'Horror show': critics hope Bolsonaro's foul tirade could end rule

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
Photograph: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Jair Bolsonaro swore 34 times during a two-hour cabinet meeting some think could help bring his four-year term to a premature end.

“If [the left] had taken power in 1964 we’d be fucked,” Brazil’s pro-dictatorship president proclaimed at one point.

After a video of the session was made public – painting a wretched portrait of Bolsonaro’s far-right administration – some believe he now is – in the mid-term at least.

How did it began?


Brazil’s leftist president, João Goulart, was toppled in a coup in April 1964. General Humberto Castelo Branco became leader, political parties were banned, and the country was plunged into 21 years of military rule.

The repression intensified under Castelo Branco’s hardline successor, Artur da Costa e Silva, who took power in 1967. He was responsible for a notorious decree called AI-5 that gave him wide ranging dictatorial powers and kicked off the so-called “anos de chumbo” (years of lead), a bleak period of tyranny and violence which would last until 1974.


What happened during the dictatorship?


Supporters of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime - including Jair Bolsonaro - credit it with bringing security and stability to the South American country and masterminding a decade-long economic “miracle”.

It also pushed ahead with several pharaonic infrastructure projects including the still unfinished Trans-Amazonian highway and the eight-mile bridge across Rio’s Guanabara bay.

But the regime, while less notoriously violent than those in Argentina and Chile, was also responsible for murdering or killing hundreds of its opponents and imprisoning thousands more. Among those jailed and tortured were Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, then a leftwing rebel.

It was also a period of severe censorship. Some of Brazil’s best-loved musicians - including Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso - went into exile in Europe, writing songs about their enforced departures.


How did it end?


Political exiles began returning to Brazil in 1979 after an amnesty law was passed that began to pave the way for the return of democracy.

But the pro-democracy “Diretas Já” (Direct elections now!) movement only hit its stride in 1984 with a series of vast and historic street rallies in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.

Civilian rule returned the following year and a new constitution was introduced in 1988. The following year Brazil held its first direct presidential election in nearly three decades.


“A horror show,” tweeted Marina Silva, a one-time presidential rival, after she – like much of Brazil – watched the expletive-ridden footage. “The whole of Brazil has now seen the sinister entrails running the country … This cannot go on.”

The video – which is at the centre of a potentially presidency-ending investigation into claims Bolsonaro tried to meddle in the federal police – was divulged on Friday after a supreme court ruling.

It shows a cabinet summit at the presidential palace on 22 April – and a carnival of cusswords and conspiracy.

Bolsonaro emerges as Brazil’s curser-in-chief, uttering 34 swearwords, according to local reports.

“These bastards are after our freedom – that’s why I want the people to arm themselves,” Bolsonaro declares at one point.

“Oh just fuck right off. I was the one who chose this bloody team,” Bolsonaro later grumbles about a lack of media praise for his leadership.

Elsewhere the rightwing populist rejects criticism over his flouting of social distancing guidelines. “A bad example my arse,” Bolsonaro snaps, before apparently confusing the word “hemorrhoid” with either “hegemony” or “hemorrhage”.

On a fourth occasion – which could have serious implications for his presidency by providing potential grounds for impeachment – Bolsonaro seems to confirm claims from his ex-justice minister Sergio Moro that he sought to shield his family from investigation by meddling in the federal police.

“I’m not going to wait for them to fuck my whole family or my friends just for shits and giggles,” Bolsonaro says. Nineteen of the president’s relatives are reportedly facing police scrutiny, including two sons, although Bolsonaro denies that is the case.

Bolsonaro’s coarseness made front-page headlines but many were most horrified by the lack of focus on Covid-19, which has now killed more than 21,000 Brazilians.

“On the day of the meeting Brazil had already suffered nearly 3,000 Covid deaths – and the issue simply wasn’t raised,” said Sônia Bridi, an author and broadcaster. “This just shows how we’ve been abandoned by the federal government during this pandemic.”

One of the only ministers to raise the crisis was environment chief Ricardo Salles who suggested it had distracted the press and provided good cover to enact highly controversial changes to environmental legislation.

“The minister’s words are criminally opportunistic – to take advantage of the fact that the country is facing a pandemic to advance this agenda of environmental destruction,” said Flávia Oliveira, a columnist for the newspaper O Globo.

Another source of alarm was an authoritarian outburst from Bolsonaro’s education minister, Abraham Weintraub, who branded supreme court judges “punks” who needed jailing.

Bolsonaro’s human rights minister, Damares Alves, raised the spectre of a supposed plot to contaminate indigenous people in the Amazon with Covid-19 in order to “decimate” their villages and discredit Bolsonaro.

Bridi said the video had left her feeling ashamed: “We don’t use this kind of ‘presidential’ language in my house – and my parents didn’t allow it either.”

“But more than shame I felt sadness,” Bridi added. “They have no plan for the country – and the country is now in the hands of people who are worse than unqualified.” Brazil was witnessing “the empowerment of stupidity and ignorance”.

Oliveira said she had been repulsed at Bolsonaro’s “egocentric, shallow and offensive” show.

“What you see is a government that isn’t in the slight bit engaged with the most pressing issue, not just for the country but for the whole planet.” Was it any wonder Brazil had been “plunged into this spiral of death, illness, inefficiency and incompetence” when this was the group in charge?

But one thing had come as a relief to Oliveira, who is one of Brazil’s leading black voices. Bolsonaro’s all-white and almost entirely male cabinet contained not a single Afro-Brazilian face.

“The lack of diversity is shameful … But thank goodness my black brothers and sisters aren’t part of this. Thank goodness the indigenous are not involved. It gives me the chills to say this but thank goodness this isn’t our work. It’s the work of those who have always had a supremacist and destructive vision of Brazil.”

Bolsonaro celebrated his vulgarity as proof he was a man of the people. “Is there swearing? Yes,” he told reporters. “I’m sorry – if you don’t like it vote for some boring suit next time.”

Monica de Bolle, a Brazil specialist from the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said the video was part of “a horror film that is playing out in real time”.

“None of what was said is unexpected. All of it is shocking.”