By Rosa Asque
When I first spoke to Luiza, I was running my plans to visit South America by her. Brazil was high on my list of places to go. We had met on Instagram a few years prior, and sharing music lead us into talking about life and politics right away. How could it not? The tension was so thick, I could see the relief on her face when she asked if I knew what was happening in her country and I responded with, “Roughly, yes.” Luiza immediately went into detail as she recounted watching Trump get elected in 2016. She ached and wept with us from 6,000 miles away. As Luiza and her friends watched, her mother asked, “Why do you cry Luiza? You don’t even live in the US,” to which she replied, “I know, but it’s just so sad.” This is solidarity — that shared pain, empathy.
Luiza’s empathy stems from experience — her country of Brazil has a long-standing history with corruption and fascism. The country escaped military dictatorship in 1985. In 2003 Brazil elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for president, a revolutionary socialist who worked as a union organizer and was a founding member of Partido dos Trabalhadores, The Workers’ Party (PT). During his presidential term, Lula had a large impact on lifting millions out of poverty with his social services like Bolse Familia. But in 2005, Lula’s government was involved in a scandal where members of Congress were being bribed to vote the way Lula wanted them to, as well as taking bribes from the company Petrobras, an oil company that happens to be almost entirely owned and controlled by Brazilian government and is the largest company in Latin America. Even though the scandal was one of the biggest cases of corruption in modern democracy, the buzz around it quickly dissipated, and Lula was never indicted. He was re-elected and left office in 2011 with an 80% approval rating. However, in 2017 Lula was finally found guilty of corruption and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. The ongoing criminal investigation into the case, known as Operation Car Wash, has since jailed dozens of executives and politicians.
Ousted in Bad Faith
Lula’s successor and former Chief of Staff, Dilma Rousseff, was elected in 2011. She was an economist, former guerrilla fighter who was caught and tortured during the era of Brazilian military dictatorship, and the first woman to hold the Brazilian Presidency. In August 2016, Rousseff was impeached for allegedly using creative accounting, or pedaling, to conceal short term deficits in her budget that were all paid back. A petition for her impeachment was accepted by Eduardo Cunha, president of the Chamber of Deputies, who himself has been found guilty of corruption, proven to have stashed millions in bribes in Swiss bank accounts. In fact, out of 594 Congress members, 352 have faced accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Rousseff was one of few never actually accused of corruption, making her impeachment a coup carried out by the leaders of the opposition in Congress and the media. The objectives of this impeachment are clear — preventing further investigations of the corruption of those in power today, implementing the remainder of the process of economic liberalization, continuing the privatization of policies, opening the labor market and removing the poor from the federal budget. Even Brazil’s Attorney General, Jose Eduardo Caedozo, called the condemnation of Rousseff, a legitimate elected president, “a historic injustice.”
The coup on Rousseff left vice president, Michel Temer, interim president while the Senate investigated, until August 31st, 2016 when he officially assumed office. He had previously been president of Brazil’s largest party, Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, or the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), who was PT’s opposition party. Since becoming president, he has installed a conservative, all-white, all-male cabinet, the first cabinet without any women since 1979. Under Temer’s leadership, in 2016 there were 925 police related fatalities, and in 2017 that number climbed to over a thousand. The violence led Temer to hand over public safety to military police, declaring, “Vast power to secure order.” This was the first military intervention of its kind since the 80s. Luiza had told me about being on the ground at a sit in demonstration and having the police — who always seem to know where they’ll be — start beating people, going as far as to shoot into the crowds. “It’s always like this. They always know where we’re going, they block us and try to kill us.” In 2016, Temer was convicted of violating election laws, thus receiving an eight-year ban from running for office, making him ineligible for re-election in 2018.
The New Order
Two weeks before the election, four hundred thousand people marched under the banner of #EleNao — “Not Him.” Despite the mobilization, on October 28, Jair Bolsanaro was elected President of Brazil with 55% of the vote. The Worker’s Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, lost. The right-wing Brazilian newspaper Estadão reports Haddad won 98% of the poorest cities, while Bolsanaro won 97% of the richest ones.
A former army captain and current leader of the Social Liberal Party, the incoming president has repeatedly expressed sexist, homophobic, and racist opinions while simultaneously supporting military dictatorship and torture. His offensive stances include, but are not limited to proudly supporting the beating of queer folks, stating, “I won’t fight against it nor discriminate, but if I see two men kissing each other on the street, I’ll beat them up.”
In 2014, at the podium in front of Brazil’s congress, Bolsonaro told Maria do Rosario, congresswoman of the Workers’ Party that, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” after she condemned the sexual violence carried out against enemies by the former military dictatorship he was apart of. He went as far as dedicating his vote for the impeachment of Rousseff to the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the colonel who headed the feared Doi-Codi torture unit in the 1970s which tortured Rousseff during the military dictatorship.
Among the countless scandals within Brazil’s government, big questions are still left unanswered, such as who assassinated Marielle Franco (Marielle Presente), city councillor of the Municipal Chamber of Rio de Janeiro for the Socialism and Liberty Party. She was the only black women to serve in Rio’s council. Growing up poor from a favela in Mare, Franco was a black, queer, single mother that still managed to finish college against all odds with a degree in social sciences and a Masters in public administration. Her activism against the most lawless police battalions, her opposition to military intervention, and, most powerful of all, her growing power as a black, gay woman from the favela who sought not to join Brazil’s power structure, but to subvert it. Franco had outspokenly criticized police brutality, extrajudicial killings and the federal intervention by Temer in the state of Rio in February 2018, which resulted in the deployment of the army in police operations. She was known for actually listening to her community and attempting to give them a voice, bridging marginalized communities and politics.
In March 2018, she and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, were fatally shot by two men who were driving another car. The men fired nine shots, four hitting Franco. The bullets were found to be from a batch bought by the federal police in 2006. The Minister of Public Security tried to say they were stolen from the Post Office storage facility in Paraiba, claims that the Post Office publicly denied and the minster later retracted with no further action. This scandal, too, would fizzle out from the government’s radar, but not from the minds and hearts of a grieving community trying to find their voice again. Thousands took to the streets to protest and condemn her killing.
I asked Luiza and her community if they had anything they wanted to share. They feel unheard, but not hopeless, even though hope is a hard thing to talk about for all of them.
“People just don’t think about democracy anymore, they don’t think about rights anymore. Everybody’s so full of hatred, so full of anger,” shared Agnes, a 24-year-old Brazilian woman who grew up directly involved in politics as child of one of the founders of the PT party.
“What gives me hope and is that I was brought up in a home that taught me how to fight… We went through this before and we broke through the regime. If the regime comes again, we will break through. We will fight, we will lose people, sacrifices will be made.”
“The only thing that brings me hope is to see my friends and people I care fighting against many regressions on Brazilian society. I try to discuss with people with different (but constructive) opinions and to be close to people that make me feel good. Being surrounded by people that understand my problems and have empathy is the best relief,” shared Rafaella, a 20-year-old from Porto Alegre.
When I asked Luiza, “What gives you hope?” she said, “I think that having friends that are always fighting with me is the only thing that really gives me hope and makes me believe that things will get better. I try to talk with anyone who thinks that voting in a fascist is gonna help our country. It’s really hard to because they’re always angry, but we have to do something.”
What they all agreed on was this — the best way for folks outside of Brazil to help is to inform themselves and others in order to spread awareness. “Talk about Latin American countries the way you talk about European countries, the way you care about the white world,” Agnes declared. “Talk about Latin American countries like you speak of friends.”