Dicembre 1, 2018

Bolsonaro, Authoritarianism and Militarisation Are Nothing New

Credits: Luiz Baltar, Rio On Watch


To many, Jair Bolsonaro’s recent election seems to have come as a surprise, and has been described as a ‘really radical shift.’ Much ink has already been spilled over why he has been successful in speaking to so many Brazilians’ legitimate concerns and frustrations with, perhaps most prominently, public security, economic stability, and corruption. Within the limits of this piece, I offer a historical perspective to contextualise his victory, focusing on the issues of militarisation, authoritarianism, and the related criminalization of Brazil’s poor, black population. I argue that acknowledging Brazil’s settler colonial past and present helps us understand these trends beyond Jair Bolsonaro. I do this with two aims: Firstly, to undo the idea that he represents a paradigm shift in Brazilian politics, for the better (as the nation’s saviour) or worse (as a fascist ruler of a future military dictatorship). Secondly, I aim to lay bare the underlying question that Brazilians must address if they/we are to avoid future ‘Bolsonaros’ – that of decolonisation.


After 13 years of left-leaning Worker’s Party rule under Lula (2003-2010) and then Dilma (2010-2016), known for anti-poverty programmes such as Bolsa Família and affirmative action policies in higher education, Bolsonaro’s political agenda certainly represents a shift. With his explicitly anti-minority and -human rights, pro-gun, pro-torture and pro-military dictatorship rhetoric, Bolsonaro puts a hold on many Brazilian’s hopes for a more equitable future – one, for example, in which a much-needed agrarian reform may be possible. Nevertheless, seen over long historical periods, Bolsonaro represents not so much a shift in Brazil, but a continuation with the past. Bolsonaro, himself part of the establishment – serving as Federal Deputy for Rio de Janeiro since 1991 – is not a paradigmatic break, but only the logical culmination of hundreds of years of settler colonialism, white supremacy, inequality, and pro-authoritarianism.


Brazil’s Settler Colonial Present

Brazil, as we know, was a Portuguese settler colony – which, according to Patrick Wolfe (2006), is marked by the fact that ‘the settlers come to stay.’ And stay they did. Evidence for this is that independent Brazil became a monarchy under the reign of the heir of the Portuguese crown himself, Dom Pedro I (the so-called Empire of Brazil, from 1822-1889). Independent Brazil was thus not radically breaking with Portugal, but indeed continuing its ‘civilizing mission in the tropics.’ During its first few years, the Republic (1889-present) functioned as a military dictatorship and, since then, Brazil has bounced between military coups and (mostly shaky) democratic governments, while little has been done to upturn white privilege.


As slavery was gradually and reluctantly abolished between the 1850 and 1888, for example – when Brazil was the last country in the Western world to finally do so – the Law of Lands (Lei de Terras) of 1850 actively hindered recently freed slaves’ access to land. Brazil, instead, worried about its ‘racial quality’ because of the significant presence of blacks in the country, subsidized white immigration – preferably, from Europe – with the stated intention of whitening its population. Instead of creating the conditions for the inclusion of its former slaves, the (however precarious) formal labour market was reserved for such immigrants.


Under this policy of branqueamento, or whitening, circa 4.8 million immigrants entered Brazil, as compared to around 3.6 million slaves in the previous three centuries. This increased the number of whites from 38.1% in 1872 to 62.5% in 1950. At the same time, the Indian Protection Service (SPI, 1910-1967) and, later, the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI, 1967-present) was tasked with assimilating (read: eliminating) Brazil’s indigenous peoples. This assimilationist paradigm, as it came to be called, was to only change in the 1988 Constitution. As Brazil shifted between dictatorships and democracy, Brazil consistently maintained and renewed the exclusion and elimination of its non-white groups, and imagined itself as white – at least in the future.


In Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native, Patrick Wolfe identifies this logic of elimination as an organizing principle of settler colonies. He shows how such colonies renew this logic after independence, thereby remaining settler colonies. “Settler colonialism”, as he writes, “is relatively impervious to regime change.” In Brazil, we do not have a colonial past, but live in the settler colonial present. Bolsonaro and his anti-indigenous, anti-quilombola, anti-affirmative action, and so on rhetoric are part and parcel of this settler colonial structure, representing no contradictions to it.


Bolsonaro and the Elimination of Brazil’s Black and Indigenous Peoples

For Bolsonaro, “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” Such sentiments are not a rarity in Brazil, but a commonly shared perspective that comes as no surprise. It belongs to what Teresa Caldeira documented in City of Walls as ‘the talk of crime’, a manicheistic discourse of fear that intertwines “crime, fear of violence, and disrespect of citizenship rights.” Based on thorough interviews and fieldwork, Caldeira uncovered how Brazilians, facing rising crime rates since the 1980s, re-order the social and physical space of large cities such as São Paulo by categorizing some groups as naturally dangerous and evil. Good citizens (cidadãos de bem) are hereby differentiated from (potential) criminals, who are commonly associated with marginalized, often black spaces such as favelas – deemed themselves the location of disorder, chaos, immorality, and therefore criminality. Caldeira shows how even the victims of such policies (the poor and marginalized) reproduce this discourse. This explains, for example, why many favela and other periphery residents voted for Bolsonaro.


This is the modus operandi of Brazil’s seemingly never-ending War on Drugs. Bolsonaro merely reinforces this manicheistic differentiation between good citizens and ‘bandits,’ a differentiation that is linked to both non-democratic political principles – in particular, a defence of authoritarian measures or force to ‘deal with’ crime and criminals – and non-democratic urban planning, illustrated by the rise of so-called fortified enclaves, such as heavily surveilled condominiums. Brazil’s unequal social relations have always been inscribed into the physical landscape of its cities. Contradictorily, a mistrust of the state’s ability to resolve Brazil’s high crime rates is followed by both a call for more state intervention (authoritarianism) and for Brazilians’ right ‘to take matters into our/their own hands’.


Bolsonaro’s pro-gun and pro-militarisation policies make sense in this context, of what Louïs Wacquant has called the ‘neoliberal penal state’. Here, the welfare state is dismantled in the name of the invisible hand of the market and replaced by a punitive prison system. In Brazil, this state emerges during the military dictatorship, especially once drugs and organized crime came to symbolize the internal enemy. Later, democratization in the 1980s was not a radical break with the dictatorship, but a careful institutional opening that re-inscribed militarisation into public and private life through this penal state. At the same time, military officials were never tried for abuses and crimes committed between 1964-1985, and Brazil never left the state of exception – it has been repeatedly declared in the countries’ peripheries, justifying military interventions. The Guarantee of Law and Order (GLO) provision, used to justify the declaration of martial law in Rio in February 2018, is an illustrative example of this.


When understood as part of this neoliberal penal state, the anti-corruption Carwash Operation, which sent Lula to jail, begins to show its true colours. In the words of Malaguti Batista, “for every white-collar person in handcuffs in the spectacle of policing, we have thousands of young, black persons thrown into Brazil’s horrendous prisons.” The operation, which has arguably boosted Bolsonaro’s chances to win the election, runs the risk of implying little more than a spectacle of policing, for bringing little change for Brazil’s ‘usual suspects’ – the black poor, who make up the majority in our/its prison system.


The criminalization and de-humanization of Brazil’s black population and the territories associated with them is also linked to its condition as a settler colony. In O medo na cidade do Rio de Janeiro, Vera Malaguti Batista traced this criminalization to the 19th century fear of slave revolts. Black bodies have been criminalized and pathologized long before the rise of contemporary drug factions such as Comando Vermelho in the 1980s and the formation of neoliberal penal state. It is nothing new for black Brazilians and those living in the peripheries.


Indeed, even the Pacification Police Units (UPPs) implemented since 2008, which claimed to break with these historical trends, offer no real shift in this regard. The UPPs, too, declared the social death of favela residents as the justified ‘collateral damage’ of the seemingly indispensable military occupation of those communities – as if the networks of crime did not cross the formal and informal city or exist in what Thiago Rodrigues has described as a ‘symbiotic interaction’ with state power and the legal economy.


In the name of the War on Drugs, much blood has been spilled. Usually, it has been the blood of our young, black youth. The Violence Atlas of 2017 found that of every 100 homicide cases, 71 are black. It also found that black persons are 23.5% more likely of being the victims of homicide regardless of age, gender, education levels, marital status or residence. These high homicide rates show how the elimination of Brazil’s black peoples continues in its settler colonial present. The targeted killing of City Councillor Marielle Franco in 2018 belongs to this landscape. Bolsonaro merely confirms this picture, and promises to maintain this trend.


What is to be done? Dreaming Decolonial Futures

We/Brazilians need to have a conversation about decolonisation. As many indigenous and non-indigenous thinkers and activists from around the world have argued, independence from European powers was not decolonisation. Evidence for this is that settlers have remained on stolen indigenous lands, white supremacy continues to define power relations in independent Brazil, and the criminalization of poverty and blackness continues the elimination of Brazil’s non-white populations. Decolonisation is also not a mere inclusion into the settler nation-state. As Martinique-born philosopher Frantz Fanon reminds us in Wretched of the Earth, decolonisation requires a transformation of the ‘real nature of the colonial regime.’ As such, this is the political question and prompt with which I want to finish this piece: What would decolonisation mean in Brazil?


An answer to this question must tackle decolonisation in all its local, national, and transnational intersectionalities. More than anything, it must be led by the voices of those most affected by our/Brazil’s past and present settler colonialism – for example, by indigenous peoples and favela residents. Mobilisations such as Movimentos, a group of young favelados who are becoming organised to propose an alternative, non-militarised drug policy in Brazil, are the sites from which such possible decolonial futures will arise. They have been speaking out and up for a long time – it is now, more than ever, time to hear, support, act, and dream with them.


Bolsonaro is not the beginning of our current conundrum, and neither is he a solution to our struggles with inequality, public security, and economic stability. He is merely part of our/Brazil’s settler colonial structure, which finds itself in its most recent iteration in a post-Lula context. Until we explicitly acknowledge this settler colonial present and talk about what decolonisation in such a context means, we will keep finding our way back to militarisation, authoritarianism, and white supremacy.

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About Desirée Poets

Desirée Poets

Dr. Desirée Poets is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, she has been working with urban indigenous and urban quilombo groups in the Southeast Region of Brazil, and, more recently, she has started to explore the power of counter-hegemonic community museums in Rio’s favelas in breaking with discourses that justify militarised public security policies.

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