“Our present is full of the past”, highlights the Brazilian historian and anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz. And it is that, last Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrated his political power in the streets during the celebrations of the 199th anniversary of the Independence of Portuguese rule, amid attacks on Justice and the press.
Schwarcz, a professor at São Paulo University and Princeton University, analyzes this phenomenon from a historical perspective. Among the dozens of books that he has written such as ‘Brazil: a biography’, published together with Heloisa Starling in 2015, he assures that there is no political character similar to Bolsonaro in the last 500 years of history.
The independence of Brazil from Portugal was very different from the rest of the countries of Latin America. It was the only ex-colony in the region that instead of a republic became a monarchy. Almost two centuries later, what do you think is the reading that was imposed in Brazil on this date?
A golden legend was created around the Independence of Brazil. A vision that maintains that the country had a destiny to transform itself into a monarchy surrounded by republics. The Brazilian Independence was very conservative. The main concern of the elites was to avoid the fragmentation of the country and to maintain a slave system. That idea of Independence in which Pedro I is portrayed almost as a military man, was a late construction from a Pedro Américo canvas. This image has been widely used on the anniversary of 1972, in the midst of the military dictatorship. Since then, the military assumed that version that was too military and associated with the idea of the monarchy of our Independence.
And how does this you describe connect with what we saw last Tuesday?
What we saw last September 7 was a demonstration of how the military can manipulate Independence, once again, and of the way in which Jair Bolsonaro takes advantage of these moments to urge people to participate in deeply undemocratic, sexist and violent
In 2022, Brazil will have its bicentennial. What do you expect from that date?
We Brazilians have to ask ourselves what kind of bicentennial of Independence we want to have. If we want to associate ourselves with the image of a military parade or with the idea of another type of country.
How would that be?
We need to have a broader, more plural, more generous view of Independence. In the history of Brazil we have a very colonial, European and masculine official history. We have to understand it as a more diverse process of Independence, understanding that it is a very large country. But also in other protagonists. Protagonists who are black, women, people who were totally invisible from women like the case of María Leopoldina to María Felipa de Oliveira, both were great heroines of Independence.
Bolsonaro associated the idea of Independence with the idea of freedom. What does he think about that?
The president took the idea of freedom associated with freedom of expression and demonstration. The Bolsonarista agenda has been systematically hijacking the symbols of the country such as the flag or the anthem. Nobody can use the colors of green and yellow anymore without looking like a bolsonarista. But it has also hijacked concepts such as freedom of expression. For Bolsonaro, attacking other institutions such as the Federal Supreme Court, inventing the story against electronic voting, telling false news is “freedom of expression.” I don’t think that is freedom of expression. Bolsonaro used Independence Day to incentivize his followers, who call it a “myth,” for a new liberation. Liberation understood as their autonomy from, for example, other powers of the State.
In Tuesday’s speech, Bolsonaro referred to his followers as “patriots.” What meaning do you think this word has for the president?
I do not consider that Jair Bolsonaro is a conservative politician, I believe that Bolsonaro is a retrograde politician. A conservative politician, who respects the Constitution, is fine for democracy. The problem is when what is sought is to retrace our rights. He does not admit LGTBI rights, he does not admit African-based religions, he does not admit women’s rights. That same retrograde project is what he wants for the country. The country that he imagines is made up of men, by evangelicals or Christians and allegedly heteronormative. That is the homeland for Jair Bolsonaro. It is a very retrograde model.
In one of your last books, you argue that in Brazil there is a softened version of the Brazilian identity that leaves many other things outside such as the issue of racism. How much of that other part of Brazil’s silenced history exists in the kind of leadership that Bolsonaro represents today?
I start from two assumptions. The first is that our present is full of the past. The second is that, for those who saw Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 with great horror, I tell you that Brazilians were always authoritarian. It is not a novelty. So, he recovers a part of our history that has been silenced, even by this Government, such as the issue of slavery, the systemic racism that exists in the country and the military dictatorship. The Brazilian does not like to talk about repair, repair policies cost us a lot.
If you had to compare Bolsonaro with another character in the history of Brazil, what would it be?
None! It is incomparable. I think it is a unique crisis in our history. We already had extremist presidents but there is no comparison. Bolsonaro only thinks of eternalizing himself in power.