Historians' Watch

Bolsonaro: Back in from the Cold

Jair Bolsonaro. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Since the moment it became clear that Jair Bolsonaro was a seriously possibility for winning  Brazil’s presidency (a feat he achieved in the presidential run-off elections of 28 October), commentators have sought to make this previously unknown figure legible by drawing parallels with right-wing figures elsewhere in time and space. Some journalists drew on already rather tired tropes to dub him the “tropical Trump”, while other journalists and historians pointed to Berlusconi, Duterte and Goebbels as more accurate models for the Brazilian’s politics.

But we can best understand the rise of Bolsonaro, a former military officer, by looking at him in the context of Brazil itself. There is no need to look to Europe or the US to find a parallel or precedent for the type of political vision he represents, as there is a strong tradition of these ideas in Latin America. The most recent eruption of these ideas within the political system was during the Cold War. The Latin American Cold War, a struggle between two distinct visions for organising the world, gave rise to a long cycle of insurgent and counter-insurgent mobilisation in which the right-wing protagonists of the latter wielded extreme violence in order to destroy the former. Military regimes across the continent, but particularly in the Southern Cone countries of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, engaged in state-sponsored terror in order to maintain the status quo and quell the revolutionary movements that pushed for equality and liberation.

In Brazil, the armed forces took control of the government in 1964 and remained there until 1985. This was unconstitutional but not inconceivable: the military had involved itself in political and civil matters since the 19th century, and as an institution it had a strong belief in its capacity and in its right to rule. Central to fomenting this belief were Brazil’s military educational institutions, the oldest of which is the Academia Militar Agulhas Negras (AMAN, Agulhas Negras Military Academy), founded in 1810, several decades before the establishment of any civilian education system. Within AMAN, which Bolsonaro attended between 1974 and 1977, as well as within other training schools, the Brazilian military developed their ideas about their own role in national development; during the second half the 20th century these ideas were influenced by French approaches to counterinsurgency (honed during the war in Algeria) and the United States’ focus on identifying and eliminating threats to the existing political structure, known as the National Security Doctrine. The result was a twenty-year dictatorship whose use of torture to eliminate dissent was so institutionalised, and so notorious, that it was largely responsible for making torture itself a global concern.

The Cold War officially came to an end in Latin America with the transitions to democracy of the 1980s. Many countries across the region implemented a series of policies designed to ensure that the torture and other forms of state-sponsored repression would never happens again. Trials against military leaders, national truth-telling exercises, and memory initiatives like memorials, museums and commemorative days were embraced by the new governments of the Southern Cone as a way of consolidating a democratic culture.

In Brazil, the new civilian government eschewed these measures in order to avoid confrontation with the military. It was not until the more recent government of Dilma Rousseff, the former leader of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party), herself a former revolutionary activist and victim of torture under the military regime, that the Brazilian state began formulating policy designed to reckon with its military past and commemorate its victims.

Enter Bolsonaro, who as a member of Congress dedicated his vote in support of Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment to her torturer.

We do not need to read between the lines to see the ideological affinities in this statement of Bolsonaro’s. For him, the PT, which for 15 years worked to redistribute the wealth being generated during Brazil’s early twenty-first-century boom, was an internal enemy that needed to be removed not just from the presidency but from the Brazilian political landscape altogether.

In much the same framing as that used by the Cold War dictatorship, Bolsonaro has constructed a notion of an internal enemy that is a threat both to the political order and, particularly, to the social order. Those that pollute the social and cultural make-up of contemporary Brazil pose, in his eyes, the greatest threat: criminals, the Afro-Brazilian community, the LGBTI community, environmentalists, indigenous groups, the urban poor, and the urban intellectual left.

These ideas are not specific to Brazil or Latin America. In a 2013 interview with Stephen Fry Bolsonaro talked about how homosexual fundamentalists were brainwashing children into becoming gay or gender non-conforming. These sorts of things are being said across the western world; they were a strong feature of the discourse against safe schools and marriage equality in Australia, for example. These ideas are internationally circulating within the right and are contributing to violence everywhere. But Bolsonaro comes from a milieu where violent action on the part of the state in pursuit of these ideas has a history, and he is advocating them openly from the highest office in the land.

‘An honest politician’. Bolsonaro campaign billboard, 2018. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

The term populist gets used so often, and with so many different types of political actors, that at times it loses its explanatory usefulness. As Ernesto Laclau explains, populism is not a specific set of ideas, left or right, but a style of politics in which the political field is divided into “us” and “them”. Populists promise to work for the “us” while promising to wind back the supposed privileges of the “them”.  They will most often speak of the “them” as the elite, even when, as in the case of Trump, it would be extremely hard to characterise them as anything other than elite themselves.

In the last decade or so, the elite “them” label has been successfully placed on social groups or ideas which have made gains since the end of the Cold War: the LGBTI community, women, environmentalists, human rights, and liberals and centre-leftists in general. These groups are presented as enjoying privileges that ordinary people – the “us” – don’t have, providing the basis for attacks on them and the gains they have made.

In Brazil these groups and ideas have made significant strides since the end of the dictatorship, and particularly since the PT took power in 2003. While relatively moderate, the PT government was socially progressive and committed to the ideals of equality which underpinned so many of the Cold War-era struggles that the Brazilian military fought so hard against.

Bolsonaro is a populist who seeks not just to wind back the gains of these groups, but in certain cases to remove these groups from society altogether. His incoming Vice-President, Hamilton Mourão – who has a clearer and more hardened ideological position than Bolsonaro – has alluded to the possibility of an autogolpe, a self-coup whereby the President dismisses the Congress, suspends the constitution and rules without restraint. Ostensibly, this would be in order to impose order upon a society and economy in chaos, meaning street protest as well as difficulty in passing certain measures within parliament. More likely, his government will see an increased militarisation of the police force, along with impunity for any violence wielded by security forces, extra-legal groups and individuals against the groups mentioned above. There will also be history wars: Bolsonaro wants a revision of the way the previous military regime is taught in schools with a vindication of the role of the armed forces in saving the nation.

Most commentators see Bolsonaro’s political fortune as tied to his ability to manage both the economy and corruption. Whatever he manages to do about these two issues, the legacy of his election will be the increasing use of political violence, at times masquerading as law and order, and the normalisation of this violence and its use throughout history. While it will have important differences with the violence of the military dictatorship, it will function in a similar way; targeted against groups deemed to be threats to the political, social and moral order. The task for historians will be to understand how, despite the liberal democratic idea that in the post-Cold War world we would never again experience these kinds of politics, they have survived and transformed


  1. You might want to correct the text, the PT came into power in 2003, and not in 1998.

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