It is an unprecedented attack on democratic institutions reminiscent of that of Trump supporters on Capitol Hill in Washington. A yellow and green tide of violent radicals, supporters of former President Bolsonaro and who refuse to accept the result of the presidential election won by Lula, stormed, this Sunday, January 8, the three most important buildings in Brazil: the Congress, the Federal Supreme Court (the equivalent of the Supreme Court) as well as the Planalto presidential palace in Brasília. After several hours of rampage and indescribable chaos in the capital, the police gradually regained control. As of yesterday, the judicial authorities launched the first investigations into those responsible. Several hundred people have already been arrested.
For the sociologist at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), Jonas Medeiros, who co-wrote a book on these movements*, this attack is not really a surprise. Among the 58 million Brazilians who voted for Jair Bolsonaro in the second round of the presidential election, the most reactionary fringe decided to “take action”.
L’Express: Who are the demonstrators who stormed the Square of the Three Powers in Brasília this Sunday?
Since October and the victory of Lula, this radical fringe of supporters of Bolsonaro camped in front of the military barracks of all the capitals of the States of Brazil and demanded an intervention of the army. This campaign to contest the results of the elections was not massive in terms of number of people but it affected the whole country. This Sunday, it was not only the locals who marched towards the center of Brasília. There were many people who came from the north, from the south, from the east of the country. However, for a few weeks, the movement was running out of steam, like the camp of the Bolsonarists at the headquarters of the army in Brasília which was reduced. Whether in Bolsonaro’s statements at the presidential palace on December 30, or in the speech of his vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão on December 31 and after the transfer of power on January 1, the prospect of an attempt of military putsch was receding.
But some of them, disappointed that Bolsonaro is going to the United States and nothing is moving, decided to take action. I saw that something was going on because I follow the movement daily on social networks. They were openly talking about going to occupy the Three Powers Square in Brasília. They see Congress as the ‘House of the People’ and see themselves as its representatives. They wanted to achieve a kind of ‘counter-investiture’ of Lula. In their minds, power has been stolen by corrupt communists and they are restoring popular sovereignty.
Were the protesters inspired by what happened in the United States with Donald Trump’s activists?
Yes, there is a connection when you see the images of the raids and targeted buildings. But in Brazil, the tone of this movement is different because the center of gravity was the military barracks. If you listen to Bolsonaro supporters, there was an almost messianic hope for a coup and the restoration of a military dictatorship that once existed (between 1964 and 1985). You had people looking to military barracks and praying day and night for the return to the years of lead. And for that, it needed divine intervention. All of this stems from a strong connection between militarism and Christianity in Brazil.
In Brazil, public security is managed by the military police. How do you interpret the fact that the army took time to react to stop the assault and that some soldiers were filmed capturing this moment with their cameras? Anderson Torres, Brasília’s secretary of state for security, who was removed from his post, is a former minister of Bolsonaro…
The scenes of chaos show, not only, a disorganization, a lack of preparation but worse still a connivance, even a complicity on the part of the government of Brasília. This is explained, in fact, by the fact that Ibaneis Rocha, the governor of Brasília, invited the former Minister of Justice of the Bolsonaro government to be his secretary of Public Security before he was dismissed from his functions yesterday… Both are allies of Bolsonaro. In December, there had already been riots in the capital after the arrest of an indigenous leader who gave a speech calling for the murder of Lula and the coercive response had been very weak. More broadly, there is a sort of grassroots ideological alignment that has made this possible. A sort of connivance of the security forces, not just the military police, but the army itself with the movement. Since October, the army has on the whole spared or even protected the demonstrators in favor of a military coup who were in front of their barracks.
In the public debate in Brazil, this question exists: it is the demilitarization of the police. But there is also a substantive discussion of ideology, worldview, of the armed forces as a whole. Brazil went through a redemocratization after the dictatorship but the armed forces remain with the same authoritarian imagination of the time of the military dictatorship.
Do you think this movement will last over time? How will the Lula government respond to this?
These people, who have a somewhat apocalyptic view of the world, feel invested with a divine mission. They won’t give up. For the moment, it is not known whether there will be a new political configuration with or without Bolsonaro who has decided to take a step back. The Lula government simply placed local law enforcement under the command of federal forces to take control of security in Brasília.
But the idea is not ruled out to take a much more coercive measure: the GLO (Garantia da Lei e da Ordem, the equivalent of a state of emergency provided for in the Constitution which made it possible to give increased powers to the ‘army). It would be the irony of history since it is partly what the demonstrators demanded. They wanted this type of decree signed by the hand of their leader, Jair Bolsonaro. Since he refused to do so, they entered into a sort of civil disobedience themselves.
*The Bolsonaro Paradox: The Public Sphere and Right-Wing Counterpublicity in Contemporary Brazil, by Camila Rocha, Esther Solano Gallego, Jonas Medeiros, Latin American Societies, 2021. (untranslated)