The January 8 “Insurrection” in Brazil Could Be the Perfect Gift for Lula

It may give him the impetus he needs to overcome opposition at home and rebuild ties with Brazil’s regional neighbors.

As most NC readers no doubt know by now, the state of Florida is playing host to Brazil’s former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who looked on from afar on Sunday as hundreds of his supporters stormed Brazil’s three most important government buildings. Many had been bussed in to the capital from towns and cities across the country. Some had spent weeks camping out in front of the barracks in Brasilia begging for the army to break with democracy and stage a military coup while they planned their capitol invasion.

It didn’t quite work out that way: by Tuesday night, 1,500 of the demonstrators had been arrested, some of them by the army, and the camp dismantled.

Amazingly, the Bolsonaro supporters’ invasion of Brasilia’s Congress, presidential palace and supreme court building appears to have been modelled upon the failed so-called DC “insurrection” of Jan 6, 2020. Just as in Washington DC, thousands of demonstrators marched through the center of the capital accompanied by an incredibly laissez-faire federal police force. Once the demonstrators reached the Square of the Three Powers (Praça dos Três Poderes), the officers guarding the three government institutions were overwhelmed with disarming ease.

But there also appear to be important differences between the insurgencies of DC and Brasilia:

  • The protests in Brazil targeted all three of the country’s most important government buildings, the presidential palace, Congress and the supreme court building, whereas the Jan 6 “insurrection” exclusively targeted the Capitol.
  • It being a Sunday, neither Brazil’s Congress nor the Supreme Court were sitting, while Brazil’s recently reelected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, was out of town.
  • Nobody died in the storming of Brasilia, whereas in DC at least seven people lost their lives in connection with the Jan 6 attack.

It is hard to imagine any of Sunday’s events going down without the prior knowledge, involvement and participation of at least some of the local security forces as well as the local governor and his security chief (more on them later). After all, thousands Bolsonaro supporters were able to march five miles unimpeded to the Praça dos Três Poderes, then enter the buildings and lay waste to their contents. As the Brazil Report notes, Brasilia was designed and built to make this sort of assault all but impossible.

As all this was happening, Lula was visiting Araraquara, a city in the state of São Paulo, to inspect flood-hit areas there. From there, his team issue a tweet laying much of the blame for the chaos in Brasilia on Bolsonaro:

[The insurrectionists] took advantage of the silence of Sunday, to do what they did. And you all know there are various statements from the former president encouraging this. And that is also his responsibility as well as that of the parties that supported him.

Lula immediately signed an emergency decree, in effect until Jan. 31, allowing the federal government to oversee security in the area instead of local officials. Within a few hours of the decree’s signing, the buildings were evacuated and order was restored.

Lula also lambasted the local security forces for their role in the debacle. “You will see in the images that [police officers] are guiding people on the walk to Praca dos Tres Powers,” Lula said in a conference. “We are going to find out who the financiers of these vandals who went to Brasilia are, and they will all pay with the force of law.”

For Lula, Sunday’s riots could be the perfect parting gift from Bolsonaro (assuming, of course, that he actually played a direct role in the debacle, something that is reasonably safe to assume but is yet to be proven beyond doubt), for two main reasons. The first is that it gives Lula the perfect justification for cleaning house, most importantly in the civil service, judiciary and military.

1. Cleaning House

This is not going to be an easy task, given that Brazil is more polarized than ever and Bolsonaro’s  Liberal Party (PL) managed to gain dozens of additional seats in the general elections. Together with its allies, it now holds a majority in Congress. What’s more, during his presidency Bolsonaro vastly increased the military’s role in government by appointing active-duty and reserve military officers to important civilian posts in his administration. As The Intercept reported a year ago, it is unlikely to want to give that up:

Not since the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985 has the army enjoyed such power. The military has used Bolsonaro’s presidency as a vehicle to reclaim political power more subtly than in the past while also more effectively shielding itself from public resentment…

Military officials ascended to top appointments in government. Some of them were revealed to be at the center of the Bolsonaro administration’s most brazen public corruption schemes and anti-democratic actions. So far, the military appointees have avoided prosecution, or even much scrutiny, perhaps thanks to not-so-veiled threats to Congress and members of the media.

Reining in the generals while keeping the army more or less on board is likely to be a delicate, dangerous balancing act, but a necessary one given the levels of support Bolsonaro enjoys within sections of the military. The army already played a key role in Lula’s sentencing and imprisonment on corruption charges in 2018. The day before a Supreme Court ruling on Lula’s case, Brazilian Army General Eduardo Villas Boas sent out a tweet that was widely interpreted, including by Amnesty International, as a threat to use military force if the court ruled in Lula’s favor.

