Why did Brazil elect Jair Bolsonaro?

“The Economist” cover from September

Click here for the Portuguese version

If you follow the news, you know that Brazil has been going through some complicated stuff. On October 28th, the country elected Jair Bolsonaro (who received 55% of the votes, against 44% of his adversary, Fernando Haddad). The result came after the second round of voting — the first round occurred on October 4th. This article was originally published on October 22nd and has since been updated to reflect the election results.

Bolsonaro’s election, however, was extremely controversial, as his statements are largely regarded as homophobic, racist and misogynistic. He’s been very vocal against same-sex marriage, abortion, drug legalization, immigration, racial quotas, land reform, and so on. He’s often compared to Donald Trump, as has praised the president of the United States on many occasions.

But Bolsonaro is not Trump. He’s worse.

Jair Bolsonaro

A wannabe dictator

Bolsonaro is known for defending the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, saying that the only mistake the military made back then was torturing but not killing (enough) people. He’s also said that Brazil will only improve “after a civil war that kills at least 30,000 people, beginning with Fernando Henrique Cardoso [Brazil’s president from 1995 to 2003].”

His views have sparked outrage not only in Brazil but also abroad. He’s been criticized by foreign press and personalities such as Madonna, Cher, Roger Waters, Stephen Fry, Ellen Page, Dua Lipa, and of course, John Oliver. In fact, I recommend that you watch the following video:

Some of his statements include:

About the LGBT community

“No parent is proud of having a gay child.”

“I would be incapable of loving a gay child. I’d rather have a dead child.”

“If your kid starts acting a little gay, you just beat them up and they’ll change.”

“A child adopted by a gay couple has a 90% chance of also becoming gay and a male prostitute. The next step is legalizing pedophilia.”

“If a kid is friends with someone who smokes weed, they’ll end up doing cocaine. And if they’re friends with gays, they’ll become fags for sure.”

About women

“I wouldn’t pay the same salary to a man and a woman.”

“I feel bad for employers in Brazil because we have some many worker’s rights. Women get six months off on maternity leave. Who pays the bills? The employer.”

“I had four sons, and then, in a moment of weakness, I had a daughter.”

“You’re not worth raping. You’re too ugly” (to a congresswoman)

About nepotism

“If I want to hire a prostitute for my cabinet, I will. If I want to hire my mom, I will.”

About a secular state

“There’s no secular state. The state is Christian, and the minority that is against it should move away. The minorities have to bow down to the majorities.”


His outrageous statements have sparked a huge movement in Brazil called #EleNão (Not Him). The Facebook group “Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro” (united women against Bolsonaro) has almost 4 million members.


But how did Brazil, a country the entire world knows for joyful things like samba, futebol, Carnaval, and its friendly people, get to this point? How is it possible that a homophobic, racist, misogynistic wannabe dictator will be the country’s next president?

Well, at this point, I must warn you that it’s not easy to explain. So bear with me, and hopefully, once you’re done reading this, you’ll have a better understanding of what Brazil really is.

A brief recap

First, let’s do a recap of what’s been going on in Brazil in the last few years.

About two and a half years ago, President Dilma Rousseff was impeached after the scandal at the Brazilian national petroleum company Petrobras, which was brought up by Operation Car Wash, an investigation that uncovered a money laundering scheme that moved more than R$30 billion (the equivalent to approximately US$9.5 billion) and ultimately put former President Lula (2003–2011) in jail.

The scandal has made the left-wing party Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), of which both Rousseff and Lula are members, lose almost all its credibility. It also helped fuel the dislike for the party among the population. This became a problem because most Brazilians don’t want to vote for PT again — so they would rather not vote than vote for Haddad, which was the only candidate left after the first round of voting. Voting in Brazil is compulsory, but you have the option to cast a blank ballot, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the blank vote percentage this Sunday ended up being a record high.

(Update: the number was, indeed, a record high: in total, there were 32.5% of absent voters and blank votes)

I don’t blame people for being dissatisfied. What’s happening right now in Brazil is pretty damn disappointing.

