By Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti, Guilherme Benzaquen, and Giovana Zucatto
Throughout Bolsonaro’s government, Brazil experienced protests and disputes against the government’s mishandling of responses to the COVID19 pandemic and, against attempts to escalate authoritarian practices that promote extractive capitalism at the expense of social equality. Activists and militants have played key roles in adapting to new challenges, articulating and organising resistance against authoritarianism in Brazil. This article provides the first analysis of an empirical study that examines the views of twenty-five Brazilian social justice militants and political activists about the social and environmental impacts of authoritarian governance. It sheds light on the transformations of activist struggles during a far-right government which overlapped with the pandemic, broadening understandings of the scale and repercussions of the current political, economic and ecological crisis that threatens humanity.
On May 29th, 2021, thousands of protesters rallied all across Brazil in the biggest demonstrations against President Jair Bolsonaro’s government since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the main mottos was “vacina no braço e comida no prato”, which translates as “vaccine in the arm and food on the plate”, and #ForaBolsonaro, a call for the impeachment and imprisonment of the president, who has been described by opponents as a genocidal leader following his (mis)administration of the pandemic. These mobilisations were the first of a series of nation-wide rallies, happening in tandem with the wake of the second wave of the pandemic, and a parliamentary commission of inquiry at the Senate aiming to investigate possible crimes committed by the federal government in managing the pandemic.
Now that the election of Lula da Silva indicates changes in the national political context, we would like to share some reflections jointly constructed with those who resisted the Bolsonaro government. The country is currently experiencing a context of hope for a better future, but also of fear regarding the continuities of authoritarianism in its social fabric. The election was a very intense dispute marked by strong political polarisation and geographically heterogeneous divide between supporters and opponents of the current federal government. The fact that in the second round of the presidential elections, Bolsonaro gained 49.1% of votes, and his allies have been elected to form a majority in congress, demonstrates the likely durability of processes of human rights violations that constituted his government. Recent political disputes did not end with the recent election and, therefore, we must continue to reflect on these processes to understand the challenges ahead and promote more dignified ways of living.
Over the last two years, we have been speaking to Brazilian activists to learn from them how their experiences of activism have been affected by Brazil’s current social, economic and political crisis. The difficulty in making diagnoses about the paths that Brazil has been following in recent years is evident. In search of apprehending some characteristics of the present time, we interviewed and listened to 25 activists from different regions of the country. These individuals are all committed to political organisations that have played key roles in resisting increasingly authoritarian practices that emanated from the federal government and permeated the entire social fabric. Here we share some preliminary findings from our research in a country that has been experiencing a severe political and economic turnmoil.
During the first year of the pandemic, forms of protest against the government remained virtual. Activism in the pandemic had to be drastically restructured with many of the social movements facing serious difficulties in maintaining their activities. A recurring problem was the difficulty of accessing the internet. Among the main actions that occurred during the pandemic, it is important to note emergency solidarity actions, such as mutual aid trough distribution of food and hygiene products, the formation of support networks and campaigns for vulnerable populations that articulated diverse social movements, the writing of public manifestos and audio-visual events. Cacerolazos were registered several times, especially when President Bolsonaro addressed the nation on national television. There were also other kinds of public demonstrations, which avoided crowding, such as displays of wooden crosses to commemorate and protest against COVID-deaths in symbolic places such as the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.
In trying to respect sanitary measures, the Brazilian left held off the possibility of carrying out large street protests for a considerable amount of time. But many activists have never left – or had the possibility to leave – the streets. The Brazilian black movement, anchored in decades of anti-racist activism in the country, organised several mobilisations that echoed the international movement #BlackLivesMatter, but which were guided by local issues and dates that historically mark the struggle of Black Brazilian people. In addition, over 5,000 Indigenous people gathered in Brasilia in the Struggle for Life Camp to demand their right to Indigenous territories during the Supreme Court trial over the ‘Marco Temporal’ or ‘Milestone Thesis’, that is, a new legal encroachment over Indigenous lands supported by the far-right federal government and commercial agents interested in exploring natural resources. While these struggles over land, resources and civil rights are not new, they shed light on Brazil’s profound social problems that have even been compounded by the pandemic and exacerbated over 6 years of conservative right-wing governance following the ousting of President Dilma Rousseff (2016-2022). President Bolsonaro’s government produced a visible deterioration of material and social relations with direct attacks on the rights of political minorities and a legitimisation of all forms of violence against these groups.
