Staff writer Carolina Claudino explains the causes and impact of unrest among the Brazilian right-wing. Warnings of democratic fragility appear more salient than ever.
Almost exactly two years after the security breach that led to the invasion of the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters, Brazil faces similar riots by supporters of Jair Bolsonaro. A crowd invaded the Brazilian Congress in an effort to undermine the election of the current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
On January 8, only 7 days after Lula’s presidential inauguration, radical far-right groups stormed the Three Power Plaza in the heart of Brasilia and invaded the three main governmental buildings: the Supreme Court, the presidential palace and the Congress. In an attempt to overthrow the newly-elected president, rioters demanded military intervention. This event resulted in over a thousand arrests of those involved in the attempted coup, including police force members, members of the military and politicians for invasion, depredation and crimes against democracy.
The tense political climate and long-held far-right narrative of fraudulent elections (fomented by Bolsonaroand his allies in anticipation of his loss) certainly played a major role in the culmination of the coup attempt. While there is no proof that Bolsonaro was directly involved (he later disavowed the rioters), we do know that the attack was in-part organised and financed by important conservative actors in Brazilian politics. The Brazilian Supreme Court included Bolsonaro as a person of interest in its riot probe since his inflammatory remarks about Lula’s victory clearly helped motivate the rioters. The incident has been considered a terrorist attack due to its violent and antidemocratic nature.
Lula ally Alexandre Padilha, Minister of Institutional Relations, blames Bolsonaro for undermining Brazilian democracy by creating the right atmosphere for his supporters to engage in violence. “For four years the ex-president Bolsonaro spread and cultivated an atmosphere of hatred in this country,” he announced. He suggested that the security forces had been contaminated by Bolsonaro’s antidemocratic ideals, which resulted in their initial weak handling of the unrest.
The similarity between former United States President, Donald Trump, and former Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, is uncanny. They share worldviews, political language, policies and a personal friendship. But the parallel between Brazil and the United States goes beyond the similarities between just these two candidates. Both countries share a body of eager far-right voters ready to mobilise themselves.
These twin anti-democratic figures arose from a similar political situation, right after the fall of a left-wing president, and employed very similar playbooks upon defeat. Their blatantly offensive and hateful language came across as funny and relatable to those followings through their ‘shock-jock personas’. Guardian columnist Moira Donegan draws on the historical and foundational similarities between the two countries to explain this shared political context. Both countries are highly heterogeneous in terms of religion and race and “have an authoritarian streak, one that has historically been encouraged, both tacitly and explicitly, by the US itself”.
This context of mistrust and constant questioning of evidence-based claims allows for virulent electoral scepticism in both countries. When the opposition wins, the radical groups that consume and foment this electoral conspiracy have motivation and the organisation to react. In both cases, the criminals had help (tacit or otherwise) from officers and government workers.
The founder of the Brazilian thinktank Instituto Igarapé, Roberto Muggah, said that “the similarities of Brazilian far-right mobs storming Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential palace with the January 6 insurrection of the Capitol are not coincidental. Like their MAGA counterparts, Bolsonaro supporters have been fed a steady diet of misinformation and disinformation for years, much of it modelled on the narratives peddled by far-right influencers in the US.”
The actions of the Brazilian armed forces show the alignment of much of the military with Bolsonarism. As in the US, police forces are generally associated with conservative ideologies. Samira Bueno, director of the Brazilian Forum of Security, expressed concern about the radicalisation and ‘Bolsonarisation’ of the police force.
When referring to the Brazilian military, it is important to consider that the military police does not answer to the army but to the local governor. In this case, power over the military police was in the hands of Ibaneis Rocha, governor of the Federal District. He has since been suspended and is currently being investigated by the Federal Police over his connection to the rioters.
On the morning of the January 8, the military police was extremely lenient with Bolsonaro’s electors. During the morning the ‘Esplanade of the Ministries’ was closed to cars and pedestrians – it was only when Rocha gave direct orders that civilians were allowed in the esplanade, going against the agreement made with Minister of Justice Flávio Dino, that they gained full access to the buildings. Only once outside authorities began to respond to the incident was the incident actually dealt with appropriately.
The army, on the other hand, was reportedly continuously complacent with the illegal activities of the rioters, going as far as to block their arrest in some cases. Far-right voters had been illegally camping next to the military headquarters in Brasilia ever since Lula’s victory. When the military police tried to break apart the agglomeration in the headquarters, the illegal campers were protected by army commander Paulo Jorge Fernande da Hora, who is currently under investigation. This relationship between the criminals and the government and armed forces officials shows the level tacit support enjoyed by the rioters.
Journalist and biographer Lira Neto, points to the same forces in Brazilian politics repeatedly bringing the democratic process into jeopardy. He describes the salvationist and anti-corruption discourse, fear of the ‘communist ghost’ and naïve sense of patriotism repeatedly animate the right and threaten Brazilian democracy.
Destruction of artwork
The level of destruction and chaos that the Bolsonaro supporters brought about was unprecedented. Furniture and walls were vandalised, windows smashed, and there were reports of people throwing chairs out of windows. But that does not even include what was done to the artwork which decorated these buildings.
Journalists from The Guardian that visited the buildings less than 24 hours after the invasions claimed that it was as if a natural disaster had taken place when talking about the level of destruction. The list of damaged artwork includes pieces from several Brazilian artists who shaped the country’s culture.
The destruction of these historical objects and artworks has, of course, a financial weight – but above all, the impact is symbolic. It represents a blatant disregard and hatred for Brazilian history and culture. Bolsonaro’s followers have refused to recognize national history, denying the horrors of the military dictatorship in the 1960s, casting most of the Brazilian cultural elite as left-wing communists and renouncing anything it produces.
This stems, at least partly, from Bolsonaro’s policies towards to culture and art. His government played a major role in defunding cultural projects and artists and dismantling the Ministry of Culture. It is no wonder that his followers, just like him, see no value in public property or art.
The attempted coup of January 8 was predictable but, once again, the signs were ignored. Bolsonaro’s followers had been organising and conspiring towards this for the last few years. The mobilisations on September 7, Brazilian Independence Day, were a preview of what was to come.
What seems worrisome is the fact that this does not seem to be an isolated case of democratic backsliding. As mentioned, it followed the US invasion of the Capital a few years ago and was followed just a few weeks later by a coup attempt in Peru, in which president Pedro Castillo attempted to dissolve the Congress to avoid being impeached. While the coup attempt in Peru was extremely different from the one in Brazil, it showcases the fragility of democratic institutions in Latin America. It’s lucky that the Peruvian military did not sympathise with Castillo in the way that the Brazilian security services support Bolsonaro. Next time, South American may not be so lucky.