You may have heard of Jair Bolsonaro, who was elected President of Brazil in late 2018. Bolsonaro is from the same mold as Donald Trump—a crass, right-wing, misogynistic, racist, gun-loving, xenophobic leader who promotes violence as a solution to social problems. Bolsonaro’s government has opened the Brazilian Amazon to wanton deforestation and economic exploitation, and has whipped up attacks against Indigenous leaders who are trying to stop this disaster from happening. Bolsonaro has one advantage over Trump—he served in the armed forces and has support from powerful elements of Brazil’s military.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has a solid base among right-wing religious conservatives, who are now a major political force in Brazil. This is bad news for women’s rights, especially abortion rights and sexuality education, and for the rights of LGBTQ+ persons. Brazil has taken this extremely conservative agenda into the international arena, a posture that contrasts sharply with Brazil’s diplomatic history as a defender of human rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and gender equality at the UN.
For example, in early 2021, Brazil became the leader of a group of 35 countries—many known for their authoritarian governments and poor record on women’s rights, e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Uganda, Indonesia, Belarus, Poland, Hungary— that adhere to the Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family. Launched in October 2020, the Geneva Consensus Declaration was one of the many noxious initiatives of the Trump Administration, and the Biden Administration quickly resigned US leadership and membership in early 2021. The Consensus makes clear that “Promoting Women’s Health” means opposing abortion, while “Strengthening the Family” means fighting feminism and LGBTQ+ rights. Under Brazilian leadership, Guatemala and Russia have joined the 33 existing members.
This month, I interviewed Sonia Correa, a brilliant Brazilian researcher and writer, longtime feminist activist, and co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch. She has studied and analyzed the activities of right-wing movements around the world for many years. She recently co-authored an article [in Portuguese] in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo about the connections between US right-wing forces and other ultra-conservatives worldwide, and what this portends for democracy and human rights in Brazil and beyond.
Sonia spoke to me from Rio, where she lives. Her answers have been edited, and my annotations are included in square brackets.
FG: What is the significance of Brazil becoming the leader of the group of countries that adhere to the Geneva Consensus Declaration?
SC: Since Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, Brazil’s domestic and foreign policy on gender and sexuality have become completely aligned along extremely conservative lines, and this global leadership role is one example. Bolsonaro’s cabinet has many extreme elements. Bolsonaro’s first Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araújo, was a follower of [ultraconservative thinkers and strategists] Steve Bannon [yes, the former Trump adviser!], Aleksandr Dugin [a Russian nationalist] and Olavo de Carvalho [a Brazilian Traditionalist author].
What used to be the Ministry of Human Rights—now called the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights (MMFDH)—has recently taken the leading role in relation to matters of gender, sexuality, abortion, and family. The person in charge is Angela Gandra, National Secretary for the Family; she is a member of Opus Dei, an ultra-conservative Catholic lay group that originated in Spain in the 1920s. Gandra is also very well connected to the Political Network for Values that brings together key US anti-gender and anti-abortion groups, and to European religious conservatives.
Putin’s Russia is now part of this picture. In a high-profile speech [on Global Shake-up in the 21st Century: The Individual, Values and the State] delivered at the Valdai Discussion Club [a Russian think-tank close to the Russian government] in October 2021, Putin denounced the “destruction of age-old values, religion and relations between people, up to and including the total rejection of family,” and called education about gender and trans persons “monstrous” and akin to “a crime against humanity.” Russia joined the Geneva Consensus at about the same time last fall when it was announced that Bolsonaro would visit Russia in 2022.
FG: Some commentators will just shrug and say: “Well, that’s abortion, gender, sexuality and women’s rights, and there are diverging views on these issues around the world.” But you have been writing for a long time that gender and sexuality are central to the right-wing worldview and their authoritarian agenda. Can you tell us why?
SC: Any right-wing movement today has gender and sexuality as core elements of their political agenda. But even after three years of the Bolsonaro catastrophe, Brazilian political scientists don’t get it! Mainstream analysts as well as the media continue to consider gender and sexuality as side issues, which are secondary to what “really matters.”
