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The Challenge to Democracy in Brazil

TUC report
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Democracy and Human Rights

Although constitutional law and democratic elections returned to Brazil in the 1980s, the effective promise of respect for human rights remains unfulfilled. Former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, describes Brazil as having ‘democracy without citizenship’:40 the rights and ideals of citizenship expressed in Brazil’s 1988 constitution have never been realised for the majority. Millions of Brazilians live in fear, in territories controlled violently by militias, rural oligarchs, or criminal groups. Public security and a functional legal system simply do not exist across large swathes of Brazil, and where they do exist, they often serve to enforce structural inequality and systemic violence against the working class and the poor and, in particular, Black Brazilians.

Unequal access to civil and political rights is underpinned by Brazil's stark economic and social inequalities, which, in turn, are legacies of its history of colonialism, slavery and authoritarianism. The “paradox”, as Pinheiro puts it, is that the return of Brazilian democracy did not end the everyday violence carried out by state agents. The PT in government sought to enhance the political citizenship of the poor and working class by bolstering social rights and building a culture of human rights. However, even at the height of its electoral success, the PT possessed less than 18% of parliamentary seats in either House, making it impossible to eradicate the authoritarian structures of the Brazilian state. Reinforcing these structures, Bolsonaro has rapidly reversed the advances previously made. As Jandyra Massue Uehara Álves, Secretary of Human Rights at the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), told us:

  • 40 Pinheiro, P. S., ‘The Paradox of Democracy in Brazil’, The Brown Journal of World Affairs 8, 2 (Winter 2002):15.

Since Bolsonaro assumed the presidency of the republic, we have been experiencing the growth of an environment of violence and of human rights violations in Brazil. We have, in the presidency of the republic, an individual who is on the extreme right, with the support of the most backward sectors of the armed forces. The environment that this has created in Brazil stimulates violence against workers, especially against some groups.

Jandyra Massue Uehara Álves, Secretary of Human Rights at the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT)

This chapter will focus on the erosion of human rights and democratic norms in Brazil under Bolsonaro, while other chapters focus on the impacts on distinct groups -- workers, women, members of LGBT+ communities, and Black and Indigenous populations.

Political violence

Political violence is on the rise in Brazil. According to The Brazilian Report, 15 candidates, pre-candidates and party officials were murdered during municipal election campaigns between 1 September and 4 November 2020. A survey by the NGO Terra de Direitos e Justiça Global records 125 cases of political murder and attempted murder over the last five years, and, in total, 327 cases of political violence.41  Much of this violence targets municipal representatives: 92 per cent of victims of political violence were city councillors, mayors, deputy mayors, or candidates for local office. According to the International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index, two trade union leaders were also murdered in 2020.42

The most famous victim of political violence in recent years was Marielle Franco, a Black, socialist, bisexual city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), who was brutally murdered in 2018 by members of a Rio de Janeiro militia with close ties to Bolsonaro and his family. The investigation into her murder, and who might have ordered it, continues, though there has been little progress after more than three-and-a-half years.43  A number of prominent critics of Bolsonaro, such as ex-congressman Jean Wyllys (formerly of PSOL, but now affiliated to the PT), have been forced out of the country due to death threats.

Bolsonaro has frequently made violent threats against left-wing parties and politicians. During a 2018 campaign event, he spoke of machine-gunning PT supporters.44 In April 2020, he allegedly came close to ordering the military to shut down the country’s Supreme Court.[5] At pro-Bolsonaro rallies, it is common to hear calls for the execution of Supreme Court justices and for a ‘final solution’ for Brazil’s Congress. 45 In 2021, facing declining political fortunes, Bolsonaro has intensified his anti-democratic rhetoric and issued threats of a coup, as will be further discussed later in this section.

State violence

An enduring legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship is the militarisation of the police. The assignment of public security functions to military forces is estimated to be part of the reason for why Brazil regularly tops global rankings for police killings: 5,804 were reported in 2019, almost 15 per cent of all murders committed that year. 47 Police in Rio de Janeiro State alone killed 1,810 citizens in 2019. The victims of police violence are almost all poor. Of those killed in Rio de Janeiro, 78 per cent were Black or mixed race. 48 However, official figures do not account for those killed by off-duty police or death squads, which, over the last two decades, have expanded their activities in many Brazilian cities.49

Brazil has the third highest prison population in the world, with 773,000 prisoners in a system with a maximum capacity of 461,026. 50  Over a third of all prisoners are under pre-trial detention. Conditions in prison are appalling, with little or no access to healthcare or education, and endemic violence. 51  This situation has fueled the rise of organised crime. Powerful drug-trafficking factions such as São Paulo’s First Command of the Capital (PCC) and Rio de Janeiro’s Red Command (CV) formed in prisons to provide mutual protection to inmates, and have expanded along with the prison population. Prison riots periodically occur, often resulting in deadly violence committed by criminal factions or police.

