A giant image of Jair Bolsonaro stared down from billboards in the Brazilian town of Ourinhos. “We believe in God and we value the family,” its slogan proclaimed.
But within days of being erected, local dissidents had taken spray cans to the hoardings, dousing Brazil’s nationalist leader with black paint and using their graffiti to declare him a fascist.
Soon after, another billboard appeared, insisting Ourinhos “was not down with Bolsonaro” and denouncing his Covid-19 response by adapting one of the president’s most notorious phrases.
“More than 100,000 dead? So what? I’m not a gravedigger,” it said, alongside a cartoon of Brazil’s science-denying president with a face mask over his eyes.
Up and down Brazil, a battle of the billboards is raging between foes and followers of perhaps the most divisive president in the country’s history.
In the northern city of Tocantins a bright orange advert was erected to demand Bolsonaro’s immediate impeachment. “Lazy sod. He’s not worth a half-eaten piece of fruit,” it read.
In Aracaju, objectors from a teachers’ union put up purple billboards depicting Bolsonaro as the grim reaper and declaring: “Death cannot be allowed to govern Brazil”
In Maceió, one billboard showed Bolsonaro’s head partially replaced with the coronavirus and bore the phrase: “If you can, stay at home. Bolsonaro’s the only thing we want out.”
In the capital, Brasília, renegade artists tampered with pro-Bolsonaro propaganda praising the president for “18 months without corruption”. The updated version thanked him sarcastically for “18 months without investigations” into his family’s allegedly corrupt affairs.
Some cities, such as Sete Lagoas in the eastern state of Minas Gerais, have seen face-offs between pro- and anti-Bolsonaro factions.
In early July, Bolsonarista shopkeepers decked the streets with billboards declaring “Sete Lagoas supports Bolsonaro” and featuring Bolsonaro’s motto: “Brazil above everything. God above everyone”.
But within weeks a rival group had responded with a hoarding of its own. “Sete Lagoas supports the Rhea that bit Bolsonaro,” it read, in reference to the recent avian attack on Bolsonaro as he tried to feed the bird in the presidential garden.
“We’re planning on putting more up [and] we’re thinking about even more creative messages for the next ones,” said one of the organizers, who asked not to be named. “If these Bolsonaristas think our protest has finished, they’re in for a surprise.”
The group fulfilled that promise with a billboard that asked Bolsonaro to explain a series of mysterious payments into his wife’s account.
The arm-wrestle underscores Brazil’s bitter political rupture over a leader critics consider a historic abomination and supporters a corruption-busting champion of conservative values.
Polls show 41% of Brazilians want Bolsonaro out of the presidency but 52% think he should stay. Despite Brazil’s Covid-19 disaster, the world’s second worst after the US, support for Bolsonaro has increased in recent weeks – apparently because of emergency payments being doled out to help Brazilians through the crisis.
Eduardo Ferraro, a union leader behind the pro-Bolsonaro adverts in Ourinhos, claimed his president was doing a “sterling job”.
“I was so disillusioned with Brazilian politics when I came across Bolsonaro,” he gushed.
“He comes out with lots of nonsense because he’s so sincere but he’s made me proud of being Brazilian again … he’s the one keeping this country going,” Ferraro added, before reeling off a series of conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and a globalist plot to sabotage Bolsonaro’s rule.
Fernando Bizzarro, a Harvard University political scientist, said the propaganda dogfight underlined how profoundly divided and politicized Bolsonaro’s Brazil now was.
“These billboards are an expression of how politics has invaded people’s daily life to such an extent that they are using their own money to express their political opinions to their cities and their neighbours,” he said.
“The political polarization we are seeing in Brazil has permeated society in such an intense fashion that people are expressing themselves politically even when it’s not election time … Politics is now everywhere.”