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Prophetic phrase: a message left by Bolsonaro supporters while destroying the Federal Supreme Court during an attempted coup on January 8, 2023. Photo: Pedro Ladeira/Folhapress

This Sunday, February 25, Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party) will try to put on a show of strength by calling his supporters to a rally in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. Since February 8, when the Federal Police’s Tempus Veritatis (Time of Truth) operation began to detail how the former president, a few high-ranking members of the military, and a group of civilians planned a coup d’état to keep the right-wing extremist in power, Bolsonaro has known that, for the first time in his lengthy record of benefiting from impunity, there is a good chance he will be jailed by the court system. He thus presents himself as a man persecuted, a victim of court rulings, and he is betting all his chips on the rally on Avenida Paulista, to show that part of Brazil still belongs to him. Yet what will be on display, far beyond Bolsonaro as an individual, will be the size and energy of his base, which is already being disputed.

Before continuing, it must be said that there is nothing even close to “democratic normalcy” in Brazil. When governors and congressional members and even the city’s mayor unabashedly announce they will share a stage with a man suspected of planning a coup, it is clear that democracy in Brazil needs to be protected every day, because it is threatened every second. We are experiencing a tense moment in Brazil – and this tension will not end with Bolsonaro’s possible arrest.

Nevertheless, if a coup attempt were to be exposed and Bolsonaro and military commanders were to go to trial and be convicted of Constitutional violations, this would represent a turning point. Today’s Brazil is in large measure the result of the amnesty given to the agents of the State who kidnapped, tortured, and executed opponents and Indigenous people during the business-military dictatorship which lasted 21 years, from 1964 to 1985. There are lines that cannot be crossed. And Brazilian democracy crossed these lines even before its infancy, by creating a situation in which a tortured person could run into their torturer in the elevator or in line at the supermarket. Or at the school door when they’re picking up their kid, as has already happened.

Jair Bolsonaro is a creature who embodies a democracy that gave up its soul to exist. A captain who left the Army after being tried in a military court – and disgracefully absolved – for planning a terrorist act to detonate bombs in barracks to ramp up pressure for a pay raise, he spent decades as a member of congress without ever answering for his statements encouraging torture and execution, defense of the dictatorship, nor for his racist speech, misogynistic comments, and homophobic remarks. Bolsonaro is the child of impunity. As are the high-ranking members of the military who planned the coup with him. It’s a start for Bolsonaro to finally be stopped from committing criminal acts and for the generals and lieutenant-colonels to finally answer for their attack on the rule of law. A late and slight start, but even so, a start for our more-than-imperfect democracy.

Yet few of the people who promised to share the bullhorn with the former president on Sunday, an event enthusiastically organized by televangelist Silas Malafaia, will be there for Bolsonaro. Most are searching for a base that Bolsonaro still controls. The “myths,” true and false, like Bolsonaro, are launched into internet mythology as rapidly as they can be canceled or forgotten. Bolsonaro and his family have been quite proficient at keeping the “myth” alive. In part because someone capable of replacing Bolsonaro has yet to appear. It’s no longer enough to advocate for the same causes, you need to embody them, which Bolsonaro does masterfully.

A multitude of “traditional” politicians are buzzing around Bolsonaro like flies, all vying for scraps, but they lack the biotype, the set of characteristics to horrify those connected to human and socioenvironmental rights and identity struggles; the type of personality with which a significant number of Brazilian women and, chiefly, men identify, and which allows them to look at themselves in this mirror without feeling bad about their own image. Bolsonaro, as with others like him around the world, has crossed so many lines of civility without every being held accountable that he has done the work of absolving everyone, with the added advantage of being able to call himself a “good citizen,” calling a lie the “truth,” and appropriating national symbols, like the flag and the Brazilian national football team’s jersey.

To take his place, a candidate needs to embody all of this – and electors are clearly not excited by the right-wing politicians available, as was proven in the 2022 elections. It’s no longer enough to dominate the press in their states, as most of Brazil’s political oligarchies and their heirs have done – and continue to do. They need to know how to infiltrate social media and apps like WhatsApp. And to do this, they need a character – or an avatar that can be recognized as “authentic.”

