What Brazil's pro-Bolsonaro riot at the capital means for the country

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What Brazil’s uprising means for the country, for Bolsonaro and for Lula

For months, it appeared that Brazilian democracy had dodged a bullet. For all of President Jair Bolsonaro’s warnings about a flawed system, and Donald Trump-like threats of unrest if he were to lose the Oct. 30 election, the protests he encouraged seemed to have dissipated. The winner, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was inaugurated on New Year’s Day. And while some of Bolsonaro’s hard-core supporters still demanded a reversal of the results, it seemed that the majority had considered the Trump playbook and tossed it aside.

That narrative held until midafternoon Sunday, when Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed the Three Powers Square in the nation’s capital, Brasília, breaching buildings that house Brazil’s congress, supreme court and the presidential palace. Suddenly, it looked like the Bolsonaristas, as they are known, had followed the Trump path very closely, and Brasília’s Jan. 8, 2023, looked remarkably like Washington’s Jan. 6, 2021.

Now — as then — thousands of protesters had been bused in from around the country, shouting their versions of “stop the steal” and demanding the ouster of the new president.

Here they were, just like the Jan. 6 mob, breaking windows and trashing furniture, office equipment and even old paintings in the nation’s most important government buildings. At the Supreme Court, they overturned the table where the justices sit to hear cases. And they took selfies as they did their damage — much as the Jan. 6 insurrectionists had done.

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Even their language was similar. “We always said we would not give up,” one protester declared in a video taken during the rampage. “Congress is ours. We are in power.”

And here, as in Washington two years ago, there were allegations that some police had stood by as the rampage went on and that the military had been slow to intervene.

Ultimately, now as then, order was restored by day’s end. A key difference: This was a Sunday, and so the buildings were largely empty. That may have meant more vandalism, but it also meant there was no repeat of the threats to lawmakers.

The new president, who is known as Lula, blamed Bolsonaro for “inciting” the mob. For his part, Bolsonaro condemned the violence, saying via Twitter that “destruction and invasions of public buildings, like what occurred today,” are not part of democracy. But he also denied he had anything to do with what had happened. Bolsonaro has been in Florida, having flown there two days before his term ended in December; many analysts believe he left the country not just to avoid the ceremonial passing of the presidential sash to Lula — a traditional symbol of the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil — but also to skirt arrest, as the new administration scrutinizes abuses of power on his watch.

The day after was relatively calm in Brazil. Officials said they will investigate the slow response of law enforcement, and they pledged to hold the Bolsonaristas accountable. More than 1,200 people have been detained.

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A military office in full gear walks by a bus holding a gun. Inside the bus, people hold many Brazilian flags.

“They will not succeed in destroying Brazilian democracy,” said Lula’s Justice Minister Flávio Dino. “We will not accept the path of criminality to carry out political fights in Brazil. A criminal is treated like a criminal.”

But critical questions remain — much like the ones that have haunted the U.S. in aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection: What was Bolsonaro’s precise role? More broadly, what does the eruption in Brasília mean for the future of democracy in Brazil? Has misinformation taken root in ways that will be difficult to counter? And — a question for both countries: To what extent did Trump and his followers encourage and assist the Bolsonaristas who carried out their version of a Jan. 6-style violent protest?

For early answers, Grid turned on Monday to two experts on Brazilian politics: Tanguy Baghdadi, an expert on international relations based in Rio de Janeiro and a political commentator for the Brazilian broadcaster GloboNews, and Thomas Traumann, a journalist and former presidential spokesman during the administration of Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s leader until 2016.

Among other things, these experts see rays of hope on the day after — not least the possibility that outrage over the events may help unify the country.

Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: With Lula’s inauguration, most of us outside Brazil had assumed that the country had avoided a Jan. 6-style insurrection, that Bolsonaro’s provocations during his ultimately ill-fated campaign appeared to have to come to naught and that the threat to a peaceful transition of power had passed. So what happened on Sunday?

Thomas Traumann: Well, it wasn’t only those outside who were wrong, but Lula’s government was also wrong. The fact is that right after the election, there were some pro-Bolsonaro protesters who were blocking roads and demonstrating against the result, and this went on for three or four days. There was real tension. When those demonstrations did not work, they started to camp outside military buildings all over the country, asking for the army to intervene, for a military coup. But near the end of the year, everyone assumed that even this was not much of a risk. It was Christmastime; it didn’t seem as if many people who were involved wanted to continue in these camps.

But then what happened is that right after the inauguration, there were posts all over social media — WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook groups — calling for a big demonstration on Sunday. So this was known. I mean, we are talking about something like 100 buses coming from all over the country to Brasília, parking in front of the main military base in Brasília, to undertake a major demonstration on Sunday. The Lula government of course knew what was happening, and they asked the local police to keep an eye on things. And the police said, “Oh, it’s all quiet, not a problem, they’ll just demonstrate and stay away from the main federal buildings.”

