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‘Brazil might not be a dictatorship, but it's not a democracy either,’ says Brazilian journalist

Journalist and writer Mário Magalhães. Photo: Daniel Ramalho, used with permission.

It was on the night of March 14, 2018, when Rio de Janeiro leftist politician Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes were assassinated, that journalist Mário Magalhães realized he had to write a new book. With only seven months away from the presidential elections, he knew then that 2018 was going to be a historical year for Brazil.

Magalhães is a journalist from Rio de Janeiro who has reported for Brazil's leading newspapers, such as O Globo, O Estado de São Paulo, and Folha de São Paulo. His new book “Sobre lutas e lágrimas: Uma biografia de 2018″ (in English, “On struggles and tears: a biography of 2018″) is a collection of essays originally run by the Brazilian version of the news site The Intercept, plus a few new articles.

The essays focus on three events that rocked Brazil in 2018: the murder of Marielle Franco and Anderson Gomes on March 14; the arrest of ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on April 7; and the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president on October 28. He uses those events as lenses to look at Brazil's authoritarian past and how it still haunts the present times.

Magalhães has also authored a biography of Carlos Marighella, the founder of the communist guerilla outfit Ação Libertadora Nacional (in English, National Liberation Alliance) in 1968, one of the groups that engaged in armed struggle against Brazil's US-backed military dictatorship (1964-1985). A movie based on the book, starred by musician Seu Jorge and directed by Netflix's “Narcos” lead Wagner Moura, has had its release in Brazil delayed twice this year over bureaucratic issues with the country's cinema regulator — which has raised suspicions of censorship.

In September, Global Voices spoke with Magalhães about his new book, which has only been published in Brazil, and the first year of Jair Bolsonaro's administration. The interview below has been slightly condensed.

Global Voices: In the book, you draw a parallel between Marielle Franco's murder and that of Edson Luís, the teenage student killed by the Rio de Janeiro police in 1968. Was Marielle's death as much of a watershed as was Edson's?

Mário Magalhães: Todo o livro foi escrito à quente [como coluna do The Intercept Brasil e outros inéditos], com exceção do prólogo, que escrevo em 2019, amarrando o ano que tinha terminado. Para mim, a coisa que me impressiona muito, o fato de eu ter escrito na virada de fevereiro para março, contando que dias depois – 28 de março – o assassinato do Edson Luís ia completar 50 anos. Eu terminava falando de índices de violência no Brasil, sobretudo de mortes de jovens negros, que não provocavam uma reação a altura. No final do capítulo eu pergunto: qual seria a reação do Brasil hoje, se acontecesse alguma coisa semelhante?

Desgraçadamente, aconteceu. Duas semanas depois mataram a Marielle e o Anderson Gomes, motorista dela. Pode não ter sido a reação dos sonhos de humanistas, defensores de direitos humanos, mas o 15 de março foi impressionante. Sobretudo no Rio, que era a cidade dela, a mesma cidade que Edson Luís foi assassinado e mesma cidade das maiores manifestações estudantis de 68 contra a ditadura. 

A morte dela virou um símbolo de muita coisa que estava fervilhando no país naquele momento. A morte da Marielle mexe com a letargia, tira de casa quem não saía de casa, ela é um apelo contra o silêncio. É o marco do ano.

Mario Magalhães: The entire book has been written in the heat of the moment, with the exception of the prologue, which I wrote in 2019, tying up the year that had just ended. What strikes me the most is the fact that I wrote [the chapter about Marielle and Edson] between February and March, considering that the 50th anniversary of Edson Luís’ death, on March 28, was then just a few weeks away. I concluded the piece by quoting violence rates in Brazil, especially to young black men, which don't generate the reaction it merits. By the end of the chapter, I ask: how would Brazil react today if something like that happened again?

Disgracefully, it did. Two weeks later, they murdered Marielle and Anderson Gomes, her driver. The incident might not have producd the reaction that humanists and human rights activists have dreamed of, but [the protests of] March 15 were impressive. Especially in Rio, her city, the same city where Edson Luís was killed and the city that held the largest student protests against the dictatorship, in 1968. Marielle’s death became a symbol of many things that were simmering underneath at that time. Her death shook the lethargy, brought to the streets people who usually didn't leave the house, it was an appeal against silence. It was the landmark of the year.

