As I approached the polling center in New York City on the first Sunday of October, a frenzied scene of political discord was afoot. A sea of the iconic yellow Brazilian soccer jerseys, a symbol now co-opted by the Brazilian incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, occupied one side of the street. On the other side, an agglomeration of red shirts, the color associated with former president and rival candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known simply as Lula. Amid the fervent chants, an NYPD truck brimming with police barricades arrived in order to control the volatile situation and allow for traffic to pass through. The two groups draped their respective flags of support on the barricades and the rallying persisted.
The second round of the presidential election in Brazil has now come down to two diametrically opposed candidates, as neither could achieve a majority vote. On one side of the political spectrum lies the far-right sitting president of Brazil, Bolsonaro, who has been globally chastised by many for his handling, or lack thereof, of the Covid-19 pandemic, among many other problematic policies and beliefs that I will get into. Lula, once remembered for his plentiful welfare campaigns to end hunger and offer substantial benefits to Brazil’s impoverished class, has since been viewed as a highly corrupt politician by many. However, this article will be looking more closely at Bolsonaro and the threats I believe he poses to Brazilian society and the wellbeing of planet Earth.
Bolsonaro exhibits the attributes of a far right demagogue with neo-fascist leanings. From the ’60s to the ’80s, Brazil was under a violent military dictatorship that sought to eliminate any political dissidents, killing hundreds and torturing thousands. Members of my family at the time, who were outspoken critics of the dictatorship, were forced to flee the pervasive, unjust persecution, as did countless others. This marks a very dark period in Brazilian history, when democracy was stifled by the formidable presence of authoritarian rule. Bolsonaro, a former military captain, reveres that era, having once said that “the error of the dictatorship was that it tortured, but did not kill.”
It comes as no surprise then that Bolsonaro’s neo-fascist propensity is accompanied by many radical ideological views. Not only does he ardently oppose gay marriage or LGBTQ+ rights of any sort, but he has a history of making inflammatory homophobic and misogynistic remarks. According to a Folha de São Paulo article from 2010, he promoted beating a gay child in order to “change his behavior.” There is an unequivocal link between his discriminatory beliefs and his abhorrent penchant for violence. He has made similar statements inciting violence against women.
Beyond his problematic ideologies, Bolsonaro has made many deplorable decisions throughout his term. Namely, his response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of addressing the severity of the virus, he encouraged Brazilians to disregard it and go about their lives as normal. He believed that a country of over 200 million people could successfully reach herd immunity, contradicting health officials. His lackadaisical approach to Covid-19 sowed discord with many local government officials, who wanted to enact social distancing laws along with mask mandates, in response to the surging deaths. Bolsonaro in fact vetoed many of these legal provisions, actively undermining competent responses to the pandemic.
Pfizer reached out early to Brazil in August 2020, offering to sell 70 million vaccine doses, but the offer was rejected. This fatal decision in denying a vaccine rollout only exacerbated the death toll in Brazil, currently sitting at 687,000 documented deaths. Bolsonaro, unvaccinated himself, is inextricably connected to the thousands of avoidable deaths Brazil has endured over the past two and a half years. In October 2021, a Brazilian senate committee attempted to charge Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity with regards to his handling of the pandemic. This was thrown out by a judge sympathetic to Bolsonaro.
Perhaps the most detestable and globally destructive aspect of Bolsonaro’s term has been the inordinate rates of deforestation currently occuring in the Amazon. A strong proponent of agribusiness, Bolsonaro lifted many of the environmental protection laws that formerly existed to restrict the unlawful development of commercial farms. Ever since these laws were rescinded, the Amazon has reached record-breaking rates of deforestation and has seen an increase in cattle farming, only contributing to further global carbon emissions.
In the first two years of Bolsonaro’s term, 8.4 million acres of the Amazon were deforested, resulting in what many environmental scientists are calling a “tipping point” of irreversible damage to planet Earth and a speeding up of the climate crisis. Given the substantial global value that the Amazon provides, Joe Biden offered Bolsonaro 20 billion U.S dollars to end deforestation in September 2020, under the threat of economic sanctions otherwise. Bolsonaro unsurprisingly denied the offer, deeming it an “unnecessary declaration.”
An underreported outcome of the mass deforestation has been the displacement of Indigenous tribes. Bolsonaro is vocal about his contempt surrounding reserved lands, formally untouchable by law. He divested much of the legislative power that Brazil had by removing federal agencies who protect and demarcate where indigenous tribes live. Crimes against humanity charges are evidently nothing new to Bolsonaro, as various indigenous rights groups have tried to take legal action against him, claiming he is committing genocide.
The past nearly four years of Bolsonaro as president have demonstrated a gross disregard for humanity in my eyes. So much of what he says and does lacks any compassion and inclusivity for marginalized groups, such as indigenous people and the LGBTQ+ community of Brazil, in addition to people of color and women. I find his political aspirations to be tied to the dark past of the dictatorship years, returning Brazil to an undemocratic state of authoritarianism.
I do not pose this article as a blind endorsement of Lula, but rather a deep disdain for Bolsonaro. As the second round of voting for the Brazilian election approaches, on October 30, I encourage people to follow what is going on and read about both candidates. You may disagree with my opinions, as did 51 million Bolsonaro voters in the first round (57 million voted for Lula). The reality is that this election bears a lot of weight on the future. Another term of Bolsonaro could prove catastrophic for the Amazon, the democratic integrity of Brazil and beyond.
Isaac Katz is a member of the Class of 2022.