The strength of authoritarianism



The incompleteness of democracy in Brazil and the retreat of human rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated in 1948, took place in a good timing for Brazil, as the country had just returned to democracy after the Estado Novo dictatorship from 1937 to 1945.

Despite the return to democracy, in the period from 1946 to the 1964 coup, the Declaration had no influence. There was a voice or two of jurists or internationalists, but neither society nor the Brazilian State took into account the precepts of the Declaration.[I] There was no reference to human rights, for example, in how the police acted or how prisons were managed in the states.

We woke up to human rights during the military dictatorship, especially in the last ten years, between 1974 and 1985, when knowledge about the crimes of military agents increased.

But we were in good company in the international system because, despite the creation of the Commission on Human Rights (HRC) of the United Nations in 1946, under the presidency of Eleanor Roosevelt, after the drafting of the Universal Declaration, there was not, in the first three decades, no human rights monitoring. Why? Due to the fear that racism against black Americans would provoke an avalanche of complaints and denouncements within the scope of the Commission.

Reports of violations only began to be investigated in 1979, when a UN Special Rapporteur on the Pinochet dictatorship was appointed. At about the same time, a working group on racism in South Africa was set up by the CHR. From then on, mandates for special rapporteurs were created: first, on the human rights situation in countries, and then on the thematic ones.

What happens in Brazil after the return to civil government, initially in 1985 and then under the constitutional government of 1988? The Brazilian State will assume the grammar of human rights, without practicing the denial, denial of violations. Thus, the year 1985 was, at the same time, the return to civilian government and the beginning of a human rights State policy. From then on, regardless of the parties in government, the texts based on the Declaration, the international pacts and the conventions that followed, were soon signed and ratified by the National Congress.

Brazil was one of the first to sign the Convention against Torture, when President José Sarney spoke at the Human Rights Assembly in 1985, as well as signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the dictatorship had not signed. These texts were then ratified by the National Congress, thanks mainly to the actions of senators Severo Gomes, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Eduardo Suplicy.

Then, during the Itamar Franco government, the first assembly of human rights organizations was held at Itamaraty, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was Chancellor. It was something very emotional, as for the first time NGOs and human rights defenders were stepping into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This is precisely where the intense participation of Brazilian civil society in the World Conference in Vienna, in 1993 – Brazilian NGOs of Afro-descendants, women, children, indigenous peoples, LGBTs, a wide range of human rights organizations that gathered during every day of the conference. , with the delegation of the Brazilian government, which had just left the dictatorship. I lived that as a great moment. The declaration and the Program that emerged from the conference, largely thanks to Brazilian Ambassador Gilberto Sabóia, chairman of the drafting committee, defined democracy as the political system most capable of protecting human rights and affirmed its indivisibility between civil, political, economic, social and cultural.

One of the prescriptions recommended by the Vienna Program was the creation of National Human Rights Programs. Then, when the Fernando Henrique government began, the task of preparing the National Human Rights Program (PNDH) was undertaken. PNDH 1, launched in 1996, had as rapporteur the eminent political scientist and human rights activist, Paulo de Mesquita Neto, whose absence we regret every day. In 2002, PNDH 2 followed, where, for the first time, the Brazilian State supported affirmative policies for the rights of the black population. And then, in the Lula government, with Paulo Vannuchi as Minister of Human Rights, PNDH 3 was created, in which the prefaces of previous PNDHs were published, denoting the continuity of the State's policy of human rights.

All Brazilian governments, without exception, deepened the State's human rights policy until the government of President Dilma Rousseff, who installed the National Truth Commission. With the publication of his report in 2014, it became clear that human rights violations, arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, disappearances, murders and torture were part of the state policy of the dictatorship, in which the apex was the general president of the Republic. The main torture chiefs, like Colonel Ustra, were stationed in the Army Minister's office.

Unfortunately, impunity for those crimes and violations of human rights committed by agents of the military dictatorship was enshrined, initially, through a self-amnesty and, later, in 2010, by the Federal Supreme Court (STF) which, with its back to humanity , confirmed this amnesty, going against the norms of international law that define the legal nullity of such self-amnesties.

* *

And where do we land after all this journey? We landed in the legal-parliamentary coup d'état of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the installation of an anti-popular government platform by interim President Michel Temer, whose first decision is very symbolic: extinguish the Ministry of Human Rights. If anyone had doubts about the bad faith and the real objectives of the impeachment, the first days of the interim president's rule were extremely revealing. This government began to set back all the achievements made in the wake of the 1988 Constitution. For human rights, it is difficult to find an area where there has not been a delay: an increase in deaths among the black population, especially among poor adolescents and young people killed by the police; environmental protection; defense of the Amazon and its populations; protection of indigenous peoples; fight against homophobia, racism and gender inequalities; labor rights; freezing of budgets in health and education and other social areas, among others.

Soon after, in 2018, the presidential elections enshrined an extreme right-wing government that, in turn, interrupts the State policy of human rights. In the political transition from dictatorship to democracy, we knew that the end of dictatorship was not the beginning of democracy, that authoritarianism does not disappear with the transition, neither in the State nor in society. But, in any case, we underestimate the strength of authoritarianism in society that has re-emerged with the arrival of the extreme right to executive power.

“De-democratization” of democracy 

As a result of the installation of an extreme right-wing government, the moment in Brazil is critical. For more than 30 years there have been advances in the rule of law and in human rights policy, allowing the “democratization of democracy” to be extended,[ii] taking into account the objective interests of the popular classes. Gradually and surely, the government aimed to annul the guarantees gained under the 1988 Constitution, which began to be put in check in the area of ​​human rights, deepening a process of “de-democratization” of democracy, stripping the popular classes of their rights in particular and emptying their spaces for political participation in government decisions.

The program of destruction of the human rights State policy, in addition to being understood as an international conspiracy, is fundamentally against the economic achievements of the lower middle and poorer classes achieved especially in the Lula and Dilma governments.[iii].

The dismantling of the promotion, defense and effective enjoyment of human rights tends to assume epic proportions. The projects that make up the conservative agenda show a gradual and safe work of dismantling the achievements of the rights established under the aegis of the 1988 Constitution. reduces the age of criminal responsibility and reduces the age for entering the labor market; make the definition of slave labor more flexible; seek to repeal the Disarmament Statute; create new obstacles for the demarcation of indigenous lands; modify the Family Statute, refusing recognition of homoaffective relationships; they change the law on assistance to victims of sexual violence, making abortion more difficult; and, above all, promote the restriction and punishment of political and social demonstrations and privacy violations, encapsulated in the Anti-Terrorism Law.

The Ministry of Justice, in August 2020, prepared a dossier, criminalizing anti-fascism, in a criminal initiative to resurrect the execrable political espionage dossiers of the military dictatorship. It is not by mere chance that the far-right government built the dossier against the anti-fascists: in Italian fascism, the opposition was eliminated with fascist laws and, above all, with the repression that befell the anti-fascist movement.[iv] Fortunately, the Federal Supreme Court, in a historic decision – by 9 votes to 1, on August 21, 2020, prohibited the Ministry of Justice from making these reports on what some citizens think and act, prohibiting their distribution.

Bolsonaro and the destruction of democratic institutions

The uncontested leader of this process of “de-democratization” of democracy is the President of the Republic, Jair Bolsonaro. Since the election campaign and throughout his government, Bolsonaro has served his supporters a diet of aggression and racism. The head of government understood that euphemisms were no longer necessary when it came to attacking or humiliating women, blacks, quilombolas, indigenous people, homosexuals, Japanese, northeasterners making common cause with extreme right movements.[v]

Bolsonaro has repeatedly attacked the democratic foundations of the state in Brazil. After being the target of strong criticism for his participation in a public act in which he defended a military intervention in the country, he confessed: “People generally conspire to reach power. I'm already in power. I am already the President of the Republic”. Finally, at another point, he stated: “I am really the Constitution".[vi] Assume, in making such a statement,

“that it is the law he who does and breaks the law as he pleases”. Calling himself a representative of “law and order”, he systematically and with complete impunity attacks the laws he should constitutionally defend. .[vii] 

For more than a year, the far-right government in Brazil has been diligently carrying out its program of destroying the guarantees of democratic institutions. Bolsonaro inflates crises between the powers. He files administrative acts to inhibit investigations involving his family. He participates in demonstrations for the closure of Congress and the Federal Supreme Court. He manipulates public opinion and even the Armed Forces by propagating the idea of ​​support[viii] unconditional support from the military as a shield for their follies. Anyway, the president stops governing to dedicate himself to coup essays.[ix]

