Brazil has a long and complicated history with fascism, going back to the early 20th century. Far-right and white supremacist groups have been emboldened by President Jair Bolsonaro—with some members of his own cabinet openly sporting Nazi tattoos. They’ve unleashed online attacks, pushed fake news and misinformation in favor of Bolsonaro, and they’ve threatened Brazil’s Supreme Court and its justices. But the country’s top court is pushing back. 

In this episode, we look at Brazil’s troubled past of reactionary fascist forces, and how Bolsonaro’s rise unleashed them anew.

This is Brazil on Fire, a podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. Over these six episodes we look at Bolsonaro’s far-right government that has set the country ablaze, and how the United States helped him do it. We’ll visit the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism, evangelical churches, and Indigenous villages in the Amazon. 

Hosted by Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox.

This podcast is produced in partnership between The Real News Network and NACLA.

Sound design by Gustavo Türck.

Theme music by Monte Perdido.


Transcript

Michael Fox:  It’s May 2020. Well past dark. A group of people march in rows toward Brazil’s Supreme Court. They wear black and carry torches. Most of their faces are covered with white masks like the one worn by Jason in the horror flick Friday the 13th. There are only a few dozen people, but the scene is chilling… Reminiscent of the KKK or Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, just two years before. The group is armed. They’ve been camped in the capital, Brasilia, for over a week in support of President Jair Bolsonaro. They demand the closure of the Supreme Court for pushing back on the president. They call themselves 300 Brazil.

The name is inspired by the movie 300, which depicts an epic battle in the 5th century BC, when 300 Spartans allegedly fought off thousands of invading Persian soldiers. That battle was referenced by Nazis during World War II, and neo-Nazis and far-right and fascist groups in Europe have glorified the movie in their fight against immigrants. Their chant this evening – Ahu – Is shouted both in the movie and by these extremist groups.

Leading the chant is Sara Winter. Actually, her name is Sara Giromini, but she changed her name in honor of a World War II-era British Nazi spy. The Brazilian Sara Winter is a former feminist turned ultra-religious conservative. I actually filmed her praying during one Bolsonaro rally in 2018. Until recently, she held a post in Bolsonaro’s Ministry of Women, Human Rights, and the Family.

She has a Nazi iron cross tattooed on her chest. She says she was trained by Ukrainian neo-Nazis. And she, like many of Bolsonaro’s ardent supporters, is enraged over Supreme Court decisions that have pushed back on Bolsonaro and his government, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And that is why the group is outside the country’s top court tonight.

[Chanting]

“We are here to make demands,” they chant. “The Supreme Court will not silence us. The Supreme Court will not silence us.” Two weeks later, the group would actually bombard the Supreme Court with fireworks, as if shelling it with live rockets.

“See the direction of the fireworks? Get ready, you Supreme Court of Bums,” shouts a man off camera. “This is the people burning the nation. The people who built this nation. Be warned.”

Be warned.

Bolsonaro has unleashed a virulent far-right resurgence, and he’s given them carte blanche to parade their violence, hate, racism, sexism, homophobia, and fascism openly, in public…. And even in his government. Some of Bolsonaro’s top cabinet members have posted videos featuring Nazi symbolism and imagery. It is a dangerous sign of how far the county has sunk. But the fascism isn’t new. Those roots run deep… Really deep.

This is Brazil on Fire, a podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. This podcast is produced in collaboration with The Real News and NACLA.

I’m your host, Michael Fox. I’m a long-time radio reporter and multimedia journalist. I’ve lived in Brazil for years, and I’ve covered Bolsonaro and his government closely. Over these 6 episodes, I’m taking you on a journey to understand the story of Bolsonaro’s rise and his far-right government that’s set the country ablaze. Last episode, we looked into one of Bolsonaro’s most loyal groups of supporters – Fundamentalist Christians. Today, we’re looking at Brazil’s troubled past of reactionary fascist forces, and how Bolsonaro’s rise unleashed them anew.

