Illustration featuring different Brazil scenes

Where Conspiracy Reigns

Paranoia never stopped haunting Brazilian politics. Now, with Jair Bolsonaro in charge, it’s as powerful as ever—and its practitioners have learned a lot from the American internet.

Illustrations by Eren Su Kibele Yarman

As the 20th century began, conspiracy was simply how Brazilian politics got done. Paranoia was everywhere, and often warranted. Secret plotting and military coups were routine across the political spectrum. And by the end of the Cold War, citizens in Brazil’s young democracy had inherited a world of deep-seated suspicions, and would have to look back on a dizzying set of contradictory narratives to understand their own history.

In 1930, one of these putsches propelled a man named Getúlio Vargas to the presidency. Then conspiracies, both real and fake, helped lead the country to dictatorship. In 1935, a right-leaning newspaper published a story—entirely false—reporting that communists were planning an uprising that would eliminate “all non-communist officials.” But then leftists, worried about a fascist turn in the Vargas government, did attempt a real rebellion. It was quickly crushed, but not before Vargas used it to justify the consolidation of dictatorial powers.

Two years later, right-wing forces came up with another fake conspiracy, one that would stoke paranoia for decades. Plano Cohen, or the “Cohen Plan,” was, supposedly, a dastardly Jewish-Communist plot to overthrow the government. It was a forgery, drawn up by the fascist General Olímpio Mourão Filho. But it was presented—and covered by the press—as if it were real, and Vargas used the invented crisis as justification to carry out a new coup and launch a full-fledged dictatorship.

What happened over the next three decades provided even more fuel for Brazil’s culture of conspiracism. In 1962, with democracy restored, officials in Washington worried about President João “Jango” Goulart, a liberal reformer: In a recorded conversation, President John F. Kennedy and United States Ambassador Lincoln Gordon agreed they should discreetly inform the Brazilian military that it could take action “against the left,” if needed. The U.S. stepped up covert operations in Brazil, and Kennedy sent the military attaché Vernon Walters into the country. Brazil’s right-wing forces began to spread the accusation that a communist coup was brewing, even as they plotted themselves. When the U.S.-backed coup started on March 31, 1964, the charge on Rio de Janeiro was led by Mourão Filho—the same man who created Plano Cohen three decades earlier. The general that took over as the first “president” in the resulting dictatorship, Humberto Castelo Branco, had been roommates with Walters—JFK’s military man in Rio—back in the 1940s.

It’s no wonder that Brazil is fertile ground for conspiracy theory. What you just read is the true story of how Brazilian power and political might whipsawed back and forth from democracy to dictatorship in the 20th century; or at least it’s the closest thing we have to the truth. But this account emerged only after years of research, after historians pored over thousands of declassified documents; for a long time, anyone guessing at the real truth would have been, by definition, a conspiracy theorist. That’s because powerful actors had indeed conspired behind closed doors—to smear the left, to align Brasília with Washington, to lie to the public—but without all the evidence, the best citizens could do was theorize about their nature.

These episodes also point to a recurring pattern, and a dominant theme, in the politics of Brazilian conspiracy: The forces seeking to upend the social hierarchy in this stratified society usually lose, and those who win often weaponize conspiracy theory to justify their own movements. As a result, conspiracy theories in Brazil usually end up reinforcing the powers that be. Latin America’s largest country now offers a chilling reminder of the ways that rumor-mongering and disinformation can shore up elite power and subvert democracy.

For the past 100 years, by far the most powerful of Brazilian conspiracy theories is the tale of an international communist plot to destroy the nation. “The red menace is the most powerful threat used to scare Brazilians—both in the past and today. It is a story that many of us thought would go away after the end of the 20th century, but it has come back in a big way,” Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta, a historian and the author of On Guard Against the Red Menace: Anti-Communism in Brazil, 1917-1964, told me. “Without a doubt, conspiracy theories have helped authoritarians, time and time again, in Brazil.”

Recently, these traditions have coalesced once more, and helped deliver the country into the hands of Jair Bolsonaro. Making vigorous use of digital tools, and jumping headfirst into a political vacuum created by a huge corruption scandal, members of the Bolsonaro family deployed the fear of communist conspiracy to great effect. The ghosts of the Cold War haunt politics in the world’s fifth-most-populous country, and as another political crisis looms, the leadership is doubling down on conspiratorial thinking.

