Thousands of far-right supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the country’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace on January 8, 2023.
In images reminiscent of the assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, protesters have been seen running over and beating the police as they broke through the security perimeter of the buildings.
The assault comes weeks after Bolsonaro was ousted in an election that decided the return of former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Rafael Ioris, an expert on Brazilian politics at the University of Denver, explains the meaning of the attack and what could happen next.
Who was behind the assault on the Brazilian Congress?
What we have seen is how thousands of staunch supporters of Bolsonaro – those who share his far-right agenda – have tried to storm the three powers after the recent elections.
Although Bolsonaro was not in the capital when the attack occurred – he was in Florida – I believe that he is ultimately responsible for what happened. While he was in power he fostered mistrust in political institutions, advocating for the closure of Congress and attacking the Supreme Court, two of the institutions targeted by the protesters.
Others were also behind what happened. The protests have been going on for weeks, and there are big funders of the demonstrations, including big landowners and business groups that helped pay for the bus transportation of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters to the capital, Brasilia.
And then there is the role of the military. Leading figures in the army have long supported Bolsonaro’s far-right agenda and have even recently shown open support for various pro-coup demonstrations taking place in different parts of the country in the weeks leading up to the attack.
The lack of security that allowed the assault on key institutions in the capital also raises the question: Were they negligent or complicit?
What then has been the role of the armed forces?
Street security is not the responsibility of the armed forces, but the military’s continued support of Bolsonaro’s agenda has helped legitimize members of the state military police to support such positions. And it was the military police who were in charge of keeping the demonstrations in Brasilia at bay.
Pro-Bolsonaro protesters are demanding military intervention to annul what they believe, though without evidence, to be a rigged election that brought Lula to power.
His hope is that top military commanders, many of whom have expressed support for Bolsonaro and sympathy for the protest camps that have been set up near military bases, will back the campaign to oust Lula.
Brazil has a long history of a military that does not accept rule by civilians. The last military coup was in 1964. Of course, the circumstances are different now than then, when in the middle of the Cold War the coup was supported by foreign governments, including the US.
Bolsonaro has strengthened ties with the Brazilian military by placing key military officers in government posts. Right-wing generals friendly to Bolsonaro became defense minister, head of state and even health minister at the height of the covid-19 crisis. On the other hand, it is estimated that around 6,000 active-duty military have obtained jobs in non-military government positions in the last eight years.
Some Army and Air Force generals in particular have supported the protests. Since the elections, there have been generals who have proclaimed that demonstrations demanding military intervention were legitimate.
I think it’s fair to say that some segments of the Brazilian military have been rooting for what happened.
But when push comes to shove, the armed forces have remained silent. The military may have fueled the protest, but when it was time to complete a classic-style coup, they didn’t take the tanks out on the streets.
Is this a coup attempt?
That is the central question. As events unfolded on January 8, it looks more like a protest that has turned violent and gotten out of hand: the level of destruction inside some buildings attests to that.
But it had been weeks in the making and was well financed, in the sense that hundreds of buses were paid for to take Bolsonaro supporters to the capital. And the express goal of many protesters was military intervention. So in that sense, it looks more like an attempted coup.
What does the attack tell us about democracy in Brazil?
Brazil has been at a crossroads. Bolsonaro’s presidency saw the country regress in democracy, as trust in institutions eroded under attack from the president himself and through corruption scandals. And almost half the country voted for him despite his record against democracy. But the election of Lula seems to indicate that there are still more who want to rebuild the democratic institutions in the country after four years of attack by Bolsonaro.
So this could be a turning point. The Brazilian media have strongly denounced the actions of the protesters. In the coming days and weeks, what happened will be investigated, and it is to be hoped that responsibilities will be cleared up. What will be key is Lula’s ability to deal with anti-democratic elements in the military.
Are the comparisons with the January 6 attack on the United States Capitol valid?
Trumpismo and Bolsonarismo share a narrative of stolen elections, with supporters drawn from the right who support issues like the right to bear arms and traditional family structures.
One important difference is the role of the military. Although former members of the military were present at the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, senior US military officials condemned it. In the United States, a military intervention was not intended either, unlike the attack on January 8 in Brasilia.
But there are clear parallels: in both cases we saw powerful far-right groups and individuals refusing to accept the direction of a country and trying to assault the institutions of power.
Now I wonder if there will also be parallels in what happens after the attack.
In the United States, the authorities have done a good job punishing many of those involved. I’m not sure we’re going to see the same in Brazil, as they may have to deal with powerful groups within the military and police forces across the country. Thus, democratic actors inside and outside the country will be essential to support the task of defending democracy in Brazil.
Rafael R. Ioris, Professor of Modern Latin America History, University of Denver
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.
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