by Claudia Pires*

Edited and Reviewed by Giovanna Imbernon and Anna Paula Bennech

Authoritarianism in Brazil is a root that has been pruned and not gone. It has been used repeatedly in Brazil throughout history, but authoritarian regimes were not introduced until the arrival of the Republic. There have been two authoritarian regimes in the history of Republican Brazil: (a) the Estado Novo (1937-1945), which established a civil and military bureaucracy and whose main effort was to create a basic industry in the country; and (b) the military dictatorship (1964-1985), a state of emergency that served the interests of internationalized finance capital and worked for years on a project to harden the regime, culminating in the decree of Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) in December 1968.

In all the governments that succeeded the military dictatorship (1964 to 1985), we find in their traces the military power’s discreet shadow in national life, the result of a negotiated re-democratization, in which important questions about the responsibility of the army for crimes committed by the State have been swept under the carpet.

If, in the end, the policies pursued by the PT governments in dealing with the 2008 international financial crisis exposed the limits of reconciliation in satisfying the interests of the various factions of capital and the people’s desires for new social gains, leading to growing disappointment in the Expectations of various segments of Brazilian society that culminated in the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, then there is a seemingly marginal problem that deserves attention.

To what extent do the results of the Brazilian Truth Commission, which Dilma established to investigate the serious human rights violations that occurred during Article 8 of the Law on the Transitional Provisions of the Constitution (of 1988), and thereby the right to memory and historical truth does not violate the spirit of the Brazilian armed forces [1], which since 2016 have been increasingly involved in the crucial legal and political processes of today’s Brazil?

With the election of Jair Bolsonaro for Presidency, an ex-paratrooper in the Brazilian army, now a reservist with a captain’s rank; with Vice-President Mourão, an Army General in the Army Reserve, military power has achieved a relative protagonism.

Who is Bolsonaro, the “Myth”?

Bolsonaro is the most regressive and mediocre representation of what Brazil has. He appeared in Brazilian politics as a representative of the interests of the lowest-ranking officers in the armed forces after being exempted from the army due to administrative proceedings for insubordination during the first years of the country’s speech-democratization. For more than three decades, he served as a federal MP for the so-called lower clergy embodied in the most common practices of clientelist politics. Still, because of his strange and insignificant actions, he presented himself as an anti-system politician. He is an apocalyptic integrated, to paraphrase Umberto Eco, who, in a political crisis, capitalized on the chorus of the resentful and excluded from the centers of power.

Bolsonaro gives a misogynistic speech against blacks, LGBTs, academics, the press, or any other group who disagrees with him. He has his own Holy Trinity in which each member has a role. This trinity is composed of:

  • Carlos Brilhante Ustra, the Ethical Reference who was the only military man recognized by the Brazilian judiciary as a torturer and responsible for at least 50 murders during the military dictatorship;

  • Olavo de Carvalho, his intellectual guru who presents himself as a philosopher without being, and who is popular in the press and social media because of his sour discourse against progressive intellectuality and, in recent years, anti-PT (Workers’ Party) has become.

  • Bolsonaro represents the white, Christian, and heterosexual Brazilian man who has lost his credentials as well as privileges over the years due to the politics of inclusion, equality, and social processes of minority empowerment. His political leadership pattern was set inspired by Donald Trump. He brought military representatives, Protestant churches, part of the police and the militia, and the armed forces to his royal court.

The result of this new Brazilian panorama can already be seen in the democracy index of The Economist, which evaluates the democratic performance of governments. When the ranking was introduced in 2006, Brazil held the 42nd position. However, during PT’s governments (Lula and Dilma), the country was always below the 48th position:

Source: Democracy Index from The Economist magazine

In 2015, when the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies initiated the impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff, Brazil reached the 51st position in the ranking. During the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, it only scored 6.8 points, moving down one position.

A Press Freedom Index analysis shows that Brazil fell from the 71st position in 2003 (the first year of Lula’s government) to 107th position in 2020 during Bolsonaro’s government.

Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism in a nutshell

Bolsonaro has distilled his authoritarian slope in increasing numbers since he took office. April and May were very emblematic months. Crises within the ministries, legal proceedings against their children, and the coronavirus pandemic provided the perfect scenario for him to take this direction.

On March 15, Bolsonaro had his image shaped on videos calling on the population to protest against the National Congress. He distributed this material through his private WhatsApp account.

On April 19, the country reached 2,400 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus. President Bolsonaro and his supporters, who called for military intervention in Brazil, participated in a demonstration outside Brasilia’s army headquarters. The demonstrators were shouting “AI-5”[2], “Close the National Congress,” and “Close the Supreme Court.” Many of them carried banners that read “Military intervention with Bolsonaro Now!” – on the opposite way of the Constitution. Bolsonaro’s stance has been heavily criticized by members of the National Congress, Supreme Court, state governors, the press, and the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB). The next day, Bolsonaro spoke to the press, defending the Supreme Court and the National Congress “openly and transparently.” The President once again claims that there is “a lack of intelligence” for those who accuse him of being dictatorial.

On May 22, one of the Supreme Court decided to publish the video of a ministerial meeting whose content presented many of the ideas of the Bolsonaro government’s political activities: disregard for democratic institutions (Supreme Court and National Congress), deforestation of the Amazon; Contempt for indigenous people, blacks, Romani people and other minorities; lack of policy for the coronavirus crisis and other Bolsonarian guidelines.

Just two days after the video broadcast was published, Bolsonaro posted on his social networks an excerpt from the law on abuse of authority, implying a direct attack on the Federal Court of Justice. Immediately after it, the President flew in a military helicopter over the Esplanada dos Ministerios and circled the Praça dos Três Poderes, apparently in an attempt to defeat the other two powers. 

These attitudes and other episodes reveal two authoritarian sides of the President: on the one hand, the disregard for democratic institutions, on the other hand, the death drive (Freud’s terms) for promoting agglomerations during the pandemic, revealing a disregard for fundamental civil rights and a distorted view of the minimum requirements for citizenship.

Since his campaign, Bolsonaro has shown authoritarian features, and many of them were copied and articulated by the former Trump’s strategist, Steve Bannon. Among them is the use of social networks as a monitoring tool to control political decisions that consider the volatile circumstances of public opinion. Therefore, Bolsonaro has no clear plan for politics and uses social networks to orient his decisions. In addition, his government neutralizes the power of the press to direct the political debate. He also uses some kind of chaos management through recurring political half-truths, underpinned by moral traditionalism.

In conclusion, Brazil, deliberately not ruled by Jair Bolsonaro, is seeing its delicate democracy go down the drain. The institutions are trying too slowly and timidly to react to Bolsonaro’s authoritarian wave. However, it is not clear whether these institutions will be able to support the Bolsonarian forces that have no ties; because of the condescension they have enjoyed until recently from the established powers and the press. We must not forget that one of the reasons we have reached the current situation is that Bolsonaro has not been expelled from military or civil justice.

[1] Law No. 12.528 of November 18, 2011, Article 1.

[2] AI-5: Institutional Act Number 5.




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Hunter, W., & Power, T. J. (2019). Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Illiberal Backlash. Journal of Democracy, 30(1), 68-82.

Alfredo Saad-Filho and Marco Boffo, Geoforum,

Samuels, D., & Zucco Jr, C. (2014). Lulismo, petismo, and the future of Brazilian politics. Journal of Politics in Latin America, 6(3), 129-158. 


* M.A. Claudia Pires: Head of BRaS’ Communication and PR Department, Head of BRaS’ Social Media Studies Research Group, Member of BRaS’ Academic Committee, Associate Editor of BRaS-J. E-mail: