Midterm elections in the United States have shaken national politics, but they are hardly this season’s most important message from angry voters. That message came from Brazil. On Oct. 28, a right-wing former military officer, Jair Bolsonaro, won the Brazilian presidency with 55 percent of the vote. His outspoken misogyny and flamboyant racism are beyond disconcerting. Even scarier is his open admiration for dictatorship and torture.
As frightening as those views are, however, only Brazilians will feel their effects. The rest of us have something worse to fear. Bolsonaro is determined to open the vast Amazon rain forest to agribusiness, logging, and mining. If he keeps his promises, he will do more to hasten the death of the planet than any other world leader could even dream of doing.
Most of the Amazon rain forest — more than 1 million square miles, four times the size of Texas — lies within Brazil’s borders. It produces nearly 20 percent of the world’s oxygen and is the planet’s single greatest resource for “capturing” greenhouse gases. Its combination of damp climate and enormous size has made it the world’s most diverse natural environment. Many of its human inhabitants — about half a million people — belong to indigenous tribes. Their way of life, which flourished for centuries before European colonizers arrived, has been protected by a series of laws preventing intrusive development of their traditional homelands.
Recent Brazilian presidents permitted more development in the rain forest than some wished, but Bolsonaro is determined to go further and faster. He has announced that he will effectively abolish Brazil’s Ministry of Environment by merging it with the Ministry of Agriculture. He also wants to wipe away indigenous reserves, which he says dot the Amazon basin like chickenpox. “Where there is indigenous land,” he reasons, “there is wealth underneath it.” In order to improve access to the rain forest for those who want to loot it, he proposes to proceed with plans to build a highway through one of its most undeveloped corridors. He wants to modify or repeal laws, some dating back more than half a century, that require farmers and ranchers to keep part of their land forested.
Some Brazilians call Bolsonaro “the Trump of the tropics.” It is an apt comparison. Bolsonaro is given to outrageous comments. He told a female legislator that he wouldn’t bother to rape her because she is “not worthy of it” and asserted that Afro-Brazilians are “not even good for procreation.” Despite his populist rhetoric, he is intimately allied with the country’s business elite, which along with foreign corporations is salivating at the prospect of rich virgin territories to exploit. He fits not only with Trump but with authoritarian leaders who have come to power in Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines.
In one way, though, Bolsonaro is scarier than any of those other political thugs. He is not only a provocateur who thrives by turning people against each other, but also a product of the darkest period in modern Latin American history. Brazil was under military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. During those years, the rule of law was suspended. Police killed hundreds of dissidents and tortured thousands more.
Bolsonaro considers that to have been a golden age. He has called torture a “legitimate practice,” and said it is time for a Brazilian government to “do the job that the military regime didn’t do: killing 30,000.”
For two decades beginning in the mid-1960s, millions of Latin Americans lived under terror dictatorships, most of them supported by the United States. The prospect of a return to that era is chilling. It was hardly lessened when President Trump, who called Bolsonaro to congratulate him on his victory, said they would work “side-by-side” as “regional leaders of the Americas.”
Brazil’s incoming president threatens his country’s fragile social peace while preparing to lay waste to the world’s most valuable natural resource. Already there are online calls for global revolt. One urges “a worldwide campaign to discourage tourists and others from visiting Brazil for anything other than protesting.” Another declares that “no one should buy coffee, cocoa, soy and wood, nor oil from Brazil as long as the rainforest isn’t saved.”
These reactions, like ranting against the “deplorables” who vote for political arsonists like Bolsonaro and Trump, are understandable but simplistic. Voters turn to these macho demagogues for good reason. In Brazil, as in the United States, politics reeks of corruption. Violence is escalating. The gap between rich and poor is appalling. Ruling elites do not speak to the needs of ordinary people. Many of those people become so angry that they vote for horrifyingly destructive alternatives.
Mainstream politicians in Brazil, the United States, and elsewhere lament this course of events. They bear much of the blame themselves.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.