Investigations are underway after supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed government offices in a well-organized coup attempt.
Supporters of the ousted far-right President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Congress, the presidential palace, and the Supreme Court — known as the three pillars of Brazilian democracy — destroying the area and violence among the protesters. The dramatic scenes saw thousands of protesters, some wearing yellow Brazil football shirts and waving flags, overrunning police, and ransacking the heart of the Brazilian state.
Brazil’s judicial authorities have ordered the arrest of top public officials including the former commander of the military police, Brazil’s former general security chief Anderson Torres, and others "responsible for acts and omissions" leading to the riots.
The rampage was not an isolated event or a momentary lapse of pent-up grievances. For over ten weeks, supporters of ex-President Bolsonaro camped outside Brazilian Army headquarters demanding the military overturn October’s presidential election. They were met with little resistance from the government. But on Sunday, January 8, the camp’s inhabitants left their tents in Brasília, drove for a few miles and joined hundreds of other protesters to storm the three areas. The insurrection has been recognized as a serious, coordinated effort to re-install the previously defeated President.
Authorities swept through the encampment, dismantling tents, tearing down banners and detaining 1 500 protesters by ferrying them away in buses for questioning. On Monday evening, the 77-year-old new leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, visited the damaged buildings of the Congress, the presidential palace, and the Supreme Court together with the country’s governors. The President condemned these "terrorist acts" and vowed to punish the perpetrators.
“They want a coup, and they won’t have one. They have to learn that democracy is the most complicated thing we do,” Lula said.
Local Brazilian, Gabriel, told the BBC:
"I disagree with what happened in Brasília - it was a nightmare. I’m afraid I have to disagree with those who believe that with democracy you can use your power to destroy democracy.”
"I want to show to the world and our country that even though there are thousands of people who believe the elections weren't valid, here in Brazil, we have a gigantic number of people who believe we can trust our government, we can trust in our democracy," he said.
Six hours after the violence broke out, Bolsonaro took to social media to condemn the attack and deny responsibility for encouraging the rioters.
“Peaceful demonstrations, in the form of the law, are part of democracy. However, depredations and invasions of public buildings as occurred today, as well as those practiced by the left in 2013 and 2017, escape the rule.”
Ex-President Bolsonaro’s role in the riots?
There is no evidence that Bolsonaro was directly involved in the plot. However, Lula’s minister blamed Bolsonaro’s relentless undermining of Brazil’s democratic institutions for creating the backdrop for the upheaval.
“For four years the ex-president Bolsonaro spread and cultivated an atmosphere of hatred in this country, not just against political parties, the opposition, and in particular the leadership of President Lula, but also against Brazil’s supreme court,” he said.
It is clear Bolsonaro’s years of rhetoric against Brazil’s democratic systems and his political strategy to instil in his supporters fear of the left have left an indelible mark. What also becomes clear is that these attacks were not ordered by an individual ruler focusing on seizing power, but were fueled by a misinformed sense of injustice by the public.
Throughout Bolsonaro’s term, he repeatedly critiqued the efficacy of Brazil’s institutions — accusing the Supreme Federal Court of being politically biased, and the voting system of being prone to fraud, despite a lack of evidence to support these claims. This sense of mistrust in these political institutions is a product of years of conspiracy theories, misleading statements, and explicit falsehoods spread by the ex-President himself. While Bolsonaro may not be solely responsible for the riots, his role cannot be overlooked as his supporters took this narrative as justification for their screams.
The riots can be attributed to people’s anger over Bolsonaro's loss in October, but it is also about the man he lost to — Lula. President Lula was jailed in 2017 for corruption charges and spent 18 months in prison before the convictions were annulled. There are also accusations of Lula being a communist, seeking to impose a regime similar to Venezuela or Cuba. In seeking to depose the new President, the protesters are calling for un-democratic military intervention as a means to uphold democracy.
Also, it is essential to acknowledge the differences in the policy approaches of both leaders. Under the Bolsonaro government, democratic freedoms including freedom of speech, and freedom of the press were under threat. Policies also removed environmental protections and weakened federal, environmental, and indigenous agencies, leading to increased deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and reports of invasions of indigenous lands.
Among Lula’s policies are the protection of democratic rights and freedoms and ensuring sustainable management and conservation of the environment — two elements largely curtailed under the previous administration. Environmental advocates believe Lula’s administration could strengthen Brazil’s climate, nature, and Indigenous policies.
Although these are two of many policy areas addressed by the leaders, it shows how different both leaders approach these issues and why Brazilians support the new government after the previous administration failed. Since Bolsonaro lost his elections in October, he has not publicly conceded defeat but flew to Florida to avoid handing over the presidential sash to Lula.
As supporters of Bolsonaro continue denying the current government, disparity and division will likely continue. Lula uses political rhetoric in an appealing way to the Brazilian public — latching onto notions of democracy, free press, and free speech. These issues are perceived as central to the Brazilian people and it is within this context the public is fighting to protect the new President and create change within their society.
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