A 22-year-old Dilma Rousseff is tried at a military court hearing in Rio de Janeiro in 1970, after being tortured for more than 20 days – Brazil’s National Truth Commission Archives.
Brazil ranks tenth out of 142 countries listed in the Global Firepower Review and is deemed to be comparable in military strength to Great Britain, Pakistan, and Turkey. But another aspect of patriarchal potency seems to be well below par. The phallic symbolism of all the country’s weapons isn’t enough to assuage anxieties about the image of manhood military alpha males have created for themselves, especially when their boss, former paratrooper and army captain, President Jair Messias Bolsonaro, 67, has set the bar so high with his frequent claims of being imbrochável (immune to the broxada, or loss or non-event of erection) and public bragging about greeting his wife with his morning hard-on. If a recent armed forces shopping list is anything to go by, it seems that senior military men feel that they must rise to the occasion (it’s impossible to avoid bad puns when referring to this outlandishness) with all the help they can get, viz. 35,000 Viagra pills (most for the navy), $546,000 worth of Botox between 2018 and 2020, inflatable penile prostheses, and anti-baldness remedies, all paid for with public money. If their manhood was faltering, they were cheered up by the purchase, between February 2021 and 2022, of 1,184 tons of filet mignon, rump steak, and salmon, as well as whisky, premium beers, whipped cream, and codfish, delicacies worth about $12 million that the rank-and-file soldiers never get so much as a whiff of, unless they’re kitchen hands.
This pathetic scandal is about much more than the sexual anxieties and refined digestive systems of men who wield weapons. To quote poet Paulo César Pinheiro, it’s an “orgy of crooks”, true heirs of more than two decades of military dictatorship, for whom no crime is too foul when it comes to protecting their privileges. For them, the 1984 Diretas Já movement and the 1988 Citizen Constitution must be erased and suppressed by all means possible. Bolsonaro has therefore revived celebrations commemorating the military coup of 31 March 1964 against democratically elected president João Goulart, thus reversing a 2011 decision by then president Dilma Rousseff ordering the military to end any celebration of the coup, which was also a rejoicing over the removal from office of 4,841 elected representatives, the torture of some 20,000 people (including Dilma Rousseff), and the death or disappearance of 434 people, crimes for which no one has ever been held accountable.
These crimes are publicly endorsed by Bolsonaro. “I’m pro-torture, and the people are too” … “You’ll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military didn’t do… Killing. If a few innocent people die, that’s alright.” … “The dictatorship’s mistake was just torturing and not killing.” Making light of the high fatality rates of police violence in Rio de Janeiro, he insinuated that a policeman’s manly willingness to murder is the mark of his worth: “Policemen that don’t kill are not policemen.” These statements and Bolsonaro’s fanatical sex and masculinity obsessions may create a convenient smokescreen covering up his evident corrupt incompetence, but this isn’t just some exotic Brazilian or Bolsonaro aberration.
The connections between the present penis-enhanced military, ethnocide, ecocide, and other crimes against humanity go way back, and straight to the heart of US (Democrat) foreign policy, as Muckrock reports. “A memo detailing a White House meeting on April 1st (as the 1964 coup happened) also show US naval and military forces in position and poised to act in support of the Brazilian military, with the blessing of President Lyndon Johnson and top defense and intelligence officials.” So, in 1971, when members of the Brazilian clergy were denouncing the torture of nuns and priests, a scheduled visit to the US by president General Emílio Garrastazu Médici was a mere PR headache, a “potential embarrassment” for Médici and Nixon. But, in the end “constructive relationships are the most effective way to influence other nations”. And, back home in Brazil, when a declassified US State Department memo showed in 2017 that president Ernesto Geisel (1974 – 1979) gave explicit permission for Brazil’s intelligence service to carry on with its policy of executing dissidents, among them the journalist Vladimir Herzog who was tortured to death in 1975, Bolsonaro Trump-eted that this was fake news, a “coordinated campaign” against his candidacy.
