Politics

Rock and a Hard Place: Bolsonaro's Wild Week in Florida

President Jair Bolsonaro attends a military parade alongside his wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, on July 9, 2022.
President Jair Bolsonaro attends a military parade alongside his wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, on July 9, 2022. Photo by Palacio do Planalto (Brazilian presidential office)
Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was kicking off his new year in the Sunshine State while government buildings in Brazil’s capital city were being overrun and vandalized by his supporters on January 8.

Since he arrived in Florida in late December, skipping his opponent Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s inauguration, Bolsonaro (or an uncanny doppelganger) has been spotted munching on Kentucky Fried Chicken, meandering through a Publix, and chatting with fans in the gated Orlando community that served as his temporary residence.

Though he denounced the rioting in Brasilia this week, Bolsonaro in months past has made comments questioning the integrity of the Brazilian electoral system and refusing to accept his defeat in the presidential contest. In November, he formally challenged the election results, claiming errors in the country's electronic vote-counting process.

More than 40 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to the White House yesterday, calling for Bolsonaro's expulsion and an FBI investigation into whether folks in Florida bankrolled or organized the January 8 Brazilian riots. Though the letter (attached below) does not mention former President Donald Trump's name, the congress members openly equated Bolsonaro's actions to the election-denying campaign mounted by Trump in the days leading up to the January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill riot.

"We must not allow Mr. Bolsonaro or any other former Brazilian officials to take refuge in the United States to escape justice for any crimes they may have committed when in office, and we should cooperate fully with any investigation by the Brazilian government into their actions, if requested.

"The unlawful and violent attack on January 8 against Brazilian government institutions was built upon months of pre- and post-election fabrications by Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies claiming that the October 30 presidential election had been stolen," the letter states.

The letter calls for an assessment of Bolsonaro's visa status, saying he may have come to the U.S. on an A-1 visa reserved for diplomatic or official visits. (The not-so-subtle implication is that the feds should boot Bolsonaro back home.)

Early in his Florida hiatus, Bolsonaro stated that his plan was to stay in Florida till the end of January. He signaled this week, however, that he might head back to Brazil early in light of medical issues and the tumult his country is enduring.

“I came to spend some time away with my family but these weren’t calm days,” Bolsonaro told a Brazilian CNN affiliate on Tuesday, January 10. “First, there was this sad episode in Brazil and then my hospitalization.”

Bolsonaro shared a photo of himself splayed out in a hospital bed in the Orlando area Monday, receiving treatment for abdominal discomfort from a stab wound he sustained on his campaign trail in 2018. The ex-pres recalled that he has undergone several surgeries related to the injury through the years.

His hospitalization occurred a day after hundreds of supporters stormed Brazil's presidential palace, Supreme Federal Court, and congress, refuting the election results. Footage shows demonstrators bypassing security, climbing on roofs, and damaging property. Rooms in the National Congress of Brazil complex were ransacked, with furniture overturned and shattered glass strewn about.
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Supporters of Brazilian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro take over the National Congress of Brazil.
Screenshot from Brazilian public television (TV Brasil)

Since his discharge from the hospital early this week, Bolsonaro has laid low, putting out social media statements touting the Brazilian currency's relatively low inflation rate and other purported presidential achievements during his tenure at the helm of the country from 2019 to 2022.

If he decides to return home, he'll be smack-dab in the middle of a politically charged investigation into the January 8 events in Brasilia and other post-election unrest, including an attempted storming of police headquarters in the Brazilian capital in December.

On January 9, President Lula alluded to the federal investigation into this week's unrest, saying “it is not possible for a movement to last as long as it did in front of the barracks if there are no people financing it.” He expressed concerns over lack of security that led to hours-long efforts to regain control of the government buildings.

“All those people who did this will be found and punished,” he said during a press conference. “They will realize that democracy guarantees the right to freedom … to free communication and free expression, but it also demands that people respect the institutions that were created to strengthen democracy.”

The Washington Post reported on January 10 that Brazilian prosecutors submitted a request to seize Bolsonaro's assets. Citing an unnamed court official, the Post report also noted that a Brazilian Supreme Court judge had ordered the arrest of two security officials in connection with the riots, amid claims by Lula that police colluded with rioters.
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Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ransacked the Brazilian National Congress in the country's capital city on January 8, 2023.
Photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

A former military officer and veteran member of Brazil's federal Chamber of Deputies, Bolsonaro gained popularity for his conservative, nationalist political stances and opposition to leftist movements. Even before the post-election unrest, he faced a potential criminal investigation after a Brazilian congressional inquiry recommended charges against him for allegedly endangering the public by mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic. (Bolsonaro reportedly called the inquiry a "joke," maintaining that his administration "did the right thing from the first moment.")

Lula secured his victory over Bolsonaro by a narrow margin in the country's October 30 runoff election, locking in a 50.9 percent majority.

Lula is a former union leader and decades-long member of the Workers Party, who previously served as president of Brazil from 2003 to 2011, during which he implemented widespread welfare reforms. He served jail time on money laundering and corruption charges brought against him in 2017, but his convictions were nullified by the Brazilian high court, allowing him to run again for presidential office last year.
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Natalia Clement is a freelance journalist for the Miami New Times and WLRN, South Florida’s public radio news outlet. She enjoys covering local topics of interest from the perspective of her generation.

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