The Trump forces have spent billions of corporate dollars to rob the people of their means to fight for their basic rights, including the right to vote. They are stepping up propaganda, gerrymandering, and the disenfranchisement of citizens. They are trying to eliminate any peaceful paths to real economic and social justice.
Through his actions and words, Trump proves every day that he is undeniably a committed fascist. The media is full of private discussions he has had with his top officials where he admits his admiration for Adolf Hitler. Who does that?! And who welcomes Nazis to their rallies, or permits them to make Nazi salutes at their meetings?
Trump has financed and legitimized political violence. He has destroyed the Republican Party by making it an openly fascist party, and has built his despicable movement by promoting vile racism, anti-Semitism, male supremacy, and hatred of LGBTQ people, immigrants, and foreigners. He has financed and promoted a most dangerous gang of right-wing thugs, who tried to steal an election and carry out a coup under his direction.
As we vote, we must remember that voter suppression and red-baiting are designed to demoralize and splinter movements, to turn us against each other and a people’s agenda.
Most importantly, we must remember—and refuse to forget—that these efforts are unbelievably cruel, because they are targeted directly at the people whose very lives are at risk. They are targeted at victims of class exploitation, racial, gender, and sexual brutality. They are targeted at those trying to survive in the ghettos and barrios, the elderly, the children, the incarcerated, and the victims of poverty. They are targeted at many tens of millions in impoverished communities who are denied their right to clean air and water, free medical care, dignified affordable housing, and to a free, high-quality education.
It is a left agenda that supports these rights, making it the only agenda that the people will support. That is why the right and its media are flailing, and, like the old German Nazis and other fascist movements around the world, the far right and their media are using anti-communism to unite the center-right with themselves.
They are calling mainstream progressive initiatives communist, but these broad left policies are really just decent and moral policies.
Unfortunately, some people shrink in the face of being labeled communist or socialist, although the Communist Party is aligned with those fighting for democracy.
Anti-communism is a diversion that is ahistorical and an insult. It confuses the very nature of who we are. What have we been fighting for, for over 100 years? We stand against racism, wars of imperialism, anti-Semitism, male chauvinism, and poverty. We believe in medical care for everyone, free, high-quality education, and the role of government in protecting human rights and providing vital services.
Making the rich richer is an assault on the well-being and survival of working- and middle-class people. That’s not what we are after.
The problem for the Trump forces is that they do not support basic pro-people causes, and so they naturally do not have support from the majority of voters. That is why they try to demonize progressive agendas. That is why they must lie and cheat to win. And that is why, if the democratic and progressive forces are inspired and effective, they can win the majority of races.
Those around Trump must be defeated, and they can be defeated. Step one is to defeat them at the polls.
We have had successes before, and we will have successes again. If we look south to Latin America and the Caribbean, there have been some very important victories against fascist advances of the extreme right. Popular movements, progressive parties, and youth and student groups have worked to restore democracy, despite great odds against them.
The tide is turning.
We hail the historic victory of Lula DaSilva, the heroic leader of the Workers Party of Brazil. Lula had been jailed for over 500 days on trumped-up charges. He was replaced by Bolsonaro, an extreme right-winger who swiftly imposed fascist policies that claimed the lives of thousands. Yet, after years of campaigning for “Lula Livre,” Lula was released from jail by the courts, and despite aggressive media misinformation campaigns, just days ago he secured another election victory. A record number of voters came to the polls, and Lula emerged victorious, despite massive efforts to steal votes by the opposition.
In Bolivia, the people voted out a U.S.-backed coup regime reigniting the Movimiento al Socialismo. In Honduras, the people elected the first woman president, the wife of a former president who had been ousted in a U.S.-backed coup. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerilla fighter, and Francia Márquez—a Black woman, human-rights defender, and environmental activist—were elected president and vice president, respectively.
The tide can turn here in the U.S., too.
While a lot of the early polls reported more people supporting Republican issues over Democratic issues, and therefore a likely win for the GOP in many cases, other factors cast doubt on their reliability. Results from early voters showed Democratic supporters outnumbering the Republicans. Then it was widely reported in the media that most of the early polls were coming from Republican pollsters! Their aim might have been to rev up the right and demoralize the democratic forces.
This battle can be won!
The Communist Party has a big role play now, as it has in the past. We are the party that fought against white supremacist terror during the “Red Summer of 1919,” and against the framing of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s.
We are the party that fought to free the Scottsboro Nine and that fought for justice for Emmett Till.
We are the party that led the organization of millions of industrial workers into the CIO.
We are the party that fought for the defense of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
We are the party that fought in solidarity with the South African anti-apartheid movement, that fought to free Angela Davis, and that fought to end the Vietnam War.
History proves we have always been, and will always be, on the side of the working class and on the side of democracy.
It is our solemn duty to do all we can to defeat the Republicans at the polls on November 8th and in 2024. Donald Trump and his violent, criminal movement must be defeated, and fully prosecuted for their crimes.
Jarvis Tyner is the former executive vice-chair of the Communist Party USA and a long-time member of the party’s national board. Tyner has been an active public spokesperson against racism, imperialism, and war. He has written numerous articles and pamphlets and appeared on the media, campuses, and in other public venues advocating for peace, equality, and the socialist alternative.
Today, Brazilian voters are not just choosing between Bolsonaro and Lula — the far right and the Left — but whether their nation’s politics will be authoritarian or democratic.
Today, more than one hundred million Brazilians will vote in the second and final round of the country’s presidential election, which pits former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva against extreme-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. In the first round, held earlier this month, Bolsonaro finished more than five points behind Lula and seems poised to become the first Brazilian president ever to lose reelection. Nonetheless, polls have seemed to tighten in recent weeks and many observers expect a close contest today — raising the ominous prospect that Bolsonaro may refuse to concede defeat and attempt to cling to power.
What are the issues at play in Brazil’s historic election? How have the politics of COVID-19 factored in? And what does the future hold for the far-right project of Bolsonarismo, even if the man at its center loses the runoff? To explore these questions, Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with Vincent Bevins — who lived in Brazil from 2010 to 2016 and worked as a correspondent, wrote The Jakarta Method (which came out in 2020), and moved back to São Paulo last year to work on his second book.
To start with the basics: because neither major candidate received over 50 percent of the vote earlier this month, Brazil is going to be voting in the second round of its presidential election on October 30. Before we get to the runoff, can you walk us through what transpired in the first round a bit? The general impression seems to be that Lula somewhat underperformed what some polls suggested was possible. Can you explain the results of the first round and give us your impression of them?
After Lula got out of jail and recovered his political rights — his right to run for president, which he lost after trying unsuccessfully in 2018 to run for president against Bolsonaro the first time — many polls indicated he was going to absolutely trounce Bolsonaro, among other things because Bolsonaro had done such a poor job governing the country, especially during the pandemic. Now, only a couple of those polls suggested that Lula was going to actually clear the 50 percent hurdle necessary to wrap it up in the first round. Some people were hoping for that, though I didn’t myself think it was too likely. Now, he ultimately got 48.5 percent of the vote, which is only a little bit less than the 50 percent he would’ve needed. And if he had gotten that extra 1.5 percent, it would be a really resounding defeat for Bolsonaro. No Brazilian president has ever lost reelection ever since reelection has been allowed in Brazilian democracy.
Still, the result was a little bit less than what the more optimistic parts of the Left were hoping for.
What was more of a surprise was how Bolsonarismo as a political movement outside of Bolsonaro himself did across the country. It did quite well in Congress, especially in the Senate, snatching some key governorships and appearing to be positioned to snatch more. So the polls really underestimated Bolsonarismo’s support more than they overestimated Lula’s.
