Do you understand Brazil? It is impossible! ”A comrade from Frente Amplio in Uruguay told me many years ago. Having lived and worked in Brazil for many years, I know how much I don’t know about this country.
With his recently published book Brazil uber alles. Bolsonaro and the Right-wing Revolt ”enables Niklas Franzen to immerse himself in this fascinating and terrifying country. First of all, he thoroughly and honestly analyzes the fundamental shift in the course of Brazilian politics by the right-wing politician Jair Messias Bolsonaro and his supporters in recent years. The text is easy to read, credible and convincing, not least because the author repeatedly allows heroes and antagonists to speak.
What’s going on with Brazil? A country in which a president who enjoyed 83 percent approval among the population became a national hate figure a few years later, was convicted on dubious charges and imprisoned for a year and a half. The verdicts against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have since been overturned by the Supreme Court on formal grounds, and it is said that he has a good chance of defeating far-right Bolsonaro in the upcoming October presidential election. Franzen impressively and comprehensively describes the phenomenal development of Lula, a boy from a poor family from bitterly poor Sertão, a thorny steppe in the hinterland, to the “light form of the poor.” But the career of the current President Bolsonaro, a madman and supporter of the military dictatorship who shamelessly honors the worst of torturers, is also detailed in this book.
Franzen, who writes for “na” among others, takes us on a journey through the country, not only geographically, politically and culturally, but also historically. We explore Quilombos, settlements originally built by fugitive slaves, learn interesting facts about the Black Resistance and Black culture, visit favelas where descendants of slaves still live in miserable conditions, plagued by murderous police operations and the drug-releasing drug mafia.
I myself worked for many years in favelas in the metropolitan Rio de Janeiro. Police in the north of Rio reported another Khazia massacre: 22 dead. And in the Salgueiro favela where I worked, residents recently found eleven bodies with gunshot wounds. “More than 60,000 people were murdered in Brazil in 2017,” writes Franzen. Most of the victims of police violence are young black men.
In Brazil, two societies live side by side – or as Franzen puts it: Brazil is a divided society. More than 20 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s inhabitants live close to each other in more than 700 favelas. Authoritarianism and hierarchy, fixed structures, “above and below” are natural and taken for granted. In this respect, it is to be welcomed that the author devotes a lot of space to the themes of slavery, dictatorship and the unresolved legacy, as they are one of the reasons for the rise of a fascist figure like Bolsonaro. In neighboring Uruguay, which also suffered under the dictatorship, there was recently a 150,000 silent march that now takes place annually to commemorate those who “disappeared” under the dictatorship. In turn, in Brazil, according to the author, there is still a “culture of silence”.
Franzen takes us to the celebrations after Bolsonaro’s victory in the São Paulo elections; These Bolsonarist rallies were to get bigger and their demands for “military intervention” ever more urgent. The author’s attempts to lure Bolsonarists to real worlds by talking to their parallel world are unsuccessful.
The role of social media, which is of paramount importance in the Bolsonaro destruction campaigns and the creation of parallel worlds, has been presented by the author in a consistent and detailed manner. Free churches also have an important role to play in Brazil’s appalling development. Franzen tells about Evangelicals who, with their ministries and social programs, took the place of the earlier theological liberation movement in Latin America, which, incidentally, was fought and flattened by Pope John Paul II, who came from Poland.
We accompany Franzen to the Amazon rainforest, where indigenous communities still live, which have often unsuccessfully defended themselves against colonialism and military dictatorship, but are now fighting more confidently for their survival, against illegal gold diggers and agribusiness and their fatal giant jungle clearings. Franzen also dared, as an alleged missionary, to get to hell, a completely overcrowded prison in which prisoners had to sleep standing up for lack of space, tied to the bars with shirts.
Lula and his workers party Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) embarked on numerous social reforms. 30 million Brazilians have fared much better in Lula’s two terms. Universities have opened up to young people from poor backgrounds; the descendants of slaves could now study courses such as medicine and law that were previously reserved only for the children of wealthy Brazil. There was a television series with a black domestic worker, something unimaginable in the glittering world of the Brazilian soap opera. How could a right-wing revolt take place?
Franzen attaches the greatest importance to this question. The “jubilee years” of Lula’s rule were characterized by classic social democratic politics, that is, growth at any cost. PT created an army of consumers who, fearing the crises of recent years, voted for Bolsonaro under the mistaken belief that it would help them. PT failed to strengthen civil society and promote responsible citizens.
Brazil was the site of the Olympic Games and the Football World Cup. Everything was fine for a while and the pace of growth continued to increase. Brazil easily dealt with the financial crisis. But eventually commodity prices around the world plummeted, and so did the growth pattern of Lula’s rule. Could the PT in power have done anything to ease this extensive dependence on the export of raw materials and staple products? And what can a government that could be re-led by the Labor Party do to stop this tide?
In March 2021, a newspaper from the University of São Paulo reported that the American company Ford was withdrawing from vehicle construction in Brazil after more than 100 years, and that Mercedes-Benz was also closing the factory. Japanese company Sony is also closing its Manaus plant, giving up the Brazilian market for televisions, cameras and audio equipment. The country is undergoing a process of deindustrialization and not now, as some “experts” claim. Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano warned about this 50 years ago in his respected standard work, The Open Veins of Latin America. Why can you buy Chinese cars in São Paulo and not Brazilian cars in Beijing? “El Pais” says, “We will be a great phase.”
Brazil has long been considered an apolitical country. The only public demonstrations in São Paulo and Rio – and in mega format – were the annual Christopher Street Day parades. They have changed radically, not least due to the shift towards right-wing extremism and authoritarianism. “We didn’t know there was such a fascist potential in Brazil,” two famous São Paulo writers told me in March 2020, who are not only writers but also politicians.
At the end of his work, Franzen analyzes the issue of protest and resistance. Yes, the opposition has made progress in the fight against Bolsonarism, albeit modest. But why is the left fighting so hard? The MST landless movement is still alive all over Brazil, despite being particularly hard hit by the right-wing government. The author talks about Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Party of Socialism and Freedom; PSOL), a small fraction of mainly left-wing intellectuals from the PT. There have been some promising changes in civil society, for example for the LBGTI community and for Afro-Brazilians.
It is certainly very important that numerous civil society initiatives have taken the fight on social media. Franzen quotes the anthropologist Rosana Pinheiro-Machado: “The problem[PT]was that she turned from the periphery because she believed that the self-esteem of these new consumers would be enough to spark eternal party loyalty. ”
When I asked the former secretary of state in Lula’s office in São Paulo in March 2020 why I had never seen a Labor politician in all my years of working in the periphery, he replied: “PT is not a favelados party, it is a workers party.” Franzen concludes: “The working class has changed … The Left needs a new narrative to unite these people.” I can only agree.
Niklas Franzen: Brazil first of all. Bolsonaro and the right-wing revolt. Association A, 240 pp., This year, € 18.
Our author Lutz Taufer, a former RAF member, worked in social areas in Latin America after his release from prison.