For Bolsonaro, the conditions faced by prisoners are of little concern. Rather, he has consistently advocated the return of capital punishment, as well as arbitrary state and vigilante violence. For instance, he once defended an infamous death squad in Bahia on the grounds that ‘as long as the state doesn’t have the courage to adopt the death sentence, the crime of extermination... is very welcome’. 52  He also ran for president promising to end restraints on police violence, characterising these as products of the excessive influence of human rights advocates. In government, he has pushed for legislation that would effectively grant police a license to kill in any situation in which they feel threatened. This measure was included in an anti-crime bill put forward by Sergio Moro during his period as justice minister. A slightly watered-down version ultimately passed through Congress, in 2019, granting police the right to use lethal force to ensure the safety of hostages. 53

Authoritarianism under Bolsonaro

In 2021, Bolsonaro and his allies in Congress have pushed for significant and highly regressive changes to Brazil’s electoral system. 54 The proposals would increase impunity for electoral corruption and voter intimidation, weaken policies aimed at enhancing racial and gender diversity in politics, and hand greater power to political parties that trade their votes in Congress for financial rewards.55  One proposal is for a system in which only individual tallies (rather than party tallies) are counted. This would advantage established candidates with greater political connections and resources. Another proposal would dramatically reduce the role of the electoral justice system to regulate, investigate and punish political candidates and parties. It would also give parties more autonomy over campaign spending and cut reporting requirements and mean that those guilty of illegal campaign financing would only incur small fines.

So far, the President has failed to get sufficient numbers to back these proposals, but neither has the opposition succeeded in defeating them. 56

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro and his supporters have already stepped-up efforts to discredit next year’s election results in the event he is defeated, giving rise to fears there will be violence, some kind of anti-democratic rebellion (of the sort seen in the US on 6 January 2021), or even a coup. Bolsonaro has claimed that the electronic voting machines used in Brazil are susceptible to fraud and tampering and that the political establishment plans to rig the election to get Lula back into power.57

Press freedom

Bolsonaro has targeted activists, journalists and academics with threats of violence, smear campaigns, and other forms of intimidation. Female journalists have been especially targeted, in some cases with misogynistic accusations and even rape threats. 58

The government has gone as far as publishing a list of journalists, activists, and social media influencers that it considers hostile to its agenda, and has encouraged its supporters to attack them online. It has also used the dictatorship-era National Security Law to investigate critics. For instance, Brazil’s most popular YouTuber, Felipe Neto, was investigated for the ‘corruption of minors’ for referring to Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic as ‘genocidal’. While a judge dismissed the claim, Bolsonaro’s use of the courts against political opponents marks a disturbing turn.59 Prominent supporters of the president, including his own son, congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, have called for a new Institutional Act Five 60 (known as AI-5) to suppress his critics – a reference to the most notorious decree of the dictatorship, which removed political freedoms and institutionalised torture. 61


Systemic corruption has plagued Brazil since the birth of the republic, and anti-corruption politics has been central to many of the most important events in the country’s political history. The military coup of 1964, for example, was justified partly as a measure to end political corruption. To assert that corruption in Brazil is systemic is to recognise it as an embedded feature of institutions, rather than an act of bad individuals or particular political parties.

The country’s fragmented political system has made governance dependent on the formation of coalitions of expediency. Financial rewards tend to be provided to politicians and parties in return for support in the Legislature. But the practice of illegal exchange has also historically defined relations between political parties and big business.

As detailed in Chapter One, when the Lava Jato Operation was launched, in 2014, it was seen as representing a significant step on the path to tackling this sort of corruption. It was highlighted by Transparency International, as well as the United Nations, as offering a model for anti-corruption operations in the Global South.62

However, critics claim Lava Jato has been politically slanted and exemplifies ‘lawfare’ (the use of the legal system to take down political opponents), pointing to political biases and disregard for due process. This type of lawfare has been an increasingly common tactic employed by the Latin American right, in collaboration with the United States, to undermine left-wing governments. 63  As the political bias of Lava Jato has become clearer, so has the role of US in the operation. 64

