By Dr Francisco Dominguez
On 8th January 2023, a week after Lula’s presidential inauguration, the world was shocked by a Trump-style mob attack on key state institutions in Brasilia, the country’s capital city. The world saw media images of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters invading Planalto (presidential palace), and the premises of both the Supreme Court and Parliament, who, when inside proceeded to vandalise just about everything within their reach whilst taking selfies of themselves.
It was a Bolsonarista insurrection aimed at not recognising Lula’s victory and keeping Jair Bolsonaro in power. Flavio Dino, Lula’s minister of justice, reported that Bolsonaristas had perpetrated similar acts of vandalism in at least ten states.
Former president Jair Bolsonaro, who refused to recognise his electoral defeat against Workers’ Party (PT) candidate, Inazio Lula da Silva on 31st October 2022, had conveniently travelled to Florida (30th December 2022) ostensibly not to be present at Lula’s inauguration but most probably not to be directly associated with the 8th January coup attempt if it failed.
To hand over the presidential sash on Lula would have been tantamount to accepting the people’s electoral will. Bolsonaro’s vice-president, retired army general Hamilton Mourão, who had also questioned the transparency of the election, refused to hand over the presidential sash to Lula too and did not attend the official inauguration on 1st January 2023, even though he was invited.
The issue was resolved by inviting representatives of the people of Brazil (a Black child, a disabled person, a street recyclables collector, a metal worker, a teacher, a woman cook, and an artisan) who were entrusted with placing the sash across Lula’s chest. Prominent among them was 93-year old Roani Metuktire, indigenous leader who accused Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity for both destroying their Amazon habitat and trampling upon indigenous rights.
A few days earlier (24/12/22), Brasilia detectives had foiled a plot to detonate an explosive device inside a truck filled-up with jet-plane fuel in the capital city’s airport. Three Bolsonaristas were arrested and are being tried for the terrorist attempt. One of them (Washington de Oliveira Souza) told police that Bolsonaro’s call to arms inspired him to build the arsenal he kept in his flat (shotguns, a rifle, two revolvers, three pistols, huge amounts of ammunition, camouflage uniforms, and many explosive devices). These criminals declared to the police they intended to cause a huge commotion hoping to provoke the military to declare a state of emergency. From Florida, Bolsonaro labelled the action a “terrorist act” yet he still praised protesters camping outside army barracks across Brazil urging the military to stage a coup.
The coup atmosphere created by Bolsonaro intensified during the election itself. In an unprecedented deployment of personnel, the Federal Highway Police (PRF) set up roadblocks in the Brazil’s northeast seeking to prevent voters in the PT strongholds from voting. In the nine-states sub-region Lula scored an average of 70% of the votes cast.
Silvinei Vasques, director of the PRF had posted a call to vote for Bolsonaro on Instagram, which was later deleted. Before the second round in October 2022, The Economist (8/09/2022) described the nearly 400,000-strong Brazil’s police forces as “trigger-happy and fond of Mr Bolsonaro”. The prompt intervention of Supreme Court judge, Alexandre de Moraes, president of Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), led the PRF blockade to be lifted and his order to extend the polls closure time in 560 places, prevented this Bolsonarista vote suppression effort from succeeding.
In a raid carried out by the Federal Police (12th January), a page with minutes for Jair Bolsonaro was found in the private residence of his (now ex) minister of justice, Anderson Torres, with a plan to issue a presidential decree declaring a state of emergency in the premises of the TSE aimed at changing (annulling) the 31st October election result and impose military rule.
Previously, Bolsonaro and some of the top brass, had proposed that the armed forces conducted their own, separate and parallel, vote audit to be contrasted with the TSE figures should Lula be declared the winner. On the 8th of January Torres was Brasilia’s security secretary appointed in that position by the capital city governor, Ibaneis Rocha, a Bolsonaro’s staunch ally.
With Torres in charge of Brasilia’s security the scene was ready for the putsch. Its Military Police (MP) simply opened the gates for the violent invaders. There are scores of posted videos showing sympathetic MP officers smiling, hugging and taking selfies of themselves with the insurrectionists. Brasilia’s Military Police Commander in chief, Fabio Augusto Vieira, is charged with openly conniving with them.
Another Bolsonarista top brass is ex minister of Institutional Security, general Augusto Heleno, who throughout 2021 and 2022 kept making threats of military intervention. In November 2022, after Lula’s victory in the second round, Heleno publicly tarnished the mental and physical health of the president and labelled him a drunkard.
