Weekly Report - 12 January 2023 (WR-23-02)

Brazil’s democratic institutions under attack

Until last week, the power transfer in Brazil seemed to have proceeded smoothly, despite the deep political polarisation in which the country has been immersed. And then reality struck. In the most serious attack on Brazil’s democratic institutions since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, thousands of supporters of former right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro (Partido Liberal, PL) stormed the country’s presidential palace, congress, and the supreme court (STF) in Brasília on 8 January.

Calling for a military coup to overthrow the results of the 30 October presidential election, protesters shattered the giant glass doors and windows of the modernist buildings, destroyed pieces of furniture and computers, tore up documents, and damaged valuable works of art, such as a famous mural by painter Di Cavalcanti (1897-1976). The local police took hours to regain control of the buildings using tear gas and rubber bullets. By the end of the day, more than 200 people had been arrested.

The dramatic scenes occurred just a week after the inauguration of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) and unsurprisingly drew comparisons with the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 by backers of former President Donald Trump (2017-2021), a close ally of Bolsonaro.

Both Bolsonaro and Trump refused to accept their defeat at the ballot box and claimed that the elections had been rigged. Both presidents had made wide use of misinformation and hate speech during their electoral campaigns, which succeeded in radicalising supporters willing to go to extremes to avoid a transfer of power. The major difference was probably that the attacks in Brasília happened on a weekend, when the government offices were closed, which may have made it easier for protesters to break into the buildings, but also put fewer staff at risk.

Lula was visiting the city of Araraquara in São Paulo state when the violence erupted and flew back to Brasília to oversee the response to the protests, which he described as an act of “terrorism”. The new president vowed to bring rioters to justice and to investigate those who financed the riots. “All the people who did this will be found and punished,” he announced.

Bolsonaro was in Florida, having travelled to the US two days before the end of his administration, after refusing to take part in the swearing-in ceremony for Lula. Bolsonaro condemned the “damage and invasion of public buildings” but also stressed that “peaceful protests are part of democracy” and compared the episode to demonstrations organised by left-wing movements in 2013 (against a bus fare hike) and 2017 (against reforms promoted by the government of Michel Temer, 2016-2018). None of these movements, however, aimed to promote a military intervention to overthrow an elected government, close down congress, and arrest STF justices – the basic to-do list of many rioters who broke into the government buildings on 8 January.

At one level, the incident exposed the challenges that Lula will face to govern a profoundly divided country, after an electoral campaign marked by political violence and the spread of fake news. At another, it gives the new government legitimacy to stage a strong response to anti-democratic protests and groups that remain active on the streets and on social media.

Soon after the election, Bolsonaro supporters set up camps outside army barracks across the country, calling for a military coup to avoid a transfer of power from Bolsonaro to Lula. For more than two months, these camps were supplied with significant infrastructure – from chemical toilets to basic kitchens, food, and water tanks – which suggests that wide networks financed and organised the movements.

Up until this week, Bolsonaro and his sympathisers, including some legislators and state governors, had claimed that, with few exceptions, these demonstrations were not violent, so repressing them would be an act of censorship and authoritarianism. As many of the rioters who took part in the rampage in Brasília were staying in the camp in the city, the images of protesters vandalising government buildings have dismantled this narrative, demonstrating that pro-coup protests and movements pose a tangible threat to Brazil’s democratic institutions.

As expected, just one day after the attacks in Brasília, STF justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered that all pro-coup camps across the country be broken up and their members arrested. More than 1,000 protesters were taken into custody in Brasília, although in other states, like São Paulo – which is governed by Tarcísio de Freitas of the right-wing Republicanos, a Bolsonaro supporter – there were no arrests in the dismantling of the camps.

Security forces pose problem for Lula

Another problem that became evident with the 8 January storming of the government buildings in Brasília is Lula’s difficulty in controlling the security forces in some parts of the country. For instance, before the assault, dozens of buses arrived in the capital carrying pro-coup rioters. As this was widely reported in the press, it would not have caught the local security authorities unawares and they had sufficient time to step up security structures in the capital.

