of the leaders of the most important social movement in the country, MST (Movement of Landless Workers), Brazilian society is divided. The electoral result made it clear that the main supporters of Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, Fernando Haddad were the poorest, low-income workers. The wealthiest (and whitest) of Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro.
Stedile also argues that the left wing was not defeated in the elections: that 46 million people had voted for Haddad, against Bolsonaro’s 58 million votes. And that a record number of ballots—31 million—were ruled absent or voided. That’s a total of 76 million Brazilians who did not vote for Bolsonaro.
Stedile also draws attention to the clear geographic electoral division in which Haddad defeated Bolsonaro across the Northeast, the country’s poorest region:
We have 12 progressive candidates from the popular camp elected state governors, in the region that goes from the state of Pará [North] to Espírito Santo [Southeast]. The Northeast and that part of the Amazon are a pole of geographical resistance that clearly demonstrates that this population does not want to follow the direction of the Bolsonaro fascist project.
As for Afro-descendant Brazilians, who make up the majority (53 percent) of the population, Bolsonaro repeatedly voiced—during his term as a federal deputy and in the electoral campaign—his contempt for the black race and their rights to reparation for the historical injustices of slavery and racial discrimination. In one of his most virulent speeches against African descendants, he said, after visiting a quilombola territory: “I went to a quilombo. The lighter Afro-Brazilians there weighed seven arrobas. They do not do anything in life. I do not think that they serve even for procreating.”
“Arroba” is a Brazilian measure of weight used specifically to weigh cattle, equivalent to 15kg. “Quilombola” is the inhabitant of a “quilombo,” the name given to territories where escaped slaves hid during in colonial Brazil. Remnants of quilombos that still inhabit these territories received the right of legitimate possession to these lands under the PT.
In a recent analysis of Bolsonaro’s vocabulary and language, journalist Fernando Barros observes:
Cleaning, cleansing, bandits, thugs, petralhada [pejorative term for militants of the PT], cachaceiro, [from cachaça, a strong Brazilian liquor—right-wingers often claim that Lula is a drunk], lombo [meaning the back of an animal], rot in prison. Jair Bolsonaro’s vocabulary transparently mirrors his intentions and his personality. He speaks the language of torture, the language of extermination, the language of punishment. Do I exaggerate if I say that the word ‘lombo’ refers to the tortures inflicted on black people during the time of slavery?
Barros also details the newly elected president’s intentions identified through his campaign speeches:
Intimidation, physical assaults, beatings, and death threats began to pop up around the country on the internet and on the streets. Blacks, gays, transvestites, northeasterners, PT activists, feminist women’s’ campaigns exhibiting #EleNão (#NotHim) stickers and posters, artists, intellectuals, human rights activists—the spectrum of people insulted, beaten or terrified is immense. And it includes, as you know, journalists.
The #EleNão movement mobilized more than 500,000 women in 360 cities across Brazil during the election campaign.
From the murder of Marielle Franco to solitary revenge
On March 14, 2018, in the pre-election campaign, female councilor Marielle Franco, 38, a black, bisexual, slum dweller and human rights defender, elected by the left-wing Partido Socialismo e Liberdade—PSOL (Socialist and Freedom Party), was murdered in Rio de Janeiro. Her driver and fellow PSOL activist, Anderson Gomes, was also killed in the attack. All indications are that their killers have links to the security forces, whether they are off duty police officers or former police officers and members of militias (paramilitary mafialike groups composed of ex/off-duty cops and firemen that control 25 percent of Rio’s metropolitan area). During the electoral campaign, it was clear that almost the entirety of Brazil’s security forces and militias were enthusiastic Bolsonaro supporters.
The wave of indignation and outcry from Afro-descendants and their allies was profound. Hundreds of thousands went into the streets to demonstrate against the murder of Marielle Franco and her death was met with international condemnation. However, at the time of writing, the official investigation has not come close to identifying the perpetrators of this crime.
On September 6, during the electoral campaign, presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed during a rally in the city of Juiz de Fora in Minas Gerais. His attacker, Adelio Bispo de Oliveira, 40, an Afro-descendant, confessed to the attack, stating that he “acted at God’s command” after being personally offended by Bolsonaro’s speech about quilombolas at the beginning of the year. According to his lawyer, the candidate’s speech “overwhelmingly shook the psyche” of the aggressor. Everything indicates that Oliveira was a kind of avenger, a “kamikaze” or “jihadist” who decided to try to stop Bolsonaro when faced with the prospective victory of the candidate.