Tanguy Baghdadi: The security forces were letting people walk right in. And these people sought destruction. They wanted to produce images like the ones from Jan. 6, images to feed their idea of people taking power with their own hands.

The Brazilian right looks to the American right for inspiration. They see them as an example — and they admire Trump. There is speculation that it happened on a Sunday so that more people could attend, so that people had time to get to Brasília. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually wanted it to happen on the 6th and simply settled for the closest possible day when they could do it.


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Through a glass that has been shattered twice, protesters are seen on the ramp and ceilings.

G: What about Bolsonaro’s role in what happened on Sunday? We know he was out of the country, in Florida since just before his term ended. What, at this early stage, can be said about his planning this or urging on the insurrectionists who attacked Brasília?

TT: We don’t yet know the full truth, but there’s no doubt about the fact that he has been inspiring these people for four years. This hatred didn’t come about last week; it has been coming for years under his presidency. For years, he has said Brazilians should take up arms if the left returns to power, that democracy is only when the right wins.

TB: Bolsonaro is what brought them all together, but now Bolsonarism is going beyond Bolsonaro. If you notice, yesterday, there weren’t that many references to Bolsonaro. Many weren’t asking for Bolsonaro to go back to power; they were asking for military intervention.

Bolsonaristas are slowly detaching themselves from Bolsonaro. When Lula’s inauguration happened, and what they asked for didn’t happen, they basically started leaving Bolsonaro behind.

G: So then what importance — if any — should we attach to the fact that Bolsonaro was in Florida when the protesters stormed the congress and other buildings in Brasília? What should we read into it?

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TB: I believe the right feels almost abandoned. That’s why they were trying to turn to the armed forces. And again, because neither Bolsonaro or the armed forces were able to stop Lula from taking power, they moved on to storming the capital.

I do, however, think it made once difference, him being in the U.S.: If Bolsonaro was in Brazil, there would have been expectations for him to join the movement, participate more. But because he was away, no one expected him to do it — to lead the masses, to lead the armed forces. It was about more than one person, more than just Bolsonaro. It was about the movement.

TT: I think the fact that he was out of the country is not the most important thing. He went out of the country basically because he was afraid being arrested. Even during his presidency, he and his family were investigated for plotting anti-democratic demonstrations around Brazil. But while he was president, he had many privileges, which protected him. So he was extremely afraid that once he wasn’t president and just a common citizen, he could be arrested.

Image taken from afar shows a large crowd of protesters, most wearing green and yellow and some holding Brazilian flags, confronting what looks like a line of armed forces officers.

G: Coming back to the specific events of yesterday, we’ve seen reports about the police on the ground and how they were at best unhelpful in stopping the violence from taking place, and at worst in league with the demonstrators. What do you think about the role played in all this by law enforcement?

TT: There is no doubt about complicity [on the part of the forces on the ground]. Maybe in their defense they might say that they only thought this would be a demonstration, not an attack, but the fact is that it took them two or two and a half hours to do something about it. It was only after all this was on national TV that they took real action. When they actually took action, it was a very fast operation. So they could have fixed it quite easily.

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TB: The best way to explain this is to think of the armed forces as one big institution. And that institution has a role, a duty, to perform for the state. And their duty yesterday was to stop the attack. That was their institutional duty.

That’s the official side. But then there’s the human side, because the people in that institution — many of them agree with Bolsonaro’s ideology. And these people, had it not been for the uniforms they were wearing, would have joined the attackers and stormed the buildings, or at least be cheering them on. We saw this partly play out yesterday, when they let the attackers pass.

It’s also important to note that Bolsonaro himself rose up from the armed forces. So they have this mutual relationship of support.

G: We have seen hundreds of people arrested. And investigations into yesterday’s events are still ongoing, of course. But the morning after, what is the mood like in Brazil — among not just the political class, but also more widely, among supporters and those who oppose Bolsonaro? And where does this leave Brazil — will this, in other words, become a source of permanent damage for the country?

TB: We’ll have to see what happens with some of the protesters who had pledged to continue with this after yesterday. But more broadly, when it comes to the bigger political picture, they’ve been asking for military intervention — and I don’t think what happened yesterday gets them any closer to it. If anything, it’s gotten them even further away. The armed forces personnel that truly believe in this cause and believe this will happen are in the lower ranks. They are not willing to do it in the higher ranks.

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TT: I feel what we are seeing today, the morning after, is a big backlash against what happened. People are in shock. They are really shocked. And you have, as a result, a unique union right now between the supreme court, and the speaker of the house and the president of the senate, and Lula together. There is a sense that Bolsonarism has become a liability. So they want to get as far away from it as possible, even people who previously supported Bolsonaro.

So I don’t see this as a risk for Brazilian democracy, of a coup in Brazil. I feel that basically Bolsonaro is the great loser of what happened. Not Lula.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Mariana Labbate
    Mariana Labbate

    Global Editorial Assistant

    Mariana Labbate is the editorial assistant for Grid's Global team.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.