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As Brazil reels from riots, Bolsonaro finds home in Florida

Brazil Capital Uprising US Parallels
Eraldo Peres/AP
Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, storm the National Congress building in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

Updated at 6 p.m. on Jan. 9

The storming of public government buildings in Brazil's capital by hundreds of protesters at the weekend has received widespread condemnation, with many saying the nation's divisive former president Jair Bolsonaro bears some responsibility for the events.

Bolsonaro, who happens to be in Florida at the moment, has denied responsibility for the attacks — which were undertaken by his supporters — and indirectly condemned the riots. On Twitter, he said that "vandalism and the invasion of public buildings" are not "part of democracy".

But Anthony Pereira, the director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at FIU, said he is is at least partially to blame, because of his comments and behavior since losing the presidential election last year.

“He alleged fraud. He refused to concede that he had lost the election. He refused to participate in the inauguration,” Pereira told WLRN.

“In all of these different ways, I think he reinforced the belief of some of the hardliners in his movement that the election was stolen and that they should go to Brasilia and ask the armed forces to overthrow the Lula government.”

Brazil's new Justice Minister Flavio Dino called the events a coup attempt, saying Bolsonaro was politically responsible for the riot, while President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said his predecessor had stoked the unrest that drove the protesters.

Pereira added that while the attacks in Brazil and the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion in 2021 have some differences, they are similar in motivation.

The hope was that the military police would get involved on their side and overthrow the government," he said, of the latest attacks. "But as we know, it didn't it didn't succeed."

Brazil Elections Protest
Eraldo Peres/AP
Police in riot gear from up outside Planalto Palace after protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, stormed the Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.

But in South Florida, where Brazilian expats overwhelmingly voted for Bolsonaro, there is support for the former president.

Erika Faria, said she was upset by the images of protesters vandalizing the halls she once walked when her late father, Arnaldo Faria, was a congressman. “It's very sad," she said, adding she does not blame Bolsonaro for the riot.

“[The protesters] just don't want this president that made so many bad things to be there again," she explained, referring to Lula's return to power after a previous period as president of Brazil and a stint in jail. He was arrested in 2018 and spent a year-and-a-half behind bars on corruption charges, but the conviction was later annulled.

Supporters cheer ousted president in Florida

As Brazil reels from the riots at its seats of power, its former leader has decamped to a Florida resort, where droves of supporters flocked to cheer on their ousted president.

Devotees have traveled in recent days to the temporary home of Jair Bolsonaro, a gated community with towering waterslides, for a chance to see him. He signed autographs, hugged children and took selfies with adoring masses, some sporting “Make Brazil Great Again” shirts.

“I will always support him,” said 31-year-old Rafael Silva, who left Brazil eight years ago and now installs flooring in central Florida, where he stood outside Bolsonaro’s rental home Monday. “He was the best for the country.”

By early afternoon, the handful of supporters in yellow jerseys dissipated as word spread that Bolsonaro was hospitalized with abdominal pain. His condition wasn’t clear, but a photo published by Brazilian newspaper O Globo showed him smiling from his hospital bed. He has been hospitalized multiple times since surviving a stabbing in 2018. A hospital spokesperson didn't immediately respond to a phone call and text message.

Prior to Sunday’s angry storming of Brazil's Congress, the Supreme Court and presidential palace, Bolsonaro had been seen repeatedly in this central Florida community, wandering a Publix supermarket’s aisles, dining alone at a local KFC and, most of all, surrounded by clusters of adoring fans.

Though the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office said it received a request from the Secret Service to provide a police escort for Bolsonaro when he arrived and he was still a sitting president, he has not been surrounded by a noticeable phalanx of security.

Brazil Bolsonaro in Florida
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A routine community patrol car drives past as Brazilian supporters of former Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro wait outside the Central Florida house where he is staying, in Reunion, Fla.

“He will make himself right at home in Florida’s right-wing ecosystem of grifting and podcasting, finding allies with whomever thinks they can use him to advance their far-right agenda,” said Andy Reiter, a professor of politics and international relations at Mount Holyoke College who has researched foreign strongmen.

His new home, Encore Resort at Reunion in the suburbs of Orlando, is made up of furnished rental homes with foosball tables, screening rooms, Disney decor on the walls and Mickey Mouse stuffed animals on beds.

If it all seems too odd, the sight of the former leader of one of the world’s biggest countries wandering a gated community a stone’s throw from Walt Disney World in shorts, consider the history.

A stream of regional leaders have called the state home, at least for a time, over the past half century, from Haiti’s Prosper Avril to Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza to Panama’s Manuel Noriega. Alongside a list of other Latin American notables, they’ve camped out in both modest homes and elaborate mansions and, in the case of Noriega, a Miami prison cell, where he served 17 years on drug charges.

A bevy of Brazilians have been lured to the region in the past two decades, and have in turn transformed central Florida with scores of Brazilian shops and restaurants.

Florida has the largest population of residents who were born in Brazil – nearly 130,000 people –- of any U.S. state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Many more come as visitors, with 830,000 Brazilians traveling to central Florida in 2019, the third largest international market for the area.

Though Lula da Silva won Brazil’s election by more than 2 million votes, Brazilian voters living in Florida appear to have heavily favored Bolsonaro. Election data for Brazilians living abroad shows 56 polling locations listed under Miami, the only Florida city under which data is compiled.

In each of the 56 areas, Bolsonaro prevailed, some by margins of 6-to-1. All told, more than 16,000 votes were counted among Brazilians under the Miami umbrella, with 81 percent favoring Bolsonaro.

“He is very popular with the Brazilian emigres in central Florida,” said Joel Stewart, former honorary consul for Brazil in Orlando. Brazil opened a consular office in Orlando last year.

Bolsonaro has long been called the “Trump of South America,” so it may come as no surprise that he wound up just a few hours’ drive away from the former American president’s Palm Beach compound.

Both rode to power fueled by right-wing, anti-establishment anger, pursued nationalist platforms while in office, then spread lies about voter fraud in their own defeats. Followers of both men attacked the seats of government in anger after their preferred candidate lost.

Rodrigo Constantino, a right-wing Brazilian commentator who lives in Florida, says he sees parallels between Bolsonaro’s support in the state and the re-election triumph of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Both, he said, amounted to rejections of “the totalitarian, woke, economic egalitarianism and sensational demagogy of the radical left.”

Whatever anger might exist against Bolsonaro in Brazil, Constantino says Brazilians living in Florida will understand and accept him.

“If he wants to come to my house and eat barbecue and chat about soccer or talk bad about communism, he will be very well received,” Constantino said.

Helen Acevedo is a grad student at Florida International University studying Spanish-language journalism, a bilingual program focused on telling the stories of diverse communities.
Mike Schneider