Florida holds a swampy allure for Bolsonaro and other foreign leaders



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Former Nicaraguan leader Anastasio Somoza didn’t have to downgrade too much when he fled the presidential palace in 1979. Indeed, he found himself quite welcome when he arrived in the ultraexclusive Miami enclave of Sunset Islands.

“We’re very glad to have him,” Josephine Brooks, a neighbor, said at the time. “He won’t change our situation a bit. Maybe he’ll join the [homeowner’s] association.”

Somoza, whose family had led the Central American nation for 43 years, was accused of crushing dissent and pilfering its money. From his new home, he pledged to keep fighting for “democracy,” whatever the costs.

“If it is a lifetime in exile, I will wipe floors if I must,” he said of his new life in the Sunshine State.

Florida may be the butt of many American jokes, but for decades the state has held a strange allure for foreign leaders ousted from power. So perhaps it’s no surprise that in his last days in office, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro took up refuge at an Orlando suburb near Disney World.

The far-right leader had been in Florida just a week when supporters stormed government buildings in protest after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn into office. Bolsonaro had for months spread false claims about his loss to Lula at the polls.

Bolsonaro, who later tweeted that he was in a Florida hospital receiving treatment, has denied culpability for the attacks. Before the insurrection, his time in Florida had been bizarrely mundane, with trips to Publix supermarket and Kentucky Fried Chicken documented by curious fans.

But U.S. lawmakers are now demanding to know what his legal status is in the United States — and how long he will be staying.

It’s a strange situation, but hardly unfamiliar. When General Gerardo Machado, the ousted dictator of Cuba, fled Havana in 1933 with a reported five revolvers and seven bags of gold, he embarked on a long journey that would eventually see him land in exile in Miami.

Decades later in 1959, another Cuban dictator — Fulgencio Batista — flew to Jacksonville on his initial escape from the country following the revolution led by Fidel Castro.

In 1990, former Haitian leader Prosper Avril was flown to Homestead aboard a U.S. military jet in a bid to escape likely bloodshed at home, soon moving to a mansion in Boca Raton. Three years later, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada boarded a commercial flight to Miami to escape rolling protests in El Paz (though he quickly moved on to a slightly less glamorous location: Maryland).

Carlos Andrés Pérez, a two-time Venezuelan president, lived in Miami in self-imposed exile before his death in 2010. His passing sparked a battle between his estranged Venezuelan wife and his longtime Floridian mistress about where he should be buried (the wife eventually won). Marcos Peréz Jiménez, another Venezuelan leader, lived in Miami between 1958 and 1963 after he was ousted.

Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli decamped to Miami’s upscale Coral Gables neighborhood after leaving office in 2014, moving to a mansion reportedly worth $8.2 million.

Scratch the surface, and the links are even deeper: The Miami New Times once published a guide to the homes of former officials from Latin American dictatorships who had moved to the area. And long before, in Spanish colonial Florida, the Haitian slave leader Georges Biassou found refuge in St. Augustine.

What explains Florida’s allure? Perhaps the geography. There are barely 100 miles between Havana and Key West, while Miami International Airport is a regional hub for flights across Latin America.

Or is it the diaspora? When Washington Post reporters traveled to Orlando to find Bolsonaro this weekend, they found adoring fans outside the vacation home where the former Brazilian leader was staying. (The home, owned by a Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter, is typically central Florida; in a gated community, with Disney and Minions-themed rooms, a 20-minute drive from the motels on Kissimmee’s infamously blighted Highway 192).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, there are about 115,000 Brazilians in Florida — more than a fifth of all Brazilians in the country. The communities of Cubans and Haitians are even larger. More than a quarter of the state is Latino, with Spanish as the dominant language in some metropolitan areas.

Lifestyle? The sticky, stormy summer weather isn’t so different than found in the Caribbean, while beaches in Miami or St. Petersburg could serve as a substitute for Rio.

But there seems to be more than that: For those who see themselves as part of the global right-wing vanguard, the state has another distinct appeal. Former president Donald Trump has his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach (Trump advisers told The Post that there were discussions about Bolsonaro attending a New Year’s Eve party there, but he did not go in the end).

Floridian Gov. Ron DeSantis won easy reelection last November, elevating himself to the top of the Republican pecking order for the 2024 presidential election. If he were to win, DeSantis would be the first Florida-born president of the United States. And while DeSantis is known for anti-immigration rhetoric, leaders fleeing left-wing movements at home may see a kindred spirit in a leader who decries “Marxism,” in an echo of the older U.S. anti-communist foreign policy.

But Florida is a fickle, unpredictable place. And many foreign leaders have found their new home inhospitable in the end.

Facing a human rights lawsuit in Florida, Haiti’s Avril returned to his home country in 1992 to avoid a $20 million fine. Bolivia’s Sanchez de Lozada also ended up in a Florida courtroom, this time in Fort Lauderdale, where he and another former official were found culpable for civilian deaths during 2003 street protests in Bolivia and fined $10 million.

Manuel Antonio Noriega, the Panamanian strongman, spent years in a Miami jail cell after being forcibly taken to Florida by U.S. troops on drug trafficking charges in 1979. He would eventually die back home in Panama, still in jail, decades later.

Noriega served time near his countryman Martinelli, who was arrested in Miami in 2017 after a request from Panamanian authorities. Martinelli was then extradited back home, where he has faced a variety of charges, while his two sons received U.S. prison terms in a money laundering case.

Cuban dictator Batista’s Florida dream never happened — he was forced to leave the United States after his application for asylum was rejected, even though he owned property in the state and had family there. He instead lived out the rest of his life in Spain; though he was immensely wealthy, in 2017 local news reported that one of his daughters was homeless and living in a Fort Lauderdale park after losing her share of his fortune.

Somoza didn’t spend long in Sunset Islands either. He was confident about staying when he spoke to The Post in 1979 — “I have many friends who are going to make my asylum easier,” he reportedly said with a smile — but grew fearful that he would be extradited back home at the request of the new Sandinista government.

He eventually made it to Paraguay, where he reportedly gained weight and grew depressed. He was killed in a barrage of machine gun fire as he drove near his home in a white Mercedes-Benz in 1980.

It’s not clear how long Bolsonaro will stay in Florida. The White House is under pressure to expel him, especially if Brazil moves to extradite him, but that may take a protracted legal battle. Eventually, like many out-of-state retirees, he may find the Sunshine State isn’t the paradise he hoped for.

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