PBS and BBC Team Up to Misinform About Brazil’s Bolsonaro

Both the US and British governments supported the rise of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Future Prime Minister Liz Truss had secret meetings with the future president in 2018 to discuss “free trade, free markets and post-Brexit opportunities”  (BrasilWire, 3/25/20).

The US Department of Justice was a crucial partner in the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigation, which resulted in the prosecution and jailing of Brazil’s left-leaning former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. The politically motivated legal campaign against Lula served to prevent his participation in the 2018 presidential election, in what Gaspard Estrada calls “the biggest judicial scandal in Brazilian history.”

Because of this history, and because Brazil is a hard country to explain concisely, I was weary to learn that the British and US state-affiliated media outlets BBC and PBS had co-released a documentary about Jair Bolsonaro only a few weeks before this year’s Brazilian presidential election (10/2–30/22). It didn’t fail to disappoint.

Rise of the Bolsonaros was released on August 28 on PBS, and is airing as a three-part series in Britain on BBC2.  It tells the story of Brazil’s far-right president through the words of people like Steve Bannon, Bolsonaro’s son Flavio, journalists, and current or former allies of the president, including a far-right lawmaker who is merely introduced as an “anti-corruption crusader.”

Feigned objectivity

Maria de Rosario

The only time a member of the Brazilian Workers Party got to speak was when Rep. Maria do Rosario was asked to describe her reaction to a misogynistic taunt from Bolsonaro.


With over 20 interviewees, the producers feign objectivity by granting a small proportion of airtime to progressive politicians. Two of the three progressive interviewees, however, are from the relatively tiny PSOL party—a nonthreatening source, given that the party is not even running a presidential candidate this year. The single representative of Lula’s Workers Party, Rep. Maria do Rosario, is given around 30 seconds to answer the following aggressively uncomfortable question: “How did you feel when Bolsonaro told you you didn’t deserve to be raped?”

The cast of journalists included some of the biggest cheerleaders for Lava Jato and Lula’s politically motivated imprisonment. Given the most airtime among the journalist interviewees was Brian Winter, who was introduced as a former Reuters chief in Brazil. The fact that Winter’s current job was not mentioned is indicative of the documentary’s editorial bias.

Winter is vice president of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas, the think tank founded by David Rockefeller in 1963 that was a key player in the 1973 coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende. Since then, AS/COA has worked, most recently  through its media arm, Americas Quarterly—of which Winter is editor-in-chief—to promote nearly every other far-right US intervention in Latin America, including the recent regime-change efforts in Venezuela and Bolivia.

AS/COA held a closed-door meeting in New York in 2017 with US business leaders and Bolsonaro—then a presidential hopeful—evidently prompting Americas Quarterly to lend increasingly favorable coverage to the far-right demagogue. The think tank’s current list of donors reads like a who’s who of mining and agribusiness corporations, many of which have benefited immensely from the massive privatization and environmental deregulation campaigns that followed the 2016 legislative coup against President Dilma Rousseff.

Desertification = development

During the Rise of the Bolsonaros opening montage, as footage of a burning rainforest appeared on screen, Winter said, “Jair Bolsonaro believes that the Brazilian Amazon is the magical path to economic prosperity.” There was no mention of Winter’s prominent role within AS/COA, which counts the agribusiness giant Cargill as one of its “elite corporate members.” This omission is especially glaring, since Cargill has been repeatedly cited as one of the main culprits in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

This set the tone for the film’s treatment of one of the only Bolsonaro policies that was criticized in the nearly three-hour production: illegal deforestation. Every time footage related to this issue appeared, a journalist or Bolsonaro ally arrived on screen to water it down, usually by a ratio of at least two to one.

 "We don't want to be walking around naked all our lives."

Bolsonaro meme designer Camila Azevedo describes how deforestation is helping the Indigenous.


One example came nearly an hour in, when the issue of deforestation was first given in-depth treatment. “From the very beginning, Bolsonaro wanted to develop the Amazon economically,” BBC‘s Katy Watson said—as if it were a given that the desertification of former rain forests, the poisoning of rivers with mercury and the destruction of renewable commodity chains is good for the economy.

Similar treatment was given to Bolsanaro’s systematic persecution and dispossession of Brazil’s Indigenous communities, some of which still live with little or no contact with outsiders. APIB—a coalition of Indigenous associations from across Brazil—has already called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Bolsonaro for genocide and crimes against humanity. After Indigenous leader Maial Kayapó explained how Bolsonaro encourages violence against her people, Camila Azevedo, the Bolsonaro family’s young meme designer, pops on the screen and says: “Most Indigenous, they want land to till…. They don’t want to walk around naked for the rest of their lives.”

