Brazil on Fire: Democracy and Dictatorship (Introduction)

In this introduction to the new podcast Brazil on Fire, journalist Michael Fox sets the scene for Brazil’s critical October 2022 presidential elections.

August 16, 2022

Jair Bolsonaro's presidency has been a disaster for Brazil. Over 650,000 dead from Covid-19. Amazon deforestation. Rising fascism. Budget cuts. Fake news. Threats to democracy. In this introduction to Brazil on Fire, host journalist Michael Fox sets the scene for the podcast by looking back on the last four years and why understanding Bolsonaro's rise is important now, ahead of Brazil's presidential election on October 2.

This is the introduction to Brazil on Fire. A new podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under Bolsonaro. Over the coming six episodes we’ll look at Bolsonaro’s far-right government that set the country ablaze, and how the United States helped him do it.

Hosted by Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox. Produced in partnership by The Real News Netork and NACLA.

Theme music by Monte Perdido. Thumbnail image by Michael Fox. 


[woman speaking Portuguese]

Michael Fox:  A woman in a red shirt and a white face mask walks through the parking lot of a hospital. She is talking into her cell phone camera and, as you can hear, she’s distraught. 

“People, I’m asking for your mercy. We’re in a deplorable situation,” she says. “The oxygen has simply run out in an entire unit. We don’t have any oxygen and a lot of people are dying. If you have oxygen available, bring it here to the Urgent Care Unit of the Redenção polyclinic. My God, there are a lot of people dying.”

This video is just one of dozens that went viral across Brazil in early January 2021 as hospitals ran out of oxygen in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. 

“First, we ran out of ventilators, then beds, and finally—and the least expected—oxygen,” André Basualto, a doctor at a private hospital there, told me at the time.

According to reports, dozens died in just one day because of the oxygen shortage.

And it was not the first time the pandemic had hit Manaus hard. The city was ground zero for Covid-19 in April 2020. You probably saw the images of coffins being buried in mass graves. It was a terrifying metaphor for the toll coronavirus was taking on the country. 

A metaphor for the impact of the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.

My family and I, we were watching this latest crisis unfold from the other side of the country where we lived in the city of Florianopolis. My wife is Brazilian. We have two girls. At that point, like so many, we’d been socially isolated for 9 months. It would be 16 before we were actually eligible for our first vaccine shot. Meanwhile, my wife’s grandmother died of Covid. Her uncle, friends, relatives. So many people.

Another video shared over social media that week in January really stuck with me. It was posted on TikTok. A backhoe operator looks out the windshield of his vehicle as he waits for three men to lower a coffin into the soft brown dirt. Simple wooden crosses mark hundreds of new graves that stretch back in seemingly endless rows across the field. “You think this is a joke?” he says. “A ton of people have died in just one day. It’s not a joke. Use a mask.”

But that was the exact opposite of the message president Jair Bolsonaro was sharing with the country. “70% of the population is going to get infected,” he told supporters in Brasilia in 2020. “We can take care of some of the elderly and the sick, but everyone else needs to go back to work,” he said. He told Brazilians Covid wasn’t a big deal, just a little cold. He fought with governors to lift social restrictions and refused to wear a mask. He constantly championed unproven drugs and joked that vaccines might turn you into a crocodile.

Meanwhile, people started to protest and the death count rose: 100,000, 200,000, half a million. As of now, in August of 2022, over 650,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Brazil.

Last October, a six-month-long Brazilian Senate investigation accused the president of committing nine crimes, including illegal use of public funds and crimes against humanity. 

It was a sign of the consequences of Bolsonaro’s government. And it was just one disaster, among so many.

This is Brazil on Fire. A new podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. Over the next six episodes we’ll look at Bolsonaro’s far-right government that set the country ablaze, and how the United States helped him do it. This podcast is a co-production in partnership with The Real News and NACLA.