Penis-fixated masculinity reached its lethal zenith with COVID-19 which was quickly identified at the top as a main chance for easy political and economic pickings. Within twenty-four hours of the Health Ministry beginning to take preventive measures against the pandemic on 13 March 2020, Bolsonaro scaled back its procedures. By 16 March, with the excuse that the “pandemic transcends public health”, he had placed the ministry under the control of the Casa Civil, the Executive Office of the Presidency, then headed by General Walter Braga Netto, who will probably be his running mate in the elections this year, the selfsame man who was responsible for the purchase of all the male sex and beauty aids plus the gourmet delicacies. Meanwhile, around the country, health services unable to deal with the pandemic, also lacked medicines for chronic diseases. Insulin for example.
Transcending “public health” meant transcending the public and transcending health in favour of neoliberal kickbacks on steroids (plenty of them) as Bolsonaro and Braga Netto oversaw crooked multimillion-dollar deals in vaccine purchases. With the COVID-19 death toll presently standing at 663,000, a Senate investigation into the government’s mishandling of the pandemic has produced strong evidence of fraud by Bolsonaro’s key allies in Congress and the military who attempted to buy vaccine from intermediaries like the firm Precisa Medicamentos with which Bolsonaro’s son, senator Flavio Bolsonaro, has close ties. There were also negotiations to acquire twenty million doses of Covaxin produced by the Indian company Bharat Biotech at above market rates. This involved inter alia a $45 million upfront payment to a company based in Singapore. Meanwhile, Roberto Dias, former head of logistics of the Health Ministry, demanded a $1 tip for each dose from a supplier that claimed it could provide 400 million AstraZeneca shots. Actually, the supplier couldn’t supply them, but it still managed to negotiate with Brazil’s top “health” officials. And there were other fraudulent contracts. As opposition politician Paulo Pimenta put it, “There is a direct relationship between denialism, corruption, and the way the pandemic has become the country’s greatest health tragedy and the greatest story of corruption”.
The sex problem of the imbrochável is part and parcel of all these deaths. One day after he had tested positive for Coronavirus, Bolsonaro used a homophobic slur to bait presidential staff who were using masks, which was, he said, coisa de viado (for fairies). A few months later, he called on Brazilians to stop being a “country of sissies”. For the imbrochável, Coronavirus was just a “little flu”. By this means, he was sending the double message that the people who were dying were already sick (or “fairies”) while also repeating, yet again, to the Brazilian people that LGBTI+-phobia is acceptable, that violence and discrimination against “fairies” is “normal”.
War on “gender ideology” is a cornerstone of the Bolsonaro power base which, to some extent, explains the extreme toxic masculinity of his regime. After winning the 2018 election, he wasted no time in setting the tone. His campaign had relied on the Bible which is “the toolbox to fix men and women”. The Bible is also enriching as evangelical Education Minister, Milton Ribeiro soon discovered. At Bolsonaro’s request, he ensured that the government prioritised municipalities whose requests for funds were negotiated by pastors, who then received bribes, even in the form of gold bars. Mayors reported that pastors had asked them to buy the Holy Toolbox, complete with a photo of the minister in return for access to educational funds. In the end, the gold bars scandal was more damaging than penis enhancers and Ribeiro was forced to resign.
War on gender ideology isn’t just a war of words but a brutal, bloody war on progressive gender and sexual activism. Gender ideology isn’t a thing in academic or theoretical terms, but a fantasy presented as a conspiracy to promote immorality and undermine family and religious values. The enemies are feminists, gays and trans people and anyone who stands up for their rights, so the “war” against it, justifying all kinds of violence, has become a veritable crusade for Pentecostal and evangelical politicians. Especially since the Supreme Court legally recognised same-sex unions in 2011, the powerful evangelical bloc in Congress (203 out of 594 members, from several political parties) has systematically tried to undermine all sexual and reproductive rights and, if it hasn’t been very successful in changing the laws, it has managed to present itself as the defender of family and Christian values and create moral panic among voters. Whipping up moral panic was a successful move in Bolsonaro’s 2018 presidential campaign when he accused his opponent, former education minister Fernando Haddad who had tried to combat violent homophobia and discrimination with educational materials for schoolchildren, of promoting a “gay kit”, a threat against the “natural” sexual binary. Such was the outcry that President Dilma Rousseff was forced to veto the measure. In a 2013 interview with actor Stephen Fry, Bolsonaro claimed that “homosexual fundamentalists” were brainwashing heterosexual children so they could “satisfy them sexually in the future”.