There is also Walter Braga Netto, a retired army general, former minister of defence and vice-presidential candidate in Bolsonaro’s 2022 presidential ticket. In June 2022, Braga Netto stated that if Bolsonaro’s demand that the armed forces audited the election results was not accepted, the election could be cancelled. “Either we have clean elections, or we won’t have elections.” Reportedly, during the insurrection Braga Netto would have the task to deploy the armed forces in the streets.
Even though the idea of the army exerting tutelage over politics is appealing and popular among high officers, despite the persistent Bolsonaro and Bolsonarista calls the bulk of the armed forces were not persuaded to stage a coup. Bolsonaro had become so toxic that even substantial sections of the world far right seems to be ready to dissociate themselves from him, despite the BBC/PSB strenuous PR efforts made with “Rise of the Bolsonaros.”
On 9th January, Lula gave vent to his anger over the Bolsonarista violent insurrection against Brazil’s democracy announcing his government will not rest until finding and punishing all those responsible, including its financial backers. Brazil’s General Attorney Office has obtained that 6,5 million Reais (over 1 million Euros) belonging to 52 individuals and 7 companies be frozen to be investigated as suspects of having financed the coup attempt.
Followed by governors and Supreme Court judges, to symbolise institutional unity in defense of democracy, Lula headed a walk (09/01/23) from the presidential palace to the Federal Supreme Court premises to verify the damage done to the vandalised public buildings. Among those present were Brazil’s 27 state governors, the presidents of both Congress and Senate, and the General Attorney. Lula strongly criticised the lack of action and the silence of the armed forces for two months about the Bolsonarista camps outside military barracks demanding they stage a coup d’état. And for good measure, Lula has so far sacked over 50 military officers in charge of the presidency’s security.
After the institutional walkabout, law and order was swiftly restored by police forces: the Bolsonarista camp outside the army HQ in Brasilia was dismantled after an order from Alexandre de Moraes leading to the arrest of 1,500 protesters who were detained in over 300 detention centres. All such camps in other states of Brazil were also dismantled.
Torres Anderson is under arrest and the STF suspended Brasilia’s governor Ibaneis Rocha from his position for 90 days pending an investigation. During the coup attempt, as Rocha was sitting on his hands, Lula issued a decree turning control of Brasilia’s security over to the Federal Government until January 31. “Twenty minutes later, all government buildings had been completely cleared of rioters by the Brasilia Civil Police and the Federal Police.” Brasilia’s Military Police Commander in chief, Fabio Augusto Vieira, is also under arrest. Silvinei Vasques, director of the PRF, has ‘been retired’.
Senator Renan Calheiros (former Senate president) stated that it would request STF minister Moraes to investigate Bolsonaro’s responsibility in the coup attempt. STF doyen judge, Gilmar Mendes, pointed out that Bolsonaro carries political responsibility for not having dissuaded his supporters from executing acts of violence. Brazilian prosecutors have asked the courts to seize Bolsonaro’s assets as part of their investigation of the coup attempt.
Brazil’s General Attorney Office has included Bolsonaro in its investigation because he may have “publicly incited the commissions of crimes”. And STF judge Ricardo Lewandowski rejected a preventive habeas corpus request for Torres and Jair Bolsonaro.
Due to the perplexity surrounding the Bolsonarista insurrection, little attention has been paid to the implementation of Lula’s policies. On 2nd January, one day after being inaugurated, he cancelled the privatization of eight state-owned companies. He also reversed several reactionary Bolsonaro decrees: re-established financial support to fight against deforestation and repealed a measure on illegal mining, suspended the issuance of new gun permits and authorisation for new shooting clubs, guaranteed income support for the poor, and a tax exemption on fuel, among a raft of progressive measures.
To top it all up, he appointed Sonia Guajajara, a representative of indigenous peoples, in charge of the newly created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, which he pledged to create during the electoral campaign.
Under Lula’s progressive government, the significance of Brazilian democracy to rest of Latin America cannot be stressed enough. Nor can the threat represented by the Bolsonarista militarisation of Brazil’s state institutions. During the election campaign he promised the sack around 8,000 military officers appointed at all levels of the state throughout Brazil.
We will need to both remain vigilant – Bolsonarismo has been defeated but it is not yet buried – and redouble our solidarity with the people of Brazil and the peoples of Latin America.
Dr Francisco Dominguez is academic and a specialist on Latin America’s contemporary political economy.
22 January 2023