After months of violence before, during, and after the presidential elections in October, few in Brazil believed that 2023 would start smoothly.
Unwilling to accept defeat, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, who had been engaged in focused terrorist actions —such as a failed attack involving a truck bomb near the airport in the capital Brasília, and the sabotage of power lines— decided to amplify the violence by attempting a coup d’état on January 8.
The buildings of the National Congress, the Supreme Federal Court, and the Palácio do Planalto, the president’s official workplace, were looted and vandalized by thousands of Bolsonaristas, with the connivance of the police and armed forces who simply stood by as the Praça dos Três Poderes was overrun. The scenes of destruction were followed live around the whole world, and Brazil is left trying to recover from the trauma and understand the magnitude of what happened.
“Bolsonaro was a coup monger from the start and he spent four years telling his supporters to do exactly what they did today. This fascist display has been years in the making,” said Celso Rocha de Barros, a Ph.D. in sociology and a columnist at Folha de São Paulo.
The pieces are still being put in their proper places, but with each passing day it becomes clearer that former President Bolsonaro was behind the attempted coup, in an action that reminded many of the 2021 insurrection on Capitol Hill in the United States—but with more alarming elements.
Brazil’s U.S.-esque Capitol Insurrection
In the U.S. only the Congress was the target, whereas in Brazil it was the seats of power for each of the three branches of government. And to make matters worse, the complicity of the Military Police of the Federal District and sectors of the army was evident not only in the inaction before the mob but also in the investigation carried out by the courts and the Federal Police, implicating Bolsonaro’s running mate, General Braga Neto, who appears to have led preparatory meetings for a coup following Bolsonaro’s defeat in the October elections.
Bolsonarist sections of the Military Police in several Brazilian states rehearsed a revolt with calls for protests —which would be a clear case of insubordination— and the army warned that it should not be harassed with investigations and arrests. So far hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters who stormed the seats of power have been arrested, and the funders of the anti-democratic acts and encampments are being identified and prosecuted.
Ibaneis Rocha, governor of the Federal District where Brasília is located, was removed from office by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, and an intervenor was appointed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to look after public security. This same intervenor, Ricardo Capelli, presented a report showing that veteran police officers stayed at home while recruits who had not even finished training were used to contain the insurrectionist—though they ultimately let them carry on.
Anderson Torres, justice secretary of the Federal District, was arrested on charges of facilitating the coup attempt.
“These terrorists can be charged with many different crimes: violent abolition of the democratic rule of law, coup d’état, incitement to crime, damage, theft, criminal association, etc.,” said Agassiz Almeida Filho, a constitutional lawyer.
About the use of the word terrorism to describe the actions taken by Bolsonaro supporters in recent months, Almeida Filho explains: “Those involved have been practicing, since President Lula’s election, what is normally understood as terrorism: practicing violence in order to terrorize people to achieve political goals. In Brazil, the crime of terrorism has a more restricted configuration. Law 13.260/16 requires terrorism to be based on reasons of xenophobia, discrimination, or prejudice of race, color, ethnicity, and religion. It would be necessary to analyze it on a case-by-case basis.”
The fact is that after months of rehearsal, bolsonarismo finally attempted a coup—and failed. It remains a danger to democracy, however, and institutions seem to have the same understanding as they seek to identify and prosecute as many of its agents as possible. This also includes the confiscation of assets of those involved in the attempted coup to pay for the restoration of destroyed works of art and other repair costs.
Showing that he will not be intimidated by the threat from sectors of the armed forces, President Lula da Silva dismissed the army chief for refusing to obey orders. “From these unfortunate events,” said political analyst Felippe Ramos, “Brazil’s democracy may either end up strengthened or wiped out. For now, democracy is prevailing.”
Genocide in the Amazon
Despite the apparent survival of democracy, its benefits are still not enjoyed by all equally.
A few days after the dust had settled in the capital, the world learned of yet another crime committed by the Bolsonaro government: the genocide of the Yanomami people in the state of Roraima in northern Brazil. A report published in April 2022, “Yanomami Under Attack” by the Hutukara Associação Yanomami and the Associação Wanasseduume Ye’kwana, with technical advice from the Socioambiental Institute, already denounced the crimes that had been committed against the population, who are besieged by illegal extractors of gold and other minerals in the largest Indigenous reserve in the country.
The miners are nothing new, but among them are allies of President Bolsonaro, who virtually neutralized any inspection in the area. Bolsonaro’s then-human rights minister, Damares Alves, denied assistance to the Yanomami who are dying of hunger, pneumonia, malaria, and other treatable diseases.
In 2021, Brazil’s justice ministry was alerted by a report produced by one of its secretariats that illegal mining needed to be combated on Yanomami land. Not only was nothing done about it, but the following year the government decided to stop monitoring the region.
Meanwhile, Indigenous associations accuse both Bolsonaro and Alves of genocide. Indigenous teenage girls are forced into prostitution in exchange for food, and more than 500 Indigenous children have died of starvation and treatable diseases during the four years of the Bolsonaro government.
The process of eliminating the Yanomami did not begin with Bolsonaro. The earlier Military Dictatorship considered them a threat to Brazilian sovereignty by inhabiting a border region, and the governments of Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff also failed to give due attention to their plight. Rousseff is also responsible for the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the state of Pará, construction for which was ordered suspended by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the suspension of construction—an order that was ignored. The commission also demanded compensation for those affected by the work, accusing Brazil’s leaders of human rights violations.
Abuses against Indigenous people are the rule in Brazil, and Bolsonaro apparently decided to continue the policy of extermination in vogue since at the Military Dictatorship, looking to exterminate the Indigenous to make room for illegal mining through genocide.
The recently created Ministry of Indigenous Peoples has been pressing other authorities to help the Yanomami people and take action against the illegal mining that threatens their survival. President Lula has expressed his concern about the situation and Environment Minister Marina Silva declared that the intention of the government is to remove illegal miners from Yanomami territory.
In the midst of institutional chaos and a government that took office only a month ago, it is difficult to provide quick answers. However, according to the former president of the National Indian Foundation, Sydney Possuelo —whose organization is linked to the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples— it remains to be seen whether the Lula administration actually has the “political will” to defend the rights and lives of the Yanomami.