Brazil: Three Faces, Three Periods, Gil, Bolsonaro and Dona Jô

In Latin America, there is always a crisis, a crossroad and an immediate need for important decision. Frankly, it is quite exhausting and, see for example my recent blog “Canseira” for a brief reflection on how tired and tried people feel in the face a multitude of difficulties. At the same time, you get used to it. In Brazil, people accept, are resigned and fatalistic. If there is nothing you can do, then let it be. My friend, Dona Maria of Fidalgo, used to say of her ailing husband, Miguel, “só a morte cura” (only death cures) and he would nod in acceptance.

Like fatalism, longing or in Portuguese “saudade” intertwines. We accept all sorts of problems, all types of indignities, and the whole range of travails that characterize life in a poor and unequal society, but at the same time long for and desire both a romanticized past and the promise of a better future. Hope is the last to pass. The slogan is never give up.

The renowned musician, Gilberto Gil, just turned 78. He has had health issues but continues to be immensely productive and active even in the pandemic. His birthday show on YouTube has been viewed over 800 thousand times in just two weeks. Faith and hope for the present and the future were the themes of his party. Here is a link to “Andar com Fe” (Walking in Faith) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cH65dRyJ_Ys

gilberto-gil-by-daryan-dornellesPhoto: from Internet

Gil grew up in Bahia in the post WWII period and inherited and incorporated musicality and African roots. While northeastern Brazil has always been poor, Salvador has been something of an entity unto itself with the literature typified by Jorge Amado and the rich musical veins in popular culture. When the military ousted Joao Goulart in 1964, Gil was beginning his musical career and making friends with Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethania, Jorge Ben and others who would form the Tropicalia movement. Counterculture, even if only in musicality, was out of synch with the generals and both Gil and Caetano wound up in exile, but their musical careers blossomed. Gil’s online birthday party involved many of his artistic friends, including Stevie Wonder, and brought back memories of a friendlier, greener, more cordial, happy and engaging Brazil. Gil showed what most people respect, love and enjoy about multi-colored and multicultural country. There was a sway, a flow, smoothness and contentment without being disengaged from the current political and economic environment.

Gil’s virtual birthday party shows him firm in his creativeness, his democratic and social openness and keeps him in the vanguard of Brazil’s progressive leanings. In the country of the churrascaria, Gil is a vegetarian and a founder of the Green Party.

Jair Bolsonaro is some 13 years younger than Gilberto Gil and was born in Glicerio* in Sao Paulo State. The family moved to different small towns while his parents were raising 5 children and the elder Bolsonaro sought to make his living as an unlicensed dentist and small-town retailer. With high inflation and political instability, a military career offered a secure option and order amidst turmoil and difficulties. As a teenager, Jair witnessed and supported with his family the military takeover. After preparatory training, Bolsonaro gained entry, in 1974, to Brazil’ Agulhas Negras Military Academy. This was during the Medici most dictatorial Presidency and the most repressive years of the military regime. He thrived on the physical aspects, became a paratrooper and even today brags of his athletic prowess. For a young man from a small town and of limited means, graduating from the academy as an aspiring military officer must have felt exhilarating especially for one who wanted to combat the army’s enemies which included leftists, communists, hippies and all sorts of counterculture types.

I am not sure but I think it is safe to say that young Jair’s musical tastes did not include the Bahianos. Instead he prefers Brazilian country (sertaneja) and barbecue with beer.

As is well known, Jair Bolsonaro’s years in the military were not without controversy. He was supported by the most anticommunist members of the security apparatus but rejected by President General Ernesto Geisel (1974-1979) during Brazil’s regime hardline relaxing  . After being of accused of planning bombings in protest of low military pay pensions, Geisel called Bolsonaro a “bad soldier” but ultimately was exonerated by a military court which called into question the validity of evidence presented.

Bolsonaro built his political career, which was totally lackluster for 27 years, based on bombastic declarations in support of radical right-wing military issues and by defending the dictatorship, torture and repression. In spite of Brazil’s democratic aspirations, Bolsonaro struck a chord in his run against the PT (labor party) and all of the corruption that came to be associated with President Lula and President Dilma

25/04/2019 Solenidade de Assinatura do Decreto que revoga o Hor

(Brasília – DF, 25/04/2019) Presidente da República Jair Bolsonaro chega ao local da solenidade. Foto: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Josefa F. Negromonte is an artist, who paints in oil and acrylic. She was born in 1928, is in her early 90’s, doing well and I know a lot about her as I married her daughter.

