The song with the words “Don’t cry for me, Argentina,” should be changed to “I cry for Brazil,” a beautiful country, the powerhouse of South America, with a small but vibrant Jewish community of about 120,000 Jews, including several dozen Chabad centers.
I am sad because mobs led by far-right insurrectionists loyal to former President Jair Bolsonaro last week attempted to overthrow their democratically elected government of Brazil, in an attack reminiscent of the January 6 storming of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The Brazilian protesters stormed and vandalized their country’s institutions, defiling their very own beautiful capital city, Brasilia.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, immediately toured the destruction in the capital and has promised to bring the rioters to justice. That is the correct policy: Hold the insurrections and their leaders accountable. The Supreme Court basically has banned future protests of pro-Bolsonaro protesters. Still, many Brazilians say they have been left shaken by the riots and expect more pro-Bolsonaro protests to take place again in the near future, according to the BBC.
I have visited Brasilia. It stands as a symbol of a country which is the world’s fifth largest in area, and the seventh most populous, with about 213 million citizens. I saw the capital as a spectacular architectural marvel located on a plateau, far from the metropolitan centers of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I knew the site was hewed out of a wilderness and inaugurated in 1960 as a shining star that would herald the country’s desire for a future of equality for its people ruled by law by a duly-elected government. It was that desire that the rioters tarnished.
When I was in Brasilia years ago, a Chabad center already existed. But before that, the story goes, a Chabad contingent arrived in Brasilia, took out the phonebook and called to services everyone with a Jewish name they could.
The Jewish population of the capital, Brasilia, is about 300, mostly families who have moved for professional reasons and still commute to their hometowns in places such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. “Though they are only part-timers in Brasilia, they play a key role in sustaining life in the capital,” noted one observer.
Of the 120,000 Jews in Brazil, 60,000 reside in Sao Paulo and 30,000 in Rio de Janeiro; the rest are scattered throughout the country. Brazil remains the oldest and first Jewish community in the Americas; it was established by Sephardic Jews in Recife in 1636. The first Jews to arrive in the United States sailed from Recife into New York City harbor – then called New Amsterdam – in 1654.
How fares the Jewish community of Brazil in such recent instability? Like other countries in the world, including the United States, reports have it that the Brazilian Jewish community before last fall’s presidential elections was polarized. Jews in Brazil, a highly-educated group that largely skews middle to upper class, have lived and functioned under autocratic rule before in the country. No question, however, like men and women of goodwill everywhere they prefer democracy.
Fortunately, Brazilians are resilient. The robustness of its institutions still stands today after the insurrection attempt. Within two hours, the protesters were whisked away.
But there is much to be done. No one should be deluded. As on January 6 in our nation’s capital, a total intelligence and security failure to nip the coup attempt and prevent the mob from entering government buildings has been established.
This leads to a fundamental question facing Lula and democratic forces in divided Brazil. Will the Army interfere and take control of the government as it did in 1964 and rule for 21 years? That may have been the goal of the rioters. Give the Army an excuse to assume dictatorship of Brazil, an occurrence that has occurred over and over again in the past in often-troubled Latin America.
In a world where democracy faces threats demanding autocratic rule, the world does not need another nation ruled by a totalitarian regime.