I’m your host journalist Michael Fox. I’ve lived in Brazil for many years, and I’ve covered Bolsonaro’s rise and government closely. I’ve met his supporters. I was there outside the prison when former president Lula was both jailed and then released. Over the next six episodes, I’m going to take you there with me. We’ll visit the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism, evangelical churches, and Indigenous villages in the Amazon. And I’ll break down what it all means in the lead-up to this year’s presidential elections in Brazil. This is Episode 0: “Democracy and Dictatorship.” ­­

Coronavirus was only the most visible sign of Bolsonaro’s impact on the country, its institutions, and people’s rights. The president has gutted state institutions, rescinded social policies, and cut funds for education, health care, and human rights. He’s stacked military officials into high levels of government—more than at any time since the dictatorship. He’s pushed fake news and conspiracy theories and embraced evangelical Christians and white supremacists into his cabinet.

“There has been an enormous rollback of social rights,” Marcia Lima told me. She’s a sociologist at the University of Sao Paulo and the head of the Afro-cebrap think tank on race, gender, and racial justice. “It’s terrifying,” she says. “The little that we achieved in recent years, we’ve lost in just 3-4 years. It’s really serious,” she says. “Really serious.”

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s calls to open up the Amazon for development have inspired illegal miners, loggers, and land invaders to push onto Indigenous territories in unprecedented numbers. They’ve been largely unchecked as Bolsonaro allies have sidelined the Indigenous and environmental protection agencies and fired long-time employees, allowing Amazon deforestation and the fires to spread out of control.

“Bolsonaro’s intentions are much worse than anything we have faced in the last 500 years,” Indigenous leader Andre Baniwa told me from his home in the Northwestern Amazon recently. 

“It’s clear that his goal is to do away with us and leave no trace.”

The Supreme Court has pushed back against the president throughout his administration. But Bolsonaro and his allies have repeatedly called for the closure of the court, as well as Congress.

White supremacist Bolsonaro supporters actually marched on the Supreme Court in 2020, carrying torches in an evening protest that was shockingly reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan and the 2018 Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s a sign of the increasing numbers of neo-Nazis across Brazil, who have been emboldened by President Bolsonaro, something we’ll look at in a future episode.

Many Bolsonaro supporters have demanded a return to the military dictatorship, something the president has long praised, and even called for during his days as a congressman. “We have never lived [through] so many threats to democracy in Brazil,” Sociologist Marcia Lima told me. “Or at least, not since the end of the dictatorship.”

Democracy and dictatorship. It’s amazing that in 2022, or 2018, or 2016, we’re even debating this question, right? Yet, this has been a defining theme over the last four years under President Bolsonaro. Perhaps, the defining theme. The issue that cuts across everything else. 

Now, I’m not saying that Brazil right now is a dictatorship. It’s not. There have been checks and balances. The Supreme Court in particular has pushed back on many of Bolsonaro’s more authoritarian moves. Even top members of the military have stood against the president. But the legacy of Brazil’s 21-year dictatorship, which ended in the mid 1980s—well, it’s real. Bolsonaro even resuscitated some of its policies. And a lot of people remember the military regime. Both those who thought it was terrible and those, like Bolsonaro and many of his supporters, who thought it was great. 

Here’s the thing. As we’ll see throughout this podcast, this year’s election between Bolsonaro and former president Lula isn’t just a rivalry between two political opponents, it’s a battle over the future of Brazil. A choice between a nationalist authoritarian project and… democracy. Or, that’s at least how many in Brazil see it.

A few months ago, thousands of people amassed at a stadium in São Paulo to launch a broad coalition of labor unions, left parties, and social movements organizing for Lula’s return. Remember, Lula is the country’s most iconic labor leader, who fought the dictatorship in the 1980s and led Brazil in the mid 2000s, lifting millions out of poverty. But he was blocked from running in 2018 due to a trumped up corruption conviction by a biased judge that sent him to jail for 580 days. Well now he’s back and gearing up for the country’s top office. 

“Today is going to go down in history as the day we relaunched the reconstruction of democracy in our country,” said Rosa Morims, a young member of the Landless Workers Movement, otherwise known as the MST. “Lula is the only viable candidate for the hope of a new country,” she said.