Can you put Bolsonarismo in context for us? I think there’s a similar problem or complexity at work when we talk about something like Trumpism in that you’re dealing with a political tendency that is very much based around a charismatic figure at its center, and is intimately linked in some ways to their personal affectations and style, but also has a separate life of its own.
I think that Bolsonarismo is more real than Trumpism. It’s a weird and contradictory coalition of forces in Brazilian society that came together as a result of his candidacy in 2018, and could well (though may not necessarily) continue to exist after Bolsonaro himself leaves the presidency and after his family stops being a force in Brazilian politics. What exactly is that strange and contradictory coalition of forces? Essentially, it’s an extreme right movement. Everybody that is a Bolsonarista, I would say, is opposed to democracy or is at least willing to cancel democracy for some kind of a higher purpose.
Bolsonarismo draws upon the support of the security services and people who support them. Evangelical Christians have also become a very important part of what Bolsonarismo is. At the beginning, there was a kind of a neoliberal, hardcore free-market component to Bolsonarismo as well. Paulo Guedes, who is literally a Chicago boy and used to work in Pinochet’s Chile, became finance minister. That support from the upper class, business, and national bourgeoisie is not quite as strong today as it was in 2018. But they were an important part of bringing this coalition together.
There are also the agricultural heartlands of the country, which are now seeming to be quite Bolsonarista. The fact that agriculture has done well under Bolsonaro’s government often has nothing to do with him. But the parts of the agricultural world that want to break laws and burn down even more of the Amazon rainforest than is allowed by current legislation, that want to invade indigenous territories, those people tend to be Bolsonarista just because Bolsonaro says these actions are good. So, it’s clear Bolsonarismo will be in power in some way, at least with a bloc in Congress and in control of state governments, even if Jair Bolsonaro loses and walks out of the presidential palace on January 1.
Outside observers, and by that I mainly mean those in the United States, are I think somewhat bound to see this election through a very particular set of reference points. And perhaps that makes some sense in broad strokes: Bolsonaro having some obvious similarities with Trump, among other things. But Brazil is a huge and complicated country with politics of its own — not just a Portuguese-speaking version of the United States. What would you say are the main issues at play in the election beyond those that most English-speaking media are liable to focus on?
The really simple answer to that question is that Brazil is in a much worse place than it was four years ago — and those Brazilians who can remember Lula’s government remember that things were better. Starvation and extreme poverty have jumped up under Bolsonaro, especially since the pandemic. And that is really what’s driven what I think is the major story of the campaign, which is that for the first time ever a sitting Brazilian president seems poised to lose reelection.
The comparison with the United States is an interesting one and it’s also kind of aggravating because, on the one hand, there are a lot of Trumpian things about Bolsonaro. On the other hand, Bolsonaro wants people in North America to think that. It’s an image that he (and some members of his family who are a little bit savvier when it comes to international relations and social media spin) has deliberately cultivated: that ‘I’m the Trump of the tropics and an ally of the Republican Party and Fox News in South America’; that ‘when they come after me down here, it’s the same thing as when woke professors and the Democratic Party come after you in North America.’ This has been done very explicitly, and I think there are reasons to do it. I mean, if a Republican were to reenter the White House, because of the sort of negative polarization in the most powerful country in the hemisphere, he would probably try to reach out to Bolsonarismo or perhaps take a really aggressive stance toward a possible Workers’ Party government in Brazil.
Bolsonaro’s personal history is very different from Trump’s, because Trump is a guy from television who, in my opinion, just wanted to stay on television and found in politics a way to do that. Bolsonaro, by comparison, is a creature of Brazil’s dictatorship — which of course came about as a result of the US-backed coup in 1964. He is a real believer in antidemocratic principles and a hardcore anti-communist. He’s not really a neoliberal, and he doesn’t care about economics. He’s not really religious, though he has made an alliance with Brazil’s growing evangelical Christian movement — which I suppose does resonate quite a bit with politics in the United States. But he’s somebody who, for his entire life, has believed that the Left needs to be crushed and that the democracy that has been constituted in Brazil since 1988 and the end of the dictatorship is a sham. This is a movement which has real ideological coherence in a way I don’t think Trumpism ever has. I have a hard time imagining that Trumpism could have the same longevity as Bolsonarismo.
In a televised debate earlier this month, Lula attacked Bolsonaro for his handling of COVID-19, and I’m very curious as to how much salience the pandemic has had throughout the campaign. Late last year, you wrote for New York Magazine that despite Bolsonaro’s anti-vaccine posturing, Brazil had had relatively few anti-vaxxers. Has that held during the campaign?
Yes, it has. I think that Bolsonaro (and especially his sons) instinctively try to import culture war stuff from the United States so they can see what sticks. From the very beginning, Bolsonaro really doubled down on the idea that COVID-19 wasn’t a big deal and people didn’t have to worry about it: everyone should work, the scientists saying that stay at home measures could work — that was a bunch of woke nonsense (though he wouldn’t have actually used that term). But this wasn’t effective, especially among urban elites. It did resonate within the hardcore base, though in a funny way: they would say ‘Yeah, we gotta look into those vaccines, there’s something wrong there . . .’ but then they would all get vaccinated anyway. So it didn’t really work here in the way that it did in the United States, and this was something that Bolsonaro lost important elite support over. Some of that migrated from the cities and countryside, and from the (let’s call it) respectable, civilized, pro-business right to the hyper-radicalized Bolsonarista base. And this is a strategy he has: he will often import things from the United States. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.
Something else he’s tried to import from the United States is this idea that the voting system cannot be trusted. For almost the whole of last year, he was trying to set up a narrative that, if he were to lose, it would be fake because the voting system here can’t be trusted. Again, this makes no sense compared to the US context. In the United States, you have a diverse array of voting mechanisms in different states. In Brazil, no serious international observers think there’s anything strange about the way the votes are counted — it’s uniform across the country. The story Bolsonaro has been telling also calls into question his own victory and the victories of all his allies, so we’re now seeing — at the last minute — a pivot to a different narrative about how the election might be stolen from him, which has to do with censorship and court intervention.
So yes, he imports these things even when they don’t work and, while that may cost him domestically, I think in the long term the Bolsonaro family has the idea of creating an alliance with the Republican Party. And they maybe do need something like that in order to survive, because if Bolsonaro had been soundly defeated in the first round, the family could have all faced jail time. I mean, they’ve certainly committed enough crimes to deserve it. The question was whether or not the political system would prosecute these kinds of cases given the explosiveness of such a scenario. And, now that they have a decent base in government, it might be less likely.
Anyway, its political effectiveness aside, COVID-19 questioning has been a big part of his campaign rhetorically. And that’s the direct result of the intentional Americanization of Brazilian politics, and Americanization of Brazil.
On the French far right, and I suppose across much of the far right globally, there’s been a lot of Americanization for obvious reasons. Has the specific framework of woke versus anti-woke actually penetrated the Brazilian context? You’ll hear French politicians like Marine Le Pen, for example, talking about “le wokeism,” and in that context, it gets discussed as a kind of pernicious import from the United States that needs to be repelled. What is the equivalent to that in Brazil? Has the rather nebulous binary of woke and anti-woke made its way into the lexicon of Bolsonarismo?
Not linguistically. But, as a vibe? Absolutely. The thing about Bolsonaro is that he has quite a coherent narrative going back to the 1990s, which is that the Left has been culturally and politically hegemonic, it tells you what you’re supposed to think, and there’s been (as he would call it) communist indoctrination. So that’s been the way that he’s looked at all of these things since the 1990s. And there have been a number of powerful, far-right ideological figures in Brazil — especially Olavo de Carvalho, this strange philosopher that lived in the United States and posted on Facebook all day long — who have used this framework of cultural Marxism or communist indoctrination.