Brazil is much more like the U.S. than many North Americans realize. It is a huge Western European settler colony that displaced the indigenous population, brought in enslaved Africans, and then welcomed European and Asian immigrants. Both countries have the same racial hierarchy, in which white people are clearly in charge (though in Brazil, they are a minority), darker-skinned citizens are far more likely to suffer from poverty or imprisonment, and indigenous peoples barely survive on the margins of society. Many English speakers know that the Amazon is being destroyed; what they don’t usually know is that the forest is often cleared for literal cattle ranchers, complete with big belt buckles and boots and cowboy hats. Brazil is also far more likely to look to the U.S. for cultural inspiration than to Spanish-speaking Latin America—and this is as true now, in the era of right-wing YouTube intellectuals, as it was in the 20th century.

Just before that U.S.-backed coup in 1964, Brazil was grappling with societal changes very similar to those rocking society up north: Progressives were demanding that all Brazilians be given the right to vote, including the poor and the Black Brazilians excluded by literacy laws, and fighting to improve educational opportunities. But the military regime crushed democracy and froze the country’s social order in place, with the support of the white and privileged classes, always using the threat of communism to account for its crimes.

The Brazilian dictatorship helped its Chilean counterparts overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973, and then participated in the creation of Operation Condor, a (U.S.-backed) cross-border state-terror network that tracked and executed perceived enemies of South American military regimes around the continent, and around the world. The leaders of these dictatorships saw devious communist plotting wherever they liked, and used the threat of revolution to justify mass murder. Argentine General Jorge Rafael Videla, the leader of the deadliest dictatorship on the continent, said that he was fighting a vast “conspiracy against Civilization”—and often lumped in Judaism, homosexuality, and Freudian psychoanalysis with communist subversion, according to the historian Federico Finchelstein.

When that threat wasn’t powerful enough to keep the citizenry subdued, right-wing radicals fabricated events to support their fearmongering. Modern conspiracy theorists the world over are fond of dismissing mass shootings and other acts of violence as staged “false-flag” operations, but in Brazil, they really were routinely used by terrorists or the military to create the conditions for further crackdowns. The most famous of these is the Riocentro bombing: In 1981, military officers opposed to the re-democratization of Brazil planned to place explosives at a May Day concert taking place in the largest exhibition center in Latin America, then blame the left for the violence and prolong the dictatorship. But one of the bombs went off early, giving away the game.

In the late 1980s, Brazilian media reported that a hot-headed right-winger had planned another bombing. The prominent magazine Veja alleged that a young army captain named Jair Bolsonaro had been scheming to plant explosives at a military academy outside of Rio, reportedly to protest low salaries for soldiers. (The plot was never carried out, and Bolsonaro has denied being involved.) Soon after, Bolsonaro left the military and entered politics, beginning a 30-year career in which he defended torture and said that change in Brazil will only come through political assassination and the mass murder of innocent civilians. He railed against homosexuality and political correctness as he celebrated anti-communist violence, while all around him, a new generation of conservative Brazilians took inspiration from the English-speaking internet.

All of this positioned Bolsonaro to carry on a tradition of conspiracism. “Anti-communism has a long history in the country, and has been instrumentalized at different moments. That is one of the key links between our current moment and the 1964 coup,” Flávia Biroli, a political scientist at the University of Brasília, told me. “It’s important to remember that the idea of moral decay was behind anti-communism too—the threat to the family was mentioned then and is back now. Bolsonaro brings these two elements together, and he does it very well.”

Over the past two decades, left-leaning politicians mostly governed Brazil. This was the era of the “pink tide,” on which a generation of leftist leaders won elections in Latin America, buoyed by the Chinese demand for these nations’ commodities. But in the background, a constellation of conservative thinkers, influenced by American internet culture and driven by conspiracy theory, were slowly rising to power, and considerable fame. They saw an international conspiracy behind left-wing success in the region, and the risk of totalitarianism—or a Venezuela-style collapse, or both—on the horizon. When Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014, the Veja columnist Rodrigo Constantino looked at the soccer tournament’s logo—which had red in it, unlike Brazil’s flag—and said it was likely subliminal socialist propaganda.

