Assault on presidential palace, congress challenges Brazil’s democracy

REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Security forces operate as supporters of Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, January 8, 2023.

BRASILIA – Thousands of radical backers of far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro breached and vandalized Brazil’s presidential office building, congress and supreme court Sunday in scenes that hauntingly evoked the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

The attack – the most significant threat to democracy in Latin America’s largest nation since the 1964 military coup – came a week after the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to succeed Bolsonaro. It suggested a spreading plague of far-right disrupters in Western democracies, as hard-liners radicalized by incendiary political rhetoric refuse to accept election losses, cling to unfounded claims of fraud and undermine the rule of law.

Bolsonaristas occupied the congress building, many of them sitting or lying on the ground. A flag placed in front of the building read “intervention” – a reference to calls for the military to depose Lula, who defeated Bolsonaro in October.

Most wrapped themselves in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag. Some shouted at police officers “this is just the beginning” and “May God bless you and prevent you from acting against us patriots.”

Images broadcast by Globo TV showed smashed glass and protesters roaming the halls of the Planalto Palace, the office of the president. In an echo of the behavior of the U.S. insurrectionists, videos shared on social media showed bolsonaristas taking trophies.

Protesters set off fireworks from the roof of congress. Others waved the yellow and green jersey of the national soccer team – now a symbol of the far right – in the main chamber of the supreme court. Bolsonaristas see the powerful court as an adversary.

Thousands more milled about a massive square similar to Washington’s National Mall, waving Brazilian flags and chanting “God, Fatherland, Family and Liberty.”

Videos shared on social media showed scores marching to the Praça dos Três Poderes – the Plaza of the Three Powers – according to videos on social media. One video, purportedly from the assault Sunday, appeared to show a group of protesters attacking a mounted police officer. A woman yells out, “stop, stop!” A man says “guys, let the police officer go.”

Later Sunday, the boom and clouds of acrid tear gas could be seen in the plaza as security forces tried to reassert order. After nearly five hours of rioting, officials said, the attackers were cleared from the government buildings. Lula was in the presidential office Sunday evening to assess the damage himself.

A visibly angered Lula, addressing the nation Sunday evening, condemned the invaders as “fascists.”

“There is no precedent for this,” he said. “All the people [who stormed public buildings] will be found and punished.”

Bolsonaro, who has been in Orlando over the past week, condemned the invasions Sunday evening, hours after they had begun.

“Public protests, by law, are part of democracy,” he tweeted. “However, depredations and invasions of public buildings as occurred today, as well as those that were carried out by the left in 2013 and 2017, were outside of the law.”

A reporter working for The Washington Post was assaulted during the riots. Marina Dias was interviewing a woman when protesters yelled at her, chased her, pushed her to the ground and kicked her repeatedly. The attackers pulled her hair and attempted to take her cellphone from her pants pocket. A navy officer entered the crowd and pulled her to safety.

The Union of Professional Journalists of the Brasília Federal District said at least eight journalists were attacked while reporting on the riots.

The assault underscored the challenge ahead for Lula as he seeks to lead a deeply divided nation polarized in the aftermath of the closest election in Brazilian history and poisoned by the global era of toxic politics.

Protesters launched the invasion around 2:30 p.m. local time. Justice Minister Flavio Dino said it would be met by security forces.

“This absurd attempt to impose the will by force will not prevail,” he tweeted. “The Government of the Federal District claims that there will be reinforcements. And the forces at our disposal are at work. I’m at the headquarters of the Ministry of Justice.”

The assault came amid what seemed to be a surge of Bolsonaro supporters arriving in Brasilia over the weekend, and as invitations pledging free food and buses to the capital allegedly circulated on social media. The newcomers joined protesters camped out since election day in front of military headquarters to call for intervention. Many adhered to the belief that commanders would stop Lula from taking power last week. When their hopes were dashed, their anger appeared to reach a tipping point.

Police in the capital meanwhile appeared to relax security measures that had been imposed for inauguration day. Anderson Torres, the secretary of public security in the Brasília Federal District, was Bolsonaro’s justice minister. On Sunday, he condemned the rioters on Twitter, but was fired by the state governor. Brazilian media reported that Torres was in Florida, but he said he was not with Bolsonaro. The Post could not independently confirm his whereabouts.

Torres told Folha de São Paulo that he had not seen Bolsonaro during his Florida trip. “I didn’t come to the United States to meet Bolsonaro. I did not meet him at any time. I’m on holidays with my family. There was no conspiracy so that it [the insurrection] happened,” he said

Later Sunday, the president’s legal team called on the Supreme Court to issue a warrant for Torres’s arrest, and demanded an investigation into the organization of the riots on social media. They called on cellular phone companies to keep records so geolocation could be used to identify rioters. They demanded the investigation and prosecution of all involved, including any members of the police. Ibaneis Rocha, governor of the Brasília Federal District, tweeted Sunday night that at least 400 people had been detained.

