Weathering the storm

Reflections on the election of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil by Max Leak, who spent Election Day (28 October 2018) with anti-fascists and feminists outside the Brazilian Embassy in London.

Demonstration outside the Brazilian Embassy in London, 28 October 2018. Photo: Taisie Tsikas

The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s next president is a catastrophe so vast it is hard even to take in. A country of 300 million – as large as the United States – will now be subjected to a ruler who openly pledges a return to military violence and the repression of the left. The vilest sections of the alt right will be ecstatic at the elevation of a man who once joked that he “wouldn’t even rape” a particular female adversary, and says he would rather any son of his be killed than turn out to be gay. Bolsonaro’s election is, in its own way, more upsetting than Donald Trump’s was in 2016: while Trump often seems incapable of understanding or altering the dynamics of America’s constitutional system, Bolsonaro has a clear-eyed blueprint for destroying Brazilian democracy.

The very fact of Bolsonaro’s win is nearly as upsetting as its likely consequences. There is no way of minimising the reality that some 57 million Brazilians have voted for a figure who epitomises the reaction and repression of the country’s military establishment, the most brutal and venal wing of its ruling class. This is a devastating blow, although we should also remind ourselves that Bolsonaro’s popularity is the result of a very specific political moment. Few doubt that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”), of the Workers Party, would have swept the election if not for his politically motivated arrest and imprisonment in April by the incumbent right-wing government of President Michel Temer. Moreover, Bolsonaro’s supporters engaged in wanton violence and intimidation during the campaign with the active assistance of the police and military. A more perceptive international media might have queried the legitimacy of an electoral process carried out in these circumstances.

Along with friends, I spent Election Day outside the Brazilian Embassy, on the corner of Trafalgar Square and Pall Mall in Central London. From 10 am onward, an energetic crowd of around 150 people gathered to demonstrate opposition to Bolsonaro. A somewhat smaller crowd of Brazilian nationalists, ranging from the typical angry middle-aged white men to Afro-Brazilian families with young children, gathered to counter-demonstrate. They held placards and banners proclaiming their candidate’s “honesty”, attacking “communism” and lavishing praise on the police and military, as well as Brazilian and Israeli flags (like most of the modern far right, Bolsonaro adores the State of Israel, and finds this a useful cover for his racist views).

When fascists goaded the leftist crowd or attempted to approach, they were blocked and reproached with cries of “Não passarão!” (“They/you shall not pass”), a version of the Spanish Republican “¡No pasarán!” The demonstration continued throughout the afternoon with displays of capoeira and a variety of engaging songs and slogans. The songs included a version of “Bella Ciao” creatively restructured around the slogan “Ele Não!” (“Not him!”) – the battle-cry of the women’s movement against Bolsonaro which has taken shape in Brazil in the last few months. These helped the event retain and build up its crowd, building to perhaps 200 by 5 pm. Attendees carried placards and wore stickers declaring “Marielle presente” and “Mestre Moa presente”, paying respects to the left-wing Rio de Janeiro activist and councillor Marielle Franco and to a much-loved capoeira teacher and community figure in Salvador, both murdered during the campaign by far-right supporters.

One uplifting moment stands out from the day. In mid-afternoon, there was a sudden, amazingly violent rainstorm, with large hailstones pelting down on both demonstrations for several minutes. After hours of tense gridlock, with the two crowds facing each other a short distance apart and the far-rightists trying to goad their opponents into confrontation, Bolsonaro’s fans scattered in search of cover, reassembling some way away from the Embassy. If they had assumed the police would hold their position for them, they were mistaken, and the anti-fascist crowd streamed across and filled the space, grinning and chanting under the rain and hail. Without discussion, we had made a shared commitment to ride out the shower for the small, symbolic victory of having taken the street.

Perhaps many of those there intuited that weathering a literal storm would be a useful mental preparation for the heart-breaking news likely to come that night. Polls left little doubt that Bolsonaro was on course for victory; many of those at the demo had made the same prediction to me three weeks earlier, when I met them on the same pavement on the day of the first round of the election. And yet, I doubt that anyone who attended the action outside the Embassy would regard it as wasted time. A day of solidarity, anger and defiance was the best possible way of bracing ourselves for what was coming.

In the months and years to come, huge numbers of ordinary Brazilians will risk their safety to protest and oppose the monster which is now looming over them. They will be subjected to every physical and psychological violence available to Bolsonaro and his supporters, who will attempt to break their spirit and silence their voices. All socialists in Britain will have a duty to turn out whenever we can to show our love and support for that struggle – doubly so, since we still possess the freedom to do this in relative safety. And at a moment when it often feels like the lights are going out all across the world, we will also feel less frightened, less powerless, for having done so. Even at the darkest of moments, doing something always feels better than doing nothing.

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