For the moment, it seems that congress, the courts and the army are closing ranks with Lula against Bolsonarism. The police have already arrested 1,500 people linked to the failed coup and dismantled the Bolsonaro supporters’ camp in Brasilia. On Monday evening Lula walked from Congress, to the Supreme Court to the Presidential Palace hand in hand with all 27 Brazilian governors — something that was unthinkable just a few days ago.

Also on Monday, Brazil’s Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes suspended for 90 days the governor of Brasilia, Ibaneis Rocha Barros Junior, who supported Bolsonaro’s reelection bid and is now accused of crimes against national security. According to Moraes, Rocha “not only made public statements defending a “free political demonstration in Brasilia,” but “also ignored all appeals by the authorities to carry out a security plan.”

Even more damning, on Monday Jan 2, one day after Lula was sworn into office and six days before the riots, Rocha Barros appointed Bolsonaro’s former justice minister and close confidant, Anderson Torres, as head of public security for the Federal District. On Sunday afternoon, Rocha Barros dismissed him, just before he himself was ousted.

But Torres wasn’t even in Brazil at that point, having flown to Florida two days before the riots. According to the newspaper, O Estado de S. Paulo, Torres traveled to Orlando, where Bolsonaro is.

Brazilian federal prosecutors have asked the Supreme Court to issue an arrest warrant for him and other public agents responsible for acts and omissions” leading to the breach.

As for Bolsonaro himself, he denies any involvement in inciting or organizing the riots. In a statement cited by the Wall Street Journal, he mildly denounced the riots while comparing them to left-wing protests that occurred across Brazil in 2013 and 2017:

“Peaceful demonstrations, within the law, are part of democracy. However, vandalism and the invasion of public buildings like today’s acts, and like those practised by the left in 2013 and 2017, are an exception.”

But Bolsonaro’s case is hardly helped by his own words and actions.  spent the past two years lauding the achievements of Brazil’s dictatorship while expressing a desire for greater involvement of the armed forces in election oversight. In the long lead-up to Brazil’s tightly contested general election, in October, Bolsonaro repeatedly threatened to outright ignore the results if they didn’t’ go his way. Which they didn’t.

In a press conference on July 2, 2021, Bolsonaro declared:

“I am giving advance warning to the judges of the Supreme Court. I will give the presidential sash to whoever beats me at the polls fairly, but not with fraud.”

And that is exactly what happened. On December 31, 2022, just two days before he was meant to hand over the presidential sash to Lula, Bolsonaro boarded a plane for Florida. And he is unlikely to return any time soon.

After losing the election by the slimmest of margins, Bolsonaro had every reason to want to get out of dodge, at least while Lula is in charge. He faces multiple criminal investigations, including into the systematic destruction of the Amazon under his watch and his government’s deadly mismanagement of the pandemic. The latter inquiry has already unearthed evidence of serious irregularities, including allegations that senior officials were taking bribes to purchase overpriced doses of an Indian-made vaccine, Covaxin.

It certainly seems curious that not only did the pro-Bolsonaro rioters destroy valuable artwork in the Planalto Palace; they also appear to have swiped hard drives, documents, and weapons from offices within the palace.

2) Bringing Latin America Together

The invasion of the capital has also, however briefly, united almost all of the governments of Latin America against right-wing authoritarianism. Just about every head of state in the region, with the notable exception, I believe, of El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele and Guatemala’s Alejandro Giammattei, has expressed support for Lula’s government and condemnation of the events of Sunday, Jan 8. They include the heads of state of Uruguay, Ecuador, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Again, this would have been unthinkable just a few days ago.

The reason why this is important is that one of the key foreign policy goals of Lula’s new government is to open a new chapter of regional cooperation and integration in Latin America — something that has been tried many times before and largely failed.

One of Lula’s first actions since taking office was to confirm the return of Brazil to CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), an intergovernmental mechanism for dialogue and political agreements. It was set up in Caracas in 2011 with the implicit goal of deepening Latin American integration and reducing the influence of the United States on the politics and economics of Latin America. Lula will officially ratify his decision to rejoin at CELAC’s seventh summit, to be held in Buenos Aires on Jan 24.