So this would all fall within that: rights for LGBTQ people, recognition of diversity, using the state in any way to try and help poorer Brazilians — that’s all just communist indoctrination. Bolsonaro brought Tucker Carlson here and they had a conversation where they tried to find common discursive commonalities between their two discourses, and it wasn’t very hard to find them. Some of it was ridiculous because PT (Lula’s Workers’ Party) is very much working class and Carlson seemed to think it was the Brazilian equivalent of Brooklyn liberals that were voting Lula into power. But, in general, they did find a lot of common ground in terms of discourse.
And that’s not a coincidence, because Brazil is deeply influenced by US culture — not only in terms of the internet but also television and political discourse. The only other politics that Brazilian media pay attention to are those of the United States. A lot of woke-era vocabulary has certainly entered Brazilian Portuguese. You can, for example, get “cancelado” (canceled), which is something that the right rails against here. But “woke” itself hasn’t quite made it, even if the discourse around it absolutely overlaps.
There are two recent incidents I want to ask you about. Several days ago, police attempted to arrest a retired politician and an ally of Bolsonaro’s (Roberto Jefferson) and he responded by firing on them and throwing grenades? Bolsonaro has also apologized after footage emerged of him telling a story about an encounter with some teenage girls. What exactly is going on here?
Both of these episodes have been bad for Bolsonaro but I think one has been worse. They’ve also become live campaign elements and have really dominated a lot of the conversations in recent weeks. One is very real, and the other is, perhaps, less so beyond the fact that Bolsonaro can’t speak about young women without sexualizing and insulting them. In that case, Bolsonaro told this story about how he was walking around the outskirts of Brasília (the capital) and (in his telling) he saw some young women who were ‘all dressed up’ and said ‘Why are you dressed up?’ The best way to translate the phrase he used next is that he said ‘there was some chemistry.’ As he told it, he then asked them if he could go back to their place and asked ‘What are you doing?.’ And then — remember, this is the version of the story that he wants the Bolsonarista listener to hear — they said ‘We’re prostitutes because we’re Venezuelan and the Left destroyed our country, and this is all that’s left for us.’
None of this makes sense in the way that he told it, because, if he were to have stumbled upon that horrible situation, he shouldn’t have gone on a podcast, he should have called in the police to stop these young women from being sex trafficked. This strange attempt to pin sex work in Brazil on the Left in Venezuela doesn’t make a lot of sense either, because he’s the president and there are, as I think I mentioned earlier, millions of young people who can’t get enough food here. So, if you want to find Brazilians that are in very difficult situations (because of him) it’s not hard to do. Anyway, journalists went back and looked into this and the Venezuelan women said ‘No, he did come here, but we’re not sex workers.’ He just made that up or thought it, and I think this incident really is just another example of him not being able to talk about women without sexualizing or insulting them — and hinting at the idea he was having sexual thoughts toward underage immigrants.
Now, the story with Roberto Jefferson — who is a longtime friend and ally of the Bolsonaro family — definitely happened because it was filmed and he wanted everyone to know about it. This guy is kind of nuts and even many on the Right will admit to that. He’s been under house arrest, apparently for being part of a digital criminal organization which is using social media to push for antidemocratic measures. Now, this part is kind of strange and I don’t exactly understand the sentence, but they basically said he couldn’t be under house arrest anymore because he’d been violating the terms of his house arrest by using social media. And they sent someone to go pick him up and, instead of cooperating, he tried to mount some kind of heroic martyr’s stand and go down in a blaze of glory because they wouldn’t let him post on the internet. He ended up coming out, shooting some federal police, and throwing a grenade at them. And this has become a huge scandal that even Bolsonaro has been forced to distance himself from. Usually, Bolsonaro will back anything happening on the Right that’s provocative. In this case, he actually went and said, ‘We’re not that close, and this is not the kind of thing I support.’
But another problem for Bolsonaro is that the incident reminded everyone that his son Eduardo, when he was eighteen, was on the books for receiving a salary for work he performed as a congressional assistant in Brasília while he was a full-time student in Rio de Janeiro — and the man who hired him for this job, which must have been fake (and if it was not fake, it would’ve been illegal to hire him for it) was Roberto Jefferson. This is the kind of low-level corruption that everyone believes the Bolsonaro family has been involved in forever. They never got involved in the high-level corruption that became the subject of the Lava Jato investigations because they weren’t important enough in Congress. So, this is not only a problem because somebody that has been photographed many times with Bolsonaro tried to kill a bunch of police — which is a big deal given the pro-security-forces orientation of Bolsonarismo — but also because it reminded people of the corruption Bolsonaro’s son was apparently involved with many years ago.
It’s bad for Bolsonaro because he was already behind in the polls, though they had been getting closer. So if this stops them from tightening further, it may be enough to lose him the election. It’s only Tuesday, and of course something even more insane could happen before Sunday, but this was too mediatized an event to stop people from talking about it and, well, everybody is talking about it.
Polling ahead of the first round of voting suggested, on average, a Lula lead of about eleven points – though he finished by only five. Ahead of the runoff at the end of this month, polls have still given Lula an edge but have also seemed to tighten further. Perhaps predictably, Bolsonaro has started attacking pollsters (Brazil’s House of Representatives is even set to pass legislation criminalizing inaccurate polls — though its future in the Senate looks more uncertain). I’d like to ask you about that, but I’m also curious how you account for the electoral resilience of Bolsonarismo? Brazil’s GDP has fallen since he was elected in 2018. There’s also been an increase in hunger, to say nothing of nearly seven hundred thousand COVID-19 deaths. All of these likely contributed to what was at one time a Lula lead of almost thirty points. Things look quite different now. How would you account for what’s become an unexpectedly close election?
It’s a good question. One part of it that’s troubling and hopefully ephemeral is that Bolsonaro found his real base after 2018. There was just a strange grouping of people that got together behind his candidacy largely out of rejection for what had come before. But, as I said, agricultural parts of the country can believe somewhat rationally that Bolsonaro is better for their interests. Evangelical Christians can probably believe, albeit with less evidence, that he’s somebody who can push for the sort of moral policies that Lula would not (and that’s an area where fake news comes into play, but you can create a stable base with that kind of representation of Lula).
The other dynamic, which I think is really important for explaining the shifts in polling that have transpired over the last few months, is the massive and shameless use of the state to pour money into every part of the country where it might influence voters. Bolsonaro entered office with a neoliberal finance minister who promised to be transparent and anti-corruption. And what’s happening now is a use of the state to flood money into the pockets of political allies, anybody that can help influence voting, and anybody that might be convinced to change their vote to an extent that’s really never been seen before.
It’s quite shocking, and I think even some of the most seasoned analysts of Latin American politics have been surprised that he’s moved forward a lot of welfare payments to the months just before the election. Lula still leads among the poorest Brazilians, but not as much as he did a few months ago. And the best explanation for this is that Bolsonaro gave them money. Everyone knows the finance minister is going to cut all of that off immediately in January, and he already has plans to do so. This is purely to get people to vote one way rather than the other, and it’s very bad for state finances.
Then there’s been this (as it’s been called) multibillion dollar secret budget which allows local lawmakers allied to Bolsonaro to basically spend money locally however they want. There’s already considerable evidence of corruption coming out of this secret budget — towns are making up the numbers, e.g. a town with eleven thousand people that performed seventeen thousand dental procedures in the last two weeks, and other stuff in this vein.
So, in addition to the sort of organic base of Bolsonarismo growing throughout four years in power, you have the shameless use of state finances to try to influence votes at the last minute.
