Authoritarian leaders tend to seek to hold on to power by any means they deem necessary—whether through censorship, media control, or coups. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is one of those leaders. And some of his government’s most recent projects as well as threatening declarations that he could use the armed forces to guarantee law and order (aside from the meddling in the Army) put Brazil’s democracy at even greater risk.
On May 23, active duty General and former Minister of Health, Eduardo Pazuello, took part in a political act alongside Bolsonaro. According to the military code of conduct, it is a transgression of the rules for active military personnel to participate in political acts.
The Army immediately opened disciplinary proceedings against Pazuello and contrary to expectations, as well as to the dismay of several retired generals, the decision was contrary to punishment. Active-duty generals consulted by the Brazilian press also demonstrated their annoyance at what appears to have been a direct intervention by the president, a former army captain, to free his ally from punishment—also setting a dangerous precedent and breaching the Army’s chain of command.
The decision is dangerous and shows that Bolsonaro can turn the Armed Forces into a private militia, as pointed out by philosopher Luiz Felipe Pondé.
O exército decidiu não punir Pazuello. Agora é oficial: infelizmente o exército é a milícia do Bolsonaro . A Venezuela é aqui . O exército decidiu enterrar o país .
— Luiz Felipe Pondé (@lf_ponde) June 3, 2021
And the intervention comes alongside a series of initiatives and attitudes of the president that point to an attempt to “Venezuelize” the country, that is, to stretch institutions to the maximum in order to take absolute control.
And we can clearly see the effects of such Venezuelanization in the letter signed by the leadership of the armed forces, aggressively criticizing the president of the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (CPI, in the Portuguese acronym), Senator Omar Aziz, that investigated the way in which the Bolsonaro government has dealt with the pandemic and accused him of “disrespecting” the Armed Forces.
The CPI has uncovered the names of several military personnel involved in cases of corruption in the purchase of overpriced vaccines—called the “rotten side of the Armed Forces” by Aziz. The fear is that the armed forces, embroiled in corruption scandals, will put themselves on the defensive and further side with Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro has been trying in every way to ensure his perpetuation in power. The show of force and control of the armed forces is just his latest action. Since being elected, he has also clashed with the press, threatening journalists and even cutting funding. One of his latest stunts, in April, was threatening to tax books —which are already expensive— as a way of limiting access to information and culture.
The proposal comes from the team of the Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, who, a month later, said that the proposal was “taken out of context.” In typical government fashion, unpopular or frankly absurd proposals are vented to the media as a way of testing the response and also as a form of provocation, to be disproved later and thus allowing the government to accuse the media of spreading disinformation or of acting as opposition to Bolsonaro.
No matter whether the proposal will actually be taken forward or was just another form of provocation, the fact remains that there are many forms of censorship, and the idea unsurprisingly crossed Bolsonaro’s mind.
Authoritarians are often terrified by books, by ideas that could challenge them, that could prove them wrong or at least make it harder for anyone to believe them and their promises. Brazil has already gone through a dictatorship (1964-1985), when books, music and films were widely censored.
It’s easy to guess Bolsonaro’s opinion on Brazil’s Military Dictatorship. But another recent proposal seems even more threatening—and serious.
Since the investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic was announced in early April, supporters of the president have been deleting videos from their YouTube channels and posts from social media. We are talking about hundreds of videos promoting “early treatment” for COVID-19 (such as the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin), not believing in masks and social isolation, and on the severity of the pandemic from channels with, sometimes, millions of subscribers.
This is not the first time Bolsonaro’s supporters deleted videos from YouTube, but is rather the continuation of a painstaking process to tackle fake news in Brazil. So far, it’s been unsuccessful.
As a response, Bolsonaro is preparing a decree that would virtually prohibit social networks from deleting posts or banning channels and users without a court order, opening the door to an even greater flood of fake news. His idea is to prevent big tech from being able to moderate content and allow them to remove only certain contents to a very limited extent: when there is a violation of the Child and Adolescent Statute, at the request of the user or a third party, or when a post, for example, constitutes a crime.
In other words, posts on “early treatment,” preaching that masks aren’t necessary, or conspiracy theories such as that vaccines are part of a plot to implant microchips in the population wouldn’t be liable to moderation, nor would users be punished for spreading such (or any) fake news.
This move resembles Florida’s recent decision to prevent social media companies from moderating content online—at least when it comes to content shared by politicians. The scope of the law in Florida is narrower than what Bolsonaro is proposing, but it should surprise no one that the Brazilian president is once again mirroring the U.S. He had Donald Trump as a close ally and a role model.
It may seem counterintuitive, but what could be seen by some as a step towards total online freedom would actually end up allowing the unrestricted spread of fake news created, for example, by the “hate cabinet”—a network of the president’s supporters run by his son, Carlos Bolsonaro, with the sole purpose of spreading disinformation.
No doubt social networks and big tech hold excessive power. However, limiting their ability to moderate content is a measure that only favors those who have an interest in spreading disinformation. Bolsonaro is trying to open the doors to control the internet while making it hard for anyone to have access to information and culture outside the walls of social media (that he wants to control) through a virtual ban on books. And planning on using the army as a personal militia if anyone dares to complain.
It’s a kind of sadistic looping showing that Bolsonaro’s moves are similar to other authoritarian and wannabe authoritarian leaders all over the world and that he’ll do anything to stay in power.
Amid several corruptions scandals involving the overpriced purchases of vaccines currently being investigated and with protests in hundreds of cities across the country demanding his impeachment, it is to be expected that Bolsonaro’s authoritarian impulses will only become more apparent and dangerous. It’s impossible to know when Bolsonaro is being serious or just creating chaos with nonsensical propositions and statements designed to divide attention and divert eyes from his government’s scandals.
What remains is to stay vigilant to any and all anti-democratic attacks. And there are many of them.