In Bolsonaro's Brazil, the Fight Against Corruption is Really a Fight Against the Left

Rupert Comer

It was back in October when Brazilian police pulled R$ 30,000 (about £4,000) from between the buttocks of Chico Rodrigues, the then senate deputy leader and a close political ally of President Bolsonaro. Referred to on Brazilian twitter as having a “propina na bunda” (bribe up the bum), he was caught out in an independent police operation targeting the embezzlement of public funds destined for the Covid-19 crisis. By then, the fierce anti-corruption rhetoric that had propelled the president into power was reaching new heights of hypocrisy.  Just a few weeks earlier Bolsonaro had claimed that there was “no more corruption in the government” and later threatened to deliver a “flying kick to the neck” to anyone who proved otherwise. Rodrigues never got his kick to the neck, as far as I know, and neither have any of Bolsonaro’s family members, most of them embroiled in corruption scandals of their own.

This is one of the latest and most farcical, in a series of controversies that have plagued Brazil’s far-right populist president since he rose to power. It shows an irony at the core of Brazilian politics that would be funny if it weren’t so distressing. Bolsonaro was elected on an anti-corruption platform, appealing to a disgruntled population that had suffered decades of systemic corruption whilst his own family appear to be implicated in serious criminality, facing allegations that range from money laundering to contract killings. How then, did this ‘tropical Trump’ manage to persuade a country that he was going to break with its history of self-serving politicians?

When I arrived in São Paulo, Bolsonaro had just been sworn in, declaring he was Brazil’s “liberation from socialism” in his inaugural speech. I, however, was heading for what the President would deem a hotbed of socialist activity, the University of São Paulo. At its sprawling tropical campus, I was greeted by friendly capybaras, spider’s webs large enough to capture a small child, and plenty of politically active Brazilian students armed with anti-Bolsonaro memes. There, I learnt as much about the state of Brazilian politics as I did about the country’s modernist poets. Each two-hour lecture was punctuated by thirty-minute rants on the latest government scandal, and I could see dismay on the faces of my classmates as they came to terms with their newly elected president.

Jair Bolsonaro worked hard to emerge from near-obscurity and present himself as the antidote to Brazil’s rotten political class during the 2018 presidential elections. A retired military officer turned backbencher, he was famous mainly for his homophobic and misogynistic outbursts, once telling a congresswoman she “wasn’t worth raping”.
Stabbed at one of his campaign rallies, he was able to model himself as a martyr to the cause of anti-corruption, as his fanatical supporters, nicknamed “bolsominions” by my lecturer Fábio, started calling him “the Messiah” from his middle name, Messias. The stabbing conveniently allowed him to dodge the presidential debates while he recovered in hospital. Left unchallenged and unaccountable on both policy and strategy, the idea of Bolsonaro as an anti-establishment candidate was enough to win him the presidency.

In order to solidify this anti-corruption stance, Bolsonaro weaponised “Operação Lava Jato” (Operation Car Wash), Brazil’s largest ever corruption investigation, by giving its figurehead, Judge Sergio Moro, the position of Justice Minister in his government. The same Judge Moro who had jailed thousands of politicians and businessmen involved in a corruption racket with the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, first uncovered in a car wash in Brasília back in 2014. A hugely popular figure, he was praised for representing an independent judiciary that seemed willing to finally challenge the impunity of shady politicians. It soon became clear Moro was not as impartial as he made himself out to be, as leaks later revealed his collusion with prosecutors that led to the jailing of the former Brazilian president and member of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in 2018. Messages between Judge Moro and the prosecution uncovered their aim, to bar Lula from the upcoming elections, in which he was set to beat Bolsonaro. With Lula locked up, Moro made way for Bolsonaro, whilst simultaneously setting up his own political career.

Less interested in tackling corruption as a systemic issue and relying heavily on public support, Moro and Bolsonaro stoked up a wave of growing antipetismo or anti-PT sentiment. In power from 2003 until 2016, Brazil’s worker’s party brought the issue of inequality to the forefront of public policy, lifting millions out of poverty. But it also increasingly became corrupted when it was forced to collaborate with self-serving, unaligned parties in the senate, known collectively as the centrão (literally “the big centre”).
Before I left for Brazil, a friend introduced me to his housemate, a boy from Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil who was studying in England. I asked him what he thought of Bolsonaro, assuming that a fairly liberal, university-educated Brazilian student would reply only with disgust. Instead, he told me he thought Bolsonaro was “the best of a bad bunch”. While he deplored the president’s sexist, homophobic and racist opinions, he felt that anything was better than another four years of the PT in power.