How did this begin? Faced with the transformation of society that feminism, LGBTQ+, racial justice movements and other progressive social movements have brought about since the 1960s, ultra-conservatives realized that simply opposing this transformation was not going to be fruitful. In both the US and Europe, these conservative thinkers engaged in a rereading of Marxist authors, among them the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who wrote about cultural struggles for political and ideological hegemony. They began investing in a “conservative cultural revolution,” through the use of culture wars. Systematic investments were made in transforming mentalities, battling for “common sense.” This cannot be done exclusively by influencing political institutions, as critical as that may be. This requires mobilizing ideas in daily life, in the wider public sphere as well as in institutions on theground, like schools. These investments have benefitted from the growth of the Internet and social media since the 1990s. As we know, many conservative online channels openly promote conspiracy theories about an “establishment,” or “rings, networks” that are supposedly destroying the family. In fact, their true targets were and remain feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and anti-militarism, to which anti-racism, environmental movements and migration have since been added.
FG: And who are these conservative thinkers, the originators of this movement?
SC: This has been brewing for a very long time, since at least the 1960s. Catholic thinkers and the Vatican certainly were at the source. Evangelical forces have their own conservative traditions, but they were relatively marginal in this movement until the 1980s, when they were brought together in the US under (Jerry Falwell’s) Moral Majority to assert political power. This became the model, of bringing together various religious and secular elements, often quite heterogenous and not internally coherent. I call it a “hydra”—many different heads, each drinking from a different river. It was exported to Latin America and Europe over the last 15 to 20 years, where it takes a different form in each country, depending on the history and the actors in place. That is the origin of this movement in Brazil.
FG: How does this ultra-conservative political movement currently “create culture” in Brazil? What is their strategy?
SC: Abortion rights have been the subject of fierce attacks by the Catholic Church in Brazil since the 1980s. But it’s no coincidence that this ultra-conservative movement started building up in the mid-2000s, when the PT [Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party, under President Lula da Silva], a left-wing party, was governing the country for the first time. This “conservative revolt” was propelled by a mix of forces: ultra-Catholic actors, including some in the Church hierarchy, fundamentalist Evangelicals, but also conservative and right-wing military, and no less importantly a gamut of secular, ultra-neoliberal voices and right-leaning libertarian voices and think-tanks.After 2007, when the Council of Latin American Bishops met in Brazil, with Pope Benedict XVI himself in attendance, Catholic channels launched the attack on “gender ideology.” By 2012, it was picked up by Evangelical and other conservative congresspeople to oppose legal protections for LGBTQ+. One of them was then Congressman Jair Bolsonaro. At the same time, a fierce attack was launched against a new national educational plan that would have combatted gender stereotypes. By 2018, these discourses had flooded public debates in Brazil and most importantly those of the presidential electoral campaign, creating moral and political panic.
After Bolsonaro came to power, this agenda was incorporated into state policies, especially in the areas of human rights, education and foreign policy. What I have described in relation to the current diplomatic agenda is one key example. But a lot is being done domestically by the MMFDH, including in partnership with the Minister of Education. Among many dramatic examples: educational materials funded by the Ministry of Education for the 80 million students in the public education system are being cleansed of references to gender, and to racial inequality and discrimination. Also, in 2021, the MMFDH changed the manual used to record human rights violations through its hotline. The terms “gender,” “homophobia” and “transphobia” as categories of human rights violations have been removed. Instead, “gender ideology” has been included as a new ground for violations of human rights. [It is vaguely defined as “institutional violence against children and adolescents.”] This allows anyone to denounce incidents of children being exposed to “gender ideology” or, confusingly, “Marxism” in schools, which brings the police into the educational system to investigate. Since November 2021, two such cases have been reported by the media, one in Bahia and the other in the state of Rio. It is not excessive to say that Brazil is becoming a police state in relation to gender and sexuality matters.
FG: This sounds similar to attacks on so-called critical race theory in schools in the US.
