Brazil's Sisyphean Election

Andre Pagliarini argues that at the anniversary of the 1988 Constitution, Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro’s potential election threatens to revert the country’s progress toward democratic and social liberalization.

Andre Pagliarini
October 07, 2018

5 October 2018 marked the 30th anniversary of Brazil's most recent constitution, a progressive document forged in the ashes of a military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. The new charter went beyond assurances of individual rights to include economic, social, and cultural protections. It guarantees healthcare, declaring it "the right of everyone and the duty of the State." 

In its three decades, the Constitution's reach has often exceeded its grasp. Many of its tenets have never been implemented. Others have, but only partially. What good is a right to healthcare, some wonder, if public clinics are chronically underfunded? 

Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso praises the Constitution's democratic aspirations, but deems it unrealistic on economic and administrative matters. Whatever the Constitution's shortcomings, there is something profound about its official promises in a country marred by endemic poverty and social exclusion. In other words, Brazilians have a clearly enshrined right to the emancipatory potential of modernity. Grassroots social movements recognized this in the 1980s, as Kathryn Hochsteter observed, taking an active part in drafting the Constitution. Brazilian democracy from the late 1980s on, has been defined by halting steps toward the Constitution’s democratic promise.

The rise of Jair Bolsonaro, who is likely to be Brazil's next president, threatens to stop that march in its tracks. Bolsonaro's entire political persona is premised on a wholesale rejection of the Constitution's aspirational spirit. Throughout his 27 years in Congress, Bolsonaro, a retired army captain, has faulted the dictatorship for not killing enough people during its two decades in power, suggesting there should have been over 30,000 casualties instead of the actual several hundred. He argued that parents can and should beat homosexuality out of their children at an early age. He told a female member of Congress that he would never rape her because she did not deserve it. As a presidential candidate, he has called for widespread chemical castration of accused sexual offenders and argued that the discourse of human rights has done a “disservice” to Brazil. 

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a brutal and arrogant king who believed he could outsmart the gods. For his insolence, he was sentenced to an eternity of rolling a massive boulder up a steep hill only to see the boulder roll back down when near the top. Since the return of democracy, Brazil has made consistent attempts to address extreme social inequality. These efforts have contributed to a gradual, hard-fought increase in the visibility and empowerment of marginalized groups, including Afro-Brazilians, women, the LGBTQ community, the poor, and the physically disabled. Brazil is far from a just and equitable society, but it has managed to nudge the boulder of social progress up a precipitous hill. Bolsonaro's election threatens all of the incremental gains secured over the last three decades. He is poised to send the boulder crashing back down to earth.

Many erstwhile moderates are now flocking to Bolsonaro as the surest bet against the center-left Workers' Party, which had, in the past, won four presidential elections in a row before a dubious 2016 impeachment removed President Dilma Rousseff from office. 

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump have grown accustomed to the challenge now put to the less openly extreme Bolsonaro acolytes, namely of how to explain their allegiance to a man who consistently says hurtful or reckless things. Their solution is to dismiss their candidate's most inflammatory proclamations as unserious, loose talk. 

Yet there is reason for concern that Bolsonaro's rhetorical violence will not stop at the level of discourse. The presidency in Brazil is, in many ways, a more powerful executive position than in the U.S. Bolsonaro will have to contend with Congress, but Brazil's national legislature is an overwhelmingly conservative body. It may curb some of Bolsonaro's most radical impulses, but it is certain to let more than a few measures through. 

Therein lies the danger: there is latent hostility in many quarters of Brazilian society to minorities, be they religious, sexual, or racial. Even if only 10 percent of what Bolsonaro has promised comes to pass, it will have a devastating impact on the meager advances of recent decades and will likely have a cascading effect on citizens’ everyday lives. 

Recently, Bolsonaro supporters harassed a gay couple at a metro station in São Paulo. They warned the couple to be careful, that Bolsonaro was going to "kill queers." Bolsonaro's verbal attacks against institutions and the very idea of human rights are a palpable threat to marginalized groups in Brazilian society. Thus, partisan control of the presidency is not the only thing at stake in the election. Popular investment in the civic progressivism of the 1988 Constitution is on the ballot as well.

There is no doubt that the Constitution that turned thirty years old on October 5 is an imperfect and somewhat impracticable charter. It was born of a compromise between liberal actors and the most backward elements of Brazilian political culture. Even after the military had illegally seized and exercised power for over two decades, for example, the document left open a prominent role for the armed forces in national life. 

Still, the Constitution is a potent symbol of the Brazilian state's commitment to do better than the regime that governed through intimidation and manipulation for 21 years. Bolsonaro negates that promise and denigrates those who take it seriously. To elect him is to invite an open challenge to the spirit of the 1988 Constitution and the slow, if woefully unsteady, progress since the return of democracy.

Andre Pagliarini is a visiting assistant professor of modern Latin American history at Brown University.