For a while, it seemed like the country was headed in the right direction. During Lula’s government, most economic indicators actually improved (unemployment rate, poverty, and inequality decreased, while the GDP, HDI, and minimum wage all increased). Brazil’s triumph was considered imminent. However, around the end of Dilma’s first term, the country entered its biggest recession ever. The GDP decreased, the unemployment rate increased, inflation blew through the roof, criminality hit a record high.

And just like that, Brazil’s hope was gone.

“The Economist” covers about Brazil: 2009 (left) and 2013 (right)

Brazil’s “Occupy Wall Street”

In 2013, Brazil saw a wave of protests around the country that were compared to movements like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. It all started when people decided to protest the increase in public transportation fares, but it soon became more than just that. The catchphrase of the protests was “it’s not just 20 cents”, in reference to the amount of the increase.

At that time, Brazil was getting ready to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Building and remodeling stadiums for the World Cup alone cost the government R$ 8.3 billion (US$2.2 billion). The population was not having it. “Wait a minute? We can build all these stadiums but we can’t improve basic things in the country?” Brazilians were finally fed up.

It’s kind of a joke in Brazil that every generation grows up hearing that Brazil is the country of the future, except the future never comes. When you’re talking about the 5th largest country on earth, home to over 200 million people, it’s no exaggeration to say that the country does have the potential, but its problems seem to outweigh the possibilities.

Let’s take a look at some of Brazil’s main problems.

#1 Corruption

The main problem in Brazil is corruption. And you know why it’s the main one? Because it ties back into everything else. You’ll see.

Corruption in Brazil happens not only in politics, but in all levels of society, on a daily basis. There is always a way to get away with things and have things your way, especially if you have money. Failed your driving test? Just pay them and they’ll pass you next time — I did it, and know many other people who have done it. Don’t want to be drafted for the army (mandatory for all men)? A friend of a friend can usually help get you out. Bribing authorities (police officers, government, etc.) is commonplace. Tax evasion is the norm.

There’s even an expression for it. It’s called “jeitinho brasileiro” (the Brazilian way). And if you don’t do what everyone’s doing, you feel stupid.

“The Brazilian Way”. The sign says: “Don’t step on the grass”. 🙄

Bolsonaro claims that he will fight corruption, but ironically, he was caught in corruption scandals himself, having been a suspect of money laundering — him and his kids own 13 properties valued at R$15 million (US$4 million) — and admitting to receiving bribes from the meat processing company JBS, which was caught in a bribery scheme with politicians. At the time, he even said: “which party doesn’t receive bribes?”

#2 Social inequality

Brazil is a country of extremes, where the very poor live (literally) right next to the very rich. You might have seen this famous image, which shows a slum (favela), on the left, next to a luxury apartment complex (right):

A favela (left) next to a luxury apartment building (right) in the Morumbi area, in São Paulo, Brazil. How can some people have everything, while others don’t even have basic sanitation?

Social inequality in Brazil is associated with the country’s history of slavery and, in the years that followed, racism and prejudice. Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery, in 1888. After that, slaves and their descendants remained marginalized and were forced to live in “favelas” and to take jobs that no one else would take.

This created a massive income gap and social inequality, which combined with a poor educational system and prejudice, made it virtually impossible for the poor to climb up in the social hierarchy — which is commonly referred to as “social apartheid”. A survey from 2017 actually showed that black people in Brazil make 55% less money than white people.

Researchers say that racism was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese colonizers, who were intolerant towards Jews, gypsies, etc., and once they arrived in Brazil, towards the natives .

A “favela” in Brazil

When I was growing up, racism wasn’t taken very seriously in Brazil — there was a belief that racism didn’t exist. But racism was everywhere, whether in the form of jokes, such as “black people step on a brick and think they’re people”, or just plain old racism, to a point where some white families don’t support their children’s relationships with black or mixed-race people.

Everything that is associated with black culture is seen as less valuable. African religions, even though still practiced in some areas of Brazil, are the target of jokes and persecution. Also, you might have heard of the Brazilian hair straightening treatments — an attempt to get rid of “cabelo ruim” (bad hair), associated with black ancestry.

