RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Brazilian authorities were picking up the pieces and investigating on Monday after thousands of supporters of ex-president Jair Bolsonaro stormed Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace, then smashed the country’s top government.
The protesters sought military intervention to either restore the far-right Bolsonaro to power, or oust the newly inaugurated leftist Luiz Inácio Lulu da Silva in scenes of chaos and destruction reminiscent of the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol uprising.
On Sunday, rioters dressed in the green and yellow colors of the national flag smashed windows, overturned furniture, and hurled computers and printers to the ground. They pierced a massive painting by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti in five places, overturned a U-shaped table where Supreme Court justices gather, ripped out the door from one judge’s office, and desecrated an iconic statue near the court. The interiors of the monumental buildings were left in ruins.
In a press conference late Sunday night, Brazil’s Minister of Institutional Relations said the buildings would be checked for evidence, including fingerprints and images, to hold people accountable, and that the rioters appeared to be intent on provoking similar actions throughout country. Justice Minister Flavio Dino said the actions amounted to terrorism and a coup d’état, and that the authorities began tracking down those who paid for the buses that brought the protesters to the capital.
“They will not succeed in destroying Brazilian democracy. We must say this fully, with all firmness and conviction,” Dino said. “We will not take the path of crime to wage political struggle in Brazil. A criminal is treated like a criminal.”
So far, 300 people have been arrested, the civil police of the federal district said on Twitter.
In the months following Bolsonaro’s October 30 electoral defeat, Brazil was on edge – suspicious of any path he might take to hold on to power. Bolsonaro has instilled in his hardcore supporters the belief that the e-voting system is susceptible to fraud, although he has never produced any evidence. And his legislator son Eduardo Bolsonaro has held several meetings with Trump, longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon and his senior campaign adviser Jason Miller.
Brazil’s election results – the closest they’ve been in more than three decades – were quickly embraced by politicians across the spectrum, including some of Bolsonaro’s allies, as well as dozens of governments. And Bolsonaro surprised almost everyone by quickly disappearing from view. He did not concede defeat or cry out for fraud, although he and his party petitioned for the annulment of millions of votes, which was quickly dismissed.
Brazilians have been using electronic voting since 1996. Election security experts consider such systems less secure than hand-marked paper ballots because they leave no paper trail that can be verified. However, the Brazilian system is closely scrutinized, and local authorities and international observers have never found evidence that it is being used to commit fraud.
However, Bolsonaro’s supporters refused to acknowledge the results. They blocked roads and camped near military buildings, calling on the armed forces to intervene. The protests were mostly peaceful, but isolated terrorist threats, including a bomb found on a fuel truck bound for Brasilia Airport, raised security concerns.
Two days before Lula’s inauguration on January 1, Bolsonaro flew to the United States and temporarily settled in Orlando. Many Brazilians expressed relief that while he refused to participate in the transfer of power, his absence allowed it to happen without incident.
At least that was the case until Sunday’s devastation.
“Bolsonarism imitates the same strategies as Trumpism. Our January 8 – an unprecedented manifestation in Brazilian politics – is clearly copied from January 6 in the Capitol,” said Paulo Calmon, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia. “Today’s unfortunate episodes represent yet another attempt to destabilize democracy and demonstrate that the authoritarian, populist radicalism of the Brazilian far right remains active under the command of former President Bolsonaro, the “Trump of Latin America.”
US President Joe Biden tweeted that the riots were “an attack on democracy and the peaceful transition of power in Brazil” and that he looked forward to continuing to work with Lula.
At a press conference in the state of São Paulo, Lula read out a recently signed decree that the federal government should take control of security in the federal district. He stated that the so-called “fascist fanatics”, as well as those who financed their activities, should be punished, and also accused Bolsonaro of encouraging their uprising.
Bolsonaro denied the president’s allegations late Sunday evening. Tweeting, he said peaceful protest is part of democracy, but vandalism and breaking into public buildings are “exceptions to the rule.” He did not specifically mention the actions of the protesters in Brazil.
“Obviously he is an intellectual mentor of what’s going on, so he can’t disassociate himself from it,” said Mario Sergio Lima, political analyst at Medley Advisors. “These groups were created by him, by the radicalism that he imposed on politics. It cannot be undone. …It seems that his group has already crossed the Rubicon.”
Unlike the 2021 attack in the US, few officials were working in top government buildings on Sunday. And video footage showed the limited presence of the Metropolitan Military Police. This has led many in Brazil to wonder if the police were ignoring a lot of warnings, underestimating their capabilities, or were somehow involved in this.
In one video, a group of demonstrators push through a police barricade with limited fighting, and only a few police officers used pepper spray. Another showed officers standing next to protesters storming Congress, including one of them recording images on his phone.
“It was a gross mistake of the government of the federal district. It was a predicted tragedy,” said Thiago de Aragao, director of strategy for Brazil-based political consultancy Arko Advice. “Everyone knew that they (the protesters) were going to Brasilia. The federal district government was expected to retaliate to protect the capital. They didn’t do any of that.”
Lula said at his press conference that the police showed “incompetence or bad faith” and promised that some of them would be punished.
The governor of the Federal District, Ibaneis Rocha, confirmed on Twitter that he had fired the head of the public security of the capital, Anderson Torres. Local media reported that Torres is on holiday in Orlando and denies meeting Bolsonaro there.
“Two years after Jan. 6, Trump’s legacy continues to poison our hemisphere,” U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted, adding that he accused Bolsonaro of instigating action. “Defending democracy and holding malevolent actors accountable is essential.”