Brazil’s Presidential Election is Part of a ‘Global Reactionary Cycle’

With the near first-round election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil last Sunday, the country is on the precipice of a neoliberal neofascism, which fits into a very dangerous larger global cycle towards the right, says Prof. Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Brazil's Presidential Election is Part of a 'Global Reactionary Cycle'

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert joining you from Baltimore.

Brazilians and people around the world who are concerned about the rise of neofascism are still in shock about the high percentage of votes, 46 percent, that Jair Bolsonaro got in Brazil’s presidential election last Sunday. The center-left Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad, who had replaced front frontrunner Lula da Silva in the last minute, came in second place with 29 percent of the vote. He will now face Bolsonaro in a runoff vote on October 28.

The day after the election, Haddad tried to give the result a positive interpretation.

FERNANDO HADDAD: We’re very excited for the second round of Brazil’s presidential election, because the second round offers an opportunity that we didn’t have in the first round to debate the projects that each one of the remaining candidates advocate for the country. We’ll have an opportunity to compare these two projects so that voters have an opportunity, in my opinion, that they didn’t have in the first round of comparison.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to analyze the election result in the context of Brazil’s recent history is Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos, professor of sociology at Coimbra University in Portugal, and a distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin Madison. His most recent book is The End of the Cognitive Empire. Also, he recently returned from Brazil, where he had a chance to visit with Lula da Silva in person. He joins us now from Madison, Wisconsin. Thanks for being here today.


GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with your visit with former president Lula da Silva in prison a few weeks ago. As I mentioned, Lula is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption, but he’s appealing the conviction on the basis that no material evidence was presented against him. How was his mood? How did you see him? And also, I’m sure you talked about the presidential race, and so how did he see this historical race between Haddad and Bolsonaro?

BOAVENTURA DE SOUSA SANTOS: Well it was a tense moment and a very important moment, because it’s a little bit dramatic. Lula da Silva, as president of Brazil, inaugurated that building where he’s now in prison, confined, 11 years ago. And now he’s therein, in solitary confinement. So he was in very good spirits. He can’t leave the room. He has instruments to do exercises, and so on. And he is visited by his lawyers. There are some restrictions on other visitors, there have been lots of restrictions. I was surprised that I was allowed. Before me was Martin Schulz, who was once president of the European Parliament. And each one of us had half an hour with Lula da Silva that afternoon.

But he was in very good spirits. As a political activist- he considers himself, of course, and we do also consider him as a political prisoner, probably one of the most famous political prisoners of the world today. And we were discussing the political situation. He was asking me about the continent, the situation in other countries, which we know are also undergoing deep crisis, from Venezuela to Argentina. We discussed that. And concerning the Brazilian election, at the time I was urging him to announce the person to replace him, because there were some appeals still pending in the electoral courts.

Everybody knew that he could not be eligible, and therefore he should replace himself by Haddad as soon as possible so that the transfer of votes from him to Haddad would occur immediately, and so Haddad would start the campaign in his own name. Lula da Silva decided to delay that a little bit because in fact he was a really rising in the opinion polls and therefore the time was in his favor in this regard, in regard of the election. So he decided not to do this, name Haddad as his replacement immediately. But it was a very interesting conversation. The lawyers – of course, he considers himself to be unjustly punished and he’s innocent, he claims he’s innocent and he thinks that he’s ready to fight in courts forever to prove his innocence.

I told him that unfortunately this is a kind of political situation, and therefore there are many important apparent crimes that we’ll never know who killed or who was responsible. So in this case, he’s being victimized by the judiciary. It is true, I read the sentence, the two sentences, the first trial and then the appeal court. There are no real evidence that in fact he is the owner of that apartment. There may be other cases pending against Lula. We know that corruption was prevalent in Brazil to fund the parties. But enrichment, self-enrichment and being owner of an apartment, it is not proven in any way. I mean, you need a title property. No property title has been shown. So I think it was very unjust.

He feels it very deeply, very deeply. And he’s very, very badly wounded on this. And so we discussed a little bit about that, and I asked him to see that in political terms, that this is a political fight. I think they wanted to get rid of him because he would win the elections if he were a candidate, and they don’t want that. That’s the coup that started with the impeachment of Dilma, continued with his imprisonment, and would go on. And I think that the results of the election, the first round of the election, shows that the coup is going on.