This is Episode 4: “Nazis on your Street”

Blumenau is in the hills of the state of Santa Catarina, Southern Brazil, just a couple of hours from my home in Florianopolis. It’s a quaint German town on the banks of the Itajaí-Açu River. And I say German town with a capital G. There are many cities in Brazil that boast of German heritage, many towns where they still speak an old German dialect. But this one, Blumenau, is Brazil’s capital of German culture.

And, rightfully, Oktoberfest here is massive – The biggest outside of Germany. 72 bands. 200 German dishes. More than 50 types of beers. Music around the clock. The party goes on for weeks. I did a story about it for Deutsche Welle, the German state radio station, a few years ago. The celebrations are held at the park in downtown Blumenau, which was built to resemble a traditional German village. Half the people are dressed in typical – Or, you might say, stereotypical – German clothes. Men in Lederhosen and Tyrolean hats, women in short Dirndl dresses. This is the positive, celebratory image today of Blumenau and this region, known as Brazil’s European Valley. Residents are proud of their heritage.

But Blumenau also has a dark, complicated past. See, this is the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism. The Brazilian Nazi Party was founded in 1928 in the nearby town of Timbo, just down the road from Blumenau. That party would grow to become the largest outside of Germany, with tens of thousands of members.

[Music plays]

Those who couldn’t join the Nazi Party because they weren’t German citizens joined the Integralistas, a Brazilian nationalist fascist party founded in 1932, and inspired by European fascist movements. That’s the soundtrack to an old black and white film reel of the 1935 Integralista congress in Blumenau – You can find it on YouTube. Thousands in uniform amass in the streets. Men, women, and children. They parade and march, and solute with their right arm raised in the air. That group would grow to have more than a million members organized in thousands of local groups. 

And it’s still around today. In Blumenau, the far-right presence is still strong. Over 80% of the town voted for Bolsonaro in 2018. But the fascist legacy goes far beyond the ballot box.

I’m standing outside the home of lawyer Marco Antonio Andre. He’s Black. Graying hair accents his closely trimmed beard. He wears a clean white t-shirt that reads, “We are all vira-latas”, the Portuguese word for mutts or stray dogs. His street looks like any other in downtown Blumenau; A couple of apartment complexes. Office buildings. Sidewalk. It’s kind of industrial. There are no yards. He’s walking me up and down. Pointing out where it happened.

Marco Antonio Andre:  Here, they were on the telephone poles here, they’re just a few yards from my home and the door to my office. My colleague, he found them, pulled them off, knocked on the door and handed them to me.

Michael Fox:  What did he find? KKK signs, plastered up and down the street. They’re photocopied on 8.5 x 11 inch paper. Black and red ink on a white page. In the image, a man in a KKK outfit points out from the page, the group’s emblem on his chest. Under the picture are the words in Portuguese: “Black, communist, antifa, voodoo worshiper. We are watching you.”

Marco Antonio Andre:  On my own street, in front of my front door. This aggression was really painful. It was so blatant. It’s a feeling of fear and also fury, because it’s my front yard. They came to desecrate my space.

Michael Fox:  Marco Antonio says it took him a while to decide if and how to respond. Finally, he posted about it on Facebook. It went viral. Media called to cover the story. The Organization of Brazilian Lawyers denounced the threats. Local police started an investigation. And they found the culprits – Something that’s not that common in a country where impunity reigns and few are ever held responsible for hate crimes. Those behind the threatening signs were linked to neo-Nazi cells in Blumenau and São Paulo. This was in late 2017, a year before Bolsonaro’s election.

Donald Trump:  America will no longer settle for anything less than the best.

Michael Fox:  But Marco Antonio says the fallout from Donald Trump’s presidency was already taking a toll, even in Brazil. That’s why he thinks they chose the image of the KKK. People know what it is, even though it’s not an active group in Brazil. It’s more of a symbol. But Trump…

Marco Antonio Andre:  He’s the image of the Ku Klux Klan. I look at him and I see the Klan. And these guys who did this, they felt authorized to use this image that represented the American government. And Bolsonaro… He’s like the mini Trump. The Brazilian Trump. It’s not by accident that members of the American KKK sent him their support.

