Brazil Turns Rightward, Heralding New Chapter for Latin America

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NIOAQUE, Brazil—It looks like a scene from Marlboro Country. Cattle ranchers drive their Chevy pickup trucks to the local rodeo. Cowboys in washed-out jeans entertain the crowds.

In fact, it is Brazil’s conservative heartland, a 14-hour drive from the nearest beach and a world away from the country’s reputation for liberal hedonism.

Over much of the past 15 years, Brazilian conservatives have watched the rise of socialism in this continent-sized nation with unease. They’ve seen farmers go to jail here for defending their land against indigenous tribes; they’ve recoiled as same-sex couples starred in their favorite soap operas; and they’ve grumbled at the local shooting club about high taxes, high crime and the corruption scandals in two successive leftist presidencies.

The roping competition in Amambai, part of Brazil’s conservative heartland.
The roping competition in Amambai, part of Brazil’s conservative heartland.
“It’s time we brought back some morals to this country,” said retired pharmacy owner Francisco Lima, 71, as his wife, Maria, got up from her wicker chair to fetch homemade lemonade here in the sleepy town of Nioaque. “Brazil is overrun by criminals and corrupt politicians.”

Conservatism is making a comeback here. It is already playing out in the battle over women’s health and across politics, religion and the arts.

The move to the right in Brazil—home to about half of South America’s population and wealth—accelerates a continental trend that’s seen countries edging away from socialism since the end of the China-led commodity boom. As government coffers ran dry, the so-called “pink tide” of leftist governments began to ebb, beginning with the 2015 election in Argentina of Mauricio Macri, a center-right businessman.

The jailing on Saturday of Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist icon who was last year convicted of corruption, marked a new low for Latin American socialism and effectively removes him from the race in October’s presidential elections.

Meanwhile, Brazil is witnessing the political rise of a fiery army captain-turned-congressman named Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who speaks fondly of the country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship in which he once served. The blue-eyed nationalist, whose middle name means “Messiah,” is a devout Christian who was recently baptized in the Jordan River. At 63, he is running for president on a pro-gun, antiabortion and anti-gay-rights platform.

Conservative presidential candidate Jair Messias Bolsonaro is greeted by supporters in Curitiba, Brazil.
Conservative presidential candidate Jair Messias Bolsonaro is greeted by supporters in Curitiba, Brazil.
The national political climate is too volatile to anoint him as the front-runner, even though the most recent polls show him with around 20% of the vote, second only to Mr. da Silva. But in and around Nioaque, where Mr. Bolsonaro was briefly stationed with the military in the 1980s, he is seen as the only politician capable of taking on both the crooks on the street and in the halls of power.

“Brazil needs an angry father figure to teach everyone a lesson,” said Joyce Vilagre Vieira, a 26-year-old lawyer in Dois Irmãos do Buriti, a two-hour drive north of Nioaque.

Two major phenomena are driving the conservative shift. The first is the rise of evangelical Christianity. Now comprising a third of Brazilians, evangelicals are on track to outnumber Catholics by 2035, according to pollster Datafolha. The second is growing exasperation with lawlessness, from corruption to a homicide rate so high that over 61,000 people are slain here each year, a toll that would wipe out Cincinnati in five years.

“When there is fear, the conservative aspects of Brazilian society are expressed with more force, and once again, that sensation of fear has returned,” former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a political centrist, said in an interview.

Brazil’s military dictatorship, led by conservative-minded generals, was largely born of a fear of communism. This time, many Brazilians fear crime and political instability as a result of corruption, he said, while others fear the encroachment of liberal cultural values.

An evangelical church in Nioaque, Brazil, on a recent evening.
An evangelical church in Nioaque, Brazil, on a recent evening.
Since the end of military rule in 1985, “conservative” had been a dirty word here, said Bruno Garschagen, a political scientist and author. None of Brazil’s 35 political parties has the word in its name. No president has ever dared to talk big about tackling crime for fear of being labeled an oppressor.

“Until recently the left has basically dominated the cultural and political debate,” said Mr. Garschagen, one of a generation of new conservative thinkers filling bookshelves and blogs.

But times are changing. President Michel Temer recently ordered the military to take control of public security in crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro state, the first intervention of its kind in 33 years of democracy. Brazil, whose motto of “Order and Progress” is emblazoned on its flag, is now fighting a war against chaos, he said.

Brazil’s left, once seen as morally superior, has been tarnished by its ties to Venezuela’s authoritarian government, as well as to the vast Car Wash corruption scandal that has ensnared Mr. da Silva and his rivals. “People who always defended conservative values now feel empowered,” said Matias Spektor, from the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. Here, the phenomenon is called “conservatives coming out of the closet.”

And increasingly, conservatives are flexing their political muscle.

Home on the range in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state.
Home on the range in Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state.
Brazil’s evangelical bloc in Congress, accounting for a sixth of lower-house deputies, played a central role in the 2016 impeachment of left-wing President Dilma Rousseff, Mr. da Silva’s handpicked successor. Along with other conservatives, they form the self-styled “Bible, Beef and Bullets” lobby that has helped her replacement, Mr. Temer, stay in power, partly in exchange for loosening controls over logging and ranching in the Amazon rain forest.