As readers may recall, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador (aka AMLO) proposed using CELAC as a vehicle to create in Latin America something similar to the European Economic Community, the six-member economic association formed in 1957 that would eventually evolve into today’s 27-member European Union. But he also emphasised “the need to respect national sovereignty and adhere to non-interventionist and pro-development policies” as well as ensure that any resulting structure is “in accordance with our history, our reality, and our identities.”

In his speech at the sixth CELAC summit, held in September 2021, AMLO reiterated his hopes that CELAC would eventually supplant the widely reviled Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) as the main institution for intra-regional relations. He also invited Mexico’s North American trade partners, the US and Canada, to join. Both are already observer states, as too is China.

However, as I noted at the time, it’s virtually impossible to even imagine senior representatives of the US and Canadian governments sitting around a table with leaders of countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, let alone debating regional policy with them. Lest we forget, just last summer the Biden Administration scored a major diplomatic own goal by refusing to invite the same three countries to the 9th Summit of the Americas, in Los Angeles, which resulted in a number of other heads of state refusing to attend.

Now, the Biden administration will have to contend with the diplomatic blowback from the arrival of Bolsonaro and his lackey Torres in Florida just days before Sunday’s insurrection. A number of members of the progressive caucus, including AOC, have already called for Bolsonaro not be allowed refuge on US soil.

This places the Biden administration in a bit of a bind, since the US has always served as a refuge for US-aligned heads of state and coup plotters in Latin America. Plus, lest we forget, the US Justice Department had an important hand in the now-disgraced Operation Car Wash in Brazil, which led to the downfall of Dilma Rousseff’s government, the imprisonment of Lula just as he was preparing to run for office again, and the eventual election of Bolsonaro.

More Criticism of OAS

Speaking at an event yesterday, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard heaped further opprobrium on the OAS: “[It] is a disaster. And I’m not talking about [Luis] Almagro — secretary general of the OAS — he’s worse, but the OAS is a disaster.”

As I noted in my last article about CELAC, in September 2021, bringing Latin America and the Caribbean together is likely to be a gargantuan, perhaps impossible, task:

Since the Bolivarian wars of independence in the early eighteen hundreds Latin America’s disparate nation states have been wracked by division, due to political ideology, territorial disputes and, most of all, colonial interference. Recent attempts at integration, such as the Pink Tide-inspired initiatives of the early 2000s — ALBA and UNASUR — ended up achieving little, while the US-backed proposals of the 2010s, such as the Pacific Alliance, the Lima Group, and PROSUR, have fallen flat…

The governments of Peru, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba fully support AMLO’s proposal of sidelining OAS. But not everyone is on board. The governments of Uruguay, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia, all closely aligned with Washington, oppose the move. Further complicating matters, says [the Jacobin’s Kurt] Hackbarth, is the fact that any new union would have to contend with a morass of existing commitments.

The ink is barely dry on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the sequel to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) tying Mexico to the United States and Canada (and which was supported by AMLO himself). But that is far from all. Of the twenty countries with which the United States has free-trade agreements, over half are with Latin America, including virtually all of Central America, as well as Colombia, Chile, and Peru. Several more, including Mercosur, have agreements in force or in process with the European Union.

That all being said, one of the biggest obstacles to achieving consensus was Bolsonaro’s decision, in 2020, to pull out of CELAC on the grounds that it promotes “undemocratic countries,” which was a bit rich given his well-documented contempt for democratic processes and institutions.

But now, Bolsonaro is out of the picture and his successor as Brazil’s president is determined to build on AMLO’s vision of Latin American integration. For the first time in decades, Latin American’s two super states, Brazil and Mexico, accounting for roughly 60% of total GDP of Latin America and the Caribbean, appear to be rowing in the same direction. And the farcical “coup” of Jan 8 may well give Lula the impetus he needs to overcome opposition at home and rebuild ties with Brazil’s regional neighbors.

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  1. John R Moffett

    Bussing the right wingers to the event reminded me of the vote recount in Florida in 2000. The Bush/Cheney people bused in hundreds of angry right wingers to intimidate the election workers trying to count the ballots, including the famous hanging chads. This seems to be a tactic the far-right likes to use to get their way when the vote doesn’t go their way.

      1. Lydia Maria Child

        If you actually support George Bush, you should just say so and stop with the dishonest bs here. What are you trying to hide and why do you feel it necessary to do so?

        1. Angie Neer

          Sorry, my comment was stupid in this context. Far from defending Bush, I was trying to make a very general point about how protests are perceived and portrayed. It’s entirely my fault I didn’t get that point across.

