Raízes do Brasil, Millôr Fernandes, and AmarElo are only a few of the topics mentioned in the exciting talk between Prof. Dr. Pedro Meira Monteiro and Dr. Luiz Eduardo Garcia da Silva. From a critical analysis of the past, they glance at the future of democracy in Brazil. This interview is heartwarming because it combines an interdisciplinary approach with sharp, stimulating analysis.
I sincerely thank Prof. Pedro for accepting our invitation & the thought-provoking interview, and Claudia Pires for introducing us. I dearly thank Luiz for conducting the interview and being a kind friend. Finally, I thank Giovanna Imbernon for the outstanding team player and fantastic translator she is. This is another must-read, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Anna Paula Bennech
Translated, reviewed, and edited by Anna Paula Bennech and Giovanna Imbernon
Interviewee: Prof. Dr. Pedro Meira Monteiro
Interviewer: Dr. Luiz Eduardo Garcia da Silva*
Pedro Meira Monteiro is Arthur W. Marks’19 Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University, where he chairs the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and is affiliated with the Program in Latin American Studies and the Brazil LAB. He has published in cultural magazines, such as piauí and serrote, and is the author of several books, including Conta-gotas: máximas e reflexões (2016) and The Other Roots: Wandering Origins in Roots of Brazil and the Impasses of Modernity in Ibero-America (2017). This year, Relicário publishing house will launch A queda do aventureiro: aventura, cordialidade e os novos tempos em Raízes do Brasil (second edition, revised and expanded) and Nós somos muitas: ensaios sobre crise, cultura e esperança, in collaboration with Rogério Barbosa, Flora Thomson-DeVeaux and Arto Lindsay. Website: www.meiramonteiro.com.
Much is said about the “broken promises” of the Brazilian Republic and the incomplete cycle of citizenship building. Today, we can still verify that Brazil “was not a Republic” or is an “incomplete democracy.” How do you see the current Brazilian politics and what can you say about a society that, since the June 2013 protests, increasingly shows ultraconservative features, as illustrated by the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018?
It is hard to be optimistic, and I think Millôr was right when he said that Brazil has a “long past ahead.” In fact, Carlos Heitor Cony used to say that “the optimist is just a poorly informed guy.” Beyond the boutades, I think we currently have a terrifying situation in Brazil. When the former president Dilma Rousseff visited us in Princeton, a year after the parliamentary coup that ousted her, she said something interesting about the generalized increase in buying power during the Lula era: people wish, and they always wish for more. That is to say that the economic impulse generated a vast set of expectations that the past decade did not, or perhaps could not, meet. Evidently, this is not a matter of simple mechanics, as if the demand for consumer goods could explain everything. However, I believe that the encounter between the moral agenda and economic dissatisfaction was the ground zero of the authoritarian drift we see today in Brazil. On the moral sphere, the (fair) indignation against corruption and the demonization of the PT; on the economic sphere, the regressive agenda capitalized the dissatisfaction, perceiving the rights gained during the re-democratization as spurious. It is a complex equation, and I am summarizing a lot here. But I think it is possible to say that the serpent’s egg is in there, in the manipulation of people’s resentment. Paradoxically, the achievements of the democratic period end up being blamed for the economic meltdown and failure of the future.
The 1920s and 1930s were a challenge for many authors aiming to explain Brazil – the so-called “Interpreters of Brazil.” During the Nation-state building, there was a dispute of narratives on the best way to reach modernity, resulting in different understandings. Today, we are living in a critical moment of realignment of political powers and erosion of the democratic regime. What are the new theory matrices of this new wave of interpreters of Brazil (Jessé Souza, Lilia Schwarcz, Leonardo Avritzer, Luiz Eduardo Soares)?
I would add artists like Emicida, Adriana Varejão, or Chico Buarque and writers like Djamila Ribeiro and Silvio Almeida to the list of current “interpreters of Brazil.” The essayism of the 1920s and 1930s has surely gained new forms. A documentary-lecture-concert like Emicida’s “AmarElo” is an outstanding “hermeneutic” achievement, to use a philosophical term. From Emicida and through the visualization of what, a hundred years ago, was seen as a heritage to be overcome, we can understand a huge historical debt: the evils of slavery that still remain in the Republic. Even if it was not said this way, the incontestable point of all interpretations is that after Abolition (1888), slave bodies were thrown in the public square with no support or rights to protect them. Therefore, this is the reason why it is so urgent to rectify the “myth factory” projecting Brazil as a post-racial paradise. Although indecorous to defend this thesis today, it is symptomatic that the current federal government does so, as we can hear in the president’s and vice president’s statements.
However, the proud ignorance of Bolsonarists and the President’s low mental and rhetorical level should not fool us. Amidst the muddles of the commanders/ministers and the chronic incompetence of the current government members, a plan is quietly in motion: dismantling the set of rights gained during the re-democratization process. Bolsonaro’s nostalgia for the dictatorship is indeed significant. We can see it in the work of those four scholars you mentioned previously. Among them, I believe that Luiz Eduardo Soares is perhaps the closest in approaching a problem that seems central to the interpretation of contemporary Brazil: the relevance and growth of the evangelical movements. Even though those movements are truly plural, the intensification of a moral agenda and the diffuse prosperity theology supporting it have a lot to do with the advance of this broader agenda, which both the authors you mentioned and I see as fundamentally regressive. Maybe, the next “Raízes do Brasil” has to be a deep and new confrontation of the evangelical issue in the country. It would be a starting point to get to know the deep currents of this change currently underway, involving great portions of a population historically deprived of rights and whose sense of community is found in church. Going back to Emicida as an interpreter of the collectiveness, it is not by chance that his view on Brazil is openly messianic. There is something deep there, something we still have to investigate.
