Reflections on the day a mob assaulted Brazil’s democracy

The images of the January 8 violent attacks against the governmental buildings in Brasília spread through international media and are still resounding today. Wearing the colors of the national flag and the beloved Brazilian football team, the mob of supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, stormed and vandalized the Federal Supreme Court, the National Congress’s building and the Planalto Presidential Palace, institutions that compose the Three Powers Plaza. The aim was to reject the election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The parallels to the storming of the U.S. Capitol two years ago are evident.

Many Brazilian political analysts were not surprised. “Brazilian political experts had been expecting this to happen since last year. The episode shows how a small group of Bolsonaro supporters does not respect the democratic values of the country,” said Brazilian historian and journalist Lucas de Souza Martins in a recent interview with the Americas Program.

Martins, a Ph.D. candidate at Temple University in Philadelphia in Latin America-U.S. Relations recalled that, back in 2018, when the then-candidate Fernando Haddad lost against Bolsonaro, “there was not a single supporter of the Workers’ Party who encouraged any action like the one taken by those who lost in 2022. In a certain way, President Bolsonaro gave voice to a group of activists who were always present in the Brazilian political scene; however, they did not believe they could pursue their agenda until the former Army captain became president.”

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia, Brazilian journalist and Ph.D. in Human Rights at the University of Deusto, stated: “The far-right has shown its strength on the streets, beyond the ballot box and on the internet. And it unveiled the deep collusion of the security forces and politicians in relevant positions with fascism. The institutions reacted quickly but showed themselves to be vulnerable.”

Garcia sees this as an opportunity to send a clear message to those who would assault Brazilian democracy. He noted the need “to seek swift and harsh punishment for those responsible” as a deterrent to future attacks on democratic institutions and rule of law. He added that prosecution should include not only those who stormed the buildings, but also the financiers and military leaders behind the attempted coup.

“This could be a chance to reform the armed forces, to put an end to the obsolete military justice, but I have doubts as to whether the government will seize the opportunity”, Garcia stated.

However, there is one obstacle: the Brazilian government never passed legislation or carried out trials to hold military forces accountable for their deeds during the civil-military dictatorship (1964–1985) like Argentina and other Latin American countries did. Garcia is skeptical about the possibility for further actions to pursue the Jan. 8 crimes, when Bolsonaro’s supporters openly supported a coup d’état to install another military dictatorship.

Garcia noted the similarities between the attacks on the U.S. Capitol and the government buildings in Brasília. “The link is direct. Contacts between the American and Brazilian extreme right are constant, not only between leaders via Steve Bannon, but also between militants of various statures within the pro-Bolsonaro movement. What happens in the U.S. is copied in Brazil and the invasion of the Capitol was celebrated by the extreme right in Brazil. No doubt they learned and replicated it, in their own way.”

Martins sees other similarities when comparing the far-right coup d’état attempts in both nations: Both involved minority groups that do not accept the results of the presidential elections and launch accusations of electoral fraud based on fake narratives spread through social media platforms.

“Bannon was the one who advised Bolsonaro to challenge the election result and encouraged Bolsonaristas to storm the headquarters of the three powers on January 8,” Garcia stated. “He played a major role forging the alliance between Trump and Bolsonaro and exchanging media guerrilla tactics. There are those who try to reduce his role, placing him only as a media figure who knows how to seize the moment, but I see him as fundamental in bridging the gap between the former U.S. and Brazilian presidents,” Garcia noted

Martins pointed out another similarity between Trump and Bolsonaro’s governments—the nepotism and corruption arising from the close participation of family members in their administrations. “We never heard of former President Dilma Rousseff’s daughter or former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s children dealing directly with cabinet issues. The same with the United States. Even Bush’s family members did not necessarily bring other relatives into their own political careers.”

The Brazilian attack ended with the destruction of three institutional buildings and at least 1,406 people arrested. When asked if the failure of the coup attempt on Jan. 8 and the government’s swift response will deter further violent events in Brazil, Martins mentioned the cost to the far-right rioters–not just in prison time, but also in political power and influence, “Those in charge of those attacks know that such a strategy is not worth it. Moderate voters tend to vote against the right wing when they see situations like that. And the far-right voters know they do not have enough institutional or popular support to install a coup through force. That is why, once again, former President Donald Trump is preparing his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election, while former President Jair Bolsonaro’s party is setting up a new candidacy for 2026. I think they learned the lesson: it is necessary to win votes to return to the White House or the Planalto Palace.”