  2. dftbs

    I’ve been saying this to my very Izquierda attuned family all week. They’ve been running tense with what’s been happening in Peru, and the Brazil situation real wracked their nerves. But it seems that for a leader/politician as capable as Lula, the opposition revealing itself in such a witless way and giving up any sort of legalistic cover to their obstruction (compare this to Operation Car Wash), will certainly give Lula the pathway to do the two things list above.

    But beyond “cleaning house” and uniting Latam sentiment, the events of January 8 will paralyze American efforts to undermine the Brazilian government. I believe Lula was been moderate in his criticism of the “rules based order” because there was no upside to symbolically antagonizing the US. If Paris was worth a mass, then Brazil is certainly worth some prudence. But the American regime seems largely constrained by its adherence to optics and perception over policy goals; maybe the see optics as policy goals in themselves. The similarity of Jan. 8 to their bete noire of Jan. 6 is too much for them to overcome.

    The right-wing of Brazil, that for over half-a-century has been slavishly devoted to the notions of US supremacy over Latin America, just handed Lula a major political victory by tying the US’ hands.

    1. Phenix

      Brazil will be hit hard by the reduction of fertilizer. According to Zeihan Brazil is reliant on Russian and Ukrainian inputs for it’s agricultural sector.

      Lula is walking into a rough spot. I hope he can weather the storm. I was excited by his arrival on the political scene while in college. I loved that he cancelled military spending to cover domestic needs.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Given the BRICS bloc, where the B is Brazil and the R is Russia, I’m guessing Brazil will get fertilizer before the EU or US does.

        Also, given the massive clearing of the Amazon for agricultural purposes (which hopefully Lula will slow down or stop), maybe a fertilizer shortage isn’t the worst thing for the world at large, if it keeps some trees upright and species from going extinct.

        1. Phenix

          The Ukraine War has created major disruptions in fertilizer exports. Brazil is one of the top importers. Lula is taking power during a time of tight supply and Brazilian land is not conducive to growing crops with out major petrochemical inputs.

          The American Empire is collapsing but that does not mean that the BRICS oligarchs come out of this on top.

    2. Polar Socialist

      Not just Lula. What impressed me most about the events was how the other South American governments immediately and without hesitation backed Lula and some even promised to send police forces to help.

      Maybe I should not be so surprised, but to me it seems that a “new chapter of regional cooperation and integration in Latin America” is indeed opening.

  3. Cetra Ess

    What struck me about how this went down is during the so-called “Freedom” Convoy occupation of Ottawa the local police also gave way to protesters, Trudeau “had to” bring in provincial and federal police. Likewise I was also struck by how, in DC, well equipped local police with ample numbers and riot/protest experience had few on the lines, just let them all in (there was even a scene with several officers opening the gates, giving way). In all cases I strongly suspect that this was deliberate and planned – let the crowds takeover, make a mess of things, violate symbolic property, create the appropriate theatre, the PMC/liberal classes will react with cued anguished, outrage, condemning the targeted group. Meanwhile, the same brush is used to paint all protesters, regardless of political stripe. All very psyopcracy. It feels like this tactic has been mastered.

    1. Darius

      I thought it was more a reaction of “it’s OK. These are our guys. Let them blow off a little steam and let them go.” A far cry from the mass arrests at other protests that were far less destructive. It was mostly complacency by law enforcement that sees trouble only in dark skin or solidaristic causes.

      1. Lydia Maria Child

        Bingo. Conservatives going easy on conservatives. Both on the streets, and in ideological support online. Hence…blame “the left” (which reactionaries intentionally confuse with “liberals”).

  4. The Rev Kev

    There have been a lot of comparisons with these attacks and that of the January 6th riot but I do not think that is the right one. I would say that it is more akin to that attempted coup that took place in Türkiye back in 2016. It too was an ill thought out plan that went off half-cocked but at least that one had the backing of some of the military. This one had none and truth be told, it may be that this attack embarrassed the Brazilian military professionally as it took place on the watch and stung their pride in front of other South American nations. But as that saying goes, if you are going to kill the king you had better not miss. Well this attack missed and now it will be up to the police and intelligence services to work out who organized it, who paid for it, how these people were recruited and who the local leaders were. Three separate attacks on different buildings speaks of some co-ordination. But now that it failed, they will lose that whole network as they came right out into the open. And Bolsonaro? It does not matter if he was involved or not but he has been totally discredited in nearly all of South America as those were his people that carried out these attacks. Stick a fork in him as he is done.

  5. Not Again

    Gee, another “coup” that had no weapons, no central figure and no plan.

