Is Bolsonaro Plotting a Self-Coup?

The Bolsonaro government’s recent decision to stop releasing data on the COVID-19 pandemic as the death toll surges above 40,000 has caused an international uproar and deepened domestic discontent. A DataPoder360 survey, published on June 11 showed that the sum of those who see the administration of Jair Bolsonaro as “regular” (22%) or “bad or awful” (47%) have become the large majority.

Bolsonaro has isolated himself internationally and even his main ally, U.S. President Donald Trump, has criticized the way in which he has dealt with the pandemic – not without first sending two million doses of Hydroxychloroquine, a treatment that the global far right has promoted as a miracle cure for the disease despite the lack of a medical consensus. With approval ratings in free fall, but still maintaining a base of about 30% of Brazilians, the Brazilian president has increasingly moved to the far right.

As his popularity wanes, Bolsonaro relies more and more on the support of ultraright groups and social media activists. Several of the most prominent among them are being investigated by Congress and the Supreme Court for spreading fake news and hate speech and attacking institutions. They advocate for violent repression of left-wing activists and count among their ranks growing fascist and neo-Nazi activists and groups. Some have openly called for a military coup d’état and a regimen of violent repression of Brazil’s black and indigenous populations.

“In these past two years we have seen a gradual erosion of Bolsonaro’s support base,” says David Magalhães, International Relations professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. “When he was elected in 2018 he had the support of various groups within the Brazilian right wing, the anti-middle class vote, the vote of those who seemed to have an allergy to politicians, but opted for Bolsonaro in the wake of the Lava Jato [Car Wash] operation, the ‘liberals,’ etc. The majority of this electorate moved away from Bolsonaro for a number of reasons, leaving a hard, ideological and increasingly fanatical core,” he says.

“It’s a naturally radical core, that flirts with the US alt-right, Viktor Órban’s religious nationalism, and Polish reactionaryism. The more harassed, the more violent and fascist this group reveals itself to be”.

Commenting on the radicalization of the right, philosopher and professor of the Lutheran University of Brazil (ULBRA), Moysés Pinto Neto, says that “it is difficult to know whether we are facing an escalation or the aggressive retreat of a cornered animal”.

Neto adds that “the government is weak, and weakness doesn’t mean no risk. Sometimes fascist regimes are consolidated by the inability of their opponents to organize, taking advantage of the fragmentation in their favour and governing in an authoritarian manner without a majority. Once it takes hold, the return is complicated and difficult.”

The far-right groups in Bolsonaro’s core bases are small, but they wield an outsized influence on a government that has espoused its affinity to their toxic blend of racism, misogyny and militarism.

Among the president’s support groups is the “300 do Brasil” (or 300 of Brazil, a reference to 2006 movie “300” which tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC when 300 Spartan warriors commanded by King Leonidas face the army of the Persian King Xerxes I. Its followers encourage the use of violence. Some have been camped out in front of the Supreme Court in Brasília, occasionally threatening ministers of the court and implying they will invade the building. The Court has delivered some setbacks to Bolsonaro`s agenda, thus earning the enmity of his supporters.

300 do Brasil doesn’t even come close to 300. The group has only one or two dozen members, however, they are very vocal and form part of a larger pro-Bolsonaro militant block that includes a network of bloggers and fake news websites. Former members have revealed that there is a so-called Office of Hate, the nucleus of the government’s propaganda machine, headed by Carlos Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons.

The “300 do Brasil” is led by former founder of the Brazilian chapter of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN turned-anti-feminist Christian, Sara Winter, who has a history of neo-Nazi militancy and an iron cross tattooed on her chest. Winter, whose real name is Sara Fernanda Giromini, adopted the false name of Nazi supporter and leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sarah Winter née Domville-Taylor – although publicly she claims the eponym is coincidence.

On May 31 she and her supporters marched through the streets of Brasilia with torches and masks to protest Supreme Court Judge Alexander de Moraes’ decision to investigate her for making threats against the court and for forming a private militia. Far-right guru, Olavo de Carvalho, who lives in the United State, has also recorded a video in which he asks for the death penalty for Moraes.