While the country is experiencing an ordeal, due to the absence of policies to face the consequences of the pandemic, the disastrous results of its denialist approach to the Coronavirus are now patent. Brazil is the second country in the world, surpassed only by the USA, in the number of deaths from Covid 19. Bolsonaro's characteristic is his fatal inability to confront reality, being flagrantly irresponsible: he qualifies Covid 19 as a mere cold; lead protests against lockdown; dismisses two ministers of health and appoints an active-duty general, a paratrooper for the position who simply acts as a stickman for the head of government, to apply his dictates pandemic denialists

No political actor elected in the constitutional period after the 1988 constitution set himself the objective of destroying public policies, built since redemocratization in 1985 and especially by the 1988 Constitution, aiming to become an autocrat. Bolsonaro was clear at a dinner at the Brazilian embassy in Washington on March 17, 2020, when he said: “Brazil is not an open land where we intend to build things for our people. We have to deconstruct a lot of things. undo a lot. Then we can start doing. That I serve so that, at least, I can be a turning point, I am already very happy”.[X]

Bolsonaro thus made us enter the escalation of extreme right-wing authoritarianism present in several countries around the world. It is not the same authoritarianism of the Estado Novo dictatorship or the military dictatorship of 1964. With other authoritarian leaders (Andrzej Duda, in Poland; Viktor Orban, in Hungary; Trump, in the United States; and with his epigone countries such as the Philippines and Israel ), Bolsonaro shares with these other far-right authoritarian governments the profile of “xenophobic, homophobic, paranoid, authoritarian and disdainful of liberal democracy. Operationally, they subvert independent institutions – the judiciary, the public service, the media and academic institutions. The great aim is to hold undisputed power.”[xi] Bolsonaro's ambition appears to be to create an autocracy: a regime in which the ruler is above the law or where the ruler's will is the law.

The incompleteness of democracy

Opinion polls have shown the consolidation of support for this entire agenda, to which must be added the high satisfaction of Brazilians with the inaction of the federal government in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Expressive satisfaction with the “so what?”, which corresponds to the tell me what I say to you, Mussolinian, I don't care, “because we all have” to die. The targets of this necropolitics, the large contingent poor and in extreme poverty, are the same ones who applaud this far-right government and its emergency aid - and they don't even realize that they only receive such aid thanks to Congress and the opposition.

The president's speech is reflected in the practices currently in vogue on social networks that, using absurd arguments, indistinctly mix different problems and present unverifiable facts. It also tends to simplify reality, reducing it to particular cases, on which it seeks to focus its narratives.

The extreme right-wing government intending to remain firmly in power effectively needs a constant ideological and propaganda mobilization, and needs, above all, an enemy against which the nation's contingents can close ranks. In the current phase, the enemy still seems to be diffuse: they are the left; the communists; defenders of the environment; human rights defenders; indigenous peoples; the intellectuals; the college students[xii]. The proposed equation is simple: patriots are the forces that support the head of government, leftists are not patriots and, not being patriots, they are the enemies of Brazil[xiii]. Or, as formulated in his last rally for President of the Republic, on Av. Paulista, one week before the election: “Petralhada, all of you go to the end of the beach. You will no longer have time in our homeland because I will cut off all your perks. You will no longer have NGOs to satisfy the hunger for mortadella.

It will be a cleaning never seen in the history of Brazil”.[xiv] He thus made reference to a naval base in Restinga de Marambaia (RJ), once an important warehouse for the slave trade, where opponents of the military regime would have been tortured and executed.

How can one explain such great support from the Brazilian population, uniting the poorest and neediest to the white plutocracy around a platform that buries the virtuous State policy of human rights, built with great difficulty in Brazil during the more than 30 years of the Constitution of 1988? Among the innumerable reasons, the strongest is that “due to its socioeconomic content, democracy absolutely did not materialize really and entirely, but remained formal.”[xv] And we could characterize, in this sense, the extreme right government and the wide popular support as “scars of a democracy that has not been consolidated, which is incomplete”.[xvi]

In my view, in Brazil, three main factors here expose the incompleteness of democracy envisaged in the 1988 Constitution – racism, inequality and illegal state violence – composing, as a whole, an unconstitutional state of affairs.

