Bolsonaro and the ghosts of the grand house

Brazil’s president-in-waiting seems set to ride into power on a resurgent wave of right-wing fervour.

On 3 October 2017, Jair Bolsonaro was condemned by the Federal Court of Rio de Janeiro to pay 50 000 reais in damages (almost R200 000) to a fund for the defence of collective rights.

Bolsonaro, who is likely to become Brazil’s next president in the runoff on Sunday, was fined for this remark: “I visited a quilombola community and the lightest African descendent weighed 100kg. They don’t do anything. They don’t serve even to procreate.”

Quilombolas are settlements initially established by escaped slaves of African descent. They have been struggling for government recognition, a process that began under the Workers’ Party (PT) government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro, if he becomes president, could block the further legalisation of  quilombolas and indigenous land claims.

Bolsonaro’s contempt for black and indigenous communities in Brazil reveals a central paradox at the heart of Brazilian nationalism: its identity. The celebration of diversity has been built on the silencing of a history of extraordinarily brutal violence against enslaved Africans and indigenous people. The racialised exploitation and dispossession that made Brazil has been masked by facile affirmations of Brazil as a mixed society.

But the explicit racism of Bolsonaro’s candidacy is tearing apart Brazilian society’s fragile image of unity and exposing its violent underbelly.

A brutal history

A 1933 work by a Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, Casa-Grande e Senzala (The Grand House and Slave Quarters, translated as Masters and Slaves) famously revealed this brutal contradiction. Writing about the sugarcane plantations before the abolition of slavery in 1888, Freyre observed how “girls of 12 or 13 … were given to white lads already rotting with the syphilis of the towns”. He wrote of the sadism of slave masters, and meticulously documented the branding and torture of slaves.

But, as if he could not bear this violent vision, Freyre also argued that Brazilian slavery was relatively benign. In a later work, in which he expressed nostalgia for the days of slavery in the context of widespread urbanisation and the growing divides of the Brazilian city, Freyre wrote of “a near marvel of accommodation: of the slave to the master, of the black to the white, of the son the father, of the woman to the husband”.

Freyre had a significant influence on Brazilian identity as a ‘racial democracy’ and its national embrace of the synthesis of indigenous, European and African elements in carnival, samba, football, musical and literary traditions, and rich and varied food. Samba, created among black artists in Rio in the early 20th century, was based on African musical forms brought into an explosive encounter with European carnival traditions. The indigenous drink erva mate is widely enjoyed across southern Brazil.

But the sense of Brazil as a mixed society, as a ‘racial democracy’, never addressed the racial violence that made Brazil, and which has continued into the present. Historian Thomas Skidmore traces a direct line in the evolution of torture under slavery throughout Brazil’s experiments with democracy and dictatorship, from the Old Republic (1889 to 1930) to the country’s last military dictatorship (1964 to 1985). During this time, police abuses developed into extrajudicial death squads in Sao Paulo and Rio. Legitimated by anti-crime rhetoric these death squads, and continuing police persecution, have overwhelmingly targeted  black youth living in favelas (shack settlements).

Political assassinations remain common in Brazil, particularly of indigenous leaders. This year the assassination of black lesbian Rio councillor Marielle Franco, who was investigating police murders, received significant global attention. Though her killers have not been caught, they are widely assumed to have police links.

Politics of hate

Bolsonaro, a former military captain and a present member of parliament, celebrates and espouses torture, along with rampant homophobia, sexism and racism. In 2016 he dedicated his vote to impeach former PT president Dilma Rousseff to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the most heinous torturers of the military dictatorship. Rousseff herself was tortured as an anti-dictatorship guerrilla.

Bolsonaro told another fellow female parliamentarian she was a “whore” and “I would never rape you because you don’t deserve it”. He believes gay communities are “actively stimulating homosexuality in children”, has said that he would “rather have my son die in a car accident” than be gay, and that he fathered his only daughter in “a moment of weakness”. His supporters have openly mocked Franco’s death.

