A. Lindgren-Alves [1]

The Brazilian Minister of External Relations’ speech at the graduation ceremony of the Rio Branco Institute, Brazil´s diplomatic academy, on October 22, 2020, has been widely commented for the general revulsion it caused. Due criticism was made to the absurdities uttered in abuse of the new diplomat’s graduation patron, the late and beloved poet João Cabral de Melo Neto, together with the Minister´s positive evaluation of Brazil´s becoming an outcast in the international community. Besides having never counted on any remarkable achievement in his career, the strange character who now occupies Baron of Rio Branco’s chair at the Foreign Office, an unknown author of an ignored book, displayed his lack of modesty by declaring himself “a diplomat and poet” like João Cabral, and by stating that he did not see any problem, but virtues only, in Brazil’s present diplomatic isolation. While stressing a sui generis distorted conception of freedom, he affirmed that “today´s Brazil speaks of liberty throughout the world”, in order to underline the fact that Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump were, perhaps, the only Heads of State who approached that issue at the recent inaugural meeting of the United Nations’ General Assembly.

I will not delve into the unreasonable references the Minister made to our great poet João Cabral de Melo Neto, nor analyze every factor of our country’s present deplorable situation among its peers. Those aspects of the speech have already been examined with fair indignation by the most serious newspapers in Brazil, as well as by competent personalities from different sectors. I will, therefore, stick to the peculiar meaning of freedom the Minister expounded, which, if further put into effect, poses a serious threat to the democratic liberties we still enjoy.

The Concept of Freedom

To that peculiar holder of a secular political portfolio focused on action abroad, “freedom” has nothing to do with the right to be free under normal conditions, free to think, to be informed, to act, and to live with dignity, in the sense everybody recognizes. It is neither the fundamental freedoms defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an inborn entitlement of all human beings, encompassing civil and political rights and the rights to paid work, elementary education, public health, healthy food, adequate housing, sanitation and social security. While describing that basic multilateral document of 1948 as a “true anthem of freedom”, the notorious anti-multilateralist speaker chose some articles of the Declaration, isolated them from the rest, and simplified their enunciation, hiding more than revealing what he himself really wants. Not even the expressly mentioned “religious freedom” corresponds to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion”, which includes the right to follow and practice, or not to have, any religion, as provided for in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration.

In the Minister’s words:

“Human being’s liberty resides in his spirituality. Without it, man is a slave to the useless cycle of living and dying. Without it, intellect becomes pure calculation, devoid of poetry and creativity. Without his spirituality, man loses common sense and the ability to navigate in a world of difficult moral judgments, falling into one of two extremes: either absolute permissiveness, or today’s strange hyper-moralism, much more restrictive than that of the Victorian age” [2]

Whereas I myself often criticize the paradoxes of contemporary culture, on the one hand, libertarian and provocative, and, on the other hand, intolerant and castrating, by denouncing their counterproductive exaggerations with a view to ensure its forward development [3], I do not understand what that hermetic preacher referred to as “hyper moralism much more restrictive than that of the Victorian age”. The Minister’s transcendental obsession is, however, better explained in an equally arcane essay, entitled “Religious Freedom, Liberating Religion”, published in 2019, on his pretentious blog Metapolítica 17:

“In my case, I once was an atheist: but when I started reading and studying religion (including, but not only, the Christian doctrine), when I began to understand the depth of what is incomprehensible, when one day I learned that the monks of Mount Athos were able to see the brightness of uncreated light, that is when I started to believe again”.[4]

Almost “countercultural” in its mystical irrationality, reminiscent of oriental cults fashionable in the West since the hippies’ times, the Minister’s theosophy, which abhors theology of liberation, fits into the current neo-integralist strand of Catholicism, differing from Benedict XVI’s stark traditionalism by assimilating protestant positions in specific areas [5]. Fundamentalists who do not follow the Holy Father and strongly oppose Pope Francis’ humanistic approach, adherents of the New Catholic Integralism, at least in Brazil, resemble with no qualms, and associate themselves without hesitation with Neo-Pentecostalist Protestants, trying to impose the “fundamentals” of both faiths on the framework of the Brazilian State. For them, the most worrying concern about religious freedom is less the real problem of physical persecution of Christians in non-Christian societies than a phenomenon they call “Christophobia”: a sort of pathological aversion to Jesus as the Son of God and divine redeemer. That same sort of “psychic disturbance” mentioned by the Minister in his speech to the new diplomats, had been introduced in the neologism used a month earlier, at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, by the current Brazilian President, who never seems to know what he is talking about. In a formal statement probably written by the Foreign Minister, Bolsonaro said:

“I appeal to the entire international community for religious freedom and for combating Christophobia. (…) Brazil is a Christian and conservative country, with the family as its base”. [6]