GV: For a country with such short historical memory, how do you see those past cycles repeating themselves in 2018?

MM: O livro é um túnel do tempo porque o Brasil de 2018 juntou muitos tempos históricos. O projeto eleitoral vitorioso é de viúvas da ditadura. É o ano em que ideias do nazifascismo ganham espaço no Brasil. Há uma espécie que a historiografia considerava extinta que é o integralista em ações violentas — o integralismo foi o nazifascismo tupiniquim, que existiu formalmente até ser colocado na ilegalidade em 1938. A gente teve em 2018 integralistas atacando uma universidade federal no Rio, roubando faixas antifascistas e queimando-as em um ritual que lembra muito a liturgia da Ku Klux Klan.

É o ano em que mais uma mentira influenciou uma eleição brasileira, e o livro volta para a década de 1920, onde inventaram cartas falsas de um candidato, Artur Bernardes; vai aos anos 1940, em que inventaram que o candidato, brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes, tinha chamado os brasileiros pobres de “marmiteiros”; vai a 1989, quando inventaram que, se o Lula vencesse o Collor no segundo turno, toda a família de classe média teria que entregar um quarto para uma família sem-terra. Só que nunca houve nada com o volume de mentiras e o efeito do “kit gay” – eu reconstituo a gênese desse boato, que começa na virada de 2010 para 2011. O Bolsonaro inventa o “kit gay” e 84% dos eleitores dele acreditaram que o Fernando Haddad (ex-ministro da educação, que seria responsável pelo material didático nas escolas ensinando sobre diversidade e identidade de gênero) implantaria um “kit gay”. Por isso que acho que há muitos fatores para a vitória do Bolsonaro, mas nenhum tem a importância da eliminação do Lula da corrida eleitoral.

O Datafolha, no fim de agosto, mostrava que Lula tinha aberto 20 pontos sobre Bolsonaro, estava crescendo, mesmo preso, com perspectiva de vencer a eleição no primeiro turno. Inventar que o Lula, que tinha governado oito anos, ia levar mamadeiras em formato de pênis para as creches, não pegaria. Com Haddad, é diferente, era um desconhecido para dezenas de milhões de brasileiros.

MM: The book is a tunnel of time because Brazil 2018 reunited many historical periods. The project that wins the elections is that of the dictatorship’s widows. It’s the year that Nazi fascist ideas gained ground in Brazil. There is species that historiography had long considered extinct, the integralists — the Brazilian version of Nazi fascism, which existed formally until 1938, when it was outlawed. In 2018, we saw integralists attacking universities, stealing antifascist banners and burning them in rituals that resembled the Ku Klux Klan's liturgy.

It’s the year when yet another lie influenced the Brazilian elections, and the book then goes back to the 1920s, when false letters from one of the candidates, Artur Bernardes, circulated; it goes back to the 1940s, when brigadier Eduardo Gomes was falsely accused of calling Brazilians living in poverty “lunchpackers”; it goes back to 1989, when the word on the street was that, if Lula ever won the elections, every middle-class family would have to give away a room in their houses for a landless family. But never before we had seen a volume of lies, or such devastating effects, as what we've had with the “gay kit” — I trace the origins of this rumor, which started in the end of 2010. Bolsonaro invents the “gay kit” farce and 84 percent of voters believed that Fernando Haddad [runner-up in the 2018 elections] would implement it in schools [Haddad served as education minister between 2005-2012, when he attempted, and failed due to social backlash, to roll out a gender diversity education program in secondary schools — ed.]. That’s why I believe that, while there are many factors that explain Bolsonaro’s victory, none are as important as Lula's removal from the presidential race.

