by André Rodrigues and Andrés Del Río, professors at Universidade Federal Fluminense.
Jair Bolsonaro’s political extremism, of a fascist type, underwent a long normalization, continuing through his Presidency of the republic. But the violent coup attempt of his supporters on January 8, 2023, invading and looting of the palaces of three levels of Government in Brasilia, exposed Bolsonarism as it always was. The shocking scenes provoked international concern about Brazil, with several expressions of solidarity with the Lula government from heads of state. Finally the Brazilian corporate press started used relatively adequate terms to describe Bolsonarist extremism: “terrorists,” “coup plotters,” “anti-democratic,” “criminals,” “extremists”. These words predominated. “Fascists,” however, did not emerge in the media lexicon. The change in vocabulary is part of the normalization process.
Bolsonaro, as a parliamentarian, over three decades appeared frequently on entertainment-oriented television programs. The news media gave a lot of space to him. In his media appearances, he figured as a “polemical” politician, with forceful positions, but never extreme, or unacceptable. Bolsonaro’s “opinions” tolerated by the media, gave him an image of “authenticity”, of a politician who was not “afraid to speak his mind”. They presented him as a sincere politician when in fact he was the representative of a tiny group on the margins of democracy. He always represented hate.
The veneer of “authenticity” was a key tool to accredit Bolsonaro as a spearhead for the advance of the far right. He thus credentialed himself as a charismatic leader with, ironically, an anti-establishment stance. Meanwhile, he affirmed that nothing in Brazil would be transformed through the vote and that only a civil war, with at least 30 thousand dead, would promote change. Or that he would prefer that a son died if he was homosexual, or that he wouldn’t rape a federal representative because she didn’t “deserve it” by her physical appearance; or that Human Rights were the “dung of vagabonds”; or praising by name an execrable torturer of the military dictatorship in the plenary of the House of Representatives. Bolsonaro’s repertoire of extremist and unacceptable stances is inexhaustible. All that did not stop the newspaper Estado de São Paulo from publishing an editorial in 2018 stating that deciding between Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad – for president in 2018 – was a “difficult choice.” Even though Haddad is a university professor and politician with an absolutely moderate and unblemished career.
In covering the coup and violence of January 8, 2023, journalists frequently used the expression “radical Bolsonarists”. This expression is greatly inaccuracy because it admits an impossibility: a “moderate Bolsonarist.” Bolsonarism is a fascist movement, a far-right movement, with international links to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, antivax, terraplanists, religious fundamentalists, traditionalists, etc. There is no Bolsonarism that is not radical right. The redundancy in the expression “radical Bolsonarism” is another chapter in normalizing Bolsonarism. A way of not dismissing the strong rejection of any leftist personality or party. Most mainstream newspapers lined up in this.
This normalization process made Bolsonaro the wrong person at the wrong time. He boosted the other Brazilian authoritarian phenomenon with a long history: the military coup. Before leaving the Army to become a councilman in Rio de Janeiro in 1988, Bolsonaro was arrested for indiscipline, and accused in a military trial of being a lazy and undisciplined officer. Years later, the barracks would re-open their doors to Bolsonaro, now the spokesman of a power project in continuity with the pretensions of the 1964 dictatorship.
The central pillar of the Bolsonaro government is the military. It is a military government, in ideas, in how it manages public affairs – always fostering militarism in all sectors of society. There were the frequent military visits – to decorate, to attend graduations, or to participate in olive green banquets. The “civic-military” schools were the public policies exposing the use of the public machine to construct a militarized society. The military sectors typically believed that Brazil’s fault is the “absence of discipline”. Their arming public policy (in a country where homicides are among the highest in the world) is a tragedy. Almost daily, countless news reports, recount weapons (now legally acquired and unmonitored by the military) ending up in the hands of organized crime.
Let us x-ray public administration to understand Bolsonaro’s military government. More than 8000 military personnel have occupied civilian positions in the administration. Not even in the military regime were so many military personnel in high positions in democratic public institutions. It is not a coincidence, that General Villas Bôas, former commander of the Army, appears in this movement of military participation. He is the ideologue of the military participating in spheres outside the barracks.
