'Brazilian Black Women Have Been the Safeguard of Democracy': Feminist Gabriela Monteiro on Fighting the Rise of Bolsonaro

In Depth

Brazil is on the verge of electing the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and congressman, as president. Described by many as a combination of Donald Trump and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte for his unabashed embrace of racism, sexism, homophobia, and authoritarian violence, Bolsonaro handily won the first round of the presidential elections held earlier in October and will be facing leftist Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paolo and a former education minister, in the final runoff election on Sunday, October 28. Bolsonaro is currently leading in the polls, for reasons that are complicated but can be boiled down to a mix of disenchantment with the political class, a stagnant economy, rising violence, along with a racist, sexist backlash against the policies of redistribution championed by the Workers’ Party, begun with the election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, in 2002.

Bolsonaro has described having a daughter as “a moment of weakness;” told a woman representative in Brazil’s Congress, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it,” later clarifying that she was also “ugly”; has repeatedly stated that he would prefer his son to die rather than be in a relationship with a man; and that if he saw two men kissing in the street, he’d “beat them up”; and on and on.

Aside from his incendiary rhetoric, Bolsonaro’s rise signals something more troubling—a possible return, in practice if not in exact form, to the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil up to the mid-1980s. Bolsonaro has praised former members of the dictatorship; he once stated that change could only come through “civil war” and “killing,” not voting; and appointed as his running mate a similarly inclined retired military general. In recent days, Bolsonaro has promised his supporters that he will purge the country of his political opponents, saying, “These red outlaws will be banished from our homeland. It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.”

All of this has alarmed people like Gabriela Monteiro, a black feminist scholar and grassroots organizer who lives and works in northeastern Brazil. She, along with hundreds of thousands of women, took part in anti-Bolsonaro protests at the end of September, under the banner of #EleNão, or #NotHim.

Jezebel interviewed Monteiro to better understand the threat that Bolsonaro represents. We spoke about the context of Bolsonaro’s rise in Brazil, the women leading the movement against Bolsonaro, and the role of feminist movements in combating the global rise of authoritarianism.

According to Monteiro, it is largely poor, black Brazilian women who are the most vocal opponents of Bolsonaro. As Monteiro put it to Jezebel, “Brazilian black women have been the safeguard of democracy.”

Our interview, which was conducted over email and WhatsApp, has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

JEZEBEL: Why is Bolsonaro so popular in Brazil right now? What factors have led to his rise?

Gabriela Monteiro: A set of factors paved the shameful rise of a dirty politician like Bolsonaro. Initially, it’s important to consider the historical fragility of the Brazilian democratic process. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. Imagine that 130 years ago, a woman like me could be sold and bought legally.

All the data on social inequalities in the country indicate how the structure and the imaginary of our society, as well as our political system, reflect this colonialist, racist, sexist, and elitist heritage. Brazilian democracy, in addition to being quite young, since it was only in the 1980s that we had the political opening after decades of a military dictatorship, is also very fragile. In 2016, we had a coup in which President Dilma [Rousseff] was removed from power. Bolsonaro took advantage of the moment to gain visibility. The Brazilian media, which is one of the most concentrated in the world—where six families control 70 percent of the press—has, for years, been leading an offensive campaign to destroy the image of President Dilma, President Lula, and the Workers’ Party. The Workers’ Party has become synonymous with corruption, even though it’s by no means the party with more politicians who have been stripped due to corruption.

Bolsonaro has launched himself as a leader free of corruption, although he has already declared that he has evaded taxes and he increased his assets by 432 percent in four years. He sells the image of being a fearless man who speaks “the truth.” He honored in the National Congress a man called Colonel Ustra, who was one of the torturers of President Dilma when she was a political prisoner during the military dictatorship. This construction of the violent patriarch as the savior of the country benefited him.

The public courts responsible don’t punish or prevent These lies from being spread, and a large part of the population believes in fake news

We have a population that has been dealing with a loss of rights since the coup, a weak economy, and a lot of misinformation. One of the definitive factors [of his rise] was the disinformation tactics used in his campaign. An avalanche of lies spread through Bolsonaro’s social media campaign, a kind of enhancement of the strategy that had already been seen in the U.S. in the Trump election—and Steve Bannon is also behind the Bolsonaro campaign. Hundreds of fake news [reports] bombed the population, mainly through WhatsApp, fueling hate speech against the Workers’ Party.

For example, one of the main “arguments” of his followers is that the Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad distributed a “gay kit” in schools forcing the children to “become gay.” That’s the level of filth that we are dealing with. In fact, this refers to the School Without Homophobia Program, created by Haddad as a way to promote dialogue on sexuality and sexual diversity in the country that is number one in the ranking of murders of the LGBTQI population in the world. The public courts responsible don’t punish or prevent these lies from being spread, and a large part of the population believes in fake news.

