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What is Left of Bolsonarism: The Many Faces of the Brazilian Far-Right

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What is Left of Bolsonarism: The Many Faces of the Brazilian Far-Right
Pro-Bolsonaro public demonstration - © Unsplash Matheus Câmara da Silva

Brazil has been home to some of the largest mass political movements in the Western Hemisphere. While post-democratization Brazil was marked by the rise to power of its left-wing parties, such as the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores), recent years have seen the reconfiguration of the far-right, on both the doctrinaire and party level. This blog piece provides a picture of right-wing extremism in Brazil today and debunks the approximations and simplifications that proliferate in the West.

The legacy of militarism

Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 rise to power has revealed to the world how vivid the legacy of militarism in Brazil is. From 1964 to 1985, Brazil plunged into a brutal dictatorship, a bureaucratic-military regime that not only enjoyed the support of the United States and national oligarchy but also the sympathy of large parts of the middle class. The military coup that took place in 1964 claimed to be a reaction against the left-leaning government of João Goulart, whose presidency was viewed by its opponents as the prelude to the advent of communism. On 19 March 1964, hundreds of thousands of citizens demonstrated in São Paulo against the labor-oriented structural reform plans announced by Goulart. The protest took the name of ‘March of the Family, with God, and for Freedom’ (Marcha da Família com Deus pela Liberdade).

Goulart’s political background and his program for Brazil were, in truth, all but communist. Before ascending to power, he had long been a member of the Brazilian Labor Party (Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro, PTB). The PTB was founded in 1945 by the followers of former President Getúlio Vargas. In the context of his presidency from 1930 to 1945, Vargas promoted the introduction of labor and social legislation, gaining long-lasting popularity across the country. Animated by a staunch nationalist outlook, the PTB tried to thwart the rise of the Communist Party of Brazil (Partido Comunista do Brasil) by accommodating some of the demands raised by trade unions, and consequently won the support of popular masses. The National Democratic Union (União Democrática Nacional, UDN)– the conservative opposition to Vargas-inspired Brazilian Laborism, played a key role in the toppling of Goulart and many UDN members joined the ranks of the National Renewal Alliance (Aliança Renovadora Nacional, ARENA) – the newly founded military-backed party.

Since re-democratization in the late 1980s, militarism has not only stuck in the national collective memory, but forms part of the ideological baggage of many existing right-wing parties. Two parties represented in the Congress have direct links to ARENA’s internal factions: Brazil Union (União Brasil) and the Progressives (Progressistas). The latter entered Bolsonaro coalition in the 2022 presidential election. It was precisely during his administration of 2018-2022, that the specter of militarism resurfaced with the glorification of armed forces and the praise of the military dictatorship recurring in Bolsonaro’s political rhetoric. The Lula-led coalition victory in December’s 2022 presidential election was soon followed by the bitter opposition of pro-Bolsonaro supporters, who, on 8 January 2023, carried out an attack against the Congress, the Presidential Palace, and the Supreme Court in Brasilia. Pro-Bolsonaro public demonstrations were held across the country, with supporters showing banners that called for military intervention and the ousting of Lula. The “militarist option” seems to have become a desirable alternative in the eyes of many Brazilians.

(Neo-)Nazism in southern Brazil

Often overlooked, the history of Nazism in Brazil has direct repercussions on today’s politics. Pan-Germanism landed in Brazil along with the second wave of German immigrants in the 1920s-30s. Most of them settled in the southern states of Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul, where they inhabited the scarcely populated inland territories, founding villages and towns that for many decades were almost exclusively German-speaking and secluded from Brazilian society. In 1928, the first Brazilian section of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was opened in Benedito Timbó, Santa Catarina. Shortly thereafter, Brazil was home to the biggest number of Nazi Party members outside Europe, with around 3 thousand members. An end to the growth of Nazism among German-Brazilian communities was instigated by Vargas when he dragged Brazil into war against the Axis. The repression of such “tropical” Nazism occurred through the acculturation of German-speaking settlers, mainly via the prohibition of using the German language, as epitomized by the idea of “idiomatic crime”. Still, Nazism was not fully eradicated. Proof of this is the proliferation of Neo-Nazi groups across southern Brazil.

The election of Lula helps explain the current neo-Nazi ferment in Brazil. The image of hundreds of pro-Bolsonaro supporters, wearing the green and yellow national team’s jersey and chanting the national anthem, while giving the Nazi salute, made world headlines. Unsurprisingly, this happened in São Miguel do Oeste, in rural Santa Catarina, and has been seen as a manifestation of the vibrancy of Nazism on Brazilian soil.