Such criticisms were validated by The Intercept’s landmark ‘Vaza Jato’ (Jet Leak) exposé. Leaked messages revealed that Lava Jato’s prosecutors had repeatedly broken the law in pursuit of convictions. The messages confirmed suspicions that the prosecutors had colluded with judge Sergio Moro, and with certain members of the Supreme Court. They exposed the hostility of prosecutors towards the PT, and the reluctance to pursue political allies of Lava Jato, such as former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and other figures from the centre-right PSDB. Key business allies were also revealed as receiving favourable treatment, while Supreme Court judges considered a threat were subject to illegal surveillance.65

Lava Jato was only possible because of anti-corruption reforms passed by the PT. Having capitalised on anti-corruption politics to secure his election, Bolsonaro has since sought to protect himself and his family from investigations by dismantling existing legal mechanisms. Even protagonists in the Lava Jato Operation now recognise Bolsonaro as a threat to anti-corruption in Brazil. The leading prosecutor, Deltan Dallagol, resigned from the task force, claiming that the Prosecutor General, Augusto Aras, had been undermining investigations into the president’s family. Moro himself resigned as Justice Minister purportedly on the grounds that Bolsonaro was interfering in the appointment of the head of the federal police.

With the PT out of power, much of the political class lost interest in sustaining the operation, and the Vaza Jato revelations provided an opportunity for them to clip its wings. Following the revelations that they were being spied upon by Lava Jato investigators, Supreme Court justices moved to curtail its powers. The judgement against Lula was overturned, leading to his release. Lava Jato itself was officially ended in February 2021 and a month later, Lula’s original conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. Lula thus had his political rights restored and is now eligible again to run for president in 2022. Another Supreme Court ruling found that Moro had not been impartial during Lula’s trial 66 , effectively making it impossible for Lula to be retried. Despite Lava Jato’s undignified demise, such investigations are likely to remain political tools wielded by the powerful in a country plagued by systemic corruption.

  • 41 Alves, R., ‘Brazil’s epidemic of political violence head of Municipal Elections’, The Brazilian Report, November 8, 2020.
  • 42 ITUC, Global Rights Index 2021
  • 43 Carvalho, I, “Marielle, Jair and militias, a web of facts exposing the president’s underworld”, Brasil de Fato, 14 March 2020
  • 44
  • 45 Gugliano, M, “Vou Intervir”, Piaui, edição 167, August 2020
  • 47 BBC, ‘Rio violence: Police killings reach record high in 2019’, 23 January 2020.
  • 48 Ibid
  • 49 Dalby, C, “Killing of Brazil’s Top Militia Leader Raise More Questions Than it Answers,” Insight Crime, 16 June 2021
  • 50 Human Rights Watch, Country Report: Brazil, 2019.
  • 51 Human Rights Watch, “Behind Bars in Brazil”, 2019
  • 52 Richmond, M. and Fogel, B., ‘Outsourcing Repression’, Jacobin, June 4, 2019.
  • 53 Reuters, “Bolsonaro signs anti-crime bill designed to tackle violence in Brazil”, December 25,2019
  • 54 Brito, R and Boadle, A, “Bolsonaro picks new top cop after clashing with Brazil’s Supreme Court”, Reuters, May 4, 2020
  • 55 Fishman, A, “Bolsonaro Allies in Brazilian Congress Pushing Sweeping Electoral Changes to keep hold on power”, The Intercept, August 11, 2021
  • 56
  • 57 Camelo, J, “Lula’s plan to build bridges with Brazil’s military”, The Brazilian Report, August 16, 2021
  • 58 Article 19, ‘Brazil: Media freedom at crisis point as Government fails to protect journalists’, Article 19, June 2020
  • 59 Fishman, A, “Bolsonaro ramps up crack on dissent with Touch Brazil election looming”, The Intercept, June 12, 2021
  • 60…
  • 61 Al Jazeera, “Brazil outrage as minister references authoritarian 1I-5 decree”, 26 November 2019
  • 62 See Fogel, B, “Brazil’s Never-Ending Criss”, Catalyst, Vol 2, No2, Summer 2018 and Fogel, B, “Brazil’s Corrupt Anticorruption Campaign”, Tribune, August 3, 2020
  • 63 Fogel, B, “The Problem with “Anti-Corruption””, Jacobin, February 3, 2021
  • 64 Fishman, A, “House Democrats Want Answers About U.S. role in Disgrace Brazilian Corruption Probe”, The Intercept, June 8, 2021
  • 65 Martins, R, Audi, A, Demori, L, Greenwald, G, and Dias, T,” Tem Alguma Coisa Mesmo Séria do FHC?”, The Intercept, June 6, 2018
  • 66  Reuters, “Brazil Supreme Court confirms ruling that judge was biased against Lula”, June 23, 2021
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