Michael Fox:  That’s true. The former leader of the Klan endorsed Bolsonaro during the 2018 election. And here’s the thing; Marco Antonio says he’s clear that the attack wasn’t against him personally, but against what he represents.

Marco Antonio Andre:  What they’re saying is that if someone else who is Black wants to be a lawyer and speak out in public… Well, we’ll be watching you.

Michael Fox:  There’s long been this myth of racial democracy in Brazil. It goes kind of like this: Since Brazil never had a racial segregation system like Jim Crow in the US or Apartheid in South Africa, there’s no racism here. That could not be further from the truth.

Reginete Bispo is a longtime member of the Black Movement in Porto Alegre. I spoke with her a couple of years ago, after security guards killed a 40-year-old Black man by choking him to death outside of a supermarket.

Reginete Bispo:  Racism in Brazil is endemic. It’s everywhere. It’s everyday. Racism in Brazil is recognized across the globe, because this is one of the countries that most kills Blacks. 

Michael Fox:  In recent years, nearly 8 out of 10 people murdered in Brazil were Black, most of them young, many killed by police. A couple of facts:

One: Of all the enslaved Africans forcibly brought to the New World, almost half were taken to Brazil, well over 5 million people.

Two: Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. In fact, thousands of US Southerns even moved to Brazil after the Civil War to try to continue their slave-holding way of life. Brazil finally ended slavery in 1888.

And yet, Slavery actually existed in Brazil well into the 20th century. Marco Antonio says his family recently learned that when his father was born in 1939, Marco Antonio’s grandmother was enslaved. 1939 folks. Just 83 years ago. And this was much more common than you could imagine.

The Brazilian documentary Menino 23, or Boy 23, was in the running for an Oscar in 2017. It tells the story of how 50 Black boys were taken from an orphanage in the 1930s and forced to work as slaves on the plantation of powerful Nazi sympathizers in São Paulo.

Stories of Nazis and fascists might seem like something from the past, but Bolsonaro and his government have lifted them out of the shadows. That…. In a minute.

January 2020. Bolsonaro’s government has been in office for about a year. Brazil’s Secretary of Culture Roberto Alvim posts this video. He’s sitting at a desk. Gray suit. Dark tie. Hair Slicked back. He speaks staring straight into the camera.

Roberto Alvim:  The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and national. It will be endowed with a great capacity for emotional participation…  Deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people. This, or nothing.

Michael Fox:  He says with profound flair. His video goes viral, causing a firestorm. Not for what he says, but for the hidden message. See, his video was copied almost exactly from a speech by Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

I don’t know if you could make it out, but Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin was playing in the background. Apparently, it was a favorite of Hitler’s. Wagner’s music was often used in Nazi propaganda. Even the layout of the scene. A picture of Bolsonaro on the wall above Alvim. The Brazilian flag to his right. A cross to his left. It seems to scream out a slogan Bolsonaro has used: “Deus, familia, patria”. “God, family, homeland.” The same slogan as the Brazilian fascist Integralista party and Portuguese fascist dictator Antonio Salazar.

Odilon Caldeira is an historian of Brazilian fascism.

Odilon Caldeira:  Roberto Alvim’s kind of cosplay performance was a really affectionate nod to these causes, and it’s happened constantly throughout Bolsonaro’s government.

Michael Fox:  Alvim was fired after huge uproar.

But top members of Bolsonaro’s government have continuously referenced historic fascist slogans and tweeted images or videos with far-right, fascist and Nazi symbolism. But Odilon says it doesn’t stop there.

Odilon Caldeira:  There is also this increasing process of welcoming the participation of more far-right groups in recent years. The marches that call for military intervention or against Brazilian democracy are a type of normalization of the far right and neo-fascism.

In other words, on the one hand you have these dogwhistles for Nazi, fascist, and far-right groups. On the other, you have a government that is actually embracing their cause and lifting their discourse to an unprecedented level on the national stage, with the rhetoric of breaking Brazil’s democratic institutions.

