Around 5,000 extreme right-wing supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Presidential offices, the Supreme Court building, and the Federal Parliament in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, in a copycat replication of the events of January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. The Brazilian Congress was not in session, and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was in Sao Paulo when the insurrectionists marched in unhindered. As it was a Sunday, the courts were also empty.
In the January 2021 Washington incident, too, a right-wing mob inspired by a defeated President forcibly entered the congressional building. Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s role model, had also refused to acknowledge the results of the 2020 American presidential elections. Many of Bolsonaro’s key advisers are from the American alt-right. But, unlike the mob in Washington, the Brazilians were not demanding new elections, they were instead calling for the intervention of the armed forces to overthrow the newly elected government.
The mob seems to have had the tacit support of local government authorities. Not enough security personnel or police were deployed in the capital to safeguard the government buildings despite Bolsonaro supporters openly advertising their intentions. Ibaneis Rocha, the district Governor, and Anderson Torres, head of security, are political allies of Bolsonaro. Rocha was elected Governor in the elections held last year. Torres served as Justice Minister in Bolsonaro’s Cabinet and was vociferous in his criticism of the country’s electoral system.
Interestingly, Torres was appointed security chief on January 2, a day after the formal swearing-in of Lula as President. He immediately appointed his trusted associates in top positions. Governor Rocha had told the new Justice Minister, Flavio Dino, that he would not allow protesters in the vicinity of the three government buildings, but did not keep his word.
Both Rocha and Torres have been accused of dereliction of duty and active complicity in the brazen attack. Rocha has been suspended for 90 days. Torres was arrested after he returned from a vacation in Florida. When investigation agencies raided his home after the January 8 incident, they found the draft of a decree aimed at suspending the Electoral Commission that had allegedly been prepared for the approval of President Bolsonaro. If Bolsonaro had appended his signature, then the election results in October would have been annulled.
The mob that went berserk that day first gathered outside the army headquarters in Brasilia. They had been staging protests in a military base outside the capital since the election results were announced late last year. Many police officers seemed sympathetic to their cause, some even posing for selfies with the protesters and making little effort to thwart their progress towards the government buildings.
Bolsonaro himself has never formally conceded defeat in the 2022 elections. In fact, months before the elections were even held, he had already started claiming that the elections were going to be rigged. He encouraged his supporters to keep protesting, inspired, he said, “by feelings of injustice in the electoral process”.
Nor has Bolsonaro ever hidden the fact that he is a great admirer of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985. He was a serving army officer before entering politics. In the speech he gave during the impeachment of former left-wing President Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro had praised the army rulers and their treatment of political prisoners. Rousseff was imprisoned and tortured during that dark period of Brazilian history.
Bolsonaro left the country two days before Lula was formally sworn in as President on January 1. Outgoing Presidents are constitutionally required to hand over the presidential sash to their successors, but Bolsonaro chose to go to Florida.
According to reports and people close to him, the former President allegedly came to America to stay under the political radar for some time. He has admitted to various acts of omission and commission during his stint as President. With the new government launching probes into his conduct during his term, Bolsonaro feels more secure in Florida, a State that is run by Governor Ron DeSantis, a supporter of extreme right-wing causes.
For most of last year, Bolsonaro was busy questioning the reliability of the electronic voting machines even though independent security experts have debunked time and again the notion that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are vulnerable to fraud. But, according to a poll, two-thirds of Bolsonaro’s supporters believe their leader’s allegation about the voting machines and the claim that the elections were rigged.
The man, however, tried to distance himself from the rioters and issued a statement condemning the violent acts of his supporters. However, on January 12, Brazil’s Supreme Court said it would investigate Bolsonaro’s role in the events of January 8. The Supreme Court justice, Alexandre de Moraes, approved the request of federal prosecutors to include the former President’s name among the list of those suspected of carrying out the bid to derail Brazil’s hard-won democratic rights. Moraes said that Bolsonaro’s long track record of questioning Brazil’s electoral system and his ongoing attacks on the judiciary and other institutions of the government “may have contributed, in a very relevant way, to the occurrence of a terrorist and criminal act”. Hours after the failed insurrection, President Lula also said that Bolsonaro had “triggered” it and should be held “responsible”.
Bolsonaro is currently under investigation in five other cases, including one relating to his gross mishandling of the pandemic, accusations of spreading misinformation, and leaking classified documents to cast doubts on the election process. Federal prosecutors in Brasilia say that the posts and comments in the media by Bolsonaro effectively incited the crimes that occurred in the wake of the elections, culminating in the rampage on January 8.
Lula and Moraes have become the principal bête noires of Bolsonaro and Brazil’s right wing. Moraes had, in the run-up to the elections, cracked down heavily on those purveying false information on social media platforms to sway the election in favour of Bolsonaro. He had also ordered social networks to remove thousands of posts containing fake or misleading news about Bolsonaro’s political rivals. The judge also ordered the country’s election commission to bring down posts purveying fake news. The authorities have arrested more than a thousand people who participated in the January 8 insurrection and are now probing the role of senior security officials who allowed the mob to run riot and the role of businessmen who financed the attempt.
President Silva described the storming and ransacking of the government buildings as a “coup attempt” and said that he had rejected the advice of his Defence Minister, Jose Mucio Monteiro Filio, to call for a Law and Order Assurance and letting the army control the rioters. Lula said that if he had accepted the advice, then “some General could have taken over the government”.
The Army’s collusion
Many senior army officers have openly supported Bolsonaro and his extreme brand of politics. “There were many people from the Military Police conniving, there were many people from inside the armed forces conniving,” Lula said. “I am convinced that the door of the Presidential Palace was opened so that people could enter, because there is no broken door.” Lula said that in all the videos of the incident, soldiers can be seen encouraging the rioters to break in.
Lula also said that the military leadership prevented the immediate arrest of the insurrectionists, initially deploying two tanks to protect the protesters from being arrested by the police. In fact, many protesters were safely evacuated from the scene to avoid arrest.
Relatives of a senior army commander, Gen. Vilas Boas, who had participated in the violent protests were allowed to escape. Late last year, a month after Lula won the elections, Gen. Boas had openly expressed sympathy for the “population that gathers at the door of the barracks asking the armed forces for help”.
Lula’s statement makes it clear that the January 8 event was not “a spontaneous attack” by a group of extremists. It was done with the backing of high officials in positions of authority in the military as well as the bureaucracy. The threat of a military coup against a popularly elected government remains as long as fascist elements continue to hold key positions in the Congress, the State governments and, most importantly, the army. Defence Minister Mucio is still in office despite President Lula rejecting his advice to temporarily hand over power to the Generals.
In his inaugural speech on January 1, Lula had acknowledged the changing character of Brazilian politics. He said that during the Bolsonaro presidency, an “authoritarian project of power” was able to take control of the government machinery along with “a broad mobilisation of public and private resources” and had tried to undermine the basic tenets of democracy. Lula said that the threat has been overcome by his victory at the polls. But the events that occurred a week later show that his optimism was rather misplaced. President Lula has, however, assured the country that the measures taken by his government after the events of January 8 will guarantee “once and for all that this will never happen again in Brazil”.
- Around 5,000 extreme right-wing supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the Presidential offices, the Supreme Court building and the Federal Parliament in Brazil’s capital Brasilia.
- The mob seems to have had the tacit support of local government authorities.
- President Lula da Silva described the storming and ransacking of the government buildings as a “coup attempt”.