Brazil’s 2023 began with an insurrection. What now?

Young Brazilians are anxious about their future as their country grapples with political instability.

It has been barely a month since the insurrection in Brazil’s capital of Brasília on 8 January 2023, which saw far-right rioters storm the country’s key government buildings as they protested the outcome of Brazil’s 2022 general election. As the rest of the world already begins to move on, however, the aftershocks of this insurrection continue to be keenly felt throughout Brazil and the Brazilian diaspora.

Notably interesting – and underrepresented by media – are the perspectives of the young: namely, the generation of Brazilians born after the 1985 end of Brazil’s military dictatorship. This generation is currently confronted by growing political instability and the return of an authoritarianism not seen in the country in decades. Younger voters on both sides of the political spectrum are witnessing violent and lawless rage directed at a legitimate electoral process, which makes further evident the divisions and vulnerabilities riddling Brazil.

Consequently, certain questions emerge. What is the perspective of young Brazilians? What are their hopes and fears for Brazil’s future, and for its immense diversity of inhabitants?

Laying the foundations

Context is required to better understand the anxiety many young Brazilians feel towards their future.

Brazil has experienced plenty of political upheaval in living memory. Between 1930 and 1964, Brazilian populism spearheaded by politician Getúlio Vargas led to the country’s economy being repeatedly restructured. During this period, for instance, the country shifted from an export-oriented economy to an import substitution model, meaning it moved away from foreign imports and towards domestic production. This initially promoted industrial growth and substantial support for Brazilian populism, with the country’s industry growing even during the worldwide economic depression in the 1930s.

However, political unrest was never far away. Vargas struggled to appease his coalition of supporters, which included agrarian oligarchs and urban workers. These came to oppose Vargas’s interventionist policies as he sought to restructure Brazil’s agricultural sector and, in doing so, largely failed to reconcile differences between labour and capital. Moreover, Vargas’s own dictatorial tendencies became more pronounced throughout this time, resulting in him imposing a quasi-totalitarian Constitution in a coup d’état to extend his own rule. He ruled Brazil as a dictator between 1937 and 1945, in what is known as the Estado Novo period.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian military was growing in power and influence. The Brazilian Armed Forces, already politically influential following the 19th century Paraguayan War, distinguished itself in several battles during World War II. Unhappy with the Vargas dictatorship, some military officers staged a bloodless coup in October 1945 that forced Vargas to resign – and which led to almost twenty years of tumultuous democracy.

This leads us to a period of Brazilian history that many young people did not experience, but which has marked the country and which further explains the alarm felt by many towards the Bolsonarista insurrection in Brasília in January 2023.

Military dictatorship and Brazilian democracy

In 1964, Brazil entered a period of military dictatorship following a coup d’état led by the Brazilian Armed Forces and supported by the United States government, which feared the possibility that Brazil’s then-president João Goulart was leading the country towards communism.

Goulart’s proposed Basic Reforms Plan had the potential to socialise the profits of large companies and, while supporters of the plan saw it as a socially democratic modernising effort, it was deemed a ‘socialist threat’ by certain powerful right-wing groups within Brazilian society. This resulted in the coup, which was planned and executed by the Brazilian Armed Forces’ most senior commanders and which received the support of conservative social groups including the Catholic Church and anti-communists among the Brazilian middle and upper classes.

The coup marked the beginning of a 21-year military regime that stifled free speech in Brazil and saw the military employ widespread use of torture to quell political opposition. Left-wing groups and individuals were targeted, media was censored, and the dictatorship used arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, imprisonment without trials, torture, rape, castration, and murder to oppress and eliminate its opponents.

Brazil only officially returned to democracy in 1988, following several years of mass demonstrations over the country’s crumbling economy and rocketing inflation, which helped destabilise the military dictatorship.

