As candidate Jair Bolsonaro neared the presidency in 2018, violence rippled across Brazil, mostly perpetrated by Bolsonaro supporters. Hundreds of threats and attacks, including several killings, were reported in the weeks and months leading up to the election. Bolsonaro's hateful rhetoric and fake news machine spurred on the violence, painting the election as a battle for the soul of the country. With key issues like family values and security, Bolsonaro tapped into a growing culture war aimed not at winning a democratic debate, but eliminating opponents.
This episode looks at Bolsonaro’s most ardent supporters, and how a culture war born in the United States inspired a wave of political violence that forced people to flee Brazil in fear for their lives.
This is Brazil on Fire. A podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. Over these six episodes we look at Bolsonaro’s far-right government that has set the country ablaze, and how the United States helped him do it. We’ll visit the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism, evangelical churches, and Indigenous villages in the Amazon.
Featuring host Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox.
Sound design by Gustavo Türck.
Theme music by Monte Perdido. Thumbnail image by Michael Fox.
Michael Fox: Before we begin, if you haven’t yet listened to our introduction—Episode 0: Democracy and Dictatorship—I suggest you go back and do that now. It sets the scene for the podcast, and it’ll help make sense of everything else we’re diving into today. Alright, here’s the show. Enjoy.
[Person speaking Portuguese]
It’s late October 2018, just a day before the second round of the presidential election in Brazil.
A couple dozen people stand or sit in a white hospital waiting room in the Northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará. They’re all in shock. Some have their hands over their faces, rocking back and forth. A woman in a red shirt moans uncontrollably in the background. Several women try to console her. Her name is Regina Lessa. She’s a union leader there. And her son has just been pronounced dead. He was shot by a supporter of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
Lessa and her son had been riding in a caravan supporting Bolsonaro’s opponent, Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad. Witnesses said the man who killed Lessa’s son shouted something about Bolsonaro, and then fired at point blank range.
Violence like this had been rippling across the country for weeks. Hundreds of threats and attacks had been reported—the vast majority, perpetrated by Bolsonaro supporters.
Moa do Katendê was one of the first victims—and the most well-known. He was one of the country’s most honored teachers of Afro-Brazilian culture, music, and dance. A master of capoeira de Angola, the traditional Afro-Brazilian martial art.
That was him singing during a capoeira festival in 2017. He’s playing a berimbau, a percussion instrument with origins in Africa, his long grey dreadlocks pulled back in a ponytail underneath a blue and white cap.
He was killed on the very night of the first-round vote in early October. A Bolsonaro supporter stabbed him 12 times after an argument, where Katende defended the leftist candidate Haddad.
Katende’s death sent shockwaves across the country. Many said it was more than just a murder. It was a message of what was to come under Bolsonaro. A documentary was made about his life and death. They called it “The First Victim.”
Communities held ceremonies in his honor in cities up and down Brazil. I joined this one in the southern Brazilian city of Florianopolis, where I lived at the time. I was there to cover it, as part of a story I was working on about the rising hate crimes happening across Brazil. Hundreds of people, dressed in white, performed an Afro-Brazilian dance in a procession around a square, near the waterfront.
“This is all for him. This is everything he wanted. This good energy. This axé,” a man with dreadlocks carrying a long wooden drum, told the crowd. Then he held his hands to his eyes and started to cry.
I spoke with a lot of people there about what they were feeling. About where the country was heading. Victor Leite was one of them. He’s a teacher and a capoeira master, with dark hair and a white shirt.
He told me, “I believe that what happened with Master Moa is a metaphor for the moment that Brazil is living in now, with these forces of hate and violence.”
Hate and violence.
It was not an accident that these forces were taking center stage across the country. Hate and violence was something that candidate Jair Bolsonaro had built his career on. Here he is, just a few weeks before, during a campaign rally in the northern Brazilian state of Acre.
