Suppressing the terrorism of the extreme right is the new task that adds to the numerous challenges facing the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after the invasion of the headquarters of the three branches of government in Brazil on 8 January.

The massive nature of the action and the destruction of furniture, works of art, historical documents and glass walls point to a lack of leadership and clear coup aims. Many took self-photographs of themselves in the action and thus facilitated the repression by producing criminal evidence against themselves.

Two alleged ringleaders of the insurgency, former president Jair Bolsonaro and his former minister of Justice and Public Security, Anderson Torres, were and remain in the United States. The latter had his imprisonment ordered by the Supreme Federal Court. The commander of the Federal District Military Police, Colonel Fabio Vieira, is in prison.

There are indications of complicity by the military, the Brasilia police and other authorities. In addition, there were attempts to invade at least three major oil refineries, with the alleged mission of suspending fuel supplies in Brazil’s most populated regions.

There was also apparent sabotage of at least six electricity transmission towers on key lines of the national interconnected system, which carry power from the Itaipu hydroelectric plant, the second largest in the world, and the two plants on the Madeira River in the Amazon.

Three collapsed towers, damage to the others and cut cables did not cause blackouts, because the transmission alternatives worked, but the vulnerability of the system was exposed.

Everything points to a crude coup attempt, as its actors call for “military intervention” to overthrow President Lula. But it also points to the likely conversion of the Bolsonarista movement into direct action groups, classic clandestine terrorism.

The insurgents of the invasion in Brasilia were largely identified by the police, and more than a thousand arrested. The old men were released, leaving 670 prisoners, according to the Brasilia prison authorities. It became difficult to repeat mass actions.

For the government still in gestation, as Lula took office on 1 January, the challenges of rebuilding the mutilated state in the four years under Bolsonaro’s government were magnified.

Destruction of the state

It was only on 11 January that the appointment of the 37 ministers was completed, with the investiture of Sonia Guajajara as Minister of Indigenous Peoples and Anielle Franco as Minister of Racial Equality, in the Planalto Palace, seat of the Presidency, still scarred by the invasion.

Priorities changed. The leading role that initially belonged to the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad, a presidential candidate defeated by Bolsonaro in 2018, now goes to the Minister of Justice and Public Security, Flavio Dino.

Novelties such as the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, created to overcome Bolsonaro’s demolition of indigenous conquests, lost the expected impact and will face brakes on their actions.

The degradation of the state apparatus became more profound in areas related to social rights, knowledge and customs, that is to say, more affected by ideological issues.

Thus, Bolsonaro’s government attacked more aggressively the environment, indigenous peoples, education, culture, whose ministry he extinguished, universities and scientific institutions, journalism, human rights, feminism and the anti-racist struggle.

The functions of state bodies have been reduced or rendered useless by the abolition of specialised bodies or their handing over to unqualified military and police chiefs, budget cuts and various obstacles.

In some cases, the appointed authorities were diametrically opposed to the missions of their agencies. This was the case of Sergio Camargo, who presided for two and a half years over the Palmares Foundation, aimed at promoting black culture, but who denies existing racism and even considers that the enslavement of Afro-descendants was beneficial.

The Ministry of Culture, whose ministry was downgraded to a secretariat attached to the Ministry of Tourism, also saw a succession of heads who dismantled funding mechanisms for the arts, disqualified artists and favoured the followers of the extreme right.

The Ministry of Education was taken over by evangelicals, schools were created under the disciplinary control of the military, home schooling was promoted, and state universities lived under the permanent threat of collapse due to budget cuts. Scientific research grants were drastically cut.

Human and women’s rights also came under religious criteria, as the sector’s minister, Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor, called herself “terribly Christian”.

But long reconstruction work will be needed on indigenist and environmental policies. Bolsonaro made good on his threat to “not demarcate even one centimetre” of indigenous territories, despite the national constitution that recognises the right of indigenous peoples to their lands in order to sustain their traditional way of life.

The Bolsonarista administration practically deactivated environmental bodies and funds, in addition to stimulating destructive activities, such as mining and logging, on indigenous and conservation lands.

Ideological, and almost always religious, action also hit sectors such as health and foreign relations. This was especially felt at the critical time of the covid-19 pandemic, which claimed nearly 700,000 lives in Brazil, the highest relative mortality rate among the world’s major nations.

Reconstruction hampered

The new context of the terrorist threat tends to embarrass the reconstruction that has been set in motion. Political and even military stumbling blocks are becoming visible and may hinder progress.

The attacks of 8 January showed that the new government does not have, and will not have for some time to come, the tools to openly combat the insurgency and reorient certain sectors.

The Institutional Security Cabinet, which has ministerial status and protects the government and advises the president on military and security issues, is not trusted by Lula and his ministers. Traditionally commanded by generals, it is composed of purely right-wing officials.

Nor can Lula trust his armed forces, even though he is formally their commander-in-chief. Bolsonaristas have camped out in front of dozens of barracks across the country since the 30 October elections demanding a “military intervention” to prevent Lula’s inauguration.

The protesters occupy military areas, where they could not stay, but the military chiefs have done nothing to remove it.

Lula recognises the temerity of confronting the military loyal to Bolsonaro, as the redeemer of military pride and power that has been reviled since the end of the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. That is why he appointed José Mucio, a conciliator and defender of military interests, as defence minister.

Bolsonarism also penetrated deeply among the police. The former president always cultivated the support of all armed men, defending them in all circumstances, even when they commit massacres, as is often the case in Rio de Janeiro.

The invasion and destruction of the presidential, congressional and Supreme Federal Court buildings mobilised the country once again in defence of democracy and in rejection of the violence of the extreme right.

This strengthened Lula, but created new reconstruction tasks for his government by diverting energies to the fight against terrorism and disrupting his priorities.