Brazil, Amazon, World: Ballots and Bullets

Less than a month before the general election on 2 October, it seems that things aren’t going well for incumbent president Jair Messías Bolsonaro. To begin with, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is retaining a strong lead (44% versus 33% on 31 August). And cards that have been waiting up sleeves are now being played. Yet with close inspection, they reveal more about old systemic problems of Brazilian politics and also global issues than about the present chances of the man who bragged, “Anything can happen”.

On 1 September the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) convicted Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity for COVID-19 (anti-)policies that led to the deaths of at least 100,000 people (in fact, the official death toll exceeds 683,300). Judge Eugenio Zaffaroni accepted that “there was intentionality on the part of Jair Bolsonaro behind the deaths during the pandemic”. Not only that, but there’s so much evidence of genocide against native peoples that he recommended that the case should be referred to the International Criminal Court and, indeed, the lawyer for the Association of Indigenous Peoples, Mauricio Terena, confirmed that it’s going to The Hague. But genocide isn’t exactly hot news unless it’s being used for China or Russia bashing. Just look at the case of West Papua, sixty years of it, and hardly a peep of protest from the “international community”. Genocide has patterns, so places where the world’s three biggest and most endangered rainforests are located, the Amazon, Congo, and West Papua, are also linked by crimes against humanity. If the word “genocide” isn’t used for Congo (gold, copper, diamonds, coltan) the fact remains that some six million people have died since 1996 as a result of violence.

Channel 4 News in the UK understands the global repercussions, that the Brazilian election “will determine the future of the Amazon rainforest, and the world’s fight against climate change”. It’s on the right track but not enough. The fight against climate change means protecting the world’s rainforests, respecting their Indigenous custodians, learning from Indigenous knowledge, applying serious initiatives like the Green State Vision which was launched by West Papua’s independence leaders at COP26, where it was ignored. It means ceasing all other forms of extractive plunder now, understanding that the planet’s future depends on this. This is a matter of universal human rights (and those of other species) if ever there was one. It’s no project for a criminal against humanity. Lula is Brazil’s and the world’s best chance. To begin with he’s promised an Indigenous Ministry if he wins the election, and the good news is that a record number of 181 Indigenous people have registered as candidates.

To return to the present tribulations of the rinky-dink former captain Bolsonaro (who, it seems, once plotted to disrupt Rio’s water supply with explosives to protest low wages), the “anti-corruption” warrior of the 2018 election, it’s now been revealed that between 1990 and 2022, he and his relatives used large sums of cash to buy more than fifty properties worth millions of dollars, as well as at least fifty-six more bought “normally”. One source of all this lolly seems to be the racket of embezzling wages of employees known as the rachadinha (the cut). The cash transaction, the most common medium of exchange in the international drug trade, has the advantage of privacy, anonymity, and protection from big data collection. The bagman show is also a deliberate cultivation of the mobster image, which Jair Bolsonaro obligingly confirmed when asked by a reporter how come his wife Michelle had received about $87,000 from former military policeman Fabrício José Carlos de Queiroz, onetime chauffer of Bolsonaro’s son Flávio: “You make me want to shut your mouth with my fist”.

Queiroz happens to have been close to the hitman Adriano de Nóbrega, friend of the Bolsonaro family, suspected of murdering Rio councilwoman Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes in 2018, and not so coincidentally gunned down himself in February 2020. As the recently murdered journalist Dom Phillips reported at the time, “Nóbrega, his wife and his mother are named in a criminal investigation into allegations of embezzlement, money laundering and racketeering involving Bolsonaro’s son Flávio, ex-police officer Fabrício Queiroz and others”. But much of the reporting about the Bolsonaro properties has stopped with the strange cash payments themselves, without inquiry into the whys and wherefores of this anomaly, which would actually branch into murder. A new book, O negócio do Jair (Jair’s Business), is about to spill some beans about how the Bolsonaro clan embezzled millions of reals to build the regressive homicidal political project that took it to ultimate control of the country. Regression and the violence are what mark this candidate.

Finally, Bolsonaro’s third recent nightmare is that somebody who doesn’t love him commandeered the family’s official cock-a-doodle-doo site, the URL, to portray him as “a cretinous, subservient, incompetent, duplicitous, corrupt and tyrannical hate-filled liar”. Bouquets to the internet activist. This is good for a malicious tee-hee but there’s a scary background of a massive disinformation campaign on the social media, which brought Bolsonaro to power in 2018, when 56 percent of the most-shared political images were misleading, while—and this aspect tends to be overlooked in all the white noise—the messages also threatened torture survivors of the military dictatorship as well as younger human rights activists. For Steve Bannon, Bolsonaro “was kind of Trump to the tenth power on social media”. Now, if he wins re-election, he can pick another two judges for the Supreme Court, thus eliminating all checks and balances. He’s also spoiling for another kind of fight, claiming that the election results won’t be trustworthy, that they’ll be rigged by the Supreme Court. Like Trump, he has plenty of fascistoid followers who’ll believe him. Threat also appears in the joint statement published by leaders of influential armed forces clubs criticising the electoral system’s “lack of transparency”. This is where “Jair’s Business” of a regressive political project becomes menacing.