When you add up all these factors: a country where hatred is not new; the precariousness of lives and working conditions; and intense work of ideological manipulation by media and churches, you have a bomb. And it ended up exploding in the personification of this candidate.

Bolsonaro is not only corrupt and violent, but he is also incapable of formulating minimally intelligent sentences or answering basic questions about economics, for example. Unfortunately, his tactics of spreading violence and fake news have been working.

It seems like part of it is a backlash against the gains made by the leftist Workers’ Party. Is that part of what is happening in Brazil right now?

Definitely. The Brazilian elite hasn’t forgiven the advances we’ve made in terms of reducing inequalities in the country. Although Lula’s government had also benefited entrepreneurs and agribusiness, it’s undeniable that we had a series of public policies never seen in Brazil. The policy of quotas for black people to enter public universities, for example, is an affirmative policy of redress for the historical disadvantages faced by black people in Brazil. The presence of quota students has always made the white elite very uncomfortable.

Bolsonaro has already stated that he would never be attended by one of our black doctors. We had excellent public policies like the Bolsa Família [a financial assistance program], which took countless Brazilian families out of misery and became an international benchmark. Lula and Dilma also prevented the privatization of Brazilian oil, and with that, they raised powerful enemies.

The myth of Brazilian racial democracy was built to keep us all in our “places.” Any movement we make to break with these patterns of submission is strongly repressed

Bolsonaro belongs to a small party that grew in these elections, leveraged by his image. The Workers’ Party has made many mistakes, but it isn’t because of these mistakes that the Party and their leaders have suffered this witch hunt. On the contrary, it is precisely because they touched the neuralgic spots of Brazilian society, like guaranteeing the presence of blacks in universities, rights for domestic workers, and a minimum of dignity for the working class, the rural population.

Can you imagine what it is to this white elite of slave tradition to see the daughter of the maid at the university, or the doorman traveling by plane? This is unforgivable. The myth of Brazilian racial democracy was built to keep us all in our “places.” Any movement we make to break with these patterns of submission is strongly repressed.

Bolsonaro has made so many degrading comments about women, black Brazilians, and LGBT Brazilians that it is hard to keep track. He once told a left-wing congresswoman, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.” Yet a recent poll suggested that 43 percent of women voters would vote for Bolsonaro, compared to 39 percent who said they would vote for the Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad. Why do so many women voters support him?

It’s really hard to witness Bolsonaro’s list of repulsive comments. In a country with serious institutions, he would have been long incarcerated by the statements he made. However, as I have already said, misinformation has been one of his main strategies to confuse public discussion and gain followers. Many people think that he speaks “for exaggeration” or that he should not be taken so seriously, because what they consider important is to vote against the Workers’ Party.

It’s not just women. Unfortunately, the polarization we are experiencing crosses all social, racial, religious lines. These people who support Bolsonaro don’t understand that they are leading the country into a scenario of terror, and that they will sink together.

I believe there is a very important emotional aspect in these elections. There is a cycle that feeds back on misinformation, fear, and hate. Many people are insecure about the future, and they have bought an easy version of blaming a single party for all the problems in Brazil. Also, they have been bombarded for so many years by manipulated information that they haven’t developed a lucid analysis on the crisis of the Brazilian political system and what are the real implications of a possible Bolsonaro election.

We have an openly fascist elite that now feels authorized to antagonize subaltern groups in society in cruel ways. But we also have people who have no power, and because of the absence of a culture of political consciousness, are reproducing the fake news without question

Even within this highly polarized conjuncture, there is no homogeneity within the groups. We have an openly fascist elite that now feels authorized to antagonize subaltern groups in society in cruel ways. But we also have people who have no power, and because of the absence of a culture of political consciousness, are reproducing the fake news without question.

It’s very difficult to construct a contrary argument when practically every point of his campaign is a lie. The truth seems to have been transcended, the facts no longer matter. The fascist package is complete—all lies are used in defense of “God, the Fatherland, and the Family.” We need to deny [false] stories—like Fernando Haddad distributed baby bottles with erotic penis-shaped nipples in schools. It would be comical if it were not tragic. People reproduce such nonsense and are afraid of these invented ghosts. In defense of the “family,” they support a man who defends torture and they relativize his violent statements.

Most of the people who voted for him in the first round are white men with a high school-level education in the Southeast and South regions, the most xenophobic regions of Brazil. And on the other hand, most of the votes for the Workers’ Party came mainly from the Northeast, the most economically disadvantaged region in Brazil. There were also many votes for Haddad from black women and poor women. Not by chance, President Lula is from the Northeast region. Bolsonaro repeatedly offended the Northeastern people—and it was the Northeastern region that prevented his victory in the first round.

There has been a lot of resistance to Bolsonaro. Can you talk about who is part of this movement, and what you have done?