Research says that in 2021, there were more than 500 active neo-Nazi groups, while more recent data indicates this number to be well over 1100. Neo-Nazi cells form a clandestine galaxy, corresponding to around 10 thousand people. However, the estimated number of Neo-Nazi sympathizers is alarmingly higher, with figures oscillating between 300 and 500 thousand, if not more.1 Geographically, the neo-Nazi groups are reportedly rooted in three southern states and São Paulo state. The Brazilian deep south – home to sizeable communities of German descent and the bastion of support for Bolsonaro – is the hub of the most recent rise of neo-Nazism. The transplantation of Nazism to Brazil has evidently left unfading marks in certain regions, as evidenced by the strength of the neo-Nazi movement. The territorial coincidence between pro-Bolsonaro electoral strongholds and the region where neo-Nazi presence is stronger, stands out in the broader geography of today’s Brazilian far-right. Yet, direct correlation cannot easily be inferred, notwithstanding its verisimilitude.

(Neo-)Integralism and monarchism

While Nazism spread among German-Brazilians, Mediterranean Fascisms (Lusitanian Integralism and Italian Fascism) were the main ideological reference of what became the largest fascist movement outside Europe. The Brazilian Integralist Action (Ação Integralista Brasileira, AIB) was founded in 1932 by Plínio Salgado. Brazilian Integralism blended nationalism, clericalism, and corporativism and staunchly condemned liberal parliamentarism, and Marxist materialism. Against the latter, the nation’s integralism adopted a spiritualist metanarrative, viewing Roman Catholicism as the quintessential dimension of the Brazilian national identity. On the symbolic-aesthetic level, Brazilian Integralism evoked Mussolinian Fascism: a green-shirted and paramilitary movement which accompanied a Fascist-like straight-arm salute with the utterance Anauê!.2

As opposed to Nazism, Brazilian Integralism had an eclectic approach to racism and membership in the AIB was open to non-white Brazilians. From an ideological perspective, the Brazilian Black Front (Frente Negra Brasileira) – the first organized political organization of Afro-Brazilians – was rather close to the AIB, as well as to other streams of Brazilian proto-fascism. Arlindo Veiga Dos Santos, a Black Brazilian, was the key figure of the Patrianovist Imperial Action (Ação Imperial Patrianovista), a reactionary movement that aspired to restore the Bragança monarchy. However, national homogenization or whitening remained the objective of other Integralists, which had to proceed via a miscegenation intended as a process of assimilation of all groups (whites and non-whites) into the Catholic-Luso-Brazilian one.

The AIB was de facto the first mass party in Brazilian history; AIB members were believed to number as many as 1 or 1.5 million or as few as 200 thousand. After having been disbanded by Vargas’ anti-pluralist policies, Integralists reorganized into the Popular Representation Party (Partido de Representação Popular, PRP) in 1945. The PRP never reached the grandeur of the AIB but always won representation in Congress, with its founder even running in the 1955 presidential election, winning more than 8 per cent of votes nationwide, and almost 25 per cent in Paraná. Most of PRP members, including Salgado, joined the military-backed ARENA when the military junta suppressed all political parties.

As for today, Integralism is still a vivid source of inspiration for the Brazilian far-right. Since the 1970s, neo-Integralism has often been used as a label to jointly refer to the groupuscules that walk in the footsteps of early Integralists. Bolsonarism has also been associated to the resurrection of Integralism, as proved by Bolsonaro’s adoption of Salgado’s fundamental credo “God, Fatherland, Family” (Deus, Pátria, Família). Given such a reactionary posture, the Bolsonaro administration has found the support of monarchists represented within the Congress, popularizing the figure of Bertrand of Orléans-Bragança – claimant to the title of Imperador of Brazil in addition to delegitimizing the republican system and rehabilitating the restorationist discourse.

Brazil’s New Right

The Bolsonaro presidency has provided the context for the most significant reconfiguration of the Brazilian far-right since the demise of the military regime. Far from being a mere transplantation of European fascisms, the Brazilian far-right can only be understood through culturalist prisms, suitable for recognizing the shared meanings and experiences of such a continental nation. The links between the military regime and existing political formations, the growth of neo-Nazism, the unfading fascination of Integralism, and the rehabilitation of monarchism reveal the complexity that shrouds the surge of right-wing extremism in Brazil. All these streams have converged into what has been called Nova Direita (New Right), refurbishing the political imaginary and providing the rhetorical tools for the resurgence of the far-right in South America, as evidenced by the election of right-wing populist Javier Milei in Argentina.

1:This estimation is elaborated based on the number of online consultations of neo-Nazi material.
2: A polysemic exclamation that presumably exalt solidarism, camaraderie, and union.
Mattia Bottino

Mattia Bottino

Mattia Bottino is PhD Candidate at the University of Bologna and Researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism of Eurac Research. His research builds upon the interplay between participatory-deliberative democracy and federalism. Other research field of his interest are national minority rights and nationalism studies.

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https://doi.org/10.57708/bansl5ylnqjqffsmn8mawuw
Mattia Bottino. What is Left of Bolsonarism: The Many Faces of the Brazilian Far-Right . https://doi.org/10.57708/BANSL5YLNQJQFFSMN8MAWUW

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