The event kick-started Lula’s bid for his party’s official nomination and marked the beginning of his election campaign across the country. “We want to return so that no one ever dares to challenge democracy again,” Lula said at the event. “And for fascism to go back to the sewers of history, where it should never have left.”

Democracy. Dictatorship. Fascism. I want to just pause here for a second. Cause I think this is really important, and also key to understanding this podcast… what it’s about, and where we’re headed.

First, we know Bolsonaro rode in on this nationalist neo-fascist wave that’s washed over the planet in recent years, and in particular on Donald Trump’s coattails. Hell, Bolsonaro even fashioned himself as the “Trump of the Tropics.” And former White House advisor Steve Bannon supposedly even supported Bolsonaro in his 2018 run for president.

But, look, the term fascism…I used to have a hard time with it. It was too cliche. It was tossed around to vilify evil leaders without any real meaning. But as universities were being invaded by military police in the lead up to the 2018 elections and students barred from using the term as they tried to protest on campuses against Bolsonaro, I started to think a lot about it. I read some books. Talked to a bunch of people. There is, in fact, a very clear definition of fascism and fascist. And Bolsonaro, well, he fits most of it. 

For this, I’m going to bring in an Argentine who is much more knowledgeable than me about this issue.

Federico Finchelstein:  I’m Federico Finchelstein. I’m a professor of history at the New School in New York. I am the author of seven books on fascism, populism, and dictators.

Michael Fox:  I’ve been in touch with Finchelstein pretty often over the last few years. He says that a general definition of a fascist has four key elements: Authoritarianism, lies or fake news, violence, and politics of hatred. You know, like racism and xenophobia. He says all of these elements are things that both Bolsonaro and Trump embody.

Federico Finchelstein: “Like Trump, Bolsoaro returns to lies, returns to the militarization of politics, to violence, as a way to deal with differences. Of course, an incredible and gruesome amount of lies that deny reality and promote death. The typical example of this is the Covid pandemic. They deny that it exists, and they created and even promoted death.

Michael Fox:  Finchelstein says that while both Trump and Bolsonaro are authoritarians and they idealize dictatorships, they have yet to realize that dream of implementing a dictatorship—though Trump tried on January 6th and failed.

Federico Finchelstein: So they are, in my view, wannabe fascists—they are at the threshold between what was or what has been populism, and what is going to be 21st century fascism.

Michael Fox:  As you’ll see in this podcast, there are plenty of Brazilians who want that.

Almost every week, crowds of die-hard Bolsonaro supporters amass on roadsides waving Brazilian flags to see their president during one of his now iconic motorcycle rallies. This one was a few months ago in the Southern state of Paraná.

Though Bolsonaro trails in the polls against former president Lula, experts say Bolsonaro’s ardent supporters make up as much as a quarter of the country, and they believe that nothing but the fate of Brazil is at stake. Among them are far-right nationalists, Pentacostal evangelicals, and members of the Brazilian military; three groups that we will look into at length during this podcast.

I hope you’ll walk away from this series not just with a deeper understanding of what’s at stake in Brazil, but also the sometimes frightening similarities between the United States and South America’s largest country, and how we in the North are also walking a very similar and precarious trajectory.

Four years ago, I read this book by historian Robert O. Paxton called The Anatomy of Fascism. At age 90, Paxton is one of the foremost scholars in the United States on fascism. Last year, he actually labeled Donald Trump a fascist. 

His book describes the elements often present with the rise of a fascist movement: First, you need political crisis or corruption scandals. Second, the blaming of communists or the left. Third, the rise of an authoritarian yet charismatic outsider with a violent discourse against certain groups, who promises to unite and fix the country. That leader then creates an alternative worldview that supports his own rise and goals. It is a near perfect description of Brazil and Bolsonaro’s rise to power in 2018. 

And that is where we’ll go: into the violence, the culture war, and the hearts and minds of Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters, next time on Brazil on Fire. Tune in to Episode 1 in early September wherever you get your podcasts. See you then.

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