Conservative bills to relax Brazil’s strict gun laws, reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and ban abortion even in cases of rape are gaining momentum in Congress. In September, a federal judge in Brasília overturned a watershed 1999 ruling that banned psychologists from offering gay “conversion therapy,” raising fears among activists that other courts will support the controversial practice.

Francisco Lima, 71 and his wife Maria, 68, outside their house.
Francisco Lima, 71 and his wife Maria, 68, outside their house.
Evangelical groups have been waging a culture war nationwide, forcing Santander Bank in September to shut down an exhibition on sexual diversity. An angry mob staged a violent protest during a recent visit by American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, burning her in effigy and calling her a “witch.” Brazil now boasts evangelical fashion stores, dating sites, cruises and sin-free videogames.

Like the divide in the U.S., the rise of conservative Brazil has liberal citizens on edge. They worry about the rightward swing in a country that is among the most unequal in the world, has deeply ingrained racism, and only recently began pushing for women’s and minority rights.

“Everyone I know is in a panic,“ said Daniel Ribeiro, a Brazilian film director whose latest movie tells the story of a transsexual couple. ”Even if Bolsonaro doesn’t win, Brazil seems to be going back in that direction.”

Source: Ibope; Datafolha surveys
Brazil is more concerned than ever with law and order. More than half of all Brazilians want to introduce the death penalty and nearly 40% would back a military coup to tackle endemic crime and corruption, according to respective studies by pollster Datafolha and Vanderbilt University.

Overall, Brazilian pollster Ibope found 54% of Brazilians exhibited a high level of conservatism in 2016, compared with 49% in 2010. It calculates its “Conservatism Index” via a mishmash of questions asking respondents how they feel about introducing the death penalty, reducing the age of criminal responsibility, life sentences without parole for heinous crimes, as well as legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage, which is currently legal.

Brazil’s rightward turn is particularly striking because the country has long fooled the rest of the world into thinking it’s some kind of permissive paradise, said Rubens Ricupero, former finance minister and ex-ambassador to the U.S.

“But many public opinion polls show that the basic predominant attitude in Brazil is very conservative,” said Mr. Ricupero.

Some in Brazil compare Mr. Bolsonaro to U.S. President Donald Trump. Like the U.S. leader, Mr. Bolsonaro is a father of five and now married to his third wife, but campaigns as defender of the traditional family.

His outbursts—including once telling a female lawmaker she wasn’t pretty enough to rape—are often praised as a sign of honesty. And many Brazilians view that trait as a much-needed quality in Brasília, where more than a third of the members of Congress are under investigation for crimes ranging from attempted homicide to graft.

“To be a great nation, Brazil needs an honest, Christian and patriotic president,” Mr. Bolsonaro said in Congress last year while casting a vote to put President Temer on trial for corruption—a motion that failed. Even now in his seventh term as a federal lawmaker, Mr. Bolsonaro remains unblemished by the country’s major scandals.

Across Brazil’s dusty savanna, that kind of talk resonates with voters.

A sign supporting Mr. Bolsonaro in rural Brazil.
A sign supporting Mr. Bolsonaro in rural Brazil.
Churches are already reshaping society here, filling in for the cash-strapped public health system by funding rehabilitation centers for drug addicts hooked on Bolivian cocaine. At The Life Squad, a farm near the town of Batayporã, dozens of men work to get clean and learn the gospel.

Kalil Nimer, the center’s evangelical pastor, described one client as a “former homosexual.”

Pastor Kalil Nimer at a Brazilian drug rehab center.
Pastor Kalil Nimer at a Brazilian drug rehab center.
“Now he tells me, ‘Pastor, I’m a man, I’m no longer one of them,’ and he prays for a wife,” said Mr. Nimer. “These things gratify us.”

Out on the dusty roads of Mato Grosso do Sul state, violent winds whip up the red earth, so rich that it has helped make this and a neighboring state a breadbasket responsible for more than 10% of the world’s soybeans. There is no cellphone signal. Shows hosted by televangelists dominate the airwaves, dedicating gospel ballads to lonely truckers.

At the next town’s shooting range, locals are similarly nostalgic for the past. Democracy and “human-rights nonsense” have brought lawlessness, said Breno Muniz de Oliveira, a police officer and trapshooting enthusiast. Paraguayans frequently cross the border and steal farm equipment, he said, and a 2003 law restricting gun ownership made it nearly impossible for civilians to own firearms.

Target practice at a shooting range in Dourados, Brazil, where guns are plentiful.
Target practice at a shooting range in Dourados, Brazil, where guns are plentiful.
“Upstanding citizens can’t defend themselves but criminals now have access to war-grade weapons,” he said. “We need to change the paradigm.”

Even people who voted in the past for Mr. da Silva’s leftist Workers’ Party said their top priority is getting tough on crime.

Antonio Serra, a taxi driver in Dois Irmãos do Buriti, still talks fondly of Mr. da Silva’s government, which benefited from the China-led commodity boom. But he worries about crime. So with Mr. da Silva out the race, Mr. Serra will pick Mr. Bolsonaro. Polls suggest about one in 10 da Silva supporters would do the same, and as many as 40% in Rio.

“Do I want to own a gun?” he asks incredulously. “Hell, I want a machine gun under my bed!”