SC: Yes, indeed. The Brazilian right-wing appears to be working closely with US right-wing actors engaged in these battles. The US-based CPAC (Conference on Conservative Political Action) has held two recent gatherings in Brazil. One of these meetings was held the day before Bolsonaro’s big neo-fascist rallies and marches of September 7, 2021, which was the tensest moment of the last three years in Brazilian politics. This was not a coincidence. Brazil is very important from the American religious and secular right-wing perspective.
FG: Women were a critical source of opposition to Bolsonaro before his election in 2018, with the impressive #EleNão (#NotHim) movement. What has happened to these activists, how are they doing?
SC: #EleNão was a very spontaneous online mobilization against Bolsonaro. It was not propelled by the classic women’s movement. This mobilization had been building up since 2015. And the reaction of right-wing forces against it was virulent; this was when the attacks on feminism escalated. As I see it, this growing feminist mobilization was drastically affected by the electoral defeat. The 2018 election of Bolsonaro was very hard, a gigantic blow. 2018 was also when Marielle Franco [a Black lesbian feminist member of the City Council in Rio, and a rising star in Brazilian politics] was murdered, which hit feminists very hard. Yet feminisms are very much alive in Brazilian society. They are part of daily life and daily debates. Black feminisms are particularly active, creative and fierce. But these wide and diverse movements remain fairly uncoordinated to this day. We have not seen anything comparable in Brazil to what we have witnessed elsewhere in the region: massive feminist marches andprotests. That being said, very few massive demonstrations by any movement against Bolsonaro have occurred since 2019 and this is partially due to COVID-19.
It’s important to realize that although Bolsonaro has attacked feminism, he has courted women. The percentage of women who voted for Bolsonaro was roughly 50%. In 2018, a broad group of very right-wing women also entered Brazilian politics. This is a new wave. The number of young, Black feminist and even trans elected officials has also grown since 2016. Marielle Franco was one example. But their numbers are still much lower.
FG: Given all of this, what gives you hope these days? I’m not sure we can be optimistic, but we must remain hopeful.
SC: The feminist movement is rebuilding itself in Brazil. It is younger, and less centered on the state and policy, and more on cultural change. The trans movement is very impressive. There is a transformation under way, a rebellion. We have to make sure we can sustain that through thinking, cross-movement political exchanges, resistance and mobilization against the attacks on gender and abortion we face. I am worried about the few resources available to feminist and trans movements. But we can’t get anxious.
FG: But how do we not become anxious? I’m feeling anxious!
SC: We need to keep resisting, reorganize, identify what’s happening, spread that information to reach wider audiences beyond feminist circles. It’s easy to dismiss and ridicule these right-wing extremists, because they are so grotesque. Bolsonaro is laughable, as is Trump, but they are supported by very well thought out, well-funded movements, not spontaneous, but planned and structured. They have huge resources, especially when they control the state as they do in Brazil right now. We have to take this seriously and act accordingly. In Brazil, we have to make clear to mainstream audiences that it was not a “fury unleashed by feminism” that created Bolsonaro, but in fact a well-planned strategy by ultra-conservatives to take the state.
FG: Thank you, Sonia. I see many parallels between what is going on in Brazil, and what is happening in every country where authoritarian movements are grabbing political power. We have to continue this conversation very soon!
I’ll post the full conversation with Sonia soon on fmus.org.
In feminist solidarity,
If you want to know more, read:
The Global Far Right Is Betting the House on Bolsonaro—by Nathália Urban, in Jacobin, October 2021
A bill aimed at “critical race theory” in Florida would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making white people feel “discomfort” when they teach students or train employees about discrimination in US history—by Brendan Farrington, January 2022
Anti-gender Politics in Latin America—by Sonia Correa, 2020
A user’s guide to “Cultural Marxism”: Anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, reloaded—by Paul Rosenberg, in Salon, May 2019
‘Cultural Marxism’ Catching on—by the Southern Poverty Law Center, August 2003 https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2003/cultural-marxism-catching