Forcing Rousseff to cede on the gender issue didn’t stop at that. The ploy played a significant role in the 2016 parliamentary coup against the Workers’ Party government. The “public rhetoric employing misogyny, ridicule and moralist appeals to traditional family values incited against Brazil’s first female president … paved the way for the return of white, male, sexist and authoritarian politics”. In the impeachment proceedings against Rousseff, Bolsonaro delivered a special taunt by using his parliamentary immunity to dedicate his vote against her to Colonel Brilhante Ustra, head of the Doi-Codi torture unit (“who sparks fear in Dilma Rousseff”), and notorious for his sadism. Here is one example of the man eulogised by Bolsonaro: “Amelinha was naked, sitting in the electric shock chair, urinating and vomiting, when she saw her two children, 5-year-old Janaína and Edson, 4, enter the torture room. Ustra had sent for the two children because he wanted them to testify about their parents.”
Since Bolsonaro was immune from censure, the scandal was shifted to a co-author of this article, then congressman Jean Wyllys, who had responded by spitting at Bolsonaro. However, as commentator Gegorio Duvivier notes in a YouTube broadcast titled “Decency”, “many condemned him for missing but the saliva fell on the face of the then-ruralist congressman Luis Carlos Heinze, so he may have missed the target but he hit the mark because Heinze is about the level of Bolsonaro. And a congressman who defends pesticides can’t complain about saliva.” Not only does he recall Bolsonaro’s closeness to the bullet, beef, and bible lobby but makes the point that Wyllys spat at Bolsonaro “for the sake of decency” against “the most indecent statement a politician could make in democratic times”.
The decent gay politician Jean Wyllys was forced to leave Brazil in 2019 after receiving death threats several months after his friend Marielle Franco, gay rights activist and Rio councilwoman, was shot and killed together with her driver, Anderson Gomes. Two of the “state agents” known to be involved in the crime are directly connected with the Bolsonaro family. One worked in the office of Flavio Bolsonaro and the other lives in the same private condominium as the president with whom he has been photographed at several social events. The legal process is still non-existent, and the families of Franco and Gomes have had no access to the police investigations. The message is loud and clear. Women and LGBTI+ people can be killed with impunity for trying to put policies in favour of gender and sexual justice on the agenda. Crazy lies whip up the violence. So, one story that went viral on WhatsApp had Haddad distributing “erotic baby bottles” in public childcare centres while his female running mate, Manuela D’Avila, was an atheist defiler of religious symbols.
At first sight, penis enhancers might seem to be unrelated with Brazil’s highest court of law, the Supreme Court. But the hypermasculinity of Bolsonaro and his men inevitably leads them into direct conflict with it, to the extent that the struggle, supposedly over family values (Bolsonaro’s factitious power base), will determine the country’s political fate. The Supreme Court has been the main protector of LGBTI+ rights, often in opposition to the much more conservative Congress with its Bancada Evangélica (evangelical caucus). This group (which, if a party, would be the largest in the legislature) is influential not only as a policy pushing gang but also as negotiators of debt forgiveness and tax concessions for churches, as owners of media, especially TV, outlets, recipients of electoral campaign funding who have managed to turn their churches into electoral “corrals”. For some, the aim is nothing less than a theocracy. For example, the Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor who, opposed to abortion and LGBTI+ rights and supporter of “traditional gender roles”, openly expresses the view that, “It is time for the church to tell the nation that we have come … It is time for the church to govern” because the “Brazilian family is being threatened by diversity policies”.
