How Brazilian Institutions Supported a Coup on January 8th

DSA members react to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s ineffective mimic of the events of January 6th.

DSA International Committee member Jana Silverman was in Brasilia to witness Lula’s inauguration on January 1st. It was a “moment of catharsis,” for Silverman and the “tens of thousands of people from around the country,” who gathered that day, after surviving one of the most tumultuous elections in recent Brazilian history. But, just outside the Lula supporter’s revelry, Bolsonaristas had built encampments. Silverman could “see the encampments set up by the far-right coup supporters outside military bases.” 

Though Lula was broadly popular, the election’s first round was closer than many expected, and fueled speculation about a possible coup, orchestrated by Bolsonaro and his allies. Even after Lula won the second round and Bolsonaro failed to contest the results, his supporters remained convinced a fraud had been perpetuated against the Brazilian public. Bolsonaristas blocked roads in major cities, and set up camps outside military bases, begging the armed forces to intervene. 

Silverman and her colleagues on the International Committee had  been “talking about, and thinking about, the possibility of a coup attempt for a long time.” Eventually, that possibility became a reality. On January 8th, thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed Brazil’s Congress, presidential palace, and Supreme Court, wrecking government offices and damaging priceless artifacts. 

Though reminiscent of January 6th in the United States, January 8th in Brazil was less effective. Congress was out of session, so too was Brazil’s Supreme Court, and Lula wasn’t in the presidential palace. The Bolsonaristas appeared aimless, raiding unoccupied government buildings and smashing artwork without purpose. But sowing chaos is an essential component of their strategy. Thomas Traumann, a political columnist for Poder360, contributor to O Globo, covered the presidential election closely. According to Traumman, social unrest is a means unto itself for Bolsonaro’s allies. “Bolsonaristas believe that the Brazilian constitution gives the right to the Army to intervene when the country is under social disturbance,” Traumann explained. “So their goal was to create the maximum amount of chaos along the country that would support an Army decision to step in to bring order back and call for new elections.”

As images rolled in from Brasilia, the DSA International Committee quickly issued a statement, saying they “stand in solidarity,” with Lula “in defense of Brazilian democratic institutions.” “No pardons and no amnesty for coup plotters,” the statement read. DSA would post a similar statement only hours later, tweeting “Against the reactionaries who suppress democracy around the world, organized people together have the power to turn the tide.” 

But an official proclamation could never capture the visceral emotion of watching a putsch unfold in real time. Knowing you have friends, comrades, and loved ones in Brazil who cannot be protected. Silverman wrote the draft which became the DSA International Committee’s statement, learning about the attack from “comrades on the ground.” It was “very obvious how serious this was,” Silverman said. 

In the aftermath of January 8th, new information about the complicity of the security services, police force, and intelligence community began to emerge. Federal District Governor Ibaneis Rocha was removed from office on order of a Supreme Court justice for failing to stop the attacks. Lula himself condemned the police and intelligence services for their inaction,  and has since fired scores of military personnel from the security services. 

Paoblo Kokay Valente, leader of PT’s Boston chapter, echoed Lula’s sentiment. “Everyone knew that Bolsonaro supporters were planning a demonstration in Brasilia and intelligence reports knew that it could become violent,” Valente said, and the subsequent revelations about police and military complicity were, in Valente’s view, “yet another evidence of the pollicization of police forces in Brazil.” “There are large segments of the police and the Brazilian Army who are supportive of a violent overthrow of a democratically elected government,” said Valente. 

Yet the question remains: what should be done about Jair Bolsonaro? Bolsonaro fled to Orlando, Florida, and immediately after January 8th, calls were made to force his extradition or deportation. Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro was the first elected official to call for Bolsonaro’s extradition, writing in a Twitter post that “Bolsonaro must not be given refuge in Florida, where he’s been hiding from accountability for his crimes.” Congresswoman and DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined Castro in calling for Bolsonaro’s extradition, posting definitively “The US must cease granting refuge to Bolsonaro in Florida.”  Noticeably, Senator Bernie Sanders also Tweeted a defense of Brazil’s democracy, writing he “stand[s] with the country’s democratically elected government,” but didn’t take a stance on extradition. Members of the federal government were more muted in their rhetoric.

President Biden said Brazil’s democratic institutions “have our full support,” but no one acknowledged if Bolsonaro would be allowed to stay in the United States. Spokesman Ned Price nearly revealed the administration’s opinion, saying that “If an individual has no basis on which to be in the United States, an individual is subject to removal by the Department of Homeland Security,” in response to a reporter’s question at a press conference. Lauren Hitt, AOC’s communications director, responded by saying “ we have not heard directly from the Biden administration,” when asked if the Congresswoman had discussed extradition with the Biden White House. 

Despite the Bolsonaristas’ large turnout for their attack in Brasilia, the pro-democracy demonstrations that occurred across Brazil afterward were far larger. And within weeks, over 700 coup supporters were arrested. The Brazilian government’s response to January 8th versus the US government’s response to January 6th, are incomparable. Silverman believes this is because Brazil has experienced dictatorship in its recent past. “The United States has never survived a military dictatorship,” Silverman explained, while the “actual, real impacts of a coup,” is something “very real for Brazilian politicians.” 

Ultimately, the shocking images from the January 8th attack may create a stronger Lula administration. “Compared to the opposition, Lula now has a monopoly on democracy,” explained Traumann. “His adversaries praise him for having defended democratic institutions and even his opponents will end up softening their criticism so as not to be confused with the coup mongers.” The images of the vandalism caused a national commotion that united the country as only the matches of the Brazilian soccer team are capable of doing.” 

But Valente warned the Brazilian public shouldn’t become complacent. “The events of Jan 8 showed that important segments within powerful institutions, such as police forces and groups in the Army, are supportive of a violent overthrow of our elected government,” Valente said. “Brazilian institutions must act fast to identify these groups and punish them according to the law.”