Brazil’s Shocking—but Not Surprising—Attempted Coup

Brazil’s Shocking—but Not Surprising—Attempted Coup

Brazil’s Shocking—but Not Surprising—Attempted Coup

The attacks in Brasilia failed, but Bolsonaro’s supporters are not going to go away quietly.


It was not exactly a surprise. Bolsonaro and his allies had been threatening to do it for years. But it was still shocking to watch.

On Sunday, thousands of supporters of the far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro swarmed past security forces and pushed their way into government buildings. They ransacked Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidential Palace. Cheering. Commemorating their breach, just as their compatriots did in the 2021 US Capitol raid.

This was Brazil’s January 6 moment—though it occurred on January 8. If this scene were a painting, it would be hard to tell the difference from the original.

The country was mostly horrified. Brazilians were glued to their TV screens or frantically refreshing the feed on their phones. Videos shared over social media showed scenes of chaos. Majestic government offices wrecked. Windows broken. Nothing like this had ever happened.

The office of Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes was flipped upside down. Tables, chairs, cabinets, and electrical equipment were broken and strewn across the floor. Papers littered the ground. One man carried a firefighter’s hose from which water gushed and pooled around the room. Another offered his companions crackers from a package he found in the office.

“This is going down in history,” shouted a man off-camera, who filmed from the top of Congress. He pointed the cell phone camera out over a sea of yellow and green—the colors of both Brazil and Bolsonaro—streamed up the ramp toward him.

“This is a story that will be retold by my grandchildren. By my great-grandchildren,” he said. “This house is ours.”

On the floor of the Senate, a crowd of people waved the Brazilian flag and sang the Brazilian national anthem. They said they were taking their country back. And they believed it.

Their attempted coup, however, was destined to fail. Whether those invading Brasilia believed it or not, there was little interest among Brazil’s elites and armed forces in a violent overthrow. And the attacks on Sunday against the country’s democratic institutions may have made President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva even stronger.

For two months, radical Bolsonaro supporters had been rallying in front of military barracks, calling for the Brazilian armed forces to oust President Lula, who won the October 30 presidential election and was inaugurated on January 1.

They believed the military was on their side. And they believed this attack would spur the soldiers to action. Despite a lack of evidence, that is what they had been told for months in their echo chambers over social media and in WhatsApp and Telegram group chats: that the election was stolen, that Lula was going to sink the country into a communist dictatorship, that Bolsonaro was ready to return, that they were the patriots fighting for Brazilian freedom.

And the first actions from the military police in Brasilia on Sunday confirmed that impression. The officers escorted the march of Bolsonaro supporters toward Congress, where the protesters broke through their lines, pouring into the Oscar Niemeyer–designed modernist buildings.

Their euphoria lasted only a few hours.

Lula, who was traveling in the countryside of São Paulo State to assess the damages from major rains there, responded a couple of hours into the attack. “All those people who did this will be found and punished,” Lula said in a live address. “They will realize that democracy guarantees freedom, the right of expression, but also demands that people respect the institutions.”

He ordered a federal intervention into the Brasilia security force until the end of the month. Within the hour, shock troops swept Bolsonaro supporters from the buildings.

Justice Minister Flavio Dino announced that those involved could get 12 years in prison, the maximum penalty for attempting to overthrow a legitimate government and for obstructing Brazil’s constitutional powers.

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who had been a thorn in Bolsonaro’s side throughout his presidency, acted swiftly. He ordered nine measures including the three-month suspension of Brasilia State Governor Ibaneis Rocha and the removal, within 24 hours, of all encampments of Bolsonaro supporters that had been stationed outside of military barracks for the previous two months.

“Nothing justifies the existence of these terrorist camps, financed with the complacency of civil and military authorities in a totally subversive manner and without any respect for the Constitution,” he wrote.

Both the Senate and the Supreme Court have launched investigations into the attack, focusing partly on who funded it. They have requested information about the more than 100 buses that ferried people to Brasilia in the days before the raid. And who provided the food and resources while they were there.

These investigations are not new to Justice Moraes. He’s been at the helm of previous inquiries into antidemocratic protests against Congress and the courts. He’s also jailed prominent members of Bolsonaro’s so-called “Hate Cabinet,” a loose network of Bolsonaro allies who pushed fake news and misinformation over social media and messaging applications.

In August, Moraes authorized raids against a team of pro-Bolsonaro businessmen for financing previous antidemocratic rallies and allegedly plotting pro-Bolsonaro coup scenarios over WhatsApp, in the case that Bolsonaro lost his bid for reelection.

By Monday night, 1,200 Bolsonaro supporters had been arrested and pro-Bolsonaro encampments around the country removed, some, by force. The military police did the job, with the support of the Armed Forces.

