On Sunday, Brazilians elected Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency, putting an ultra-right wing authoritarian in charge of the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
His campaign was fueled by a growing movement of right-wing youth, who promoted him relentlessly on WhatsApp and other social media. They grew up under the center-left government of the Worker’s Party, which ruled Brazil from 2003 until 2016, until it effectively collapsed under the weight of economic crisis and political scandal — all of which was successfully exploited by the right.
That means they’re are also too young to remember the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985. Supporting military rule has been the centerpiece of Bolsonaro’s three-decade career in politics, and his young supporters subscribe to his version of history.
“I was born in 1997, so I didn’t live through it,” said Juan Gabriel Rodrigues Silva, a student and activist in Nova Iguaçu, a city north of Rio de Janeiro. “But when you ask normal people who lived their lives and worked, and weren’t out doing bullshit on the streets, all those people say it was the best period of their lives.”
Brazil’s military regime, with help from the United States, made a systematic effort to exterminate the left. It tightly censored the press and the arts, and it tortured, murdered, and exiled thousands. It also helped install and manage even bloodier dictatorships in Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere in South America. Bolsonaro’s words echo the military regime to this day: One week before the election, he delivered a speech promising a “cleansing” of the left.
“I’m afraid. It makes me very apprehensive that the population doesn’t know it’s history,” said Lucio Bellentani, an autoworker who was arrested in 1972 for belonging to a union at a Volkswagen plant in São Paulo. Bellentani was imprisoned for two years and tortured repeatedly with electric shocks and beatings.
“I think this is worse than the coup in ’64,” Bellentani said. “Why? Because they are taking power through democratic means. They’re using the system they never wanted — using the instruments we fought for — to gain power.”
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