Bolsonaro followers condemn Brasília riot, remain loyal



BRASÍLIA — The shocking assault by thousands of right-wing zealots on Brazil’s federal government has set up a test for the country’s conservatives — one that’s forcing some of its most influential figures into the kind of political contortions familiar to American Republicans in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Many ardent backers of right-wing former president Jair Bolsonaro, who has refused to concede his October election loss, remain committed. Their radicalization could challenge the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva going forward.

Bolsonaro spent years sowing mistrust in Brazil’s democratic institutions, stoking the anger that exploded on Sunday. Thousands of his conspiracy-driven, misinformation-spewing loyalists, insisting without evidence that Lula stole the election, stormed the congress, presidential palace and supreme court, smashing windows, splintering furniture, slashing paintings and looting documents and guns.

On Wednesday, authorities here blocked social media accounts and beefed up security as they braced for nationwide protests. In the capital and other cities, the turnout suggested the bolsonaristas are at least temporarily demotivated. In Brasília, hundreds of security forces and first responders occupied the esplanade that was the site of Sunday’s riots. The Washington Post found three people who said they had showed up to participate in a demonstration.

Ricardo Capelli, Lula’s designated intervenor for the federal district of Brasília after its pro-Bolsonaro governor was suspended, said police from 16 different states had arrived in the capital to provide security. Authorities felt confident enough in the security conditions to hold vibrant installation ceremonies for Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples, and its minister of racial equality, in the presidential palace targeted by rioters on Sunday.

Flavio Dino, Lula’s justice minister, suggested the call for protests might have been a red herring. “This has been going on for months,” he told The Post. “These cards circulate with calls for actions, and nothing happens. It’s psychological terrorism.”

Bolsonaro, who left the country before Lula’s inauguration Jan. 1, remains holed up in Florida. He has condemned the violence.

Ninety-three percent of Brazilians oppose the assault in Brasília, according to a poll released by the Brazilian firm Datafolha on Wednesday.

Prominent conservatives haven’t exactly distanced themselves from Bolsonaro. But the antidemocratic attack on buildings cherished by Brazilians has put conservatives here on the defensive, driving a wedge between some of the more moderate voices on the right that have backed Bolsonaro, and the more radical fringe.

Speaking to The Washington Post on Wednesday, Valdemar Costa Neto, president of Bolsonaro’s party and one of his closest allies, at one point echoed a Republican claim after the Capitol insurrection: The worst of the damage on Sunday, he said, was caused by leftists who infiltrated the protest.

But then he said his side must confront any vandals in its own ranks.

“What happened on Sunday is inadmissible. It is a crime,” he said. “Those who did these acts have to be punished, even if it’s discovered that they are people from our party.”

He added: “The acts on Sunday may have hurt the image of Bolsonaro and of our party a little, but we will recover. I continue to support Bolsonaro, because the people who voted for Bolsonaro are good people. They are families. They need to continue [to protest], but without violence.”

Some of Bolsonaro’s more moderate backers have made moves that suggest a tacit acknowledgment that a line was crossed Sunday. Two powerful governors allied with Bolsonaro — Romeu Zema of Minas Gerais and Tarcísio de Freitas of São Paulo — appeared alongside Lula on Monday with other governors and senior officials in a repudiation of the assaults.

“For Brazil to move forward, the debate must be about ideas, and the opposition must be responsible, pointing out directions,” de Freitas tweeted after the attacks. “Demonstrations lose their legitimacy from the moment there is violence, depredation, or curtailment of rights. We will not accept this.”

“In any protest, respect must prevail,” Zema tweeted. “The vandalism that occurred today in Brasília is unacceptable. Freedom of expression cannot be mixed with depredation of public bodies. In the end, who will pay for this will be all of us.”

For Lula, a titan of the global left who now leads Latin America’s largest nation, the upside of the assault may be a fresh willingness by some on the right to consider the political center.

“It is challenging because they know that their political futures are unfeasible if they support what happened on Sunday. [Moderate] conservative voters do not accept what happened on Sunday,” said Thomas Traumann, a researcher at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a university in São Paulo.

“Having said that, Bolsonaro is the one who had millions of votes. This requires balance. They have to repudiate Sunday as an excess, but they cannot approach Lula too much.”

Right-wing senator Soraya Thronicke, a former presidential candidate, publicly split from Bolsonaro well before Sunday’s riot. In the aftermath of the assault, she led efforts to launch a parliamentary inquiry commission to investigate the assault, similar to the Jan. 6 committee in the United States.

Thronicke said she received more support than she expected — even from pro-Bolsonaro lawmakers. She needed 27 signatures and received 47.

“Some of them supported just because they would get embarrassed” if they were associated with the attack. But she argued Bolsonaro has “everything to do with it.”

“His silence spoke so loud,” she said.

The violence exposed the extent of the threat the government faces from a radicalized base that appears to include members of the presidential guard and other police forces. Lula and his advisers have publicly accused them of colluding with rioters on Sunday.

On Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes approved warrants for the arrests of Anderson Torres, the former public security chief for the federal district of Brasília, and Col. Fábio Augusto, former commander of military police in the district. But scores of rank-and-file officers who government officials accuse of aiding and abetting the rioters remain in their jobs.

Paulo Pimenta, Lula’s communication’s minister, called holding those officers accountable a herculean task. “They can say, ‘I was working, I stopped for a minute to drink coconut water, it was very hot, but the rest of the day I was working.’’

The problem, he told The Post, is not limited to the police. Bolsonaro filled civilian posts in the executive branch with police and military officers, some of whom appear to remain loyal to him.

“Bolsonaro created a very powerful mechanism for co-opting” the government, Pimenta said.

The most durable challenge for Lula may come from the die-hard bolsonaristas, who are emboldened by the same brand of conspiracy theory that fueled Sunday’s mob.

“It was the left wing infiltrating the movement,” said Jose Roberto Ladario, a 67-year-old Uber driver in Brasilia. He said right-wing demonstrators generally do not vandalize. “I don’t think they were really bolsonaristas.”

Cleiton Marcus, a 50-year-old electrician in Brasília, pointed to videos, unverified and circulating in pro-Bolsonaro social media groups, that he said proved that leftists were the ones responsible for destroying government property.

The violence “doesn’t change anything” for supporters of the former president, he said. “Bolsonaro has always looked out for the best interest of people.”

But Francisca Dias, a 71-year-old who voted for Bolsonaro, doesn’t doubt that his supporters were involved in the riot.

“I believe that people were tired,” she said. “They had stayed in the army headquarters for so long that they were exhausted and waiting for a miracle that did not come. … It’s not like them to do something like that.”

She was shocked and saddened by the destruction: “No one wants this for the country.” But she was resolute in her support for the former president.

“He’s done his best, and we’re fighting a dictatorship,” she said. “He’s rude sometimes, but he has a big heart. Bolsonaro supporters know him. They know he’s someone who wouldn’t incite violence.”

“If he’s the candidate in the next election,” she said, “We’ll vote for him again.”

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