No doubt Brazil is predominantly Christian. Moreover, there has never been an acknowledged record of aversion to Christ in any period of its History. The assertion that Brazil is a conservative country is recent, an obviously biased generalization. On the contrary, Its exuberant sensuality has always been cultivated as a characteristic trait of the supposedly cheerful, uninhibited Brazilians, even as a widespread tourist attraction. Centre and left-wing politicians were normally elected with relatively progressive positions. Regarding the family, an entity recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the “natural and fundamental nucleus of society” entitled to protection by the State, it is, no doubt, an institution undergoing a process of change, in Brazil and in the whole West, having increasingly become mono-parental, or being undone and recomposed by successive divorce and marriages. It has also been valued in new different forms, opposed by purist evangelists, by the Catholic Opus Dei, and by false moralists of various backgrounds whose radical, aggressive rejection of homosexuality seems to hide and cover their own Freudian insecurity.

Despite Bolsonaro´s later naming “Christophobia” the recent burning of churches in Chile, as well as terrorist attacks in France, “Christophobic” for the Foreign Minister are, above all, those compatriots who do not follow Extreme Rightist positions. Viewed by him as atheistic, corrupt, and unpatriotic Communists, faithful to something he calls “cultural Marxism”, a sort of conspiracy to dominate the whole world through “globalism” under UN control, “Christophobic” individuals are those responsible for State secularism, envisaged by him as enemies to be crushed. Unrelenting condemnation of Marxism as a terrible contemporary threat to all is evident in the Minister’s speech. It is, nevertheless, ironic to note that such an obsession should paradoxically take place and be assimilated as true in a historical period when the old Communist project of emancipation has vanished, presenting itself as a cause of nostalgia for the closest followers of Marx [7]. Thinking and acting as the Brazilian Foreign Minister are also the current Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, and all of the other holders of official functions in the areas of culture, education, and public policies. Following them are the “bolsominions”, Bolsonaro´s unconditional supporters in social networks, and the violent groups that have been protesting on the streets and online against the Brazilian National Congress and the Federal Supreme Court, both of which are pillars of democracy anywhere.

A kind of paranoia that would cause envy to any author of Theater of the Absurd plays, from Ionesco to Samuel Becket, with a little bit of Campos de Carvalho, our great surrealist writer, that current conspiracy theory, a propaganda strategy to sow panic on the public, has prominent figures in the new Euro-American Alt-Right. Among them, the Brazilian ex-astrologer Olavo de Carvalho, a professor of erudite intellectual contraptions and writer of a few bestsellers that aim at destroying everything and everyone – except himself – with large amounts of four-letter words and a gloss of showoff wisdom. The Trump-adoring Foreign Minister and the President’s son –once seriously considered by his father to be the Brazilian Ambassador in Washington – are the main Olavo de Carvalho´s followers. Together with an evangelist presidential advisor, they make up the core of the prevailing Brazilian anti-diplomatic foreign policy.

Such new foreign policy has been reluctantly exercised by a tattered Itamaraty, the historic and traditional name of our foreign office and diplomatic career. The Office has faced deep reform in its internal organization to accommodate the ideology and personal status of the incumbent holder – a career professional diplomat, younger and less experienced than the heads of departments he met on assumption, hierarchically superior to him. Changes in personnel and in the names and competence of departments were forcibly made in such a manner that not even the old military regime ever thought of making. The new Brazilian foreign policy is inspired by the lunatic strand of American right-wing positions, reinforced by Donald Trump’s arrogance, absorbing beliefs of fundamentalist pastors determined to transform Brazil into a monolithic religion-guided evangelist nation. Such religious guidance is also surreptitiously implemented in domestic initiatives, as the education directive of October 27. It established the obligation for Brazilian teachers to instruct students on the human right to life “from conception”, as well as the “rights of the unborn child”. There have also been Ministry of Health ordinances that require embarrassing communication to the police by the victims, always viewed with suspicion, who need legal abortion in pregnancy cases caused by rape. Abroad, Brazil has participated as an observer to the work of a commission on the “inalienable rights” inherent in America’s history, a creation of State Secretary Mike Pompeo, and in anti-abortion events in Hungary. Brazil has also totally reverted from former positions on gender equality at the United Nations, by assuming a ridiculous rejection of any reference to the word “gender” in all resolutions on women’s health or women’s rights. Inflexible, the Foreign Minister believes – not without reason – that the President’s popularity is due to his aggressive stand against everything regarded as “politically correct”, and, therefore, stresses that the Government was elected to counter and dismantle Brazil’s established positions.