The stabbing seriously injured Bolsonaro, who underwent two surgeries. The convalescence spared him the pressures of responding to press and public opinion and from making explicit his proposals or participating in televised debates. The attack resulted in popular public sympathy for his candidacy.
More blacks murdered
On the day after the first round of the elections, October 8, Mestre Moa do Katendê was assassinated with twelve stab wounds in the back, in the city of Salvador (in the state of Bahia, northeast of the country). Mestre Moa do Katendê, was a black man, composer, percussionist, educator and capoeirista. Considered one of the greatest capoeira masters in the country, Mestre Moa was in a bar when he declared his vote for PT’s Fernando Haddad. One of Bolsonaro’s supporters at the bar thought this was enough to kill Mestre Moa.
On October 25, a 33-year-old university student was raped in the city of Fortaleza in Ceará (a state in the Northeast). The crime occurred near the campus where she was studying. In the weeks leading up to the assault, she suffered racist threats from her assailant:
This is not a place for you, it’s not a place for slaves and blacks. After Bolsonaro wins… we’re going to do a clean-up of the university and take your people out. There is no place for your people here… you dirty monkey. I know what I’m going to do to you. I will put you in your place, the place of slave. And you know what we do with a slave? We rape them.
Despite filing a complaint with the police, no precautionary measures were taken.
Two days later, on October 27, Charlione Lessa Albuquerque, 23, who was taking part in a caravan in support of Fernando Haddad (PT), was shot dead in Fortaleza. The young black man was in a car with his mother, a leader of a national workers’ union, who said in an official note: “After the shooting, the killer proudly called Bolsonaro’s name.”
Despite these violent attacks, the elections brought to power numerous “Marielles” as federal and state deputies. Together they make up a new power bloc of mainly black women—the largest and most oppressed population group in the country. In Rio de Janeiro, three former advisors to Marielle Franco and PSOL candidates—Renata Souza, Mônica Francisco and Daniela Monteiro—were elected state representatives. Also elected was federal deputy Talíria Petrone, a close friend and comrade of Marielle and, like her, elected in 2016 as councilwoman in the neighboring city of Niterói. Benedita da Silva (PT), the first black woman to hold the position of governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro (2002), was reelected as a federal deputy. In Minas Gerais, Aurea Carolina (PSOL), a contemporary and friend of Marielle was elected federal deputy. Andréia de Jesus (PSOL) and Leninha (PT), black and feminist, were also elected state deputies. In Bahia, the teacher and militant of the black women’s movement, Olívia Santana, was elected state deputy for the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB). In Pernambuco, five women, three of them black, launched a collective candidacy under the codename “Juntas” (Together), formalizing the registration of one of them to overcome restrictions of the electoral law. In São Paulo, Erica Malunguinho, a black transsexual, was elected state deputy. The singer Leci Brandão (PCdoB), feminist and black, was re-elected for the third time as state deputy. A collective candidacy registered under the name “Mônica da Bancada Ativista” brought together nine partners, men and women, among them a black woman and a black transsexual.
Despite the immense underrepresentation of black women in Brazilian politics, the quality of these young, feminist and anti-racist candidates points to the beginning of perhaps the most profound transformation that can occur in Brazilian society and the only one that can separate it from its tragic past, and the immediate future under Bolsonaro.
In the words of, Danê Sosaba, a 29-year-old black militant:
Jair Bolsonaro has been democratically elected president of Brazil… That is democracy. Democracy foresees and allows Bolsonaro. Our mistake, black people, is that we have not yet foreseen democracy. We are afraid because we are not prepared, because we are not organized. We are afraid because we trust our protection on the losing left, and precisely because we have trusted them with our protection for too long now. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t have voted for Fernando Haddad… I’m saying that if we are not organized, no matter what the election results are, we will be trusting the voting ballots with our lives. And that’s a problem.
The rightwing is partially correct when they say that the black movement victimizes itself. Our speeches are mostly directed at appealing to whites: “our lives matter!” Well, Bolsonaro certainly thinks they do not. And yet we beg. Bolsonaro thinks that what really matters for the development of a better country is the piling up of our corpses.