The resistance has been huge and in recent days is getting stronger. Women have an undeniable role in this historical moment. Just as the women in the United States are at the forefront of the anti-Trump demonstrations, here in Brazil, we have the leadership of women against Bolsonaro.

A group of women organized a Facebook group called “United Women Against Bolsonaro,” which quickly came to count four million women. The group suffered successive hacker attacks by followers of Bolsonaro. Even so, it was through this articulation among Brazilian women that the largest mobilization of women that the country has ever seen was realized. On September 29, hundreds of thousands of Brazilian women went to the streets in the great capitals, the cities of the interior, and even in other countries. Under the cries of #NotHim or #EleNão, we held a historic march, which reaffirmed the political project of women in society as an ethical project of respect for diversity and capable of bringing together many kinds of flags.

Bolsonaro is the father of four sons and one daughter, and said that having a female child was a “moment of weakness.” So the message we send to him is that we—an army of “weaks”—are going to take him down.

If he becomes president, what will the impact be, especially for poor, black, women, LGBT Brazilians?

At this moment, it’s fundamental to put our energies into preventing him from being elected, because if he comes to power legitimized by constitutional means, he will have much more support. We’re still in the game, and we’re going to do the possible and the impossible to prevent this from happening. We are all exhausted but also creative and combative in this battle.

However, even if he loses, we have no prospect of reversing these setbacks in the short or medium term. Even with a victory now for the Workers’ Party for president, we have other powers determined to carry on the offensive of the neoliberal project in Brazil. We have to prepare ourselves to face a lot of dirt and violence in the years to come.

But an election of Bolsonaro adds new dangers to our already fragile democratic process. His vice [presidential] candidate is a general who has already admitted the possibility of a “self-coup,” with the support of the armed forces, and Bolsonaro has already spoken about closing the National Congress. It’s no exaggeration to say that we are walking in an abyss, under the threat of a new military dictatorship and with fascism already installed in our society. A society that, as we well know, values some lives less than others.

There have already been many attacks, some fatal, against people who oppose Bolsonaro. Can you share what’s been happening?

Since the first round, dozens of attacks by Bolsonaro followers have been recorded all over Brazil. Just this week, five trans women were murdered while their attackers shouted “Bolsonaro for president” in different cities of the country.

On the night of the first round, one of the main representatives of Brazilian popular culture, Mestre Moa, was murdered in Salvador-Bahia, in the northeast, for having said in a bar that he had voted for Haddad. The Bolsonaro follower stabbed Mestre Moa for that. Mestre Moa was a humble man, black, capoeirista, who did much for black culture in our country. His death generated revolt and popular commotion.

At this moment, we are all at risk in Brazil. A teenage girl wearing a symbol of the #NotHim movement was attacked by Bolsonaro followers who tore her skin, drawing a swastika. The officer responsible for the case had the indignity to say that was a Buddhist symbol of peace.

Our lives are threatened, our institutions fail to protect us, and the project of extermination of the most vulnerable categories of people—which never really ceased—has now completely lost any shame. In his campaign, Bolsonaro promises [to give] weapons to the population. His followers are already walking around armed and threatening, assaulting, and murdering their main targets of hatred: black people, poor, women, LGBT Brazilians. Regardless of the result, this is already the most violent election we have had in Brazil. The dog of fascism will not settle down that easy.

We need to strengthen our transnational feminist networks and to challenge ourselves to take an intersectional approach to the problems we face

Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world. What do you feel needs to be the response of feminist movements?

What’s happening in Brazil is not an isolated case. We are going through a global rise of fascism, with a misogynist and racist moralist discourse. We need to strengthen our transnational feminist networks and to challenge ourselves to take an intersectional approach to the problems we face. Feminisms historically have been movements marked by their creativity. Now it’s time to be boldly inventive.

Indigenous peoples, for example, are one of the groups most threatened by this new face of colonialism and have for hundreds of years been resisting their extermination and the destruction of their territories. Do not trust the hegemonic history that brings us a single and inevitable version of the world as if it is impossible to have other narratives.

The groups that are most vulnerable under these attacks are not by chance the groups that have denounced the bankruptcy of certain social forms and pushed the urgency to think of other models that are more consistent with our identities and our dreams.

Our history of resistance is ancestral

What sustains you?

Brazilian black women have been the safeguard of democracy. After the revolting murder of Marielle Franco, we always say: Marielle lives! And she does, she lives in each one of us. We are the seeds of the fighting legacy she left us. They attack us, and we multiply. [Editor’s note: Marielle Franco was a black, lesbian activist and Rio de Janeiro city councilmember who was assassinated in March of this year.]

Our history of resistance is ancestral. As Conceição Evaristo, a Brazilian black woman and one of the country’s most important writers, once said: “They agreed to kill us. But we agreed not to die.”

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