He’s at the mic, before a sea of supporters. He reaches over and picks up a camera tripod. He pulls it into his arms and holds it up, shaking it as if he were firing a machine gun.
“We are gonna gun down the Workers’ Party supporters here in Acre,” he says to a huge round of applause. “We’re gonna run these crooks out of Acre.”
See…Jair Bolsonaro is a retired military officer. He served as a captain under the dictatorship. He’s also a long-time member of congress, where he’s been fined for sexist, racist and homophobic comments. He’s praised torture, dictatorship, and even former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He also promised violence against his enemies, be they criminals, the corrupt, or his political adversaries. And he’d risen in the polls with his radical rhetoric, on the backs of a culture war partly imported from the United States.
This is Brazil on Fire, a podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. This podcast is produced in collaboration with The Real News and NACLA.
I’m your host, Michael Fox. I’m a long-time radio reporter and multimedia journalist. I’ve lived in Brazil for years and I’ve covered Bolsonaro and his government closely. Over these 6 episodes, I’ll take you on a journey to understand the story of Bolsonaro’s rise, and his far-right government that’s set the country ablaze. We’ll visit the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism, evangelical churches, and indigenous villages in the Amazon.
This is Episode 1: Violence and Culture War
I’m on an overnight bus. It’s about a month before the 2018 election — a month before those killings. I’m heading from my home in Florianopolis to Porto Alegre, about seven hours south.
I know the city well. I met my wife there almost 20 years ago. We lived there in the late 2000s.
It’s a town of about a million and a half, on the banks of the Guaiba river. Its name means Happy Port and it’s the capital of Brazil’s southernmost state Rio Grande do Sul, which borders Uruguay and Argentina. The residents there are known as Guachos, another name for South American cowboys.
And that’s something people here identify with. Think of it maybe like the Texas of Brazil. There’s even a small secessionist movement.
You can hear the German influence in their songs. Kinda like Norteño music in Mexico.
That’s not a coincidence. Southern Brazil, including Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná and Santa Catarina, received a huge influx of European immigrants over the last two centuries. In fact, my wife…she’s from the very town where the first Germans arrived back in the early 1800s. Just to give you an idea… her ancestors were German, Polish, Spanish, Italian and Indigenous. And that, plus Black Brazilians, who make up about a fifth of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, pretty much sums up the demographics of the region.
It’s an area that’s overwhelmingly white in a country that’s majority Black. And like in the United States, inequality is often split along racial lines. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. It was ended in 1888, only 134 years ago. Today, three quarters of Brazil’s poor are Black or Brown.
It’s not surprising that here, Bolsonaro, and his rhetoric, are winning converts.
That’s why I’m on this bus. Bolsonaro’s in town.
He arrived the day before. Thousands of supporters met him at the airport. The majority of those in the crowd were young men. They lifted him on their shoulders and chanted “mito” in Portuguese—“legend.” That’s what they’re already calling him—a legend.
“The temperature’s gonna heat up,” he told the crowd. “We’re gonna sweep away corruption. We’re gonna take back our values.”
This same scene has been repeated at almost every airport Bolsonaro’s visited over the last year.
But the event I’m headed for is different.
It’s a rally of women for Bolsonaro. It’s being put on by the local women’s chapter of Bolsonaro’s new far-right party. I couldn’t miss it. In particular, because those two words, women and Bolsonaro, seem diametrically opposed, like they shouldn’t even be allowed in the same sentence.
See, at this point in late 2018, women have been organizing against Bolsonaro’s candidacy in cities across Brazil.
They’ve held rallies and marches. They’ve launched a Facebook group: “Ele Nao,” Not Him, with over a million followers. They’re incensed by his callous regard for women, feminists, Black Brazilians, and queer and trans people.
See, Bolsonaro…he’s been fined in Congress for sexist, racist and homophobic remarks.
He called the birth of his daughter — his first girl after four boys — a “moment of weakness”. Several years ago, he told a fellow congressmember that she “wasn’t worthy” of being raped.