In Rape: A South African Nightmare Pumla Gqola writes that under racial capitalism “every form of degradation causes shame. So poor people are made to feel ashamed of themselves and their poverty, fed a daily diet of their inferiority, laziness and inadequacy”.

Gqola argues that rape and racism, as the foundations of settler colonialism, continue to permeate colonised societies on all levels.  In South Africa, apartheid attempted to keep different races apart. In Brazil, although not legislated, racial shaming and racial power perpetuated itself through state-sanctioned silence about racism.

Bolsonaro and his clan of sons, who are also politicians, wield the power of shame. Like the patriarchs of old, they feel entitled to control the bodies and reproductive and sexual rights of those who do not conform to their values.

Freyre argued that with the decline of slavery, the “grand house” and “slave quarters” morph into new forms – the city mansions and favelas. “The patriarchal tends to prolong itself in the paternalistic, in the sentimental or mystic cult of the father still identified for Brazilians with the image of the protector, the man of destiny, the man indispensable to the good ordering of society.”

Bolsonaro and his fanatic followers have brought this cult of the white father into the age of social media. Bolsonaro has refused to participate in a televised debate with his opponent, the PT’s Fernando Haddad. Instead, he has relied on social media and hysterical online rants against the communist threat, likening left-wing opposition to terrorists in a manner that South Africans will remember from P.W. Botha’s invocation of the ‘rooi gevaar’ (red danger).

No more dissenting voices

For its detractors, the PT embodies the corruption of contemporary Brazil. The victory of Lula and the PT in 2003 heralded a triumph based on decades of mobilisation from the 1970s by unions, the Landless Workers’ Movement and other social movements to win state power.

Under Lula, there were unprecedented improvements in the living conditions of the poor. But the PT never managed to break the elite hold on power in the country, including the media. The party never held a majority in the country’s parliament and to govern it resorted to buying votes.

Mass corruption, such as the Petrobras scandal, continued under the PT presidency, although it often involved politicians across the political spectrum. Rousseff, who followed Lula da Silva into the presidency, was never implicated. Her impeachment was in part driven to protect parliamentarians against the corruption scandal. Lula da Silva, still hugely popular, was convicted and imprisoned on corruption charges on highly speculative grounds, and barred from competing in this election.

But this patrimonial structure was not created by the PT: it is the mode of elite power on which Brazilian politics has always operated. It continued in more bewildering ways once Rousseff was removed in a soft coup in 2016 by Michel Temer, her deputy from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party MDB. With the support of parliament, and an all-white male executive, he installed some of the most anti-poor policies ever seen in a supposedly democratic society.

One of the elements of the PT the right hated most was the expansion of affirmative action policies under both Lula da Silva and Rousseff’s governments.

Haddad, Bolsonaro’s opponent, was education minister from 2005 to 2012 and oversaw the radical expansion of higher education and access for Afro-Brazilian and indigenous students against significant opposition. As mayor of Sao Paulo from 2012 to 2106, Haddad worked closely with social movements and planned to purchase  41 buildings in which there were occupations by these movements to provide low-cost housing for their residents. The plan was scuppered by right-wing mayor who followed.

In contrast, last Sunday, Bolsonaro levelled an extraordinary attack against the PT and social movements, including the Landless Workers Movement and the Homeless Workers Movement. He accused them of being “criminals”, and threatened to banish and jail them. “It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history”, he said. Many of the members and leaders in these movements are black women who have overcome extraordinary odds to find a political voice in Brazil.

Haddad, and his deputy, Manuela d’Ávila of the Communist Party of Brazil, are not the left-wing militants that Bolsonaro and much of the media have made them out to be. But their candidacy still offers a vision of an inclusive, albeit flawed and fragile, Brazil, and a feminist politics that Bolsonaro threatens to destroy.

Bolsonaro’s rise has been driven by evangelical and corporate support, and misleading campaigns on social media. But his mode of weaving power is not new. His rise is an expression of the resurgence of a bitter and unresolved history in a disastrous lust for purity and cleansing.

The grand house is being rebuilt on the foundations of the worst, and most deeply buried, aspects of Brazil’s past.

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