GREG WILPERT: So I want to turn to that election. What is your interpretation of Bolsonaro’s win of forty-six percent of the vote? He only needs now four more percent in order to win the second round for the presidency on October 28, and it seems quite possible at this point. How do you see what is happening in Brazil, and how do you see this turn towards neofascism in the larger context of political developments around the world? I mean after all, Bolsonaro is being compared to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Erdogan of Turkey and Trump in the U.S. How does this election fit in that context as well?

BOAVENTURA DE SOUSA SANTOS: Well, I think very much that we are in a kind of a reactionary cycle around the world. We see that also in Europe, in some countries in Europe, in Poland and Hungary. We see that the extreme right is rising as a kind of a global movement at this stage. We know that Steve Bannon, for instance, is now based in Europe. And he has an organization called Movement, based in Brussels and also in Rome, which is trying, in fact, both at the secular level and also at the religious level, for instance, to work on these extreme right type of politics. The resignation of the pope is within the horizon of this extreme right in Europe, and Steve Bannon is part of it.

But Steve Bannon is the front desk guy of all these movements. It’s a much deeper movement that we should analyze, and why this polarization in Brazil is taking place, which is now basically the polarization between the good and the bad, and the good are the market-friendly people like Bolsonaro, and the bad are communists. I mean, Haddad is a very moderate candidate of the PT, one of the most moderate candidates of the PT, of the Workers’ Party in Brazil. When he was the mayor of Sao Paolo, he was very, very moderate in his policy, sometimes criticized by the left by being too moderate.

All of a sudden, I mean, if he wins, is communism back? But what kind of communism? Lula da Silva conducted a typical social democratic type of plan, and very mild at that, because it didn’t change the system, the political system, it didn’t change that the fiscal system, it didn’t change the neoliberal model of development, it didn’t do agrarian reform. So it didn’t do anything that is usually identified with a leftist or a communist politics. I mean, communist does make any sense in these times as an insult. But we see that in the U.S. also. I mean, if you look at how the extreme right in the United States produces this fake news and a recent documentary by the PBS on dark money.

And The Real News Network already knows that very well. The type of the things they say, they say the same things. I mean, if you look Bolsonaro’s digital campaign, a very sophisticated campaign where the microtargeting, where the digital market, ultra-personalized, highly sophisticated, some of the sentences are translations into Portuguese of the sentences that you see here in the United States by extreme right networks. I mean, it’s the same. It’s criticizing them of trying to take away children from their families, trying to nationalize things as to be violent, bring communism back and things like that. So we are under a situation of a global reactionary cycle. And I think that Brazil is the lab.

I think Bolsonaro, of course, is capitalizing on some discontent of the population, clearly. And we know that what we called the fascism of the masses in the 30s, the masses were never fascist as a totality. There was also a very well-organized minority, a fascist minority, that capitalized on grievances of people; the aspiration of employment, which now unemployment is growing in Brazil, the aspiration of safety because the crime rates are going up, particularly in the peripheries of the city, so the poorer classes are being hit by violence. And we see the typical politics of resentment as we have seen in the United States, that is to say, victim turns against victim.

On Monday after the election, a master of Capoeira, which is a famous dance in Brazil, was in a bar after the election saying that he had voted for Lula da Silva, well Fernando Haddad, he said, well, it’s like Lula. Well a supporter, a sympathizer of Bolsonaro stabbed him and killed him because of that in a bar. These are the types of violence that is going on in Brazil that puts the Brazilian democracy on the verge of chaos. And it’s a very, very serious situation. Of course, there are internal factors. The oligarchs saw, in a sense, that they were threatened by the social redistribution that took place under the PT governments when the crisis of accumulation started around 2009, 2010. And they decided that the social redistribution was a threat. And they had to control that, and in order to do that, they really created all this upheaval.

It was really manipulation very much from the start, particularly the global news at the time was really conducting this demonization of PT as communists, as corrupt people in order to destroy the image of the previous period. Of course, I was critical of some of the policies of the Workers’ Party. And of course, corruption, who is in favor of corruption? We are not in favor of corruption. We should be against that, and we are against that. But that was very selective and organized in order to destroy the image of the popular classes of a better and more hopeful Brazil, and a more equal Brazil, that they had under Lula da Silva. And that’s why Lula da Silva was a front runner in the public polls even though he was in prison. So they knew that, so they wanted to keep him out so that the second one – and all the time Bolsonaro was the second.