Bolsonaro has inspired and empowered far-right groups across the country, who have flaunted their allegiances openly. Neo-Nazi flags have been waved at Bolsonaro marches. Swastikas painted at universities.

Members of the fascist Integralistas even held a small rally in São Paulo in 2019, commemorating the founding of their party. In the video, they wear green shirts and stand at attention their right arms in the air as if lifted in a Nazi salute while they sing the fascist party’s anthem. These are not normal times in Brazil.

Adriana Dias is one of the country’s premier researchers on Nazism and neo-Nazis. We’ve been in touch for several years.

In 2021, she reported that the number of neo-Nazi cells in Brazil had increased by almost 60% under Bolsonaro’s government. At least 530 cells across the country. Guess what states have the most? That’s right, São Paulo and Santa Catarina, where lawyer Marco Antonio and I live.

Adriana Dias:  An alarm needs to be sounded. These hate movements need to be criminalized and we need to be talking about how to share humanity, because what these groups tend to do is put humanity into a hierarchy. White men are better than women. Blacks, Jews. Indigenous. Gays. And we can’t put humanity in hierarchies.

Michael Fox:  For Adriana, the recent explosion of these groups is directly connected to a resurgent white supremacy empowered by Bolsonaro and his government.

Adriana Dias:  The people who had this white supremacy deep down inside from the decade of the 1940s. Well, they had kids, and you know, there’s only a generation or a generation and a half between now then. Well, they’ve seen the resurgence of the right, and they are able to speak about this more freely.

Michael Fox:  Some of these neo-Nazi cells are violent. They’ve attacked Jews and members of the LGBTQ community in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. There have been attacks on synagogues in São Paulo and Santa Catarina. And there have been many threats.

Far-right groups have joined protests demanding the closure of the Congress and the Supreme Court. They’ve called for military intervention and a return to military dictatorship, with Bolsonaro in charge. But above all, they have been active online – What Adriana Dias calls Cyberactivism.

Now, I want to take a step back here, just to say that of course not all right-wing or far-right cyberactivists in Brazil are neo-Nazis, and not all neo-Nazis are doing cyberactivism. But without a doubt, the fight for the soul of the country, to put it in culture war terms, has been taken online.

A veritable army of Bolsonaro supporters has battled for the president over social media; Twitter, Youtube, WhatsApp, Telegram. Many supporters are real. Many are bots. They praise the president’s virtues with hashtags like #UnitedForBolsonaro or #Bolsonaro2022. They attack his opponents with memes, hate speech and misleading or false information. They are an echo chamber repeating the president’s rhetoric and lies, inflating his support, and launching a firestorm of attacks on those who oppose him.

That’s all fueled by Bolsonaro’s so-called “Hate Cabinet” or Gabinete de Odio. It’s this loosely organized network of people working both inside and outside the Bolsonaro government with the goal of producing and spreading content about Bolsonaro. They’ve pushed misinformation, fake news, and hate online since before Bolsonaro’s 2018 electoral victory. And they have…

Fabio de Sa e Silva:  Really used this expertise that they developed throughout time to start launching attacks on opponents of Bolsonaro.

Michael Fox:  That’s Fabio de Sa e Silva, Professor of Brazilian Studies at the University of Oklahoma. We heard from him in Episode 2. I’ve asked him back to help make sense of all this.

Fabio de Sa e Silva:  And of course, after the pandemic this was more directly shifted to attacks on institutions and Congress and the Supreme Court and some Supreme Court Justices.

Michael Fox:  “What we want is action for Brazil,” Bolsonaro tells supporters. It’s May 2020, and he’s speaking at a rally in front of the Ministry of Defense calling for military intervention and the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court. “Those old ways are behind us. We have a new Brazil before us,” he tells the crowd.

This is where we were at the beginning of this episode; Bolsonaro battling with Congress and the Supreme Court over pandemic lockdowns and mask mandates.

