Brazil, Now What? The Serpent’s Eggs or Incubating Consequences

A painting on a wallDescription automatically generated with medium confidence

“The Serpent’s Eggs or Repetition of History”. Dry and oil pastel on paper. Jean Wyllys, 2023.

Lula’s new mandate got off to a rocky start. When sworn in on 1 January this year, he vowed to rebuild a country in “terrible ruins”. But it wasn’t just ruins he had to deal with. There were things that lay in waiting, many serpent’s eggs to be hatched in different nests within the administration he would be taking over. Yet instead of a coherent stance that would take consequences into account, it seems that Lula has decided to rest on his laurels as a pragmatist and deal maker, which means selecting piecemeal actions and consorting and making compromises with people who are set on undermining what he says he stands for. His election pledges of macroeconomic growth, tackling inequality and hunger, increased minimum wage and wealth taxes, combatting poverty, state-funded social housing, and reining in deforestation (net-zero deforestation), and illegal mining look good against a Bolsonaro background but they could only work within a comprehensive human rights framework which would have to include the grave global situation of ecocide. In a country where the parallel reality of social media overshadows everything as a kind of fake mass-based democracy, Lula’s achievements one year on don’t fit well with the promise he held out.

As the person now most responsible for the world’s biggest rainforest, the Amazon, Lula represented a last, if not the last chance for saving it, and hence the planet, if only he had dared really to challenge the whole system that has brought Earth to the brink of five main tipping points: collapse of huge ice sheets in Greenland, demise of the West Antarctic, thawing permafrost, death of coral reefs, and slowing of the ocean current known as the North Atlantic subpolar gyre, with all the catastrophic cascade effects involved as these systems and others are so closely interconnected. Coming after the nightmare of the Bolsonaro government, he seemed to be about the only politician in the world with the apparent moral and diplomatic stature to try to use his geopolitical power in the service of truly universal human rights. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons—after all he is an old man—he didn’t accept the big challenges of a new radical leadership that might have helped to lift global politics out of the morass it’s in.

The morass gave its first menacing sign, on the domestic front, with the orchestrated attack on the country’s legislative, executive, and judicial headquarters in Brasília on 8 January 2023, deliberately referring back to the attack on the US Congress two years earlier. But there’s a crucial difference. The US military declared its commitment to democracy, at least within the USA. This isn’t exactly the position of Lula’s defense minister, José Múcio Monteiro, whose relationship with the military is very friendly. And this particular military is one with deep roots in more than twenty years (1964-1985) of military dictatorship, unpunished crimes, and recent cossetting by Jair Bolsonaro, an unashamed admirer of the dictatorial regime who appointed military personnel to key positions of the civilian administration. It was no surprise that, in January, the Armed Forces allowed protesters to camp in a military security area and protected them from arrest, which then fuelled coup rumors in the social networks.

With the attack on the Planalto Palace, Múcio notoriously said he was trying to “rein in” the plotters—who were calling for military intervention that would usher in a new military regime—by throwing fuel on the fire and persuading Lula to use the so-called GLO (Law and Order Assurance), a legal device that allows the president to call for an operation “conducted by the Armed Forces” and whose uses, especially under previous PT governments, has encouraged the military’s re-emergence as a principal actor in the Brazilian political sphere. And it’s still biding its time.

The far-right attacks were well organized and must also be seen as part of an international movement, as trumpeted by the symbolism of 8 January. There was no hiding the pally coziness of the Brazilian and US far right, with Steve Bannon, friend of the Bolsonaro family, guiding the political process in Brazil for the last ten years. The aim in Brasília was to get at least a million demonstrators to do as much damage as possible so the army would be called in to restore order (read: crush democratic institutions). And the attackers were brought to Brasília in buses paid for by donors in ten states, notable among them big names in the agribusiness sector. Those who didn’t travel to Brasília blocked fuel supplies and supermarket supplies, trying to create chaos through scarcity of essential products, as happened in Chile in September 1973.

Jair Bolsonaro may be barred from running for office until 2030, and he may be keeping a low profile while he’s facing criminal investigations but Bolsonarismo is alive and well in forms that aren’t easy to pinpoint and combat. Some spring from the self-described “Hate Cabinet”, an “ecosystem of lies” mainly run by his son Carlos, with a key aim of preparing for his 2022 election campaign against current president Lula, which draws on old violence and keeps creating new forms. It still exists, but not officially. Its financiers include a lot of people connected to agribusiness, mining, timber trafficking, and illegal deforestation in the Amazon and many of its employees, creators of content, were actually employed by the executive branch.