There is an understanding in Brazil that black and poor people need to “know their place”, and people don’t seem to think that this should and could be a temporary condition.

Most middle and upper-class white families in Brazil have a maid (or a few), and they’re almost always black or mixed-race. Most apartments in Brazil have two elevators and two entrances, the main one and the “service” one — one for the residents and the other one for the service-providers, like the maids. Many houses and apartments also have a bedroom and bathroom for the maid, who sometimes lives in the house. If you’re interested in this, I recommend that you watch the movie “The Second Mother”.

A Brazilian couple head to a protest in green and yellow shirts, while their nanny, dressed in her uniform, pushes a stroller with their twins; the image went viral in Brazil because of the irony it represents: who should be protesting? The marginalized black nanny, or the privileged white couple?

A couple of years ago, while I was visiting my husband’s hometown, in the less-developed northeastern region of Brazil, I was surprised by one of my conversations with his family’s maid. She asked me if where I was living — in the United States — people understood what I spoke. I asked her: “What do you mean? Like, if they speak Portuguese? They don’t have to, because I speak English with them.” To what she replied: “English? What is that?” And at that moment my head pretty much just exploded. She had no concept of languages. She had no idea that different countries spoke different languages.

This actually leads me to my third point…

#3 Education

As I said before, you’ll notice that corruption plays a major role in all other issues in Brazil — the main one being education. An investigation from 2016 uncovered that the areas of education and health were the target of over 70% of all the corruption and fraud schemes uncovered by operations in the last 13 years. According to the investigation, the amount of embezzled money that was destined for education in that period is of at least R$4 billion (US$1 billion), but it could easily be more.

In the PISA ranking, which evaluates students in 70 countries around the world, Brazil ranks in 68th place. I was surprised to see that the ranking takes into consideration both public and private school students, because while public schools are known for being awful in Brazil, private schools are actually pretty good compared to public schools.


Corruption and embezzlement are not the only problem. Another major issue is that some kids just can’t afford to stay in school, and are forced to drop out and work to help their parents make ends meet. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only 69% of 15–19 year-olds are enrolled in education in Brazil.

Data from 2016 shows that only 26.3% of the Brazilian population has finished high school, while 15.3% finished university. Meanwhile, 51% of the population finished only middle school. The numbers are even worse among black or mixed-race people. Data from 2010 shows that 22.8% of white Brazilians have a university degree, against only 8.8% of black Brazilians. These numbers are shockingly low.

Out of all the data that I researched in order to write this article, this one was the one that shocked me the most:

Functional illiteracy is a major issue in Brazil. Data from 2016 shows that 92% of Brazilians have at least some degree of functional illiteracy. That’s right.

This is how the population scores in the 5 levels of Brazil’s functional literacy index (Inaf): illiterate (4%), rudimentary (23%), elementary (42%), intermediary (23%) and proficient (8%). A proficient individual is considered capable of reading and writing different types of materials, as well as commenting on the author’s point of view and style, besides interpreting charts. All students who finish high school should reach that level.

As you can imagine, social inequality, combined with a poor educational system, makes it pretty hard for anyone to climb up the social hierarchy. As a result, most people don’t see another alternative, and end up in crime.

That’s my next point.

#4 Crime

Brazil has very elevated levels of violent and non-violent crimes. Drug trafficking is related to a large portion of those crimes. And this might shock you, but a career in drug trafficking starts early. As early as 8 years old. So remember the kids who don’t finish school? That’s where most of them end up. In 2017, in Rio, 13% of all the kids between the ages of 10 to 12 years old were already working in narco-traffic. A year before, it was half that.

Diego Herculano/AFP

Violent crimes have been rising non-stop. In 2017, there were 63,880 homicides in Brazil. By comparison, there were roughly 17,000 homicides in the United States in 2016. In Rio de Janeiro, statistics show that 1 in 3 residents have been caught in crossfire at least once last year.

And it’s not just in Rio. In other cities, it’s pretty bad too. In São Paulo, in the last few years, robberies became much more common, and express kidnappings — when people are temporarily abducted and taken to an ATM to withdraw funds — are routine.

