Questioning Bolsonaro

Democracy requires debate founded upon respect and reason. The Brazil Initiative at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, is committed to contributing to this debate by inviting Brazilian political leaders to share their experiences and perspectives with our students, faculty and community. Our commitment should not be construed as support for any particular candidate, party or policy preference. Rather, our commitment is anchored to the Elliott School’s academic mission and efforts to include diverse voices within our pursuit of knowledge.

Jair Bolsonaro, a Brazilian Federal Deputy from the state of Rio de Janeiro, will likely run for the Brazilian presidency in 2018. Bolsonaro received the most votes of any candidate for Federal Deputy in the state of Rio de Janeiro with 6.07% of the total vote. In recent public opinion polls Bolsonaro is identified by seventeen percent of respondents as their preferred candidate for the presidency.      33 percent disapprove of Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro is a former Captain in the Brazilian Army and launched his political career by advocating better compensation for the Armed Forces during the transition to democracy in the mid 1980s.    His representation in the Brazilian Congress is largely associated with advocating on behalf of the armed forces and military police. In this capacity Bolsonaro has often praised the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) and has questioned democratic rule in Brazil and elsewhere.

Deputy Bolsonaro is controversial for his statements regarding democracy and has been found guilty of making morally damaging statements against a female Federal Deputy and Brazil’s traditional African-Brazilian communities, known as quilombos. During the vote to impeach former President Dilma Rousseff, Deputy Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to a former military officer responsible for the torture of hundreds of Brazilian citizens, including Dilma Rousseff, during the military dictatorship. 

The Brazil Initiative does not pardon Bolsonaro’s provocations, but we have extended an invitation to the Federal Deputy to clarify and debate his positions and approach to government in order to better understand Brazil’s current political development and possible electoral scenarios for 2018. Hence, we have scheduled “A Conversation with Federal Deputy Jair Bolsonaro” for October 13, 2017 at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Questioning Bolsonaro is vital to understanding Brazil and holds out a special opportunity to contribute to democratic debate. We recognize that many oppose any dialogue with the deputy.    Yet, democracy requires respect and reason for all, even those who hold opinions and advance policy preferences that are questionable if not anti-democratic. For this reason we seek to question Bolsonaro about his commitment to democratic rule and positions on governance.

First and foremost, Bolsonaro must answer the question of whether he supports democratic rule in principle and practice, or whether it is just an opportunity to advance his own political agenda.    This question is rooted to Bolsonaro’s understanding of universal suffrage (a relatively recent achievement in Brazil), political contestation, and the rule of law and the constitution.        Bolsonaro’s past statements call into question his commitment to democracy and the rule of law.   We invite him to clarify his position.

Second, Deputy Bolsonaro has praised the use of torture during the military dictatorship. Torture is morally reprehensible, ineffective, and illegal in Brazil under the 1988 Federal Constitution.    Torture cannot be defended, so why praise it?

Third, Bolsonaro advocates the use of greater violence among law enforcement officials and the use of firearms by citizens despite Brazil’s alarming level of violence which is now spiking as public security and social safety net budgets are slashed at the state and local levels. Bolsonaro’s advocacy does not include an analysis of the root causes of violence or the alternatives for smart policing aimed at protecting citizens from criminals and the violent confrontations between law enforcement authorities and criminal organizations in Brazilian cities. According to Instituto Igarapé,  

“In 2016, more than 5,000 people were murdered in Rio, among them scores of people killed by stray bullets.” 

These bullets are too often shot by military police and criminal gangs who shoot first and ask questions later, all at the expense of citizens. Brazil needs stricter gun controls and efforts to combat illegal firearm sales.

Does Bolsonaro support smart policing and sensible efforts to limit the harm of increased firearm use?

Fourth, Bolsonaro has not expressed a principled commitment to human rights and equal treatment under the law, essential principles for democratic rule. Those that signed the open letter to “Stop Bolsonaro” from speaking at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University are right to question and denounce the harmful comments made by the Federal Deputy. His use of violent metaphors and social media to confront those he dislikes is disturbing.

Rather than avoiding a discussion with Federal Deputy Bolsonaro, we have chosen to engage him in a conversation about his story, his values and principles, and his vision of governance in Brazil.     We trust that such a discussion is vital to better understanding Brazil and its political leadership at this moment while also providing a compelling forum for exploring Deputy Bolsonaro’s views on democracy and human rights. We understand and appreciate the concerns presented by those who oppose Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential candidacy and political views, but are committed to providing a forum for democratic debate on the future of Brazil.


Mark S. Langevin, Ph.D.,

Director of the Brazil Initiative and Research Professor               

Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University