Not unrelated with the Hate Cabinet is the traditional media which, in turn is in cahoots with the evangelical churches. For example, the openly Bolsonarista Record TV, broadcasting to the whole country belongs to Edir Macedo, head of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, who wants to create a “theocratic state”. Its hate speciality is demonising Afro-Brazilian religions like Umbanda and Candomblé, Jews (“Christ-killers”), Catholics (“devil worshippers”), Protestants (“false Christians”), and Muslims (“demonic”). Then there are TV channels like SBT, and the cable news channel Jovem Pan. The evangelical churches, accounting for more than 30% of the population are also using the pulpit to spread Hate Cabinet narratives. These churches especially in Rio de Janeiro, are associated with narco-Pentecostalism and paramilitary groups that, in some neighbourhoods, control gas distribution, cable TV, and even public transport.

The federal government is prioritizing its Brasil Sem Fome program, and of course it’s a basic, important measure when one Bolsonaro legacy was a population where 58% faces food insecurity in some or other degree, and 33% classified as having the most severe degree of “technical hunger”. This isn’t just a consequence of the pandemic, but also an absence of agrarian reform, a systematic dismantling of public policy, and rising food prices, all of which can be connected with fake news activity, especially disseminated racism because hunger disproportionately affects women, the Black population, rural dwellers and residents of the northern and northeastern areas, so 65% of households headed by dark-skinned individuals are living with food insecurity resulting from gender, racial, class relations and, in general, structural racism underpinned by constant misinformation and hate speech. So, if hunger is to be tackled effectively, all its causes must be identified and combatted, which would involve coherent public policies, fighting misinformation and its propagators, vocal and financial, regulating information in the social media to prevent the circulation of false information and hate speech, promoting culture, and the digital inclusion of Brazilians in such a way as to satisfy the “desire for truth”. It also requires prosecution of fake news propagators, which means strengthening the weakened executive and judicial branches of government, as well as restoring dignity to the heavily attacked institutions, Congress, and Supreme Court.

Brazilian professor David Nemer describes the relationship between misinformation and hate and how the enemy, often in racist guise, must be constructed. Without hate, misinformation isn’t so effective “But with a lot of hate, it goes very far, so it’s not surprising that far-right groups believe in white supremacy. It’s always demonizing minorities. They always have to build this enemy with that. Without the enemy, they don’t exist.” And now, the enemy has extended to Lula, the Supreme Court, and Congress. “They need all these enemies, because otherwise they just have no one. And they’re constantly building new enemies, because it’s the only way to keep their base motivated.” Fascists hate complexity because it challenges simplistic systems where Bolsonaro’s fanatical minister for Women, Family, and Human Rights (sic) Damares Alves can pronounce, “Boys should be dressed in blue and girls in pink”. Things must be kept pink and blue, black and white, which means hierarchies, primitive labeling, and always the exclusion of some.

In the creation of a parallel reality as a decoy against the real reality, misinformation meets ideology in the figures with interests to protect and the power of propagation: fossil fuel magnates, industrialists, big farmers and beef barons, armament profiteers, services moguls, big-time criminals, and so on. They are physically (and morally) destroying the country so they need to legitimise their rapacity, basically with arguments of a God-governed meritocracy with the help of ultra-fundamental religions, patria, family values (or control of reproduction), and unbridled freedom to snatch (resources and land) and then protect (by arming the predatory population) for themselves what they call private property, with all the drastic environmental effects entailed. As these effects worsen, violence against the dispossessed and protestors will only become more routine.

This is a culture war that reveals the shaky foundations of Lula’s alliance with the right and centre right to approve public policies. He may be confronting some of its sorties but he’s ignoring the war that could be the undoing of any progressive policies he has to introduce because they aren’t strong enough to stand alone. Some symptoms of the systemic disease are that all the accusations and charges against Bolsonaro, including crimes-against-humanity haven’t stopped him and his supporters; the Free Brazil Movement or Brazilian “Tea Party” is going strong; an evangelical senator Magno Malta accuses teachers of eroticising the curriculum, harking back to 2018 elections against present Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad who was accused of planning to distribute baby bottles with penis-shaped teats (however bizarre, and however false, these things stay in the system that wasn’t broken with Lula’s election); and constant attacks on the educational system which, fighting the culture war through terror, include armed violence against teachers upholding women’s rights. It’s a war that’s devastating people’s lives.

