This year, an unprecedented number of fires were set in Brazil’s Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world.
The fires were so large and numerous they blackened the skies of the country’s urban centers, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, thousands of miles away.
The Amazon fires are the work of loggers and ranchers, goaded to excess by the country’s recently inaugurated extreme-Right president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro entered office in January, and he immediately gutted the equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the equivalent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, promising to strip the few remaining lands from indigenous communities.
Agricultural elites met and explicitly decided to set as many fires as possible to demonstrate their support of the rollbacks. To international concern and offers of aid, Bolsonaro’s pledge to open the Amazon to international investment belied his simultaneous nationalist bluster.
His attacks on the environment fit with a generalized attack on the majority of the population. The government stripped important social welfare programs, erased long-standing labor rights and spread virulent anti-human rights rhetoric centered on the criminalization of progressive activism, which targeted LGBTQ+, Afro-Brazilian, women and indigenous groups.
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric emboldened violence, including the daytime murder of Rio de Janeiro Councilwoman Marielle Franco, a leader in the LGBTQ+ and Afro-Brazilian rights movements. Implicated in the assassination are Bolsonaro family-linked paramilitary militias, and they have further threatened other LGBTQ+ and Afro-Brazilian leaders, such as co-author of the current piece, Federal Deputy Jean Wyllys.
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Like other activists and intellectual leaders of progressive causes, Deputy Wyllys fled death threats and sought refuge in exile. The military police, turned loose on poor communities of color in an iron fist approach to crime, have killed over 6,000 people in eight months.
The current quasi-fascist turn began to take shape in 2014, when the country’s elite mobilized a vitriolic effort after losing a fourth consecutive election to the Leftist Workers’ Party. Oligarchic control of media conglomerates turned the anti-corruption fervor of urban middle-class groups into support for a politically-motivated judiciary biased against the Left.
Though conservatives could find no evidence of corruption against then-President Dilma Rousseff, their attacks tainted the Workers’ Party enough to impeach her for accounting practices. To ensure the Left could not return to power, a crusading anti-corruption judge, Sergio Moro, manufactured a corruption conviction against two-term president, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, who left office in 2010 as one of the most popular politicians in the world and led polls for the 2018 elections.
While the entire Right of the political spectrum supported the parliamentary coup against Dilma and the conviction of Lula, little did they suspect that systematic manipulation of institutions would allow a relatively unknown extreme-Right outsider to win power.
Since his dishonorable discharge for planning terrorist attacks to raise military salaries, Bolsonaro had been a federal deputy with minimal achievement, best known for spitting that a feminist deputy was too ugly to rape.
This calls the U.S. connection into question. Moro and the entire team of anti-corruption prosecutors received encouragement and training from the U.S. Department of Justice and other agencies. At the least, U.S. agencies had to know that the Brazilian judiciary would be biased against the Left and would manipulate the 2016 impeachment and a Right-wing victory in 2018.
Adding suspicion has been the list of neo-colonial payoffs, including military facilities in Brazil, President Trump’s promise of Amazon investment, U.S. oil firm purchase of off-shore reserves, the corruption-investigation collapse of Brazilian construction firms and entrance of U.S. contractors, and Boeing’s purchase of Brazil’s national champion, Embraer.
Members of Congress have been concerned with U.S. involvement, submitting U.S. House Resolution 594 to condition further aid on improving human rights and environmental protection in Brazil and writing an Aug. 20 letter to Attorney General Barr to demand a full account of U.S. involvement.
While the U.S. does not as often invade and manipulate Latin American governments as under the 19th century Monroe Doctrine, our current attempts to tilt the scales of judicial and electoral processes are too easily manipulated by local interests to undermine democracy, attack the majority of the population and destroy the environment.
The U.S. is either complicit or willfully naïve, and it is time to change.
Rafael Ioris is an associate professor in the department of history at the University of Denver. Deputy Jean Wyllys will be in Denver on Oct. 12 to receive the Denver Justice and Peace Committee’s International Human Rights Award.