Brazil is a racist country, democratic governments, in thirty years of full constitutionality, have not been able to quell, despite affirmative policies and racial quotas, the apartheid that prevails in all spaces of the life of the black population. There can be no consolidated democracy with black men and women being the ones who are most executed in the outskirts of the metropolises by the PMs; those with the greatest number among inmates; scarcely present in places of power, such as the executive, legislative, judiciary, public ministry, universities, senior officers of the armed forces and police, despite being the majority, currently constituting 56% of the Brazilian population. They are permanently targets of racism in their daily lives: in relation to whites, they have the worst jobs, receive lower wages and heavier sentences for the same crimes, configuring a state of affairs that, in addition to being unconstitutional, is at least vile and immoral.

Brazil remains one of the six most unequal countries in the world. Democratic governments, despite having lifted millions out of extreme poverty, have not effectively managed to make Brazilian society less unequal: the richest 1% concentrate 28,3% of the country's total income. Brazil is second only to Qatar, where the rate is 29%. According to Oxfam, the six richest people in Brazil – Lemann (AB Inbev), Safra (Banco Safra), Hermmann Telles (AB Inbev), Sicupira (AB Inbev), Saverin (Facebook) and Ermirio de Moraes (Votorantim Group) – concentrate together, the same wealth as the poorest 100 million in the country, that is, half of the Brazilian population (207,7 million).

Since national states were constituted, violence against citizens has been present. Because the State is a contradictory entity that, on the one hand, concentrates the capacity to do good for the population and, on the other hand, is the holder of the violence with which it can oppress citizens. Universal declarations, both American and French, proposed to limit violations against citizens, defending those who need protection. The statement that best expressed this defense was the Universal Declaration of 1948, followed by international covenants and conventions that made this defense increasingly precise. The rule of law that emanated from them should not make us forget that the State, above all else, is an instance of domination. [xvii]

The hard core of public security, written by the dictatorship, survived the 1988 constituent, contributing both to the extremely high level of police lethality and to the impunity of crimes committed by State agents during the dictatorship. The military police of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are world champions in extrajudicial executions. No country beats us. Despite the commitment of several state governments and the federal government to establish plans and reforms for public security, the extermination of the poor, mainly teenagers and young blacks, has not been eliminated.

Countries in the Southern Cone that punished criminals under dictatorships are better able to resist the authoritarian outbreak than here, where the Federal Supreme Court guaranteed, in 2010, impunity for crimes committed by the Brazilian State during military dictatorships.

In our case, to further aggravate the fragility of the State under attack by the extreme right wing, combined with the tolerance of an informal military junta of 10 military ministers and an elected general vice president, there persists, in addition to the incompleteness of our democracy, the illusion that democratic institutions are strong, when, on the contrary, it is verified that the National Congress, Superior Courts, Public Prosecutor's Office are witnessing the dismantling of their powers by the executive branch, with almost no resistance.

This process adds to the inability of the opposition to organize themselves in a broad front against the extreme right government.

There is a tendency to assert, in order to reassure the conscience, that in every democracy there is a residue of incorrigibles and madmen, a lunatic fringe, a lunatic portion of the population.[xviii] But it is a deep circular mistake to use this statement as a form of consolation in the face of the threats that erupt in everyday life, on the part of the extreme right, in society and in the government. The head of government or the extreme right movements should not be underestimated because of their low intellectual level or their low level of theory. This would be proof of a total lack of political vision, leading to the belief that “they are doomed to failure”. Underestimating the head of government for his vulgar and rude expressions is a mistake, as they are part of a method that has very clear objectives. [xx]

Brazilian men and women who, in good faith, respond to the “myth”, will only be able to detach themselves from the extreme right if they see effective possibilities of being integrated into the economy, of having their social ties repaired and of having the illegal violence of the State quelled, O apartheid of the Brazilian black majority, inequality and income concentration.

In addition to political combat through political means, it must be faced in its most specific terrain. There is a need to build the foundations of a unitary policy that should characterize resistance to the extreme right government[xx] and your project

“de-democratization” of democracy. If this does not happen, due to the inability of the opposition to form a front, the leadership of the current head of government will become increasingly virulent and powerful.

The large community of intellectuals, universities, human rights defenders, journalists, political parties, movements in defense of victims of rights violations and attacks by the government, has a serious responsibility to prevent the ongoing reconstruction of an authoritarian state for the government. It never hurts to remember that “The way things will evolve and the responsibility for this evolution depends, ultimately, on ourselves”.[xxx]

More than ever, civil society's systematic attention to the present situation and to articulated actions by human rights defense entities is crucial. It is essential that human rights entities remain on the alert to prevent and stop an escalation of authoritarianism and violence. We need to monitor all measures taken to attack civil society, to restrict public freedoms and to undermine the rule of law. Because, after all, the rule of law is the indicator that reveals in practice how the constitutional order works and will help to prevent setbacks in the protection of human rights. A daily struggle that must emerge, as permanent must be the defense of democracy, rights and freedoms.