The recent underpinning of the assault on democratic institutions was the notorious Lava Jato (Operation Carwash) case in which messages released by a hacker via Intercept revealed that Judge Sergio Moro (later to become Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice), prosecutors, and journalists colluded to jail Lula for corruption for political reasons. Accordingly, the mainstream media systematically connected representative politics and corruption and, in the process, created political polarisation and contempt for democratic institutions, as well as paving the way for the election victory of the extremist outsider Bolsonaro in 2018, thanks to his prior creation of a digital communication network that spewed out hatred and rage. But worse, hate speech now came to be hatched within the very institutions that were supposed to protect against it. Lava Jato didn’t go away.

Apart from the cultural strife Lava Jato has seeded, the instigators have political and economic clout so, in July this year, the Supreme Court, excluded all evidence obtained in plea deals from 78 executives of Latin America’s biggest engineering and construction company Odebrecht—the one with a busy bribery division that paid out more than $780 million to government officials and political parties all around Latin America and the Caribbean, and at the heart of Lava Jato—which now has the turning-over-a-new-leaf name of Novonor, and has thus hindered the ongoing Lava Jato corruption inquiries. Connected or not connected with the Lava Jato machinations, the state oil company Petrobras has given Novonor the so-called “full category”, which allows a company to bid for any contract it offers. With coincidental and certainly ill-conceived timing, Lula’s government is moving to allow oil exploration in a zone of mangroves and coral reefs where the Amazon meets the Atlantic Ocean just a few months after he promised at COP27 that his future government policies would be shaped by the climate crisis. Now Brazil, also with new rigs in the offshore presalt region is set to become the world’s fourth-largest oil producer. Broken promises don’t exactly inspire faith in a coalition government that looks like a bit like a highwire act in a gale. And they don’t set the ethical example that’s required to discredit fake news.

A year after his election win, Lula’s government is looking schizophrenic with a management that presents one face internationally and another completely different one inside the country, and also in what Lula says and what Lula does. For example, addressing other South American leaders in a summit he called last August in the city of Belém (where he plans to hold COP30 in 2025), he promised “to haul the Amazon out of centuries of violence, economic ‘plundering’ and environmental devastation and into ‘a new Amazon dream’”. Yet, he ignored a direct message dated 28 July from Chief Raoni Metuktire, inviting him to an Indigenous summit with 54 leaders of different Indigenous peoples living in all six Brazilian biomes (Amazon, the Cerrado, the Caatinga, the Pantanal, the Atlantic Forest and the Pampa) to discuss issues such as the demarcation of and expulsion of invaders from Indigenous lands, the cancellation of carbon credit contracts involving Indigenous peoples, the rejection of the marco temporal, the “Time Limit Trick infamously arguing that Indigenous peoples who could not prove they occupied their land when the current Constitution was signed (5 October 1988) had no right to have the land officially mapped and protected. Chief Raoni and the other leaders understood that their situation requires more than vague promises, and also that its effects are worldwide. “We are very concerned about the territorial situation not only of the indigenous peoples who inhabit the Amazon region, but also of the other regions of Brazil and the world.” If to countries in the Global North, the Lula government looks as if it’s committed to significantly reducing greenhouse gases and deforestation in the Amazon, as well as protecting Indigenous peoples, this isn’t clear to the Indigenous peoples themselves.

Compared to the previous government the Lula government may represent a significant step forward. It has achieved some reduction in deforestation and illegal mining in Indigenous lands, mainly due to repressive actions by the federal police, and the violence against Indigenous people wrought by rural agribusiness militias and criminal organizations engaged in illegal trafficking of wood, gold, and cocaine is more under control. But not much and not permanently. And what are environmentalists to make of his extravagant delegation of 1,337 or more than 2,000 members at Cop28 (depending on who you read, but the biggest, anyway) where his energy minister, Alexandre Silveira announced that Brazil aims at having a closer alliance with OPEC (which, of course, opposes an end to fossil fuels). The plan is to take Brazil from eighth to fourth place among petroleum producers. In Riadh he claimed he wants to turn Brazil into the “Saudi Arabia of green energy” (whatever that might be) in ten years.

This is how Lula wants to position himself as a global leader against climate change. Moreover, on 13 December, a day after COP28 ends, Brazil auctioned hundreds of oil drilling blocks, many near the mouth of the Amazon. “Green” Lula is pinning his hope on a guaranteed world demand for oil to maintain the lifestyles of the rich and powerful. In the first year of his new mandate, Brazil’s GDP has grown by 3.1%, well above the average predicted for Latin America as a whole. Yet basing this growth on fossil fuel production can only continue the old history of dispossession and exploitation that has caused the inequality and poverty he wants to combat.