Garcia is less sure. “It’s impossible to predict if new violent demonstrations will take place”, he stated, noting the need to monitor the far-right as the extremists might be planning new destabilizing plots, even if not of the same magnitude as the Brasilia attack. When questioned on how Brazil could monitor the extremist forces and their actions, Garcia explained “There are several ways it can be done, but mostly through intelligence, using ABIN (Brazil’s Secret Service), the army’s intelligence and perhaps setting up a specific group to monitor such activities linked to the government and the justice, but also with the help of tech giants. In fact, the Supreme Court has several agreements with big tech, particularly during election periods, to tackle fake news, through moderating social networks, taking down profiles, etc.”

A friendly shift in Brazilian foreign policy

The attack on government buildings revealed the of the far-right in democratic Brazil, and also marked the closing ceremony of the Bolsonaro government, which will be remembered for its far-right ideology and violent proclivities.

The Bolsonaro presidency also created a profound shift in foreign policy. The country distanced itself from “everything it has historically stood for,” according to Garcia.  Under the prior Lula presidency, Brazil participated actively in regional integration, and mediated issues of regional and international importance. From being a leader in South America, it shrunk to the point of becoming ‘toxic’ during Bolsonaro’s government.

Bolsonaro implemented “an ideological diplomacy that distanced itself from everything the country has historically stood for. It made Brazil lose its prominent role in matters of great importance, to become a pariah. From a country admired and sought after for mediating on issues of international relevance, Brazil became toxic.”

Bolsonaro’s disdain for human rights, social equality and the preservation of the Amazon rainforest drove other countries away from Brazil. Martins noted that under his administration, Brazil was the last democracy in the world to acknowledge U.S. President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in 2020. Bolsonaro made alliances with far-right ideologues, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, while cancelling the meeting in 2019 with French Chancellor Jean-Yves Le Drian due to “a barber shop appointment”, which undermined the conclusion of a prospective free trade agreement between the European Union and the Mercosur. For the historian, those events symbolize the dismal foreign policy legacy of the Bolsonaro days.

Will Lula’s leadership lead Brazilian foreign policy back to the era when it had a say in relevant international forums?

“At the very least, a return to the period when the country was leading and participating in important international discussions,” Garcia predicted. “No doubt, the world has become more complex, alliances more complicated to maintain and forge, but Lula can and should play an important role (thanks to Marina Silva) in debates about the environment and global warming. Of course, the Workers Party (PT) still maintains regrettable positions in relation to allies in Latin America, dictatorships like Nicaragua and Venezuela, but, in general, these are less relevant issues in the big picture of world discussions.”

Martins added that relations between the United States and Brazil will likely improve. “They will be absolutely better than the previous relationship between Biden and Bolsonaro. With Lula in office, both presidents share similar values regarding the importance of democratic institutions and their defense. The U.S. President was the first international head of state to greet Lula after his election. That means a lot in terms of the American interest toward Brasília.”

Improved relations with the U.S. could lead to progress in some important areas. “On the Brazilian side, Brasília must continue to demonstrate its commitment to the preservation of the Amazon rainforest and the development of green energy strategies. There is room for a beneficial partnership between the two countries on this matter. Beyond that, Brazil needs to do its homework regarding the modernization of its economy and the stability of the political system. Foreign investment tends to search for stable nations with a conducive environment for business,” Martins said.

“When it comes to Washington’s role, it has to do with acknowledging Brazil’s leadership in the South American region and respect for (and the establishment of non-coercive policies toward) President Lula’s administration positions on the international scene, such as his views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the political crisis in Venezuela, and the relationship with China”, he continued.

The Bolsonaro government left animosity–within the country, and in foreign relations. In the years to come, Brazil will be watched as it launches a new approach, aiming to become more respected abroad as a mediator and peacemaker.



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