Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro delivered a message to his nation this year on the anniversary of its independence day, September 7. He recalled what he saw as the nation’s good times, and bad, and declared: “Now, 2022, history may repeat itself. Good has always triumphed over evil. We are here because we believe in our people and our people believe in God.”
It was a moment that’s typical of how this president seeks to challenge the democratic rules. Bolsonaro has been seen as part of a new populist global wave.
However, Brazil has a tradition of political violence. There is a national myth that the political elite prefer negotiation and avoid armed conflicts. Facts do not support the myth. If it did all major political change would have been peaceful: there would have been no independence war in 1822, no civil war in 1889 (when the republic replaced the monarchy) and, even the military coup, in 1964, would have been bloodless.
In recent decades, scholars have dug up extensive evidence of political violence throughout Brazilian history. Dispute among political elites was fierce during the monarchy, and the republic began with a civil-military coup.
Between this coup and the 1964 military one, the country faced 20 major violent political conflicts. The national state and the army took a central part in those conflicts and in all of them lethal violence was employed. Political violence also characterised the dictatorship, which ran from 1964 to 1985.
When democracy returned, the 1988 constitution guaranteed civil, political, and social rights, as well as institutions to manage political conflicts. Many then assumed the age of lethal conflict was over and Brazil had begun an irreversible peaceful age. However, political violence was just under control. It had not gone away.
Democratic institutions soon proved incapable of punishing those responsible for political violence during the dictatorship. Governments of presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) tried to move in this direction and failed.
The former created the political missing and deaths commission (1995) and the amnesty commission (2002), while the latter delivered the Right to Memory and Truth report (2007) and proposed a national truth commission.
All those moves faced setbacks, and then military reactions, as set out for example in the widely read book The Suffocated Truth, The Story the Left Does Not Want Brazil to Know, by Brilhante Ustra, a key figure in the dictatorship’s repression scheme.
Dilma Rousseff (president from 2011 to 2016) went further than her predecessors. In her inauguration speech in 2011, the former guerrilla expressed sorrow for her fellow fighters who had been killed during the military dictatorship.
“I faced the most extreme adversity inflicted on all of us that dared to fight the dictatorship,” she said. “I regret nothing. I do not harbour resentment or hold a grudge. Many of my generation … cannot share the joy of this moment. I share with them the victory and pay them my respects.” Rousseff then created a truth commission in 2012.
The years of military rule became a hot national issue as a result of the commission. Newspapers and social media discussed whether the military regime started as a “coup” or a “revolution” and whether the communist guerrilla movement was more or less brutal than the military repression.
A member of the supreme court even decided to take a side. In 2012, while talking about the military regime, Marco Aurelio Mello sought to smooth matters over, saying of the regime: “I don’t mean dictatorship, dictatorship is something else.”
During Lula and Rousseff’s years in power the role of political violence became part of public debate, partly because of the 2005 referendum proposing a ban on firearms and ammunition. Lula´s government lost (36%) to the pro-gun’s coalition (63.9%), led by Bolsonaro and others.
Bolsonaro’s election was the beginning of an era when political violence became usual in different ways. The president often uses violent terminology in speeches referencing minorities, journalists, adversaries and democratic institutions, railing against women, LGBTQ+ people and racial rights.
Although 36% of Brazilians intend to vote to re-elect the president, some are more enthusiastic than others. His strongest supporters are a group that hasn’t put aside the country’s interpersonal violence rooted in centuries of slavery. They are mainly white middle-aged men, and 47% of them come from the middle and upper class. A large share of the social elite endorses Bolsonaro.
The president also counts on what Charles Tilly called “experts in violence” in The Politics of Collective Violence, that is groups prone to act violently, such as policemen and shooting club members. The current administration tripled the number of shooters’ licenses
Bolsonaro fears losing the upcoming election as former US president Donald Trump lost in 2020, and has many armed supporters who may be ready to create a Brazilian version of the attack on the US Capitol. Unlike Trump, he counts on support inside the army, although how large this support is nobody knows.
The president speaks for the Brazilians who are proud of carrying a gun. They will not magically disappear if their leader fails to be re-elected.