Brazilians under the age of 35 do not have memories of the country under military rule. However, stories about suppression and torture from that era are common enough that the January 2023 insurrection was especially shocking for some precisely because of the tolerance shown by military officials towards rioters. Leading military officials allegedly protected rioters from arrest and, prior to the insurrection, showed support for former president Jair Bolsonaro’s extreme right agenda as well as for pro-coup demonstrations.

Mateus Miranda, a student in Belo Horizonte, describes the atmosphere following the insurrection as being “one of fear.”

“It was even more frightening to me because of the stories my parents told me of when they were just children during the 1964 military coup,” explains Miranda. “They lived in a dictatorship in Brazil, deprived of their rights and freedom. In history classes at school, as well as at home, I learned that this was the darkest period in Brazilian history and that it was incredibly important to preserve Brazil’s recent democracy and prevent the return of the dictatorship.

“Days after the presidential inauguration, when the climate of peace seemed to be established in the country, we witnessed an attempted coup, silently organised through social networks, against Brazilian democracy. Supporters of the former Bolsonaro government had camped at army barracks asking for military intervention to remove Lula (President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) and restore Bolsonaro to power, but without any direct support from the military, they took matters into their own hands. We watched in astonishment the scenes of destruction at the Three Powers Plaza and a police force that agreed with the ideas of the coup: they took no action to prevent the disrespect for democracy and stop the vandalism that ultimately occurred in Brasília.”

Annaís Berlim, co-founder of activist group Brazil Matters who organised a large pro-democracy protest outside the Embassy of Brazil in London along with other Brazilian groups in the days following the insurrection, also mentions the threat of a coup as being of huge concern.

“To see that the local government and the local police, together with the armed forces, allowed the invasion of the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the federal government, awoke in me a real fear of the possibility of a coup,” says Berlim.

“With a history of a cruel and recent dictatorship in our past and a lot of struggle to achieve and establish democracy in Brazil, there was no way to sleep peacefully after hearing the news. It was necessary to articulate popular pressure and show popular support for the institutions that guarantee our democracy; for democratically elected politicians; and for our electoral system.

“Indeed, it was important to show, at that moment, that that group of rioters in Brasília does not represent the majority of our country and that the majority of us trust our democracy and repudiate any demand for military intervention and any movement that calls for a coup. That is what prompted us to organise the protest.”

Modern Brazil

Brazil’s democracy between the years of 1988 and 2023 has not always been smooth sailing. Nevertheless, large popular mobilisations used to be less frequent than they are today, and Brazil also experienced economic growth and income redistribution between 2003 and 2013.

The past decade has been an unstable one for Brazil, however, with the country experiencing various political and economic crises that have resulted in increased poverty and wealth disparity across the country. The Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or ‘PT’) lost support from 2013 onwards as corruption scandals emerged and the economy suffered. 2016 saw former president Dilma Rousseff impeached, and growing scepticism of the parliamentary system and parliamentarians more broadly sowed the foundations for the eventual election of the far-right, Trump-like, ex-military politician Bolsonaro.

Dr Pedro Mendes Loureiro, Associate Professor in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge, comments that while generational cleavages in Brazilian voting patterns are not especially strong, the generation of Brazilians born after 1985 do share certain commonalities.

“This younger generation has not had direct experience of the military dictatorship and will have little memory of the high inflation period (which ended in 1994). Those born in the initial years following 1985 will have come of age during the successful PT period, probably encountering a heated labour market and job opportunities, but most likely without having had an intense political upbringing,” explains Dr Loureiro.

“A younger group, on the other hand, will have had a much more politicised adolescence and early adulthood, growing up in the wake of (or participating in) the 2013 mobilisations, and will have only experienced economic crises.

“What unites these groups is a generalised lack of trust in politics, institutions, and economic prospects, which leads to situations of anxiety and reasonably low expectations for the future.”

Hopes, fears, and the future

The current polarisation of Brazilian society means it will be challenging for politicians and policymakers to deliver plans and changes that bring Brazilians together under a shared, beneficial political and social project.

Dr Loureiro adds that there is little trust in politicians and institutions to deliver on any plan, whether it is a desirable one or not.

