In the October 2018 elections, Brazil elected as president a former military officer and far-right populist, Jair Bolsonaro, who ran a particularly aggressive campaign against women’s and LGBTI rights. CIVICUS speaks to Paula Raccanello Storto about the impact that the Bolsonaro administration, which began in January, is already having on civil society. Paula holds a master’s degree in Law from the University of São Paulo and is a lawyer with a long experience in providing services to civil society organisations (CSOs). She is also a researcher at the Catholic University of São Paulo’s Centre for Advanced Third-Sector Studies (PUC-SP-Neats), where she works on issues related to the legal framework for CSOs in Brazil and Latin America and restrictions on the freedom of association.
Based on what has happened in the few weeks since its inauguration, how would you describe the relationship between the Bolsonaro administration and Brazilian civil society?
Brazilian civil society is heterogeneous enough to have all kinds of relations with the new government, but if we focus on the subgroup of the most representative rights advocacy organisations it is safe to say that their relationship with the Bolsonaro government has been bad from day one, which has not been exactly a surprise.
We already knew what Bolsonaro thought of civil society organisations (CSOs). During the campaign he said that if he became president there would be no public money for CSOs and attacked organisations by saying that “those good-for-nothings will have to work.” In the same speech he also said that if it were up to him, “every citizen will have a firearm in their house” and “there will not be a single centimetre of demarcated land for indigenous reservations or quilombola communities” [settlements founded by people of African origin, most of them runaway slaves]. All these statements were clearly contrary to the historical agenda of organised Brazilian civil society, which feels threatened not only by the potential actions of the government to create obstacles that hinder its free action, but also by possible opponents emerging from within society itself, which have viewed the president’s statements as an encouragement to use physical or symbolic violence against the organisations defending those causes. The new government has come to establish a regressive, anti-rights agenda.
It was for no other reason than this that before the runoff election a group of more than a thousand lawyers and jurists, myself included, signed a manifesto to support then-candidate Fernando Haddad. Regardless of our programmatic differences, all the signatories to that letter knew that in the second round of elections Haddad was the only candidate capable of ensuring continuity and a deepening of the democratic regime with respect for human rights in an environment of peace and tolerance.
The violence that permeated the latest electoral campaign was striking. A survey conducted by the polling organisation Public, in partnership with Open Knowledge Brasil, revealed that over just 10 days of the campaign there were at least 50 attacks, most of them perpetrated by Bolsonaro supporters against opponents. This legitimation of violence is a particularly worrying fact in a country like Brazil, which has a violent society and a record-breaking number of femicides and murders of environmental leaders and LGBTI people, and is marked by police violence and precarious conditions of imprisonment, with a system that incarcerates mostly black and poor people.
So the decisions that Bolsonaro made in those first weeks were predictable, although at times we have had difficulty believing our own eyes. One of the first measures of the Bolsonaro government, Provisional Measure (PM) 870/2019, which dealt with the structure of the new Federal Administration, entrusted the Secretariat of the Presidency with the new role of “supervising, coordinating, monitoring and following the activities and actions of international organisations and non-governmental organisations within the national territory.”
Under the democratic rule of law it is assumed that individuals are free to meet and associate, and they may perform any lawful activity free from state monitoring. The text of PM 870 reveals a clear disregard for the constitutional principles of the rights to the freedom of association and free enterprise. In addition, the idea of creating government structures with broad powers over CSOs is in and by itself a risk because it may lead to the establishment of an undue architecture of state control of private activities. In this regard, PM 870 is unconstitutional and should be modified by the National Congress.
Do these measures target civil society in general, or are there any specific groups that the government seeks to control?
PM 870 deals with organisations in general and is therefore an undue interference by the state in the work of international organisations and CSOs. The measure is also of concern because it can result in the monitoring of expressions of independent thought and of civil society’s actions to hold the government accountable, counterbalance political power and defend public freedoms.
Bolsonaro was elected on the basis of a superficial government programme. He did not participate in any debate with the other candidates and his public statements to friendly TV networks and on Twitter conveyed a developmentalist discourse that was liberal regarding the economy and conservative regarding the advancement of rights, and which resonated with contemporary Brazilian society. His supporters have massively spread fake news through social media to attack certain agendas considered to be progressive, and particularly those related to environmental protection and the rights of minorities.
After he was elected, Bolsonaro appointed a Minister of Foreign Affairs who has stated that he does not believe in climate change and considers it a Marxist plot. At the head of a so-called Ministry for Women, Family and Human Rights he placed an evangelical preacher who is publicly opposed to abortion for religious reasons. The task of demarcating indigenous lands was moved from the Indian Support Foundation to the Ministry of Agriculture, an agency with interests completely opposed to land demarcation. After backtracking on his previously announced decision to merge the Ministry of the Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture - which caused much controversy and many negative reactions - he put the cherry on top of the cake by celebrating the fact that environmental organisations criticised his appointee to the Ministry of the Environment, a representative of agro-industrial interests who has declared global warming “a secondary issue” and dismissed environmental fines as forms of “ideological persecution.”
One of the first measures of the new Minister of the Environment was directed against environmental organisations. He issued a resolution that suspended for 90 days the execution of agreements and partnerships with CSOs. Contrary to the notion of sustainable development, the current administration’s approach to environmental issues dates back to a time when environmental preservation and economic and social development were viewed as conflicting goals. But sustainable development is a priority of the global agenda and is enshrined in the Brazilian Federal Constitution and domestic legislation, and therefore it is not up to any particular administration to decide whether its chosen model of national development is to preserve the environment and take care of its population.