A poll from the end of August by [the research institute] Datafolha showed Lula leading with 20 points ahead of Bolsonaro, he was going up on polls, despite the fact that he was in prison, with chances of winning in the first round. If you told people that Lula, who presided the country for eight years, was going to introduce penis-shaped baby bottles in day care centers, no one would have bought it. With Haddad it was different because he was unknown to millions of Brazilians.

GV: You say in the book that there are no doubts that the Workers’ Party’s (PT) engaged in wrongdoing during its 13-year rule. How do you explain Lula's enduring popularity?

MM: O anti-lulismo é uma força de polarização na política brasileira, mas ao mesmo tempo, ele liderava as pesquisas com chance de voltar a ser presidente em 2018. O livro fala de episódios em que o PT, para usar um eufemismo do hoje ex-senador Jaques Wagner, petista, “se lambuzou”. Foi mais do que isso. Houve vínculos do PT com esquemas de corrupção, que existiam havia décadas, e que o PT renovou em alguns casos, mas o prestígio do Lula está diretamente associado a um avanço do Brasil no governo dele. Pela primeira vez na História, mais de 30 milhões foram retirados das linhas mais agudas da pobreza, tem uma série de conquistas sociais.

Se o Lula tivesse concorrido, ele teria sido presidente da República. O livro recapitula uma série de métodos ilegais e imorais da Lava Jato no processo do triplex, que foi o processo que o tirou da eleição. Eu sustento, com base em fatos, que o Lula não teve direito a um julgamento justo. Tem uma síntese disso tudo, que é no final de janeiro de 2018, quando a segunda instância vota o processo, são três juízes do Tribunal Regional Federal da 4ª Região, eles não só mantém a condenação, como aumentam a pena. Um deles diz: “se é réu, é porque alguma coisa aprontou”. Significa que, em nenhum lugar do planeta, em qualquer época da História, um réu poderia ser inocente, porque ao se tornar réu teria cometido algum ilícito. Isso não só é um escândalo lógico, como viola a Constituição que assegura a presunção de inocência.

MM: Anti-lulism is a strong polarising force in Brazilian politics, but at the same time, Lula was leading the polls with chances of being elected president again in 2018. The book remembers episodes when the PT, to use a euphemism by former PT senator and former minister Jaques Wagner, “smeared itself”. It was more than that. The PT was linked to corruption schemes that had been going on for decades, and the party even renewed some of them, while Lula’s prestige is directly associated with Brazil’s advances during his tenure. For the first time in history, more than 30 million people left the most acute poverty lines and there were several social achievements.

If Lula was to run, he would be elected president. The book also recaps a series of illegal and imoral methods used by Operation Car Wash during the proceedings that allege he was owner of the triplex apartment, the one that took him off the presidential race. I sustain that, based on the facts, Lula wasn't granted the right to a fair trial. In January 2018, the appeals’ court ruling not only maintained his sentence, it also increased his jail time (it went from 9 years to 12). One of the three judges said: “if he is on trial, it’s because he did something”. Which means that, nowhere on the planet, in any given time in history, a defendant could ever be innocent, because when they become a defendant they are already guilty. This is not only a logical scandal, it also violates the Constitution which guarantees the presumption of innocence.

GV: The press is a recurring subject of your book. As a reporter yourself, how do you see the coverage of Bolsonaro?  

MM: Em todo o mundo, o Bolsonaro é chamado de candidato de extrema-direita. Há jornal no Brasil que proíbe os repórteres de escreverem isso, está dito isso no livro. Acho importante enfatizar uma coisa: nenhum governo, nenhum regime da História gosta de jornalismo e jornalistas, se esse jornalismo for exercido de modo independente, com espírito crítico, fiscalizando o poder. Nenhum poder de esquerda, de direita, de centro, da orientação que for, gosta.

Só que a gente vem de décadas de relativa tolerância do poder com a atividade jornalística. Com Bolsonaro, em 2018, ele anuncia que isso vai acabar. Tem um capítulo chamado “A imprensa intimidada”, sobre o fato de segmentos jornalísticos parecerem intimidados diante do Bolsonaro. Quando a imprensa fica intimidada, ela deixa de exercer o seu papel histórico. Não adianta bajular Bolsonaro, porque ele não gosta de jornalismo e exige sempre mais. Um jornal pode publicar um editorial elogiando dele, e duas horas depois ele proibir a entrada do repórter do jornal em uma entrevista coletiva – como aconteceu. Bolsonaro é a maior ameaça ao jornalismo brasileiro desde o fim da ditadura.