 “I believe that the increase in violence on the part of the far-right, including through the action of police forces, is due to the perception of the increase in their vulnerability. In other words, it is a reaction to the change in the political climate to its disadvantage,” explains political scientist and Coordinator of the Professional Master in Management and Public Policies at Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), Claudio Couto.

He adds, “It is good to remember that violence, both symbolic and real, is a distinctive feature of the far-right; they cultivate violence and practice it whenever possible, so such actions are, to a large extent, an expected outcome of its political orientation.”

Bolsonaro has been politically isolated, particularly after the resignation of his former Minister of Justice, Sérgio Moro on April 24, who brought with him an important political base for the president. Bolsonaro’s policies to deny the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, catapulting Brazil to the top of the list of fatality rates, has also cost him significant support.

The president also faces backlashes due to investigations against family members and political allies for participation in fake news networks. Bolsonaro supporters have also been named in investigations into the March 2018 assassination of councilwoman Marielle Franco and involvement with militias in Rio de Janeiro. The president’s authoritarian tone, echoed by many of his supporters, has eroded his base among sectors that previously supported his presidency.

In April, far-right blogger Allan dos Santos, investigated by the National Congress’ recently formed Joint Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the spreading of Fake News, tweeted to his followers to create applications and locate “those who celebrate and promote communism” to “hunt these people down” and “lynch them on social media”.

Recent statements have indicated the possibility of a self-coup. The president himself was caught on video advocating handing over weapons to the population, saying that “It is easy to impose dictatorship in Brazil. That’s why I want the people to arm themselves.”

In the past months, Bolsonaro endorsed and directly participated in  several demonstrations in Brasilia that demanded shutting down the national congress (where Bolsonaro has difficulty forming a majority) and imposing a military dictatorship. “It’s more than your right — it’s your obligation to fight for your country,” Bolsonaro said to a crowd of pro-coup demonstrators against local lockdown measures on April 19. “We don’t want to negotiate anything. We want action for Brazil.”

The president and protestors oppose social isolation measures during the Covid-19 pandemic, challenging governors’ decisions to impose measures to restrict movement. Demonstrations against social isolation have taken place throughout the country, gathering between hundreds and thousands of people.

Targeting the Left

For the first time in many months, left-wing movements have organized to take to the streets in protest against Bolsonaro. On Sunday, May 31, antifascist members from football fan clubs protested on Paulista Avenue in São Paulo where they confronted right-wing forces, among them Neo-Nazis who had gathered to support Bolsonaro – as they do every weekend.

The Military Police attacked the anti-fascists with bombs and rubber bullets while ignoring the right-wing demonstrators. At least 6 anti-fascist activists were arrested.

Soon after, lawmaker and Bolsonaro supporter, Douglas Garcia (PSL-SP) asked his followers on social media to send him names, photos and any data of anti-fascist activists, whom he called criminals,  although there is no legislation criminalizing the act or practice of opposing fascism in Brazil.

At first activists, took Garcia’s initiative as a joke. Some organized a campaign to send photos of former soccer player Vampeta, naked, to the congressmen. But he wasn’t kidding. Days later he released  a 999-page list with names, addresses, phone numbers and social security numbers (among other sensitive data) of thousands of anti-fascists. The compiled list is being shared in WhatsApp groups and puts thousands of people at risk.

Lawmaker Garcia is being investigated by the Supreme Court for involvement in a fake news network. He says, however, that the investigation is a way to “silence the voice of the conservatives.” On May 27, Federal Police entered Garcia’s office to collect documents linking his chief of staff, Edson Salomão, to the fake news network. The São Paulo Public Ministry is looking into whether Garcia “used the structure of his office to promote hate demonstrations on the Internet against political opponents,”, and collect signatures for the creation of a new far-right political party, Alliance for Brazil, which Jair Bolsonaro would lead, reported the newspaper O Globo.

Bolsonaro currently does not belong to a party, having cut ties with the Social Liberal Party (PSL), which elected him. The PSL is divided between two blocs, one that supports him and another that has passed to the opposition.

The fake news networks near the president have also been persecuting journalists, with the promotion of doxxing (disclosing data about people and their families to intimidate them), using bots and virtual militancy to harass with accusations and threats and promoting attacks on journalists who cover acts and speeches of the president.

