Democracy hangs by a thread in Brazil
© Getty images

With just days before Brazilians vote in a presidential run-off election, the country teeters on the edge. Only a few years ago, Brazil was widely considered to be a major success story after years of progressive governance produced enormous gains for working people and Brazil’s most impoverished residents. But following years of economic recession and rising levels of violence, Brazil seems poised to elect a candidate who will continue to divide the country and exacerbate rising inequality.

Jair Bolsonaro, who won the first round of the elections and leads in the polls going into the second, has made repeated racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments. He’s praised Brazil’s brutal former dictatorship, and advocated for a return to the military junta era.

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He dedicated his vote to impeach former President Dilma Rousseff to the colonel responsible for her torture during the dictatorship. He’s told a congresswoman he wouldn’t rape her because she didn’t “merit that.” He’s used homophobic slurs against government officials and attacked Brazil’s LGBT movement. He’s said that descendants of Brazil’s slaves are “not good even to procreate,” and he’s been endorsed by David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Yet these astonishing developments have far less to do with the preferences of the majority of Brazilian voters, and everything to do with the elite hijacking of the country’s political system. We have both been outspoken about the deterioration of democracy in Brazil, which has suppressed people’s aspirations.

Brazilians were once able to climb out of poverty due to effective economic policies put in place by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who now sits in prison without due process. Anti-poverty programs like Bolsa Familia, which won praise from the United Nations, helped to reduce the poverty level by 48 percent from 2003 to 2011, and extreme poverty by 58 percent. The minimum wage went up 58 percent, and overall, Brazil’s workers saw their real wages increase almost 30 percent, which, along with increased education spending, helped reduce drastic inequality.

Then came the right-wing pushback: politicians from opposition parties were able to impeach Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, on charges previously thrown out by public prosecutors. Then this year they were able to exclude the most popular candidate for president, Lula, from the election. This was done ― with the help of a politicized judiciary ― by convicting him of an alleged crime without any material evidence, and then banning him from running for office. To ensure Lula wouldn’t be able to campaign for anyone else, they imprisoned him, despite pending appeals, and restricted his access to visitors and media. On Aug.17, the UN Human Rights Council ruled that Lula should be able to run for president; Brazil’s government ignored this.

After Rousseff’s overthrow in 2016, the new, right-wing, unelected government began sweeping cuts to social spending, reforms that greatly weakened organized labor’s bargaining power, and a far-right-wing social agenda. Most cruelly, it pushed through a constitutional amendment to freeze real spending for 20 years ― a move denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, who says it will “harm the poor for decades to come.”

Child mortality is on the rise due to spending restrictions on health care, leading to easily preventable deaths from the Zika virus and other diseases, with “women and children living in poverty…among those hit hardest, as are Brazilians of African descent,” the UN warns. Cuts to important social safety net programs have hit rural communities especially hard, restricting access to clean water. Poverty is ticking up again.

As we have seen elsewhere, from Europe to the Philippines to the United States, failed economic policies that squeeze the poor and are supported by corporate elites create massive discontent, anger, and frustration that is often channeled by authoritarian demagogues. By banning the most popular candidate from running, Brazil’s ruling class is playing a dangerous game.

But fear need not prevail this time. The Brazilian people have been mobilizing against hate, taking to the streets following the assassination (along with her driver) of Marielle Franco: a gay, Afro-Brazilian city councilwoman who had been a vocal opponent of Brazil’s rampant and racist police violence. A movement has emerged demanding an independent investigation into her murder as the official investigation has produced no clear answers seven months later.

Some 2.5 million women signed onto a petition against Bolsonaro and a Brazilian movement for Black Lives is demanding an end to police killings of thousands of people each year. Brazil’s robust labor movement has taken action against the spending freeze, austerity programs, and efforts to weaken labor unions.

This pro-people, pro-democracy activism must be taken to the ballot box on Sunday. If the Brazilian people do not act now, the country with the second-largest population of people of African descent in the world could have a white-supremacist president. A country with more than 13 percent of people in poverty could soon have a government committed to serving the rich and corporations while cutting social spending. A country where modern-day slavery still  exists in some industries could have a militantly anti-labor government.

On Oct. 28, the choice will be clear. For the future of Brazil, as well as of Latin America and the world, Brazilians must band together and fight for human rights and economic equality over hatred and bigotry.

Pocan represents the 2nd District of Wisconsin and is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Glover is an actor and political activist. He is UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.