Rio de Janeiro—The new year marks a new beginning for Brazil, as a new president takes over. After 16 years of the socialist Workers Party, Jair Bolsonaro takes the helm: a far-right conservative that has been described as a “Brazilian Donald Trump” and “a Latin American version of Rodrigo Duterte.”
Traveling through Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, I find it’s not easy to see traces of the political changing of the guard. Here in Ipanema, the view to the north is that of Corcovado mountain with Cristo Redentor at its pinnacle
—while its fabled beach beckons on the other side. It is no surprise that, with tree-lined streets, açai-sipping tourists and a seemingly eternal summer, such a beautiful place gave birth to the beautiful music of bossa nova.
Yet even bossa nova has political undertones: It is “the music of the middle and the upper class,” as Cecelo Frony, a local musician, told me, in contrast to samba which is the “soul of Brazil.” And while Ipanema is as charming as the place evoked by Vinicius de Moraes, the “other Brazil” is not far away; atop nearby Dois Irmaos mountain, one can view the country’s glaring disparity. Adjacent to the mass of houses of Rocinha favela is a forest with huge houses, many with swimming pools.
The Brazilians I meet are divided over Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who has expressed nostalgia for military dictatorship and disdain for human rights. Civil society groups are particularly fearful for the Amazon after he vowed to open up the world’s largest rainforest to economic activity; for Brazil’s indigenous peoples, after he said he will open their land to mining and integrate them with the rest of the country; and for the urban poor, after he signified support for a police force known for brutality.
Another concern is his racism. “Although Brazil has existed on a pretense of what the sociologist Gilberto Freyre called a ‘racial democracy,’ racism has always been around, and so has a ‘pigmentocracy’ based on skin color,” João Gonçalves, an anthropologist from the University of Sao Paulo, tells me, referencing the Chilean scholar Alexander Lipschutz. Bolsonaro’s overt racism (he once said that “Afro-Brazilians do nothing, they are not even good enough to reproduce”) threatens to unmask deep-seated racial tensions and exacerbate racial inequality.
There is also his misogyny and homophobia: In Duterte-like fashion, he told a female lawmaker in 2014: “I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worthy of it.” Three years earlier, he was also quoted as saying: “I’d rather have my son die in a car accident than have him show up dating some guy.”
Despite all these glaring signs, I have also heard people express optimism that his rule will pave the way for positive change. “The system needs shaking up,” Júlio, a student from Minas Gerais, told me, pointing to the criminality and the corruption. Some of them acknowledge that he is “louco” (crazy), but are nonetheless optimistic that Brazil’s institutions will temper his worst impulses. As the political scientist Omar Encarnación wrote, “Brazilian democracy is not as fragile as many international observers make it out to be.”
If these divergent responses sound familiar, that’s because they’re very similar to the kind of discourses in the Philippines during the 2016 elections, and even today. Of course, we know what happened: Our worst fears were confirmed, and our best hopes were not realized.
Just as Duterte’s worst policies are felt not in Makati and Davao, but in the slums of Tondo and the “lumad” communities of Surigao, the worst consequences of a Bolsonaro presidency will not be felt in Ipanema or Copacabana, but in the favelas, the Amazonia, the inner cities and hinterlands. For those unaffected, this can lead to indifference where resistance is required.
The Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire once said: “To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.” The challenge for Brazilians today—as it still is for Filipinos—is to refuse being desensitized to their president, or seeing his ways as the “new normal.”
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