MM: Everywhere in the world, Bolsonaro is described as a far-right candidate. There are newspapers in Brazil that forbid its reporters of writing this, which I mention in the book. I think it’s important to emphasize something: no government, no regime in history likes journalism and journalists, if such journalism is exercised independently, with critical spirit, overseeing those in power. No power, either from the left, the right, the center or whatever orientation, likes it.

However, we've had decades of relative government tolerance with the journalistic activity. Bolsonaro, in 2018, announced that this will be over. There is a chapter titled “The intimidated press” about how some media outlets seem intimidated by him. When the press is intimidated, it stops playing its historical role. There is no point in flattering Bolsonaro, because he doesn’t like journalism and always demands more. A newspaper may publish an editorial complimenting him in the morning, and two hours later he could forbid one of its reporters from attending a press conference — as it has happened. Bolsonaro is the biggest threat to Brazilian journalism since the dictatorship.

GV: You also say in the book that a Bolsonaro victory would be the hardest blow to Brazilian democracy since 1968, the year when the military dictatorship passed the Institutional Act Number 5 [a decree that severely limited civil liberties]. What do we have in Brazil now, then?

MM: Hoje temos um confronto entre civilização e barbárie. O Brasil de 2019 não é uma ditadura, mas não é uma democracia. O projeto do Bolsonaro, isso está no livro e várias vezes ele falou, é um regime nos moldes daquele que nasceu em 1964. Eu dou um exemplo claro, talvez seja melhor o exemplo histórico. Em 1935, em novembro, os comunistas tentaram um golpe de estado, que eles chamavam de revolução e o governo autoritário de Getúlio Vargas, porém constitucional, chamou de Intentona Comunista, e sobreveio uma repressão política gigantesca. Milhares e milhares de pessoas foram presas, houve tortura, morte, perseguição. Em 1936, o governo de Getúlio não era uma ditadura formal, mas ele cria um ambiente de asfixia das liberdades, ele cria um tribunal de exceção, o Tribunal de Segurança Nacional. A ditadura vai nascer em 1937, quando Getúlio dá um golpe de estado, fecha o Congresso e destrói as instituições.

Eu não sei o que vai acontecer com o futuro do Brasil, mas eu sei que democracia não existe. Na democracia governa quem foi escolhido soberanamente pela vontade popular. A vontade popular em 2018 era eleger o Lula, se essa escolha tem méritos ou deméritos, não trato disso. Mas ela foi proibida de se expressar por decisões judiciais com base em um processo em que o réu, Lula, não teve direito a um julgamento justo. Então, num sistema presidencialista como o Brasil, governa um homem que não era o preferido dos eleitores. Ou seja, a soberania da vontade popular não foi respeitada. Logo, é um governo ilegítimo.

MM: Today we have a confrontation between civilization and barbarie. Brazil in 2019 is not a dictatorship, but it’s not a democracy. Bolsonaro’s project, as I mention in the book and he himself has said several times, is a regime of the same mold of the one that began in 1964. I'll give you a clear historical example. In November 1935, the communists attempted a coup against Getulio Vargas’ authoritarian, yet constitutional, government, and it triggered a massive political repression. Thousands of people were imprisoned, there was torture, deaths, persecution. In 1936, Getulio’s government was not a formal dictatorship, but he created an environment that asphyxiated liberties. There was also an exceptional court, the National Security Court. The dictatorship starts in 1937, when Getulio himself pulls a coup d’état, shuts down Congress and destroys institutions.