“By consequence of this lack of trust in politicians to deliver, Brazil is seeing a proliferation of social mobility strategies: seeking to rise, to maintain one’s place, or to recover recently lost positions. Some of these strategies are more individualistic, such as small-scale entrepreneurialism; some are more communitarian; others rights-based – such as looking for better public services; and some are downright exclusionary, such as attempts to curtail the rights of marginalised populations.

“Leaving Brazil – as I have myself did nearly a decade ago – is also an increasingly common aspiration and reality, from reasonably poor workers who seek manual but better-paid jobs abroad to highly educated individuals who cannot find professional jobs in Brazil. And one finds all these strategies amongst the youth, across different levels of income.”

The divisive and exclusionary rhetoric that took hold in mainstream discourse during the Bolsonaro presidency has also caused concern in particular among people from marginalised communities, such as Black Brazilians, Indigenous people, and LGBTTQIA+ individuals. With hate speech towards these groups having grown increasingly common over the past four years, some within these groups are questioning their safety and their futures within Brazilian society.

For example, on the topic of Brazil’s LGBTTQIA+ community, Juliana Demartini Brito – an Affiliated Lecturer at the Centre for Gender Studies at Cambridge who hails from São Paulo – notes that the vestiges of Bolsonaro’s violent administration are still present.

“Over the past four years, LGBTTQIA+ individuals in Brazil were tirelessly targeted through homophobic speech and policies. A striking example of this can be found in calls for gay cure practices. Today, extremist Bolsonaristas, infused with an inflammatory discourse of sexual morality, continue to persecute educators, advocates, and individuals invested in promoting human rights,” says Brito.

Nevertheless, Brito also remarks that Brazil’s new administration’s commitment to protecting the country’s democracy may present a certain level of hope to younger LGBTTQIA+ Brazilians.

This perspective is echoed by that of another Brazilian who offered a comment for this piece. Alexandre da Trindade, also based in the UK, notes that there exists a lot of mistrust and uncertainty about the future among young Brazilians. Yet he also notes a resurgence in hope.

“The generation of young Brazilians who grew up before the 2000s had as a background a Brazil that was always a promise of the future,” says da Trindade. “I remember in the 90s and 2000s how Brazil was called the ‘country of the future’, expressing hope in the country after the re-democratisation of the late 80s, after more than two decades of military dictatorship.

“I particularly feel hopeful about the return of Lula and the left in power. However, this government will be very different from the previous ones of the left since there are many alliances needed for the left to be able to stay in government, and this will prevent us from advancing in social policies to confront more strongly extreme Brazilian inequality and poverty. However, it is a return to the path of strengthening democracy nonetheless, and this brings hope after six years of much regression in the social area in particular.”

Da Trindade also notes the hope inherent in seeing Black and Indigenous people being better represented and holding more influence in Brazil’s new administration.

“The new Ministries of Indigenous Peoples and Racial Equality are a historical landmark in this sense,” he explains.

“I was in Brasília for Lula’s inauguration, where over a million people, many from social movements, celebrated that moment of renewed hope. Perhaps what makes me most confident about this new government is that Lula is promoting access to power for sectors of society as never seen before.”

Mateus Miranda, who was also in Brazil at the time of the inauguration, offers a concurrent observation.

“The historic moment of the passing of the presidential sash in which Lula received it from a group representing the people and diversity of Brazil filled the hearts of the Brazilian people with hope for a better future, guided by the return of social policies and development,” he says.

Indeed, for all the insurrection was alarming, optimism at least among those who support Lula appears to be driving a sense of excitement and possibility in the country. The election of Lula was – although close – ultimately a repudiation of the authoritarianism that had been growing within the country under Bolsonaro’s leadership.

Brazil’s national motto translates as “Order and progress”; it will be interesting to see whether and how the country lives out these values in 2023, and whether progress made benefits both young and old, as well as individuals from across various religious, racial, and economic backgrounds. There is hunger for change.