Desperate for Change, Many Brazilians are Turning to Jair Bolsonaro

John McKerron

October, 2017

Jair Bolsonaro (left)

Jair Bolsonaro (left)


Brazil’s presidential election in 2018 may be an opportunity for the nation to finally begin moving past the economic turmoil, corruption, and military involvement in political institutions that have gripped the country for years. A far reaching criminal investigation into state-level corruption called Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) begun by Brazil’s Federal Police in 2014 has crushed Brazilian citizens’ faith in their political process. 

One of the unfortunate consequences of the revelations from the Lava Jato investigation has been growing support for far-right political factions.  Jair Bolsonaro, Federal Deputy from Rio de Janeiro and likely a candidate in next October’s presidential election, is at the center of this political reorientation in Brazil.

During a visit to the U.S. earlier this month, Bolsonaro faced strong opposition from academics and activists, who are “committed to anti-fascist politics”. An open letter by these activists to George Washington University described how the scheduled appearance of Bolsonaro at the university would offer legitimacy to a leader described by Brazilian academics as “a racist, sexist homophobic right-wing extremist.” The letter helped bring about the cancellation of Bolsonaro’s appearance.

Bolsonaro’s career has produced public statements so controversial they make US President Trump’s tweets seem trivial. For instance, as a former member of Brazil’s Armed Forces, Bolsonaro has shown unwavering support for his country’s authoritarian past.

During a speech in 1985 following the collapse of Brazil’s two-decade military dictatorship, Bolsonaro asserted that his country would “never resolve serious national problems with this irresponsible democracy.” Three decades later, Bolsonaro still argues that, at least during the dictatorship years, there was “decency and respect for the family.”

During impeachment proceedings of former President Dilma Rousseff last year, Bolsonaro made his most alarming reference so far to the dictatorship of 1964-1985. He dedicated his vote in favour of impeachment to Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, an officer in charge of the internment camp where Dilma Rousseff -  a Marxist guerrilla - was subjected to severe torture. 

Bolsonaro has also shown himself to be no friend of Brazil’s LGBTQ+ community. During an interview conducted by Stephen Fry several years ago, Bolsonaro responded to a hypothetical situation where his own son was gay by explaining that he would “rather have a dead son over a gay son.” 

Bolsonaro continued to describe his own conviction that “fundamentalist homosexual groups” where trying to take over Brazilian society. He said that these ‘fundamentalists’ wanted to reach Brazil’s children “in order to turn them into gay adults to satisfy homosexuals’ sexuality in the future.”

Such announcements fly in the face of Bolsonaro’s audacious statements concerning the level of support that he has from Brazil’s gay community. For example, he proclaimed in 2017 that “you can’t not have gay friends.” “I have gay friends,” Bolsonaro said. “The majority of gays vote for me!”

The ugly reality is that such statements belie challenges that LGBTQ communities face in Brazilian society. Same-sex marriage was legalized by Brazil’s Supreme Court in 2013. But, with the possibility of Bolsonaro in office, further progress toward LGBTQ equality would be difficult to imagine.

Some national opinion polls declare support for Bolsonaro’s candidacy at 17%, placing him comfortably behind former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva  with 35%.  Largely for this reason, some Brazilians view Bolsonaro at best as a candidate on the fringe.

This view could change dramatically, however, as the election date draws closer. Former President Lula is himself facing criminal charges of corruption as a result of Operation Lava Jato.  If convicted, Lula’s corruption charges could lead to more than nine years in prison, and his elimination as a presidential candidate. 

Bolsonaro has proclaimed himself a member of Brazil’s powerful BBB Caucus (“BBB” is an abbreviation for “Bullet, Beef and Bible”), a political group representing the interests of security forces, agribusiness, and Brazil’s evangelical community. As a staunch supporter of the military, Bolsonaro will undoubtedly benefit from a rise in Brazilians’ perception of their armed forces.

The third B may also turn out to be crucial, for Bolsonaro stands to benefit considerably from the country’s growing evangelical community. During the last 30 years, the portion of the population who identify as evangelical Christians rose from to 22.2% from 6.6%. Bolsonaro also appears to have the support of prominent members of this community including Silas Malafaia of the Assemblies of God Church and Edir Macedo of the Universal Church. Macedo is also the owner of RecordTV, the second-largest television network in Brazil .

Many things can change before next October’s election. In this chaotic political environment, no one should be disregarding the possibility of Jair Bolsonaro becoming Brazil’s next President.