I was born and raised in São Paulo and moved to Los Angeles at the end of 2013. I used to love living in the city. However, during the months that preceded my move to the United States, I saw things that I had never experienced before.

One afternoon in May 2013, I was driving home from work in one of the city’s busiest highways. Traffic was, as usual, complete standstill. As I was driving through a bridge that connects two of the city’s richest neighborhoods, I saw a group of maybe 15 teenagers running towards the cars imprisoned in traffic. In Brazil, we have a word for when you get robbed like this. They call it “arrastão”. It means “fishing net”.

So there we were, getting robbed by this wave of young kids that couldn’t have been older than 15. They were breaking the windows of each car and entering. Grabbing everything that they saw in front of them. Now, a Brazilian will probably read this and say: “that’s it?” And I guess that’s what I should think too, but it just never sat well on my stomach to think that it was normal.

An example of what an “arrastão” looks like in traffic

In the following months, things got worse. I was followed by robbers in motorcycles at least twice in a 6-month period. I also saw more guns in my last year living in Brazil than I had ever seen in my entire life. On my last month living there, a guy was shot dead right in front of my apartment building after an attempted robbery.

The rise of criminality is a reflection of many of the issues Brazil has: Poverty. A huge income gap. Corruption. Racism. Prejudice. A ridiculous education system. All these things will most likely never allow those kids to move up in the social hierarchy.

A good chunk of the population believes that “a good criminal is a dead criminal”. For that reason, the police are extremely violent. Some people applaud that behavior, which has turned the main character of the critically-acclaimed movie “Elite Squad”, truculent Captain Nascimento, into a hero. Ironically, he’s also incorruptible, like Bolsonaro claims to be.

Actor Wagner Moura as Captain Nascimento in “Elite Squad”

How does all of this relate to what’s happening now?

The rise of fake news

Like in the U.S., fake news has played a huge part in this year’s Brazilian presidential elections, and they spread out through Facebook and WhatsApp — Brazilians’ favorite app. WhatsApp is used mainly to message groups instead of individuals. So you usually have your family’s group, your coworkers’ group, your school’s group, your neighbors’ group, and so on.

Once the fake news reaches those groups, they spread like wildfire. It’s no coincidence that an investigation published by Brazil’s main newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, uncovered a scheme in which a group of Brazilian entrepreneurs who support Bolsonaro were bankrolling a campaign to bombard WhatsApp users with fake news about Haddad.

In one of those messages, the “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” video that I shared above, which is very obviously against Bolsonaro, was being used to ridicule PT and their campaign for Haddad. The video was edited and subtitled to contain just the section where Oliver makes fun of the campaign, with the title: “PT’s campaign becomes a joke in the U.S.”

How is this related to what’s happening? Well, how can you possibly expect people to know better and to distinguish real news from fake news if they haven’t received good education?

Another major issue that has been coming up is that most of the population doesn’t believe in the news anymore, for a number of reasons. One of them might actually stem from the era of the military dictatorship, when the press suffered with the heavy censorship, and artist and intellectuals were called “communists” by the government and their supporters.

Let’s take a brief look at that period.

Military dictatorship

From 1964 to 1985, the country was under an authoritarian military dictatorship, which began after a military coup to take down the president, João Goulart. The coup was actually supported by the United States, which, during the Cold War, feared that communism would take over Latin America.

The dictatorship ended freedom of speech and political opposition. The press functioned under censorship, with military soldiers embedded in all newsrooms, controlling every message that went out — it wasn’t uncommon for articles to be cut in half and replaced by cake recipes or poems. Dissidents were tortured, killed or exiled. Many of the country’s main artists and intellectuals at the time ended up in exile in Europe. Among them, singers Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil, filmmaker Glauber Rocha, architect Oscar Niemeyer, photographer Sebastião Salgado, and many others.

The Tropicália movement was one of the dictatorship’s main opposers and, for that reason, many of their songs were censored. Artists tried to outsmart the censors, like Chico Buarque in his song “Cálice”, in which he sings “Pai, afasta de mim esse cálice” (“Father, take that chalice away from me”), using a wordplay between the word “chalice” and “cale-se”, which means to shut up.

