Brazil cracks down on riots, vowing to protect democracy

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian authorities vowed Monday to protect democracy and punish thousands of supporters of ex-President Jair Bolsonaro, who seized the nation’s highest seats of power amid chaos with striking similarities to the Jan. 6 uprising 2021 stormed and destroyed the US Capitol.

Protesters poured into Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace on Sunday. Many have said they want the Brazilian army to restore far-right Bolsonaro to power and oust newly installed leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Police broke up a pro-Bolsonaro camp outside a military building on Monday and arrested around 1,200 people there, the Justice Department’s press office told The Associated Press.

Lula and the leaders of the Supreme Court, Senate and House of Commons also signed a letter Monday denouncing terrorist attacks and vandalism and saying they would take legal action.

Justice Minister Flávio Dino told reporters that police had begun pursuing those who paid for the buses that transported protesters to the capital. Speaking at the press conference late Sunday, Brazil’s Institutional Relations Minister said the buildings would be inspected for evidence such as fingerprints and pictures to hold people accountable and that the rioters appeared to intend to unleash similar riots across the country.

“They will not succeed in destroying Brazilian democracy. We have to say that wholeheartedly, with all determination and conviction,” said Dino. “We will not accept the path of crime to wage political struggles in Brazil. A criminal is treated like a criminal.”

(Eraldo Peres | AP) Police officers take position as supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro exit a camp in front of the army headquarters in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, January 9, 2023. Since Bolsonaro lost re-election to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on October 30, his supporters have rallied across the country, refusing to concede defeat and calling for the armed forces to intervene.

Rioters carrying the green and yellow national flag on Sunday smashed windows, toppled furniture and threw computers and printers to the ground. They pierced a massive painting by Emiliano Di Cavalcanti in the presidential palace in seven places and completely destroyed other works of art. They toppled the U-shaped table where Supreme Court justices meet, ripped out a door from a judge’s office and destroyed an iconic statue in front of the court. The interiors of the monumental buildings remained in a state of decay.

Monday’s arrests came in addition to the 300 arrested Sunday while being caught red-handed.

But police were noticeably slow to respond — even after the arrival of more than 100 buses — leading many to wonder whether authorities had either simply ignored numerous warnings, underestimated the strength of the protesters, or somehow become complicit.

Prosecutors in the capital said local security forces at least acted negligently. A Supreme Court judge temporarily suspended the regional governor. Another judge accused the authorities of not acting quickly against the burgeoning neo-fascism in Brazil.

Following his Oct. 30 election defeat, Bolsonaro, who has gone to Florida, has stoked the belief among his die-hard supporters that the electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud — though he has never presented any evidence. His lawmaker son Eduardo Bolsonaro has met on numerous occasions with former US President Donald Trump, Trump’s longtime ally Steve Bannon and his senior campaign adviser Jason Miller.

The results of Brazil’s elections – the closest in over three decades – were quickly recognized by politicians across the spectrum, including some Bolsonaro allies, as well as dozens of governments. And Bolsonaro surprised almost everyone by promptly disappearing from view. He did not concede defeat, nor did he strongly lament fraud, although he and his party filed a motion to annul millions of votes, which was quickly dismissed.

Brazilians have been using electronic voting since 1996, which security experts consider less secure than handwritten paper ballots because they leave no verifiable paper trail. However, the Brazilian system is under scrutiny, and domestic authorities and international observers have never found evidence that it is being used for fraud.

Still, Bolsonaro’s supporters refused to accept the results. They blocked roads and camped outside military buildings to urge the armed forces to intervene. Dino, the justice minister, described the camps as hotbeds of terrorism. The protests were mostly peaceful, but isolated threats – including a bomb found on a tanker truck heading to Brasilia airport – raised safety 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 take part in the transfer of power, his absence meant that it passed without incident.

At least that’s how it had been until the chaos on Sunday.

“Bolsonarianism mimics the same strategies as Trumpism. Our January 8th – an unprecedented manifestation in Brazilian politics – is clearly copied from January 6th in the Capitol,” said Paulo Calmon, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia. “Today’s sad episodes represent yet another attempt to destabilize democracy and show that the authoritarian, populist radicalism of Brazil’s extreme right under the command of former President Bolsonaro, ‘Latin America’s trump card’, remains active.”

US President Joe Biden, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jointly said Monday that “Canada, Mexico and the United States condemn the January 8 attacks on Brazilian democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. We stand by Brazil as it protects its democratic institutions.”

Analysts told the AP that the riot could bring greater political support to Lula and his professed mission to pacify the polarized country, as many right-wing citizens and politicians were repelled by Sunday’s scenes and eager to distance themselves from far-right extremism. The leader of Bolsonaro’s own party called the uprising “an embarrassment”.

“That was maybe the beginning of the end. The political system will want to isolate and move away from this radical movement,” said Mario Sérgio Lima, political analyst at Medley Advisors. “I think what we’re going to see now is the right attempt to create new alternatives and new leaders, and the center is distancing itself.”

In a press conference from Sao Paulo state, Lula read out a freshly signed decree for the federal government to take control of security in the federal district. He said that the so-called “fascist fanatics” as well as those who funded their activities must be punished and also accused Bolsonaro of promoting their insurgency.

Bolsonaro denied the president’s allegation late Sunday. He wrote on Twitter that peaceful protest is part of democracy, but vandalism and invasions of public buildings are “exceptions to the rule.”

Unlike the 2021 attack in the US, few officials would have been working in the top government buildings on a Sunday. And videos showed a limited presence of the capital’s military police.

One video showed a group of protesters easily pushing through a police barricade, with few officers using pepper spray. Another showed officers standing by as protesters stormed Congress, including one who used his phone to record what was happening.

“This was a gross error by the federal district government. It was a predicted tragedy,” said Thiago de Aragão, strategy director of Brazil-based policy consultancy Arko Advice. “Everyone knew that they (the protesters) would come to Brasilia. The expectation was that the federal district government would launch a response to protect the capital. You didn’t do any of that.”

Lula said at his press conference there was “incompetence or bad faith” on the part of the police and promised some would be fined.

Federal District Gov. Ibaneis Rocha confirmed on Twitter that he had fired the capital’s head of public safety, Anderson Torres – hours before a Supreme Court judge suspended the governor from office for “willful omission”.

“Two years after January 6, Trump’s legacy continues to poison our hemisphere,” tweeted US Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, adding that he accused Bolsonaro of instigating the acts. “Protecting democracy and holding bad actors accountable is critical.” Brazil cracks down on riots, vowing to protect democracy

Justin Scacco

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