The attacks of Bolsonarist supporters on democracy and the rule of law in Brazil have reached an extent that has never been witnessed in Brazil since the promulgation of the Constitution of 1988.
On 8 January 2023, emulating the events of 6 January 2020 in the USA, a mob of 3,000 Bolsonaro supporters invaded and destroyed the buildings of the National Congress, the Federal Supreme Court, and the Presidency of the Republic in Brazil, which are all located in the famous quarter known as the “Three Branches Square”.
In a way, the invasion of the US Capitol has been more tragic, given that human lives have been lost. But there is a sense in which the assault in Brazil was more devastating from a symbolic point of view. To begin with, the attack was more intense and affected all of the branches of power. Very few pieces of furniture, computers, equipment, artistic work, or memorabilia in governmental buildings are still standing as I write. In the National Congress, a part of the building was set on fire, while another part of it (the plenaries of both Houses) was flooded and vandalized. In the Presidency of the Republic, the pictures of all previous Presidents have been destroyed and some priceless works of art (including one of the most celebrated works of Brazilian painter Di Cavalcanti) have been torn apart. In the Federal Supreme Court, not even the chair of the Chief Justice, the Coat of Arms of the Republic, and the crucifix that stands above the plenary section have survived.
When night fell in Brasília, President Lula had already decreed Federal Intervention in the Federal District, and Justice Alexandre de Moraes, from the Federal Supreme Court, had issued a temporary restraining order to remove the Governor of the Federal District from office for an initial period of 90 days. The assault was a general attack on political authority, and the ugliest face of it is that it has been supported and incentivized not only by former President Jair Bolsonaro, but also by some police officers and by authorities like the recently re-elected Governor of the Federal District, Ibaneis Rocha, and his Secretary of Security, Anderson Torres (who until 31 January 2022 was Bolsonaro’s Ministry of Justice).
Fighting the Law: Bolsonarism in “Terror-Mode”
Since the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for his third term as President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has not accepted the electoral results and urged his supporters to gather in front of Military buildings around the country, camping and demonstrating in defence of a coup to remove Lula da Silva from office and install a military dictatorship in Brazil.
Although there is an inquiry in the Federal Supreme Court to investigate the omissions of governmental authorities and the responsibility of the financers of these demonstrations, the authoritarian camps in front of the military headquarters have been going on for more than two months, with structures that provide catering, lodging, and transport for the Bolsonarist supporters who camp therein.
When on 12 December 2022 the Superior Electoral Court formally acknowledged Lula da Silva as the winner of the 2022 presidential election it became clear that some participants in these camps were planning terrorist attacks.
Shortly after the Superior Electoral Court pronounced Lula as the legitimate winner of the presidential elections, a mob attempted to enter the Headquarters of the Federal Police in response to the arrest of a Bolsonarist indigenous and evangelical leader who is accused of being one of the organizers of some of these illegal camps and roadblocks. Although the trespassers failed to enter the building, several cars and buses were burned and an atmosphere of terror was installed, without any form of resistance by the Federal District’s local police or any statement by President Bolsonaro, who was still in office at that time.
In a similar way, on 24 December 2022, the police arrested a man who placed a bomb on a fuel tank and attempted to blow it in the International Airport of Brasília, aiming to create a chaotic scenario and to prevent the inauguration of Lula as President of the Republic. When interrogated by the police, he revealed that the act was planned, prepared, and initially executed inside the camp that was erected in front of the headquarters of the Army.
As Conrado Hubner Mendes described in a comment on this episode, “stirred up by the President of the Republic and tolerated by public officials, the perpetrators of terror can kill you under the screams of ‘homeland’ and ‘freedom’. That’s not delirious, it’s a plan that is thought through, financed, and authorized.”
The threat to democracy in Brazil has become, in fact, permanent, predictable, and authorized, such that the attacks of 8 January 2023 cannot be said to come as a surprise.
Another January Assault
It is against this background that Lula took office. In his inauguration speech, the new President committed to offering an effective response to this threat. “What the Brazilian people suffered in these last years”, he said in response to Bolsonaro’s denialism about COVID-19, “was a slow and progressive construction of a genocide. We have lived through one of the worst periods in our history: an age of shadows, uncertainty and suffering. But this nightmare has come to an end”.
It would not take long, however, for the emergence of another threat. After receiving the news that another raid was being plotted by the organizers of the anti-democratic acts, Lula’s Minister of Justice, Flávio Dino, announced that he requested help from a federal elite squad (the Força Nacional) to provide additional support to the local police of the Federal District.
Nevertheless, the federal squad’s numbers are small and there is little they can do without support from a larger force. The primary responsibility for public safety is held by the state governments, or, in the case of the city of Brasília, the government of the Federal District.
According to Dino, in preparation for the upcoming demonstrations that had been announced in the press, he summed the Governor of the Federal District, Ibaneis Rocha, and the Secretary of Security of the Federal District, Anderson Torres, to request a security perimeter to protect the Square of the Three Branches.
The response, however, was very shy, with an astonishingly low number of policemen to protect the buildings of the Presidency, the National Congress, and the Federal Supreme Court.
In a country where the police forces are by a vast majority identified with Bolsonaro’s extreme right-wing ideology, it was crucial to issue a firm directive to the members of the security forces. Nevertheless, the police response could not have been more timid. Governor Ibaneis Rocha is an enthusiastic supporter of Bolsonaro, and his Secretary of Security (and Commander of the Federal District police), Anderson Torres, was Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice until Lula took office on 01 January 2023.
