Interview with Sonia Corrêa
By Sur Journal
The following piece is the result of an interview that Sonia Corrêa11. Sonia Corrêa is currently the coordinator of Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW). kindly granted to Sur Journal in early December 2022. Amidst a full agenda of research work and national and international advocacy on human rights in the field of gender and sexuality policies, Sonia, with the precision and depth of analysis that characterize her, spoke to us for two hours (via Zoom) about the ultraconservative plots that brought us to the current moment in Brazil and in the world.
In detail, she traced a logical, but not always evident, chain of global linkages that involves governments, religious and secular movements, economic and media sectors in a complex network of political connections that lead to a ferocious far-right. Despite its longevity, this far-right presents important innovations not only in its mobilization strategy, but also, and more worryingly, in another form of dispute in the field of human rights; a dispute that is epistemological, hermeneutical, and grammatical in nature.
One of the key points of the historical-political path of the reconfiguration of the transnational conservative movement presented by Sonia Corrêa is the nodal place occupied by Latin America, particularly Brazil, where some key figures of Jair Bolsonaro’s government played a leading role in the construction and strengthening of these long-standing international connections.
Sur Journal • What explains the span and the strength of the international conservative movement?
Sonia Corrêa • There is a first obvious answer: the power and the strength of ultra-right-wing formations and religious ultra-conservatism are the result of the power of the players involved. We are dealing with forces that are “naturally powerful”. Whether we are looking at the economic elites present in these formations (major corporations, for instance); whether we are looking at the religious aspect, starting with the Catholic Church, which was and continues to be an institution with ancient power, not to mention the evangelical religious forces. Of course, evangelical Christianity is much more dispersed and much more heterogeneous, with either larger or smaller churches, but there are very powerful forces involved, particularly in the United States, but also in Brazil. Besides, the evangelical sectors have a lot of strength in the media.
Thus, the explanation for the strength of the conservative movement is the power it wields. A power that they wish to preserve, whether through politics or by resorting to moral politics and imposing rules of conduct. Its reach partially derives from the original power of the forces that drive this movement, but there is another element to consider – its historic span, which is to say, its longevity. The dynamics of ultra-conservative and ultra-right-wing mobilizations are so intense at the moment that we often lose sight of this dimension when attempting to analyze this phenomenon.
S.C. • In Latin America in general, and in Brazil in particular, often the narratives that prevail are those that emphasize the sudden advent, the surprising eruption of far-right forces that were thought to have been buried in the past, that we considered as having been eradicated by the re-democratization, which, in the case of the Southern Cone, was a highly intense democratization, since it meant the end of military dictatorships. These dictatorships shared ideologies that, while not exactly the same, have aspects in common with the discourse and the agendas mobilized by the conservative forces of today. Éric Fassin described Brazil as a laboratory in which fascism, ultra-neoliberalism, racism, and anti-gender ideology have become intermingled.22. Éric Fassin, “Brasil: o laboratório interseccional do neoliberalismo.” Cult, October 22, 2019, accessed January 27, 2023, https://revistacult.uol.com.br/home/neoliberalismo-interseccional/. However, he also points to a previous laboratory, Chile, since neoliberal rationality was tested in [Augusto] Pinochet’s Chile before being applied to the United States and England during the [Ronald] Reagan and [Margaret] Thatcher administrations, respectively. And the Chilean dictatorship had a very intimate connection with Catholic ultra-conservatism, which was very powerful, even though members of the Church had denounced violations of human rights. Pinochet’s Supreme Court suppressed the therapeutic abortion law, designed to save women’s lives, shortly before the transition to democracy. In the context of later agreements, the Concertación coalition made a pact with the Church so as not to change this legal definition. This pact would only be breached in 2016, when [Michelle] Bachelet presented a reform proposal in Congress that would allow abortions in cases of rape, risk to life, and fetal anomalies.
We must emphasize these historic trajectories because, in Latin America, we have experienced a certain democratic vertigo, as Rita Segato explains. We were led to think that these reactionary, ultraconservative forces had resorted to hiding in dark corners and stayed there, having been domesticated by democratization. This is not so. As [Michel] Foucault wrote a long time ago, the totalitarian temptation is always haunting liberal democracies. This “democratic vertigo” that we experienced between the 1980s and the 2010s prevented us from realizing that while we were returning to democracy, reactionary and ultraconservative forces, both in the secular and in the religious realms (catholic and evangelical), were undergoing a process of intense reconfiguration and reorganization in Europe and the United States, particularly in the United States.
S.C. • This reconfiguration took place in Europe on a more intellectual level. Until recently, there hadn’t been a political mobilization as evident as in the United States,33. In Europe, they had the support and contribution of ultra-Catholicism and the Vatican itself, which underwent a conservative restoration in 1979, when Wojtyla became Pope (John Paul II) and then appointed cardinal Ratzinger to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is worth noting that both were intellectual figures, particularly Ratzinger, who had had an extensive career in academia before arriving at the Vatican. where this mobilization had always been political. It started in the 1970s with a strategy of leaders of the Republican Party to recover credibility and political power in a crisis setting: Watergate, [Richard] Nixon’s resignation, and the effects of the Vietnam War. This strategy based itself on the need to react to secularization and excessive liberalism of the United States society. It gave rise to the Moral Majority Movement, directed and coordinated by pastor Jerry Falwell, which brought together media-savvy pastors, social and ecclesiastic ultra-Catholic players, and also powerful secular sectors, CEOs, and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the International Policy Forum. This was an ultraconservative mobilization, but a decidedly ecumenical one. It is not surprising that the Supreme Court decision on the Roe v. Wade case of 1973, which established women’s constitutional right to abortion based on the principle of privacy, became one of the first targets of this mobilization. Historically, the Catholic Church had opposed abortion since the 19th century, but it was only in the 1970s that Protestant and Evangelical denominations aligned with this stance.44. There are records showing that, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most powerful ones in the United States, did not radically oppose the right to abortion before Roe v. Wade, but took the lead in anti-abortion mobilizations a few years later.
