Despatch from Sau Paulo | International

Always in attack mode

Roberto Alvim, Brazil’s former Secretary of Culture, in Brasilia.

Roberto Alvim, Brazil’s former Secretary of Culture, in Brasilia.   | Photo Credit: Eraldo Peres

Brazil’s top govt. leaders are accused of using racial slurs and Nazi slogans to attack their rivals

With music from Wagner’s Lohengrin playing in the background, Roberto Alvim (in picture) read a message into a camera. “Brazilian art in the next decade will be heroic and national...,” said Mr. Alvim, sitting under a portrait of President Jair Bolsonaro. As the video, recorded by Brazil’s Special Secretary for Culture, was shared online last Friday, many were horrified to note that Mr. Alvim had paraphrased the words of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels with Hitler’s favourite opera in the background. But the Brazilian official dismissed it as just a “rhetorical coincidence”.

Reluctant to take any action against Mr. Alvim, President Bolsonaro let him go only after the Embassies of Israel and Germany blasted Mr. Alvim for using the toxic words of a Nazi to announce a $4.8 million initiative to promote Brazilian culture with conservative and religious themes. Unapologetic, Mr. Alvim left the post last week but not before sending a message in which he blamed a “satanic action” for his resignation.

Hardly a week passes here without a government official saying something that causes major embarrassment to the administration. Many statements, including those by Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, have been triggered by a belief in the government that it is fighting a “cultural war with Marxists” — a reference to the centre-left Workers’ Party, which ruled Brazil from 2003 to 2016. “It is extremely shocking to see top Ministers peddling stories that claim that ‘Nazism was a leftist movement’ and that ‘climate change is a Marxist conspiracy’,” says a European diplomat based in Brasilia. “You can’t attribute this to ignorance. This is all by design,” he adds, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since coming to power in 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro has packed his government with the people who are deeply hostile to progressive ideas. Abraham Weintraub, the Minister of Education, leads the pack in attacking “communists”. In a speech in 2018, Mr. Weintraub said that communists “are the top of the country. They are the top of financial organisations; they are the owners of newspapers; they are the owners of large companies; they are the owners of monopolies...” After the speech made noise across the country, Gerd Wenzel, a columnist for Deutsche Welle, pointed out that Mr. Weintraub’s speech was “plagiarism from the 1930s in Germany”: he had just exchanged “communists” for “Jews”.

Brazil is the world’s fifth-biggest democracy and one of the top 10 economies. After years in recession, its economy has begun to show signs of recovery. But its reputation as a matured democracy has taken a serious hit, with the policies and pronouncements of its top Ministers. Just this week, Paulo Guedes, the Economy Minister who cut his teeth into unbridled neoliberalism in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime, blamed the poor for climate crisis. “Nature’s worst enemy is poverty. People destroy the environment because they need to eat,” Mr. Guedes said at a panel of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Outrageous comments

The problem certainly lies at the top. President Bolsonaro hardly let go off an opportunity to make outrageous comments to attack his “enemies”, which includes the media, and fire up his far-right base. In July, as the journalist Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of the news website ‘The Intercept’, began to publish reports that exposed a “collaboration” between a judge and prosecutors that led to the conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Mr. Bolsonaro launched an attack on the American journalist, calling him a “trickster” and suggesting that he should be jailed or deported. (This week, Mr. Greenwald was charged with “cybercrimes” by Brazil’s federal prosecutors.)

In a country with so many social issues crying for attention, Mr. Bolsonaro always finds time to attack his favourite target: the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. On Thursday, the President said the indigenous people “are evolving” and they are “more and more human being like us”. On Friday, Sônia Guajajara, one of Brazil’s most prominent indigenous leaders, announced that she would sue Mr. Bolsonaro for the “crime of racism”. “We, the original inhabitants of this land, demand respect. Once again, Bolsonaro rips up the Constitution by denying our humanity,” said Ms. Guajajara. “We demand an end to such perversion.”

But with the Bolsonaro government showing no signs of giving up its anti-environment policies, more insults may be in store for these tribes.

(Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo)

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 7:20:25 PM |

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