As incumbent Jair Bolsonaro faces off a challenge from left-wing former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as “Lula”) in Brazil’s October 2 elections, a group of determined Bolsonaro supporters is mobilizing for action, convinced that a communist threat hangs over their country and fiercely defending the sitting president.
Big Mama: Bolsonaro’s ‘spiritual warrior’
In Campo Grande, Rio’s most populous suburb, a line of friends and worshippers has formed in front of a small wooden church, everyone impatient to wish Big Mama – a stout woman with impeccable makeup – a happy birthday. Between a couple of loud laughs and sticky kisses, she says, thrilled: “He sent me a video for my 57th birthday – I’m dying!” “He” is Jair Bolsonaro, her idol, her hero. She sheds tears of joy at the thought of speaking to the president of Brazil, whom she worships – quite literally.An evangelical pastor since the age of 17, Josette Monteiro Marques – better known as Big Mama – preaches both the word of God and that of the Brazilian president in her neighborhood of Campo Grande, a working-class suburb west of Rio de Janeiro. Ever since she was little – and apart from a small hiccup in her 20s when drugs and alcohol kept her away from the divine path for four years – God has sent her daily messages, Big Mama says. He “called” her to campaign for his chosen messiah, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, in 2018. She obliges by publishing regular videos defending the opinions of the far-right head of state for her 178,000 Instagram followers.
A perfect emissary?
Big Mama is a perfect emissary for Brazil’s conservative right wing, right down to the green-and-yellow headscarf (the colors of the Brazilian flag) that she proudly ties around her head for every event. She has experienced domestic violence, was twice married, and is mother to four biological children but more than “1,886 spiritual children” – whom she is proud to have helped through her evangelical drug rehabilitation organization.
Bolsonaro is frequently criticized for his racist, misogynistic and homophobic language. During a 2017 talk in Rio, he said Black people from Quilombos – areas settled by the descendants of runaway slaves – are of no use “even to procreate”, infuriating many Brazilians and notably the Afro-Brazilian community.
And yet Big Mama, a Black woman, is one of Bolsonaro’s staunchest defenders. “You can be a samba composer, a female warrior, and defend the president – I don’t see the problem,” she says.
In August, Bolsonaro sought to counter critics by saying that, as a young military man, he once saved an Afro-Brazilian colleague from drowning. If I were really a racist, Bolsonaro argued, I would have “let him die”.
Big Mama says the president’s critics refuse to believe that Black people and the LGBT community can support him. And her own support has earned her threats on more than one occasion, she says.
“I’ve been threatened with death because I defend the president – because I wear a turban, respect the Orishas (gods in some religions of the African diaspora) and am proud of my skin color. But does my color have a political party?”
For Big Mama, Bolsonaro is a true defender of freedom of thought, a man who “does not steal, does not judge, who – it’s true – says some bullshit now and then, but it’s well-meaning”. The president’s language matters little to her, so long as he forms a bulwark against “the communist threat”.
During her years of addiction, Big Mama saw her brother succumb to his dependence on cannabis – influenced, she believes, by the socialist ideas that were in vogue at the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Seated at a small table near where she officiates, Big Mama drinks coffee after coffee and is soon speaking faster and faster, as if she must urgently convince her audience of the merits of Bolsonaro’s policies.
Every new arrival she embraces is a new “pastor” she has rallied to her cause. The bibles soon pile up at the entrance to the room where a sermon starts with music. Big Mama picks up the mic, tears in her eyes, hugging a huge Brazilian flag. The self-proclaimed “spiritual warrior” suddenly shouts: “Lord, free Brazil from socialism and bless this nation, our president, and his elections.”
A chorus of “Amens” echoes around the room. In Campo Grande, Big Mama is in campaign mode.
An itinerant family of patriots
In an old military police minibus converted into a motorhome, Deborah, Guilherme and their 6-year-old daughter Amabile Levison keep warm by drinking sweetened coffee. A cold wind blows over Rio. “Come in quickly!” The motorhome’s door slams shut with a loud clap.
They say they are “apolitical” and “without a party” but are nonetheless inspired by Jair Bolsonaro. And they will vote for him – or at least Deborah will. Guilherme will give his first-round vote to Pablo Marcal, a religious coach from an obscure evangelical “messianic” movement.
Back in 2018 in their neighborhood of Caxias do Sul they noticed that few of their neighbors raised the flag like they did every morning. On their flag are written the words, “Love, Order and Progress” (Guilherme says French philosopher Auguste Comte, father of positivism, inspired him to add the word “Love”).
“My neighbors, my friends, they were ashamed of the flag because they were afraid of being criticized by their pro-Lula neighbors – or of being branded right-wing extremists,” he says. The pride that united the nation during the 2014 World Cup is long gone, and ever since the 2016 impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff, the green-and-yellow Selecao football shirt is worn almost exclusively by her detractors. Bolsonaro co-opted the colors in 2018, and today, anyone hanging a Brazilian flag from their windows can only be a supporter of the president.