As a final question, would it be fair to say that the proportion of economic versus cultural politics at play in Brazilian politics at the moment favors the latter? From abroad, the impression of Bolsonaro is that he’s very much a culture warrior, and that seems to be one of the ways he’s been able to mitigate the drag of the country’s poor economic performance over the past four years on his own electoral prospects. How would you characterize the final stage of the election in terms of whether economic or cultural issues are prevailing?
I would say it’s more the cultural. If it were economic, you would not see such a big discrepancy between male and female voters. White men are the only demographic category in Brazil that go for Bolsonaro over Lula (black women, by contrast, vote for Lula something like four to one). Bolsonarismo is powered by the petty bourgeois or middle class (but not that educated) white man that has weaponized his identity — which resonates with Trump’s support — that is, the kind of white man that believes he is at risk of having his privilege taken away and thinks he can attack those below him with the help of someone above him. In other words, the classic base for the extreme right: the angry, frustrated, emasculated, petty bourgeois man, in coalition with agribusiness and small scale producers. That’s more or less the organic and economic base.
But the real core of the Bolsonarismoist movement is not so strictly rational. The committed Bolsonaristas really believe in it. His spending offensive has gotten some of Lula’s base to come over to his side in the last few weeks, but Lula is still ahead amongst people who care, first and foremost, about where their food is coming from next month. But that part of the story — the classic, extreme right base, the anti-democratic man — I think that is at the core of what Bolsonarismo is.
Vincent Bevins is a journalist and the author of The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World.
TORONTO—Last April, the Toronto Star ran a hit piece on Bill Yee, a retired British Columbia provincial court judge and a member of the province’s Chinese-Canadian Community Advisory Committee. Yee had stated in an interview on A-1, a Toronto-based Cantonese radio station, that the Canadian response to the Uyghur situation in China is not based on facts.
The polemic—complete with a giant, looming photo of Yee—was alarming in its clear intent to smear an individual for his opinion. Authors Joanna Chiu and Jeremy Nuttall argued that Yee is unqualified to hold his employment position due to his skepticism towards the claims of Uyghur genocide. Cherie Wong, one of the individuals interviewed for the piece and the Executive Director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, directly accused Yee of “repeating the same talking points” as the Communist Party of China. Chiu and Nuttall even pulled out a quote from 1993 in which Yee suggested there may be another “perspective” to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
This story was similar to the case of Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian-American computer engineering professor who was indicted in February 2003 on 17 counts under the U.S. Patriot Act. Al-Arian worked for decades to promote dialogue between the West and the Middle East, particularly on the plight of the Palestinians, and was interviewed on the Fox News program “The O’Reilly Factor” under the ruse of discussing Arab-American reactions to the September 11 attacks.
Host Bill O’Reilly confronted Al-Arian about comments against Israel which he had made 13 years prior, accused him of “jihadism,” and called for the CIA to shadow him. The fallout from this included death threats to Al-Arian and his 2003 indictment and subsequent 10 years of house arrest. While the charges were dropped, he was deported to Turkey in 2015.
Within days of Chiu and Nuttall’s hit piece, Bill Yee received so much negative fallout that he announced he would not seek reappointment to the Advisory Committee. A pressure campaign led by 13 prominent Chinese-Canadian activists called to have Yee removed from the board of the Chinese Canadian Museum. The group, which seems intent on Yee’s complete banishment and joblessness, argues that such appointees must have a “track record of allegiance to Canada, upholding Canadian values of human rights and justice, providing independent opinion on community issues rather than becoming a mouth-piece for a foreign regime.”
Appeals to “Canadian values” and pearl-clutching over “foreign influence” are notions that have become increasingly normalized in this new Cold War against China. This is similar to the 1950s McCarthyite era when academics and cultural workers lost their livelihood or were exiled over perceived associations with communism and being against “American values.”
The West has always had a complicated relationship with China. Who can forget the exploited Chinese laborers who built the first transcontinental railroads in North America? Or the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration? The relationship has long been an unequal one in which China is a piece of land to be divided and conquered and its people a perennial source of cheap labor and even cheaper goods.
As China grew after its 1949 revolution from an impoverished and colonized country into an economic and political power, Western imperialism determined that something would have to be done to put it back in its place. This manifested in many ways, including weaponizing human rights discourse (with respect to Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan) as well as intensifying construction of U.S. and allied military bases around the Chinese mainland (the “Pivot to Asia”).
After Huawei did the unspeakable and breached unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran, Canada stepped in and helped Trump illegally arrest its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. All along, there have been explicit and implied allegations and insinuations of China being inherently untrustworthy, “rogue,” and of breaching “rules-based” societies.
And then came COVID-19
Just as 9/11 turbocharged Western Islamophobia, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a tsunami of anti-China propaganda and vitriol which was always quietly simmering beneath the surface of polite Western society. The current torrent of hate and prejudice has not just targeted the Communist Party of China but has had far-reaching effects on random Chinese-passing East and Southeast Asian people in Western countries.
As early as March 2020, members of the Chinese diaspora reported attacks and verbal assaults about “going back to China” in the streets of U.S. and Canadian cities. One woman in New York had acid thrown on her face while taking out the trash. Countless others were accused of causing the virus, being “CCP agents,” or “evil” communists. Some were spat or coughed on, and Asian shop owners reported instances of violence and racist comments from customers.
This state-backed hate campaign against everything Chinese swelled to a fever pitch in 2021. In Orange County, Calif., alone, anti-Asian hate incidents increased by an estimated 1,200%. Increasingly, the victims were women and seniors from the working class or living in poverty. In March 2021, a gunman targeted a series of Asian spas in Atlanta and murdered eight people, including six Asian women workers. A 61-year-old Chinese man in New York died after being head-stomped while collecting recyclables for money. A 36-year-old Hmong woman was brutally gang-raped and beaten to death in Milwaukee. A 61-year-old Filipino-American man was slashed in the face with a box cutter in Brooklyn. An 89-year-old Chinese woman was set on fire in Brooklyn. A 65-year-old Filipino woman was beaten outside a hotel in Manhattan. An 83-year-old man and a 79-year-old woman were violently assaulted in Oakland, separately, by the same man. Most of these victims were walking to or from work, all were alone, and all were attacked in broad daylight.
In the midst of all this were daily articles in the media that can only be described as the “Xinjiang atrocity exhibition.” Reports from U.S. intelligence, weapons-industry-funded think tanks, and CIA cutouts like the National Endowment for Democracy alleged wildly inconsistent stories that only grew more and more ridiculous. Most of them came from evangelical anti-communist Adrian Zenz, who contrived the infamous “one million Uyghurs in concentration camps” narrative based on approximations from only eight people. Most of the supporting documents consisted of misattributed photographs, satellite images of random buildings, and witness testimonies from Langley-based (CIA) and U.S. State Department-funded Uyghur activists.
Alongside these stories are other “China-bad” narratives. These include Nigel Farage’s statements that China needs to pay reparations to the U.K. for COVID-19, the “China as the perpetual thief of intellectual property from the West” trope, assertions that “China is paying Uyghurs to look happy during Eid in Urumqi,” and the absurd “China is ‘colonizing’ Hong Kong.”
More recently, this includes revamping and refueling the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is the result of the Wuhan virology lab leak. A Pew Research survey released in March 2021 showed that 66% of Americans hold unfavorable views of China, compared to 47% in 2018. The share of Americans who give China the lowest possible rating of zero nearly tripled from 9% in 2018 to around 24% in 2021. A Nanos Research poll found that nearly seven out of 10 people in Canada oppose deepening business ties with the Chinese government and nearly 87% support Canada joining with the United States, Britain, and Australia “to contain China’s growing power.”
