On the wall of Jair Bolsonaro’s office in a modernist annex of Brazil’s Congress hang five faded black-and-white portraits. They are memoirs of a time many Brazilians would prefer to forget, when military generals ruled the country from 1964 until 1985 and the cost of insurrection was kidnap, torture and secret execution.
Bolsonaro, the de facto front runner for the Brazilian presidential election that begins on Oct. 7, is the foremost apologist for that era. He has made a career eulogizing its abuses and–for a decade after the return of democracy in 1989–calling for its reinstatement. Today he is proud of his support of the regime he served as an army captain.
Now, with Brazil mired in a profound political crisis that has left many citizens despairing of its leaders, the Rio de Janeiro Congressman–long a marginal figure–says he alone can solve the problems of the largest nation in Latin America and be trusted to protect its youthful democracy. A growing share of Brazilians are willing to take that chance.
It’s hard to overstate the rage and disgust at the establishment in this country. Since the last election, a sprawling probe into corruption at the state oil giant has led to the impeachment of one President, the jailing of another and the disintegration of a fragile faith in the political class. Brazil has suffered its worst recession in history. With public services crippled by a lack of funds and rampant crime, 7 in 10 Brazilians say they have no trust in any political party.
This has allowed Bolsonaro to assume the mantle of a strongman outsider, rallying against corruption, violence and the media. Newspapers have nicknamed him the Trump of the Tropics for his perceived similarities to the populist U.S. President. Like Donald Trump, he has struggled to find a running mate, with his first three choices turning him down. He also intends to withdraw Brazil from the Paris Agreement and weaken environmental regulations. His plans on tax, trade and debureaucratization might as well have been copied from Trump. In an interview with TIME in his Brasília office, the 63-year-old welcomes the comparison. “I’m not richer than him. That’s all I do not admire,” he says.
Trump may be politically incorrect, but Bolsonaro goes way, way further. In this interview alone, he advocated the possibility of unbridled state violence; equated homosexuality with pedophilia; and defended Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose henchmen raped women with dogs, as well as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has boasted of personally killing criminal suspects.
He has a long history of invective against gays, racial minorities and women. In 2014, he told a Congresswoman, “I wouldn’t rape you because you do not deserve it.” Yet after spending decades in the political wilderness, the candidate for the right-wing Social Liberal Party is now being courted as a serious player in Brasília, and is feted by crowds of thousands on the road.
The pollsters’ front runner in Brazil’s election, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, launched his campaign from a prison cell, where he is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption and money laundering. He is highly unlikely to be allowed to run. Bolsonaro is in second place. In an election where 1 in 5 voters said they would spoil their ballots, that makes him a more-than plausible contender.
“It is one thing for the U.S. to have a pariah President, but it would be another thing for Brazil,” says Anthony Pereira, director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London. The costs to its economy and world standing would be significant, he adds. “This is probably one of the biggest tests Brazil’s democracy has faced.”
With Bolsonaro threatening to greatly increase the military role in civilian government and radically remake the Supreme Court, former Chief Justice Joaquim Barbosa has warned of a potential military coup. Is that risk real? “Yes, of course,” says the center-left Ciro Gomes, a presidential rival. “We are in Latin America.”
The bloody, U.S.-backed dictatorships that flourished across Latin America in the late 20th century have faded into history. Until Venezuela’s recent slide toward autocracy, all the countries bordering Brazil were clearly–if imperfectly–democratic.
But when Jair Bolsonaro was a young man, Brazil was governed by a military dictatorship, which overthrew the elected left-wing government of João Goulart in 1964. Bolsonaro served as an army captain under a regime whose 21 years in power were marked by human-rights abuses and suppression of freedom of speech.
Brazil began the process of returning to a civilian government in 1985, but against the backdrop of economic contraction and soaring inflation. After Bolsonaro was elected to Congress in 1991, he called for the return of military rule. In 1999, he followed up by calling for a “civil war” in Brazil that would kill “about 30,000,” starting with then President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. He also pledged to close down Congress if elected President. “There would be a coup the same day,” he said.
