What caused a massive attack on Brazil’s capital? Mass delusion.


Magno Rodrigues, a Bolsonaro supporter, in front of army headquarters where he camps before Lula’s inauguration in Brasilia, Brazil, on Dec. 31, 2022. (Dado Galdieri/The New York Times).

BRASÍLIA, Brazil — For the past 10 weeks, supporters of deposed far-right president Jair Bolsonaro camped outside Brazil’s military headquarters, demanding the military overturn October’s presidential election. And for the past 10 weeks, the protesters have met little resistance from the government.

Then, on Sunday, many of the camp residents left their tents in Brasília, the country’s capital, drove a few miles away and, along with hundreds of other protesters, stormed Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential offices.

On Monday morning, authorities were sweeping the camp. They dismantled tents, tore down banners and detained 1,200 protesters, taking them away in buses for questioning.

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Why an encampment demanding a military coup was allowed to last more than 70 days was part of a larger set of questions officials wrestled with Monday, including:

Why were protests allowed to come so close to Brazil’s halls of power? And why were the security forces so outnumbered, allowing crowds of demonstrators to easily enter official government buildings?

Brazil’s Justice Minister, Flávio Dino, said several security forces had met on Friday to plan for potential violence during Sunday’s planned protests. But, he said, the security strategy hatched at that rally, which included keeping protesters away from key government buildings, was at least partially abandoned on Sunday and law enforcement was far fewer than expected.

“The police force was not what was agreed upon,” he said, adding that it was unclear why the plans had changed.

Some in the federal government blamed Brasília’s governor, Ibaneis Rocha, and his deputies, suggesting they had been negligent or complicit in understaffing security forces around the protests.

Late Sunday, Supreme Court justice Alexandre de Moraes suspended Rocha from his job as governor for at least 90 days, saying the unrest “could only take place with the consent, and even effective participation, of the security and intelligence services.”

Whatever security concerns may have arisen, Sunday’s uprising shockingly exposed the central challenge facing Brazilian democracy. Unlike other attempts to overthrow governments in Latin America’s history, Sunday’s attacks were not ordered by a single strong ruler or an army seeking power, but were fueled by a more insidious, deep-seated threat : massive deception.

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Millions of Brazilians seem convinced that October’s presidential election was rigged against Bolsonaro, despite audits and analysis by experts finding nothing of the sort. Those beliefs are in part the product of years of conspiracy theories, misleading statements and explicit falsehoods spread by Bolsonaro and his allies who claim that Brazil’s all-electronic voting systems are riddled with fraud.

Bolsonaro’s supporters have been repeating the claims for months, then building on them with new conspiracy theories passed in group chats on WhatsApp and Telegram, with many focusing on the idea that the software of the electronic voting machines was manipulated to steal the election. On Sunday, protesters stood on the roof of the convention with a banner with a single demand: “We want the source code.”

Orlando Pinheiro Farias, 40, walked out of the protest camp Monday morning, saying he entered the presidential offices with fellow protesters on Sunday to find documents related to “the source code investigations, which legitimize Jair Messiah Bolsonaro as the president. from Brazil.”

He rattled off various government abbreviations and secret investigations he’d read about on the Internet, then said he had to go back to his tent and retrieve a Brazilian flag he’d stolen from the building.

Delusions about the election extended to many demonstrators’ accounts of what had happened during the riots. People who emerged from the encampment on Monday morning, with rolled-up air mattresses, extension cords and crutches, all had a clear message: Bolsonaro’s supporters had not looted the buildings. Rather, they said, those doing the damage were radical leftists in disguise, determined to defame their movement.

“Have you ever heard of the Trojan horse?” said Nathanael S. Viera, 51, who had driven 900 miles to join the protests on Sunday. “The infiltrators went in and went all out, and the damn press showed the Brazilian nation that we patriots are the hooligans.”

Sunday’s scenes of right-wing protesters draped in their national flags wandering the halls of power were strikingly similar to those of the January 6 storming of the US Capitol, as were the confused beliefs that led protesters in both countries to invade. federal buildings and film themselves doing so.