Furthermore, rioters first rallied in front of the army’s headquarters, where many set up tents, and only later decided to walk the 8km that separate this building from the so-called ‘Three Powers Square’, where congress, the STF, and the presidential palace are located. The walk from one point to the other, at a relatively fast pace, takes more than one hour – and, yet, protesters were able to approach the government buildings without facing any significant resistance from the police of the Federal District (DF) – the administrative region that encompasses Brasília – which is tasked with protecting the area.

Not only was the number of police officers mobilised to protect Brasília clearly insufficient, but the Brazilian media also published videos showing local police officers watching on as protesters invaded government buildings, with some even taking pictures with them. On 8 January, the DF governor, Ibaneis Rocha of the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB), a Bolsonaro ally, apologised for the failure to contain the attack. Just last week, however, Rocha had taken it upon himself to appoint as Brasília’s public security secretary (in charge of the local police), Anderson Torres, who until December was serving as Bolsonaro’s justice minister.

After the rampage, Rocha promptly fired Torres, who, like Bolsonaro, was also in the US, allegedly on vacation. But it came as no surprise that Lula did not accept Rocha’s apologies and decreed a federal intervention in the DF, putting the executive-secretary of his justice ministry, Ricardo Cappelli, in charge of Brasília’s police. Hours later, Moraes also ordered Rocha’s removal from office for 90 days, saying that the attacks “could only have happened with the acquiescence, or even direct involvement, of public security and intelligence authorities”.

On 10 January, Moraes also issued an arrest warrant against Torres and Fabio Augusto Vieira, the commander of Brasília’s police on 8 January, accusing them of “negligence” in the face of the threat from the protests (both deny any wrongdoing). It is still not clear, however, if Moraes’ decision will be enough to convince police and military officers who sympathise with Bolsonaro that failing to protect Brazil’s democratic institutions may have serious consequences for them. 

The backlash against anti-democratic rioters did receive some significant support on the streets: thousands of people rallied in São Paulo and other cities around the country on 9 January to condemn the violence of the previous day and to call for those involved in the assault to be punished. “No Amnesty,” was their motto.

In Brasília, Lula met 23 of Brazil’s 27 governors in the presidential palace and some of them promised to send security reinforcements to the capital. The president also published a joint letter with the heads of congress and the STF, pledging unity in the response to the attacks – an attempt to demonstrate that, despite the setbacks, Brazil’s democratic institutions are alive and well. “We are not going to allow democracy to slip out of our hands,” Lula said. “They wanted a coup, and there won’t be a coup.”

Protesters complain of confinement conditions

After being arrested, 1,200 pro-Bolsonaro protesters who were camping in front of military barracks in Brasília were taken to a gymnasium, where they waited to be identified and interrogated by the police. In the meantime, however, many published online videos, where they bemoaned the food and the conditions of their confinement. Some complained that among those who were taken into custody were families with children and elderly people with chronic diseases. On the same day, the police released 599 people for “humanitarian reasons”.

STF Justice Alexandre de Moraes was harsh in his response to the complaints. “These people were, until Sunday (8 January), tearing things up and committing crimes. Now they are complaining that they were arrested. They want jail to be a summer camp,” he said.

The ‘Bolsonaro’ question

One big question now hovers over Bolsonaro. US President Joe Biden not only reinforced Washington’s “unwavering support” for Brazil’s democracy this week but also invited Lula to visit the White House in early February. Both presidents have a long list of topics to discuss, but a new issue gained urgency with the 8 January attacks: Jair Bolsonaro’s presence on US soil.

  • Reaction to Bolsonaro’s presence in US

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, has argued that former president Bolsonaro should not be allowed to stay in the US. Similar requests were made by other US legislators, such as Joaquín Castro (Texas) and Mark Takano (California).

