Brazil's Red-Scare Nostalgia

Last month, more than 142,000 Brazilians signed a petition on the White House website. They asked President Obama to take a stand against the “Bolivarian Communist expansion in Brazil promoted by the administration of Dilma Rousseff.”

She had just been re-elected president by a narrow margin: 51.4 percent against 48.5 percent for the more conservative candidate, Aécio Neves. The petitioners claim that the election wasn’t fully democratic, since electronic voting machines aren’t reliable. They also say that poor people voted for Ms. Rousseff only because of their heavy dependence on social welfare programs, such as Bolsa Família, a monthly family allowance designed to reduce poverty. Those who demand Mr. Obama’s intervention fear that our country will soon become a new Venezuela and call themselves “the promoters of democracy and freedom in Brazil” though, in a slight contradiction, some of them want the military dictatorship back.

According to a recent poll by Datafolha, more Brazilians identify with right-wing ideas, like looser gun restrictions, than they did last year. Although 58 percent of Brazilians believe that poverty relates to a lack of opportunities, 37 percent insist that laziness is the main cause of it. This was a major point of debate during the election: One side argued for meritocracy and less government aid; the other, for more public spending to reduce inequality.

The new right wing is now arguing that Ms. Rousseff’s government is corrupt, pointing to a number of vote-buying and bribery scandals over the last decade. As a result, some call for Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment. She would then be replaced by Vice President Michel Temer, from a center-right party called PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party).

Others say we need to remove our corrupt government by force. Although the idea is eventually to hand the power back to civilians and hold a new election, they talk nostalgically about the military period, when schools “didn’t teach about homophobia and safe sex, they taught Portuguese and math,” as one congressman said.

Both groups have organized street rallies in São Paulo. On Nov. 1, 2,500 people gathered, and 5,000 showed up for a second rally two weeks later. The most recent, last weekend, had only about 500.

Corruption is not what the right wing fears most. Just as in the ’60s, the Brazilian middle and upper classes are intensely afraid of the Communist threat. Some say this was the same atmosphere that led to the military coup in March 1964, when a left-wing president was labeled a Socialist, deposed and replaced by a military dictatorship that lasted more than 20 years.

At one rally, people fanatically chanted the national anthem, calling themselves the only true patriots. There were even some neo-Nazis in the mix, and a skinhead with brass knuckles. Unwary passers-by were yelled at just for wearing red clothes. One bystander, a 33-year-old lawyer, had a T-shirt that portrayed Marx, Lenin, Castro, Mao and Stalin merrily drinking. Someone told him, rather nonsensically, “You’re in a free country, go to Cuba.”

In another incident, a politician from the Brazilian Communist Party stood in a bar wearing a hammer and sickle T-shirt when the rally passed by. A man started shouting to him and asked if he had a mortadella sandwich from the government. “Just give him a mortadella sandwich and he will turn to our side,” said the man sarcastically, calling the politician a “mortadella-eater.” (In Brazil, mortadella is regarded as a poor man’s food.) Another one yelled: “Give me your apartment! Don’t you want to share things?”

The truth is that Ms. Rousseff’s Workers Party has been in power for more than 11 years and has so far failed to establish even a hint of the dreaded dictatorship of the proletariat. On the contrary: The once radical party has come to look increasingly centrist, adopting many of the practices of its neoliberal rivals. It has employed orthodox economic policies in order to maintain market stability; it hasn’t nationalized any assets but rather favored the privatization of ports, highways and airports; and Ms. Rousseff’s new ministers include an ally of agribusiness and nemesis of environmentalists, Katia Abreu, as agriculture minister, and a fiscally conservative banker, Joaquim Levy, as finance minister. This year, the profits of Brazilian private banks increased 26.9 percent. According to the “Top 1,000 World Banks” survey, Brazil is ranked seventh in banking profits.

So it’s safer to say that Ms. Rousseff is more of a centrist than a Bolshevik.

In spite of that, lots of people keep on fearing the Communist boogeymen and are ready to take action on this matter, either through street rallies, pleas to the army, petitions to the United States or even by moving out of the country. “Brazilian people are feeling hopeless,” said an actor at an event a while ago. “Every day I see people wanting to move to Miami.”

If Mr. Obama won’t come to them, they will go to Mr. Obama.

Vanessa Barbara, a novelist, edits the literary website A Hortaliça and is a columnist for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

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