Resisting Bolsonaro: How Brazil’s Paradox Feeds Its Populism


This article is a reflection on the panel discussion “How to resist in Bolsonaro’s Brazil?” during European Lab Camp 2019 in Lyon.

Photo: European Lab

Photo: European Lab


In the wake of the student demonstrations against severe education budget cuts in Brazil, the Radio Lab panel on Bolsonaro’s regime was powerful and emotional. The audience – predominantly Brazilian and larger than any other this weekend – waited in enthusiastic anticipation. Three women entered the stage. Next to Natália de Santanna Guerellus, the French-Brazilian moderator, two outspoken voices in Brazil’s political and social arena took their seats: Márcia Tiburi and Manuela d’Ávila.

Tiburi is a Philosophy professor, writer and artist. She is allied to the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party) and ran for Governor in Rio de Janeiro in 2018. D’Ávila, journalist, former federal deputy, and member of the Partido Comunista do Brasil (Communist Party of Brazil), also recently stormed the peak of the political pyramid. As Fernando Haddad’s running mate she ran for office against Jair Bolsonaro during the 2018 elections. Today, nine months later, the world is all too familiar with the outcome.

Both panelists immediately emphasized the necessity of understanding Brazil’s unique history in order to grasp the many layers of its current struggle. The country is paradoxical at its very core. On the one hand, it has every ingredient needed to prosper – a perfect climate for agriculture, large oil and gas reserves and limitless bio- and social diversity – but on the other hand a dark and ongoing past of colonization, corruption and poverty haunts the lives of many. If you have spent some time in Brazil, you may recognize this paradox in the aphorisms of Brazilian culture, saudade and liberdade – inherent and insatiable longing yet complete and utter freedom.

The panel discussed how Bolsonaro knows exactly how to play into this mix of zeal and despair. A true populist, he reiterates his followers’ discontent and continues to scapegoat and vilify minorities, such as the LGBTQ+ community. A discourse of paranoia and anti-intellectualism is the basis of his methodology: by framing issues a certain way, he makes both individuals and entire demographics distrust each other.

According to Tiburi, the media play an important part here, because they enable Bolsonaro to address the same topics over and over again, for example on national television. She calls these media spectacles ‘rituals’ and thinks Bolsonaro uses oversimplified and destructive vocabulary to actively spread hatred and disinformation. An example: during the 2019 Carnaval – a beaken of LGBTQ+ pride in Brazil – the president tweeted a video of a man performing a so-called ‘golden shower’ (urinating on someone) on another man. Claiming this is the ‘new normal’ during Carnaval and that ‘the people need to know the truth’, Bolsonaro implied homosexuality is inherently immoral. Besides outright homophobia, this presents another one of his tactics: the sexualization of politics.

Is there light on the horizon? D’Ávila thinks so. She says Brazilians need to find a new social narrative, for instance in online communities. Here, they can discuss topics in a safe public space, hopefully coming closer together. Tiburi – who currently lives in Paris after fleeing Brazil, where she received countless death threats following her criticism on the president’s regime – stresses her belief that opposition and resistance can change Brazil.

At the end of the panel, the three women embraced each other. Both on and off stage, people dabbed tears off of their cheeks. This shows the polarizing subject at least has one upside: Bolsonaro’s victims create unlikely sister- and brotherhoods, which can raise their fists and speak their minds together.


By Romy Heymans

AT European Lab Camp 2019