Religious Freedom as Regression

On trying to make the country a utopian “City of God”, founded on the literality of the Holy Scriptures rather than on St. Augustine’s masterwork, it was expected that the Minister´s priorities should precisely target the “realm of values”. With that same objective in mind, President Bolsonaro had announced, since he was a presidential candidate, a “revolutionary”, almost “Leninist”, intention: first to destroy everything in that sphere after the old military regime; and, then, to build a new Brazil. Along with the environmental question, a well-defined international priority because of its consequences on the Earth’s survival, the value-ridden realm of human rights is the one of those in which democratic Brazil had played a crucial role in multilateral diplomacy, at the end of the 20th century. I highlight this subject because I know that area quite well, while I am also aware that fellow Brazilian diplomats can say almost the same about the respective areas in which they worked.

Contrary to what left-wing politicians used to say about national sovereignty, and what is currently argued by right-wing extremists, fearing, perhaps, “humanitarian armed intervention” by third parties, which Brazil always opposed, what is mostly sought in the international human rights system is to establish and foster civilizing references for all States. Responsibility has always been and still remains on the States. When they withdraw from accepted positions, they naturally lose credibility. Coercion is simply moral, not a police issue, let alone a warlike imposition by foreign forces. Nevertheless, the legal impossibility of interventions by force neither eliminates international monitoring and criticizing, nor the moral strength of recommendations. This does not preclude eventual unilateral boycotts, or collective sanctions, such as arms embargoes, adopted by the UN Security Council.

In a self-disdainful society like the Brazilian one, which attributes everything good to foreign actors, especially to the United States, little is known of our diplomacy’s action in saving the consensus documents of the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, in 1993; nor that it secured approval to the International Criminal Court’s statutes at the 1998 Rome Conference; that it was a Brazilian who proposed, in 1994, at the UN in Geneva, a world conference against racial discrimination, to be held in pos-apartheid South Africa – the Durban Conference of 2001 -, as well as the final acceptation of its documents, which still provides legitimate international reference to the contemporary world-wide anti-racist struggle. It was also Brazil’s performance as a bridge between opposed positions that provided points of understanding in Cairo, in 1994, on reproductive rights and women’s health at the Population Conference, as well as in Beijing, in 1995, for the recognition of women’s rights as human rights [8]. Therefore, Brazil had an important amount of soft power indeed. If such theoretical advances of the conferences were later distorted in practice, and I was one of the first actors to express concern over this, whereas the main players were others. Those responsible for distortions were theorists and militants opposed to the Enlightenment, a historical process that includes the idea of rights of the American Independence, the French Revolution, as well as the teachings of Marx on Capitalism. Most of those who brought about radical deviations did so on behalf of a North-American matrix of postmodernism, wrongly called “progressive liberalism”.

Depreciation of what sovereign Brazil did, and orientation of the country’s foreign policy towards the destruction of what had been achieved in favor of human rights, can only be explained by a sort of fanaticism similar to the one that threatened the very multilateral conferences, a fanatic faith similar, in many respects, to the faith of believers in Islamic Terror. It is, therefore, not surprising that the current allies of this so-called “conservative” Brazil abroad are Western leaders of shocking arrogance. Or religious states, historically antagonistic to Christianity, with laws that despise Christian equality as divulged by the apostle Saint Paul, and Christianophobic practices still common in some societies. In countries where nationality is built on monotheist pre-colonial religions, religious freedom does not exist, nor have any chance to exist. Both because the dominant faith excludes other religions, and because the governments are seen by opponents as corrupt and sold to the West, while the opponents themselves are radical enemies of everything outside their doctrine.

Since extreme opposites often tend to be similar, the most medievalist Islamic theocracies may even serve as a model for extreme right-wing Westerners. An enemy of the Enlightenment starting with Voltaire, and of UN multilateralism, the Brazilian Foreign Minister seems to understand that nothing is better than the European Dark Ages. In his supposedly translucent, in fact labyrinthine language, with quotes in Greek for the simple “people who scandalize the prudent and sophisticated intellectuals”, he intends to honor the “deep Brazilians” by calling them by the same João Cabral’s poetical use of the name “Severino”. According to his speech, this year’s diplomatic graduates would not be entering a professional career, which he calls “bureaucracy”. They would be joining a crusade, “in great demand, in the medieval sense, a national and world adventure of historical proportions” for the essence of Man, the Fatherland, and Civilization. Such a way of thinking is similar to those suicidal “jihadists” who overthrew the towers of the World Trade Center, who enslave and rape Yazidi women in Iraq and Syria, and who stab Christians in churches in France. The difference is that the “jihadists” consider themselves combatants in a cosmic war, while the Minister is modest. He only speaks of a “battle of giants” (sic).

