Lula Assumes Presidency in Brazil as Bolsonaro Hides in Florida, Supporters Grow More Violent (OPINION)

Jan 3, 2023
2:18 PM

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva stands at the Planalto Palace after he was sworn in as new president in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

An already violent year in Brazil ended with the threat of a truck bomb near Brasilia’s international airport and domestic terrorism, as well as hope for a better future as former President Jair Bolsonaro fled the country and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office with an emotional and moving speech and receiving the presidential sash from the “Brazilian people” represented by a black woman and waste picker, alongside a metal worker, a teacher, a political activist, a cook, a young man with cerebral palsy, a 10-year-old Black child, and Cacique Raoni, one of the most important figures in the struggle for the rights of Indigenous peoples.

On Christmas eve, police defused explosives found in a fuel truck in the capital city, Brasília. One suspect, George Washington de Oliveira, was arrested with a large arsenal of guns and explosives. According to police, he has links to groups of protesters camping in front of the barracks in Brasília, and police believe he wasn’t acting alone.

Originally from the state of Pará, where he owns a shop, Oliveira rented a flat in Brasília where an arsenal of weapons and bombs valued at around 170,000 reais, or $31,405, was found. His aim was to “start chaos” and force a military intervention, he confessed. He also planned to distribute weapons to other Bolsonaro supporters.

Supporters of former President Bolsonaro continue to occupy areas around army barracks demanding a military coup and have on several occasions adopted terrorist tactics, going so far as to kill supporters of then President-elect Lula da Silva.

Against this backdrop, Lula was sworn in on New Year’s Day and a concert for an estimated 300,000 people was held by artists who support the new president.

The president’s security and that of those in attendance were of great concern, and distrust of the armed forces, many of whose members remain close to Bolsonaro, a former army captain, was such that the Workers’ Party (PT, in Portuguese) decided to take the security of the president-elect out of the military’s hands and place it in those of the Federal Police.

Following the defeat of Bolsonaro, who attempted to win reelection for another four-year term as president, thousands of his most fanatical supporters occupied hundreds of roads across the country with the connivance of the Federal Highway Police and the Military Police. Gradually, the radical militants began to leave the roads and concentrate in front of army barracks, demanding military intervention to ensure the continuity of the Bolsonaro government.

On the institutional side, the former president’s party, the Liberal Party (PL), has filed a request to impugn 279,000 ballot boxes used in the second round—without presenting any evidence of fraud or even malfunctioning of the electronic boxes.

And a new wave of road occupations has swept across states where the former president won large percentages of the vote, such as Santa Catarina, Mato Grosso, and Rondônia. But now the actions have turned violent, with analysts and the Federal Highway Police itself accusing Bolsonaro militants of terrorism.

Bolsonaristas used homemade bombs made of bottles with petrol and firecrackers, intentionally spilled oil on the roads, and set up barricades with burnt tires, bins, and tree trunks to prevent traffic to flow. Some also forced truck drivers to leave their vehicles and set them on fire. Two men arrested for this crime had in their possession gallons of petrol, various firearms, and almost 10,000 reais ($1,846) in cash.

In Mato Grosso, an ambulance and a winch were set on fire, and a tire repair shop was looted by Bolsonaro supporters to make barricades. Confronted by the Military Police, the bolsonaristas fired on the police. Three of the culprits arrested were arrested as potential domestic terrorists. There are also reports of assaults on truck drivers across the country.

Shots were fired and Molotov cocktails thrown at the base of the concessionaire that runs a road in Mato Grosso. As with the first protests and road occupations, the police are accused of disengaging and allowing pro-coup acts to take place and become increasingly violent.  

To this can be added Nazi-like tactics such as identifying the homes of PT voters in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul with a star on their doors —the symbol of the party— or even boycotting companies accused of supporting the PT in the interior of São Paulo. In small and medium-sized towns the danger faced by voters or supposed voters of Lula da Silva is even greater.

On 12 December, radicals burned three cars and five buses and tried to storm the headquarters of the Federal Police in Brasília. While the violent and organized action unfolded, the Military Police simply stood by impassivelyno one was arrested. Protesters scattered gas cylinders on city streets —fortunately empty, firefighters said— but the intention was clear: to cause panic and terror.

The terrorist activities of the 12th followed the arrest of José Serere Xavante, an Indigenous Bolsonaro supporter and self-styled “chief” receiving financial support from a Mato Grosso rancher, who had been arrested by the Federal Police on the same day for inciting protests against democracy.

For years Bolsonaro preached violence against minorities, facilitated public access to weapons, and inflamed his supporters with speeches, even vowing not to concede defeat. But following his defeat, he virtually disappeared from the spotlight, retreating into the presidential palace and generating criticism that he had abandoned his post. 

The few times he did appear, he remained silent while part of the country was on fire. Not that he needs to say anything, as the result of his actions and past speeches could not be different. Plus the increasing violence of those who refuse to accept the outcome of the elections is the most visible legacy of a four-year process of dismantling the state, ideological rigging of the security forces, and the stirring up of radical groups linked to agribusiness, evangelical fundamentalists, and right-wing extremists of all kinds.

In a final Facebook Live as president, on 30 December, Bolsonaro finally admitted defeat. Tearful, he told his supporters that he had spent two months working behind the scenes but found no legal way to overturn the electoral results. Soon after he hopped on a plane to Orlando—experts say, to escape prosecution now that he’s lost his immunity.

The King Is Dead

While a section of the country was trying to incite a coup against the incoming president, Brazil (and the world) mourned the death of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known as Pelé, the king of futebol and a quasi-divine figure. He died on December 29 at the age of 82 after a lengthy battle with colon cancer and leaves a legacy like no other.

The greatest footballer in history, named “Athlete of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee, Pelé made his mark on history. He made his name in the radio era and went on to become a global phenomenon, enjoying post-soccer success in business and politics.

As Bolsonaro’s government came to a close, Lula began announcing his ministers, most of them linked to the PT. With the return of renowned environmentalist Marina Silva as minister of the environment —a position she held during Lula’s first presidency— and Sônia Guajajara as head of the newly created Ministry of Native People —herself born on Araribóia Indigenous Land in the Amazonian rainforest in the northeastern state of Maranhão— the new government was able to take office despite only minor hiccups.

Lula has no room for error. He’ll face a country severely fractured, with wannabe terrorists in the streets, broad sectors of the police and military forces siding with Bolsonaro, and the need for broader security reforms and dialogue with Congress—especially after the Supreme Court ruled that the “secret budget” was illegal.

The secret budget was nothing more than a corruption scheme created during the Bolsonaro government involving the distribution of funds to secure support from parliamentarians. It involved the authorization to allocate funds even after approval of the annual budget by Congress, a process that was previously used only for minor corrections in the budget—but which under Bolsonaro became an instrument for diverting billions of reais without any transparency, making it difficult or almost impossible to know the destination of such funds or even who had diverted the money.

The secret budget was key to ensuring the power of the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira (PP – Alagoas), an ally of Bolsonaro who has been willing to engage with Lula and his supporters. Without the secret routing, however, the “dialogue” becomes more complicated.

Twenty twenty-three will be a dangerous year for Brazil, with terrorist threats looming and a possible political crisis ahead. The undeniable fact is that violent supporters of Bolsonaro must be treated as domestic terrorists and dealt with accordingly.


Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a journalist with a PhD in human rights (focused on migration and diaspora). His portfolio is here. Twitter: @Tsavkko