Activists from diverse social movements have long been denouncing Bolsonaro’s government for its authoritarian practices, as well as for dismantling institutions, public programmes, policies and laws that previously sought to reduce social inequalities, protect indigenous lands from deforestation. But Brazil’s history with authoritarian politics has longer roots, given that after the invasion by European colonisers, Brazil spent more time being a colony than an independent country. In 1888 Brazil was the last western country to abolish slavery, with its Republic starting a year later through a military coup. In fact, in terms of government, universal suffrage was only guaranteed by the 1988 Constitution, written after the end of the Civil-Military Dictatorship, but even so, the influence of authoritarian structures and institutions remained. Evidence of this are the selectivity of Brazilian justice, police violence, the constant invasion of indigenous lands, and the continued influence of the Armed Forces on the direction of politics in the country.
Hunger and the precarisation of life
Social justice activists recognize a series of social problems that have been worsening since the beginning of Bolsonaro’s government and, in particular, during the pandemic. Among the problems mentioned are the increase in inequality, unemployment, violence, deaths among women, Black people, LGBTQIA+ and Indigenous communities. More emphatically, all activists interviewed denounced widespread increase in hunger and extreme poverty in the country. This is connected to a general diagnosis that Bolsonaro’s administration has been dismantling public institutions, public policies and social assistance structures that had been recently established and secured after much struggle.
The bleak reality of increasing precariousness and vulnerability imposed itself as a priority issue for most activists. Activists’ previously heterogenous and decentralised agendas changed to prioritise addressing hunger. For example, in the case of feminist groups, the struggle against food insecurity took priority over the legalisation of abortion. The situation also generated efforts to articulate urgent agendas with traditional agendas of their movements. For instance, collectives that work against the genocide of Black youth campaigned for the basic income as a way to ensure a minimally dignified life.
Hunger became a reality for both urban and rural populations. In rural areas, we were told farmers and fishermen could not sell their products easily in a context of increasing economic instability. Marginalised and economically dispossessed communities were affected by growing cases of environmental disaster and struggles over access to clean water. Examples include the oil spill which affected a large coastal stretch in 2019 and the scandals over the privatisation of water treatment and supply plants. In the urban context, food insecurity is often related to limited sources of income and the rising cost of living, which culminate in widespread difficulties to pay for basic necessities such as cooking gas. Feminist activists emphasized that this situation of vulnerability and impoverishment has affected women more profoundly, given the disproportionate onus placed on them for reproductive activities and the care of elderly and sick people. In addition, in 2020, one in four Brazilian women suffered some form of violence, with almost 50% of these cases perpetrated at home, revealing an upward trend in converging and diverse forms of violence – the violence of organised abandonment and interpersonal violence.
The politics of death
Activists consensually characterised Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 as a coup “against democracy and society”. Most activists pointed to this moment as a break away from inclusion policies that were being developed in governments by the Workers party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) between 2003 and 2016. There was widespread understanding that Bolsonaro’s government deteriorated channels of communication and dialogue with civil society, including by extinguishing federal committees and councils, and enacted a form of politics that encourages death. Activists often referred to Bolsonaro as a “genocidal” and “fascist” leader.
There is a feeling of great insecurity among activists, a feeling that is crossed and enhanced by gender and race markers. Women activists reported a growing fear of gender-based political violence, routinely fearing for their own lives. At the same time, Black activists pointed out that it has never been safe to be Black in Brazil, a country historically structured around racism. If the feeling of insecurity on the part of activists had been increasing in the last decade, the situation deteriorated during Bolsonaro’s openly racist, homophobic and sexist government. Government practices to dismantle rights were compounded by the fact that Bolsonaro himself was elected by propagating speeches that incite violence against human rights defenders.
The situation became more alarming when the government actively prevented social participation in state decisions. The adjective “authoritarian” was constantly used by activists to refer to a government that stopped dialoguing with social movements. Most of our interviewees experienced a dissonance between recognizing the need to dialogue with the State, which was seen as having a responsibility to guarantee rights, and the decision to stop interacting with Bolsonaro’s government. The general diagnosis was that there were no more conditions to make demands from the government and that the only possible demand was to impeach and oust the president: “Fora Bolsonaro”. Over 150 impeachment requests were submitted drawing attention to multiple crimes of responsibility, corruption and mismanagement of the health crisis in Brazil. However, these requests were not even debated in the Chamber of Deputies.
Bolsonaro was defeated in the elections, but it’s clear that Brazil’s activists have a long battle ahead against an elitist far-right political system which is represented in the majority of the newly elected congress. What this political context symbolizes is not only the impact of a range of right wing groups in mainstream politics, but also the ways in which the private interests that these groups espouse have exacerbated inequalities, shaped social justice struggles and political narratives in the country. Political struggles are likely to remain fierce, but for now, the election of Lula has generated some hope among social justice activists.
Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti, University of Brighton
Guilherme Benzaquen, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco
Giovana Zucatto, Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Políticos – Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro