Bolsonaro’s assault on difference

Brazil’s most vulnerable people are feeling the pressure – and the fear. Kaspar Loftin reports from Brazil’s northeast

Members of Brazil's Homeless Workers' Movement (MTST) shout slogans in a protest to demand affordable low-income housing from the President Jair Bolsonaro government, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

In his first week in power, Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro dissolved the Ministry of Culture. This is the body that, in previous years, had worked to celebrate and promote one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world.

Like his neoliberal predecessor Michel Temer, who in his first few weeks scrapped the Ministry of Women and the Ministry of Racial Equality, Bolsonaro’s pretext for getting rid of the Ministry of Culture was to save costs.

But it sets the tone for a government that not only does not value but will not tolerate difference.

Raisa is an administrator in the Northeastern town of Olinda. In her view ‘we are all equal’ are ‘the words of a man that cannot see how he is protected by privilege’.

A congressman for over 25 years, Jair Bolsonaro has been proudly airing his views on what he, and a small, far-right contingent regard as ‘normal’ – a definition that equates with his own identity as a heterosexual, Christian, wealthy, white male from the South. These characteristics represent only a minority in Brazilian society, but are typical of a group that has dominated the country for centuries.

Recently, openly-gay congressman Jean Wyllys fled the country after receiving death threats. ‘I have to stay alive,’ he explained.

Bolsonaro’s victory has succeeded in bringing his agenda into the mainstream, resulting in the undoing of a decade of progress and increasing vulnerability for women, low-income, black and indigenous citizens and LGBTIQ groups.

According to Raisa, the LGBTIQ community experienced unprecedented visibility under the Workers’ Party (PT), with gains such as the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013. During the ‘soft coup’ government of Michel Temer, which in 2016 ousted Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff, progress on women’s and LGBTIQ rights started rolling backwards.

But still, last year thousands turned-out for the annual Pride event in the Northeast capital of Recife. The beachside parade along the promenade in Boa Viagem was a colourful celebration of the city’s LGBTIQ community.

This year the atmosphere may be less festive. Bolsonaro’s appointment of evangelical pastor Damares Alves as Human Rights Minister gives pause. At her swearing-in ceremony, Alves affirmed the administration’s authoritarian line on sexuality, telling the crowd: ‘boys wear blue and girls wear pink.’ This comes at a time when, as Raisa says, ‘we need to be understanding sexuality outside of a standardized concept.’

A key part of Bolsonaro’s appeal to middle-class voters was his tough stance on violent crime. Ironically, most of it occurs in lower-income, non-white neighbourhoods – many of which cling to hillsides on the peripheries of major cities.

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery and non-white people endure far lower standards of living and access to public services. According to Luis, a black activist from Recife, Bolsonaro’s election has created an ‘extremely dangerous scenario for the black community’.

Non-white Brazilians experienced advances under the Worker’s Party such as the introduction of racial quotas in universities and promotion of traditional cultures. Although these policies were ‘too timid’ in Luis’ view, poverty reduction programmes, such as Bolsa Familia, had a very positive impact. Northeasterners emphasize how the Workers’ Party transformed the impoverished, dry, starvation-prone hinterlands of the Sertão. But the country is now in reverse and the ultra-neoliberal economic programme promised by chief economic adviser, Paolo Guedes, will hit the most vulnerable hardest.

Luis sees the Bolsonaro regime as ‘combative against black people’– especially in terms of government support for police targeting of young black men. This aggression may well extend to other minority groups and leftist activists. The assassination of popular leftwing, black, lesbian councillor Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro last year shocked the country, but similar incidents could become more common. Recently, openly-gay congressman Jean Wyllys fled the country after receiving death threats. ‘I have to stay alive,’ he explained.

Bolsonaro has consistently used violent and inflammatory rhetoric when referring to the political opposition. In December Rio police foiled an assassination plot by local militias against Marcelo Freixo, a close political ally of Marielle Franco. That same month two members of the Landless Workers Movement – a group Bolsonaro had previously labelled as ‘terrorists’ – were murdered in the state of Paraíba.

Ironically, Bolsonaro’s assault on difference has been sanctioned by depicting himself as ‘different’ – according to his supporters he was the only ‘clean man’ in politics, untouched by the infamous Car Wash scandal. This reputation was challenged in December when an investigation was launched into suspect payments between members of his family and their driver. His son Flávio – himself a politician in Rio – has been accused by Rio’s biggest newspaper O Globo of having links to the militia group suspected of the murder of Marielle Franco.

The new president’s penchant for extremism and close ties to the military pose a threat to Brazil’s fragile democracy. Whatever unfolds over the next few months, the vulnerable are set to become more so.