The US government is grappling with the Florida stint of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whom many blame for this week’s violent riots in Brazil’s capital.
And the conundrum for the Biden administration is playing out as America continues to grapple with the threat to democracy posed by the Jan. 6 Feb. 2021 attack on the US Capitol, to which the insurgency in Brazil has been compared.
Senior US officials, from President Biden onward, were quick to condemn the violence and voiced support for Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who took office earlier this month. Biden called him and issued another invitation to the White House, expressing “the unwavering support of the United States for Brazilian democracy and for the free will of the Brazilian people.” He called the violence “outrageous”.
But the elephant in the room — or in Florida in this case — was not mentioned in the conversation between the two leaders.
Just over a week before his supporters stormed Brazil’s three main government institutions, Bolsonaro slipped to Orlando, where he’s reportedly staying at a friend’s mansion near Disney World.
Photos posted to social media show him strolling through a supermarket and eating at a KFC restaurant. On Monday he said he was in a hospital being treated for an old wound he sustained during an assassination attempt.
Bolsonaro refused to recognize his arch-rival Lula’s victory in the presidential election, did not attend the 1st inauguration and has fueled false conspiracy theories about fraudulent elections. Few were surprised by Sunday’s explosion of violence.
“It was violent aggression that was planned well in advance and clearly inspired by the events that took place on 6/11,” said Bruna Santos, senior advisor at the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute.
Bolsonaro’s exact role in the riots, which saw thousands of people smash windows, attack police and set fires, is not yet clear.
The events deliberately mirrored the February 1-6, 2021, attacks on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Trump, who echoed his false claims of a stolen election.
Bolsonaro and Trump were political soul mates, with the former US president calling the far-right Brazilian a lob among other similar labels. Bolsonaro and his sons, some of whom are also politicians, have frequently consulted with Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon on how to win elections. Bannon has used his own media platforms to subvert the Brazilian elections, similar to the US elections, by spreading disinformation about voting machines.
With another President in the White House, Bolsonaro’s presence in the US raises different questions and possible scenarios.
Several Democratic congressmen are calling for the government to expel Bolsonaro.
“Bolsonaro shouldn’t be in Florida,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas.). “The United States should not be a haven for this authoritarian who inspired domestic terrorism in Brazil. He should be sent back to Brazil.”
In addition to bureaucratic considerations such as the procedures to be followed, the Biden administration must also weigh the political costs of any action.
In some conservative circles, Lula, a leftist, has been compared to the region’s more extreme socialists such as the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and support for him has been condemned. But Lula has proven more respectful of democracy than Chávez and has been willing to work with opposition parties.
To be deposed, Bolsonaro would have to be extradited or expelled. Extradition, for which there are numerous precedents, could only come about if the Brazilian government instituted legal proceedings against him and demanded his extradition.
In contrast, deportation would be ordered by the US government and can be ordered for a range of “deportable” crimes, from visa violations to other illegal activities. There is also a “foreign policy” provision, which allows the Secretary of State to determine that an individual’s presence could have “potentially serious adverse consequences” for the US
It is widely believed that Bolsonaro entered the US on an “A” visa, a nonimmigrant visa reserved for important figures such as heads of state and diplomats. But the visa would have expired when he was no longer president, at which point he would have 30 days to obtain another visa, according to the State Department.
Late on Tuesday, Bolsonaro told a Portuguese-language affiliate of CNN that he plans to return home once he leaves the hospital. His son, Sen. Flavio Bolsonaro, told Brazil’s Folhapress that while many people tried to link his father to the “sad, deplorable and unjustifiable” violence in Brasília, such reports were untrue.
As much as the riots in Washington and Brazil mirrored each other, there were key differences. In Brazil, a new president had already been sworn in – in a ceremony attended by 300,000 people and several heads of state – and the buildings attacked by the mob stood largely empty. In Washington, the moment was more precarious: The attackers launched just as the presidential election was confirmed and when the Capitol was filled with lawmakers, staffers and civilian security officials whose lives were in danger.
In Washington, the goal was to overthrow an election; in Brasília, the aim was to lure the military into stepping in and taking over the elected government.
Another difference between the two attacks was the consequences: unlike in Washington, Brazilian politicians quickly came together to condemn the actions and demand a reappraisal of the events.
“There was an understanding across the aisles that this is a serious moment that needs to be approached with caution,” Michael McKinley, a former US ambassador to Brazil, said in an interview. “There was unanimity in the intention to investigate what happened and hold those responsible for the violence accountable and project a government that is moving forward.”
In contrast, scores of congressmen in Washington minimized violence, resisted an investigation and even insisted on voting against confirming the election after the rioters were crushed.
“In Brazil, there was certainly a more immediate concerted effort to respond to the threat to the country’s democracy that this violence posed,” McKinley said, noting that Brazil’s institutions have steadily consolidated in the three decades since the end of the military dictatorship .
Although Brazilian institutions are thriving in the face of the anti-democratic onslaught, several red flags have been raised. The military did not come to the aid of Bolsonaro supporters, but some lower-level security officials did, reflecting mixed loyalties at certain levels of law enforcement. Lula has acted quickly to remove some of those who have been complicit in the mob or who have failed in their duty to protect state property.
“The lax security response in Brasília underscores a significant challenge Lula faces,” said Dan Restrepo, a Latin America adviser to former President Obama and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The military leadership has been – and appears to remain so – on the side of constitutional order and respect for Brazil’s democratic processes and institutions. However, the base is mixed.”
The violence in Brazil has mobilized political forces across the spectrum in defense of democracy, but it has also highlighted the fault lines Lula must now bridge. In the US, two years after the Capitol trauma, Biden is also grappling with divisions that have only deepened, without the electrifying unity.