Now, with the appointment of pastor André Mendonça, the evangelicals have secured a place for one of their supporters in the eleven-member Supreme Court. This is understood—and, with elections looming, was meant to be understood—by other members of the flock, like pastor Kenner Terra, to mean two things. First, “Now is the time of moral issues and rollbacks in questions related to gay rights, gender issues and social policies. Now the evangelicals have taken power and these things will not have the same space in the country”. Second, separation between church and state is now moot.
The rapid rise of evangelicals in Brazil to represent more than thirty percent of the population has a perverse relationship with filet mignon and hair restorer for generals. The more the country’s public institutions in health, education, housing, and other social services go into decline, the more important the rapidly self-enriching evangelical churches become in poor communities where, usurping roles once played by left-wing organisations and progressive Catholics, they offer literacy courses, activities for children, and even financial support in some cases, all in a highly patriarchal framework often imposed by violent militia gangs, which also offer income for unemployed young males. All this means votes and more members of the flock to purvey their political agenda.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro claims that the Supreme Court is “committing abuses” after it authorised investigations into claims that he made police appointments for his personal benefit, as well as into rallies which, endorsed by Bolsonaro, called for military intervention in politics and a shutdown of the Supreme Court and Congress. Moreover, he has been further backed into a corner by the court’s decision in 2020 (on the grounds that the judge, Sergio Moro—later Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister—was biased) to annul the corruption changes against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who, after spending eighteen months in prison, is now able to run in this year’s election. More recently, Bolsonaro has pardoned a political ally, legislator Daniel Silveira one day after he was convicted of hate speech for posting a video online defending the military dictatorship and saying that the court justices deserved “a thrashing”. Bolsonaro defended his gesture of the pardon “in the name of freedom of expression, an essential pillar of our society” when it was, in fact, one more ominous episode of a long-running campaign to attack Brazil’s democratic institutions.
Lula now has a comfortable lead in the polls. The pollster FSB Pesquisa estimates he would win a first-round vote by 43 percent to 29 percent if the election were held today. Bolsonaro’s last chance seems to be a military coup with Trumpish echoes (“I don’t believe in polls, but the guy who practically destroyed Brazil is ahead …Either the surveys are fraudulent or people are not well informed.”), which might be why he’s filling the bellies, heads, and penises of key military men with public money. It’s no joke. Observers from other countries including José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Yanis Varoufakis, Jeremy Corbyn, Fernando Lugo, Caroline Lucas, and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel have signed an open letter expressing their alarm at the signs, for example Bolsonaro’s military parade in Brasília last year as his allies in Congress pushed through sweeping changes to the electoral system, in preparation for a “counter-coup” against Congress and the supreme court.
Brazil’s reality today is one of rocketing food and energy prices, inflation, environmental disasters, all the COVID-19 deaths and devastation, rising poverty, violence, and social fragmentation and vulnerability. In the Rio City Council, Marielle Franco’s fellow lawmakers refused to get in the lift with this favela-born, openly bisexual woman who had the temerity to press for policies geared to combatting violence against women, better day care for kids, supporting working people, and improving facilities and social life in the favelas, activism that constantly drew attention to militia and state violence. The choice in this year’s election is stark, between the decent values Marielle Franco stood for and the brutish rapine represented by Bolsonaro. It may not even be a choice if Bolsonaro can use his fake-scalped, fake-penised, and full-bellied generals to get his “family-values” way. There’s nothing more wounding than being a loser in a macho culture, which makes this less-than-mediocre man even more dangerous than the earlier cocksure version who is already largely responsible for more than 663,000 COVID-deaths.
Jean Wyllys is a Brazilian lecturer, journalist and politician. He was also notable as being Brazil’s second openly gay member of parliament and the first congressman who was a gay-rights activist. He has been compared to Harvey Milk for his work. In 2019, citing death threats, he gave up on his Congress seat.
Julie Wark is an Australian/Spanish citizen, resident in Barcelona for twenty-seven years. She is a translator (Catalan/Spanish to English, literature, politics, philosophy), long-term human rights author/activist, and is on the editorial board of Sin Permiso. She is the author of The Human Rights Mainfesto (Zero Books).
Counterpunch, April 28, 2022, https://www.counterpunch.org/