Brazil’s not descending into chaos – but obscurantism

ANYONE UNFAMILIAR with the complexities of Brazil is forgiven for not understanding how a nation goes from being seen as an example of democratic progress and a promise of economic inclusion to a bizarre spectacle of chaotic politics, a tropical House of Cards unashamedly exposing its guts to the world, barely months before the Olympic Games – a photo opportunity most countries would love to have.

But it’s not chaos Brazil is descending into; it’s obscurantism.

Sad coincidence that I write as the news of a gang rape of a teenager in Rio by 33 men sparks a debate on Brazil’s culture of rape, highlighting how far we still need to go to achieve anything closer to a society of empowered citizens.

But what relation is there between that and Brazilian politics at the highest level?

Consider the replacement of Brazil’s first female president with an all-white, all-male cabinet. The first time since 1979 Brazil’s cabinet is formed without a single woman will mean the country will plummet several positions next time the World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Index and ranking are released.

This week, the new Education Minister, Mendonça Filho, welcomed in his office the former soap opera actor-turned-porn star Alexandre Frota, known for admitting on national TV to raping a woman – perhaps tellingly, a priestess of an Afro-Brazilian religion. His disturbing description of the incident, during a comedy show, prompted laughter among the audience.

Demonstrators outside Brazil's Congress in the capital, Brasilia (José Cruz/ABr)

Demonstrators in Brasilia demand change – but what kind? (José Cruz/ABr)

The porn star’s ideas for national education include banning the teaching of anything seen as “partisan” in schools – criticising slavery, for example, or discussing social subjects in general.

Just weeks before that, the interim government was forced to retreat after it floated the idea of appointing a Creationist (someone who rejects the Evolution theory) as Science Minister.

And at some point, it also considered a Congresswoman who voted for tightening restrictions on abortions (even in cases of rape) as the head of the recently downgraded human rights office.

Are these only unrelated facts? Brazil plunges into the shadows as a weak new government is forced to rely on the country’s most conservative sectors for political support, amplifying their voice and leverage.

After the barbaric rape of the teenager in Rio, acting president Michel Temer has promised to crack down on violence against women and announced measures to coordinate police efforts in such cases.

But he surely sees the limits of his power, owing to politicians linked to fervent religious groups and ultra conservative social views (not to mention the gun industry and powerful agribusinesses).

A sort of Tea Party south of the Equator, but with the authoritarian tinges of an unripe Latin American democracy; one where a Congressman uses his vote to impeach President Rousseff to praise the military who tortured her in captivity during the country’s military dictatorship.

The Congressman was Jair Bolsonaro, who once told a fellow Congresswoman that he “wouldn’t rape her, because she did not deserve it”.

What has the culture of rape in Brazil to do with politics at the highest level?
What has the culture of rape in Brazil to do with politics at the highest level?

No wonder activists fear recent social advances in Brazil are under threat of being reverted.

Last week, the Inter American Human Rights Court in Washington strongly criticised the government for extinguishing the Ministries for Gender Equality, Minorities and Human Rights.

And in the context of a growing anti-civil rights sentiment, gay rights activists will stage protests in Sao Paulo’s million-strong Gay Pride, concerned with the normalization of open homophobia.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion in a democracy. But the fact that Brazil’s newly empowered conservatives are imposing their agenda without being voted in speaks against their democratic credentials – and Brazilian democracy, full stop.

Our political situation may all sound overwhelming and confusing to outside eyes – but it’s not necessarily chaotic. One can argue there is a clear logic in it. Eerily clear logic in fact.

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