For most of his time in office, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro adopted Donald Trump’s strategy.
Given that Bolsonaro supporters had been warned for two years, it is not surprising that they would eventually start a violent rebellion in Brasilia.
However, the timing—following President Lula’s orderly inauguration and Bolsonaro’s departure from Brazil—makes it both more perplexing and dissimilar from the attack on the Capitol on January 6 in both ways.
Even though Brazil’s federal institutions have fought hard against anti-democratic forces, it’s clear that authoritarianism has taken root in a country that got rid of its harsh military government 38 years ago.
The governor of the Federal District and the now-dismissed secretary of public security, both supporters of the previous president Bolsonaro, appear to have disregarded these warnings, even though it is yet unclear what role the DF’s elected authorities played in these attacks.
There were clear parallels between the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and what was happening in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, on Sunday afternoon, when thousands of protesters gathered at the three main political buildings in the city. These analogies were totally foreseeable in many other ways as well. For most of his time in office, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro adopted Donald Trump’s strategy. He became well known as a bold right-wing populist who didn’t mind taking charge. He spent his presidency bemoaning “false news” and making many bogus charges of election fraud in an effort to taint Brazil’s elections. Throughout their respective terms, the rule of law performance in both countries steadily deteriorated.
Even though the outcome now seems inevitable, people in Brazil were cautiously optimistic that a peaceful power transfer might be possible without too much trouble, and for the most part, it was. After the vote, Bolsonaro did not formally admit that he had won, but he did agree to a change in the presidency. Many of Bolsonaro’s friends in politics have said they want to work for “the opposition.” Pro-Bolsonaro protests continued all over the country, but political protests are common in Brazil, and the security forces had already stopped at least one really scary thing from happening.
The top-down mobilization that happened after the 2020 US elections didn’t seem to be happening in these protests, which is essential to note. Bolsonaro asked fans to accept their current reality in his farewell speech as president. He told them that even though he had tried to stay within the Constitution, “either we live in a democracy or we don’t… Nobody desires an adventure.”
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sworn in as the 39th president of Brazil earlier this month in front of heightened security and people who represented the country’s diversity. In the meantime, Bolsonaro had been seen on camera in Florida dining at Kentucky Fried Chicken and shopping at the Southern supermarket company Publix (whose heiress had offered to donate up to $3 million to the protests on January 6). These pictures were widely shared, which led to jokes about the former president being a “temporary Florida guy” and questions about why he chose to leave Brazil before he lost his immunity from prosecution for various judicial probes.
Given that Bolsonaro supporters had been warned for two years, it is not surprising that they would eventually start a violent rebellion in Brasilia. But the fact that it happened right after President Lula’s peaceful inauguration and after Bolsonaro left Brazil makes it both more strange and different from the attack on the Capitol on January 6. Even though Brazil’s federal institutions have fought hard against anti-democratic forces, it’s clear that authoritarianism has taken root in a country that got rid of its harsh military government 38 years ago. Some people seem to have become more committed to the authoritarian ideas that led to Sunday’s attack, even if the former president didn’t support them directly. Bolsonaro’s actual role, if any, is still unknown.
A distinct type of uprising
Congress was not in session, and most government buildings were empty as the attack in Brasilia took place. After the power change was finished, it looked like the attack on the presidential palace, the National Congress, and the Superior Federal Court had no plan or direction. The rioters made vague claims about taking over the building until the military stepped in to cancel the election, but it seemed like looting was their main goal. Videos and pictures of Bolsonaro supporters breaking windows, stealing government records, setting carpets on fire, and even urinating on tables were widely shared online, often by those who damaged federal property. There were even worries that Bolsonaro supporters had stolen the original 1988 Brazilian Constitution; however, it eventually turned out to be a copy.
Unlike in the US, these bolsheviks’ activities did not directly endanger the lives of elected leaders or attempt to halt a legal procedure. But they were a clear sign of their dislike for democracy and showed the authoritarian tendencies that drove at least some of the supporters of the previous president. They also proved beyond a doubt that false information can rally even a small number of supporters, who then join thousands of other passionate followers in violent acts of destabilization and destruction.
The happenings in Brasilia are troubling, but what is more worrisome is how complacent the local government and public security authorities from the Federal District are. In contrast to Washington, D.C., the Federal District, where Brasilia is, has the same power to govern as a state and a city. Security personnel within the DF are in charge of guarding federal structures. Bolsonaro supporters, though, encountered relatively little resistance as the attack progressed. On camera, the highest-paid police officers in Brazil were seen talking to protesters and buying coconut water.
Before the invasion, Brazil’s intelligence agency and the government of the DF were worried about “violent acts” that might happen because of messages on Telegram, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms that encouraged smaller protests across the country to come together in Brasilia. Even though there was a plan in place to stop protesters, district-level officials allegedly changed it at the last minute, despite intelligence warnings. Both the governor of the Federal District and the now-fired secretary of public security, who both supported the former president Bolsonaro, seem to have ignored these warnings. It is still not clear what role the DF’s elected leaders played in these attacks, but it seems likely that they did not.
Even though they are still young, Brazil’s federal institutions have shown again that they can stand up to attacks on democracy, even though the district-level government hasn’t stepped up to the plate. When news of the invasion spread, Lula said that the federal government would help improve public safety in the district. This gives the federal government the authority to manage general security through the end of the month with the consent of Congress. Bolsonaro supporters cheered when the military finally got involved, even though all it did was get protesters out of federal buildings. It’s important to note that many military officials are said to have taken part in the vandalism, which shows how divided Brazil’s armed forces are. The Supreme Federal Tribunal Court quickly suspended the governor of the DF for 90 days while they looked into his “painful absence” during the attack. Approximately 200 to 400 people were seized right away, and in less than 24 hours, the federal government detained more than 1,500 people for questioning about their role in the attempted takeover. Additional arrests are still being made today.
Investigators are already looking for the people who broke into the federal property and used financial networks to hire charter buses to take people around Brazil. Investigators will eventually start looking into whether elected officials are at fault. Politicians can be charged because it’s been done before, as Lula found out after he left office in 2011. The day after the attack, the heads of the three parts of the federal government put out a joint statement of support to “reject yesterday’s coup acts.” Bolsonaro is no longer in charge, so he does not have control over the levers of the federal government. This is one reason why things moved so quickly. It could also be because threats of something like what happened on January 6 have been around for a long time, especially since Bolsonaro had warned that he could be “arrested, killed, or win” in the future.
The path to healing
It would be silly to say that the failed coup is the end of bolsonarismo or anti-democratic forces in Brazil, even though there was a lot of public opposition to the attack earlier this week and a lot of pro-democracy protesting after the violence. After all, both succeeded even without the former president’s open support. Even though the public’s trust in democratic institutions and voting procedures was severely damaged by Bolsonaro’s presidency, the 2017 presidential elections may have strengthened Brazil’s democracy.
The U.S. experience offers a defective model to follow or a chance to take a different path as the Brazilian people move forward in the wake of the terrible attack. So far, most people in Trump’s inner circle have avoided punishment and continue to have a lot of power in the new U.S. Congress. However, the U.S. Department of Justice has been doing a good job of prosecuting the January 6 rebels. In some ways, the distinctive components of January 8, 2023, have already put Brazil on its own course. But there are still some obvious parallels. Both Biden and Lula won their elections by a small margin. This is a big problem for both of them, as are hyperpartisanship, the loss of trust in traditional media, mistrust of elections, and these other problems. Brazil and the U.S. have a big, maybe even life-or-death chance to work together now that Lula is going to visit Washington in the first half of February and the two presidents have said they want to have a “permanent dialogue” to deepen democracy.