Moreover, since 2014 Brazil has had a law - No. 13,019 of 2014 - that defines the legal relationship between the state and civil society, which was unanimously passed by the National Congress when Jair Bolsonaro was a national representative. This law does not provide for the possibility of a suspension in the way that it was done. The decision by the Minister of the Environment violates the principle of legal certainty, since it disregards contractual relations that have been formalised on the basis of a law. It also defies administrative efficiency, as it cancels activities in which the Brazilian state has invested public resources, including the time and work of public servants.
In what other ways has the space for civil society in Brazil been affected since the election of Bolsonaro?
The administration has not been up and running long enough for us to assess the impact of the measures it has taken. The Bolsonaro government is only completing its first month now. But I would point out some issues that even at such an early stage already draw my attention. One is the choice of people who are notoriously opposed to certain agendas to lead politically and administratively the agencies that are key to their implementation - a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse, as the popular saying goes. Another issue is the lack of recognition of LGBTI people as holders of rights and subjects of human rights policies, and the extinction of spaces for civil society participation in public policy, such as the National Council for Food and Nutrition Security, a space for social participation adopted by Brazil in the area of food and nutritional security that has been held up by many other countries as an example.
It is also important to note that the government has issued decrees on issues that bring significant setbacks to CSOs’ agendas, such as easing the purchase and possession of firearms and weakening the Access to Information Act by expanding the opportunities for public information to be classified as confidential and delegating more power to public officials than in the past, clearly hampering effective transparency.
How has civil society reacted to these setbacks?
Civil society is alert, closely following all the decisions made by the new government and organising to seek the reversal of measures that are contrary to human and environmental rights.
Soon after the publication of the resolution by the Ministry of the Environment, in view of its very negative repercussions and the mobilisation of civil society, the Minister backtracked and issued a new order stating that the implementation of contracts already underway would continue and only new ones would have to keep waiting for approval. However, this change cannot be credited to civil society’s reaction alone, since this kind of behaviour has so far been a trademark of the Bolsonaro administration, which from the campaign onwards has adopted communication strategies inspired by Donald Trump’s. It is clearly possible to identify the intention, at times, to confuse public opinion by creating factoids so that disputes do not happen based on technical analysis, but rather on the basis of a chain of news about absurd measures, social reactions and changes of course by the government, seeking to convey to a section of the population the idea that there is ideological criticism on the part of the left while in contrast the government is willing to correct its mistakes.
Civil society mobilised against the decision to establish a system of state monitoring of CSOs set out in PM 870, and a diverse and representative collection of Brazilian organisations signed an open letter requesting the rectification of PM 870 in line with the Constitution.
Soon, in early February, the National Congress will resume work and civil society is getting ready to call on representatives to respect the Constitution and therefore amend the text to strip the government of the power to monitor international bodies and CSOs. The possibility of seeking the protection of the judiciary if Congress keeps the text of the legislation as proposed by the government is also under consideration, as well as resorting to international mechanisms in the event that domestic institutions fail to protect these rights, which are ensured by international treaties of which Brazil is a signatory state party.
Why is it important for Brazilian civil society to be able to continue doing its work, and what kind of help does it need from international civil society?
CSOs are key institutions for democracy, as they ensure plurality, diversity, the freedom of expression and respect for minorities. Moreover, only a free and strong civil society provides secure enough foundations for the change in the development model that our country requires.
The work of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, points in the same direction, emphasising the connection between development and the freedom for organisations to operate, something that is not always apparent to the wider public.
In her celebrated work Governing the Commons, which earned her the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, scholar Elinor Ostrom analysed several case studies on the management of common goods and determined that these are better managed by the community than by the state working in isolation. Her research shows that the management of potentially scarce common goods is more efficient when done by a group formed by people who are directly affected by that good, by means of rules created by the very same group and adapted to local needs and conditions. Within the type of economic arrangement that was the object of Ostrom’s study, the management of common goods was typically carried out by CSOs formed at the community level and aimed at promoting development compatible with the preservation of the environment and the populations that inhabit it.
Unfortunately, in recent days we saw in Brazil yet another demonstration of the accuracy of Ostrom’s thesis, in the form of the tragic collapse of a dam owned by the Vale mining company in the municipality of Brumadinho, state of Minas Gerais. This environmental crime took place three years after the collapse of a dam in Mariana, which literally killed the Rio Doce, carrying toxic minerals and destruction more than 500 km down the river, between the disaster site and the sea. News about the Brumadinho case points to the fragile implementation of existing inspection instruments. In this context, it is highly telling that about a month earlier the State Environmental Council had voted favourably, by eight votes to one, to grant new environmental licences to expand Vale's operation of the soon-to-collapse dam. The dissenting vote was cast by the sole environmental organisation with a seat on the Council, which had warned the supervisory bodies about the risks.
Examples such as this underscore the important role of civil society in ensuring the model of sustainable development that the world currently needs. Brazilian society needs to realise that loosening environmental regulations and attacking organisations that advance unpopular causes - those of people and territories with scarce financial resources standing up against huge corporations - is exactly what it takes to bury us in the mud of environmental devastation, violence and inequality.
Right now, it is essential to expand our exchanges with international civil society to understand and seek answers to face the expansion of the forces of this conservative right that simply denies on social media the worth of multilateral mechanisms, the need to reverse climate change and the rights of minorities. What is happening in Brazil should be kept in context, as it is part of the same global movement that is causing setbacks to the rights agenda elsewhere, through a repressive collection of customs and liberal economic policies that fail to take into account the limits to the development process set by human rights and environmental protections.
Increased coordination of Brazilian organisations with international public and private mechanisms, including those within the justice system, will help ensure the monitoring and visibility of the Brazilian situation, as well as access to international courts, if necessary.
Investment in international cooperation programmes for joint action among organisations, states, universities and experts will also certainly help to promote enabling environments that are more hospitable to civil society and democracy.
Civic space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.