“Until an hour ago, we believed in the army. That they were going to protect us,” said one woman with a camouflage hat and a Brazilian flag tied around her neck. She had been camped with Bolsonaro supporters in Brasilia. In the video posted over social media on Monday, her voice is breaking as she holds back tears.

“But the army handed us over to the military police. We are being taken out of here like animals, inside buses,” she says. “I don’t know where we are going.”

The role of the army in removing the Bolsonaro encampments has helped to dispel the myth among even Bolsonaro’s more ardent supporters that the military might, at some point, finally rise up in their favor.

While Bolsonaro supporters overwhelmed Brasilia on Sunday, there were concerns that sectors of the military might have their back. “There was a lot of nervousness because of the fact that Brazil does have a more turbulent institutional history than the United States, because there have been military coups in the past, and because of the fact that the police forces are themselves well armed,” said UCLA historian Bryan Pitts, whose new book, Until the Storm Passes: Politicians, Democracy, and the Demise of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship, looks at the factors that led to the fall of the Brazil’s military regime in 1985.

On Sunday, security forces had largely stepped aside and allowed the invasion of Brasilia to occur. Investigations are underway, but evidence suggests that Anderson Torres had fired top security officials days before and that on the day of the insurrection he had instructed his forces to show only feigned resistance to the protesters. On January 2, he had been placed in charge of security in Brasilia, but before that, he was Bolsonaro’s justice minister. On Sunday, he was conveniently out of the country, on vacation in the United States. According to reports, he met with Bolsonaro in Orlando, Fla., the day before the attack. Brasilia governor Ibaneis Rocha fired him while the raid was still underway. Supreme Court Justice Moraes has now ordered him to be detained, along with former commander of the Military Police in Brasilia Fabio Augusto Vieira.

It’s still unknown how involved Bolsonaro was in the organization of the coup attempt. He remains in Florida, where he has been since he left Brazil two days ahead of Lula’s inauguration. But many analysts place the blame squarely on his shoulders. He spent his administration attacking the other branches of government, calling for their closure and spurring his people into the streets. He’s peddled fake news, denouncing voting machines and pushing a fraud narrative that led many of his supporters to question Lula’s electoral win.

He set the scene for the chaos and violence in Brasilia on Sunday. And even with the pushback from Brazil’s institutions, his people will not go away quietly. “For now, I don’t think we’ll see any similar events like this unfold. But Bolsonarism is going to continue to be very strong,” said Rafael Ioris, a Brazilian professor of Latin American history at the University of Denver. “I think they will try other things, like lone-wolf attacks on individuals like Moraes or his family members.”

It is no coincidence that Bolsonaro is in Florida—the land of Mar-a-Lago and Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s political idol. It is also unlikely to be a coincidence that the raid was carried out only two days from the anniversary of the January 6 attack on Washington. Far-right leaders and their networks are not working in a vacuum. Bolsonaro’s own congressman son, Eduardo, is the Latin American head of Steve Bannon’s organization, The Movement, whose goal is to foment far-right organizing abroad. Eduardo Bolsonaro was in Washington, with Trump allies, on the day of the US capitol invasion in 2021.

“They share experiences and techniques in order to elevate the chances of success in campaigns,” said Santa Catarina Federal University foreign relations professor Camila Feix Vidal, who studies international far-right movements. “This is done not only with regard to Bannon and the Bolsonaro family, but with regards to Bannon acting as a link between all the other far-right leaders in the world.”

But if the Brasilia attack was an attempted coup, it failed miserably. Former president Bolsonaro’s approval is now at an all-time low, according to the polling agency Quest. His most hard-core supporters are isolated. Even Bolsonaro allies—such the leader of the lower house, Arthur Lira—have condemned the attack. And Lula has a popular mandate to put the country in order.

On Monday night, the Brazilian president walked across Brasilia’s esplanade alongside his cabinet ministers, the heads of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, and Brazil’s 27 state governors. They surveyed the damage, visiting the headquarters of the three branches of government that were attacked.

“This is a really important scene, right now, coming just a day after one of the most severe attacks our democracy has suffered since the end of the dictatorship,” a CNN Brazil newscaster said on air.

“People that rarely come together like this are here united, united for the country, united for democracy.”

Lula said they would find those responsible and discover who financed the Brasilia attack: “We are not going to allow democracy to escape our hands, because it is the only chance for us to guarantee that humble people can eat three times a day, or have the right to work.”

That same night, Lula supporters also rallied in cities across the country in defense of their president and the democracy.

“Right now, the choice is between Lula and anarchy,” Pitts said. “And I think that the civilian political elite is going to throw their support behind Lula, because that’s really the only alternative they have right now to a complete breakdown of everything and the madness that we saw on Sunday.”

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