A page of the newspaper “Estado de S. Paulo”, with a poem replacing a censored article

Believe it or not, however, not everyone sees the military dictatorship as a dark moment in Brazilian history. Actually, most people think fondly of it. That’s because Brazil lived some of its best years at the beginning of the dictatorship. During the so-called “economic miracle”, the country experienced exponential economic growth, with a GDP growth rate close to 10%. However, to fuel all the growth, Brazil began to borrow money, and by the end of the 1970s, the country had the biggest debt in the whole world: US$92 billion.

When the dictatorship began to fail, the military regime tried as much as they could to fuel up nationalism, even making up a slogan: “Brazil, love it or leave it”. But by 1984, protesters started demanding democratic, direct presidential elections in Brazil — a movement known as “Diretas Já”. Finally, in 1989, Brazil elected Fernando Collor de Mello, its first democratically elected president since 1961. His presidency didn’t last long, and by 1992, he had been impeached under accusations of abuse of power for personal gain, money laundering, and embezzlement.

Again, corruption is one of the main issues in Brazil.


In the weeks preceding the election and also after the election, there have been many disturbing events happening in Brazil. People who support Bolsonaro have gone out on the streets and attacked — and even killed — people who are opposed to him, or that are part of the minorities he targets with his hate speech, like the LGBT community. “They’re using Bolsonaro to attack us”, said transgender Jullyana Barbosa, who was attacked in Rio, to UOL. Capoeira master Romualdo Rosário da Costa, known as Moa do Katendê, was killed by a Bolsonaro supporter after an argument in Bahia on the night of the first round of the elections.

And it’s not just the general population who has been doing these kinds of things. State representative Rodrigo Amorim, who belongs to the same party as Bolsonaro, broke a street sign that paid tribute to councilwoman Marielle Franco, assassinated earlier this year under suspicious circumstances — she was a human rights advocate and constantly reported abuse committed by Rio’s police, which, as I mentioned earlier, is extremely violent.

State representative Rodrigo Amorim shows the broken street sign that paid tribute to councilwoman Marielle Franco, assassinated earlier this year under suspicious circumstances — she was a human rights advocate and constantly reported abuse committed by Rio’s police, which, as I mentioned earlier, is extremely violent. Note that he’s wearing a shirt with Bolsonaro on it.

I support free speech. But when that free speech gives way to hate speech, which then gives way to brutal acts to be committed, I can’t get behind that.


All these years of built-up frustration, hopelessness, and fear have Brazilians hoping eagerly for change. It comes as no surprise that the potential next president of Brazil says he’ll fix everything — but the reality is that he has no idea of how he’s going to do it. When questioned about his economic plan, Bolsonaro has said that he “doesn’t need to know anything about the economy”. He’ll just hire someone who does.

Things that are crucial for the development of the country, like health and education, are not on his agenda. He’s said that he wants to shut down the ministry of education and that he won’t be increasing the investments in public healthcare — he actually voted favorably on a law that intends to freeze government investments for 20 years.

Brazilians want change. I want change too. But Bolsonaro is not the answer. Actually, Bolsonaro will be Brazil’s point of no return into a dark, dark future.

What’s been bothering me the most, though, is that the more I think about it, the more I realize that Bolsonaro is not the problem. Our society is. In the past few months, I have lost count of all the hate comments I read on social media. People are actually defending torture and a military dictatorship as the only way of ending crime. In the end, ignorance won.

I understand that people are afraid, and I know that fear is capable of bringing out the worst in people, but COME ON.

A satire based on the image a few paragraphs above, with the white rich lady protesting for “Justice For Brazil”, while her black nanny pushes a stroller behind her. Why can’t we start the change in our own homes?

All of this makes me realize that things in Brazil are really, really far from any type of change. Because change begins from within. We can’t demand our politicians not to be corrupt if we, as a society, are corrupt. We can’t demand for them not to be racist or homophobic when we see racism and homophobia everyday and don’t do anything about it. It has to start with us. With you and me, and our families and friends. If you’re unhappy, then teach your kids to be better than this. Then maybe, in their generation, things can change.

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