The attack against the Brazilian institutions and its impact on the political discourse in the country
Communist and terrorist are terms used in a populist way in Brazil. After the attacks against the democratic institutions on 8 January, the country has opened a new chapter in its public debate about potential terrorist threats, as Daniel Oppermann (International Relations Research Center, University of São Paulo) explains.
This article was first published at: Latin America and Caribbean Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Terms and concepts play a central role in politics. Those who want to address a large number of people and convince them of an idea like to use simple terms to avoid explaining more complex issues in detail. This element of political communication is found among actors of various political leanings and is not limited to populist actors.
Democratic leaders also simplify complicated issues, even if they knowingly move towards populism. In Brazil, politicians on the left, centre, and right use specific terms when it comes to mobilising their own supporters and defaming their opponents. Defamation is a current trend, with many using labels connected with harsh associations that are not aimed at objectively criticising political opponents but rather at sidelining and sometimes criminalising them.
Communist and terrorist are terms used in a populist way in Brazil. The political left uses the word fascist to defame political opponents, while right-wingers categorise their contraries as communists. But in the context of the attack against the Brazilian government and judicial buildings in January 2023, the fascist label was temporarily overtaken by the term terrorist.
The riots in Brasilia
After President Bolsonaro’s narrow electoral defeat in October 2022, many of his supporters set up protest camps near military buildings throughout the country to emphasise their demand for military intervention. The demonstrators justify their protests on their fears against imaginary communism and, in this case, with accusations of electoral fraud. The demand for establishing a military regime (and thus the abolition of democracy) is a frequent component of many right-wing populists and extreme right-wing demonstrations in Brazil. It has been tolerated in Brazil under the freedom of expression framework, although jurists classify it as illegal.
About four thousand people arrived in Brasília during the first week of 2023 to participate in the protests of 8 January. More than 1500 were arrested hours after the attacks and the following day. These people who set off towards the government buildings on that Sunday formed a demonstration procession that marched into the government quarter accompanied by a small number of police officers. Notwithstanding a large number of demonstrators, there were hardly any security forces in the area. Video footage shows how a small number of police officers, with no discernible will to fight back, clear the way for the demonstrators through a barrier after a brief conflict. Brazilian security forces have been criticised for irregular behaviour for many years.
While Jair Bolsonaro was in power, the government quarter held large demonstrations by his supporters, but their motivations changed after his electoral defeat in October 2022. This resulted in a storming by hundreds of supporters of a military coup to the government and judiciary buildings in the capital without any security measures, a novelty in recent Brazilian history. Without any hurdles, the rioters managed to occupy the almost empty Congress building, the Presidential Palace (Palácio do Planalto) and the Supreme Federal Court and damaged these facilities with physical violence and arson.
At the time of the attack, President Lula da Silva, who had been sworn in a week earlier, was at an event in another state. The first reactions to the attack appeared simultaneously in the Brazilian press. The first reports spoke about a storming of government buildings by insurrectionists (golpistas, in Portuguese). However, the term terrorist was also used during the day to describe the rioters. The government labelled the attackers as insurrectionists and sometimes fascists at first, but then there was a shift to the term terrorist.
In the reporting of the following days and weeks and in the political discussion, the word terrorist was set. Some news outlets, including those close to Bolsonaro, continued to use terms such as anti-democratic acts or golpistas and avoided the term terrorists.
Brazil had not seen such a strong accusation of terrorism by a left-wing government in its recent history. The Bolsonaro supporters’ attack against the democratic institutions opened a new chapter in the Brazilian discourse on terrorism.
Some historical context for both terms
To understand the meaning of the term terrorism and its relation to communism in the Brazilian context, it is necessary to look at the function of both terms in the country’s history.
A central point of origin of Brazilian anti-communism was the rejection of the workers’ movement, which was influenced by the Russian Revolution, among other things, and started in Brazil in the early 20th century resulting in the formation of several communist organisations and parties over the years. Since some active parts of this group migrated from Europe, parts of the conservative Brazilian society feared subversion by foreign communists in the country. This concern is an important element that can still be found within conspiracy theories today.
The sometimes violent clashes between workers and security forces, the revolutionary discourses and the calls for banning organisations associated with the workers’ movement contributed partly to the portrayal of the Brazilian left as a criminal and terrorist faction. This assessment continued during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). After re-establishing democracy, the rhetoric on communists and terrorists receded somewhat. From 2003 on, during the first government of the Workers’ Party (PT), the ruling power avoided conducting a public discourse on terrorism. This was also done against the background of the experiences left-wing government members and their supporters had as opposition members during the dictatorship.
Brazil had a slight diversification of the concept of terrorism with the change in discourse in the USA and Europe as a result of the attacks in New York in 2001. But it is important to note that the country did not adopt the transatlantic position and (apart from the situation in the tri-border region) did not have a wide-ranging restrictive conversation on religious groups. Yet, there was a debate in the country around the advocacy or rejection of a new anti-terrorism law that was passed in 2016.
While the Brazilian left had largely avoided terrorism as a debate, the issue made a comeback during the years of the far right-wing Bolsonaro government. Political representatives of the strengthening right-wing populism attempted to criminalise left-wing organisations during Bolsonaro’s term by branding selected features or organisations of left-wing politics as communist and terrorist. With the Bolsonaro government and the political movement attached to it, it was possible to extend the anti-communism of the last century and the alleged links between social democratic left politics and terrorism. Social media has also made it easier to spread such messages.
An expanded concept of terrorism
The designation of the extreme right-wing attackers on Brazil’s Congress as terrorists opened a new chapter in the public debate in the country about potential terrorist threats. Over the past one hundred years, the right has made accusations of terrorism to stigmatise various left-wing movements and parties. Some factions of the left have used it during the military dictatorship, blaming security agencies for state terrorism. Still, the left has had little interest in the issue of terrorism after the re-establishment of democracy.
This has changed after the attacks on 8 January. As of this date, the Brazilian left and much of the Brazilian press have also categorised certain groups of the contemporary political right as terrorists. Whether labelling an irrational, undemocratic and violent mob that way is objectively accurate is another question. This dispute, which has been initially verbal, will also be legal in the near future and will contribute to determining the relationship between the political camps and their discourse in the country in the short and long term.