Jerry Dávila is the Lemann Chair in Brazilian History at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and executive director of the Illinois Global Institute. Dávila, who specializes in the history of Brazil in the 20th century, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about civil unrest in Brazil.
What was behind the Jan. 8 insurrection that saw hundreds of rioters storm Brazil’s Congress, presidential palace and Supreme Court? Would you compare it to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol?
It was a coup attempt, and it was styled after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The aim of the attackers in Brasilia was to create a siege situation that would provoke a military intervention that they believed would bring ousted President Jair Bolsonaro back to power.
Similar to Jan. 6, 2021, these were far-fetched aims that were pursued through violent acts. The Jan. 6 attackers believed they could halt the congressional certification of President Biden’s election. The Jan. 8 protesters in Brazil called on the armed forces to reverse the election results in which voters defeated the incumbent president, Bolsonaro, and elected former two-term President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
There has always been an antidemocratic edge to Bolsonaro. He frequently praised Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964-1985. Bolsonaro was an army officer during the military regime, and this was part of his political biography. As president, he relied on military officers to fill thousands of civilian administrative positions across the federal government. After the October runoff election, Bolsonaro’s supporters set up encampments outside of military installations around Brazil and have populated those encampments throughout the political transition. The encampments were a call for the Brazilian armed forces to take power and restore Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro modeled himself after former U.S. President Donald Trump, with the media dubbing him the “Trump of the Tropics.” In many ways, Trump provided Bolsonaro with the playbook. The key difference has been the ways Bolsonaro has politicized the armed forces and police, which have a long history of involvement in politics.
While his supporters stormed Brazil’s government buildings, Bolsonaro, who has for two months denied the results of Brazil’s presidential election, was decamped in Florida. How responsible is Bolsonaro for the riots? What will Bolsonaro face when he eventually returns to Brazil?
Brazil’s new minister of justice made an interesting distinction when he answered this question. He said that it was not yet clear if Bolsonaro was criminally responsible for this and other recent attacks, but that he was politically responsible for them.
Worried that he might lose reelection, Bolsonaro spent months questioning the Brazilian voting system. The voting system, developed after the end of military rule, is electronic, and votes from across Brazil are tabulated with the full results released on the day of the vote. There have never been serious questions about the voting system’s credibility, and that was an important gain of Brazil’s democratic transition. The choice to cast doubt on that system has high costs. One of them is that a subset of his supporters called for a military coup and engaged in this attack on the new government.
Bolsonaro is now under investigation by federal prosecutors over the attacks. But that may not be his greatest legal peril in Brazil, where he faces other investigations. One is over what have been termed “digital militias” that spread misinformation on social media before the election. Another is a set of criminal referrals from a Senate investigation over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, accusing him of mismanagement and misinformation that it estimated caused well over 100,000 additional deaths. The charges that the panel recommended against Bolsonaro included crimes against humanity and charlatanism.
Whether for the Jan. 8 attacks or other reasons, Bolsonaro faces legal peril in Brazil.
New president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who won a narrow victory over Bolsonaro, has pledged unity. How difficult will it be for him to unify the country?
Brazil, like the U.S., is a deeply polarized country. In Brazil, this polarization is deepened by social media – particularly chat groups on the mobile platform WhatsApp. In this context, political antagonisms have deepened and a lot of misinformation has circulated. Brazil has a branch of the judiciary dedicated to managing elections that is headed by a Supreme Court justice. During the election, the electoral courts worked to suppress false information on social media. This was one of the reasons the Supreme Court was sacked by the attackers.
Part of Brazil’s polarization is also strong rejection of Lula by many voters. He was convicted in a corruption investigation and couldn’t run for president in the 2018 election because he was imprisoned. Bolsonaro was an improbable candidate who successfully cast himself as the opposite of Lula and won.
With that said, there has been a swift show of political unity after the attacks. On Jan. 9, all of Brazil’s governors traveled to Brasília and appeared on national television with President Lula, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the president of the Senate. All, including members of Bolsonaro’s political coalition, condemned the attacks. A public opinion poll reported that 93% of Brazilians disagreed with the attacks. It is a moment of unity, but a fragile one.
Brazil had Latin America’s longest military dictatorship, lasting from 1964-1985. What does this failed coup attempt mean for the future of Brazil’s democracy?
Brazilian democracy is still being built. The voting and public health systems are two of its achievements, and both have suffered. After the end of the dictatorship, the political role of the armed forces was slowly diminished. The armed forces did not heed the call to take over the government, but they have nonetheless extended their influence. President Lula will face an ongoing challenge in again reducing the political influence of the armed forces.