What further complicates the matter is that hate crimes are incredibly difficult to prove and even harder to link to a particular propaganda narrative. Many of the previously mentioned attacks seem to have been perpetrated by those who are themselves at the margins of society: individuals who are houseless, have a history of prior arrests, or struggle with mental health issues. The inaction of the U.S. government during the pandemic to support millions of newly unemployed or evicted Americans who also lost their health insurance has undoubtedly had a massive impact on petty crime, robberies, and random acts of assault.
While the economic recession is a huge trigger for the rise in crime overall, it could be argued that having a powerful state and corporate propaganda machine which scapegoats a visible minority is what led to Asians becoming the ideal target. How many more instances of hateful attacks have occurred which the media never reported on due to the tendency of diaspora Asians to underreport racism and crime?
Within the Pew study, it is notable that among those with unfavorable views of China, the difference between Democrats (62%) and Republicans (72%) is only 10 points. Anti-China hate is a bipartisan issue. The only way it differs is how it is manifested. On the right, people like Republican Marsha Blackburn rant that Chinese civilization has a 5,000-year history of “cheating and stealing,” and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton states that all mainland Chinese students should be banned from the U.S.
Among centrist and liberal Democrats, it is common to find allegations of China being akin to Nazi Germany. They also throw around wild and unverified allegations of forced labor, organ harvesting, forced sterilization, and human experimentation. In Canada, the social democratic NDP broke from the norm to join Erin O’Toole’s Conservative Party in declaring the Uyghur experience in China a “genocide.” Even the oft-praised independent journalist Glenn Greenwald continues to push the Wuhan virology lab leak conspiracy.
No matter what the accusation from the center is, it is always grounded in the classic bleeding-heart liberal notions of human rights. This is a liberal, imperialist tactic that has been weaponized time and time again, including through the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” and “humanitarian intervention.”
But what makes this situation different from those of Iraq and Afghanistan is that China is a world power and an economic threat to Western hegemony. As such, Western media presents China as an oppressive colonial power, no different from the British or American empires (“Neither Washington Nor Beijing”) with NATO propagandists often projecting the West’s own imperialist crimes onto China.
Despite the fact that Asians have recently outpaced Black Americans as the group facing the greatest income inequality, Chinese and Asian diaspora continue to be labeled white-adjacent, privileged, wealthy, and having little experience with oppression. This is how people convince themselves they are not being racist when they cast all 1.4 billion people in China and all seven million Chinese diaspora in Canada and the U.S. as foot soldiers of the Communist Party of China when they reject Western propaganda.
On social media, it has become increasingly commonplace for people who are skeptical of Western anti-China propaganda to be labeled “wumao,” brainwashed, a spy, a bot, or someone who should be deported. Only those who hate the Communist Party of China are telling the “truth,” while everyone else is forced to say nice things with a gun pointed to their heads. On YouTube and Twitter, all Chinese state media is blatantly labeled as such. Western state media like the CBC and BBC—which are literally funded by their respective governments—do not, on the other hand, bear the same label. It is no wonder that some online commenters have referred to this as the Chinese Exclusion Act 2.0.
Throughout history, the Brazilian Armed Forces have looked inwards towards their own territory and peoples. They are centered around the construction of an ‘internal enemy’ to justify its tactics, strategies, and accumulation of forces. The art for this dossier highlights emblematic ‘internal enemies’ constructed throughout history. These portraits, placed alongside other historical artifacts, rekindle a collective memory. They are, in fact, portraits of ourselves–the people, the poor, and the dispossessed–in the act of resistance.
Brazil is in danger of becoming a country whose political economy is rooted in militarism, diverting precious social wealth to the military and police as it imposes a military ethic onto public life. To construct peace, on the other hand, would mean to eradicate hunger and illiteracy, to increase the social and productive capacity of the people, and to improve the infrastructure for social life and commerce–indicators that all saw tremendous improvements under the Workers’ Party (PT) government from 2003 until the 2016 coup against then President Dilma Rousseff. Since the 2016 coup, Brazil has experienced a rollback of these social gains as well as a military presence increased to the highest level since the 1964–1985 dictatorship.
The agenda of President Jair Bolsonaro (who is not affiliated with any political party) has been marked not only by his radical discourse, but also by his increased participation in military ceremonies–as was clear on 7 September 2021, Brazil’s Independence Day, when he called upon his supporters to take to the streets and protest Congress and the courts following weeks engulfed with tension and speculation over a possible coup. Proud of having emerged from the military’s ranks, the former captain knows that the armed forces have been decisive in his gaining and remaining in power.
Three years before the demonstrations invoked by Bolsonaro, his ascendance to power was challenged by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT), who was leading in the opinion polls for the upcoming presidential election. However, Lula’s candidacy was put to an end when he was convicted on false fraud charges, prevented from taking part in the elections, and subsequently imprisoned for 580 days, only to be exonerated in March 2021. On the eve of the court’s judgement to rule on Lula’s appeal for habeus corpus in 2019–and minutes before the country’s main TV news programme went on the air–then-commander of the Brazilian army, General Eduardo Villas Bôas, posted a note on Twitter that had been drafted with the mutual consent of the Army High Command in which he subtly threatened the court, stating that the military “repudiates impunity”. The habeus corpus petition was denied by a narrow vote (6 to 5) and Lula was imprisoned a few days later. During the electoral campaign, two justices of that same Supreme Court were advised by the court’s president at the time not to take harsher measures against then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign for its massive and illegal spreading of misinformation and fake news so as not to displease the military. During his certification ceremony as president-elect, Bolsonaro directly addressed General Villas Bôas, who was present at the event, and thanked him for having ‘influenced the fate of the nation’, commenting that he was ‘responsible’ for his election. Well before Bolsonaro’s election, the Brazilian Armed Forces were already acting as a genuine ‘Military Party’–a unified grouping representing the military’s interests and ideology in politics.
Today, Brazil has the second largest military force in the Americas – second only to the United States. The country has the most military personnel of any country in Latin America and the Southern Hemisphere, with 334,500 active forces–an average of 18 service members for every 10,000 Brazilians. Yet, Brazil is not a global military power, lacking nuclear capabilities and the ability to launch ballistic missiles.
The leading role that the Brazilian Armed Forces has played within the country in recent years is a key component to understanding the current neofascist wave as well as the setback in social rights that had been won in the 2000s. Sectors of the Brazilian military, which secretly conspired in the coup against President Dilma Rousseff (PT), are political and organisational pillars of the military-financial-neo-Pentecostal coalition that brought Jair Bolsonaro to power. The military’s increasing presence and interference in recent years marks an end to the period of almost three decades during which it was absent from the national political spotlight following the end of the military dictatorship (1964–1985). Three decades is a small passage of time for an entity that has otherwise had a permanent presence in Brazil’s political life.
The military and its current expression through the federal government are shaped by a conservative and liberal ideology which is characterised by five core components:
Corporatism, in which military personnel’s sense of belonging to the military apparatus surpasses any other, including even national sentiment. Soldiers perceive themselves to be superior to civilians, while the military apparatus considers itself to be the true essence of the nation; its ‘manifest destiny’ is its ‘mission to save the nation’.
A vision of a state apparatus that is weakened when it comes to private commercial interests, but which is strengthened when it comes to areas of the military and police.
Conservative Christian-humanist values, laden with notions of individualism, an ethic of success, and the idea that only the strong should prosper. The military considers identity-based struggles–such as combatting racism, sexism, and homophobia–to be divisive.
Conservative liberalism, which sees democracy as the business of elites, with the masses only responsible for voting–and not necessarily through a universal franchise.
Anti-communism, which sees communism as the military’s historic enemy in Brazil and as contrary to the Western order.