The 1973 decision was overturned on June 24, 2022, in the judgment of the case of Dobbs [v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization], which made abortion practically illegal in many states of the US. This dramatic setback was the result of these ultraconservative (and increasingly organized) forces’ nearly 50-year investment in restricting the sexual and reproductive autonomy of women and people who gestate. This is the most compelling illustration I can offer about the longevity of this reorganization process and its harmful effects.55. See the note and a compilation on the Dobbs decision made by SPW at: “A decisão ‘Gilead’: uma compilação,” Sexuality Policy Watch, July 15, 2022, accessed January 27, 2023, https://sxpolitics.org/ptbr/a-decisao-gilead-uma-compilacao/12706.
The trajectory that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade also illustrate the dynamic that European authors have referred to as a Gramscian spin of the right.66. See Sonia Corrêa, David Paternotte and Roman Kuhar, “A globalização das campanhas anti-gênero.” Sexuality Policy Watch, June 25, 2018, accessed January 27, 2023, https://sxpolitics.org/ptbr/a-globalizacao-das-campanhas-anti-genero/8513. A right wing that is no longer static and reactionary, defending the current order and institutions, and becomes an engine of political mobilization that starts to dispute values, political understandings, and common sense regarding many issues, starting with those pertaining to gender and sexuality. A right wing that starts a dispute with feminism and the emerging LGBTTI+ movement about new perspectives of desire and sexual identity, the right to abortion, and family. In the United States, these disputes would later develop in relation to anti-racist struggles, environmental disputes, and the defense of migrant persons.
These “threats” were then listed under the proscribed category of “cultural Marxism” that began to circulate intensely after the implosion of socialist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe, which left the far right in the United States and globally without its main enemy. This circulation was undoubtedly facilitated by the digitalization of politics. However, the most important aspect of this so-called Gramscian spin of the right was the relativization of vertical and geopolitical strategies in favor of ferocious disputes for hearts and minds in order to remove and neutralize “internal enemies” from the political and social order, or even, according to some authors, from Western civilization.
Another strategy of the far right was to densify and diversify the occupation of official political spaces. In the United States, this “new old right” reorganized itself in an absolutely systematic manner,77. Ver Dan Allosso, “12. The New Right” in US History II: Gilded Age to Present (Bemidji: Bemidji State University, 2020), accessed January 4, 2023, https://mlpp.pressbooks.pub/ushistory2/chapter/the-new-right/. adopting persistent strategies to occupy the judiciary branch. It managed to appoint judges to the regional circuits of US federal courts and influence the Republican administrations of Reagan, [George] Bush, [George] Bush Jr. and [Donald] Trump. It radically altered the composition of the Supreme Court – an alteration that explains the 2022 Dobbs decision. A hefty investment was also made in conservative academic work, particularly in the legal realm.88. In 2005, Ives Gandra Martins translated and published Direito Fundamental à Vida, a nearly 1,000-page-long book with articles written by the American conservative academic complex about abortion and related topics, which was surely influential among the forces that oppose the right to abortion in Brazil. The text is available in PDF format at the Digital Library of the Superior Court of Justice.
In the 1970s, the United States was a testing ground for the ultraconservative reorganization. However, players in the US scene were surely communicating with European ultraconservatives, particularly in the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher (between 1979 and 1990). Stuart Hall, in a classic 1980s text about the Thatcher era, already described the events in England as a “conservative revolution”.99. Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (United Kingdom: Verso, 2021).
There were surely other ties with Europe, especially through ultra-catholic channels, which has always had strong bases in Italy, France, and also in Germany. However, there was also a flow of ideas through the circuits of the Vatican itself.1010. In their masterful book about John Paul II, Bernstein and Politi report how, during the Reagan administration, head of CIA William Chase would attend the Vatican and discuss geopolitical strategies with Wojtyla regarding Poland and Nicaragua. Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, Sua Santidade - João Paulo II e a História Oculta de Nosso Tempo (São Paulo: Objetiva, 1996). In 1985, [Joseph Aloisius] Ratzinger stated his intense unease with the feminist theories on sexuality, stating that they could threaten the very idea of humanity.1111. Fernando Geronazzo, “Livro-entrevista de Ratzinger sobre a fé e os desafios do pós-Concílio é reeditado no Brasil.” O São Paulo, December 18, 2021, accessed January 27, 2023, https://osaopaulo.org.br/destaque/livro-entrevista-de-ratzinger-sobre-a-fe-e-os-desafios-do-pos-concilio-e-reeditado-no-brasil/. It must be mentioned, however, that the secular ultraconservative movement also reorganized itself in Europe in the 1970s, particularly gravitating around the Study and Research Group on European Civilization (Groupement de Recherche et d’Études pour la Civilisation Européenne, GRECE), coordinated by Alain de Benoist, whose writings surely arrived in the US and other places.
However, it is important to note that Brazil and Latin America were also on the map of this reorganization. Here are some examples: Benjamin Cowan, in his book Moral majorities across the Americas: Brazil, the United States, and the creation of the religious right, examines, among other connections, the relations between Paul Weyrich and Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, founder of the Brazilian Society of Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP, Sociedade Brasileira de Defesa da Tradição, Família e Propriedade). Weyrich1212. Weyrich was an ultra-Catholic American who left the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council and joined a Greek Orthodox Church so that he would not have to submit to the reforms proposed by John XXIII. was the founder of The Heritage Foundation, one of the American conservative think tanks created in the 1970s, as well as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which is more known in Brazil due to the three meetings it held in the country during the Bolsonaro administration.