It’s menacing because the not-so-past “past” has come back to bite, especially as the revivified spectre of the American-backed military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985. Eliane Brum foresaw before Jair Messías Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018 that he’s “the monstrous product of the country’s silence about crimes committed by its former dictatorship”. Immediately afterwards, Human Rights Watch warned that Bolsonaro wouldn’t accept the results unless he won, threatening that “we will shoot Workers Party supporters”, while his running mate army general Antônio Hamilton Mourão talked about a “self-coup” with support from the armed forces in case of “anarchy”.

This time round, Bolsonaro’s trying to use the armed forces with a military parade on Independence Day, September 7, to boost his wonky image. Although some military brass are saying that linking a military parade with the elections is unacceptable, Bolsonaro knows that he can count on others. He made sure of this in 2021 when he sacked his defence minister, and the three top armed forces commanders were pushed to resign because they declined to make public demonstrations of their support. His uniformed lickspittles were rewarded with salaries that soared to $200,000 at the height of the pandemic, plus all sorts of other perks like plenty of Viagra to boost their macho-ness should anyone start feeling flaccid. Many people haven’t forgotten that, in April 2018, the then-commander of the Army, General Eduardo Dias da Costa Villas Boas, tweeted that the military was “attentive to its institutional mission” and “repudiates impunity”, the day before the Supreme Court was to make a ruling that could have saved former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from spending more than a year in prison on trumped up graft charges. Whatever the tweet’s effect on the ruling, the underlying message was about the military’s return to politics. Captain Bolsonaro’s main rival was removed but, also, this ominously gold-braided and beribboned comeback probably played a key role in his success.

In Brazil’s traumatic recent history, impunity is a key word. The 3,383-page National Truth Commission (CNV) report (2012-2014) stipulates that the armed forces should acknowledge their responsibility for gross human rights abuse during the military dictatorship, that blanket amnesty given in the 1979 amnesty law for crimes against humanity should be suspended (CNV 964–5), that reforms should be implemented in the armed forces, law enforcement and criminal justice systems, and that military and state police should be separated. But, since the report’s gruesome findings weren’t acted on, official representations of the dictatorship have remained as paralysing revisionism. Another effect of the CNV was that the generals took its report as an “insult to our honor” which would damage their reputation (and budget) if they didn’t become politically active again. Whatever its internal divisions, today’s military poses yet another problem, namely that it “may be able to seize the upper hand no matter who emerges in power” because it’s come to be a kind of deep state controlling the intelligence apparatus and its “vast amount of information that can compromise almost everyone in politics”.

The much-vaunted transition to democracy is a myth because human rights were never guaranteed. This exercise in “failed memory politics” turned out to be a successful project of dismantling democratic institutions while militarising government within “a formally democratic process”. More than a third of the top government posts today are filled by former or active military personnel, and others by ultra-right evangelicals like the mind-bogglingly parodic pink-for-girls-and-blue-for-boys Damares Alves (“little girls from poor families get raped because they don’t wear knickers”), Minister for Family, Women, and Human Rights.

To some extent, Bolsonaro got away with it because the military’s perverse description of the 1979 Amnesty Law as offering “reciprocal amnesty” benefitting “torturers and victims alike” has been accepted at face value in wider society, even by leftist politicians and artists. However, not content with using this logically and legally impossible amnesty to draw a veil over the brutal past, he’s encouraging the armed forces to brazenly celebrate the dictatorship. In 2019 he ordered them to commemorate the fifty-fifth anniversary of the 1964 coup֫—4,841 elected representatives removed from office, 20,000 people tortured, 434 people killed or disappeared (the approximately 8,000 dead Indigenous people don’t figure in the usual count)—dismissed the CNV report as “nonsense”, and hailed the sadistic torturer colonel Carlos Alberto Ustra as a “national hero”, which was also in line with his praise for the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner as a “visionary, a statesman”, and for Augusto Pinochet who, in the interests of the country, “had to cause a bloodbath”. Meanwhile, presidential pardons, guaranteeing more impunity for human rights violations are still in the pipeline, so in the poor districts of Rio de Janeiro, for example, unpunished police killings represented 30% of total homicides in the first half of 2019. If previous governments had enforced the Truth Commission’s findings, Bolsonaro could never have stood for election, in 2018 or today.