These anti-Bolsonaro rallies remind me of the women’s marches following the election of President Donald Trump, only at this point, Bolsonaro hasn’t been elected yet.
So, that’s where I’m going. I wanted to see Bolsonaro up close—understand his appeal for women in Southern Brazil, and how he’s become so popular.
Hundreds of women pack into the football-shaped conference hall.
Lena Crestani sits near the back. She’s tall, with shoulder-length brown hair. A mauve scarf hangs around her neck, just above a gray flowered blouse.
On any other morning at this time, she’s watching her grandchildren. Not today.
“I’ll tell you something,” she says. “After the military regime, when we started to have elections, we have always voted, but I feel like I’m voting for the first time. It seems like it’s the first time that I’m going to choose a president that I really want.”
I ask her about Bolsonaro’s history of misogyny, sexism, homophobia, racism. She shakes her head and brushes it off.
“That’s how people interpret what he says. They don’t listen to his answers. They put words into his mouth,” she says.
Her response repeats what countless Bolsonaro supporters have said on the campaign trail: That Bolsonaro’s just strong-willed. That he’s honest—doesn’t mince words and that he’s going to defend them from the corrupt—both morally and politically. A war is engulfing Brazil, where ideas are irreconcilable across political divides. Never before have the words freedom and values meant such completely different things for different groups of people. Never before has there been so much manipulation of information. So much fake news.
“What most impressed me was that he is in favor of the family,” she says. “I believe that family is the foundation for all of our society. And I don’t see any other candidates stress this clearly like him. Family, religion, valuing our beliefs. Preserving our customs,” she says. “This is what led me to follow Bolsonaro.”
This sentiment is shared by most in the audience. A group of women across the hall unfurl a large anti-abortion banner and pose for pictures.
An evangelical pastor leads the crowd in prayer. The audience joins, arms lifted into the air, palms open, facing forward. Eyes closed.
“Let all of us be blessed this morning, and may He guide this country in favor of our candidates, Jair Bolsonaro for president,” says the pastor. “May this country know that there is only one God and that is you.”
Finally… Bolsonaro arrives. The crowd erupts. Men and women jostle for a position to see him. They cheer. They swarm around him like he’s a middle-aged rock star, fighting to get a selfie.
His speech lasts only five minutes. It is notable only for its absence of bravado and spite, trademark components of Bolsonaro’s public persona. Here, he’s warm and respectful, like he’s addressing his mother and a group of her friends at a women’s luncheon.
“What we can do for Brazilian women… for Brazilian families,” he says, “Is to make sure that these values find a way to become solidified in our Brazil.”
Family values. Security. The fight against so-called gender ideology. That’s a vague catchall that conservatives use to claim LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and gender equity will corrupt society. These are things that Bolsonaro has built his political career on. And they’re at the heart of a growing culture war that has been exploding across Brazil, pushed by Bolsonaro on the campaign trail, and influenced by the United States.
See that’s where the idea of culture war got its start—in the United States. But in order to understand that, we need to take a short trip even further back in time.
Speaker: “Pat Robertson today for God and country…” Marion Pat Robertson today is an evangelical Christian, who would be president…
Michael Fox: It’s the 1980s. United States. The religious right is growing in power alongside President Ronald Reagan and they’re pushing back against the counterculture movements of the 1960s and the 1970s.
Ronald Reagan: This nation cannot continue turning a blind eye and a deaf here to the taking of some 4,000 unborn children’s lives every day…
Michael Fox: They’re making an impact and becoming increasingly vocal about issues that are particularly tied to their religious conviction: abortion, prayer in schools, same-sex marriage.
Speaker: At Houston’s Astrodome, tonight, the start of an attempted political comeback of a president of the United States…
Michael Fox: The Republican National Convention. 1992. Not even a year has passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War.
George H. W. Bush: Thank you very much, and I’m honored to accept your nomination for president of the United States.
