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Riots in Brazil’s Congress

Riots in Brazil’s Congress

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On Sunday, thousands of protesters supporting former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed Brazil’s parliamentary buildings. How much is Bolsonaro to blame?

“Breaking situation in Brazil, thousands of supporters of ousted former president Bolsonaro storming the presidential and Congressional buildings, demanding he be restored to power.”

ABC News

Brazil’s “Three Powers Plaza” in the capital, Brasilia, is home to the president’s office, the Congress and the Supreme Court. It’s the centre of government and the heart of its democracy.

On Sunday a sea of yellow, green and blue – the colours of the Brazilian flag – broke through police lines and surged up the ramp leading into the Congress building.

Within minutes, it was a scene of chaos.

[Clip: protesters heading into Brazil’s Congress]

Videos on social media show protesters smashing windows, breaking furniture, spraying fire hoses over walls and ceilings, and vandalising the nearby Supreme Court.

Protesters put on judicial robes, and stole a copy of Brazil’s 1988 post-dictatorship constitution from a display cabinet.

“Total chaos in Brasilia as thousands of hard-line protesters invaded government buildings. Authorities responding with tear gas, to try and regain control of Brazil’s capital.”

BBC News

It’s hard to avoid the parallels between what happened in Brasilia and the attack on the US capitol two years ago, when supporters of Donald Trump stormed Congress after he lost the 2020 presidential election. 

Just like in the United States, these protesters believe Brazil’s recent presidential election has been stolen from the man some call “Trump of the Tropics”… Jair Bolsonaro. 

The person who defeated him in that election, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is now president.

“The left wing veteran has been sworn into office at a ceremony in Brasilia. He told crowds of cheering supporters that he would reunite society and govern for everyone.”

BBC News

And after flying back to the capital and touring the damage himself, Lula gave an angry speech blaming Jair Bolsonaro for the chaos, calling those involved “vandals” and “neo-fascists”.

Using emergency powers, he’s sent the national guard to restore order until the end of the month.

So, how much is Jair Bolsonaro responsible for what happened?

***

On the eve of Lula being sworn in as president for the second time, he last served from 2003 until 2011, Jair Bolsonaro flew thousands of miles away – to Florida. 

He was later pictured eating KFC when he was supposed to be in Brazil to pass the presidential sash to Lula at the inauguration ceremony. A symbol of the transition.  

But for months, the former president has questioned the reliability of Brazil’s election systems. 

And once the election result was announced, he refused to accept it.

“Bolsonaro delivered a short two minute speech today, his first time speaking since he lost on Sunday, he thanked the supporters who voted for him, but he did not concede and he did not recognise Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s victory. Instead, he said he would respect Brazil’s constitution. It was the chief of staff who came out and said Bolsonaro had agreed to allow a transfer of power take place, not Bolsonaro himself.”

CNBC

In November, Jair Bolsonaro praised protesters camping outside army barracks in the capital who were urging the military to stage a coup and prevent Lula from taking office.

He claimed their actions were a righteous expression of “indignation and a sense of injustice”. 

His encouragement only led to more protesters descending on military bases across the country. They also blocked roads, but Bolsonaro urged his supporters to clear the highways. 

He didn’t ask protesters outside the barracks to do the same.

***

Calls for a coup from pro-Bolsonaro supporters have been circulating for weeks on social media.

“The idea that the election in Brazil was rigged, very much narratives that echo those around the capital riots, the suggestion that Bolsonaro was the real winner, that voting machines weren’t working, circulating among Bolsonaro supporters online for weeks in the build up to what happened on Sunday and that includes calls for coups and violence… as well as more coded messages pointing towards the action that happened.”

Marianna Spring speaking on the BBC’s Today programme

When Elon Musk bought Twitter he fired the company’s staff in Brazil who were responsible for content moderation and tackling misinformation, just as the election was happening.

And like the January 6th Capitol riots in the United States, social media platforms were used as a communication tool for pro-Bolsonaro supporters.

In the final days of his presidency, Jair Bolsonaro released a video of him defending his record and appearing to cry. He said the election wasn’t impartial, but warned against violence.

Jair Bolsonaro urged them to move on, saying, quote, “We live in a democracy or we don’t… no one wants an adventure”. 

His supporters didn’t listen. 

Since the attack on Congress, Jair Bolsonaro has tweeted a string of posts saying the invasion of public buildings crossed a line, but he’s not condemned them outright. 

Lula has promised that anyone involved will be punished. But the real test for the president will be how to deliver on his inauguration promise, and unite a divided country.

This episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.