Through these ideological frameworks, we can better understand the Brazilian Armed Forces’ behaviour. The military and its organisations–bureaucratic, political, and social–have risen to the surface of politics to openly contest the future of Brazilian society. This is visible across a number of areas, including the privatisation of public enterprises, the country’s subservience to the United States, the military’s political management of the pandemic and massive occupation of public offices, the increased privileges accorded to higher ranks and their material distance from the lower ranks, the reclaiming of the military’s political role, the reorganisation of the military’s instruments of hegemony in the state and their alignment with obscurantism, and the myth of ‘cultural Marxism’ (that growing cultural liberalism is a subversive leftist plot).
In this dossier, we analyse the composition of Brazil’s armed forces, their relationship to U.S. imperialism, and the militarisation of public sector. To understand current matters, we must first examine the historical development of the military and its functions.
A Brief Historical Overview
In terms of foreign relations, Brazil has historically been a peaceful nation guided by diplomacy and by political and commercial pragmatism. It has generally not involved itself in conventional conflicts with other countries, except as an auxiliary force to Britain and the United States during World Wars I and II.
In contrast to other South American countries, Brazil’s independence was not achieved through military conflicts but through negotiations with Portugal. It consolidated most of its territory through diplomatic accords, with the exceptions of the Cisplatine War (1825–1828), in which Brazil lost what is now Uruguay, and the Paraguayan War (1864–1870). It was in this latter conflict–which was responsible for the greatest number of war-related deaths of Brazilians in the country’s history and for practically decimating the entire adult male population of Paraguay–that Brazil sought to professionalise its military organisation and professionalise its military organisation and its armed forces for the first time.
However, domestically, the history of Brazil’s military is one of continual political involvement with the explicit purpose of repressing conflicts between social classes and political organisations. During the colonial period (1500–1815), there were over 30 armed conflicts that pitted native people, African slaves, Portuguese colonisers, Luso-Brazilian (mixed Brazilian/Portuguese) colonisers, and colonisers of other nationalities (particularly the Dutch and the French) against each other. During the imperial period (1822–1889), the armed forces worked to repress social movements and uphold the monarchical, oligarchic, and slave-owning regime, crushing dozens of popular revolts including the insurrections of Cabanada (1832–1835), Carrancas (1833), Cabanagem (1835–1840), Malês (1835), Sabinada (1837–1838), and Balaiada (1838–1841). At the same time, while lower-ranking soldiers were subjected to discipline–including torture as a form of punishment–high-ranking officers became part of the monarchical elite, occupying positions in the state and in parliament. The Republic itself was established through a military coup led by army generals allied with regional oligarchs, an alliance that was cemented through the repression of the liberal revolts and popular insurrections of Canudos (1896–1897) and Contestado (1912–1916).
After World War I, a diverse movement of lower-ranking officers known as tenentismo (from tenente, the word for lieutenant in Portuguese) allied itself with liberals and oligarchs from the opposition along with the incipient workers’ movement with the aim of taking down the oligarchic regime and modernising the nation. What is referred to as the Revolution of 1930, led by Getúlio Vargas and officers who had emerged from tenentismo, pushed forward the centralisation of state power, broad social reforms–notably workers’ rights and the organisation of labour unions–and the growing political repression of the regime’s opponents. Following the initial push for industrialisation and the opening up of the regime, the country went through a period of governments that were elected through limited popular participation.
After World War II, Vargas was deposed through popular pressure with the backing of the armed forces and was succeeded by the election of General Eurico Gaspar Dutra. Vargas returned to the presidency in 1950 in the context of the Cold War and a confrontation between two different projects. On the one hand, there was Vargas’s top-down national developmentalism, a state policy that prioritised the development of the country’s infrastructure over foreign interests. This stood in conflict with, on the other hand, the country’s unconditional political, military, and economic subordination to the United States, which was promoted by military officials and the business oligarchy. The confrontation between these two projects also suggested contrasting visions of how much popular participation there should be in the country. This conflict resulted not only in Vargas’s suicide in 1954, but also in a series of coup attempts against elected presidents in 1955, 1961, and finally, in the business-military coup of 1964, which was politically and materially supported by the U.S..
The dictatorship would be the model and source of support for other dictatorships that were subsequently installed in South and Central America, acting directly to install dictators in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Guatemala. During this period in Brazil, army generals in power led a series of state and societal reforms that aimed to neutralise labour organisations and decimate revolutionary organisations–focusing in particular on those guerrillas that resisted the dictatorship from 1965–1974. Additionally, the 1964 coup deepened Brazil’s dependence on the U.S.–especially ideologically and economically–and led to a monumental increase in external debt, severe wage repression, growing poverty, and hyperinflation.
The dictatorship came to an end after twenty-one years in power, spurred both by popular mobilisation demanding direct elections as well as by the economic crisis. However, the transition was overseen by the military, which guaranteed not only that their civilian ally José Sarney (1985–1989) would hold the presidency, but also that the army’s institutional autonomy would be preserved, notably in terms of the military’s budget and its legal, educational, and intelligence structures; its bureaucratic privileges; in the impunity of its leadership with respect to the state terrorism for which it had been responsible; and in its immunity to the democratic mechanisms of the new Constitution of 1988. The military continued to exercise permanent guardianship over political institutions by retaining its ability to intervene in domestic affairs–to guarantee law and order–and by preserving the military police, an auxiliary force of the army that is responsible for overt policing in each federal state. In moments of crisis–such as the impending threat of a coup in the lead up to demonstrations of Bolsonaro supporters on Brazil’s Independence Day in 2021–the behaviour of military police personnel can be decisive in determining how coup threats or attempts unfold. As we have seen, the Brazilian Armed Forces have always directed their interventions towards the domestic arena, considering popular organisations and forces to be internal enemies needing to being permanently ‘neutralised’ should they have the ability to execute political action.
The 2016 Coup and the Military’s Return to the Political Scene
Civil-military relations saw a period of relative stability during the Workers’ Party government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2011). The armed forces restricted their political participation to only those areas that they deemed to be a threat to national security, such as public safety, the demarcation of indigenous lands, and defence policy. As part of a pact that aimed to achieve peaceful coexistence, Lula did not adopt any measures that might have threatened the military apparatus, nor did the armed forces challenge their subordination to civil authority.
Civil-military relations gradually deteriorated under the government of Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016). The mere fact of having a commander-in-chief, Dilma, who was not only a woman but also a former guerrilla who had fought against the 1964 dictatorship was understood as an affront to the military’s values. Beyond its commitment to machismo and anti-communism, the military was also motivated by its opposition to the government’s creation of the National Truth Commission, which sought to hold the armed forces accountable for the crimes committed they during the dictatorship. This process strengthened the military’s discursive coherence around a common enemy: the left. This was a decisive moment in shaping the political-cultural identity of the armed forces, as it represented an opportunity to hold it to account for a past that had been glorified for decades. Moreover, in many democracies, such truth commissions had been the prelude to organisational reforms to military institutions. Other factors also contributed to the armed forces’ political reorganisation and cohesion such as the military’s participation in MINUSTAH (the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, 2004–2017); the expansion of its military presence in Amazonia; the Guarantee of Law and Order operations; and the role played in sporting megaevents in Brazil such as the World Cup and the Olympics.
The 2016 coup against Dilma Rousseff was led by a combination of business, parliamentary, and judicial forces. Publicly, the military was discreet, but behind the scenes it expressed support for the coup’s conspirators. The armed forces kept a watchful eye over the government of Michel Temer (2016–2018) that took power after President Dilma’s ousting, continually pressuring state institutions such as the judiciary, as noted at the outset. Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 was a product of the confluence of political, social, and economic crises that opened a window of opportunity for the far right. Sectors of the military ran Bolsonaro’s campaign and have had a visible presence from the start of the transition from the Temer to Bolsonaro administrations, presenting themselves as the government’s technocratic wing–in reality, the ‘military wing’–able to moderate the president’s outbursts.