Asked about those statements now, Bolsonaro says he has moved on. “People evolve. I am not a troglodyte,” he says. “It’s been a long time since I touched the subject.”
In the early years of the 21st century, Brazil began to benefit from democratic rule. Under the eight-year presidency of Lula–once dubbed the world’s most popular politician by President Obama–the economy boomed and millions were lifted out of poverty. But the country began to fall apart soon after the re-election of Lula’s chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, to a second term in 2014. Operation Car Wash, a federal investigation into the state-controlled conglomerate Petrobras, grew into possibly the world’s largest corruption probe and exposed billions of dollars in breathtaking graft, igniting public anger. Scores of politicians, officials and businessmen were caught up in allegations of bribery involving cash payouts, sports cars, private jets and high-class prostitutes.
The effects of that corruption, combined with Brazil’s worst-ever recession, crippled many public services. In Rio de Janeiro, where Bolsonaro is the most popular of 46 federal deputies, police had no fuel for patrol cars, hospitals lacked basic medication and street crime soared. Public anger was enough to sweep Rousseff to impeachment in 2016 on the suspicion that she must have been complicit.
Her successor, Michel Temer, reined in the police pursuing Car Wash while twice dodging a corruption trial himself. His approval rating stands at 4%. Lula, meanwhile, was jailed in April after a prolonged televised standoff. He says his prosecution is intended to stop him from becoming President.
As the corruption crisis and the economic downturn has played out over the past four years, Bolsonaro has found his popularity spiraling upward. Highly active on social media, he has built upon the base of police and military voters that has kept him in Congress for almost three decades. Polls suggest 60% of his supporters are under-34s, who are often highly disillusioned but too young to remember the military regime. Indeed, public opinion has actually turned away from democracy. Only 56% of Brazilians now say it is “always the best form of government.” Small but noisy protests calling for military rule have sprung up.
“Although there is a certain popular outcry for military intervention, from what I see, no one in the armed forces wants to launch it, as for us it would be an adventure,” Bolsonaro says. “I think politicians and the people have to find a solution for Brazil in the democratic way.”
He does, however, plan to significantly increase the role of armed forces in government and society. “We intend to have 15 ministers, and about five or six would be generals, for sure,” he says, citing defense, transportation, infrastructure and education. “You have to show that you want a government with seriousness.” By convention, military personnel have largely stayed away from top ministerial roles since the dictatorship. He also recently proposed increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices from 11 to 21, in a move that echoes a 1965 diktat of the dictatorship.
Can he confirm he would not instigate a military regime if elected President? “No, there is no such risk. There is no such risk,” Bolsonaro says. If elected, he insists, the next presidential elections would happen as normal in 2022. “The only modification I would make is to introduce paper voting, to end electronic voting. We distrust the electronic vote here. That’s the only difference.” So committed is he to democracy, he adds, that he is considering a “political reform proposal to limit a President to one term only, beginning with mine.”
But the five portraits remain on his wall. Under that regime, nuns were raped. Men were castrated. Mothers were mutilated in the presence of their children. In 2014, Brazil’s National Truth Commission found the regime responsible for the deaths or disappearances of 434 of countrymen and the torturing of at least 1,843 others. But because of an amnesty law passed in 1979, no one has ever been convicted.
For Bolsonaro, the regime was justified to maintain order and avoid a communist “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the midst of the Cold War. He advances the revisionist notion that Brazil’s military regime was not a dictatorship, and suggests there was no substantial censorship of the press. “Nothing here was controlled,” he says.
The hundreds killed under the regime were combatants in a war, he argues. “[The U.S.] did not kill anyone when you went to Afghanistan? Here it happened, it was combat,” he says. “Look, you killed [Osama] bin Laden. Why did you not catch bin Laden alive?”
