Presidential candidate Lula da Silva walks among supporters in São Paulo on October 29, 2022. Image credit: Yuri Murakami / Shutterstock.com
Last year, there was a presidential election in Brazil: leftist Lula da Silva, president from 2003–2010, and incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, an autocrat whose style was unnervingly similar to former United States President Donald Trump, were the two major candidates. On October 30, 2022, Lula won the runoff with a small margin of around two million votes (1.6 percent). Since then, Bolsonaro’s supporters have, much like Trump’s, insisted that the election was fraudulent. They blocked the highways, burned vehicles, tried to invade federal institutions, and engaged in urban violence. They also began camping around army barracks across the country, asking for a military intervention that would stop Lula from taking office. After months of tension, however, the presidential transition succeeded. No major protests occurred during Lula’s inauguration, and there was a great party in Brasilia—the capital in the center of the country, where all three powers of the Republic have their headquarters.
But on Sunday, January 8, thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters in Brasilia invaded and destroyed the Presidential Palace, the Congress, and the Supreme Court (the buildings are all close to each other). Most of the windows were broken, furniture upended, and computers destroyed. Not even works of art were spared by the mob, among them sculptures, Di Cavalcanti’s paintings, stained glass, and historical relics. After three hours and millions of dollars of destruction, security forces arrested 1,459 rioters.
In the United States, many observers compared this attempt to overthrow an election to the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack in the U.S., while acknowledging significant differences. The New York Times reporting is a good example: a January 10 report, headlined “Brazil and Jan. 6,” featured that comparison. On January 11, The Daily podcast echoed that parallel: “A Jan. 6 Moment in Brazil.” And a January 13 Times article, “‘We Will Die for Brazil’: How a Far-Right Mob Tried to Oust Lula,” highlighted similar attitudes among insurrectionists. “The chaotic attack bore an unsettling resemblance to the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol,” wrote New York Times correspondents Jack Nicas and Simon Romero. “Hundreds of right-wing protesters, claiming an election was rigged, stomping through the halls of power.”
A significant difference between the two attacks, these reports acknowledge, was the negligence of the Brazilian security forces: some reports even mention police waving protesters into the building. And yet three days after the event, the New York Times drew a spectacularly incorrect conclusion. “Judged by the rioters’ own stated goals, the violent attack in Brasília was a failure,” reporter Amanda Taub wrote. “The events on Sunday did not lead to a military coup, which many of those present had been calling for over the past 10 weeks.”
But was it a failure? That has yet to be seen. This underestimates the seriousness of the Brazilian military’s opposition and police forces to Lula’s administration. Furthermore, it neglects a key fact: the institutional framework of Brazilian democracy is much more vulnerable and fragile than the system that was attacked in the United States two years earlier. Therefore, the consequences of January 8 for Brazilian politics may be much more severe and have not yet fully unfolded.
Aside from the mutual affection between the two former presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump (and the fact that Bolsonaro washed up in Florida as the attack on the Brazilian Capitol was unfolding), it is hard to deny the many similarities between January 8 and 6. Both groups of conspirators intended to prevent an elected president from taking office, targeted the symbolic institutions of Western liberal democracy, showed the vulnerability of institutional security systems, and showcased the potential strength of surreptitious, right-wing, anti-democratic organizations.
In the U.S., the investigations pointed to incompetence and unpreparedness of the Capitol’s security to prevent the invasion on January 6. However, the Capitol police fought back, and National Guard troops eventually arrived to oust the MAGA forces. From the videos made public by news organizations and the Congressional subcommittees, it is clear that officers tried to stop the attack but were overwhelmed by the rioters. As the attack progressed, putting the legislators in danger, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer asked for military support from nearby states, and Republican governors complied, effectively controlling the violence. And there is another crucial point: the American military has never explicitly interfered in the United States’ internal political affairs.
In Brazil, we have the opposite: insurrectionists had the overt support of some Brazilian security forces, a historically familiar situation for Brazil and other nations in the region. On January 8, unlike their U.S. counterparts, the Brazilian military and police responsible for protecting the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the Presidential Palace were accomplices in the riot. The Institutional Security Cabinet (Gabinete de Segurança Institucional)—a part of the Brazilian army accountable for providing intelligence reports to the president and protecting him—misinformed Lula of the potential threat and didn’t reinforce the troop even knowing the danger, which had been openly published in social media.
Similarly, the Federal District military police didn’t do its institutional duty of preventing the rioters from even approaching the official buildings. From some videos, it is possible to see police officers even socializing with the rioters. Only after the buildings had been pillaged, hours later, did military reinforcements arrive to arrest the rioters.
And it is this that reveals an ongoing danger for Brazilian democracy, a crisis that has never happened in the United States. While both coup attempts were unsuccessful, unlike the events of January 6, the attempt to overthrow the election in Brazil was far from a failure: it made visible the institutional crisis between the Lula administration and Brazilian security forces. Even before the attacks, Lula had already shown that he distrusted the military by changing his security to the Federal police.
Some have suggested the situation was so delicate that even one wrong decision taken by Lula, while the protests were developing, could have triggered a coup. As Elio Gaspari, a columnist for Folha de S. Paulo, wrote, Lula’s closest advisors believe that if Lula had expanded the military power to stop the attack—a decree called Guarantee of Law and Order (GLO in Portuguese) that gives the army police status—the army could have used that power to overthrow him. Thus, the decision to temporarily remove the Federal District governor and establish a federal intervention in the state, later countersigned by the Supreme Court, was fundamental for re-establishing Lula’s authority. From that perspective, the coup attempt was not merely just a protest by mad rightists as the January 6 assault seems to have been, but a plot coordinating politicians, militaries, intelligence officers, and the police.