That is to say, as in the United States, a guy from the system, this guy has been a member of the Congress for 27 years, becomes all of a sudden anti-system, a voice of the anti-system. Lula was also part of the system, but all of a sudden, he was the left version of the anti-system in Brazil. And Bolsonaro, the right version of the anti-system, Lula in prison, Bolsonaro comes up and he takes the first round of the election in this way. It’s very dangerous, it’s a very toxic mixture of internal factors and external influence. There’s no conspiracy theory now, Gregory. It’s very well documented that the United States is, through several organizations, really advising, financing Bolsonaro’s campaign. Bannon has said that he has had talks with the Bolsonaro’s son and they have particularly advised him in terms of digital strategies. That’s what they are doing. But we know that the Koch brothers have also been helping fund him them.

GREG WILPERT: That’s actually one thing I wanted to ask you about specifically. That is, Bolsonaro himself hasn’t said much about his policy ideas, but he has some economic adviser, Paolo Guedes, who is an unrepentant extreme neoliberal who wants to pretty much privatize everything. But unlike Trump, it seems that Bolsonaro is intent on combining neoliberal economics with right-wing social ideas that are misogynist, homophobic and racist. What’s your take on this? I mean, how does such a combination fit together? Because normally, neoliberalism isn’t directly associated with these kind of right-wing social ideas.

BOAVENTURA DE SOUSA SANTOS: Well, sometimes it is, I mean it all depends. I mean, we have to see that we are in a society with colonialism in which the class inequalities go together with the racial prejudice. And in fact, India is a society, which in fact for a long time it was very conservative and run by the oligarchies. In the last 15 years, there was a revolution in terms of the social policies, particularly the identity policies. Affirmative action, for instance, took place under Lula for the first time in Brazil. Up until then, everybody said that Brazil was not racist, it was a racial democracy. Well in fact, we knew that it was racist. And therefore, the affirmative action started at that time. The laws promoting, for instance, gender equality. Maria da Penha Law was also at the time.

So there were lots of advances that in fact ran against the interest of the conservative society. But at the time, because there was a possibility of the reach going on being richer, as it happened during the Lula terms, all the profits of the banks were growing all the time, so there was really no problem until 2009, 2010. Then, the profitability of capital went down because of the crisis, because the acceleration of China and the all these models started to become unsustainable. At that point, in fact, the social resentment came up. These ideas, extreme conservative ideas, are a distraction in a sense. They are very serious, but they are the topic that neoliberals want Bolsonaro to concentrate on.

They don’t want him to tell anything about the economic policies, because in power, the guy that will be in charge is Paolo Guedes. And Paolo Guedes was in Chile under Pinochet, so we know they want to privatize everything. The will privatize the national health system. They want to privatize education. They want to privatize the two big national banks. So they have a very wide neoliberal program. If you read the Bolsonaro’s program, it’s a neoliberal program, but a radical one. But he never mentions that, because neoliberal policies don’t gain votes, because what he wants is more concentration of wealth. The poor the people, of course, are the ones that need the public education, public health, well everything that is in his program is against that.

So they are going to privatize, it’s going to be a social disaster. So they want to keep those topics not touched in the debates. That’s why he was not present in the debates. As you saw with Haddad, what Haddad says is very important. These guys avoid this guy. Bolsonaro avoided the debate, he never participated in any debate. Now in the second round, yes too. He doesn’t want to tell the voters what he’s going to do with education, what is he going to do with the pension system and the health system, basically. So these identity issues against lesbian, gays are very serious because he’s really sexist and racist, of course. But they want the focus of their talk – and I think that’s what the extreme right, Steve Bannon’s like, are advising him, to focus on that issue.

Because they capitalize on the old conservative resentments of a colonial society and never mention what you are going to do in economic terms, because that’s what matters. When it starts, there will be a very radical neoliberal program. So I think that at this stage, the markets, what even very respected, respectable type of agencies have said, “No, it’s fine, Bolsonaro is acceptable,” if not the favorite of the markets. Because in a sense, for them, all this is distraction. But it’s very serious for the Brazilian people, of course. The racist policies and the violence already started. The violence already started, this is increasing. But it’s a way of not showing the neoliberal agenda. Now he has to show it up in the second round, he has to show it up. We’ll see what happens.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there for now. Hopefully we can have you back on soon. I was speaking to Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos, professor of sociology at Coimbra University in Portugal, and a distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Thanks again for having joined us today.


GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.