Torture-praising politician seizes limelight in Brazil

The growing popularity of a lawmaker who praises torture and military dictatorship is the latest sign of Brazil slipping into unpredictable – and some say dangerous – political territory

Agence France-Presse

5:42:10am April 20, 2016

5:42:10am April 20, 2016

In this file photo, legislator Jair Bolsonaro participates in a session held at Chamber of Legislators in Brasilia, Brazil, April 1, 2014. Fernando Bizerra Jr/EPA

In this file photo, legislator Jair Bolsonaro participates in a session held at Chamber of Legislators in Brasilia, Brazil, April 1, 2014. Fernando Bizerra Jr/EPA

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The growing popularity of a lawmaker who praises torture and military dictatorship is the latest sign of Brazil slipping into unpredictable – and some say dangerous – political territory.

Jair Bolsonaro, a congressional deputy from Rio de Janeiro state, seized the limelight Sunday during a nationally televised vote in the lower house to send President Dilma Rousseff for impeachment.

Taking the microphone, Bolsonaro said he dedicated his vote in favor of deposing Rousseff to "the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra – the terror of Dilma Rousseff."

The message was deliberately shocking: Ustra was a feared secret services chief in the 1964-1985 dictatorship, accused of torturing hundreds of the regime's opponents.

To Roussef in particular, it was a cruel insult: she was imprisoned and tortured in the 1970s as a young Marxist member of an underground armed group.

Rousseff could not bring herself to say Bolsonaro's name on Tuesday, April 19, but said it was "lamentable" to praise a man whom she "knew well" as "the biggest torturer of those times and responsible for many deaths."

But in a country where the president claims a coup is underway, the man who could soon replace her is just as unpopular, and 60% of Congress members are reportedly convicted or being investigated for crimes, Bolsonaro's brand of right-wing toughness appears to have struck a nerve.

Rape, torture, votes

Bolsonaro remains a fringe politician. Most Brazilians put the days of the military dictatorship behind them long ago, picking leftist Luis Inacio Luiz da Silva, then his handpicked successor Rousseff in four consecutive elections.

Most Brazilians are also unlikely to appreciate Bolsonaro's sexist harangues against another female politician, a congresswoman from Rousseff's Workers' Party named Maria do Rosario.

Back in 2003, he yelled that she was a "slut" whom he wouldn't deign to rape, and repeated the insult last year, telling her on the floor of the house: "I would not rape you. You don't deserve that."

He's also said he'd rather see his son die in an accident than be gay.

Still, a surprising number of Brazilians evidently like what they hear – judging by more than just Bolsonaro's 2.8 million Facebook friends.

He retained his Rio seat in the 2014 congressional elections with 464,000 votes, more than any other deputy in the state.

Now commentators are even discussing scenarios where Bolsonaro could convert that momentum into a presidential campaign, calling him a Brazilian Donald Trump – a candidate who gets away with outrageous statements by tapping into the electorate's genuine resentment.

Although polls used to show Bolsonaro trailing behind most potential candidates, a Datafolha survey in April gave him 8%, double his previous score in December.

However modest a figure, it put Bolsonaro in fourth place, far ahead of the 2% for Michel Temer, the current vice president who stands to take over as interim president if Rousseff's impeachment trial goes ahead next month.

Could he deflate?

"After all we have seen in the last months, no one can guarantee he will not get bigger," said Sylvio Costa, founder of politics website Congresso em Foco, adding, "I hope not because he is even more dangerous than Trump."

Others agree.

Bolsonaro has become "the voice, the personification of a lot of radical thinking in the country," said Michael Mohallem, a law professor at Rio's Getulio Vargas Foundation think-tank.

"I don't think a lot of people truly believe he may truly be president or something like that," he added, but the current "madness" is on his side.

Bolsonaro's appeal is partly fueled by the right wing's sense of frustration at being kept out of power for so long, as well as disgust at the governing classes' corruption and incompetence.

However, if Rousseff is suspended for her impeachment trial in the coming days, as expected, the opposition will get one of its own in power – Temer – which could deflate the Bolsonaro balloon.

"Radical positions tend to dissolve a little bit when you have political rotation," Mohallem said.

Costa said he hoped Brazil would never get to the stage where a Bolsonaro presidency becomes viable.

"If the Brazilians elect him," he said, "he could be the last president elected in a democratic way." – Sebastian Smith, AFP / Rappler.com