“Donald Trump was eliminated with rigged elections, there is no doubt about that, and the moment he was eliminated I said, ‘President Bolsonaro will be removed,'” said Wanderlei Silva, 59, a retired hotel employee standing outside the encampment on Monday. .

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Silva saw his own similarities between Sunday’s riots and the one on January 6, 2021. “The Democrats carried that out and invaded the Capitol,” he said. “The same way they staged it here.”

Brazil has long envisioned itself in the mold of the United States: a vast, diverse country rich in natural resources, spread across a collection of independent states and governed by a strong central government. But its tumultuous political history has never quite replicated the American system, until recent years.

“If there were no Trump, there would be no Bolsonaro in Brazil. And if there hadn’t been an invasion of the Capitol, there wouldn’t have been an invasion that we saw yesterday,” said Guga Chacra, a commentator for Brazil’s largest television network, who lives in New York and follows politics in both countries. “Bolsonarismo is trying to copy Trumpism, and Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil are trying to copy what Trump supporters are doing in the United States.”

Even a description of the 2022 Brazilian presidential election reads like a recap of the 2020 US presidential election: a far-right populist incumbent with a penchant for insults and off-the-cuff tweets against a 70-year-old challenger on the left who has lost his proven political record of service and a promise to unite a divided nation.

But the aftermath of the election was different.

While former President Donald Trump fought to overturn the results and urged his supporters to march to the US Capitol on January 6, Bolsonaro had effectively given up and left for Florida by the time his constituents began to force their way into the offices he once occupied .

Bolsonaro spent part of Monday in hospital in Florida suffering from abdominal pain following a stabbing he suffered in 2018, his wife said on social media. Bolsonaro plans to remain in Florida for the next few weeks or months in the hope that Brazil’s investigation into his activities as president will cool down, a friend said.

State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment specifically on Bolsonaro’s visa status, citing privacy laws. But he said any person coming to the United States on a diplomatic visa who “is no longer conducting official business on behalf of his government” was expected to either leave the country or apply for another type of visa within 30 days. .

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“If a person has no basis for being in the United States, a person can be removed,” Price said.

In a recorded speech in the final days of his presidency, Bolsonaro said he had tried and failed to use the law to overturn the 2022 election, and suggested his supporters should move on now. “We live in a democracy or not,” he said. “Nobody wants an adventure.” On Sunday, he posted a message on Twitter criticizing the violence.

But his years of rhetoric against Brazil’s democratic institutions — and his political strategy to instill fears of the left among his supporters — had already left an indelible mark.

Interviews with protesters in recent weeks showed that Bolsonaro’s movement was beyond him. It is now driven by the deep-seated belief among many right-wing Brazilians that political elites have manipulated the vote to install as president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom they view as a communist who will turn Brazil into an authoritarian state like Venezuela.

Lula, the new president, is left-wing but not a communist. And independent security experts said there was no evidence of irregularities in the 2022 ballot. A separate analysis by the Brazilian military found just one potential vulnerability in Brazil’s all-digital voting system, which would require the coordination of multiple election officials to exploit , a scenario that security experts said was extremely unlikely.

Lula, who had campaigned to unite the divided nation, now faces the investigation and prosecution of many supporters of his political opponents just a week into his presidency. Authorities said about 1,500 protesters had been detained by Monday night and would be held until at least the investigation was completed.

On Monday, Lula spoke with President Joe Biden, who conveyed “the unwavering support of the United States for the democracy of Brazil and for the free will of the Brazilian people,” White House officials said. Biden invited Lula to the White House in early February. (It was more than 18 months before he met Bolsonaro at a Los Angeles summit.)

In a televised address Monday night, Lula said his government would prosecute anyone who attacked Brazilian democracy on Sunday. “What they want is a coup, and they don’t want it,” he said. “They need to learn that democracy is the most complicated thing we do.”

He and many of Brazil’s top government officials then walked together from the presidential offices to the Supreme Court, crossing the same plaza that was filled with mobs calling for the overthrow of his government the day before.

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