In many ways it ended up being the perfect storm for Bolsonaro. A left-wing party came into power, promising to tackle poverty and increase places for black and working class students at public universities. Faced with a congress dominated by the centrão, the PT took a pragmatic approach to deliver on its promises, resorting to corruption. At first, it rode the wave of Brazil’s commodity boom and the economy grew while inequality fell. This was short lived however and by 2013 the country entered a crippling recession as the tide turned against the government, and protesters hit the streets in opposition to a rise in bus fares, whilst millions were being spent on lavish stadiums for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics. Bolsonaro capitalised on this growing discontent and joined many others in labelling the PT as the sole perpetrators of corruption in Brazil. After over a decade of the party’s left-leaning governance, Bolsonaro aimed to bring about a return to the anti-communist paranoia of the dictatorship era.

As with many Latin American countries, the US and the UK brought in and backed Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1964. Lasting through to the mid-1980s, it used the Red Scare to justify its oppressive, racist and antidemocratic measures. Bolsonaro, who served in the army during this time, has never really hidden his admiration for the military regime. When President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, was impeached in 2016 on what many consider to be a technicality, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to the colonel responsible for her torture when she was a left-wing guerrilla in the 1970s. Dilma’s impeachment, alongside Lula’s imprisonment, are examples of lawfare, and they were allowed to take place against the backdrop of this pervasive fear of left-wing conspiracy. For many of Brazil’s elites, it was simply not acceptable that the Left continued in power. Where the dictatorship used torture and forced disappearances to eliminate those it deemed to be the communist “enemy within”, the far-right in post-dictatorship Brazil operates within the confines of democracy, subverting and manipulating its institutions and conventions to get rid of their opponents on the left.

If defeating them democratically was not possible, then other means had to be found. In 2018, a Rio de Janeiro city councillor was brutally assassinated after angering the violent paramilitary gangs, known as militias, that control large swathes of the city. Marielle Franco was a black, gay, socialist activist and a hugely important voice for marginalised people in favelas, home to a quarter of Rio’s population. She campaigned tirelessly to bring an end to police violence, and in doing so made herself an enemy of Rio’s militias, which are largely made up of retired police officers. Franco was murdered because she represented everything that people like Bolsonaro despise. A “favelada” (favela resident) and a black woman, to militia members she was considered nothing more than a dangerous threat to the status quo. One that in Rio de Janeiro means the killing of close to six people a day, three quarters of them black men, at the hands of policemen [1], many of whom go on to join the ranks of the city’s ruthless militias.

Disturbingly, Bolsonaro and his family appear to have close ties to these militias, and the president had even been photographed with the militia members who have since been charged with involvement in Marielle Franco’s murder. One of them, the man who fired four bullets into Franco’s head, lives on the same street as Bolsonaro’s Rio residence, within their exclusive gated community. Worse still, Adriano da Nóbrega, the head of a militia chillingly named “The Crime Bureau” believed to be behind the assassination, has links to Jair Bolsonaro’s eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro. For almost a decade, the wife and mother of this militia leader were employed in Flávio Bolsonaro’s office while he served as state representative in Rio de Janeiro.

While none of this necessarily implicates Jair Bolsonaro or his family in the assassination of councilor Marielle Franco, it shows how close they are to Rio’s sordid underbelly. However, the Brazilian people had to wait for another scandal involving Flávio Bolsonaro to fully uncover the hypocrisy of his father’s politics. Shortly before Jair Bolsonaro took power, investigations into Flávio and his former aid, Fabrício Queiroz, began. Both are suspected of embezzling funds from the salaries of “phantom employees” in Flávio’s office back when he was a state representative. Over the course of eleven years, around R$ 2.3 million (worth around £ 500,000 at the time) of fake employee salaries, managed by Queiroz, were laundered through Flávio Bolsonaro’s chocolate shop and two flats, with some funds also being transferred to Michelle Bolsonaro, Brazil’s first lady. From early 2019, “cadê Queiroz?” (where is Queiroz?) became a rallying cry among opponents of the Bolsonaro clan, as Queiroz failed to show up to court. The Bolsonaro family and their lawyer, Frederick Wassef, denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. Their claim turned out to be tenuous when just over a year later, in June 2020, Queiroz was found and arrested in a property belonging to the lawyer Wassef, near São Paulo.