On June 2, a Twitter account linked to the far-right leaked personal data on Gabriela Biló, a reporter for the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo.In February, journalist Vera Magalhães, of the same newspaper, suffered a similar attack.

In response to Garcia’s  list, the Activist Bench – a group of 9 legislators members of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) – will ask for Garcia’s impeachment on the grounds of breaking congressional decorum. Several prominent human rights lawyers have offered their services to those who have had their data disclosed, as public outrage mounts.

However, Brazilian laws provide little guidance on the relatively new phenomenon of orchestrating social media attacks. “At a glance, the lawmaker has committed no felonies,” explains criminal lawyer and professor at the Center for Law and Business Studies, Marcelo Sarsur. “If he compiled public data, readily available on social media profiles, his action can be summarized as misguided, but not necessarily criminal.”

“Any misuse of public funds in order to compile this list might be scrutinized by internal investigations in the São Paulo State Assembly, or by the Public Prosecutor’s Office. However, the possibility of sanctions is slim.”

On the other hand, Sarsur notes that “calling oneself ‘antifa’ or joining ‘antifa’ discussion groups cannot be considered a felony, either for “belonging to a criminal enterprise” (Article 288 of the Brazilian Criminal Code) or “belonging to a terrorist organization” (Article 3, Federal Statute 13.260/2016 – Antiterrorism Bill). Should the lawmaker deliver the so-called ‘Antifa list’ to Federal authorities, or even to foreign embassies, no legal action can be taken against the people whose data were exposed.

He adds, “However, it is troubling that, 70 years after the McCarthyist movement in the US, someone could invoke the idea of a ‘subversives’ list’ as something brand new, or in the public interest.”

Sarsur notes that the people on the list could launch civil actions due to the unlawful public exposure of personal data. There are reports that people exposed on the list have been fired from their jobs. The list includes places frequented by left-wing activists, such as bars, bookstores, shops and public squares in several cities and  amateur football, potentially targeting these places for attacks.

Garcia tweeted that he handed the list over to the federal police and members of his party in several states. After the list was published, however, went on Twitter again to say he wasn’t responsible for the dossier, accusing the left of being liars, criminals and terrorists, and threatening to sue everyone who accused him of leaking the list he compiled. The list began circulating the day after the lawmaker showed a series of pages claiming to be a list of names of anti-fascists. He also recorded a blurry video showing images from the dossier.

Citizen engagement fellow at the World Bank and PhD in sociology Eduardo Caducos, and  technologist Lucas Lago created a tool to help people find out if their name is on the list without disclosing sensitive data Sharing the list is discouraged for obvious reasons, so although it was released online, lawyers and activists seek to avoid more widespread, data leakage that contributes to the persecution of activists and journalists. Since day one of Bolsonaro’s government, journalists have been threatened and n cases of physical assault have been reported.

On June 1, Federal Congressman Daniel Silveira (PSL-RJ), also a military policeman, proposed to change the Anti-Terrorism Law passed by then-President Dilma Rousseff to include anti-fascist groups, or Antifas, as terrorists. The proposal echoes U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet the day before.  If passed, Silveira’s legislation would criminalize any activist who protested against the government and opposed fascism, leading to heavy prison sentences.

Both Neto and Couto expect the situation to get worse.

“Bolsonarism is an extremist movement and, as such, is nourished by conflict and the escalation of conflict, so keeping the conflict burning and stirring it up is inherent in its nature,” says Couto. “The government has passed the point of no return in its conflagration with other political actors, its retreats from now on, if they occur, will only be tactical, and of very short duration. The tendency is for this government to force the rupture and, to this end, mobilize the forces that support it.”

Before writing this article, I found out that I am on the list of anti-fascists – including my name, social security number, date of birth and e-mail address. As I currently live outside Brazil, I am safer than fellow journalists and activists who could be the target of violence in Brazil.

Nevertheless, it’s still worrying to see the long reach of the hate machine linked to President Jair Bolsonaro.

As Brazil’s president confronts serious difficulties in forming a new party and maintaining his electoral base, and his family and closest allies face numerous investigations that could very well wind back to him, he depends on the ultraright factions that unconditionally support him.

The philosophy professor, Neto, explains, “[Bolsonaro] will risk everything, because he is an impetuous and aggressive individual–and he has nothing to lose.”