As you have probably heard by now, Brazil elected a new president on Sunday, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is a far-right populist, often compared to Donald Trump but in reality probably closer in his platform to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
You might be shocked to learn that Brazil even has such borderline fascistic elements given the prominent Brazilian stereotypes among non-Brazilians. These might include things like futebol, tropical sun, caipirinhas, Carnaval, samba, and a general sense of multi-racial diversity and harmony. While all of these may certainly be parts of what makes Brazil Brazil, they are also stereotypes that only scratch the surface of a vast nation-state of almost 210 million people.
What’s less understood among foreigners or non-experts is how complex the politics and demographic make-up of Brazil are. One case in point is that up until quite recently, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship. This took place from 1964 until 1985, after which a transitional period followed for three years until 1988, when a new, fully democratic federal constitution was ratified. The twenty-one-year era of dictatorship was defined by a high level of suppression of free speech; harassment of intellectuals, artists, and dissidents; and torture. Even the Catholic Church, and especially its more progressive, pro-poor and -labor wing, was not immune to the regime.
Notably, this was also one of the few times in history when the Catholic Church deferred to a government in a predominantly Catholic nation, its role reversed from censor to censored. In the case of the military dictatorship in Brazil, a government official was tasked with reviewing O São Paulo, the most influential Catholic newspaper in the country at that time. In 1975, in the mainline Protestant magazine Christian Century, James Bruce reported,
Every Thursday afternoon, before presses can roll to produce the archdiocesan newspaper of Latin America’s largest city, a delegate from federal police headquarters in São Paulo arrives at the printer’s office and begins reading proofs. Using a felt tip pen and rubber stamp, “VETADO,” [vetoed] he gleans the grayish columns for offensive items before returning the proofs to an editor, who fills the censored gaps with overset and sends the sterilized weekly to the presses. (940)
Although O São Paulo was, at the time, the Catholic Church’s only externally censored publication, it speaks to the shifting dynamics between church and state that occurred during the twentieth century. Even in a predominantly devout Catholic nation such as Brazil, the status quo lay with the generals at the top.
Whether any similar practices of censorship will re-emerge under President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s administration are yet to be seen. But due to the incendiary rhetoric and hardline “law-and-order” policies espoused during his campaign, rights-watch organizations in Brazil and around the world are undoubtedly on high alert.
Bruce, J. (1975). “Brazil: Muzzling the Outspoken Church.” Christian Century, 92 (34), 940-942.