Deborah believes in Bolsonaro but acknowledges his less-than-stellar track record. “He’s had four difficult years, a supreme court that constantly opposed all his policies, a pandemic, and state governors who stopped him from governing and supporting the country’s economy.”
She goes on, emphatically: “We’re screwed if the Workers’ Party (of Lula and Rousseff) comes back, because they’ve already looted the country. They’ll bleed it dry again.”
‘He protects our sovereignty’
Guilherme’s gaze wanders over the huge flag that hangs like a curtain separating the driver’s compartment. “We must be proud of our roots, of our beautiful country and of its riches. Jair Bolsonaro defends it, he protects our sovereignty, he refuses to let our Amazon forest be invaded by foreigners – that is why he’s hated.”
In some circles, the president has been hailed as a patriot for refusing international involvement in the management of the Amazon rainforest and for paying lip service to the conservative values espoused by his wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, a devout evangelical who tells crowds on the campaign trail that her husband has been “chosen by God”.
A soldier taps on the window and kindly asks Guilherme to park a bit further down. Parked on an avenue at Urca military base, located at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, the festively patriotic minibus is hindering a battalion’s maneuvers. “We’re used to it – we never pay for parking and we’re never bothered by the police,” Guilherme says. “They defend our cause.”
Wherever they go, sympathizers come and say hello, take a photo, buy a flag, swap a few words. The previous day, Guilherme and Déborah were invited to an evangelical service for the BOPE battalion, the elite special operations unit of the military police. Specializing in targeting drug gangs, the unit is as famous for its skull-and-dagger crest as it is for its aggressive methods. It was a “friendly invitation”, Guilherme says, extended because “they are sympathetic to our cause”. What cause? “Defending our nation, our flag”, against enemies “from the New World Order, who seek to divide to better reign”.
Jocelito in Araquari, a gun at the ballot box
With sirens blaring, Jocelito Rodrigues’s 4x4 hurtles at an illegal speed down the highway that links Joinville to Araquari, a smart suburb of a wealthy city in southern Brazil, where a shooting range is located. Wearing the uniform of a military reservist, he is proud of this small privilege he has gained as a local notable. Around 1,500 like-minded associates can usually be seen rubbing shoulders at the range.
But that evening, the shooting club is empty – everyone is at Shotfair, the largest arms fair in Latin America, where Rodrigues himself had an exhibit in August. The only sounds are the distant practice shots of his security teams, who hold a small demonstration in front of a huge sign emblazoned with the words, “It is not a question of guns, but of freedom” – the slogan of Brazil’s pro-gun lobby, of which he has been an active member for 30 years.
His office is a large, glacial room with unusual decor. A wax skull and a golden eagle with its wings spread sit on his desk. Behind it, a standard of the Brazilian flag and a photo of Jair Bolsonaro. Rodrigues stops in front of it, makes a military salute and murmurs: “To the captain!” – a daily ritual.
Rodrigues is proud to say that he has never voted for the left. The siren song of the Workers’ Party has never attracted him, unlike many of those who have since rallied to Bolsonaro’s cause. His convictions have never changed. And the man running for re-election has earned his loyalty. “He ticked all my boxes and he hasn’t disappointed me,” Rodrigues says. Thanks to the measures passed by Bolsonaro’s government, the number of shooting ranges has increased by 1,162%. There were 151 in late 2019, now they number 1,906 across the country. The Araquari shooting range is one of the largest.
“Santa Catarina is the state with the highest number of firearms, but it’s also the one that has the lowest rate of firearms-related homicides in the country,” Rodrigues says. seeming to justify himself without having been asked to. A few weeks ago, Workers’ Party candidate Lula da Silva threatened to turn all the shooting ranges into libraries if he is elected in a speech that did not go down well with Rodrigues: “We already know how to read, thanks! Unlike all those lefty sympathizers,” he added.
Rodrigues imagines that a Bolsonaro re-election defeat could only be due to fraud. “It would be a huge loss for the country and it would be even harder to carry a gun … I don’t believe in a victory for the left. If ever it happened, it would be because of electoral fraud,” he says.
Voting has been electronic in Brazil since 1996, and the system has so far worked admirably. Nevertheless, it is constantly under fire from the president and his followers. The Donald Trump experience stung them, and they are worried that – as Trump has so often falsely claimed – they, too, will be “robbed” of a victory.
Meanwhile, at the Shotfair gun show, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo – a federal lawmaker for the state of Rio de Janeiro and a staunch supporter of the pro-gun lobby – is the guest of honor. Rodrigues rushes over to give him a T-shirt from his shooting club. “We will support your dad, whatever it takes,” he says, smiling for a souvenir snap. The gift is graciously accepted, but Eduardo Bolsonaro remains in the attire he is already wearing: a black top emblazoned with “Fuck communist,” an exhortation that does not shock anyone here.
This article has been translated from the original in French.