Brazil still recovering a year after pro-Bolsonaro riots

Brazil's turbulent political landscape one year after riots: As society remains deeply divided, with Bolsonaro's supporters facing legal consequences, a nation grapples with the aftermath of a chaotic chapter in its democracy.

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A general view of the mezzanine at Planalto Palace, almost one year after the protest of January 8 with the supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia, Brazil December 27, 2023. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

Brazil’s Congress unveiled an exhibition on Monday, featuring various artifacts, including a tapestry crafted by the renowned artist Burle Marx and a replica of the country’s constitution from 1988. The exhibition is noteworthy not for the rarity of the objects, but rather because they serve as reminders of one of the darkest chapters in Brazil’s recent history.

On January 8, 2023, unprecedented riots erupted in support of former President Jair Bolsonaro within government buildings in the capital, Brasilia. During this tumultuous event, the tapestry was damaged, and the replica constitution was destroyed. Many interpreted the riots as a failed attempt by Bolsonaro to cling to power after losing the election. A year later, with hundreds of arrests made, Brazil is still grappling with the aftermath.

On year after the riot, Brazil’s society still doesn’t know how to handle what happened, as there’s no consensus. Brazil’s society is now divided into extreme opposites, and portions of these opposites find themselves in a position where reconciliation seems impossible.

Mirroring the insurrection that occurred on January 6, 2021, when supporters of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in Washington, thousands of Bolsonaro’s backers similarly besieged the presidential palace, Congress, and the Supreme Court buildings, presenting one of the most significant threats to Latin America’s most populous democracy.

A year later, approximately 400 individuals out of about 1,500 still find themselves incarcerated, facing charges related to the riots, while Bolsonaro is under investigation by the Supreme Court for his role in the chaos. Despite assertions by members of Brazil’s three branches of power that democracy and its safeguards have been restored after the ransacking of government buildings, supporters of the former president contend that their freedom of speech is being infringed upon, and they claim to be victims of political persecution.

Some of these supporters have propagated baseless allegations suggesting that the riots were orchestrated by the current administration and its proponents, an assertion echoed by Bolsonaro himself in a recent interview.  Although Bolsonaro was barred by a court last year from running for office again until 2030, unrelated to the riots but linked to his baseless claims about the electronic voting system in the previous presidential election, his far-right support base remains substantial on the streets and perceives itself as capable of challenging President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

A recent poll reported that 89% of Brazilians view the events of January 8 negatively, with 47% believing that Bolsonaro had some involvement in the riots. The poll, conducted between December 14-18, surveyed 2,012 people, with a margin of error of 2.2% points.

On Monday, a symbolic ceremony named “Unshakeable Democracy” took place in Congress, where Lula and other officials gathere for an exhibit aimed at reassuring Brazilians about the strength of their democratic system. Lula mentioned to Brazilian media outlets that this event demonstrates how Brazilians should strive to avoid any coup d’état throughout the entire 21st century.

Despite the significance of the event, many politicians associated with Bolsonaro, including staunch supporter Carla Zambelli and potential political heir Tarcisio de Freitas, have chosen not to attend, considering it a “ridiculous waste of energy and public funds.”

Analysts note that the swift reaction to the riots was influenced by existing friction between Bolsonaro and other authorities, particularly Supreme Court justices, predating the 2022 presidential elections.

However, the riots by Bolsonaro supporters in Brasilia caused many moderates to distance themselves from the far-right leader. Bolsonaro, who was in the United States at the time, denies any responsibility.

Of the 2,170 people arrested over the riots, 30 have been convicted so far, on charges including armed criminal conspiracy, violent uprising against the rule of law and an attempted coup, with sentences of up to 17 years.

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