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Story Publication logo June 28, 2019

Symbols of Dissonance: Notes from Brazil's Political Unrest

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Cacique (or "Chief") Ezequiel João in front of the walls of his residence. "Demarcação Já!" (or "Demarcation Now!" is written as a form of protest to the government's long delay in demarcating and protecting the territories that were promised to his village. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.
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Ever since it was established in the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, the demarcation of Indigenous...

As part of an unprecedented marketing strategy, the government under Bolsonaro decided to put billboards showing the benefits of their unpopular social security reform in front of each ministry building. This is the first time in Brazil’s history that the ministries were used for marketing purposes. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.
As part of an unprecedented marketing strategy, the government under Bolsonaro decided to put billboards showing the benefits of their unpopular social security reform in front of each ministry building. This is the first time in Brazil’s history that the ministries were used for marketing purposes. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.

June 27, 2019

I have been to Brasília a couple of times before arriving in the city this week to report on the ongoing Indigenous struggle to keep their land. Thus, it is safe to say that I was hardly expecting to see something out of the ordinary involving the city’s landscape. However, as the car drove me down the avenue leaving the airport toward the heart of the city, I could not help but notice the uncommonly high number of green and yellow billboards and signs with overly patriotic and positive messages about Brazil sponsored by the government. For a country that traditionally does not boast its flag or colors excessively, unless the national men’s soccer team is playing in the world cup, the aggressive marketing strategy of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government instantly jumped out as something I have never seen before in Brasília or any other city in Brazil for that matter.

Government billboards at the top of each ministry building are promoting the benefits of approving a new social security system. The left billboard located atop the Education Ministry—where, in May, 2019, the federal education budget cuts were approved—reads 'The new social security. More resources to invest in education.' Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019. 
Government billboards at the top of each ministry building are promoting the benefits of approving a new social security system. The left billboard located atop the Education Ministry—where, in May, 2019, the federal education budget cuts were approved—reads "The new social security. More resources to invest in education." Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.

Given the political dichotomy that has split the country between Bolsonaro supporters and opposition since the 2018 elections, it makes sense to try to rally everyone around symbols of a shared identity, a strategy similar to the one Bolsonaro successfully used during his campaigning days. Yet, as I began walking around Brasília, another similar marketing approach embedded in symbolism was on full display at the Esplanada dos Ministérios, perhaps Brazil’s most famous square where the government’s ministries are located. At the top of each ministry building, was a huge sign listing the possible benefits of reforming Brazil’s social security system, a topic that has led to strikes nationwide in opposition to the government’s new proposed social security bill. In the near 60 years of the Brazil’s capital existence, the ministry buildings were never used as billboard spots by any previous government. Rather than an appeal to a shared national identity, the government’s marketing approach more resembled an attempt to sway the public opinion in favor of Bolsonaro’s political agenda.

Graffiti seen on the walls of bus stops in Brasília as a form of protest against the election of President Jair Bolsonaro and the imprisonment of former President Lula. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019. 
Graffiti seen on the walls of bus stops in Brasília as a form of protest against the election of President Jair Bolsonaro and the imprisonment of former President Lula. Image by Rafael Lima. Brazil, 2019.

In changing the landscape from the imponent government buildings to the more common public spaces like bus stops, local parks, and common streets, the message I see has a strikingly different tone than the one coloring our ministries. It is not hard to find graffiti with #NotHim and “Lula Livre” in full display on walls and bus stops across the city, the former reminiscing from the feminist movement in opposition to Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign and the latter against the prison of former President Lula, viewed by some as a political prison to prevent him from running against Bolsonaro.

On one side there are unforeseen levels of government propaganda painting a picture of a positive and promising Brazil, and on the other, citizens show their grievances over what Brazil might become. It feels like a different Brasília this time around, perhaps fitting to the political dissonance Brazil finds itself in.

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