Constantino is deeply inspired by right-wing thought in the U.S.: He recently advertised an online class on the “radicalization” of the Democratic Party, drawing on thinkers such as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza. But the master guru of Brazilian conspiratorial thinking, the godfather of the anti-communist crusade, is Olavo de Carvalho. “Olavo,” as he is often called, is a former astrologer and obscure philosopher with a number of published books, though he is most famous for the YouTube videos, tweets, and Facebook posts he publishes from his home in Virginia, where he has lived since 2005. His essays include commonsense critiques of early-21st-century political correctness, and his online output contains the kind of wild provocations—he has claimed that Pepsi uses aborted fetuses as sweetener, and frequently references anal sex—that always garner traffic and attention.

Like Constantino’s flag theory, and the fear of continental conspiracy, his ideas were mostly ignored or ridiculed by the mainstream media. But then a political explosion left a crater where the political establishment used to be. A crusading anti-corruption investigation, code-named “Car Wash,” revealed over the course of several agonizing years that Brazilian politicians routinely used bribes to run the economy and govern the country. This wasn’t a few bad apples—it was the whole machine that took form after the fall of the dictatorship.

“The Brazilian people found out something they did not know that caused the system to implode, and you have not been able to restore stable government or trust in the country’s institutions,” Matias Spektor, an international-relations professor at the Fundação Getulio Vargas university in São Paulo, told me. And this lack of trust made Brazil, once more, a hotbed of wild speculation. “Conspiracy theories have become far more important in the last five years, because popular distrust in the political system has opened the door to extremists, crazies, and, above all, opportunists who resort to fake news to get elected into office,” he said.

This collapse of systemic legitimacy happened at the same time that, around the world, the rise of social media was undermining a shared sense of reality in even the most stable democracies. In 2016, Brazil’s National Congress impeached President Dilma Rousseff, leaving in office the much more conservative Michel Temer. But the traditional center-right parties also had their reputations undermined by the ongoing corruption investigation, and by their support for the catastrophically unpopular Temer. So Bolsonaro stepped into the void, coming from far enough out on the right-wing political fringes that he could claim he was not part of the corrupt establishment.

Violent anti-communism had always been Bolsonaro’s political banner, and now he claimed that he was saving the country from enemies at home and abroad. On the day he voted to impeach Rousseff, he told me that the country could become like North Korea if the Workers’ Party was not stopped. Associating himself with the most powerful country on Earth, he and his politician sons made a big show of supporting President Donald Trump.

The 2018 election was strange. Usually, Brazilian politicians rely on television advertisements. Bolsonaro did not. His campaign was powered, to a large extent, by mass messages sent out on WhatsApp. Fake news was rampant; at one point, digital messaging accused his rival, Fernando Haddad, of attempting to indoctrinate the country’s youth into homosexuality. De Carvalho said that Haddad supported both Marxism and incest, which he conflated. After someone in the crowd at a campaign event stabbed Bolsonaro in the stomach, he ran his campaign from a hospital bed, and memes circulated alleging that the attacker, by all accounts a mentally disturbed man acting alone, was actually sent by powerful left-wing forces. Bolsonaro won easily—in part thanks to a movement made up of young radicals who came of age politically watching YouTube videos, and would not stop disseminating conspiracy theories in the service of their political project. Many, including Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons, are Olavistas, or deeply inspired by de Carvalho.

Less than two years into its existence, the Bolsonaro administration is constantly in a state of crisis, and it responds to this pressure by doubling down on conspiratorial accusations. The latest emergency is the novel coronavirus, which has now killed more than 115,000 Brazilians and infected 3.5 million more—including Bolsonaro himself—after the administration spent much of the spring and summer explicitly condemning social-distancing measures, downplaying the severity of the pandemic, and defying medical advice.

In April, when Bolsonaro was reeling from the criticism of his handling of the virus, his foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo—apparently recommended by de Carvalho—posted a lengthy review of a Slavoj Žižek book on his personal blog. He said that “globalists” planned to use the pandemic to usher in world communism.

“Coronavirus is making us wake up once more to the communist nightmare,” it began. “The Comunavirus has arrived.”