Weyrich also created and directed the International Policy Forum with extensive transnational activity, including in Brazil, where he went many times. He became a great friend of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira and even helped disseminate Revolution and Counterrevolution, considered Plinio’s masterpiece in the United States. Weyrich also had a solid partnership with William Lind, who would later be known as the inventor of “cultural Marxism”, even though he merely compiled and promoted ideas invented by others.1313. See “Guerras culturais: uma batalha pela alma do Brasil”, Podcast by Globo Play - Pablo Ortellado, 2022, accessed January 27, 2023, https://globoplay.globo.com/podcasts/guerras-culturais-uma-batalha-pela-alma-do-brasil/bb970d66-e4d0-4087-bb44-84436175ddd8/. Directed by the University of São Paulo (USP) professor and reporter Elisa Martins.Further illustrating these past events with present knowledge, Ordo Iuris, the Polish institute dedicated to the production of conservative legal-political texts, was created by the European “Tradition, Family and Property”, a branch of the old Brazilian TFP (and not the other way around). It is managed by Brazilians who live in Europe and have connections with Instituto Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira (IPCO).1414. Between 2007 and 2012-2013, IPCO was the main propagator of the phantom of “gender ideology” in digital channels.
Another character in this same plot is Argentinean Alejandro Chafuen, who has lived for a long time in the United States and is younger than Plinio and Weyrich. He directed the Atlas Network (Atlas Economic Research Foundation), which also disseminated agendas of the so-called moral conservatism in coordination with the defense of ultra-neoliberal policy. Atlas has been and continues to be highly active and influential in Spanish-speaking countries.1515. Chafuen was in Brazil in 2019, when he took part in a debate with Brasil Paralelo.
What is also very significant in this path is the book Women of the Right, published in 2012.1616. Kathleen M. Blee and Sandra McGee Deutsch, Women of the Right: Comparisons and Interplay Across Borders (University Park: PSU Press, 2012). In the chapter “Transnational Connections Among Right-Wing Women: Brazil, Chile, and the United States,” Margaret Power analyzes a visit by Brazilian women to the United States in October and November 1964 who had organized the Marches of Family with God for Freedom (Marchas da Família com Deus pela Liberdade) against the João Goulart administration. In this trip sponsored by the State Department, these women shared their successful political experience with women activists and leaders in the ultraconservative field, including Phyllis Schaeffler, widely known as the most anti-feminist and anti-communist voice of her time.
This brief overview confirms that Cowan1717. We recommend the interview Benjamin A. Cowan gave to Pesquisa Fapesp: Glenda Mezarobba, “Benjamin A. Cowan: O Brasil e a nova direita.” Pesquisa Fapesp, July 2021, accessed January 27, 2023, https://revistapesquisa.fapesp.br/benjamin-a-cowan-o-brasil-e-a-nova-direita/. was right to state that the Brazilian ultra-catholic thinking and other connections with Latin America should be taken into account in the gestation and maturation of the “conservative Christian revolution” in the United States; phantasmagorias and modes of political activity that haunt us today and started to hatch a long time ago.
New factors to be accounted for in the current scenario include the globalization and the digitalization of politics after 1990, which intensified these transnational exchanges and geometrically multiplied their webs of ties. Although this new communicational reality has been positive for progressive civil society worldwide, it has also been crucial for the ultraconservative forces that now pilot the juggernaut of information and digital wars. Moreover, as already mentioned, the abandonment of the static position in defense of the current order towards an engagement in the dispute over common sense and concepts, the Gramscian spin, has led this right wing to become, as described by Pablo Stefanoni, una derecha callejera,1818. Pablo Stefanoni, ¿La rebeldía se volvió de derecha?: Cómo el antiprogresismo y la anticorrección política están construyendo un nuevo sentido común (y por qué la izquierda está perdiendo la iniciativa) (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2021). a right that takes to the streets.
It is very significant that “the gender problem” appeared precisely during the transition to globalization and the intensification of communication within the Vatican and in the United Nations – in other words, a transnational arena par excellence. Until recently, we had not properly understood the meaning of this coincidence. We interpreted the vigorous reaction of the Vatican to gender in 1995, in the passage from Cairo to Beijing, as an episode that was “genetically” connected to the ultraconservative reaction of Catholicism to the gains and epistemic transformations in the realm of women’s rights, sexuality and reproduction.1919. For a more detailed analysis of this episode, see Sonia Corrêa, “A ‘política do gênero’: um comentário genealógico,” Cadernos Pagu 53 (2018), accessed January 27, 2023, https://periodicos.sbu.unicamp.br/ojs/index.php/cadpagu/article/view/8653407. This was undoubtedly the case, but this inaugural moment of anti-gender politics must be read as a singular and very important chapter in the trajectory of reconfiguration of ultraconservatism and the far right.
In the article “A política do gênero” (The politics of gender),2020. Ibid. the Vatican did not manifest the same fury in relation to gender in Beijing as it had in New York six months earlier, but this fury would be rekindled in the Revision+5 processes (1999-2000). Between each the two events, systematic intellectual work was initiated in order to solidify the accusing character of “gender ideology”.2121. We must state that the terminology of gender ideology can be found in seminal feminist texts of the 1970s, such as the classic article by Monique Wittig, “Não se nasce mulher,” in Pensamento feminista: Conceitos fundamentais, org. Heloisa Buarque de Holanda (Rio de Janeiro: Bazar do Tempo, 2019), accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.mpba.mp.br/sites/default/files/biblioteca/direitos-humanos/direitos-das-mulheres/obras_digitalizadas/heloisa-buarque-de-hollanda-pensamento-feminista_-conceitos-fundamentais-bazar-do-tempo-_2019_.pdf. This language was first used in the ultraconservative world in one of the interviews with Ratzinger published in 1997.2222. Interview by German journalist Peter Seewald with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) in 1997, when he was still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The interview was published as a book: Joseph Ratzinger and Peter Seewald, O Sal da Terra: O Cristianismo e a Igreja Católica no limiar do terceiro milênio (Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1997). It was then recovered by monsignor Michel Schooyans in the book L’Évangile face au désordre mondial (The Gospel Confronting World Disorder), published that same year,2323. Michel Schooyans, L’Évangile face au désordre mondial (Paris: Fayard, 1997), accessed January 27, 2023, https://excerpts.numilog.com/books/9782706251467.pdf. There is an important connection, as of yet unexplored, between ultraconservatism in Brazil and in Europe, since Schoovans lived in Brazil between 1959 and 1969. While in the country, he published, among other things, the book O comunismo e o futuro da igreja (Communism and the future of the church), a title that appears at the top of the list when one Googles the monsignor’s name. and soon after in a 1998 document written by Peruvian bishops.2424. It is no coincidence that right after the text by the Peruvian bishops, Latin American authors and translators made substantial contributions to the preparation and promotion of anti-gender phantoms. The most famous examples are Alejandro Ordoñez from Colombia and Jorge Scala, Agustín Laje, and Nicolas Marques from Argentina. Though the term is not used by Dale O’Leary in The Gender Agenda (1997), the substantive content is the same. These three seminal texts associate gender, or “gender ideology”, with Marxism.