Moments before the invasion of the buildings, policemen declared the demonstration “peaceful and rightful”, interacted with the protestors, made selfies and photographed themselves in front of the attack. In effect, the district government not only allowed demonstrations to come too close to the square but also used police cars and officers to escort the terrorists to the site of the attack.
The Federal Government’s Response
It took the assaulters less than one and a half hours to destroy almost the entirety of the buildings of the three branches of government. But the federal government’s response was equally fast.
Less than two hours after the assault, President Lula da Silva issued a decree of federal intervention in the government of the Federal District, to take control of the local police forces. Very soon thereafter, the police responded at full capacity and regained control over the three federal buildings in less than two hours.
More than three hundred people have been arrested in flagrante delicto, and the highway police intercepted dozens of buses that transported them to Brasília, to participate in the raid.
At the same time, the General Advocacy of the Union filed a claim in the Federal Supreme Court with a request for a large number of measures, including the arrest of the Secretary of Government of the Federal District and the removal from office of the Governor of the Federal District.
Justice Alexandre de Moraes’s Restraining Order
The judicial response was also prompt. Around midnight Brazilian time, Justice Alexandre de Moraes issued a restraining order acknowledging the following facts: first, “the terrorists and criminals have been escorted by cars of the military police of the Federal District to the site of the crimes”; second, “the military police of the Federal District has not shown the resistance required for the severity of the situation, and there is even news of policemen who abandoned their positions”; third, “a part of the officers who have been posted to prevent the occurrence of violent acts has not adopted the appropriate and regular measures of security organs, having filmed, facetiously and for their personal entertainment, the terrorist and criminal acts; fourth, “Anderson Gustavo Torres [the Secretary of Security of the Federal District] has been dismissed from his post, at the moment in which the terrorist acts were occurring”.
Justice Moraes stated that “there is serious evidence that the conduct of the criminal terrorists only could occur through the participation or willful omission … of the forementioned public authorities”. He called the omission “willful and criminal” and held that the omission of the public authorities “in addition to being potentially criminal” amounts to an “announced tragedy”, given the enormous amount of information disclosed in the media about the circumstances of the assault.
Based on these findings, Moraes went further than the Federal Government and decided to temporarily remove Governor Ibaneis Rocha from office, and ordered the immediate removal of all camps in front of military buildings around the country. Moraes determined also, in that energic judicial statement, the arrest in flagrante derelict of the people participating in these camps. As I conclude this article, on 09 Jan 2023 at 1pm at Greenwhich Time, 1,200 more people (in addition to the 300 arrested yesterday) have already been arrested in the city of Brasília.
The Expected Legislative Response
During the acts, the chairman of the two Houses of the National Congress suspended the legislative recess and summed the representatives and senators to an extraordinary session of the House of Representatives, to be held on Tuesday, 09 January 2023 at 10 am, and of the Senate, to be held on the same day in the afternoon period.
A motion to create a parliamentary inquiry commission in the Senate has been presented, and will be discussed in the next full days. The point of the parliamentary commission, according to Senator Renan Calheiros, is to “investigate the responsibility for the acts of vandalism that occurred this Sunday in Brasília”. Given the publicity of this type of parliamentary commissions, which can be exemplified with the Senate’s inquiry commission to investigate Bolsonaro’s denialist attitudes towards COVID-19 (that weakened the federal government and contributed to preventing Bolsonaro’s re-election for office), it is expected that this inquiry will bring further light into the details of this serious threat to constitutional democracy.
Conclusion: Making Bolsonarism Explicit
As I finish this article, in the morning of 09 January 2023, I hear on Brazilian CNN a report that more than 100 buses carrying attackers have been identified and their passengers reported, along with the financers of these trips.
There is still uncertainty about the circumstances of this attack, but it is expected that many further arrests will happen today. The significance of this assault is three-fold:
First, it made the principles endorsed by Bolsonarism explicit to everyone in the political system (even the supporters of Bolsonaro). Since the beginning of Bolsonaro’s term, he promised to destroy the Constitution of 1988 and to eliminate his opponents, and it looks like he’s managed to persuade several authorities to help in this malicious endeavour. In one of the most disturbing moments of this January 8th, a protestor stood on a stage holding a volume that he believed was the original document of the constitution of 1988, signed by the totality of the members of the Constitutional Assembly. Fortunately for us, the document was a copy and the original constitution (that stands in another room of the Federal Supreme Court building) survived unharmed. But the willingness to destroy that symbol is still there. If the constitution dies out, what dies with it is not only a vague principle, but a concrete way of life, which some of us call a “constitutional democracy”.
Second, it provides Brazilians with a unique, and perhaps the last, opportunity to rebuild. Lula has been elected with the most comprehensive political alliance ever reached since the creation of coalitional presidentialism in Brazil. He compromised with all of the democratic political spectre, and his vice-president (and faithful aide) is the man who ran against him in 2006. Yet despite the support of the whole democratic camp, Lula won an election against a fascist by a margin of less than 2%. We, Brazilians, need a stronger consensus on the value of the rule of law. I hope we don’t miss the chance to show to the other half of the Brazilian society the importance of democracy and the rule of law.
Third, the episode has put civil society under alert, isolating Bolsonaro and providing further support for the federal government and the other branches of power. A quick pool made by Quaest Institute in the last few hours, revealed that more than 90% of Brazilians reprove these acts.