Already in 2018, in the government of President Michel Temer, during the election campaign, then-commander of the Army Villas Bôas brought the coup spirit to the forefront as it had not happened for decades. General Eduardo Villas Bôas, stated on his Twitter profile on Tuesday, April 3, 2018, the eve of the habeas corpus trial filed by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at the Supreme Court (STF), that: “I assure the Nation that the Brazilian Army believes it shares the yearning of all good citizens to repudiate impunity and respect the Constitution, social peace, and democracy, and remains attentive to its institutional missions.” This post on social networks generated an extensive social commotion. But his statement was not without the endorsement of the army high commands, showing that it as a army worldview, not a post by an individual. The next day, former president Lula had his petition for habeas corpus rejected, leaving him on the verge of ineligibility for that year’s presidential elections (which would happen a couple of months later). Let’s remember, Lula was in first place in the polls in the presidential race, and by a wide margin.
This absurd intrusion by the high commands of the Armed Forces in national political life was repeated in the last elections of 2022. The Armed Forces questioned the TSE (Superior Electoral Court) 88 times about “supposed vulnerabilities” in the Brazilian electoral process. The Armed Forces then declared non-existent vulnerabilities in the electoral process and in the electronic ballot boxes themselves. There was no evidence to prove it. The army became agents to destabilize the electoral process, and validated the fake news disseminated daily by then-President Bolsonaro.
In the election year 2022, the Armed Forces, through the Ministry of Defense, headed by General Paulo Sergio Nogueira, enabled the Bolsonarists to continue attacks and disseminate disinformation. But no proofs were shown against the electronic ballot boxes. The minister of the Supreme Federal Court (STF), Luiz Roberto Barroso, stated that the military is trying to “discredit” the Brazilian electoral process and that attacks on the system are “totally unfounded”. In short, all attacks against the electoral system in the Bolsonaro government have/had some participation of active or reserve members of the Armed Forces. It is important to highlight: in the previous 25 years of redemocratization, the Armed Forces never questioned the electoral system and the electronic ballot boxes, which demonstrated success in performance.
On November 9, after the election, a Ministry of Defense report on the electoral process was released without pointing to any concrete fraud or proof of irregularity. But the disappointeded Bolsonarists continued the coup discourse. A day later, November 10, General Paulo Sergio Nogueira tried to explain himself and said that the report “did not exclude the possibility of the existence of fraud or inconsistency in the electronic ballot boxes and the electoral process of 2022”.
On November 11, a note issued jointly by the Army, Navy, and Air Force commanders – without the signature of the Ministry of Defense – was addressed to the Judiciary. An excerpt from the Armed Forces’ states: “Any restrictions to rights, on the part of public agents, are condemnable, as well as any excesses committed in demonstrations that may restrict individual and collective rights or put public safety at risk; as well as any actions, by individuals or public or private entities, that feed disharmony in society.”
In 2022, as in 2018, the active participation of military sectors in the presidenticy was as extensive as it was problematic. But it did not end with the defeat of Bolsonaro. In a constant destabilization, demonstrations funded by pro-Bolsonaro companies, and supported by the Armed Forces, continued during the post-election period. On December 12, the date of President-elect Lula’s graduation, trial balloons launched demonstrations of bus and car breakings and arsons. In these attacks, nobody was held accountable and the police and military remained in the best box watching the fireworks of the supposedly disgruntled demonstrators. The rest, we witnessed as it unfolded. January 8 is not over yet. The military were never held accountable for the massive human rights violations in the last dictatorship. Possibly the same will happen regarding January 8th.
The coup attack of January 8, 2023 exhibited, two fronts that will continue to challenge democracy in Brazil: the political radicalization of society by the fascist far right and the military coup to sabotage the democratic forces. Bolsonaro has not yet acknowledged his defeat at the polls, has left the country, and intends to continue articulating with the international far right. The generals played an active role in the fascist invasion and depredation of the presidential palaces. They need to bend to the legal rigours of the democratic order. That is why the Brazilian social movements continue to chant the cry: No amnesty!