The next step would be the transposition of this language inside of the Vatican, wherein theological reference documents would later be written about the “gender threat”. The most important ones are Lexicon – Pontifical Council for the Family (2003) and the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World (2004).2525. "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World," Vaticano, 2004, accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040731_collaboration_po.html. For more details on this genealogy, we recommend reading the entry on “Ideologia de Gênero” in Termos Ambíguos do Debate Político Atual: Pequeno Dicionário que Você Não Sabia que Existia, coord. Sonia Corrêa (Rio de Janeiro: Associação Brasileira Interdisciplinar de Aids - ABIA, 2022). For a more detailed review, we recommend the article by Rogério Junqueira “’Ideologia de gênero’: Uma ofensiva transnacional”, Tempo & Presença no. 32 (June 2019), accessed January 27, 2023, http://www.koinonia.org.br/tpdigital/uploads/Ideologia-de-Genero-KN_out_2018.pdf. One year after this letter, Ratzinger became Pope and, in the papal homily of Christmas 2008, for the first time, he established a relation between the “effects of gender ideology” and the destruction of “the ecology of man”.2626. "Missa na solenidade da epifania do Senhor: Homilia do Santo Padre Bento XVI," Vaticano, January 6, 2008, accessed January 23, 2023, https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/pt/homilies/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20080106_epifania.html. This view would then be reiterated at the UN General Assembly of 2009, when the Pope associated gender with the destruction of forests.
In 2013, Europe and Latin America witnessed the rise of broad social mobilizations that constituted, to a greater or lesser extent, a scenario of “the people against gender”. In Europe, the icon of this new era was the organization La Manif Pour Tous2727. La Manif Pour Tous, Homepage, 2023, accessed January 23, 2023, https://www.lamanifpourtous.fr. in Paris, which launched the aesthetic norm “girls wear pink” and “boys wear blue” in the world. That same year saw the creation of two bastions of anti-gender politics: the Citizen Go digital platform in Spain and the Ordo Iuris institute in Poland.
In Latin America, the offensives were sectorial at first. In 2013, as seen in Paraguay in the previous year, there were attacks against “gender” and “ideology” in the Brazilian National Plan of Education (PNE, Plano Nacional de Educação). Also, a resolution on sexual orientation, gender identity and human rights was the subject of heated debate at the General Assembly of the Organization of American States. Although these attacks in the realm of education lacked greater immediate visibility, their effects would be catastrophic, with harmful outcomes in educational policy and the school environment.2828. For more information about the long-term developments of these attacks in Brazil, see: Ofensivas Reacionárias, Resistências Democráticas e Anúncios pelo Direito Humanos à Educação, org. Denise Carreira and Bárbara Lopes (São Paulo: Ação Educativa, 2022), accessed January 27, 2023, https://generoeeducacao.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Livro-2022_GÊNERO-E-EDUCAÇÃO-ofensivas-reacionárias-resistências-democráticas-e-anúncios-pelo-direito-humano-à-educação.pdf.
From that point onward, these mobilizations multiplied in the region; their intensity varied depending on the context. I would like to underline three characteristics or aspects. Although anti-gender offensives targeted issues that conservative groups had always opposed, they should not be interpreted as “more of the same”. Among other reasons, this is because they are no longer exclusively or predominantly religious, or cannot be explained as mere backlash or “effects of fundamentalisms”; they are attacks by heterogenous and intersectional formations. As I have stated, these hydras have many heads moving in varied directions and drinking from contradictory ideological sources, which makes the process of reading them more difficult.2929. See Sonia Corrêa, "Ideologia de gênero: assim surgiu o espantalho." Outras Palavras, May 14, 2021, accessed January 23, 2023, https://outraspalavras.net/direita-assanhada/ideologia-de-genero-assim-surgiu-o-espantalho/.
Furthermore, in Latin America, the association between gender and Marxism is very robust. Here, while the specter of “gender” activates moral panic in relation to sexual disorders (particularly pedophilia), the phantom of Marxism has stirred up deep layers of anticommunism and the rejection of egalitarianism, which we thought had been suppressed. Finally, these cyclones have become attached to high-intensity electoral dynamics, creating the perfect storm in order to bring the far right to power. Brazil is the most emblematic and dramatic example of this, among other reasons, because this brought gender ideology into state policy.3030. “Ofensivas Antigênero no Brasil: políticas de Estado, legislação, mobilização social”, Sexuality Policy Watch, 2021, accessed January 27, 2023, https://sxpolitics.org/ptbr/ofensivas-antigenero-no-brasil-politicas-de-estado-legislacao-mobilizacao-social/12156.
I have just described an “ideal type” of anti-gender politics of a Gramscian style: broad and heterogenous social mobilization against “gender” or “gender ideology” that are often attached to political and electoral dynamics. However, things do not always take place like this, not even in Latin America. In Paraguay and Guatemala, conservative governments that did not rely on anti-gender mobilizations to get elected absorbed and legitimized their stances, converting them into public policy.