Faced with this offensive against our constitutionality and hard-won rights, we believe it is necessary to defend the demands and rules of democracy and pronounce on these frankly regressive bills of legislation, which refer, many of them, to themes and areas of investigation that have been deepened by our research. This dismantling of rights directly attacks our convictions and democratic values. Thus, we understand that we must break the silence to, through a public debate, contribute to the support and expansion of these rights and the deepening of our democratic coexistence.

*Paulo Sergio Pinheiro is a retired professor of political science at USP and former Minister of Human Rights.



[I] See one of the only existing studies on these themes during this period, Battibugli, Thais. Police, Democracy and Politics in São Paulo – 1946 – 1964. São Paulo, Editora Humanitas, 2010.

[ii] The notion of “democratization of democracy” was inspired by Ramonet, Ignacio, “Democratizing democracy”, The day,10.11.2005,  

[iii] Matteotti, Giacomo, “Discorso alla Camera dei Deputati”, 31 gennaio 1921 cit. Abeltaro, Marco. Mussolini and Fascism.Milano, Solferino, 2018, p.139.

[iv] In Italian fascism, thousands of people considered by the government as anti-fascists were prosecuted by the Special Court of Defense of the State and arrested by its political police at Organizzazione per la Vigilanza e la Repressione dell'Antifascismo (OVRA), founded by Mussolini. Faced with such threats, many other people were even forced to go into exile abroad. From February 1927 to July 1943, 15.800 people were taken to the Special Court, 12.330 were confined and 160.000 were placed under special surveillance. In total, 27.735 people were incarcerated and 42 were sentenced to death. They were communists, socialists, liberal democrats, Catholics and without a party (see Albetaro, op. cit., p.88-89).

[v] Shatz, Adam, “Why go high? Adam Shatz on America's defective democracy”, London Review of Books, vol.45, n. 22, 19 November 2020.

[vi] View: part-de-act-pros-coup.shtml

[vii] Butler, Judith, “Is the show finally over for Donald Trump?, The Guardian, 5.11.2020

[viii] Arns Commission, “The President has lost the condition to govern” Folha de S Paulo, 17.5.2020, p.3 l

[ix] Idem.

[X] Alencar, Kennedy, “Bolsonaro is deconstructing Brazil”, 2019,  On the same occasion, the President of the Republic attacked the Special Commission on the Dead and Disappeared, created by law in 1995, replacing 4 of its 7 members. He did this after lying about the conclusions of the Truth Commission and about a missing person from 64, Fernando Santa Cruz, father of the president of the OAB, Felipe Santa Cruz.

[xi] Wolff, Martin, “Alarm signals for our authoritarian age”,    Financial Times, 21.7,2020

[xii] albetaro, op.cit.,p.100

[xiii] Albetaro, op.cit., p.125

[xiv] VIEW -dictatorship.shtml 

[xv] Adorno, Theodore. W. Le new extremisme de droite. Paris, Climates, 2019. p.23-24.See also Pinheiro,

Paulo S., “The new right-wing extremism”, Arns Commission, 20.10.2020.

[xvi] Same, p.24

[xvii] Rousseau, Dominique, “La peur de la mort remet aux commandes le principe de sécurité contre le principe de liberté”, Le Monde , 20.10.2020 : “L'idée d'État de droit avait fini par faire oublier que l'Etat est d'abord une instance de domination; elle avait cru repousser loin dans les consciences la représentation de l'Etat « monster froid », comme le désignait Nietzsche. Lacrisis opère sur le mode d'un retour du refoulé: le droit n'était que l'apparence civilisée d'un Etat qui reste pure expression de la puissance”.

[xviii] See for example magazine cover This is, 18.11.2020, year 43, n.2653, in which the president is made a Joker of criminal Batman, classified as “inconsequential, irresponsible, insane”.

[xx] See Devega, Chauncey “Historian Timothy Snyder on Trump's war on democracy: He is deliberately

“hurting white people”; Yale historian Timothy Snyder's new book documents Trump's “sadopopulism” and America's “Road to Unfreedom”, 9.5.2018;

[xx] albetaro, op.cit, p.90

[xxx] Adornment, op. cit, P.70

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