Vulnerable Brazilians witness history repeat itself

With the election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil, the predominantly poor, darker-skinned communities will once again shoulder the burden of economic stagnation and counterproductive governance as scapegoats at the hands of institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned brutality.

As a doctoral student at Oxford, I devoted several years to researching Rio de Janeiro’s urban shantytowns, known as ‘favelas’, in order to understand the rise of drug gangs and their ability to establish what essentially amounts to autonomous territorial rule in the face of counterproductive state governance. Despite excessive poverty and violent skirmishes, my fieldwork intervals between 2011 and 2016 appear, in retrospect, to have occurred during the proverbial calm before the storm, thus offering interesting glimpses into the present, past, and future.

In Rio’s favelas, this was a period of relative stability. The economic boon of the 2000s and the prospect of hosting both the World Cup and the Olympics stimulated an upbeat vibrancy that even penetrated the perennially neglected favelas, estimated at 2 million inhabitants in Rio alone. In an effort to root out drug gangs, the favelas were subjected to new forms of community-based policing, particularly aimed at replacing militarized approaches with more benign ‘Pacification Police Units’ (UPP). Complementary to these interventions, locally implemented social programs, including medical care and vocational training, as well as federal programs like the bolsa familia sought to eradicate poverty.

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Certainly, not all of these initiatives were successful. Many were structurally flawed from the outset and local residents tended to regard them, appropriately perhaps, with irreverence and skepticism. Nevertheless, Brazil’s establishment seemed to indicate a political will, or at least inclination, to bridge longstanding divides and inequalities tearing at the foundations of Brazil’s social fabric.

Following Sunday’s presidential election, I fear deeply for favela residents. If Bolsonaro follows through on his violent rhetoric and bigotry, it will not only accentuate longstanding undercurrents of racial discrimination and socioeconomic marginalization but, more ominously, will reawaken latent tendencies of institutionalized repression that survived the fall of the dictatorship in 1985.

Haunted by ghosts of a violent past 

Throughout his electoral campaign, Bolsonaro repeatedly evoked images of Brazil’s former military dictatorship, while establishing eerie parallels to its brutal tactics. Already in the 1960s, far-right politicians and military leaders began seizing power under the guise of protecting Brazilian state interests from what they presented as a unified ‘socialist threat’ of left-wing politicians and labor unions. This resulted in the ascendance of a repressive regime espousing a violent linha dura (hard line) in the name of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’.

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While this enabled Brazil to embark on an economic development program that led to a brief economic ‘miracle’, the subsequent downturn initially triggered by the 1973 oil crisis reverberated throughout state and society. Despite further structural adjustments in line with IMF recommendations, hyperinflation and severe economic stagnation ultimately resulted in ‘the lost decade of the 1980s’.

The effects were felt hardest by the most vulnerable segments of society. As debt began to rise, fiscal austerity, low minimum wages, and limited social security exacerbated inequality. While income among the top 5% of earners increased during the military dictatorship, wages among the bottom 80% declined significantly. The volatile situation prompted labor strikes and criminal violence, especially bank robberies and looting of supermarkets. Both favela territories and populations expanded dramatically.

In response, efforts were made to mask economic stagnation and combat systemic corruption with increased repressive tactics. Prime targets included the usual suspects: Dissenters and critics disappeared, political activists and union leaders were imprisoned, and curtailed freedom of expression stifled education and culture. As crime rates soared, particularly in urban areas, this was not seen as a consequence of failed policies but rather presented as the ‘actual’ culprit via state propaganda. Meanwhile, what began as hardly more than a ragtag collection of left-wing activists advocating for greater social justice, increasingly mobilized into reciprocally violent guerrilla factions resisting dictatorial rule.

As prison populations swelled, political prisoners and common street criminals converged in Rio’s prison cells to eventually reemerge as one of South America’s most notorious criminal organizations, the Comando Vermelho or CV. The CV began controlling many of Rio de Janeiro’s most strategically-located favelas as they offered lucrative outlets for illicit goods and later served as transshipment nodes. Conveniently, as the Cold War began to subside and the democratization process in Brazil took hold, Brazil’s internal war against its domestic ‘communist threat’ increasingly turned into a war on drugs and crime. With the collapse of the old enemy’s raison d’être, a new menace had to be identified to legitimate a persistently violent and repressive state apparatus.

A path-dependent future? 

“History repeats,” Karl Marx famously noted, “first as tragedy, then as farce.” It is no accident then, that so many parallels are emerging with the election of Bolsonaro – both in terms of structural context and rhetorical content. In many ways, Bolsonaro seems to be tapping into latent sentiment that has laid dormant since the turn towards re-democratization in the late 1970s but never completely subsided, particularly within the security apparatus.

Indeed, marginalization and tacit racism remained the status quo vis-à-vis the favelas well into the so-called ‘democratic’ phase. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, extrajudicial executions, resistance killings, disappearances, and torture remained the norm, even for favela residents not directly involved in crime. Local resentment against this status quo, however, only served to strengthen and further entrench drug gangs, while undermining the legitimacy of the state. In short, despite now being repackaged and resold as a panacea by Bolsonaro, violent, racist, and repressive policies have repeatedly proven counterproductive.

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Unfortunately, this right wing tough-talk has found an admirer in the White House who uses similar language to rile up supporters against poorer and darker demographics. The difference is perhaps that, in the United States, institutional safeguards remain capable of containing the President’s worst impulses. Conversely, Bolsonaro seems to be stepping into a path-dependent apparatus replete with institutionalized remnants of dictatorial rule just waiting to be unleashed. The vulnerable populations in the favelas are likely to be the first to feel its wrath.

Christopher Marc Lilyblad is Visiting Research Fellow and Research Associate at the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of Conflict Platform. His publications on Brazil’s favelas include the journal article ‘Illicit Authority and its Competitors: The Constitution of Governance in Territories of Limited Statehood’, published in Territory, Politics, Governance.