Bolsonaro thoroughly understood the role the Amazon plays in a world in climate collapse. And he understood how to manipulate people’s insecurity at a time when global superheating is causing extreme events capable of literally pulling the ground out from under a population that already feels forsaken by changes it does not comprehend. Despite cleverly “denying” the climate crisis, Bolsonaro, like Donald Trump, is greatly benefiting from insecurity that is amplified by a changing planet.

A horrific threesome: a right-wing protester in Brasília holds up a poster showing Jair Bolsonaro flanked by Argentina’s president, Javier Milei (left), and by Donald Trump, the former president of the U.S.A. Photo: Jardiel Carvalho/Folhapress

As well as by a changing society: the “three I’s medal,” which he asked some supporters to wear this Sunday, speaks to the insecurity of a large part of the men who feel harmed or threatened by advances in women’s and LGBTQIAPN+ rights, which have started to occupy unprecedented spaces in the second decade of this century in Brazil and have begun to dispute language.

Three words starting with the letter “i” in Portuguese are written around a picture of Bolsonaro pointing his finger, words he believes describe him: “immortal, always erect, unfuckable”. For someone who posits himself as a defender of morale and good manners, Bolsonaro is obsessed with sexuality, which he wants to control at all costs, talking about assholes and dicks whenever possible. Typical. Things that do or do not enter assholes, as well as his dick, which never goes soft, are recurring themes, accompanied by schoolboy giggles. His fragile masculinity is presented as a strength to those men who feel threatened by change. In a world where culture and climate are changing, Bolsonaro is, like Trump, selling a return to a stability that never actually existed, since it was always only for a few, along with a return to established social roles – he is selling the illusion of control and immutability, a valuable commodity in these challenging times. Even though his own period in power was marked by chaos, crisis mismanagement and destruction.

It is not by chance that his main design on power, when he took over as president in 2019, was to convert public areas in the Amazon, most occupied by Indigenous people, into private land for exploration – of minerals, soybeans, cattle, or just property speculation. A supporter of the military dictatorship’s ideology for the Amazon, Bolsonaro has always seen the forest as a body to violate – and for him the body to violate is female, to be used and emptied. Who doesn’t remember the emblematic phrase Bolsonaro used in his first year of governing? “[The forest] is the virgin that every pervert out there wants.” It is from this strain that his supposed nationalism comes: that the “right” to violate only belongs to Brazilians.

Now that Bolsonaro is ineligible to run for office for eight years and will possibly be arrested, who can take his place for that part of the population that has got used to feeling their insecurities, fears, and brutalities are represented and who are not willing to lose the comfort of feeling legitimized?

Recently, some bizarre characters have turned up, such as Harvard Law professor Mangabeira Unger, who served as the Minister of Strategic Affairs during Lula’s second term and who is trying to get back in the game by making rhetorical triple jumps to argue that, for the good of Brazil, Bolsonaro should not be arrested.

But among the various candidates inheriting Bolsonaro’s base, perhaps the one who should attract the most attention is Aldo Rebelo (Democratic Labor Party), a character whose travels through the Amazon, were covered by SUMAÚMA in early 2023, when he made Altamira his base for a few months. From the city that is one of the epicenters of the forest’s destruction, Rebelo made a pilgrimage to the states in Brazil’s Legal Amazon to discuss his “agromilitary project.” As excellently told by special reporter Claudia Antunes, he formed alliances with notable local landgrabbers and enthusiastically defended illegal miners. During this period, he would at times leave the north region to meet with high-level military members or to talk at his clubs in the southeast.

Ever since his time in congress, Rebelo has preached brute nationalism; it’s worth remembering that he introduced a bill to prohibit the use of foreign words. In his recent Amazonian crusade, his nationalism was put in terms that sounded like music to his avid listeners: like Bolsonaro, he attacked foreign non-governmental organizations – or those financed by international foundations – that work in the Amazon to protect Indigenous territories and the forest’s traditional populations, and this is why these NGOs are hated by the people who want to illegally take possession of public areas and cut down the forest.