Michael Fox: President George H. W. Bush, the 1st, would be the Republican nominee for the presidential race. But another candidate, Pat Buchanan, would define the battleground that U.S. politics would fight over until today.
Pat Buchanan: There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.
Michael Fox: Buchanan’s issues? The lack of prayer and religion in public schools. The supposed immorality of same-sex marriage and abortion. You can almost draw a direct line from those debates to what’s happening now.
Donald Trump: The Supreme Court, it’s what’s it’s all about.
Michael Fox: Donald Trump’s packing the Supreme Court with conservative justices. The overturning of Roe vs Wade. Backlash against comprehensive sex ed in schools.
These issues are considered cultural issues, because they’re rooted deeply in the religious convictions of many conservatives: Their morals. Their values. Like Buchanan said, in these areas… there was no room for democratic debate or discussion. This was a war for the soul of America.
Pat Buchanan: My friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country. God Bless you and God Bless America.
Michael Fox: That same war is being fought in Brazil, with Bolsonaro leading the charge.
“This idea that politics becomes the battleground for the war for the soul of the country, this is really essential to understanding culture war in Brazil,” says Joao Cezar de Castro Rocha.
He’s one of the foremost Brazilian experts on the issue of Culture War. He’s also a literature professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. He tells me that sometimes he wishes he could just stick with Shakespeare. He took an interest in Culture War because of the language and rhetoric that it deploys.
He says the root of culture war is religious and it’s largely pushed by fundamentalist evangelicals. We’ll get into this in a later episode, but remember that at the time of the 2018 vote, evangelicals were a huge block of support for Bolsonaro. They made up roughly a quarter of Brazilians — today it’s more like a third. And this evangelical undercurrent is why so many key issues driving the culture war are related to perceived assaults on traditional gender roles and the heterosexual nuclear family.
“Donald Trump and Bolsonaro are supported by fundamentalist evangelicals,” says Castro Rocha. “They don’t deal with politics as a way of negotiating political differences, but as a means of eliminating their political opponents, because they believe they hold the essence of absolute truth,” he says. “And that is really dangerous.”
But Bolsonaro didn’t create this battleground for the soul of Brazil. He’s just been riding the wave. That distinction, in large part, goes to this man…
His name is Olavo de Carvalho. Castro Rocha says no intellectual of the 21st century has had such a profound impact on the political culture of a country.
More on him, and his rural Virginia home, in a minute.
Down a country road, in rural Virginia, a short drive from Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, lived an old Brazilian curmudgeon, who, over the last couple of decades became one of the most important figures in Brazilian politics. And he did it, without leaving his Virginia home.
I went for a little drive there one evening late last year. See, I’m from Northern Virginia, originally, just a couple of hours away. I was back visiting my parents and I wanted to get a sense of the place that was literally the home of the father of Brazil’s neo-far-right.
“It’s chilly. Early November. Down these streets. Just west of Richmond. There’s houses. But there’s also fields. You can smell the cows in the distance. This is his country. Trump country. We passed a sign a while back, farmers for Trump. It’s Olavo country, too…Near where he lives with his ranch, they call it. Apparently, they got it all fixed up with money from his online classes in Brazil. It’s quiet though. It’s a long way from Brazil.”
Olavo de Carvalho died earlier this year, reportedly from complications due to Covid-19, something he has previously denied was a big deal.
But his influence cannot be understated.
Olavo de Carvalho was a former journalist, astrologer, religious guru, and self-proclaimed philosopher, who moved to the United States in 2005 and began training thousands of young Brazilians in his online philosophy courses.
He was not your typical professor. In his videos, he chain smoked, cursed and attacked his opponents. There was no dialectic. There was only right or wrong, often involving his views on the evils of the Left or international conspiracies. He often called his opponents idiots.
If that reminds you a little of talk radio in the United States, you’re not far off.