    It’s almost like someone wants an excuse to stop any protest from the people at any time for any reason. That “ensuring domestic tranquility” is doing a lot a work.

    1. The Rev Kev

      I think that their plan was to cross their fingers and hope that the Army would join them, bringing along their weapons. You may remember that Greedo from Venezuala tried to do the same outside an army base – but they took one look at him and said ‘Nah!’

      1. Not Again

        Or maybe the whole thing is not what it appears. The legislative branch of Brazil is controlled by Bolsonaro’s party. The last successful Reichstag fire allowed rule by presidential decree. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

        1. Darius

          I would be shocked if Lula took extra constitutional actions. I presume he has broad authority as does POTUS should he choose to exercise it.

  6. Taufiq Al-Thawry

    “Now, the Biden administration will have to contend with the diplomatic blowback from the arrival of Bolsonaro and his lackey Torres in Florida just days before Sunday’s insurrection.”

    A touch more context on Torres from Liberation News:
    “Anderson Torres, formerly Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister who was appointed the Minister of Public Security of the capital city Brasilia last week, is also in the United States. Torres appears to have played a key role facilitating today’s attack, and Bolsonaro has clearly been intentionally laying the political basis for such a coup attempt for months with his false claims of election fraud. Neither should be given safe haven by the government of the United States – they should face justice in Brazil for their crimes.”

    I don’t want to speculate on that which I don’t know, but the fact that Bolsonaro named Torres head of security in Brasilia a week before Lula’s inauguration and then they both slipped out for Florida is, in my reading, very very suspicious.

  7. Paris

    Still trying to figure out if this was orchestrated by the extreme left or extreme right. On one hand, you have the ’64 military hardliners who had a little taste ($$$) of power during the Bolsonaro administration. On the other hand, like mentioned in this article, you have the leftists who won by the thinnest of margins and have opposition in Congress. Something has to give. Oh, and don’t forget American money and influence. Bannon is always behind that kind of thing, he’s considered a sort of guru for the extreme right.

  8. plantman

    I agree with Not Again who says:

    “Gee, another “coup” that had no weapons, no central figure and no plan.”

    I always liked Lula but I suspect he might have tweaked his political agenda to get out of jail. In any event, we’ll have to see if he is the “real deal” or a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    I also recall that his choice for central banker (or finance minister?) is linked to US-EU central banks suggesting a willingness to pursue the neoliberal agenda.

    We’ll see.

    1. Darius

      Bolsonaro screwed the pooch. Biden appeared ready to embrace Bolsonaro at the beginning. What with Blinken taking an aggressive stance against Bolivia’s post-coup restoration of democracy. But Bolsonaro was so obsessed with the aesthetics of Trump and Trumpism he acted from the beginning to alienate what could have been his greatest ally. After all, it was Obama that initiated the lawfare that eventually brought down Lula in 2018. By late last year, Bolsonaro held no attraction for Biden. Bolsonaro was not a trustworthy steward of the empire’s interests. I think Biden would have been ok with Bolsonaro winning the election but wasn’t going to lift a finger for him afterward.

    2. Sordo

      Ben Norton had an informative discussion with Brian Mier of teleSUR. Brian addresses some of the critiques of the workers party and what to expect from Lula. He notes some of the appointees are reflective of coalition politics.

  9. robaniel

    ‘Not since the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985 has the army enjoyed such power. The military has used Bolsonaro’s presidency as a vehicle to reclaim political power more subtly than in the past while also more effectively shielding itself from public resentment…’

    By possibly setting up and then cracking down on the extremists and “joining hands with the left” did the military help legitimize and further imbed itself into Brazilian politics? Could this have been more of that subtle reclaiming of power without public resentment? Could it be that Lula made a deal with the devil?

    1. hk

      That was my hunch, too. “Left” and “right” distinction is hard to make in different political contexts to begin with and the power actors don’t care too much about them anyways, as long as they can be used as conduits to power. No doubt Brazilian army is happy to have the “left” owe them favors by crushing some nobodies “from the right” that they themselves could easily have set up (not saying that they necessarily did)

  10. Alex Cox

    So the Brazilian military decide who gets to be president, and have concluded that Lula doesn’t present a threat.

  11. ex-PFC Chuck

    Writing at The Cradle, Pepe Escobar asserts he’s had insider confirmation that the attempted coup was a CIA operation:

    “A former US intelligence official has confirmed that the shambolic Maidan remix staged in Brasilia on 8 January was a CIA operation, and linked it to the recent attempts at color revolution in Iran.”

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