Lilia Schwarcz, Brazilian Historian: "Bolsonaro Is Not a Conservative, He Is a Retrograde Politician"

The president of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro carried out, last Tuesday, a display of his political power in the streets during the celebrations of the 199th anniversary of the Independence of the Portuguese rule amid attacks on Justice and the press. Lilia 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 and several biographies, 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 country that went through a monarchy before becoming a republic …


The golden legend that was created from the independence of Brazil, the country had a destiny to transform itself into a monarchy surrounded by republics. 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 based on a canvas by Pedro Américo. This image was widely used on the anniversary of 1972 in the midst of the military dictatorship. Since then, the military has assumed that version that is too military and associated with the idea of ​​a monarchy of our independence from Brazil.

And how does this you describe connect with what we saw last Tuesday?

It was a demonstration of how the military can manipulate independence again and the way in which Jair Bolsonaro takes advantage of these moments to urge people to participate in deeply undemocratic, macho, violent acts.

In 2022 Brazil will have its bicentennial, what are you waiting for?

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 of another type of country.

From your point of view, how should it 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 independence process, 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 Maria Leopoldina to María Felipa de Oliveira who were great heroines of independence.

Bolsonaro associated the idea of ​​independence with the idea of ​​freedom, what do you think of 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 bag man. But it has also hijacked our concepts such as freedom of expression. For Bolsonaro, attacking other institutions such as the Supreme Federal Court (STF), inventing the story against electronic voting, telling false news is all “freedom of expression” for him. 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 autonomy.

In his speech last Tuesday, 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 think 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.

You, in your last book, argue that there is a softened version of the Brazilian identity that leaves a lot out. How much of that other part of Brazil’s history exists in the kind of leadership that Bolsonaro represents?

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. So, he recovers a part of our history that has been silenced even by this Government as the issue of slavery and the systemic racism that exists in Brazil. The Brazilian does not like to talk about reparation.

If you had to compare Bolsonaro with another person 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.



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