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Jair Bolsonaro supporters storm Brazilian government buildings

Supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro invade the congressional building in the capital, Brasília, 8th January 2023

Supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro invade the congressional building in the capital, Brasília, 8th January 2023. Photo: Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

On 8th January 2023, thousands of supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stormed key government buildings in the capital, Brasília. The rioters trashed the headquarters of all three branches of government – the presidential palace, the congressional building and the supreme court. They demanded a military intervention to bring down the week-old presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, widely known as Lula, who defeated Bolsonaro in an October 2022 election they baselessly claim was stolen.

Murillo Camarotto, a reporter for Brasília-based business newspaper Valor Econômico, saw the chaos up close. That morning he was at home keeping an eye on pro-Bolsonaro groups on messaging app Telegram, a hive of disinformation favouring the former president, who was elected on a far right platform in 2018. Soon after Bolsonaro narrowly lost last year’s election run-off against Lula – a left-wing former president who spent 580 days in prison on corruption and money laundering charges which were ultimately quashed by the supreme court – his supporters established protest camps near army bases across the country, including one in Brasília. “My initial plan that day was to stay at home and follow [the action] online,” says Camarotto. “But I saw a video on Telegram of Bolsonaro protesters in Brasília advancing beyond the point they were allowed to enter.” It looked like something big was happening, so he jumped in a taxi.

Camarotto joined the yellow-and-green clad crowds (Bolsonaro’s supporters frequently wear the football tops of Brazil’s national team) as they marched towards the government buildings, but he had to be discreet. He says that Bolsonaro and his team had spent years telling supporters that the traditional media couldn’t be trusted – it was “full of communists, people trying to destroy the traditional family… promote the gay and black agendas”. It could be dangerous to be open about being a journalist for a mainstream newspaper. However, some of the Bolsonaristas didn’t look very threatening to Camarotto. “It was surprising seeing many old ladies [among the Bolsonaro supporters],” he says. “I met a couple of them who were sitting on beach chairs and taking selfies, but were also wearing goggles because they were prepared for the police using tear gas. It was surreal.”

Camarotto followed the protesters into the supreme court, where people screamed at him to put his smartphone away when he tried taking photos. He recalls the febrile atmosphere inside the building. “People were chanting ‘Supreme is the people!’ Many protesters were crying, many were praying… They used a fire extinguisher to smash the windows, they destroyed furniture and curtains, they stole many boxes of documents and threw their contents outside. They stole artworks. There was water everywhere inside the building [reportedly from the sprinkler system] and it got really wet. I didn’t see any kind of coordination – there were people walking in all directions and destroying as much as they could.” One photo Camarotto was able to take shows a middle-aged man walking around in a black robe stolen from a supreme court judge.

Throughout all of this the military police, charged with guarding the government buildings, watched on, doing nothing. Camarotto says he saw officers having friendly chats with the Bolsonaro supporters. “The protesters had this fantasy that at some point the police and army would join them, and the coup would be completed,” says Camarotto. While this didn’t happen it was “shocking” to see officers not respond to the ransacking of government buildings, he says.

Three and a half hours after the rioting began, and after Lula switched command of the security effort to federal forces armed with water cannon and stun grenades, the authorities regained control of the buildings. “When the police started making arrests the protesters realised the coup would not happen,” says Camarotto. “They were disappointed; they knew the party was over.”

More than 1,200 people were formally arrested, according to the ministry of justice. Lula, whose office at the presidential palace was one of the few left undamaged by the rioters, decried the “stupidity” of the violence. The president alleged that supporters of his rival working in the military police and the presidential palace helped facilitate the attack. On 14th January 2023 Anderson Torres, a Bolsonaro ally responsible for security in Brasília at the time of the attack, was arrested on charges that he had “sabotaged” police efforts to stop the attacks. The inaction of the military police is still being investigated. Camarotto says that while we don’t yet know exactly what happened it’s well known that the overwhelming majority of officers in the police and military support Bolsonaro, a former army captain.

Bolsonaro spent his four years in office trying to undermine our voting system”

For anyone who saw the images of supporters of a defeated presidential candidate ransacking government buildings over an alleged stolen election, it was hard to miss the echoes of 6th January 2021, when Donald Trump supporters attacked the Capitol building in Washington DC. Camarotto says that the most radical followers of Bolsonaro, who had closely followed the Trump playbook before and during his time in office – and made no secret of his admiration for the American populist – took inspiration from the events of two years earlier. However, while Trump had stood with his supporters on the day of the Washington DC riots and urged them to march on the Capitol, on the day of the Brazilian riots Bolsonaro was thousands of miles away, living in a rented villa close to Disney World. He’d flown to Florida in the final days of his presidency and largely kept to himself – Kissimmee locals shared photos of him shopping at the supermarket and eating alone at KFC.

Lula has, without evidence, accused his election opponent of “actively participating” in the preparations for the 8th January violence, and shortly after Bolsonaro returned to Brazil on 30th March he faced supreme court investigators, who quizzed him over his alleged role. Bolsonaro has condemned the violence and denied having anything to do with the riots, but in his first interview after he ended his Florida exile he amplified a conspiracy theory popular among his supporters, that a peaceful protest had been infiltrated by leftist agitators. “Our people didn’t do, in my view, anything against the law,” he told right wing news outlet Jovem Pan.

Camarotto says that while the former president may not have been directly involved on 8th January, the riots are the culmination of a long-term project by Bolsonaro to diminish faith in the democratic system. “He spent his whole four years in office trying to undermine the credibility of our voting system,” the reporter says. The words “We want the source code” appeared on many banners at the riots, referring to a conspiracy theory promoted by Bolsonaro that voting machines were rigged against him. These claims, widely refuted by independent security experts, have had an impact – an October 2022 poll showed three quarters of Bolsonaro supporters saying they had “little or no confidence” in electronic voting machines. Two days after the riots, Bolsonaro shared another video in which he claimed, without evidence, that the election was rigged; his lawyers now say that the posting of that video was an accident. He has yet to formally concede defeat.

In addition to the investigation over the 8th January riots, Bolsonaro, now stripped of presidential immunity, faces several investigations into his conduct while in office, any one of which could see him banned from running again. He is accused of attempting to illegally import jewellery worth millions of dollars that was given to him as a gift by the Saudi government, and is facing a probe into his response to the Covid pandemic, in which at least 700,000 Brazilians have died. On 3rd May 2023, federal police searched Bolsonaro’s Brasília home over allegations that Covid vaccination records were falsified so that the former president, a vaccine sceptic, and members of his family could travel to the US. Bolsonaro denies all the accusations against him.

Camarotto believes that the political career of Bolsonaro is “almost dead”, although the revival of Lula suggests that a criminal conviction doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a political career in Brazil – and Donald Trump’s front-runner status for the Republican party’s 2024 presidential nomination shows that populists linked to an insurrection needn’t lose the support of their base.

Tens of thousands of Brazilians across the country attended pro-democracy rallies in the days after the riots. Democracy in Brazil is less than 40 years old, and despite the challenges posed to the country’s institutions on 8th January, Camarotto believes that the fact it survived four years of Bolsonaro means that it is strong, “although it still needs to be stronger”.

“I believe that if Bolsonaro had won re-election in 2022 we might not have had an election in 2026,” says Camarotto. “He tried to undermine our democracy but our democracy was stronger than him.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #50 of Delayed Gratification

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