There were no anti-gender mobilizations like the ones that elected Trump in 2016 either (although there was a high degree of misogyny, racism, and LGBTTI+phobia). Even so, the attacks against “gender” in the form of restrictions to the rights of trans people quickly erupted and, since then, have escalated at a frantic pace. When Putin came to power in 2003, the anti-gender offensives of today were still being gestated. A few years later, Putin, in an alliance with the head of the Orthodox Church, adopted blatantly homophobic discourses and policies to later become an energetic global spokesperson for anti-gender ideology and, according to many studies, a financier of wars against gender in Europe.3131. See, for instance, “Tip of the Iceberg: Religious extremist - Funders against Human Rights for Sexuality & Reproductive Health in Europe,” European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, June 15, 2021, accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.epfweb.org/node/837.
It is very important to understand these differences and nuances. Anti-gender politics can be found in the Americas, in Europe, in the post-Soviet world, in Africa, in Asia (Taiwan and, perhaps, Korea), in Oceania (Australia and, apparently, New Zealand), but do not manifest themselves in the same way everywhere.
Sur • Back to Brazil, what is the country’s place in the map of this reconfiguration?
S.C. • Lengthy processes in our political history explain society’s inertial ultraconservatism, which was kindled by the attacks of the last decade. But before uncovering these old tracks, one must note that, in Brazil, as well as in Latin America in general, the wars against gender were favored by the intersection of three long-term systemic trends.
The first is the re-democratization process that marked the region’s landscape over the last four decades and, in particular, the shortcomings of the democratic regimes that emerged from it; in particular, the remnants of social and institutional authoritarianism and the persistence of violence related to the economy of drug trafficking and the war on drugs (particularly important in Brazil). The second was the continual penetration of neoliberal thinking brought forth by Pinochet in Chile and its multiple impacts: social inequality and precariousness, erosion of the political spheres, and reconfiguration of subjectivities. Finally, one must consider the growing politicization of religious ultraconservatism. The restoration of orthodoxy in the Vatican had strong impacts on progressive Catholic groups and laid the groundwork for the orthodox infrastructure that supports the offensives of today. However, since the 1980s, we have also witnessed the dizzying expansion of Christian fundamentalism, which ended up dragging other denominations into dogmatism. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that the theology of prosperity mobilized by a portion of the evangelical segment fueled the neoliberalization of social life.3232. In the preface of the e-book published with summaries of regional case studies in Portuguese, Sonia and Richard Parker discussed these structural conditions at greater length. See Políticas Antigênero na América Latina: Estudos de Caso - Versões Condensadas, ed. Sonia Corrêa (Rio de Janeiro: Associação Brasileira Interdisciplinar de AIDS - ABIA, 2021), accessed January 27, 2023, https://sxpolitics.org/GPAL/uploads/resumos-pt/E-book-Resumos-PT-02082021.pdf.
Going back in history, in the 1930s, Brazil was home to a broad fascist movement with plenty of transnational ties, like the Brazilian Integralist Action (AIB, Ação Integralista Brasileira).3333. See Leandro Pereira Gonçalves and Odilon Caldeira Neto, O Fascimo dos Camisas Verdes (São Paulo: FGV Editora, 2020), accessed January 27, 2023, https://editora.fgv.br/produto/o-fascismo-em-camisas-verdes-do-integralismo-ao-neointegralismo-3544. In spite of its extreme nationalism, the Integralist movement had connections with Europe, where it had strong ties with Salazarism and the fascists in Italy and many other countries.3434. Caldeira Netto lists organic contacts in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Philadelphia, Geneva, Zurich, Warsaw, and Berlin, as well as connections in New York, Washington, Paris, Santiago de Chile, Tokyo and Las Palmas. Integralism was a “clerical” sort of fascism. Not only were Plínio Salgado and Gustavo Barroso staunch Catholics, but their ideological narrative was built on Christian (Catholic) understandings of integrity and social hierarchy; many clergymen were members of the AIB.3535. The most emblematic – and intriguing – case is that of Dom Helder Câmara, who was once the private secretary of Plínio Salgado. Caldeira Netto adds that Protestants and Kardecists also joined the AIB – in other words, it had an ecumenic side that was not all that noticeable at first glance.
The resilience of anticommunist sentiment in Brazil also has a long history. It dates to the First Republic, grew in the New State (Estado Novo), and was persistently triggered throughout the Cold War, particularly among the military and the middle classes, until finally leading to the coup d’état in 1964. As mapped by multiple researchers, the exchanges between Brazil and the US continued after 1985 in the field of strategic and military studies and opened channels through which the new formulas of the “conservative revolution” drafted in the 1970s circulated with remarkable intensity.3636. See Lucas Pedretti, “Os ecos do Orvil em 2021, o livro secreto da ditadura.” Agência Pública, August 30, 2021, accessed January 27, 2023, https://apublica.org/2021/08/os-ecos-do-orvil-em-2021-o-livro-secreto-da-ditadura/; and João Cezar de Castro, Guerra Cultural e Retórica do ódio: Crônicas de um Brasil Pós-político (Goiânia: Editora e Livraria Caminhos, 2021).
In the Brazilian military circles, the ghost of “cultural Marxism”, later associated with “gender”, began to circulate very early on. This should not be interpreted as a mere transposition of gringo discourse to Brazil, but rather as the aggiornamento, or updating, of radically anticommunist views in military circles. It was not difficult at all to persuade these sectors of the existence of internal enemies, for this doctrine had already been solidly established among us since the days of Golbery do Couto e Silva.3737. Ricardo Abramovay, "O 8 de Janeiro, os militares e a Amazônia." Piauí, January 20, 2023, accessed January 23, 2023, https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/o-8-de-janeiro-os-militares-e-amazonia/. And, as noted by Cowan in his interview with Revista Pesquisa Fapesp, an association has already been made during the dictatorship period between communism and “sexual debauchery”, but this did not proliferate.3838. See Mezarobba, “Benjamin A. Cowan, 2021. In the political and cultural setting of the 2010s, however, the internal enemy took on many faces: feminists, LGBTTI+ activists, anti-racist and anti-prohibitionist movements, the whole squad of “abominable characters threatening upstanding citizens.”
