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Trump Has Emboldened Bolsonaro's Hostility Toward Democracy, Researcher Says

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

While former President Trump and his supporters did not succeed in their attempts to overturn last year's election results here in the U.S., the former president continues to be an inspiration to authoritarian leaders, globally. One of them is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In recent weeks, he's made claims without evidence that previous elections in Brazil have been fraudulent, including the ones he won. And he suggested that next year's election may need to be canceled due to unsubstantiated security concerns.

Statements like these are just part of the reason Bolsonaro is sometimes called the Trump of the tropics, and these statements have now led Human Rights Watch to warn that Bolsonaro is threatening democratic rule in Brazil. Cesar Munoz is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, covering Brazil and Latin American countries. He authored the statement from the organization, and we called him in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to tell us more.

Mr. Munoz, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

CESAR MUNOZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: What else besides these statements has Bolsonaro said or done recently that led Human Rights Watch to issue this warning saying that he's a threat to democracy?

MUNOZ: Yeah, yeah. We are really concerned about his statements and his actions. He, as you mentioned, has been making these baseless claims of electoral fraud and threatening to cancel next year's elections. And even if he - you know, if elections are held, he may be laying the groundwork for contesting the elections, like it happened in the U.S.

But he has made other really concerning statements, including attacks on the Supreme Court in Brazil. The Supreme Court is overseeing several investigations into his conduct, you know. He said that he will not obey decisions by the court. He has been, you know, harassing the justices.

And another, you know, element that makes us really worried are his attacks on free speech in Brazil. His government is pursuing prison terms against at least 16 critics. Those are the cases that we have sort of documented. And so he's asked federal police to launch criminal investigations into their statements.

MARTIN: Next year's election is a little over a year away, but could it be that Bolsonaro might be in trouble and that that could in part be what's motivating this?

MUNOZ: You know, I don't know what he has in mind. But he has a - you know, a group of supporters, I mean, a percentage of the population who support him. And they're being radicalized, you know. He keeps on attacking the democratic system in Brazil. He is a former army captain who supports - openly supports the dictatorship in Brazil. Brazil had a dictatorship in - for 20 years until the '80s. He's a supporter of that. And we are very concerned because the situation is very unpredictable. And, you know, when he's falling on the polls, you know, makes us concerned that he may consider even attacking democracy in Brazil.

MARTIN: I think that Americans will note the similarities to U.S. former President Donald Trump. Many - his supporters in the U.S. have taken up this mantle of complaining that elections were stolen or would be stolen even before any votes have been cast in some cases. Is there any way in which you think that the way the former U.S. president has conducted himself has emboldened Bolsonaro?

MUNOZ: Yeah. I mean, Trump was Bolsonaro's main ally in the world, really. And there are personal connections between Bolsonaro and his family. His sons are politicians as well and - Trump and his family, you know. Bolsonaro's son was visiting, too, with Trump last month. Trump's advisors have been to Brazil several times. So there is that personal connection, and there is an ideological connection. I mean, we - Bolsonaro is a president who is hostile to human rights and who has - you know, particularly, for example, women's rights, LGBT rights. Those kind of positions - you know, before, they were kind of fringe positions in the world in a sense, you know. You wouldn't have democratic presidents supporting those ideas in the world stage. But with Trump, that became acceptable.

MARTIN: And along those same lines, Brazil is the largest country in Latin America. Does Bolsonaro's conduct affect the area?

MUNOZ: I think it does. And in a way, you know, what we are seeing in Latin America, in the 20th century, we had coup d'etats in Latin America. We had the military in the streets, taking power and so forth. That's a thing of the past. But now, what is happening is an erosion, an undermine of democracy within the democratic system. So people who are elected as presidents - they, you know, undermine free speech, undermine democratic institutions.

And that has happened in Venezuela, for example. It happened with Hugo Chavez. It was a gradual process to where we are now, which is a dictatorship. It happened in Nicaragua. It is happening in El Salvador as well, where, you know, the president is also attacking independence of the judicial system. And we see the signs in Brazil as well.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I just want to ask to sort of - if you could widen the lens even more. I mean, here in the U.S., and in some countries, say, in Europe, people are breathing a sigh of relief because democratic institutions have been surviving. But I'm wondering based on your work in Brazil and Latin America more broadly, are you concerned that this is a false sense of confidence? Are - I - what do you see? Do you see a global anti-democratic trend, or do you see the wind shifting toward pro-democratic forces? Or what do you see?

MUNOZ: Yeah, I mean, that's a good question. I don't think I have a good answer to it. I will say that I think the victory of Trump, what he did during his presidency, how he sort of undermined basic rights, how he attacked the electoral system in United States without any sort of basis and evidence - I think that was a wake-up call for the world, you know. Because you wouldn't expect a U.S. president or a U.S. candidate to claim that he had won the election, you know, the next day and without, you know, basis.

That's something that, you know, we saw in other countries where they had younger democracies, where democratic institutions were weaker. So, you know, it's a big concern. Of course, the system worked in United States. And so, you know, that's a relief. But it doesn't mean that we just can say all the - sort of the danger that we saw is behind and we are fine now. I mean, that's - you know, we just have to be very vigilant and - to not let that happen again, either in the United States or in Brazil or in any other country.

MARTIN: That was Cesar Munoz. He's a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch covering the Americas. Mr. Munoz, thank you so much for talking with us.

MUNOZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONSTER RALLY'S "ORCHIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.