International outrage continues to grow over the massive destruction caused by forest fires currently burning across the vast Amazon rainforest. But much of the commentary in the West has failed to link the fires to Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his collaborationist allies among the Brazilian business and political elite who are encouraging illegal miners, farmers and ranchers to slash and burn whatever land they deem fit for industry. Bolsonaro and his henchmen are dedicated to the unchecked destruction of the Amazon and its indigenous peoples for short-term profit, and the new Brazilian government is in power thanks to the efforts of a group of reactionary elites who wished to ensure that the 2018 election would be sufficiently rigged in their favor.
Western commentary has also largely ignored the human toll of the destruction of the Amazon, as Brazil’s indigenous peoples are engaged in a struggle for their very right to exist. On July 23, a leader of the Wajãpi people in the Northern Amazon was stabbed to death by illegal gold miners on protected ancestral lands, part of a trend of escalating land invasions and violence against indigenous populations. Deforestation of the Amazon, much of it taking place illegally on constitutionally protected indigenous territory, is accelerating at an alarming rate.
But this is just the beginning of Brazil’s ongoing nightmare. Since assuming office, Bolsonaro has stayed true to his promises to dismantle protections and slash funding for the Amazon and its inhabitants. Two days before the murder of the Wajãpi leader, he appointed a federal police officer with ties to agribusiness to run the governmental agency tasked with protecting the interests of indigenous peoples. Bolsonaro denies that the Wajãpi leader was killed and also denies the accelerating deforestation reported by government scientists. He responded to the news of the murder by doubling down on his calls for illegal mining and logging to continue. The president hopes to do away with all legal protections for indigenous lands in the future; he once declared that “it is a shame that the Brazilian cavalry has not been so efficient as the Americans who exterminated the Indians.”
Although it is important to interpret Bolsonaro’s ascent in the context of recent Brazilian history, it should also be examined as part of the ascent of right-wing, ultra-nationalist governments around the world. Many have fairly compared Bolsonaro to Donald Trump due to the latter’s outrageous comments and unchecked servitude to the interests of extractionist corporations. But Bolsonaro represents a far greater threat to Brazilian democracy than Trump does to American democracy, due to the country’s recent authoritarian past and fragile institutions.
None of this should surprise anyone familiar with Bolsonaro’s career. A former army officer during Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship (1964-1985), in his view the era of military rule made a mistake because it did not kill 30,000 more people. During former President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment hearing, he dedicated his vote to the colonel who had Rousseff tortured during the 1970s. He has said he would rather hear that his son died in a car accident than hear that his son was gay. He once described a female opponent as too ugly to rape. He has endorsed death squads and suggested that they can take refuge in his home state of Rio de Janeiro.
But the people of Brazil are not to blame for the new president’s terrifying rise. Recent groundbreaking reporting by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept reveals what many have long suspected: that federal prosecutors and members of the country’s right-wing elite engineered a soft coup to ensure that the favored candidate would be silenced.
Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, was far in the lead in the polls until he was barred from speaking to the public after his imprisonment in April 2018. Illiterate until the age of 10 and raised in destitute poverty, Lula is the antithesis of the traditional Brazilian ruling class. His presidency (2003-2010) witnessed major improvements in quality of life for the country’s poorest people and the majority due to the dual effects of an international commodities boom and his administration’s transformative social welfare programs. He maintained sky-high approval throughout his presidency, and Barack Obama once referred to him as the most popular politician in the world. Lula’s popularity with the poor majority has earned him the disdain of much of Brazil’s white-creole elite.
On the surface, it appeared as though Lula was another of many hundreds of politicians and businessmen criminally implicated by Operation Car Wash, an unprecedented corruption probe that has brought down politicians and corporate executives around the world. Convicted for allegedly receiving an apartment in exchange for a contract with state oil company Petrobras, Lula was sentenced to 12 years in prison, barred from the presidential race and prohibited from making public statements during the election process. Prosecutor Sérgio Moro achieved widespread praise in the Brazilian media for his efforts, and Bolsonaro appointed him as his Minister of Justice. Moro fell from international prominence to disgrace this summer: a damning series of reports by The Intercept and some of Brazil’s leading magazines revealed that prosecutors, judges and their allies illegally collaborated with the explicit intention of crippling Lula’s Workers Party and preventing Lula from making a public statement following his arrest. Leaked documents also show that prosecutors and judges doubted that they had sufficient evidence to link the allegedly received apartment to a Petrobras contract or to Lula himself.
Bolsonaro’s usurper regime deserves condemnation from the United States and the world. Past and present members of the Trump administration have done the opposite, enthusiastically embracing the Brazilian president who adores Donald Trump. But as popular outrage builds, internal rejection of the illegitimate government and an international solidarity campaign may be the only things standing between Brazil’s uncertain future and its nightmarish past.
Jacob Brown is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mapping Utopia runs every other Tuesday this semester.