Unlike the U.S. military, the Brazilian military has always been a major player in Brazilian politics. The Republic was founded in 1889, a year after emancipation, with a coup d’état organized by the army—with the support of São Paulo’s coffee farmers—against Emperor Dom Pedro II. Then, in 1930, Getúlio Vargas, charging electoral fraud, led a coalition of regional troops against the hegemony of the São Paulo state. With the support of the armed forces, the Vargas dictatorship lasted until 1945, followed by almost 20 years of democracy. In 1964, following the Cuban revolution in Latin America, the military once again plotted against President João Goulart with the support of the United States and installed Marshal Castelo Branco as Brazilian dictator.
Brazil redemocratized in 1985 and the 1988 Constitution is still in effect. But Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 resurrected the military threat that many believed was permanently over, and strengthened the connection between the Brazilian and American military. During the Trump administration, Brazil became a chosen ally of the United States outside of NATO; the countries performed joint military exercises and exchanged officers. This raised fears that U.S. military support for a Brazilian president with authoritarian tendencies could once again repeat the 1964 scenario.
Following January 8, Lula’s distrust in Brazil’s military was proven to be justified and required an institutional response: the police arrested Anderson Torres (Bolsonaro’s former minister of Justice and Public Security) and Fábio Augusto Vieira (former military police commander). Subsequently, Lula replaced the Federal Police commanders in 18 states and almost all the superintendents of the Federal Roads Patrols. He also removed 84 military personnel that had worked in the presidential palace: some were in the presidential guard, but many others worked in his administration.
Most importantly, Lula dismissed the commander of the Army, General Júlio Cesar de Arruda, when he refused to punish the personnel involved with January 8. Arruda also refused Lula’s order to remove Lieutenant Colonel Mauro Cid, Bolsonaro’s former personal assistant, from command of an army battalion in Goiânia. Cid had refused to disperse Bolsonaro supporters camped outside army barracks around the country demanding a military coup. In his place, Lula nominated General Tomás Miguel Miné Ribeiro Paiva, the military commander of the São Paulo region, who assured the public that he would support the elected president regardless of his own ideological commitments. Finally, Lula has opened an investigation into the events of January 8. On January 27, 11 other suspects were arrested around the country.
Like numerous politicians in the United States, many Brazilian officials don’t recognize Lula and his Worker’s Party (PT) as legitimate rulers, and they believe him to be a danger to the Republic. In 2018, after the “Car Wash” investigation discovered billions of dollars of corruption during PT’s administration, army commander General Villas Bôas posted a note on Twitter indirectly asking the Supreme Court to deny Lula’s last appeal against his imprisonment. The Supreme Court eventually denied Lula’s appeal, which led to his imprisonment and undermined his right to dispute the 2018 presidential election.
It was the first time since the 1985 democratization that a high-rank military publicly tried to influence a sovereign Republican institution. But unlike in the United States, these election denialists represent a significant fraction of the nation’s security forces. Currently, the military and police are divided between “legitimists,” like General Paiva, who want to honor the election results, and “plotters,” who only wait for a legal loophole to attack again.
In addition, there is a history of friction between the armed/police forces and the Left—including Lula’s Worker’s Party, which views the police as an elite’s instrument that reinforces inequalities and the political status quo through murder, torture, and genocide. From 2011 to 2014, during Dilma Rousseff’s first term a “National Truth Commission” exposed the crimes committed by the military during the 1964–1985 dictatorship. The PT also supports almost 100 indigenous reservations in the Amazon Rainforest that the military considers a threat to the national sovereignty of the region.
Bolsonaro took advantage of the security forces’ opposition to Lula to bring them to his side; in 2022, most security officials considered Bolsonaro to be the only politician capable of defeating Lula. He granted almost all of their demands, agreed that state violence was the only means to address crime, and honored the police officers and military at official events. He publicly defended former military dictatorships by saying that they saved Brazil from communism and corruption and spurred economic development. Bolsonaro even tried to make the day of the coup, March 31, a national holiday. He established no new indigenous reservations and supported mine and timber extraction inside existing indigenous territories, dramatically undermining the health of the Yanomami people.
Bolsonaro also nominated thousands of military and police officers to civil service positions in the state’s bureaucracy, which means the state is riddled with enemies of Lula. During the pandemic, General Pazuello was appointed Minister of Healthcare and coordinated the state’s (late) response to COVID-19. Bolsonaro’s allies in intelligence institutions—the Federal Police, ABIN, and GSI—also defend the former President’s sons against corruption accusations.
Now Bolsonaro lurks in Florida, far from these allies. Although his intentions are not clear, on February 1, he told reporters that Lula’s new government “will not last long,” that there was injustice in the processes of the attacks in Brasilia on January 8, and that he will remain in the U.S. for longer.
Does Bolsonaro imagine he can still overthrow the president? Probably. Therefore, the challenge for Lula is to decrease the armed forces’ influence in the federal administration and punish those involved in the January 8 attempted coup without further fueling military opposition to his administration and consolidate the support of civil society and the media which has trusted him with Brazil’s democracy.
The question remains: How long will the reactionary local elite permit a left-wing government ruled by a party that they impeached seven years ago?
Theo Vasconcelos de Almeida is a PhD student of political science at the New School for Social Research.
One thought on “The Foggy Future of Brazilian Democracy”