Analysts say that when Carvalho came to the U.S., he was influenced by radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and even Pat Buchanan, who all became popular by offending and attacking their opponents. He saw how these personalities had a profound impact and grew a loyal audience. He adapted the formula for a Brazilian public, building a huge following by spreading his right-wing ideas over social media in Brazil.
But he took it a step further. He taught his followers the tools and language of how to attack and dehumanize their adversaries, not to win a political debate, but to eliminate their opponents.
Carvalho built a cult-like following. His students called themselves “Olavetes.”
OK, ready? Hold on…
The chorus there is singing “Olavo is right, Olavo is right”. It’s one of a surprising number of songs on YouTube that his followers produced in his honor. Even today, Olavo de Carvalho’s YouTube page has over a million subscribers.
Carvalho’s far-right theories would be amusing if they were not so dangerous. He said once that 99% of all Brazilian political parties were communist or communist-allied. That there was an international left-wing conspiracy to take over Brazil and the world.
“Why is a blond American embarrassed to be white?” Carvalho said, in one video posted in 2010. “Well, because there’s a 200-year-old campaign of lies, qualifying the white race as the great slave master of the planet.”
He even went so far as to say that fascism and Nazism were left-wing, and not far right.
Olavo de Carvalho laid the groundwork for Bolsonaro’s rise, by training thousands of Brazilians in his far-right ideology, some of whom Bolsonaro would even pick for high-profile cabinet posts once he was elected.
But Bolsonaro… he didn’t need Carvalho’s help to get radicalized. Bolsonaro had been pushing his own violent rhetoric and culture war for a long time: Family values. Security. Attacking so-called gender ideology. They’re issues that Bolsonaro has built his political career on.
Remember, although he fashioned himself as an outsider, Bolsonaro had served as a congressman for decades, where he carried out his own mutinous far-right crusade against the political left, fighting, in particular, against gender equality and diversity, feminism and LGBTQ rights. Things that today, we’d consider part of the conservative culture war.
That’s him in Congress back in 2011, denouncing a federal campaign to combat homophobia in schools. He called it a gay kit — which he said was a leftist push to teach homosexuality to children. He would rail against this supposed “gay kit” for the next seven years, until the lead-up to the election, when the courts barred him from mentioning it, because he was using it as fake news to attack his political opponent.
Bolsonaro…he also came of age under the dictatorship, when as a young captain, he was taught that the fight was not against some other country, but against an internal enemy—the communists or the Left. That is how he’s done politics ever since.
And in the years leading up to the 2018 election, he chose as the leading target of his attacks, the country’s most prominent gay congressman: Jean Wyllys.
Wyllys is a former reality TV star, a former two-term leftist congressman, and the most outspoken official for LGBTQ rights in Brazil’s history.
Bolsonaro heckled him constantly.
Here’s just one moment. You can hear Bolsonaro pounding the table and yelling at Wyllys as he leaves a committee hearing.
Here’s another, when they happened to be seated next to one another on a flight to Brasilia. Bolsonaro’s filming Wyllys with his cell phone. Wyllys changes seats. Bolsonaro jokes to the camera that he feels discriminated against. The video went viral.
Jean Wyllys, the face of the LGBTQ movement in Congress. Bolsonaro, the leading homophobe. In many ways, Bolsonaro built his no-holds-barred Trump-like political image by bashing leftist leaders, powerful feminists and above all, Jean Wyllys.
“I was the guinea pig for everything that Jair Bolsonaro would do later,” Wyllys told journalist Pedro Bial in an interview. “I was the guinea pig and the ladder that he would use to climb. Until I came to congress, when he realized that homophobia was a way of inserting himself into society and gaining power, he was a provincial second-class congressman from Rio de Janeiro, that people just ignored.”
As the 2018 election approached, things got bad for Wyllys. Serious death threats. Particularly in March 2018, after the killing of Marielle Franco.