The price we pay

Almost everything has moved backwards in Brazilian foreign policy. In the blink of an eye, it passed from independence, patriotically maintained for several decades, to complete and voluntary submission, not to the United States as a power, but to Donald Trump’s Administration. In the human rights realm, Brazil is now opposed to reproductive rights, rejecting gender equality, and treating with suspicion cases provided for in Brazilian law. Female genital mutilation, a foreign abhorrent cultural practice, is willfully ignored when opposition to it is part of comprehensive proposals that envisage abortion as a public health issue. Civil rights have been used to condemn Maduro’s Venezuela, but not supported for monitoring Duterte’s Philippines. Indigenous people’s rights are widely ignored. The World Health Organization’s recommendations about the pandemic have also been discredited, and while contagion continues, it has been minimized as a “little flu”. The UN High Commissioner’s concerns about human rights in Brazil are rejected, and the old regime installed by the coup of 1964 has been defended as a patriotic movement for the country’s salvation. What else will be done remains to be seen. Brazil has already co-sponsored with the Trump government a commitment to act together against abortion, formalized on October 22nd in a “Geneva Consensus Declaration” with thirty-one States. They include Saudi Arabia, South Sudan and other countries that repress women’s rights. Will Brazil continue to follow ideas of the inalienable rights commission created by State Secretary Mike Pompeo? Will it discard the 1948 secular Universal Declaration of Human Rights to embrace an eventual far-right religious declaration? Will it imitate the United States with its usual two weights and two measures in human rights and fundamental freedoms, protecting violating allies and condemning adversaries? Will Brazil continue to function as a US attorney in Geneva, a role it is playing since Trump decided to remove the US from the UN Human Rights Council in 2019?

Together with changes in other crucial areas, the price of these twists and turns has been the abandonment of Brazil’s image as a reliable country, one that complies with the obligations assumed. The complementary cost of them must seem small: the sacrifice of Itamaraty as one of the previously most respected national institutions, even by the Armed Forces. And the enormous disgust which most of the active Brazilian diplomats find difficult to swallow. In a necessarily hierarchical career, without an authentic professional union to defend class interests, and with a single powerful chief, resistance without overwhelming punishment is sheer illusion. Previous heads of important departments and institutional think tanks, ambassadors older than the Minister who returned to Brazil and were normally used to lead important areas, have been out of office, in the corridors, or at home, even if they are not necessarily against current policies. Most of the career professionals on duty keep their personal disgust for themselves, let alone their shame before foreign colleagues. At the same time, current policies exasperate the group of diplomats retired by age, who do not hide their despair at seeing the whole work of their lives destroyed.

In order to support his current foreign policy, on his October 28th speech, the Foreign Minister recalled with delight that his boss, the alleged “Christian and conservative” President of Brazil, had proclaimed: “Let’s liberate Itamaraty!” on his victory night in 2018. In George Orwell’s odd “newspeak” of the book “1984”, part of that slavery-imposing liberation has already occurred. The graduated diplomats, who had had the good sense of choosing a great patron, the glorious poet João Cabral de Mello Neto, a serious and competent diplomat, must take care. The mental and moral challenges in the work conditions they already face are serious. There is only one piece of advice to give them: try to resist as much as possible, without losing their jobs! When our present nightmare is over, reconstruction will be on their shoulders.

Brasilia, October 31, 2020.

[1] Retired career ambassador, personal member of the Advisory Committee of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

[2] See http://www.itamaraty.gov.br/pt-BR/discursos-artigos-e-entrevistas.

[3] See the author’s books: Chapter 6 in “Os Direitos Humanos na Pós-Modernidade” (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2005), and “É Preciso Salvar os Direitos Humanos” (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2018), both without English translations.

[4] See https://www.metapoliticabrasil.com/post/liberdade-religiosa-religiao-libertadora.

[5] For a definition of neo-integrism, the author relied on Gabriela Arguedas Ramírez, “Ideologia de gênero, neointegrismo católico e fundamentalismo evangélico: a vocação antidemocrática”, Revista Rosa 2, série 1, São Paulo, 2020.

[6] See  https://noticias.uol.com.br/politica/ultimas-noticias/2020/09/22/leia-a-integra-do-discurso-de-bolsonaro-na-assembleia-geral-da-onu.htm

[7] See Enzo Traverso, “Melancolia de Esquerda: Marxismo, História e Memória”, Belo Horizonte, Editora Âiné Aut-aut, 2018. Nr. 2.. To define what Communism can currently be in reality, see also the conferences, international seminars, and varied personal efforts of Slavoj Zikek, Alain Badiou, and others.

[8] For a description of these facts, see J.A. Lindgren-Alves, “A Década das Conferências”, 2nd Ed. Brasília, FUNAG, 2018, especially, on Durban, see “Os Direitos Humanos na Pós-Modernidade” (chapter 6).