Lula is internationally lauded as a democrat and defender of human rights, which he is, at least selectively, when compared with other political leaders. In an enthusiastically applauded speech at the UN General Assembly last September, Lula defended BRICS, which he said came into being as a result of the “immobilism” of the IMF and the UN itself, and welcomed its expansion to include Argentina, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Ethiopia. If this is an “alternate world order” or a “more diverse scenario from an economic, political and geopolitical perspective” as Lula claims, human rights issues, including racial equality and women’s rights which he touts at the UN, will be swept under the carpet, even now when Brazil has been elected to the UN Human Rights Council. It’s unlikely that Brazil will speak out against abuses by BRICS members like the mass killings by Saudi border guards of Ethiopian immigrants and asylum seekers at the Yemen-Saudi border; or Iranian abuse of women’s and Kurdish rights; and China’s draconian repression of dissent, or abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet; or Russian crimes in Ukraine and its part in international fake news production; or grievous attacks and all the abuses against ethnic and religious minorities in India; and attacks on women’s and LGBTi rights in the BRICS countries. Human rights must be universal because if “human” isn’t a universal category, then some humans will automatically become “less-than-human”. If they aren’t universal, they aren’t human rights but the privileges of some.

In Brazil, due to its “coalition presidentialism” with the conservative and even reactionary right as the majority in the National Congress, the Lula government has also avoided dealing with issues of civil rights and individual freedoms. Some advances have been made with regard to rights and representation of people officially classified as preto (black) and pardo (brown) but the Ministry of Racial Equality all but ignores discrimination suffered by Asians, Gypsies, people of Syrian or Lebanese descent, and other Latin Americans. There’s a Women’s Ministry, but abortion is still a crime and sexual and reproductive rights are very much conditioned by other social factors like race, class, and economic status, as well as the powerful homophobic propaganda apparatus of evangelical groups, who can’t be seen as separate from big business and militia groups.

Even as itself a victim of fake news and other programmed digital disinformation, the Lula government has so far not presented any comprehensive plan to tackle the phenomenon at its roots, where the rot in the whole political system resides, incubating more problems. The government’s selective politics, product of deal making with incompatible political accessories is reflected in the disparate functioning of his ministries. The ministries of Communication, Science and Technology, of Education, and the government’s Communication Secretariat, don’t communicate and neither have they separately drafted any proposal that would lead the National Congress at least to discuss limiting the role of Big Tech in extraction, control, and abuse for nefarious purposes of user information. The ministries are political islands exploited by the interests of the parties with old inglorious histories that make up the government.

A quick look at the array of people responsible for the first physical attacks on Lula’s government comes together in a kind of identikit portrait of the system Lula won’t confront in either the domestic or international framework, the real enemy of the ideals he professes, namely a fairly criminal version of neoliberalism: 1) far right extremists, representing economic and political power or, in part, the beef, bullets, and Bible lobby, a global as well as domestic movement; 2) politicians within Lula’s administration like the putschist federal police chief Anderson Torres, and defence minister, José Múcio Monteiro; 3) the security apparatus (armed forces, police, military police, militia); 4) militia with links to illegal deforestation, mining, land-grabbing, fishing, and drugs with impunity guaranteed in higher echelons of power (as the continuing assault on the Yanomami people and their land illustrates only too well); 5) urban militia groups, for example those that control more than half of Rio de Janeiro and are now moving into real estate; 6) the powerful Bolsonaro supporters in the southern and southeastern states of Paraná, Minas Gerais and São Paulo; and 7) the lords of the subworld of Internet which conserves the fascism of the past while erasing the country’s memory of its history, a lawless realm where everything is “immaterial”, where discourse is about war, and politics has no place.

Marcus Junius Brutus knew, in the words Shakespeare gave to him, that “a serpent’s egg / Which hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous”. Some 2067 years on, the system is ridden with destructive mischief, hatching here and hatching there, in hidden and not-so-hidden nests. Instead of taking it on as a whole, selective, disjointed politics is, in the end, aiding and abetting it. A few moments of applause for rousing words in the UN won’t change anything. It looks as if any changes Lula’s government makes will be like putting a Band-Aid somewhere, anywhere, on a body politic coursing with venom. If only, instead of Brazil’s grandiose display at COP28, Lula and Brazil’s Indigenous leaders would meet with the West Papuan independence leaders, custodians of the world’s third largest rainforest, authors of the Green State Vision and quietly work out with them how they could bring into being, together and with others, this coherent plan for what the world could be, rather than merely tinkering with what already is. Then, yes, Lula could be the bold visionary politician he has sometimes shown signs of wanting to be.