Far-right activist Sara Winter camped in Brasilia with a few dozen supporters threatening to violently attack the country’s top court.

[Chanting]

“We are here to make demands,” the group chants that night in the evening rally. “The Supreme Court will not silence us.”

The court has defended state governors’ ability to issue social restrictions, despite Bolsonaro’s calls to open it all up. The top court has also blocked Bolsonaro from naming a close family confidant to head the federal police.

It was a scary moment. COVID was still rattling the country, and it was not clear how far Bolsonaro and his people would take their threats against the other branches of government. Would the tanks roll again on the streets of Brasilia?

Fabio de Sa e Silva:  So we have all of these attacks on the Supreme Court. We are seeing some threats against specific Supreme Court justices. And then what the Chief Supreme Court Justice does at this time is he uses a provision in the bylaws of the Supreme Court which says that the Supreme Court can investigate whoever commits a crime against the Supreme Court, or against one of its members, and he uses that to initiate an investigation within the Supreme Court.

Michael Fox:  He says that Chief Justice Dias Toffoli interpreted this provision loosely to also include cases of online attacks against the court. He chose Justice Alexandre de Moraes as the chief rapporteur for the investigation, the same person, incidentally, who is now presiding over the country’s electoral court for this year’s elections.

Fabio de Sa e Silva:  So what this investigation began doing was to identify a few key people who were influencers on social media who were leading the movement, so to speak. And so Sara Winter was one. Daniel Silveira was another. Also people who were using social media to launch very heavy attacks on the Supreme Court or its members, including threats. And that’s, for example, when Daniel Silveira was arrested. He’s the federal congressman who recorded a video saying that he would beat up the Supreme Court justice Edson Fachin.

Michael Fox:  Bolsonaro would actually pardon Silveira. Meanwhile, federal police would confiscate Sara Winter’s computers and cell phones amid widespread raids on Bolsonaro allies in more than two dozen locations across six states. 

Sara Winter responded to Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes in a video posted over social media.

Sara Winter:  You will never have peace in your life again. We’re going to make your life hell, we’re going to find out the places you go… We’re going to find out everything about your life until you ask to leave. Today you made the worst decision of your life.

Michael Fox:  That would land her in jail for a year for personally threatening a Supreme Court justice and the country’s democratic institutions.

It’s hard to understate how important these Supreme Court measures were, but also how controversial. I mean, Bolsonaro’s allies called the investigation unconstitutional. Ironically, they said it was a sign of the court’s authoritarian overreach.

The investigation was unprecedented. The raids were a stinging assault on Bolsonaro’s “Hate Cabinet”. The cabinet still exists, but the Supreme Court investigations, alongside Senate inquiries into fake news and COVID, have hobbled its ability to act. In fact, just this August, Justice Alexandre de Moraes authorized raids on 8 powerful Bolsonaro-aligned businessmen. They were found to have been scheming over WhatsApp about potential coup scenarios if Bolsonaro loses the 2022 election. Moraes said they essentially functioned as the leaders of the criminal organization he had been investigating for its attacks on the Supreme Court, allegedly helping to fund the Hate Cabinet’s activities and Bolsonaro’s fake news machine.

But the battle of ideas is far from over…

David Nemer:  It’s a vicious cycle. That content that promotes fear and anger, this content is the fuel that is the gasoline of misinformation.

Michael Fox:  That is David Nemer. He’s a Brazilian professor at the University of Virginia. I went to visit him late last year in Charlottesville because, since the lead-up to Bolsonaro’s election, he’s been researching far-right Bolsonaro supporters online and cyberactivism, particularly over WhatsApp. David himself has faced threats targeting him and his family. In 2019 he had to flee Brazil out of fear for his life.

David Nemer:  Misinformation without hate, fortunately, doesn’t go very far. But with a lot of hate, it goes very far, so it’s not surprising that far-right groups believe in white supremacy. It’s always demonizing minorities. They always have to build this enemy with that. Without the enemy, they don’t exist. 

Michael Fox:  And that is exactly what Bolsonaro has done.