She was Rio de Janeiro city councillor from one of Brazil’s most dangerous favelas. Like Jean Wyllys, she too was black and gay. And they were friends.
“When Marielle died, something broke inside of me,” said Wyllys.
Marielle left behind a wife and a daughter. She too had stood up in defense of poor and black communities, and increasingly for gay rights. She was an outspoken critic of police brutality and extrajudicial killings—the very thing that took her life.
The news of her killing tore across Brazil. Marches and protests poured into the streets. Rallies filled plazas, even abroad. They carried signs, often with the stenciled image of Marielle’s smiling face.
Just days after her death, Wyllys started to be accompanied by three bodyguards and two armored cars.
The threats had always been bad. But never like this. Death threats would also rise against leading feminists and leftists in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere.
Hate crimes and violence rippled across the country as Bolsonaro rose in the polls ahead of the election. He campaigned with a barrage of fake news and a social media machine, the likes of which the country had never seen. His supporters and his bot army spread false information, claiming that his closest opponent, Fernando Haddad, owned a yellow Ferrari, defended incest and wanted to hand the country’s children over to the state.
Businessmen allied with Bolsonaro illegally paid millions of U.S. dollars to inundate Brazilians with texts in support of his campaign over the messaging application WhatsApp.
In October, the Workers’ Party opened a hotline to receive complaints of false or misleading news and memes over the app. Within 24 hours, they had received 15,000 messages.
“Our election will not be decided by the candidates’ proposals or their speeches,” Sao Paulo poet and street artist Giovani Baffo told me one afternoon in October, in a trendy neighborhood in Sao Paulo. “It’ll be decided by the lies spread online,” he said. “by the ability of some groups to push ‘fake news’ and the ability of us, the voters, to discern what is and what is not real.”
Finally, election night.
Bolsonaro would win with 56 percent of the vote. His supporters celebrated outside his home in a posh Rio de Janeiro gated community.
That night, during his acceptance speech, several books adorned Bolsonaro’s table. Among them were the Bible, the Brazilian Constitution, and Olavo de Carvalho’s “The Minimum You Need to Know to Not Be an Idiot.”
Jean Wyllys left before Bolsonaro’s inauguration. He was the first political exile of the Bolsonaro government. Though there would be others. A month later, he announced he wouldn’t be returning to carry out his third term in Congress.
“The reason why I’m here out of Brazil, is to preserve my life,” he said at his first press conference, in Berlin, Germany. In the video, shared by DW Brasil, he wears a grey v-neck sweater and holds a black microphone in one hand. The winter sky out the window behind him is dull and overcast. “These causes don’t need a martyr,” he said. “We already have a martyr, Marielle Franco. We don’t need another. These causes need an activist. And an activist needs to be alive.”
For most of the previous year, he had lived with bodyguards. Without them, he couldn’t leave his home. Not even to walk to the corner store.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he says. “But it was necessary, because what I was living in Brazil was not a life. I was only living half a life. I was suffering from psychological terrorism produced by death threats that were frequent, almost daily and an orchestrated campaign of defamation that was transforming me into a pariah and a public enemy inside my own country.”
This is where the lines blur between culture war and violence in the descent toward fascism. Hate. Lies. Violence and authoritarianism. The faces of fascism—tools for a power-hungry leader looking to push his way to the presidency, grab hold, and hang on.
But Bolsonaro needed something else to win in 2018. He needed the path cleared.
See, for most of that electoral season, someone else was ahead in the polls—far ahead. But he was jailed on supposed corruption charges by a biased judge, six months out from the election, and blocked from running.
In the next episode, we’ll look at the fight to free former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from prison, the corruption investigation that jailed him, the role of the United States, and what it all means ahead of this year’s election, as Lula again leads in the polls.
Jean Wyllys says if Lula wins, he’s coming home.
Before I go. Let me say that this podcast has been a labor of love for a long time and I’m grateful to everyone who has helped to make it a reality.
See you next time on Brazil on Fire.