Like Bolsonaro, Rebelo uses a supposed nationalism to legitimize the interests of those who want to erase from the forest those people who are stopping its destruction. Regarding Rebelo, Silvério Fernandes, whose powerful family is disputing thousands of hectares of public lands in the Altamira region, last year said: “In the last few months I’ve gotten to know someone whose position I grew to admire – former minister Aldo Rebelo. He has to be on our team, Zequinha [Marinho, a senator with the Podemos party], because that is a true Amazonian. I began to admire him even though in the past he was in a totally left-wing party, but his thinking doesn’t correspond to the party he was in.”

This curious character graced the covers of São Paulo newspapers this week when he took over the city of São Paulo’s Office of the Secretary of International Relations, with the support of Jair Bolsonaro, in opposition to his own Democratic Labor Party. According to the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, former minister Aloysio Nunes (Social Democratic Party) came up with the idea of inviting Aldo, and it was hastily thrown together by Brazilian Democratic Movement president Baleia Rossi and by former president Michel Temer (Brazilian Democratic Movement). Aldo has already announced that he will create a forum in São Paulo to discuss the COP-30 meeting. The first ever to be hosted in the Amazon, this UN Climate Change Conference will be held in 2025 in Belém, the capital of Pará, a state controlled by the Barbalho political oligarchy.

Moving a forward on the board: Aldo Rebelo (at right) takes office as a municipal secretary in São Paulo, in a ceremony attended (at left) by former president Michel Temer, the mayor of São Paulo, Ricardo Nunes, and the national president of the Social Democratic Party, Gilberto Kassab. Photo: Danilo Verpa/Folhapress

Aldo Rebelo had already publicly stated: “Ascribing an attempted coup to that group of troublemakers is demoralizing to the institution of coup d’états.” This was his comment to Poder 360 about the attempted coup on January 8, 2023, when thousands of Bolsonaro supporters invaded and vandalized the seat of government power in Brasília, imitating – and surpassing in destruction – the episode where Donald Trump’s supporters invaded the U.S. capitol building in 2021. After the Federal Police’s operation began, Bolsonaro posted a video to his Twitter account where Rebelo once again tried to mock the investigation, insisting there was no coup attempt.

The story of this former communist, who served as a minister to Lula and Dilma Rousseff, including in the Defense Ministry, where he consolidated his tight relationships with military members and became a right-wing ally with an agromilitary project he presented as a crusade for the Amazon. It would be fascinating if it were not our bizarre reality .

Today, Aldo is the character most similar to Bolsonaro in Brazil. Yet it must be noted that he is also more intelligent, cool, and strategic. And he has penetrated both the right and the left, which Bolsonaro never did. Just look at the number of times his name shows up on 247, a website connected to the Workers’ Party. For example, one week ago, on February 15, the site featured the following story: “NGOs ‘already constitute an actual parallel State,’ says Aldo Rebelo.”

Many sectors see his rise as completely impossible, but few also believed that Bolsonaro, known as the politically incorrect court jester in Congress, could one day be president.

Regardless of what happens on Sunday, attention must be paid to the candidates, most undeclared, who will inherit Bolsonaro’s base – with his blessing, obviously. Seasoned politicians know that anyone who assumes they are in the game too early runs the risk of getting burned – they need to stay in constant motion, but without making too big of a show. The discourse of minimizing the coup is one of the most important indicators of who is and who isn’t sharing the bullhorn of the man who tried to topple the government. Those who do so know that it was a coup and they know that it will be hard for Bolsonaro to escape accountability. Yet he must be appeased, because Bolsonaro does indeed control the base. And like it or not, it is made up of a considerable part of the country. In the Amazon, it dominates.

Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Sarah J. Johnson
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Layout and finishing: Érica Saboya
Editors: Viviane Zandonadi (editorial workflow and copy editing), and Talita Bedinelli (coordination)
Director: Eliane Brum

The first victim: a copy of the Constitution set on fire by Bolsonaro supporters during an attempted coup on January 8, 2023. Photo: Gabriela Biló/Folhapress

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