Jan 10, 2023 - World

Brazil seeks to restore order after pro-Bolsonaro capital riots

Chaos at the National Congress on Sunday. Photo: Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

Brazilian authorities on Monday detained more than 1,200 people, dismantled a protest camp in the capital and cleared roadblocks set up by supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro as they moved to restore order a day after far-right rioters stormed government buildings in Brasília.

State of play: Justice Minister Flávio Dino said that while those who breached the Presidential Palace, Congress and Supreme Court would be punished, so, too, would those who organized and financed what has been described as the darkest day for Brazil's democracy since it was restored in the 1980s.

  • President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva placed the capital under federal control and denounced the "fascist vandals" responsible for Sunday's "coup-mongering" and "terrorist acts." He blamed Bolsonaro for inciting the violence and claimed military police “did absolutely nothing" to stop it.
  • The 1,200 people detained on Monday were in addition to the roughly 300 arrested on Sunday.

How it happened: The mob that descended on Congress included people who had been camping outside army barracks to demand a military intervention to depose Lula. It also included around 40 busloads of protesters who arrived on Sunday.

  • Despite a significant security presence, the mob appeared to meet little resistance as it traveled across the city to Three Powers Plaza, where the National Congress, Supreme Court and Presidential Palace are located.
  • Once inside the buildings, protesters vandalized valuable artwork, smashed windows and destroyed furniture.
  • While the parallels with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in the U.S. are obvious, Brazil's Congress was out of session at the time and the transfer of power was already complete.

Bolsonaro, who decamped to Florida ahead of Lula's inauguration on Jan. 1 without ever conceding defeat, distanced himself from the riots and denied any responsibility in tweets that came six hours after the incident began.

  • His wife said he checked into an Orlando hospital Monday for abdominal pain, from which he has suffered since being stabbed in 2018. A friend told O Globo that Bolsonaro's health situation was not serious.
  • Since losing narrowly to Lula in October, the far-right leader has done nothing to calm his supporters throughout weeks of chaotic demonstrations but has "remained at a safe distance," suggesting he may have "learned from Trump's comeuppance," Gustavo Ribeiro, editor-in-chief of the Brazilian Report, tells Axios.

Bolsonaro is believed to have entered the U.S. on an A-1 visa, which is reserved for heads of state, per Reuters. It's unclear how long the former president — who faces several criminal investigations at home — might plan to stay in Florida.

  • National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that the Brazilian government had not contacted the Biden administration about Bolsonaro's presence in the U.S., but they would look into it if asked.
  • State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that while an individual's visa status is confidential, anyone on an A-1 visa would be required to leave the U.S. or seek another visa status within 30 days of their official business concluding.

Driving the news: Brasília Governor Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro ally, was suspended for 90 days by a Supreme Court justice who argued that the riots "could only have occurred with the consent" of the authorities.

  • Rocha denied any complicity. Before being suspended, he fired Brasília's security chief, who was formerly Bolsonaro's justice minister. Bolsonaro has many allies within the security forces and military.
  • Brazil's purpose-built capital was effectively laid out so as not to allow this sort of thing to happen, Ribeiro says.
  • Access points to government buildings could have been blocked off, but weren't, he says. "Best case scenario, gross incompetence. Worst case scenario, they let it happen maliciously."

What's next: The first challenge for Lula's government is to prevent further violence and disruption, says Ribeiro, noting that Bolsonaro supporters have been trying to block access to oil refineries to sow further chaos — so far unsuccessfully.

  • The focus will then turn to investigations and potential charges against politicians, businesspeople and others alleged to have organized or funded the riots.
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