From an ideological perspective, there are no substantial tensions between the military and neo-Pentecostal sectors that support the government: both consider themselves to be representatives of the so-called traditional Brazilian family as they have defined the term. The same holds for neoliberal sectors of the government. In contrast to the apparent belief of a section of the Brazilian left, which attributes a supposed economic nationalism to the military, there has been no military opposition whatsoever to the government’s privatisation efforts. Tensions with physiological groups  of the political centre about how to divvy up the spoils of the Brazilian state have been dealt with pragmatically, without any moral outcry.
Brazil today does not have a government made up of military officers, since the officers occupying political positions do not do so as individuals but rather as a part of a single apparatus, separate from the rest of society. Unlike during the 1964 dictatorship, the armed forces do not choose their civil representatives based on principles of efficiency and discipline. Rather, there is a hybrid: a militarised government, in which a ‘Military Party’–a political grouping rooted in former military officers and steeped in military culture–shapes the current bloc in power. This ‘party’ moulded Bolsonaro over the span of decades; it has a long-term project of power and intends to remain active on the Brazilian political scene.
The military’s political advance has led to the militarisation of both the Brazilian state and society, which takes place in multiple ways:
The military’s growing occupation of political offices, whether through elections or by appointment. This creates a channel through which military interests are transmitted to the entire political system. Most recently, Bolsonaro’s former minister of defence, Army General Azevedo e Silva–who is associated with a group of military officers who participated in the 2016 coup–was nominated to be director-general of the federal court responsible for overseeing the electoral process across the country. Additionally, the armed forces were assigned as election observers to enforce the integrity of electronic voting machines, despite the fact that Bolsonaro has repeatedly accused this technology of being fraudulent.
The imposition of military doctrines drafted with war in mind onto other arenas through government policy. This has historically occurred in matters of public security, where doctrines aimed at combating the ‘internal enemy’ have guided the military police, who are responsible for overt and preventative policing; these doctrines have in turn been extended to civil public security institutions. A more punitive approach has been adopted toward the poor, resulting in increases in the prison population, electronic surveillance, summary executions, arbitrary arrests, and other serious violations of human rights that are extensions of war by other means inside the city.
The transfer of military values onto public administration, such as through proposals to militarise schools by introducing conservative behaviours, customs, orders, and associated ideas as key values, prioritising hard sciences over the humanities and excluding those considered to be ‘less able’.
The militarisation of any and all problems, such as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is not a matter of war-making but rather of public health.
The militarisation of the state budget. This not only involves funding defence industries and maintaining the working conditions of the armed forces (whose personnel received a wage increase during the pandemic while other public servants had their wages frozen); the military also controls 16 of Brazil’s 46 state-owned enterprises including Petrobras and Electrobras, which, if one takes into account subsidiaries (49 and 69, respectively), means that the military controls 61% of companies directly or indirectly connected to the state, a rate ten times higher than during the preceding government of Michel Temer.
It should be made clear that militarisation is not only taking place at the executive level but also in the legislature and the judiciary. Between 2010 and 2020 alone, over 25,000 military and police personnel ran for office; 87% of them belonged to right-wing parties, and 1,860 of them were elected. The influx of military personnel into political offices led to the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Bill, which criminalises popular struggle, among other consequences.
Militarisation is not only taking place within the structures of the state; Brazil is a shining example of a country that wages war at home while maintaining a peaceful attitude abroad. The country is home to 17 of the 50 most violent cities in the world, or 34%, not to mention the historic violence inflicted upon rural areas and indigenous populations or the fact that violence, in the form of slavery, is the determining feature of Brazil’s social formation. Today, Brazil is the second most dangerous place in the world for human rights advocates.
Grafico (Source: Federal Senate)The most visible aspect of militarisation is the intense physical presence of security forces in the streets, such as the armed forces, civil and military police, municipal guards, along with the enormous network of private security forces. The Bolsonaro government’s policies incentivising gun ownership have doubled the number of registered firearms in circulation from 637,000 in 2017 to 1.2 million in 2021, according to the federal police registry. Meanwhile, among clubs of collectors, sport shooters, and hunters (CACs), which are regulated by the Brazilian army, the number of registered firearms more than doubled from 225,000 in 2019 to 496,000 in 2020 nationwide. In Brasília, the nation’s capital, the total number of registered firearms in circulation increased by over 500%, from 25,000 in 2017 to 227,000 in 2020.
In this context of heightened militarisation, there are strong links between President Bolsonaro and his family and paramilitary groups or milícias. These paramilitary groups are associated with death squads that are mostly made up of public security agents operating in criminal markets which dominate areas in the state of Rio de Janeiro–the Bolsonaro family’s political cradle. Sectors within Bolsonaro’s base are armed and eager to mount a coup d’état, even if they lack the conditions necessary to execute it.
The most insidious aspect of militarisation can be seen in the promotion of military values, attitudes, and identity markers in the culture and customs of society at large. This shift can also be felt in the centralisation of authority and hierarchisation as well as an expansion of xenophobia (disguised as the cultivation of patriotic symbols), aggression, loyalty to peers, social Darwinism (the idea that only the strong survive), etc.
Imperialism and Its Vassals
There is an international and hierarchical division of labour in the area of defence. The armed forces of core countries intervene in the main global geopolitical standoff, currently shaped by the rivalry between the United States and China. Meanwhile, the armed forces of peripheral countries are responsible for intervening in their countries’ domestic spheres, where–as it was during the Cold War–their role is to guarantee social order, repressing the ‘internal enemy’ and social opposition or carrying out policing functions such as combatting narcotraffic at the borders. In the case of semi-peripheral countries allied with the United States, such as Brazil, the armed forces also carry out international security endeavours, such as so-called peacekeeping missions.
Most of the world adopts the same defence strategies, which leads to a homogenisation of armed forces and a deepening dependency on the part of Global South countries. Even having lost all of its recent wars–such as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria–the U.S. has successfully sold a ‘recipe of success’, namely that huge amounts of weaponry and ever more advanced technologies win wars. However, this type of weaponry demands huge capital investment, something that is not available to countries of the Global South, which face a plethora of urgent needs related to their populations’ quality of life. The problem is that when a country does not have the resources to develop its own equipment but is instead strategically dependent, it seeks out producers from whom to purchase these weapons systems. It ends up having to buy into the doctrine on how and against whom to use these armaments alongside the weaponry needed to implement it. As a result, the country’s enemies and allies are defined externally by U.S. imperialism, which has a de facto monopoly on weaponry.
There is a paradox here: though weaponry is meant to guarantee sovereignty and autonomous decision-making, it ends up compromising it. Similarly, though the military is held to be the active subject of strategic freedom, it ends up being an agent of strategic subordination because of its dependency in matters of materiel and doctrine. Threats are psychologically constructed based on our experience of the world, and dependent countries come to see threats constructed by core countries as threats to themselves. For example, the torture techniques of the 1964 dictatorship were inspired by French doctrines developed to intervene in national liberation wars in the fight for decolonisation in Africa. Today, the same logic applies when Brazil, a country that is made up of migrants, has come to see migration from other peripheral countries as a possible new threat (despite Brazil’s own history as a peripheral country).