David Nemer:  The creation of the enemy is something that has to happen, otherwise the whole Bolsonaro movement is gone. They need Lula. They need the Supreme Court. They need Congress. They need all these enemies, because otherwise they just have no one. And they’re constantly building new enemies, because it’s the only way to keep their base motivated. 

Michael Fox:  This is typical of fascist regimes across the globe. So is the outcome, like I talked about in the very first episode: “Violence and Hate”.

Matheus Gomes is a young lawmaker on the Porto Alegre City Council. He’s Black, with long dreadlocks that he usually keeps tied up on top of his head. He has a contagious smile and seemingly endless enthusiasm for social justice causes and issues affecting Black youth. This was a recent video of his meeting with community members in the town of Bage.

He was elected in 2020, along with four other young Black candidates, who now make up the city’s first Black caucus. If you remember from episode 1, Porto Alegre is the capital of the Southernmost state of  Rio Grande do Sul, just next to Santa Catarina. And racism there, like in Blumenau and so many places, is a problem.

Today, Matheus is running for state legislature, but there’s been pushback. We spoke a few weeks ago over the phone. Due to the low quality of the recording, we got some help from a voice actor. He’ll be playing Matheus’s voice for the next few minutes..

Matheus Gomes:  We received this death threat from groups operating in the deep web insinuating that they were preparing an armed attack on our lives.

Michael Fox:  The message was sent to Matheus, the other members of the Black caucus, as well as trans elected officials, and even some journalists. This was not the first death threat that Matheus has received since he was elected.

Matheus Gomes:  I’ve lost count. Definitely more than 10. That’s why we know they’re from the deep web, because the threats are sent over email through servers that are hard to identify. There are investigations. In fact, one person is in prison, and he was connected with neo-Nazi groups. But there have been dozens of attacks like this if you take into account not just the ones I’ve received, but also the ones sent to my colleagues in the Black caucus.

Michael Fox:  Matheus says what makes this most recent message particularly concerning is that it was sent on the eve of the official start of the elections campaign.

Matheus Gomes:  They’re trying to intimidate us. The last message I received said I should give up politics. We will not be intimidated. But it directly mentions president Bolsonaro as if it were sent by his supporters, so it’s extremely concerning. This is, by far, the most tense feeling on the streets I have ever experienced during an electoral campaign.

Michael Fox:  In Porto Alegre, neo-Nazis have also taken to the streets. Last year, anti-vaxx groups invaded City Hall, wearing green and carrying neo-Nazi signs. Videos posted over social media show them punching people and causing chaos.

Matheus Gomes:  No organization, no individual who shares these fascist ideas of hate and pure violence can be allowed to express this freely in this country. The freedom of expression is not the freedom to oppress others. The debate of ideas was always the root of democracy. And Bolsonaro, he doesn’t embody any of these democratic values.

Michael Fox:  I spoke recently with Marco Antonio, the lawyer from Blumenau who I met at the beginning of the episode. He says Pandora’s box has been opened.

Marco Antonio Andre:  All those people who were ashamed of coming out as racist, as xenophobic, as misogynistic, they lost that shame. With Bolsonaro, people are no longer ashamed of being prejudiced. We’ve had four years of darkness. Four years of attacks. Four years of resistance. And those of us who are Black, women, or from the LGBT community, we’re just exhausted.

Michael Fox:  There was another time in Brazil’s recent history when people felt like this, though then it was even more violent, and led by the state. Disappearances. Killings. Imprisonment. Torture. And it is an era that Bolsonaro remembers with nostalgia. The place Bolsonaro got his start, and a thing he has long championed as being worthy of returning to: The dictatorship. 

In the next episode, we will dive head first into Brazil’s military regime that ran the country from 1964 through to 1985. We’ll look at the country’s failure to reckon with the past, and Bolsonaro’s steps to push Brazil back in that direction. 

That’s next time on Brazil on Fire. See you then.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a Latin America-based freelance multimedia journalist, filmmaker, radio reporter, and former editor of NACLA.