Far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is India's guest for Republic Day this year. Photo: Alan Santos/PR
On January 26, 2020, India celebrates its 71st Republic Day. This marks the anniversary of the formal adoption of the country’s historic constitution that was forged in the anti-colonial struggle against the British. The day is of great significance, not only to India but to anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles across the world.
Traditionally, the head of state of another country is invited to attend the Republic Day celebrations which mark the diversity and depth of India’s democracy. This year, the choice of the far-right Indian government led by Narendra Modi was the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonanro.
The parallels between Modi and Bolsonaro are striking as they have both presided over and unleashed a wave of right-wing reaction in their respective countries. In India, most recently, the Modi government’s attempt to pass an anti-Muslim citizenship law is being resisted strongly by progressive sections across the country. Similarly, Bolsonaro’s statements and policies reflect a politics of hatred and divisiveness which has sought to reverse the gains made by Brazil’s progressive governments in various fields.
As the two world leaders bound by a fascistic ideology and subservience to US interests prepare to cement their relationship, here is an account of the words and deeds of Bolsonaro. Any similarities to the Indian context are, of course, purely coincidental.
1. Attacks on the environment
Jair Bolsonaro is a climate change denier who has determinedly ignored proven scientific facts on the issue. He has instead intensified policies to extract natural resources, develop land and strip away protections on reserve areas and the lands of traditional communities.
The first step of his minister of environment, Ricardo Salles, was to close the Department of Forests and Climate Change. Throughout the past year, Salles has cut the budgets of departments, programs and policies that fight climate change and conserve Brazil’s ecosystems. The Bolsonaro administration also approved the use of more than 239 agrochemicals which not only pollute the environment but also have grave public health consequences.
The Brumadinho dam burst on January 25, 2019 killing 248 people. 22 were buried under 12 million cubic meters of toxic mud and 944,000 people in the 18 towns downstream were affected. 90,000 forest fires broke out in the country in 2019, including the August fire in the Amazon. All these are evidence of the real and terrifying impacts of unbridled extraction of resources and consumption. However, Bolsonaro continues his attacks on Indigenous, quilombola and peasant communities who defend and protect the land and natural resources.
2. Attacks on rights
Bolsonaro’s presidency has seen a frontal attack on the rights of the Brazilian people. Health and education have become more inaccessible, retirement a luxury, and the use of violence and weapons to solve conflicts has become increasingly common. The verbal attacks on social movements, human rights defenders and the press are also on the rise.
Abraham Weintraub, Bolsonaro’s education minister, imposed a USD$425 million budget freeze on federal universities and cut the budgets of the major research funding agencies, Capes and CNPq. This has severely affected the already cash-strapped public universities and has decreased available funds for scholarships.
The health sector was hit hard when Bolsonaro ended the More Doctors program. This program, with the cooperation of 8,000 Cuban health professionals, provided care to remote and impoverished areas of the country. Additionally, cuts were made to state-run pharmacies and laboratories, limiting both the production and distribution of affordable medicine.
The highly-controversial Social Security Reform passed in August 2019 shifted the pension system to a more individualized model where workers have to work longer and contribute more in order to retire.
Bolsonaro is a man of his time. What unites him, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Rodrigo Duterte, among others, is the utter lack of qualms in making offensive, hateful and violent remarks about the political opposition, minorities, and marginalized communities in their countries.
During his 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro supported the military dictatorship in the country, said he would rather have a dead son than a gay son and remarked that the Black quilombola communities are not even good for procreating.
Since taking over as president, this offensive rhetoric has continued. Members of his government also have made headlines for offensive remarks. Recently, Bolsonaro’s culture secretary, Roberto Alvim, was fired after he quoted a speech delivered by Joseph Goebbels, chief of propaganda in Nazi Germany.
Bolsonaro’s words have had a tangible impact. His encouragement of the use of violence against those who carry out land occupations like the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement, and against those who engage in petty crime, has led to an increase in violence in the country by both state and non-state actors.
4. Corruption and dubious alliances
Bolsonaro has been surrounded by conflict and scandals almost constantly since he became president. His family members have been accused of misusing public money. Investigations are being held on the links between Bolsonaro and members of his family, and illegal right-wing militias. Many believe there is a link between the Bolsonaro family and the murder of Councilwoman Marielle Franco in March 2018.
Beyond these unconfirmed links, Bolsonaro has close public ties to the most extreme-right wing sectors in Brazil. This includes a close relationship with far right-wing ideologue and self-proclaimed philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, now referred to as Bolsonaro’s ‘guru.’ Carvalho is a staunch racist, anti-semite and anti-communist.
Billionaire bishop Edir Macedo of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a highly controversial and massive Evangelical church, has been a supporter of Bolsonaro. Macedo is also the owner of the media conglomerate Record TV. During the 2018 elections, once Macedo endorsed the Bolsonaro campaign, a reported 70% of Evangelical Christians cast their vote for the far-right candidate. Macedo himself also professes far-right, conservative views.
Bolsonaro’s cabinet is made up of members of the military, the gun lobby and the rural caucus (one of the most powerful caucuses in Brazilian legislature that represents the interests of large landowners and is staunchly against agrarian reform), and staunch neoliberals.
5. Surrendering sovereignty
Despite an overtly nationalist discourse, Jair Bolsonaro’s government has closely aligned itself to the United States and Israel. and has bowed to their diktats in the political, economic, and military spheres. Brazil has become an important ally of the US in its war on progressive Latin American governments like Venezuela and Cuba. Bolsonaro even supported Donald Trump following the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
In October 2019, Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies passed a bill to allow the United States to access the strategic Alcântara Space Base in the state of Maranhão. The agreement imposes restrictions on Brazil’s use of the Space Base and the money obtained from it. Experts consider it a violation of Brazilian sovereignty.
In economic terms, Bolsonaro’s government has taken the neoliberal freeway and has accelerated the privatization of Brazil’s public companies and handed them over to foreign investors. Hardline neoliberal economic minister Paulo Guedes announced the “Plan of De-statization” and at the end of August 2019, Bolsonaro announced that 17 public companies would be privatized. These include Electrobras, the largest company in the energy sector, Correios (postal service) which employs 105,000 people in municipalities across the country, and the Brazilian mint (Casa da Moeda). Several of Brazil’s most famous national parks are also set to be privatized.