The armed forces in Brazil and elsewhere in South America are torn between two different stances. On the one hand, the doctrine advanced by the Organisation of American States (OAS) identifies new domestic ‘threats’ such as migration, corruption, organised crime, terrorism, and narcotrafficking. In these cases, military forces act as police forces, combatting the ‘internal enemy’ in a way that is not dissimilar to the national security doctrines of the 1960s dictatorships in the Southern Cone. In Brazil’s case, this doctrine continues to exist and be adapted for use by the limited democratic governments that followed the political transition in 1985. The doctrine’s perpetuation is a direct result of the absence of reforms and lack of accountability of Brazil’s armed forces–something that in turn structures the military’s behaviour. This internally focused doctrine has overshadowed other military concepts such as cooperative deterrence, which points to the need to build a regional policy of cooperation with other Latin American countries to dissuade potential invasion from outside the continent, especially when it comes to defending natural resources. In Brazil, this is especially the case in the ‘Green Amazon’ and the ‘Blue Amazon’ (the long stretch of coastline where Brazil’s oil exploration is located, for example). The reality is that this kind of cooperation is not put into practice–despite its appearance in Brazil’s defence documents.
Since the coup against President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, the United States’ strategic influence over the Brazilian Armed Forces has turned into strategic subordination. Instead of taking advantage of the global turbulence provoked by the decline of the U.S. as a hegemonic power, Brazil has clung onto the declining superpower and served U.S. interests in the region, restricting the country’s capacity to be a global player–a dynamic that impacts the entire region. In one of many demonstrations of this, in 2019, a Brazilian general was nominated as the interoperability subcommander of the U.S. Southern Command, the military unit responsible for defending U.S. strategic interests in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean and the military unit most likely to be involved in U.S. military aggression against countries such as Cuba or Venezuela. The Southern Command is also a central piece of the United States’ strategy to restrict the influence of the Chinese in the South Atlantic. There is currently a Brazilian general in a position of double subordination: to the Brazilian and United States armies.
Another example of this subordination is the agreement between Brazil and the U.S. concerning the Alcântara Space Centre. Alcântara is a Brazilian military base close to the mouth of the Amazon that forced the removal of quilombolas in that region. The base is strategically located to carry out long-range rocket launches, potentially to space. Brazil does not yet have the capacity to launch satellites by itself, which limits the country’s sovereignty in controlling Brazilians’ information and communications, for example. The Alcântara agreement does not provide for any transfer of technology to Brazil (a common stipulation imposed in agreements with the U.S.); to the contrary, it sets limits on the countries that Brazil can negotiate with to use the Alcântara base. For example, China–which is not a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)–is prohibited from signing an agreement with Brazil, which is a signatory to the MTCR, that would allow it to use the base. This prohibition also applies to any country sanctioned by any member of the UN Security Council (such as Iran). The Alcântara agreement also allows for the creation of restricted areas to be used exclusively by those authorised by the U.S., which would control the entry of both people and goods into these areas. In some ways, the Alcântara base is an enclave of the United States on Brazilian soil.
Ramifications and Solutions in Brazil
The demonstrations by Bolsonaro’s social base on 7 September 2021 were large, though smaller than predicted. Importantly, and contrary to expectations, military personnel did not turn up at the demonstrations or speak out in support of them, forcing Bolsonaro to retreat from his intentions to mount a coup–for now. However, this does not mean that he was abandoned or betrayed by the military; it means that though he belongs to the Military Party, the Military Party does not belong to him, and that the military project is searching for alternatives to remain in power independently of whoever occupies the presidency.
Brazil’s increasing militarisation has a number of ramifications across different sectors of society. For one, armed violence–taking on an increasingly bellicose character and backed by popular support for the unfettered right to bear arms–has come to be seen as a normal way to resolve conflict. This normalisation, especially when backed by popular support, impacts both Brazil’s domestic and foreign affairs; the former because security forces are more likely to respond with repression when questioned, identifying fellow citizens as enemies, and the latter because it encourages the use of force.
Militarisation also reinforces patriarchy, and the bellicose nature of armed violence carries over to other arenas such as the increasing fatality of gender-based violence. A militarised society tends to support measures contrary to the international human rights agenda, such as policies aimed at racial or gender inclusion. Between 2009 and 2019, murders of indigenous people increased by 21.6%; since 2018, violence against homosexuals and bisexuals have increased by 9.8% and homicides of women inside the home have increased by 6.1%. This increased violence disproportionately impacts racial minorities; as of 2019, 77% of homicide victims in Brazil were black, 70% of which were committed with firearms.
Culture is yet another arena shaped by militarisation. This takes place not only through large military parades or the commemoration of symbolic dates and figures, but rather in many arenas: literature and fashion, cinema and warlike games, daily life and colloquialisms. Social consent to militarisation is built through language, which serves as a vehicle for propaganda. In a world with so much information available and where social media predominates, hegemony built on ideology is more efficient and cheaper than that based narrowly on force. At their core, military structures generate unified and totalising identities that leave no space for dissent and are defined by the identification of ‘the other’ as the enemy.
This process will be difficult to reverse, at least in the short to medium term, even if Bolsonaro and the military are removed from the country’s executive leadership. The military has clearly returned to power in Brazil, and there is no indication that the 2022 elections will put an end to that. In the context of the 2022 presidential elections, politicised military personnel are unified against Lula (PT) but divided between two right-wing candidacies–whether to support Bolsonaro’s re-election or the election of Sérgio Moro, the former judge responsible for Operation Car Wash that led to Lula’s unjust imprisonment.
The military is well positioned to issue assessments about the fairness of the elections–or to interfere in them–given that it is now among the parties responsible for overseeing the integrity of the elections. If armed sectors of the population were to provoke intense social destabilisation before or after the elections–which is a possible scenario if Bolsonaro loses–the military can act by simply doing nothing and then present themselves as the new guarantors of national stability, similar to what occurred in Bolivia following the 2019 coup.
Multilateralism has long oriented Brazil’s foreign policy, especially during the PT governments that deepened South-South cooperation, above all in Latin America. Even a part of Brazil’s elite sees China as the country’s main geopolitical partner and has for some time due to the economic benefits that this partnership offers. Counter to the global trend of increasing multipolarity, sectors of the military are deepening their dependence on the declining U.S. empire. At some point, these conflicting readings of the world will come home to roost with grave consequences.
In this context, popular movements face a number of challenges. Among them are electing Lula as the country’s president and then redefining Brazil’s position in the world, what defence policy is capable of sustaining this new national project, and only then what sort of armed forces are needed. The military police must be subordinated to a national project that is strictly under popular control. This national project must take into account how to engage Brazil in a programme that presents solutions to the crises we face today and that puts the benefit of humankind over the interests of profit, such as APlan to Save the Planet, a roadmap drafted by an international network of research institutes to confront the dilemmas of our time.
In order to create this new national project, the people must have control over the state’s instruments of force. This includes control over the armed forces, the militarised police, and the firearms in circulation. Defence and security are part of an agenda of power, which must be part of a popular education programme and dialogue with the people in order to move forward.
Our past is also a key part of our future; without settling scores with a past marked by slavery and dictatorship, it will not be possible to build a democratic future in which the armed forces are wholly subordinated to the sovereignty of the people and their institutions and are exclusively destined for external defence and no longer used against their own people. This requires confronting the crimes committed during the 1964 dictatorship as well as its authoritarian legacy, which has shaped the state and the political culture up to the present day. Giving new meaning to patriotic symbols, such as the Brazilian flag, should be part of this process.
Lastly, we must resist the idea that preparing for war is necessary for building peace. To the contrary: in order to build peace, the priority must be placed on a programme that centers the wellbeing of humankind and the planet by eliminating hunger, guaranteeing safe and secure housing as well as universal, quality health care, and defending the right to a dignified quality of life.