The constitution and maintenance of political families in power and the difficulty in splitting public and private spheres, as well as State and Family, are primary purposes characterizing Brazil’s political management. Sérgio Buarque describes the cordial man as a subject who has “the desire to establish intimacy and the horror of any social conventionalism or formalism.” Would we be seeing a materialization of the cordial man in the current Presidency?
I completely agree. I have been stating this in my lectures on Sergio Buarque de Holanda: the Bolsonaro family is the quintessence of cordiality. It is no longer a matter of mere “confusion” between public and private spheres. There is a project rendering the representative apparatus of liberal democracy totally obsolete. Still, as a study by Lilia Schwarcz, authoritarianism has deep roots in the personalist practice, having no need for the masks of political representation.
Bolsonaro’s “relaxed” and often rude tone curiously creates a deep connection with extensive layers of the population, who see themselves represented by and/or in him. There is also some level of resentment and disgust for the mellifluous speech of intellectuals, a fascinating problem. Moreover, the paradoxical phenomenon of women adoring a misogynist leader. Bolsonaro breaks the locks of civility and releases the monster who lives in us. It is the failure of the political pact, which assumes the containment of individual impulse and building a collective horizon. In other words, precisely as written in Raízes do Brasil – but somehow confusing –, it is true: There is no possible future with the cordial man.
Brazil has consistently lived turbulent moments. Social conflicts, police violence in peripheries, increasing economic inequality, and the racial question re-emerging. In parallel, we observe the growth of social segments affectionate to ultraconservative and retrograde ideologies. Can we say that Brazil has given up its path towards modernity not only regarding economic development but also shared common values and practices (democracy, legal impartiality, republicanism, solidarity)?
Unfortunately, I think there is an abdication of the future in current political practices in Brazil. The management of the pandemic is a blatant sign that the republican future is being raffled off. When the President says, “so what, who cares?” or that everyone will die anyway, he vocalizes a feeling embedded in the human being, which civilization should control. I think it is more than simply a political issue because it concerns to the human nature. It is not just about implementing this or that public policy, but a battle for conquering the soul – and without this soul, there is no democracy or republicanism. Religion has a complex role, which is why I pointed out that evangelical movements are plural. I think that the compass needle of the future can still point to solidarity, but it depends on how this “evangelical” horizon will be played within the political chessboard.
Also, the great “asset” of politics today in Brazil is the large evangelical communities, which is uncomfortable for those who, like me, defend a secular horizon for the public sphere. Nevertheless, the left-wing will have to deal with this impossible marriage of the most progressive demands and the conservative base guiding an important part of the “Brazilian soul.” Either the left-wing solves this equation, or the battle is lost, as it is happening now in Brazil.
On the other hand, judicial impartiality is a whole different chapter. From my perspective, the understanding of this phenomenon would encompass not only these retrogressive values gaining ground even in the Supreme Court (STF) but also the transformation of Justice itself into a show. For instance, Lava Jato is incomprehensible without considering the mobilization of media through which Justice became a political machine. Checks and balances are no longer in question, as in a good democratic system. Justice is a kind of supreme instance as if the Final Judgment could arise from there. Maybe, one day, it will.
Expressions like “every 15 years Brazil forgets the last 15” (Ivan Lessa), or “Brazil has a huge past ahead” (Millôr Fernandes) indicate that Brazilian society has an inability to solve and remember the social obstacles of its history. For example, unlike other Latin American countries, Brazil has never brought to trial the crimes committed during the military dictatorship. Moreover, despite centuries of slavery and all the consequences directly impacting Brazilian society even nowadays, many still deny the existence of racism in the country. Why is there this taboo for Brazilians to confront their past?
This question is both difficult and important. It seems like a metaphysical question: What is “being” in the Brazilian context that insistently takes us to the past and does not let us move forward? Those essays of the 1920s and 1930s we mentioned before give us different answers to this question. However, they all agree that the problem relies on what to do with the past, how to negotiate, re-signify, overcome (as Caio Prado Jr. proposed), or preserve it in its alleged qualities (as Gilberto Freyre proposed). From my perspective, we need to raise awareness about the past without turning it into a myth. We need fewer heroes and more social process. Perhaps it would be insufficient, but it is a fact that we can only overcome the past by understanding it. Of course, those educational crusades are useless and become pathetic when facing the strength of immense bubbles of fake news, propagated and consumed shamelessly. Even so, it is necessary to talk about the past and learn how to handle it. When people lie on the psychiatrist’s couch, they learn how to deal with their own past so that it no longer hold them back. Although the past never goes away, we can use it as a jumping-off point to something else. Considering all the inequality in Brazil, change cannot only be intellectual. There is no move forward only using the brain. The intellectual and social structures are iniquitous, and getting rid of them takes a long time. Maybe I am optimistic or just misinformed… As Kafka said, there is hope, just not for us.
* Luiz Eduardo Garcia da Silva is a Social Scientist and Economist, and holds a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. He was a visiting researcher at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in 2017. His published work in Political Science encompasses electoral systems and coalitions, as well as International Relations: Mexico’s foreign policy. In 2020, he was the Project Coordinator for the area of Democracy at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Brazil. Besides researching regional integration issues, he also is a Development Economics Ph.D. candidate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.