Rags to riches


Jair Bolsonaro

Jair Bolsonaro gives PBS viewers a tour of his childhood home.


Bolsonaro’s early years are framed as a rags-to-riches story of rugged individualism. The story begins with the laughable claim that Bolsonaro grew up in the “badlands” of Brazil. In fact, Bolsonaro was born in Campinas, a relatively wealthy city with a metro area population of 3.7 million.

The banana-farming town of Eldorado, where they moved when he was 11, while located in one of the poorest regions of Brazil’s richest state of Sao Paulo, could hardly be called a “badlands.” Brazil’s badlands are the semi-arid back country of the Northeast, where gangs of Wild West–style outlaws called cangaceiros roamed on horseback until the 1940s.

In introducing Brazil’s sub-fascist military dictatorship (1964–85), corporate PR flack Brian Winter tells us that it was Bolsonaro’s “golden age.” Brazilian studies professor Anthony Perreira says:

If you were in one of the armed left groups, if you were a member of the Communist Party, if you were a student, and if you were engaged politically, it was a very dangerous time. But for a lot of people, it was a period of growth.

For the last 500 years, Brazil’s export commodity–based economy has been characterized by cyclical boom and bust periods. During the 21-year dictatorship, there was indeed a five-year boom period between 1968–73, but due to the government’s repression of organized labor and its efforts to suppress wages, it was accompanied by a drastic increase in income inequality. By the time the dictatorship ended, Brazil had become one of the most unequal countries in the world.

This inequality was exacerbated by the military government’s lack of commitment to public education, and its eagerness to take out massive loans from the World Bank to fund unsuccessful, environmentally devastating projects in the Amazon rainforest. Such failures led to the economic stagnation, hyperinflation and crippling foreign debt of what is now referred to as the “lost decade” of the 1980s.  When Perreira says, “For a lot of people it was a period of growth,” he is clearly referring to the elites who currently finance Bolsonaro rather than the Brazilian working class, which this documentary misrepresents as constituting the president’s primary base of support.

Man of the people

Bolsonaro’s petit bourgeois origins, glossed over in the film, are revealed in the story of his military career. Agulhas Negras, the elite Brazilian army academy where Bolsonaro studied after attending the Preparatory School of the Brazilian Army, has an extremely competitive admissions process.  It’s not the type of place where someone who grew up in “rags” would get into, but a traditional pathway of social ascension for members of the lower-middle class.

The documentary also relates how, in September 1986, then-Captain Bolsonaro wrote an article that appeared in Veja (9/3/86), a national news magazine, complaining about military officer salaries. A journalist says Bolsonaro “couldn’t afford to buy a house,” without mentioning that he was arrested for breaking army regulations by publishing the article. The documentary frames Bolsonaro as being broke and unable to support his family, but at the time of the article, Brazilian army captains earned 10,433 cruzados per month—over 12 times the country’s minimum salary of 804 cruzados.

Brian Winter

Brian Winter: “I was there when a reporter asked….” Where was he? At AS/COA. What was he doing there? Introducing Bolsonaro to his corporate sponsors in the mining, petroleum and agribusiness industries.


The salary may have been lower than what Bolsonaro felt he deserved, but it placed him among the roughly 10% of the national population in the upper-middle class.  Accurately portraying Bolsonaro as a Brazilian elite, however, doesn’t fit with the director’s attempt to portray Lula, who grew up in a mud shack and started working in a factory at age 14, as a liberal elite, and Bolsonaro as a man of the people, the same way Fox NewsTucker Carlson recently did during his one-week stay in Brazil running electoral propaganda for the president (FAIR.org, 7/25/22).

Bolsonaro’s 2017 visit to New York is presented as a brilliant strategy to validate his future candidacy to the Brazilian public, to show that “important people in the US wanted to listen to what he had to say.” Interviewee Brian Winter’s role in introducing Bolsonaro to US business elites is not mentioned at all, only alluded to by his anecdote about how cleverly Bolsonaro answered a question from a US reporter at the time about his rape comments directed at Maria do Rosario.