As explained by Camila Rocha,3939. Camila Rocha, Menos Marx, mais Mises: O liberalismo e a nova direita no Brasil (São Paulo: Todavia, 2021). in the second half of the 2000s, Brazil would be included in the web in which there had long been an extensive production and dissemination of classic texts and renewed arguments in defense of neoliberalism and also of right-wing libertarianism. At that moment, new liberal institutes emerged, such as the Instituto Millennium (Millennium Institute) and liberal grassroots mobilizing movements, such as Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL), Vem pra Rua and Estudantes Livres. These actors reactivated liberal voices that had been ostracized in the democratization process and promoted discourses that valued meritocracy and entrepreneurship and vilified income transfer and affirmative action policies.
Among these complex intersections, one must note the contribution of the perennialist or traditionalist currents, of which Olavo de Carvalho was a spokesman, which early on propagated ideologic codes of the “conservative revolution” underway in the US and in Europe. In this brief overview, perhaps the most important thing to ask ourselves is how and why this ideologic, spiritualist and eschatological narrative became so socially and politically influential that it was able to hold a firm grip on Brazilian foreign policy until 2021.4040. It is important to emphasize the influence Olavo de Carvalho had with Ernesto Araújo, Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Bolsonaro administration, with the latter stating that the works of Olavo de Carvalho “inspire and contribute” to the formulation of “policies and decision-making”. Jamil Chade, "Chanceler diz que obras de Olavo de Carvalho inspiram política." UOL, September 10, 2020, accessed January 27, 2023, https://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/jamil-chade/2020/09/10/chanceler-diz-que-obras-de-olavo-de-carvalho-inspiram-politica.htm.
It is no easy feat to precisely recall how these long-standing paths met with the recent dynamics of national politics. But it would not be rash to suggest that these intersections have been carefully woven since the second half of the 2000s and took shape with the crisis of legitimacy of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) administrations, which began in 2013 and led to the impeachment of Dilma [Rousseff] and subsequent developments. Bolsonaro announced that he would run for president in 2014 and, in my interpretation, started his campaign with his ignoble speech in the impeachment vote in 2016. I suspect that it was amidst this complex and turbid conjuncture that Bolsonaro took on the role of leader of the reconfiguration of neoconservatism and the far right in Brazil. It is quite significant that, immediately after the scene of the impeachment vote, he went to Israel to be rebaptized.4141. Bolsonaro is Catholic, but also Evangelical: “Jair Bolsonaro confessa Jesus Cristo e se batiza no rio Jordão”. Guiame, May 12, 2016, accessed January 05, 2023, https://guiame.com.br/gospel/videos/jair-bolsonaro-confessa-jesus-cristo-e-se-batiza-no-rio-jordao-assista.html. Israel was not only under the rule of far-right figure [Benjamin] Netanyahu, but it has always been a hub for connections with US and British ultraconservatism and the right. I would say that this trip signified, simultaneously, embodiment (as a leader) and transnationalization.
Subsequently, in 2017, the anti-gender ghost escaped the field of education and began to haunt other territories, such as visual and scenic arts, as seen in the attack on the Queer Museum. At the end of that year, Citizen Go staged a campaign against the presence of Judith Butler in Brazil and, in a demonstration in São Paulo, her effigy as a “witch” was burned in a clear evocation of the acts of faith ceremonies of the Inquisition: this was an attack against theory and the production of knowledge on gender. In our study in 2020,4242. Políticas Antigênero na América Latina… (2021). we interpreted this episode as a pilot experiment for the 2018 presidential election, when the anti-gender cyclone grew in scale, before being included in the government’s grammar from 2019 onward.
Considering what I have already mentioned, it is not surprising at all that the two most important heads of state at Bolsonaro’s inauguration in 2018 were Netanyahu and [Viktor] Orbán. In other words, it’s not that Brazil was becoming a hub for the coordination of transnational far-right forces, but rather that these connections were already being weaved before the election. Before the inauguration, Eduardo Bolsonaro organized the Foz Conservative Summit, which was attended by José Antonio Kast and other regional far right figures.4343. See André Barrocal, "Quem é quem na cúpula direitista das Américas." Carta Capital, December 7, 2018, accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.cartacapital.com.br/mundo/quem-e-quem-na-cupula-direitista-das-americas/.
From that point onward, the transnationalization effort would become visibly more intense, not only because Bolsonaro and his sons met with Donald Trump and Steve Bannon more than once in the United States, but also because Brazil became a mandatory stopover for ultraconservative and far right figures. Since 2019, CPAC has held three meetings in the country and we had a visit from members of the Spanish party VOX. In 2021, Beatrix von Storch,4444. Mariana Sanches, “Beatrix von Storch: quem é a líder da extrema-direita alemã que se reuniu com Bolsonaro”. BBC, July 26, 2021, accessed January 13, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-57978671. leader of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the German far right party, met with Bolsonaro;4545. Flávia Said, “Bolsonaro se reuniu com deputada alemã da ultradireita”. Metrópoles, July 26, 2021, accessed January 13, 2023, https://www.metropoles.com/brasil/politica-brasil/bolsonaro-se-reuniu-com-deputada-alema-da-ultradireita. and a pair of German anti-vaccine activists, who were later arrested, met with Damares Alves and also with Bolsonaro.4646. Deutsche Welle, "Bolsonaro recebe negacionistas alemães em Brasília." Carta Capital, September 23, 2021, accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.cartacapital.com.br/politica/bolsonaro-recebe-negacionistas-alemaes-em-brasilia/. In 2022, Katalin Novák, the new president of Hungary, came to Brazil, and we were also visited twice by Valerie Huber, who had been the special attaché of the Trump administration for health matters.
