Right-wing populism, Latin-style

Mike Davis on the rise of Bolsonaro 

Jair Bolsonaro symbolises Brazil’s unique brand of right-wing populism. His four years as president from 2018-2022 was marked by violent invective against minorities, especially LGBT+ and indigenous people, unparalleled despoiling of the Amazon rainforest, attacks on trade unions and workers’ rights and a maverick attitude to health and welfare provision. 

One of the major reasons behind his fall was his failure to deal effectively with the Covid-19 pandemic, his denial of its seriousness, slowness to back a vaccination programme and flirtation with crackpot remedies like chloroquine. This all resulted in Brazil having one of the highest death rates in the world. 

Richard Lapper, with years of experience reporting on Latin America and living in Brazil, gets inside to tell the story of how this former army captain rose to the presidency of South America’s most populous state. Powered by wealthy agribusiness, a growing evangelical movement and an unchained military and police force, Bolsonaro sought to trash the work of his predecessors, Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.  

Lapper explains how the ‘beef’ lobby of rich corporations, the socially conservative evangelical movement (the ‘Bible’ lobby) and the partially disaffected forces of the military (the ‘Bullets’ lobby) combined to provide the power base for Bolsonaro’s ascendancy. Thanks to one of his three sons who form a close network around him, Bolsonaro also proved an adept user of social media. 

There is plenty on the historical background. Lapper reminds us Brazil was under military dictatorship for more than 20 years and is therefore no stranger to authoritarian rule. This was followed by the more measured, initially social democratic then more rightward leaning years of Fernando Cardoso, ushering in nearly 20 years of Workers’ Party rule. Then came Operation Car Wash and the economic failures of Dilma Rousseff’s government, years of corruption investigations and trials leading to Lula’s imprisonment (on charges later annulled). Bolsonaro exploited it to the maximum. 

Since his narrow defeat in the October 2022 presidential election, he is now himself facing corruption and other potential litigation charges. 

This is an engrossing read explaining and assessing the significance of Brazil’s Trump. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about the deeper trends in Brazilian politics and the dangers and prospects for the future. 

Beef, Bible & Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro 
by Richard Lapper
Manchester University Press, £20

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