Why Aren’t Brazilians Protesting?

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil posing for a selfie in November. Despite being surrounded by scandal and corruption, he has been able to suppress dissent. Credit Adriano Machado/Reuters
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil posing for a selfie in November. Despite being surrounded by scandal and corruption, he has been able to suppress dissent. Credit Adriano Machado/Reuters

This year has been marked by widespread social convulsion in Latin America.

Since mid-October, Chileans have been in the streets; what started as demonstrations over a subway fare hike quickly broadened into protests over enormous economic inequality. The right-wing president, Sebastian Piñera, ordered a militarized police force to suppress the protests, causing more than a dozen deaths and the partial blinding of more than 200 people.

In Colombia, students, workers and indigenous people have been demonstrating since late November against rumored pension cutbacks and changes to labor laws. Protesters accused the center-right president, Iván Duque, of failing to address issues like corruption, economic inequality and the murder of human rights activists.

In Ecuador, too, there has been civil unrest over fuel price increases and new austerity measures. Massive protests have also rocked Paraguay, Peru, Haiti, Bolivia and Venezuela.

So where, amid all this, is Brazil?

There is certainly plenty to protest in Latin America’s biggest country. We have a notoriously clueless president who recently claimed that the actor Leonardo DiCaprio contributed to the fires in the Amazon rainforest. Seriously. At first, President Jair Bolsonaro tried to conceal the spike in fires that he himself helped bring about; when that plan failed, the next logical step was blaming nongovernmental organizations and a Hollywood star for the terrible destruction

Taking office in January, Mr. Bolsonaro’s government set about systematically dismantling all state agencies that enforce environmental protection and indigenous rights, empowering illegal ranchers, loggers and miners. As of October, the Ministry of Agriculture had approved 382 new pesticide products, many of which are banned in Europe and have been deemed highly hazardous. Two months ago, after a mystery oil spill polluted more than 1,000 miles of the country’s most beautiful beaches in northeast Brazil, the government inexplicably implied Greenpeace might have been responsible. (As far as I know, no one has pointed the finger at Brad Pitt, yet.)

Want more? A group of Brazilian lawyers and former ministers are seeking to indict Mr. Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court for encouraging the genocide of indigenous people and for failing to protect the forests they depend on. According to the Indigenous Missionary Council, an advocacy group connected to the Catholic church, there were by September of this year 160 invasions of indigenous reserves by those seeking to exploit their resources. During the whole of 2018, there were 109.

This government has also approved a pension reform that will increase social inequality: Rural workers, women and the poor will be hardest hit. (That’s not just my opinion; the French economist Thomas Piketty, among others, thinks so too.)

There aren’t any silver linings. For a president who ran on the promise of fighting corruption, Mr. Bolsonaro is remarkably surrounded by scandal. One of his sons, Flávio, a federal senator, is being investigated for embezzlement and money laundering. Another, Carlos, a councilor in Rio de Janeiro, has been implicated in improprieties relating to his council office. And Mr. Bolsonaro’s third son, Eduardo, was nearly appointed ambassador to the United States; his only credentials were having flipped burgers as an exchange student in Maine, and having visited Colorado once. “I don’t think it’s nepotism,” said President Trump, who endorsed the nomination. (The idea was later discarded.)

Many members of the cabinet — the ministers of tourism, economy, agriculture, environment, security and health among them — are also reportedly involved in corruption scandals. Mr. Bolsonaro’s own chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, admitted he pocketed slush funds from a company in 2014. The confession never led to an investigation; the justice minister Sérgio Moro explained that Mr. Lorenzoni had already acknowledged his past errors and apologized. (Most importantly, he got a tattoo with a Bible verse on his arm.)

This should all be more than enough to flood the streets with pissed-off citizens, clenched fists in the air, furiously shouting chants that rhyme “police” with “violence.” Right? So why are Brazilian streets so calm?

Perhaps it’s because of the government’s terrified pre-emptive reaction to the wave of protests sweeping Latin America. In late October, the president revealed that the government was monitoring political developments and that the army was prepared to intervene. One month later, Mr. Bolsonaro submitted a bill to expand the so-called “excludente de ilicitude” — an article in Brazil’s criminal code that allows impunity for some illegal acts in special circumstances, including those practiced by law enforcement officers. This would give a legal cover to the military to shoot and kill during protests.

Both the economy minister and the almost-ambassador Eduardo Bolsonaro have suggested that if Brazilians tried to mimic their neighbors, the government would answer with a new “AI-5” — that is, a new version of the decree issued by the military in 1968 that dissolved Congress, suspended many constitutional guarantees and curtailed press freedom, thus institutionalizing censorship and torture.

The message is clear: Whatever happens, Brazilians must stay put.

Maybe the thinking is that our problems will cancel each other out. There’s no need to worry about pensions if we all die early from eating food full of pesticides anyway, right?

It’s certainly a creative way to suppress discontent. But can it last while the rest of the continent is on fire?

Vanessa Barbara is the editor of the literary website A Hortaliça, the author of two novels and two nonfiction books in Portuguese, and a contributing opinion writer.

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