US-style culture war

Meanwhile, Steve Bannon and his far-right allies like Jason Miller have maintained communications with the Brazilian president’s family for years. In fact, the relationship between Bolsonaro’s sons and the American far right is so good that one of them attended the January 5, 2021, “war council” in Washington, DC, prior to the invasion of Capitol Hill. Bannon’s claim in the documentary that he reached out to the Bolsonaros to learn about their social media strategy seems like a blatant lie, since many of the tactics employed by Bolsonaro were clearly based on the Trump campaign’s culture war rhetoric.

The idea that Lula and Bolsonaro are at opposite ends of a US-style culture war is given disproportionate emphasis in the documentary. For example, at certain times when Lula is discussed, footage of men kissing at a pride parade appears on screen, as does an image of the former president holding a rainbow flag.

Such exaggerated treatment of Lula’s role in the cultural sphere ignores the fact that his popularity was largely driven by massive increases in spending on public health and education and successful poverty-reduction policies. Although, unlike Bolsonaro, Lula is not openly homophobic, he has faced criticism from the LGBT community for not going far enough to advance LGBT rights, and from feminists for not legalizing abortion.

Flavio Bolsonaro

Showcasing Flavio Bolsonaro’s sensitive side.


Nevertheless, the largest protests of Brazil’s working class since Bolsonaro took office had nothing to do with culture wars. The 2019 Education Tsunami protests, organized by student groups and teachers unions, brought over 2 million people into the streets of dozens of cities, and effectively stalled the Bolsonaro administration’s attempts to charge tuition at public universities.

Rio de Janeiro city councilor and anti–police violence crusader Marielle Franco, who is introduced only as an LGBT activist, was not a member of Lula’s Workers Party. Her assassination at the hands of members of a Rio de Janeiro militia, whose leader Adriano da Nobrega’s wife and mother both worked as “ghost employees” in Flavio Bolsonaro’s state congressional cabinet, is another scandal involving the Bolsonaro family that the documentary glosses over.

Instead, Flavio Bolsonaro, who appears several times in the documentary, shares humorous anecdotes about his childhood, and cries to the camera while remembering the 2018 stabbing incident involving his father, which far-right forces falsely tried to blame on Communists.

Missing Moro

Sergio Moro and Jair Bolsonaro

Conspicuously absent: Sergio Moro, who broke the law to remove Lula from the 2018 presidential elections then went on work as Bolsonaro’s minister of justice, is not mentioned once in the documentary.


The most glaring problem in the deeply flawed Rise of the Bolsonaros is the omission of arguably the single most important player in Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency: former Lava Jato investigation judge Sergio Moro. During a period in which the Lava Jato task force was having frequent meetings with the US Department of Justice and the FBI, Moro repeatedly broke the law by collaborating with prosecutors to discredit the Workers Party and help Bolsonaro.

The documentary doesn’t mention that Lula’s election-season arrest, on charges of committing “undetermined acts of corruption,” was made after the Brazilian supreme court, under threats from the Army, opened an exception to the Constitution to enable his imprisonment while his appeals were ongoing. Instead, it brings up frivolous charges that were dropped before his trial even started, such as “receiving 1 million euros in bribes.” The fact that Lula was ultimately released from prison after the election is written off as a “technicality.” There is also no acknowledgment  that this delay was only made possible by the political bias of a crooked judge who illegally colluded with prosecutors throughout the trial.

While stating that the supreme court ruled that Lula could run for public office, the documentary omits the fact that he was fully exonerated on all charges, while the judge who imprisoned him, Sergio Moro, was found by that same court to have been tainted by judicial bias. An especially relevant piece of information left out of Rise of the Bolsonaros is the supreme court’s charge that Moro leaked fraudulent audio tapes to media in order to damage the reputation of Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad just one week before the presidential elections, and then, in a clear conflict of interest,  accepted a cabinet position in the Bolsonaro government.

Not even mentioning Moro, let alone describing the crimes he committed to empower Bolsonaro, discredits the entire documentary. Without Moro, a false impression is left that Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power was based entirely on his family’s cunning.

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon gets the last word.


The program ends, laying any doubts about its lack of objectivity to rest once and for all, with the narrator saying, “The fate of Brazil is in the hands of its people,” followed by a 40-second pep talk by Steve Bannon—giving the last word on the upcoming Brazilian election to one of the main advocates for overturning the last US election.

The fact that US and British state-affiliated media outlets would promote misleading narratives less than a month before the most complicated Brazilian presidential election in modern history is another sad example of the long tradition of Western media facilitating imperialist meddling in Latin American elections.

Featured image: Jair Bolsonaro and sons, pictured in Rise of the Bolsonaros.

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