By this point it should be clear, Jair Bolsonaro never had any real desire to eradicate corruption, in fact he benefited from it himself. Like his counterpart in populism, Donald Trump, he has always been more interested in stoking up a culture war in order to distract from his incompetence, misconduct and general disinterest in the mechanics of government. After the Lava Jato investigations destroyed the Brazilian peoples’ trust in their country’s institutions, Bolsonaro entered onto the scene with satisfying mistruths and conspiracies. Take the 2018 presidential election, when two of his sons, Eduardo and Carlos, orchestrated a mass disinformation campaign against the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad with thousands of fake stories, conspiracy theories and political memes disseminated across WhatsApp, Brazil’s social media platform of choice. False stories that claimed Haddad had written a book defending sexual relations between parents and children, or that the PT was planning on distributing “gay kits” to young children. Once in power, Bolsonaro encouraged students to film their teachers as a means of combatting “ideological indoctrination” in state schools, which he considers to be riddled with communist thinking.

In May 2019, as part of this war on cultural Marxism, Bolsonaro decided to cut federal university funding by 30%. His education minister, Abraham Weintraub, explained the decision by claiming universities were “fazendo balbúrdia” or “raising a ruckus”. On 15 May, I too joined 500 thousand fellow students, teachers, and supporters as we raised a ruckus at São Paulo’s famous Avenida Paulista - the first major protest against the Bolsonaro government. Students proudly reappropriated the term balbúrdia to describe the achievements of Brazilian academic research, and though Bolsonaro dismissed the protests as the actions of “useful idiots”, those same student minds filled the Instituto Butantã, a world-renowned research centre now supplying Brazil with the CoronaVac. Despite all his anger, Brazilian universities continue to do much more for Brazil internationally than its president.

Aside from the many protests, perhaps one of the biggest crises faced by the Bolsonaro government, came in April of last year when Judge Moro, resigned. Seen as a hero by much of the Brazilian right yet critical of the president’s anti-scientific Covid response, he ended up clashing with Bolsonaro for illegally meddling with the federal police.  The president had sacked its director and attempted to replace him with a family friend, knowing that an investigation targeting the dissemination of fake news was converging on his son, Carlos. A month later, as Brazil reached the peak of its first coronavirus wave, a video emerged of a two-hour long cabinet meeting in which the president completely disregards the issue of the pandemic and goes on a tirade condemning what he perceives as the political persecution of his family. Justifying his interference with the police, he shouts, “I’m not going to wait for them to fuck my entire family”. In many ways this encapsulates a lot of the recent tensions in Brazilian politics; the country’s president remains criminally negligent with regards to the pandemic, while he abuses his power and privilege to protect himself and his family.

As Brazil’s coronavirus death toll passes 250,000, the second highest in the world, and the health system in the rainforest city of Manaus collapses, Bolsonaro finds himself in the awkward position of having to accept oxygen supplies from his socialist neighbour, Venezuela. The president has consistently denied the realities of the pandemic, having nicknamed the virus a “little flu”. He is perhaps the only world leader to lament the start of his country’s vaccination program, which was taken as a victory for his political rival, João Doria, the governor of São Paulo. Expressing his refusal to take the vaccine, he warned that anyone who is vaccinated should not blame him if they turn into a crocodile. In the midst of this disaster, recent polls suggest a majority of the population support impeachment [2] and at the end of January anti-Bolsonaro protestors on both sides of the political spectrum took to the streets in motorcade rallies in over 20 cities across the country.

Yet as soon as Moro left Bolsonaro knew that impeachment might follow, and he rushed to ensure that the political conditions would not allow it. Doing exactly what he had criticised the PT for, he forged an alliance with the centrão in order to block any impeachment proposal from passing in congress, shaking hands with people like Chico Rodrigues, from the “bribe up the bum” scandal. Now two recently elected presidents of the Brazilian congress, and favourites of Bolsonaro, have secured his position even further, after R$3 billion (roughly £ 365 million) was sent to politicians in order to ensure their election. While patients suffocate in Manaus hospitals due to a shortage of oxygen, Bolsonaro is busy buying votes in congress.

Impeachment or no impeachment, corruption in Brazil won’t be solved with just a change of leadership. Brazil’s imperfect transition from dictatorship to democracy has fostered a system in which corrupt practices are the rule rather than the exception. President Bolsonaro, a proud admirer of the past military dictatorship, never intended to produce a system rewarding honesty and promoting accountability. Instead, he borrowed another by-product of the dictatorship era, the fear of communist conspiracy, in order to tarnish his political opponents and garner support as a fringe figure. Bolsonaro has stirred up a culture war and created a more polarised Brazil, in which corruption has become a matter of right or left, conservative or progressive, or us and them.

Further reading:

[1] Brazil Suffers its Own Scourge of Police Brutality.

[2] Impeachment de Bolsonaro tem apoio de 53%, segundo pesquisa Atlas.

Editor’s Note: Rupert Comer is a freelance writer, a skilled linguist, and Callum’s close friend, whose time living and studying in São Paulo informed this piece.

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