The defense of the ultraconservative agenda and the strengthening of new connections could also be clearly noticed in our foreign policy.4747. Since 2019, in international arenas such as the CSW in the UN Human Rights Council, Brazil not only voted in systematic alignment with conservative governments on topics involving gender, sexual education and health and reproductive rights, but also abstained in important votes, such as the condemnation of Iran for state violence against the demonstrations protesting the death of Mahsa Amini. The country also used these arenas as an opportunity to strengthen ties with Hungary and Poland, for instance, and establish new connections with conservative states, even non-Christian ones. Brazil participated actively in two platforms created by the Trump administration: the International Alliance for Religious Freedom4848. "Brasil prepara aliança com EUA por defesa da liberdade religiosa," Folha de S.Paulo, September 12, 2019, accessed January 27, 2023, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/mundo/2019/09/brasil-prepara-alianca-com-eua-por-defesa-da-liberdade-religiosa.shtml. and the so-called Geneva Consensus, a club of conservative states that defend one single family model and take a radical stance against reproductive rights and abortion. With Trump’s defeat, Brazil became the coordinator of this platform until November 2022, when anticipating Brazil’s departure after Lula’s election, which did happen in January 2023, Brazil passed the baton on to Hungary in a ceremony held in Brasília.
Ernesto Araújo, in his two years as Minister of Foreign Affairs, surely established important international connections using State resources that merit further investigation. Since he left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2021, Angela Gandra, the National Secretary of State of the Family, became prominent as a shadow minister for conservative topics, certainly taking inspiration from the role that Katalin Novák had when she was Minister for Family Affairs in Hungary.4949. In Hungary, the Foreign Affairs took care of other policy areas and Novak handled the conservative policy on family, gender, and abortion. Gandra also started doing this diplomatic work.
A major portion of Gandra’s activities5050. For more information on the diplomatic efforts of the former Secretary of the Family, read the document sent to the work groups in the transition effort by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship. "Diplomacia Paralela Ultraconservadora: gênero, política moral, familismo e novas motivações para relações interestatais," Sexuality Policy Watch, January 24, 2023, accessed January 27, 2023, https://sxpolitics.org/ptbr/diplomacia-paralela-ultraconservadora-genero-politica-moral-familismo-e-novas-motivacoes-para-relacoes-interestatais/12940. were dedicated to obtaining new adhesions to the Geneva Consensus, which were not all that successful. Only Guatemala’s adhesion went through, since Colombia, which entered the Consensus in April 2022, withdrew soon after Gustavo Petro was elected president. It is important to mention that, in these missions, closer ties were also established with countries in the Persian Gulf5151. This connection brings to mind the relations in the 1990s that feminists such as Sonia Corrêa referred to as the unholy alliance: the partnership between the Vatican, associated Christian states, and Muslim countries. regarding the conservative agenda on family and women’s place in society.
Sur • What is the impact of this transnational coordination on the work of protecting and defending human rights?
S.C. • This is a very important question on which I have reflected a lot, but not as much as I would like to.5252. See Laura Murray, "‘Missing the point’: A conversation with Sonia Corrêa about the emergence and complexities of anti-gender politics at the intersections of human rights and health," Global Public Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice 17, no. 11 (2022): 3243-3253, accessed January 27, 2023, https://sxpolitics.org/global-public-health-journal-human-rights-missing-the-point-a-conversation-with-sonia-correa-about-the-emergence-and-complexities-of-anti-gender-politics-at-the-intersections/22735. Ever since ultraconservative forces have started gaining strength in Latin America, the nomenclature of “anti-rights” was invented to define them – in other words, a semantic inversion strategy to unmask the fallacy of their self-definition as “pro-life”, “pro-family”, “pro-children”.
This nomenclature was immediately endorsed and spread to the rest of the world. It is very attractive because it makes the problem easier to identify by stating that these forces threaten our rights, which were achieved with much effort in the course of regional re-democratization. And I must say it is not entirely untrue, since ultraconservative forces openly attack what they define as “new rights”, which are, in general, rights related to gender, sexuality, and reproduction. However, I believe that using the term “anti-rights” to describe our issue is problematic because it does not cover certain elements that are far from trivial.
In the West, the Catholic Church has historically been an unequivocal source of legal thought. It would suffice to recall that, until the 19th century, in Portugal, Spain and the territories they colonized, civil law and canon law were one and the same. There are quite a few genealogical connections between conceptions of human rights from the Enlightenment and legal assumptions of Christianity.
Setting our scope on contemporary affairs, the ultraconservative movement of the United States has greatly invested in the production of “knowledge” or ultraconservative thinking in the legal field and in training legal professionals in strategical human rights litigation. This is mirrored in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but also in the document produced by the Commission on Unalienable Rights,5353. "Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights," Commission on Unalienable Rights, 2020, accessed January 13, 2023, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Draft-Report-of-the-Commission-on-Unalienable-Rights.pdf. created by the Trump administration, which was released in July 2022. Its preparation was coordinated by Mary Ann Glendon, an ultraconservative legal scholar from Harvard that led the Vatican delegation at the Beijing Conference and was later the ambassador of the Bush administration to the Vatican.
This text is a masterpiece in what is referred to as US originalism, a reinterpretation of law in the light of the “original legal tradition” of the founding fathers of the United States, which, according to the conservatives, should be preserved as such. In this perspective, there is no room for “new rights”. Plenty of publications in the United States have discussed the problems of the originalism manifested in the Dobbs decision, including an article by Noah Feldman, a progressive legal scholar.5454. Noah Feldman, “Ending Roe Is Institutional Suicide for Supreme Court”. Bloomberg, June 24, 2022, accessed January 13, 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-06-24/supreme-court-abortion-ruling-in-dobbs-is-institutional-suicide?srnd=premium. According to Feldman, this ruling abandons and vilifies the interpretative epistemology of contemporary constitutionalism, which understands constitutions as legal references that can and should be continually expanded through reinterpretations based on the principles of equality and freedom. In other words, an expansive framework of constitutionalist interpretation, which is also applied to the jurisprudence on human rights, as it has developed since the Second World War, particularly after the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993.
