Outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro fled the county just before his term of office ended on January 1, apparently fearing legal prosecution for multiple wrong-doings once he lost presidential immunity.
By Roger D. Harris
Bolsonaro had long predicted that if he were to lose the Brazilian presidential election, which he did, it would only be due to fraud. While fraud allegations have been refuted, his rightwing followers – some 49% of the electorate – believe the vote was a steal.
Once Bolsonaro lost the Brazilian presidential runoff election on October 30 to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (aka Lula), he largely disappeared from public view. Reporting from Brazil, Leonardo Sakamoto speculated that the petulant lame-duck president had been “shredding documents, erasing hard drives, renewing his passport, or analyzing ways to avoid answering for the crimes he committed.”
For weeks after Bolsonaro lost, rightwing truckers blocked Brazil’s highways in protest, and evangelicals preyed outside military bases calling for the army to overturn the vote. While his followers ran amuck, for the longest time Bolsonaro neither conceded, nor commented, nor even appeared in public.
His Vice President Hamilton Mourão offered the excuse that his chief was reclusive because he had a skin disease preventing him from wearing pants. However, many other guys appear on Zoom with no such compulsion about their below the belt attire.
On December 30, Bolsonaro bolted to the home of Disney World. Although Orlando is the reputed venue of the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Mr. Bolsonaro apparently has not found it so. Reporting on his holiday, Bolsonaro complained: “I came to spend some time away with my family but these weren’t calm days” after being hospitalized for stab wounds in the stomach incurred in 2018, which acted up.
Bolsonaro has been staying at the home of ex-pat Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter José Aldo. Considered to be among the best MMA combatants, Aldo has been implicated in illegally receiving handouts from the former Bolsonaro government.
At the same time that Bolsonaro was chilling in the Sunshine State, thousands of his faithful had bused in from all over Brazil to Brasilia and had temporarily laid siege to the congress, supreme court, and presidential buildings on January 8.
Comparing the January Riots in the Brazilian and US Capitols
Many parallels are being drawn in the liberal media between the January 6th US capitol riot by Trump supporters claiming election fraud in 2021 and the storming of the Brazilian capitol two years and two days later by Bolsonaro’s supporters also claiming election fraud.
There were, however, some differences regarding the two events and its public perception. Progressives in Brazil don’t believe the Bolsonaro won in 2018 because of Russian interference as do the majority of Democratic voters regarding Trump’s successful bid for the US presidency in 2016. Nor did the capitol police in Brazil shoot and kill any of the unarmed protesters.
Most notably Bolsonaro’s staff cooperated in the transition to Lula’s new presidency. And Bolsonaro mildly rebuked his violent followers. In contrast, Trump fanned the flames of discontent when Bolsonaro quietly retired leaving his angry movement leaderless.
Meanwhile, liberal pundits like Timothy Snyder are giddy in praise of the Brazilian government’s subsequent crackdown of the rioters. Note how strongly putative liberals in the US have embraced punitive law enforcement. Democrats have learned to love the security state at home (not to mention their romance with war abroad).
US liberal media is in an absolute frenzy linking the two events, which are both blamed on Trump as if the Brazilians themselves had no agency. The implied conspiracy is bolstered by Bolsonaro’s undeniably close ties to Donald Trump. MSNBC pontificates: “After this weekend’s events in Brazil, the parallels and connections to Trumpism, we must now wrestle with being an exporter of right-wing extremism.”
Implicit is MSNBC’s absurd notion that the US once exported democracy. Conveniently forgotten is the US collusion in framing Lula, who sat out the very election in jail that allowed Bolsonaro to get into office in the first place. Recall, too, the 21 years of US-backed military dictatorships in Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
The left-leaning presidents in Latin America have also condemned the rightwing attacks in Brazil but from the perspective of being on the receiving end of so-called US democracy exportation. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro commented: “We categorically reject the violence generated by Bolsonaro’s neo-fascist groups that have assaulted the democratic institutions of Brazil.”
Maduro likely reflected on similar rightwing destabilization events that led to unsuccessful US-backed coup attempts against him and the 2019 coup in Bolivia. In the latter, leftist President Evo Morales was deposed with the connivance of the US working through the Organization of American States.
Calls to Boot Bolsonaro
Predictably, many Democratic politicians have demanded that Bolsonaro be expelled from the country in light of the brawl in Brasilia. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who speaks truth to power as long as it is not her party’s leadership, has called for Bolsonaro’s expulsion. Democratic representatives Ilhan Omar and Mark Takano have echoed the sentiment along with Senator Sanders. They all decry “fascist” influences in Brazil (while funding them in Ukraine).
In response to the mounting pressure from his party to banish the unwanted Brazilian guest, President Biden has done nothing or, as the AP euphemistically reports, “has proceeded cautiously.” State Department spokesman Ned Price has done what he does best by “sidestepping questions about Bolsonaro’s presence.” US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has been “similarly circumspect.”
Although the new Lula administration in Brazil is investigating potential offences by Bolsonaro, no formal extradition request has been made to Washington. Further, an extradition request from Lula is unlikely. With all the challenges that his fledgling presidency faces, having his chief rival – especially one whose party swept the legislature and key states – quietly ensconced in self-exile is best.
However, Bolsonaro could still be legally deported under US law if the secretary of state finds his continued presence here “would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States.”
Roger D. Harris is with the human rights group, Task Force on the Americas, founded in 1985.