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“Scarcely a week into Jair Bolsonaro’s tenure as president of Brazil, protections for the environment and indigenous and LGBTQ populations have been removed, and both the neoliberal economic policies closely associated in Latin America with the thirteen-year Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and the language of Brazil’s military junta, which ruled from 1964 to 1985, have resurfaced. “I come before the nation today, a day in which the people have rid themselves of socialism, the inversion of values, statism, and political correctness,” Bolsonaro told his inaugural crowd, pleasing Brazil’s elites and the stock market. His call for surgical violence—Brazil’s “whole body needs amputating” was the memorable phrase—left others fearful of a return to “disappeared” bodies and torture cells.
Threat is a fundamental tool of the 21st-century authoritarians on the rise: Dominating is much easier if you’ve prepared people to be afraid of you when you take office. Bolsonaro used it to sell himself as the only candidate capable of tackling Brazil’s soaring violence problem, which included a record murder rate in 2017. “A good criminal is a dead criminal,” he said last fall, earning comparisons to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made good on his own campaign promises to carry out extrajudicial killings of those involved in his country’s drug trade.
Yet Bolsonaro has also preventively criminalized all leftists and other political opponents, promising to send such “red outlaws” to prison or into exile. “It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history,” he said in October, raising the possibility that he might aspire to be even harsher than the former junta, which he believes didn’t kill enough people. Years of documented Bolsonaro hate speech against gays and blacks suggest other potential targets, although even if he gets a ruling majority in parliament, “cleansing” an enormous country with a multiracial and ethnically complex population would be a Herculean task.”
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