I begin to suggest the distinction might be in a dictatorship killing its own citizens. “No, no, no, no. What is the difference? What is the difference?” he says. Brazil is not the only country that had to take such extreme measures, he argues. Chile’s Pinochet, for example, who killed 2,279 opponents, “did what had to be done,” Bolsonaro says. “Chile went forward. So much so that Pinochet has always been respected there.”
Despite Bolsonaro’s prior support for military rule, analysts agree that a coup is unlikely in Brazil. But few believe the country would be unaffected by a Bolsonaro presidency. “[It] would be revolutionary for contemporary Brazilian society,” says Jeffrey Lesser, director of the Halle Institute for Global Research and Learning at Emory University. “There is little doubt that if elected, he would seek to diminish checks and balances.”
Bolsonaro has pledged to aggressively strengthen law and order in a country where a record 63,880 people were murdered last year, a rate some six times as high as in the U.S. He says he wants to loosen gun-control laws and give police more power to kill suspects in “self-defense.” He adds, “Nobody wants to let a cop kill, but I want to give him carte blanche not to die.” Some might say Brazilian police already kill with impunity: they were responsible for 5,144 deaths in 2017; most were young, black males. 367 police were also killed.
The high murder rate in Brazil has been driven by drug crime, an area where Bolsonaro favors a heavy-handed approach. He says Philippine President Duterte, responsible for thousands of extrajudicial executions in his war on drugs, “did the right thing for his country.” If Brazil reached a similar level of violence, he says, “you’d have to take action.”
He would also govern as a social conservative, and LGBT groups fear a repressive environment. Bolsonaro has stated that he would rather his son die in an accident than be gay, and would punch two men if he saw them kissing in the street. It’s a position he defends in his interview with TIME. “I do not kiss my wife on the street. Why face society? Why take that into the school? Little children of 6 or 7, watching two men kiss as the government wanted them to do. Is this democracy?”
Visibly struggling to contain his temper, he asserts angrily that most gays will vote for him, and then pivots to pedophilia. “So let’s respect the pedophile’s right to have sex with a 2-year-old? Would that unite [Brazil]?” But, he adds, “if anyone interferes into the private life of two people, I will defend the right of those two people between their four walls. That is no problem.” So he would be the President for all Brazilians? “Yes.”
Gomes, the left-wing candidate currently in fourth place in the polls, says Bolsonaro’s candidacy is drawing intolerance and bigotry out into the open–much as the Nazi Party in Germany did in the 1930s. Brazil must beware the “egg of the serpent of Nazism, of fascism, that we must treat as a serious threat,” he says. “Of course, it is an exaggerated comparison, but the values of intolerance, hate, misogyny, discrimination against gays and women, militarism, all this is very powerfully there, galvanizing around this caricature [of Bolsonaro],” he adds.
It’s hard to predict what will happen on Oct. 7, when Brazilians go to the polls in a first round of voting. Although the U.N. Human Rights Committee has asked for Lula to be allowed to run, most expect he will be banned. His center-left supporters may flock to his running mate Fernando Haddad, or Gomes, or environmental candidate Marina Silva, currently in third place. But one poll suggests that half of all Brazilians are undecided. Bolsonaro, currently polling at 21%, has a shot of reaching at least the Oct. 28 runoff vote. The presidency is within striking range.
As President, Bolsonaro would struggle to find support in Brasília. His party has only 9 of 513 seats in the lower house of parliament and none in the upper house. In 27 years in Congress, he has authored few successful bills, and has barely any allies. The pressure to form alliances might draw him closer to the center.
But the available evidence suggests that Bolsonaro is resistant to change. His opinions, and his outrage tactics, have sustained him for over three decades and are now carrying him toward the highest office in the land. He wears them like a badge of honor. Along with the portraits of the former generals, his congressional quarters are decorated with military memorabilia. “I am a captain of the army,” he told journalists in 2017. “My specialty is to kill.”
Did he mean that literally? No, he says, he did not see combat. “If I had participated, I would have killed someone,” he adds. “I would like to have had that experience of combat. I would have liked to.”
This appears in the September 03, 2018 issue of TIME.
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