Dino said 40 buses used by rioters had been seized. He said authorities had “already discovered who paid for these buses.” He said governors of other Brazilian states were dispatching security reinforcements to the capital.

“There are still people on the internet talking about the continuation of these terrorist acts,” Dino said. “They will not succeed in destroying Brazilian democracy.”

The United States, European Union and Latin American countries were quick to condemn the insurrection. “The United States condemns any effort to undermine democracy in Brazil,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan tweeted. “President Biden is following the situation closely and our support for Brazil’s democratic institutions is unwavering. Brazil’s democracy will not be shaken by violence.”

The incident amounted to another uncanny parallel between Bolsonaro and Trump, his political lodestar. Pundits have warned for months of the possibility of a Jan. 6-style action here. For months before the election, Bolsonaro called Lula a corrupt “thief” and claimed without evidence that Brazil’s electronic voting machines were untrustworthy. Since his loss, he has condemned violent protest, but called the election result unfair and encouraged the protest camps outside military installations.

“This genocidal person . . . provoked this,” Lula said. “He encouraged the invasion of the three” branches of government.

Bolsonaro said he repudiated “the accusations, without evidence, attributed to me by the current head of the executive of Brazil.”

Robert Muggah, co-founder of the think tank Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, called the “explosion of mob violence” an “insurrection foretold.”

“The similarities of Brazilian far-right mobs storming Congress, the Supreme Court and Presidential Palace with the Jan. 6 insurrection of the Capitol are not coincidental,” he continued. “Like their MAGA counterparts, Bolsonaro supporters have been fed a steady diet of misinformation and disinformation for years, much of it modeled on the narratives pedaled by far-right influencers in the U.S.”

The assault in Brasília appeared broader in scope than the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The buildings targeted represented all three branches of Brazil’s government. The Plaza of the Three Powers, Pritzker-prize winning architect Oscar Niemeyer’s 1950s vision of the future, are viewed domestically as symbols of Brazil.

Lula faces ranks of police who remain tacit backers of Bolsonaro, who encouraged heavy-handed police tactics during his tenure and stocked their senior ranks with loyalists. A sector of the police was accused during the election of setting up checkpoints in Lula strongholds to slow access to ballot boxes. On Sunday, the news outlet Estadao posted a photo of police on duty apparently buying coconut water as rioters assaulted the branches of Brazilian government.

“Unfortunately, the ones who have to take care of security in the Federal District are the Federal Police. And they did not,” Lula said Sunday.

Although the spark that lit the assaults on Sunday was unclear, Dino said on Wednesday he would move to clear the protest camps outside military headquarters in Brasília and across the country on Friday. No significant operations were launched that day.

There was little indication that authorities were prepared for the insurrection on Sunday. There was no evidence of an increased security presence at the buildings targeted.

Military police officers attempted to stop the rioters at the Planalto Palace with tear gas and other weapons but initially appeared far outnumbered.

By 5 p.m., security forces and riot police managed to retake the supreme court, but some protesters remained in the parking garage, a court spokeswoman said. One judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of developing events, said officials were still trying to assess the scope of the damage.

By 6:20 p.m., police had brought the Planalto Palace largely under control. Photos and videos provided to The Post by a member of the president’s team of the Planalto Palace showed extensive damage, including a painting cut out of a frame, broken mirrored-glass walls, shattered equipment, broken desks and defiled artwork.

The congress and supreme court are both in recess. No lawmakers or judges were present. After the assault began, Lula left São Paulo state to return to Brasília.

On Sunday, protesters appeared most focused on the Planalto Palace, now occupied by Lula, the former president whose election to a third term just three years after walking out of a prison cell has piqued the ire of the Brazilian right.

In a farewell address live-streamed on Jan. 1, a teary Bolsonaro claimed his election loss was unfair, but acknowledged that a new administration would take office Sunday. He condemned violent demonstrations aimed at overturning his loss, calling on his supporters to “show we are different from the other side, that we respect the norms and the constitution.”

But his supporters have heard his contradictory speeches as filled with dog whistles that appeared to call them to resist Lula. After the arrest last month of one prominent bolsonarista, accused of having “expressly summoned armed people to prevent the certification of elected” officials, others burned buses in the capital and attempted to storm the federal police headquarters. Authorities in eight states raided weapons caches and arrested suspects accused of “anti-democratic acts.”