She is from Recife in Brazil’s Northeast but has lived in Belo Horizonte since 1949. She and  her late husband, Ezequias Negromonte, got married very young and had 7 children.   He became a well-known attorney, but passed away in the mid-80’s when he was still in his 50’s. Like most ladies of her generation, she finished middle school but had no further formal instruction. And as in most families, she followed her husband’s lead in the urns.   But after his death, which came as Brazil was striving for direct elections and a new Constitution, her political and social considerations awoke in support of the working party, mostly because of Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, the then presidential candidate. Lula was a simple guy with very little education, but a keen intelligence and unique and unparalleled communication skills. She also liked the fact that he also was a migrant from Pernambuco and both had made their way to southeast Brazil at mid-century.

Her parents were not particularly poor but had a large family of 17 children, she one of the 3 youngest. Her husband came from a very poor but religious family.  Ezequias’ mother devoted most of her time to itinerant street preaching and not the family.. So, both of them grew up without much guidance. But this did not stop them from achieving a better life through education and hard work. Thus Dona Jo held the fort at home, ensuring  that all their children received and education and achieved professional careers.

Over time, Dona Jo went from authoritarian control of the daughters to an opening up and greater recognition of changing mores and norms. So, while she initially supported the law and order of the military governments, and practiced dictatorial control at home, she too had to loosen and soon came to chafe under the arbitrary repression, censorship and violence of the soldiers in power. Up to the last presidential election, she had cast votes for Giulio, Juscelino, Janio, Collor, Fernando Henrique, Lula, Dilma and Bolsonaro. Her votes were tied to aspirations, family and geographic influences. Her desires reflect those of a majority of Brazilians in that they have hope, want to be rid of corruption, and want to have a say in the country’s destiny. In voting for Bolsonaro in 2018, she wanted change and even though she liked Lula and his policies, she could no longer justify a vote for the PT, given her perception of robbery amidst decline.

She has always been suspicious and unwilling to trust politicians but at the same time values the electoral process. Today, she is disappointed in Bolsonaro as he has failed on many fronts, not only in the pandemic and the economy but also in controlling health costs and threatening social security, which impact her directly. Her private health plan gets more expensive every year, her pension does not increase and she could not survive without some support from the family, even though she and her husband ensconced themselves firmly in Brazil’s middle class. Today, her lifestyle is quite modest as  she enters her 10th decade, fortunate to have family support.

 

img_9520Photo by author

So, we have three Brazilian of different generations and different backgrounds and periods. Dona Jo is perhaps the most experienced as she has lived the longest. In spite of everything, her political skepticism is tempered by a love for Brazil and a belief in better days. Would she vote for Bolsonaro again? Probably not. Gilberto Gil has the history of musicality and political participation. He is known, loved and respected across a broad spectrum of Brazilian society. Bolsonaro, in turn, is now in that hard place. He won his election with 57 million votes but today, even as his supporters believe he is valiantly trying, he is surrounded by problems, many of his own creation.  Brazil’s Covid pandemic advances and the leaderless Ministry of Health has proven ineffective in taking control. Likewise, the economy has suffered an unprecedented set back and will shrink between 6 and 10 percent this year. All of this on top of the anemic growth from of the last years following the deep recession of 2015 and 2016 which contributed to President Dilma’s impeachment. Lack of economic growth means greater poverty and increased inequality. Consequently, Bolsonaro witnesses his decline in popularity and there is a broadening sense of failure.

Amidst the pessimism, there is resistance. Gilberto Gil consciously chose faith as the theme of his birthday presentation. While Dona Jo has witnessed and lived through all of the regimes since the Estado Novo, she continues to have hope that Brazil will improve as her life improved from her poor beginnings in the Northeast. Although Bolsonaro maintains his angry and vindictive persona, he too, needs to find the love of his evangelical faith in God and Brazil to get his government going or certainly lose any chance at reelection in 2022.

What can we conclude?  My mother-in-law has the wisdom of the years.  She lives and hopes but her expectations are tempered with experience.  Gil has the joy and tranquility unique to Bahia, the knowledge that one acquires through poetry and rhythm.  Bolsonaro and his followers have ire but need to learn and are beginning to recognize that the energy from anger burns out quickly and leaves much bitterness.  The radicals in the government will have to conclude that while there is much to lament, Brazil cannot prosper with exclusion, isolation, and a false sense of righteousness.

*Curiously, the President’s official government site lists his birthplace as Campinas, SP.