Another factor in this diabolical revamping of a thug into a most unstately head of state is a long tradition of top-level secrecy where, for example, archives related to internal repression in the nineteenth century remain inaccessible and, after the end of slavery in the 1890s, all relevant documents were incinerated. The sickening 1967 Figuereido Report on atrocities against Indigenous groups from 1940 to 1980 (and shedding light on current land policies) disappeared for 40 years, made a brief reappearance in 2013 and, to all intents and purposes, disappeared again (and, incidentally, Figuereido died in a “suspicious” accident in 1974). Meanwhile, silence about their policies of torture and selective assassinations allowed military ideologues to consolidate a “national security doctrine” that became the basis of protecting its privileges and claims to be implementing a gradual and safe transition to civilian rule. In fact, the military is now more involved in politics than at any other point since 1985. Since there was little or no official attempt to inform the public about military crimes or to incorporate the grim history into school curricula, the myths have remained unchallenged. It seems that post-dictatorship governments have tiptoed around the issue of impunity because they feared that society in general might oppose confrontation with the thus whitewashed armed forces.

This reluctance to condemn the military dictatorship for once and for all, this almost nostalgia for violence-in-the-name-of security is what Bolsonaro is tapping into, and also what Lula will need to confront head-on if he wins this year’s election. It all boils down to a gigantic human rights problem. In Lula’s two previous mandates, 49% of the ministers were former guerrilla fighters or anti-regime student leaders but this problem wasn’t addressed, despite the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in November 2010 on the “Guerrilla of Araguaia” case referring to the disappearance of seventy people in the Araguaia region of the state of Pará, between 1972 and 1975; despite the IACHR’s condemnation of Brazil’s inaction regarding a process of transitional justice; of its violation of the American Convention on Human Rights; and of the refusal, in April 2010, of the Brazilian Supreme Court to revoke the 1979 Amnesty Law. Most important, the IACHR established that crimes against humanity cannot be amnestied. Since nothing was done, impunity poisoned Brazilian politics for another twelve years.

Historical memory varies, depending on the social group. While the better-off sectors of society might feel that the national security (protecting privileges) doctrine applies positively to them, Brazil’s Indigenous peoples are under no such illusion. For them, the dictatorship was nothing new but something that already existed because they’d long been seen as subhuman, slaves by nature who’d later become rebels and obstacles when the dictatorship “modernised” them with projects like the Trans-Amazonian and Perimetral Norte highways, and the Belo Monte and Itaipu hydroelectric plants, complete with press-ganged Indigenous labour and appropriation of land and resources. This usually disregarded ongoing legacy includes gross abuses against the Tenharim, Jiahui, Arara, Prakanã, Krenak, and Yanomami peoples, the Cintas-Larga massacre, the expulsion of the Kadiweus people from their territory, extermination of 36% of the population of Indigenous people living along the Xingu River, epidemics among the Carajás ethnic group, and child malnutrition, to name a few. Their situation has only worsened in the so-called democratic transition. For them, the dictatorship is one more chapter in a civilising horror story.

There’s considerable speculation about what stunt the self-proclaimed “Trump of the tropics” will pull in order to be re-elected next month, ranging from a coup to save the country from the people he himself armed, to decreeing an election delay sine die, which would well suit the 50+% of Congress members who are in danger of losing their seats. This is combined with strongman bluffing like, “we’ll take whatever measures are necessary because every day I count on an army that is approaching 200 million”. Whatever else he does, he’ll try to whip up the always lurking issues of unpunished killings by military police and their militias who work on the principle that arbitrary terror is total terror, and those arising from ever-growing inequality based on deeply ingrained racism and human rights violations, all of which favours, in the midst of economic crisis, at least among more privileged voters, political amnesia and the embrace of authoritarian “national security” policies. Voting for bullets can only bring more bullets and an on-steroids revival of a violent history.

This is the past that Lula will have to deal with if he wins the election. And if he’s going to take up this challenge, he’ll have to place questions of historical memory, inequality, racism, and ecocide at the centre of his policies. The only sufficiently transversal framework for dealing with all this is human rights, which means clear, firm policies on how to introduce, implement, consolidate, and protect them. We believe his two best options are a universal basic income to tackle inequality (a decent “national security” policy) and a powerful, truly representative human rights ministry, in fact a super-ministry that would be consulted and involved in the projects and laws of the other ministries, and that would include a project of defending the Amazon as part of an international endeavour to respect the world’s rainforests and their peoples. In next month’s election, the choice is between this frail global hope and a parochial version of twenty-first-century benightedness.