Although up until now there has been no evidence that Bolsonaro was the mastermind behind the storming of government buildings in Brasília, few would dispute that he bears responsibility for creating the conditions for the assault after he spent so much time attacking Brazil’s democratic institutions – from congress to the supreme court, electoral authorities, and the country’s electronic voting system – while in office. Add to that the fact that Bolsonaro is a close ally of former president Trump, and it is clear that his decision to travel to Florida and remain there watching the violence unfold in Brasília from afar would not have gone down well with the Biden administration.

In Brazil, federal deputy Erika Hilton of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL), formally requested that the country’s foreign affairs ministry ask for Bolsonaro’s extradition. According to the White House national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, although the US has not received requests from Brazil related to Bolsonaro’s legal status in the country, if it “did receive such requests,” it would “treat them seriously”. An extradition process, however, would entail an intricate legal process and could drag on for years. Brazil’s justice minister Flávio Dino also clarified that Lula’s government lacks sufficient legal grounds to apply for Bolsonaro’s extradition, since the investigations against him in Brazil have not been concluded. On the other hand, Dino emphasised that the US is a sovereign country and could expel Bolsonaro if this was in its best interests.

Brazil’s former president travelled to Florida with a diplomatic visa. Up to this week it was not clear whether he still had the right to stay in the US with this visa after ceasing to be president. After the riots in Brasília, however, the spokesperson for the US Department of State, Ned Price, was quick to clarify that Bolsonaro has 30 days to ask for a change in his immigration status or leave.

If Bolsonaro’s idea was to stay in the US for a long period, he is probably having to think about a ‘plan B’ right now. Press reports in Brazil have suggested that Bolsonaro allegedly planned the US trip in an attempt to protect himself against the immediate possibility of being arrested in Brazil. The former president is targeted in at least four investigations, being accused of several crimes—from spreading misinformation online to trying to interfere in police probes against his sons.

A new narrative on social media

To explain the outburst of violence in Brasília, supporters of former president Bolsonaro started to spread through social media networks the theory that the acts of vandalism were actually promoted by infiltrated backers of President Lula. According to Folha de S Paulo, messages with this theory were the most shared on 8 January in pro-Bolsonaro WhatsApp groups monitored by NetLab, a research centre linked to the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). “Most of the messages on ‘Bolsonarist’ groups attribute all hostilities to the left and social movements,” said Marie Santini, NetLab coordinator, to the newspaper.

Behind the trip to Florida

As the federal police (PF), which is conducting these investigations, now responds to a justice minister appointed by Lula, Bolsonaro does not have the means to try and tamper with them, as might have been the case if he were still president. Additionally, with the end of his government, Bolsonaro lost his presidential immunity, which means that he can now be judged by lower courts, where proceedings tend to move faster.

International reaction and defence of democracy

World leaders from the US to Russia, Germany, Mexico, Canada, and Spain were quick to condemn the violence against the pillars of Brazilian democracy in Brasília. Pope Francis, meanwhile, criticised the outburst of violence as a sign of the “weakening of democracy” in the Americas.

Some of the strongest words of support for President Lula came from neighbouring Argentina, where President Alberto Fernández elaborated on the threats posed to democracy in the region. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, for his part, was equally unambiguous in his support of Lula and in arguing that “democracy is in danger” across the region and beyond.

Both Fernández and Petro, however, along with fellow leftist heads of state in Mexico and Bolivia, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Luis Arce respectively, signed a joint statement on 12 December in support of Peru’s President Pedro Castillo after he was impeached by congress. This despite the fact that Castillo’s impeachment followed his explicit attempt to carry out a self-coup, dissolve congress, “reorganise the judiciary”, and rule by decree. Their reaction raised questions about their selective approach to the defence of democracy.

It was noteworthy that Petro made his comments during a visit to Chile to meet President Gabriel Boric, another left-winger. Boric emphatically condemned the “unacceptable actions [in Brazil]” and “attempt to destabilise a legitimate and democratically elected president”. But Boric, despite having hosted Castillo shortly before his self-coup attempt and forging a good rapport with him, did not sign the joint statement of support for him last month and pointedly refrained from questioning the legitimacy of his removal from power. Lula also maintained at the time that Castillo’s impeachment was “regrettable” but that it had happened “within the constitutional framework”.

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