“The Big Honcho suppressed all the newspapers that risked timid repairs to his management, and promised that factories would produce better wrapping paper. He then closed most magazines, including those dedicated to beekeeping and winter fabrics. Finally, he got rid of school publications, which, as is known, impress children’s minds. Concluded these tasks, the Big Honcho sent emissaries to international credit agencies to request subsidies that would stop the inexplicable rise in illiteracy.” Thus wrote the Argentinian writer David Lagmanovich (1927-2010) in his book Historias del Mandamás (Big Honcho Stories.)
In January 2010, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President, suggested that the state should censor textbooks to promote conservative values. This was just one of many attacks on democracy carried out by the Bolsonaro government. On February 7, 2020, a wide array of Brazilian intellectuals including Sebastiao Salgado, Arnaldo Antunes, Djamila Ribeio, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, and Petra Costa, among 2,000 others, wrote an op-ed article in which they denounce the Bolsonaro’s government intention to censor textbooks, spy on teachers and repress minority groups. The Brazilian intellectuals asked for international support to reign in these abuses.
They cite, among many other facts, that on January 16, 2020, Bolsonaro and Roberto Alvim, the then secretary of culture, filmed a joint broadcast that set out their ideological plans for the country. During a video announcing a national arts award, Alvim made incidental mentions to Nazi principles and used phrases from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist. Only after international outrage and condemnation did Alvim step down.
Attacks against the media by the Bolsonaro government are systematic. In 2019 alone, more than 208 attacks on media outlets and journalists were reported in Brazil. In January 2020, the prosecutor’s office conducted a baseless investigation into the American journalist Glenn Greenwald for his participation in an alleged conspiracy to hack the cellphones of Brazilian government officials. Greenwald had been conducting an investigation of corruption and political bias among Brazilian prosecutors and judges.
At the same time, the Bolsonaro government has led a systematic attack on respected cultural institutions in the country through funding cutbacks and censorship. In an eerie resemblance to what is happening in the United States, the Bolsonaro government denies global warming and its dangerous consequences such as ever more frequent forest fires. In addition, it disregards environmental preservation efforts carried out by indigenous communities. Bolsonaro is an open admirer of President Donald Trump.
In an evident move to strengthen its dictatorial characteristics, government leading officials, plus the President’s sons, are advocating for a return to the military dictatorship-era law AI-5 (Institutional Act Number 5) originally issued in 1968 by the military regime ruling the country. According to that law, government authorities are allowed to close congress, disregard court orders and suspend constitutional rights, all in the name of restoring order to the country.
The Bolsonaro government is intent on creating social disorder and violence to justify the implementation of harsh measures against political opponents and bring back the military-era measures against democracy and human rights. This was underscored by the President’s son, Eduardo, when he admitted that they crave violence and disorder to justify repressive measures.
These are difficult times for the Brazilian people. If Brazil’s Big Honcho continues his attacks on progressive people and institutions, he will irreparably damage the rule of democracy and human rights in that suffering country.
César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.