It was this interpretative expansion that, throughout the 1990s, allowed a series of situations of violation and the need for protection and prevention to be included in the fundamental assumptions of human rights that were not there before. This can be seen in the application of human rights to racism and social inequality.5555. The Convention against racism was one of the first to be approved in the International Human Rights System (1951). However, in the last three decades, the original parameters have been rendered more complex and enlarged in order to integrate the theory about the systemic nature of racism, as well as the new logic of intersectionality. The questioning of sexual binarism enshrined in human rights instruments is another example, since it made room for the recognition of violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity; Advisory Opinion 24 of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights is a solid example of that.
In the realm of human rights, the goal of these forces is to restrain and, if possible, abolish this interpretative logic. In other words, to return to a literal logic of legal interpretation: human rights are legitimate as long as they correspond to the definitions of declarations and conventions as they were originally approved. This means that these forces are not “anti-rights”; rather, they have a specific understanding of human and constitutional rights that not only diverges from but also rejects the previously mentioned open epistemology.
In other words, there is a (quite ferocious) dispute in the realm of human rights. It clearly appears in the area of interpretive epistemology, but can also be seen in another aspect of the ultraconservative conception of “rights,” which is the attachment to hierarchy and the aversion to freedom or autonomy as the founding principle of human rights. Many prerogatives in the progressive sphere, such as the legitimate expression of autonomy, are seen by ultraconservatism as a justification for tutelage or even charity. This distortion became quite evident in the reconfiguration of the human rights policy under Bolsonaro.5656. According to Sonia, in a document sent to the transition work group of the Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship, the following terms were analyzed: “Far-right thought deeply penetrated the grammar and design of human rights policy. This meant a substantive change in the understanding of human rights, summarized in the following statement by former Minister Damares Alves: ‘Let me say two words: promotion and protection. The Bolsonaro administration does not promote this agenda, it protects this group... (LGBTTIA+ people). We don’t promote, we protect.’ This vision radically diverges from the human rights paradigm as it has evolved since 1948, its most robust manifestation being the parameters of integrity and indivisibility legitimized in the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (1993). On the one hand, these parameters establish the protection of people against violations and discrimination, but they also establish the right to freedom, autonomy and personal prerogatives of individuals and groups so they may associate freely, express their opinions and worldviews, and decide for themselves what they will do with their lives and bodies. Clearly, this second set of non-negotiable assumptions has been abandoned in the last four years and needs to be restored.” For a more elaborate analysis of this reconfiguration, see João Gabriel Maracci and Marco Aurelio Maximo Prado, "Ofensivas Antigênero e a Depuração dos Direitos Humanos como Política de Estado no Brasil," Estudos e Pesquisas em Psicologia 22, no. 4 (2022), accessed January 27, 2023, https://www.e-publicacoes.uerj.br/index.php/revispsi/article/view/71643/44113.
Sur • What are the main challenges that the human rights movement, particularly the feminist and LGBTTIA+ groups, face in relation to the agenda of this conservative movement?
S.C. • The first challenge is to situate our analyses and activism strategies within the framework of this extended temporality that is typical of ultraconservative forces, an example of this being the Catholic Church. The progressive movement has a hard time understanding and adjusting to this longevity; our political imagination is populated with desires for swift transformations, with the idea of revolution. It has always been this way, but today, this is aggravated by the acceleration resulting from the digitalization of life and politics. Events of yesterday no longer matter, topics that disappear from Twitter are no longer relevant. This perception and way of acting and reacting is in stark contrast with the very long-term strategies designed and implemented by ultraconservatism. On the surface, these forces are also using the game of “infoxication” and acceleration.
We need to refine our skills to exercise “historical patience”, to use an old term. Say our intention is to obtain legislative change on abortion; while we make a three-year plan, the Catholic Church and other forces that oppose abortion make calculations for a 30 to 50-year window. This was the timeframe of the actions that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. However, there is yet another problem: sustaining long-term struggles and processes requires sustainable resources. Who will sustain them in the progressive sphere? How do we overcome the brutal inequality that exists in terms of available time, institutional infrastructure, and financial resources between us and them? There are no easy answers to that question.
Sur • Lastly, how can we resist the “conservative revolution”?
S.C. • The first order of business is to recognize that it is underway, that it has gained a lot of ground, and that the forces that drive it will not back down in the near future. In this sense, we must recognize that the complexity and longevity of this revolution require new lenses, or at least adjusted lenses for interpretation. In particular, we must acknowledge that the grammar of human rights and their interpretive epistemology are in dispute. This is happening both in the constitutional and the human rights field.
It is crucial for all people and movements engaged in debates on democratic constitutionalism and human rights to have clarity on this. What is at stake is, in fact, a dispute over the epistemological conception of fundamental rights, and, above all, whether the interpretation of existing rules should be literal or transformative. This dispute is a lot more evident in the United States because originalism has gained strength and legitimacy and penetrated the legal institutions, as seen in the Dobbs decision. Although the ramifications of these disputes can be seen everywhere, we have hardly begun to discuss the implications of this dispute in Brazil, even when some of the more emblematic figures of the ultraconservatism that rose to power in 2018 are very well aligned with these regressive interpretations (whether they are originalist or neo-Thomist).5757. Examples of this include Ives Gandra Martins and the vast group that surrounds him, which includes Rodrigo Pedrosa and congresswoman Cris Tonietto, among others. But one could also mention Centro Dom Bosco, a think tank of conservative Catholic legal thought, and the Brazilian Association of Conservative Jurists. There are also Law schools and courses that are not properly mapped out, but currently operate as chains of transmission of these perspectives.
I believe that this is the frontier or, better yet, the trench of conflict we have ahead of us. We must transmit broader information to the human rights field about the meaning of this epistemological war. The possibility of an expanded interpretation of human rights did not exist when the Declaration was adopted in 1948; rather, it was the result of long and arduous work on human rights as a transnational political agenda and post-war democratic constitutionalism. It is this perspective that is under attack now and that must be defended.
Interview conducted by Maryuri Mora Grisales in December 2022.
Original in Portuguese. Translated by Luis Misiara. Proofread by Karen Lang.