“Can we leave Brazil if Bolsonaro becomes president?” my 11-year-old daughter pleaded last January, as we sat at the kitchen table in my parents’ place in Galway. A keen interest in politics emerged in parallel with her responsibility to look after Oscar, our cat in Rio de Janeiro. Cleaning old newspapers from his litter tray, she often gets lost in tales of Trump’s tantrums, and the daily twists and turns of Brazilian politics.
“He wants to give guns to everyone,” she said worriedly, as I reassured her there was no way on earth this guy would ever get the top seat in Brazil. How could he? After nearly 30 years in politics, Jair Bolsonaro only ever managed to get two laws approved. The only reason anyone knew his name here in Brazil was that throughout his political career, he gained constant attention with outlandishly homophobic, misogynist and racist comments. But, presidency of the world’s eighth largest democracy? Don’t worry, it won’t come to that, I reassured her breezily as I put on the kettle for tea.
The day of the first vote was a sunny Sunday in Rio. Sunny Sundays are normally a mandate for Cariocas (Rio residents) to get to the beach, but on October 7th the city streets were full of Brazilians, young and old. The bright yellow t-shirts we all used a few months ago to support Neymar and the Brazilian football team were usurped by Bolsonaro voters, with the figure 7 of his electoral number 17 formed by an upright machine gun.
Mingling through the crowds near voting centres were others wearing “ele não” (not him) shirts, or the traditional red of Brazil’s workers party (PT in Portuguese). With voting obligatory here, everyone was home for the weekend, had lunch with the folks (if still speaking to them), before heading out for a cold beer. The vibe was positive in bohemian Santa Teresa as I supped one last beer in my local before heading to the airport.
I was getting out for a couple of weeks, worn down by the caustic content of Bolsonaro’s regular Facebook rants. “Fake news” (pronounced fay-kee noose in Brazilian Portuguese) abounded on encrypted WhatsApp (a week before the election, it was reported that Brazilian businessmen had invested millions in harvesting voter data, and publishing defamatory messages about the PT, which amounts to electoral crime here). Political parley was venomous, and family feuds flourished in the laidback tropical town we’ve made our home for nearly a decade. The last few months had been intense, I was jaded, so I headed home to mammy for another cup of tea.
Three weeks later on another sunny Sunday, I was back in Brazil, and the second round vote was taking place. Voters for the last-minute worker’s party candidate Fernando Haddad, the former minister for education, brought their favourite books with them to take selfies at the urns. This was the left’s reaction to photos of Bolsonaro voters who brought guns with them to the first vote, to feed Instagram.
With opinion polls showing Haddad making some progress in the final week before d-day, a sense of optimism was in the air, and leftists believed the election could be swung. Bolsominions were already alleging electoral fraud on the off-chance it was. Two days before the election, police entered 12 public university campuses around the country, removing anti-fascism banners, claiming universities were trying to influence voters.
Pink Floyds’ Roger Waters was accused of working for the PT by displaying “ele não” on large screens at his concerts in the leadup to the vote, and for placing Brazil and Bolsonaro on a list of countries where “neo-fascism is on the rise” which included the US and Donald Trump, the UK and Nigel Farage, and France’s Marie Le Pen. The case is being investigated by Brazil’s electoral court.
Once the results were called on Sunday, people broke down in tears, fearing for their future, and the perceived threat of a likely military-type rule, in which the president elect said he would wipe the “red marginals out of the fatherland”.
Minutes down the road, revellers danced exuberantly to Bolso-pop music. A parade of military personnel waved the Brazilian flag from a procession of army tanks in wealthy Icaraí in Niteroi, Rio’s neighbour city across the bay. An eight-year-old boy was killed as a family friend shot two celebratory shots into the air in the southern state of Paraná.
An ex-pat gay teacher friend received a text message less than an hour after the results were called from a former student, telling him to leave Brazil, in crass homophobic language. That same friend was banned from using Facebook for a week for breaking “community rules” when he posted the message to show to friends.
Violent clashes erupted all over Brazil, and police reportedly beat up a 19-year-female student and Haddad supporter in Salvador, in Brazil’s northeast.
Operation Car Wash
Many Bolsonaro voters don’t actually agree with his racist rhetoric, or believe threats he made in the heated election campaign will come to pass. But, with spiralling violence and unemployment, they want change. And, they never want to see the PT back in power in Brazil, blaming the worker’s party for endemic corruption that erodes all aspects of Brazilian society.
Societal gains made during the 13-year PT reign in bringing millions out of abject poverty and hunger, and increasing access to education for disadvantaged students, faded into irrelevance as scores of politicians (including former President Luis Ignácio da Silva, or “Lula”) were locked up in recent years in the massive graft scandal “Lava Jato”, or Operation Car Wash.
Sérgio Moro, the presiding judge in this investigation, and the man who jailed Lula, in an unusual fast-track of Brazil’s judicial system, has since been offered the job as minister of defence, or perhaps an eventual Supreme Court nomination. His wife repeatedly posted her support for Bolsonaro on social media throughout the campaign.
Brazil voted for the angry army guy, hoping he might put manners on us all, once and for all. However, despite winning 55 per cent of valid votes, the majority of Brazilians did not vote for this military man, and more than 30 per cent of the electorate (more than 42 million people) either spoiled their vote, or didn’t show up last Sunday, such is the rejection of the PT.
Those who are not celebrating are still in shock. Hours after the results on Sunday, Ana Caroline Campagnolo, a newly elected official (and member of Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party, his ninth chosen political party in Brazil) in the wealthy southern state of Santa Catarina encouraged students to secretly record any teachers or professors who lament the electoral results, or attempt to indoctrinate them.
No-one knows quite what to expect in the Brazilian boot-camp from January, but military men are already being assigned to top cabinet positions. My red t-shirts (and yellow ones too) have been carefully folded away for now. Someone send me some tea bags, please.
Sarah O’Sullivan is an Irish journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She tweets @rioflections