A leap into the dark.
This was how one of Brazil's largest newspapers, O Estado de São Paulo, reacted to the result of the recent presidential elections. This sense of foreboding uncertainty has come to grip many in Brazil, the fear that the country has embarked upon a potentially perilous journey into the unknown.
This is not the space to dissect the ins and outs of the election campaign. EduMais tries, as far as possible, to remain neutral in these processes. Yet we feel it necessary to paint a picture of the potential effects of these results upon our work, as well as the country as a whole. Although we are not quite sure what lays ahead – nobody is, in truth – there is nevertheless plenty of reason for concern.
For the sake of balance and objectivity, we must first acknowledge that while fear and disappointment characterised many responses to the election results, there were other just as powerful emotions released throughout the country: hope and celebration. These have often seemed unreachable in recent years as Brazil passes through a tough moment in its history. The crippling quagmire of violence, corruption, economic recession, high unemployment, and chronically stretched education and healthcare systems, has turned the heady days of the previous decade into an already distant memory. Coupled with a fundamental distrust of the incumbent political class, the thirst for change – some would say no matter what form that takes – has grown inexorably.
Against this backdrop, the president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, has crafted himself as a quasi-Messiah figure, as befits his middle name. His supporters have come to see in him – in the words of former World Footballer of the Year, Ronaldinho – the promise of “peace, security and someone who can give us back our happiness.”
Peace, security, happiness: it is hard to disagree with these ideals. The issue is whether the president-elect is the one to provide them.
Indeed, rather than a beacon of hope, many observers have seen his election as a “celebration of ignorance, machismo and lies,” a demonstration that “Brazilian democracy is in serious crisis today.” With his pro-torture and pro-dictatorship declarations, threats of exile or imprisonment to anyone who opposes him, and an extensive back catalogue of deplorable comments about most everyone who is not a white, straight man, Bolsonaro's victory may instead have ushered in a future altogether darker, intolerant, authoritarian.
It is still too early to tell exactly how everything is going to play out. The elections were only a month ago and the new president's inauguration is not until January. However, despite the more conciliatory tone the president-elect has struck since his victory, speaking of “a Brazil of diverse opinions, colours and orientations,” this is not enough to shake our fear that his rise has “given hatred a political possibility,” as Julia Blunck, a Rio-based journalist, elegantly puts it.
The signs aren't good. Universities have been raided by the police; over 140 reporters have been subjected to threats and violence; and in the ten days leading up to the first round of elections alone, over 50 acts of politically motivated violence were committed. Nor should we forget that the president-elect was the victim of an assassination attempt in the run-up to the election, a clear sign, some might say, of the possible consequences of his divisive rhetoric.
It is the threat of increased violence – as if Brazil were not already violent enough – that is of most pressing concern to us. Nearly 64,000 people, or over 7 people an hour, were murdered here last year alone. Over 5,000 of those, at least, were at the hands of the police. It is hard to see how a president who poses for photographs with his fingers in the shape of a gun, who states that “a policeman who doesn't kill isn't a policeman,” will be the one to stem this bloodbath. In fact, even one of Rio's former police chiefs has warned that the president-elect's proposed policies, especially those of increased gun ownership and “carte blanche” for police killings, threaten to “toss the country into an even greater fratricide.”
But increased violence is not even just a threat: it is already happening. Since the president-elect's beloved military were put in charge of public security in Rio in February, murder rates have risen by 5% on the same period last year. Perhaps most worrying of all, deaths during police confrontations are up by 35%, only adding more fuel to the fire of distrust in their capacity to provide public security.
A week before the second round of elections, the effects of these increasing tensions were felt in the communities where EduMais works. On Sunday, 21 October, the military police entered the favela, their shots cheered on by the pro-Bolsonaro supporters who had gathered in a parade close by. One suspected drug trafficker was killed, another wounded, and one unsuspecting woman was hit in the face by a stray bullet. During the ensuing days of retaliatory fire, as well as electricity outages caused by a generator being shot, both EduMais and its partner organization, Solar Meninos de Luz, had to close down our operations for safety reasons.
Unfortunately, this is an all too common story across the city. Staggeringly, by the end of October 2017 there had been only eleven days when all schools had managed to open over the course of the school year, which ends here in December. Almost every day, endemic violence disrupts education. We have felt these effects too often ourselves, amounting this year not just to days, but to weeks of education lost.
The victims of this violent upturn are not just, therefore, those whose lives are cut short. The children and teenagers we work with face the challenge of traumatic experiences of gun battles near their homes, as well as a direct impingement of their educational development. If the situation does indeed worsen, these talented young people will only fall further behind, through no fault of their own.
They deserve better. Our educational programs are designed to give them the tools to dream of a better future. Rather than being dragged into the drug trade, we want them to have the skills to express their talents. As such, our resolve to change the dominant narrative of violence is not shirking the possible challenges ahead; instead, it only strengthens. The children are likely to need us now more than ever.
They, and we, will need you too, especially if the more authoritarian possibility comes to pass. In this event, Maurício Santoro, a political scientist and Professor of International Relations at Rio de Janeiro State University, has called on Brazil's “social movements and NGOs … to step up courageously to defend civic freedoms and work with international allies.” There may come a point where, in the defence of equality and human rights, we have to risk ourselves by lifting our head above the parapet. But to not do so would only put EduMais's children and teenagers at further risk. We will need you, in this case, to advocate, to support, and to keep a spotlight on events as they unfold.
For the moment, life, as they say, goes on. We still see predominantly smiling faces and excitement is building for the summer holidays, Christmas, New Year, and Carnival, as well as our summer camps. To raise the funds to make these possible, several members of our volunteer team and even one student will be taking part in the Rio half marathon on 9 December, less than 2 weeks away!
By donating to their fundraiser, you will be helping to provide a safe, educational space for the children over the long summer holidays, when they are at more risk of getting into trouble on the streets. Help us to get the new year, and the new political era, off to a positive start for them.