I don’t know what is going to happen with Brazil’s future, but I do know that democracy doesn't exist. In a democracy, rules whoever was chosen by the people’s sovereign will. The people’s will in 2018 was to elect Lula, and if that choice has merit or demerits, that's not the matter here. But the popular will was forbidden to express itself by several court decisions based on a legal process in which the defendant, Lula, did not have the right to a fair trial. So, in a presidential system such as Brazil’s, rules a man who was not the voters’ favorite. Which means that the sovereignty of the people’s will was not respected. Therefore, this is an illegitimate government.

GV: Bolsonaro received 57 million votes in the second round of the 2018 elections. How can a country that was going to vote for Lula, according to the polls, ended up electing someone with opposite ideas?

MM: Bolsonaro foi o beneficiário da profunda insatisfação popular com os rumos do Brasil. Em vastos segmentos sociais, em particular aquele com renda familiar de dois a cinco salários mínimos mensais, a intenção de voto em Lula mudou para Bolsonaro. Talvez isso não tenha ocorrido tão intensamente em nenhum Estado quanto no do Rio de Janeiro. O voto em Lula seria um voto de oposição. Com sua ausência, Bolsonaro foi identificado como um outsider oposicionista, o que não era. Até o presidente Michel Temer declarou ter votado nele. Alguns fatores contribuíram fortemente para o triunfo de Bolsonaro: segurança pública em crise (recorde de homicídios); economia em frangalhos (disparada do desemprego); desmoralização da política tradicional; questões de moral e costumes. O antipetismo influenciou o resultado, porém Lula, o petista mais conhecido, venceria a eleição. Lula é eleitoralmente muito maior do que o PT.

MM: Bolsonaro was the beneficiary of a deep popular dissatisfaction with the path the country had taken. In many social segments, particularly those whose family income is of two to five minimum wages, the intent of voting for Lula switched to Bolsonaro. Maybe Rio de Janeiro is the state where this phenomenon was the most intense. A vote for Lula would be an opposition vote. With his absence, Bolsonaro was identified as an outsider and as opposition, which he is not. Even former president Michel Temer declared to have voted for [Bolsonaro]. Some factors contributed strongly for Bolsonaro’s triumph: the public security crisis (with record-breaking homicide rates); an economy in shreds (with skyrocketing unemployment); demoralization of traditional politics; moral and costumes issues. The anti-PT wave influenced the results, but Lula, the most well-known name in the party, would have won the elections. Lula is, electorally, much bigger than his party.

GV: Brazilian journalist Zuenir Ventura has a book named “1968: The year that didn't end.” Is 2018 over, or we are still living in it?

MM: Por décadas 2018 vai continuar. Milhões de brasileiros começam a voltar para a pobreza mais aguda em 2018 e cada vez mais gente volta. Em 2018, o governo eleito anuncia que há sim mais espaço para desmatamento na Amazônia; declara guerra contra a ciência e o corte em ciência e educação; os vencedores da eleição proclamam o projeto liberticida para a cultura brasileira e agora estão desenvolvendo o que chamam de filtros, mas que na verdade é censura.

As consequências de 2018 vão influenciar o Brasil por décadas ou, em alguns casos, não poderão ser reparadas. O que está se queimando na floresta amazônica, isso pode se reflorestar, mas não teremos mais a floresta como era. Gerações vão ser impactadas pela miséria e na diminuição do acesso ao ensino superior. Muitos cientistas estão indo embora, porque não tem como pesquisar e desenvolver pesquisa no Brasil.

MM: For decades on, 2018 will continue. Millions of Brazilians began to go back to extreme poverty in 2018 and that is happening to more and more people. In 2018, the elected government announced that there is still room for deforestation in the Amazon; it declared war against science and announced budget cuts on science and education; the election winners claim a liberticide project for Brazilian culture and are now developing a so-called system of filters, which is in fact censorship.

The consequences of 2018 will influence Brazil for decades to come or, in some cases, will not be repaired. What is burning within the Amazon forest region, you can replant, but it will never go back to what it was. Generations will be impacted by poverty and with the shrinking opportunities to enter university. Many scientists are leaving the country because they can no longer develop their studies and researches in Brazil.

Correction note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ação Libertadora Nacional was of Marxist-Leninist orientation.

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