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Florida's Bolsonaristas say they're 'doing God's work.' But is their cause all that holy?

Skyler Swisher
Orlando Sentinel
Bolsonarista bash: Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (center) with Brazilian expat supporters at the house outside Orlando where he has been staying this month.

Even before Jair Bolsonaro showed up in Florida this month, the state had become his kindred second home.

Last summer, Bolsonaro — then Brazil's archconservative president — visited Orlando and rode in a motociata, a motorcycle rally in his honor, with hundreds of Brazilian expats. It was organized by the wife-husband team of Larissa and Mario Martins, who lead an influential diaspora organization out of Margate, in Broward County, called Yes Brazil USA.

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Like Bolsonaro, Yes Brazil USA is right-wing and Christian nationalist. It's a showcase of the fervent and near unanimous support Bolsonaro enjoys among Florida’s 163,000 Brazilian expats, who make up a fifth of the Brazilian diaspora in the U.S. Many if not most of them back his false claim that he lost Brazil’s October presidential election because of a fraudulent election system — and favor his decision not to concede to his leftist opponent, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

So it’s little surprise that Bolsonaro flew to Florida on the eve of Lula’s Jan. 1 inauguration. He’s been staying at a house outside Orlando, where his expat fans — who call themselves Bolsonaristas and often show up in their trademark yellow-and-green soccer jerseys — sing his praises and take selfies with him.

Alan Santos
Planalto presidential office
Then Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro taking part in a motorcycle rally in his honor last June in Orlando organized by Florida's Brazilian expats.

Meanwhile, groups like Yes Brazil USA have been organizing pro-Bolsonaro protests across Florida — and, much like the MAGA movement in the U.S., use religious rhetoric to rationalize stances like their election denialism.

“I know in my heart that Yes Brazil USA is doing the work of God” in that regard, Larissa Martins told the diaspora podcast Brasil: Terra de Gigantes (Brazil: Land of Giants) earlier this month. She pointed out that the organization was formed right after Bolsonaro was seriously stabbed during his 2018 presidential campaign by a mentally ill leftist.

Mario Martins' grandfather, Antônio Pedro Martins, was a Brazilian Senator whose party supported the right-wing military dictatorship of 1964-85, which Bolsonaro speaks of fondly. In the Terra de Gigantes interview, Mario called Yes Brazil USA's work "a spiritual war against malignant forces inside and outside Brazil."

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But on Jan. 8, thousands of Bolsonaro followers violently ransacked the National Congress, Supreme Court and Planalto presidential palace buildings in Brazil’s capital, Brasília, and called on the military to restore him to power. Since then, others are suggesting that Bolsonarista groups here like Yes Brazil USA may themselves be in league with unholy forces.

One glaring example, they say, involves the celebrity right-wing Brazilian social-media influencer — and wanted man — Allan dos Santos.

Bolsonaristas in Florida are forgetting that Brazilian law still applies to Allan dos Santos,” says Amanda Audi, a Brazilian journalist in São Paulo, Brazil, with the online news outlet The Brazilian Report.

Larissa (left) and Mario Martins, who lead the Brazilian diaspora group Yes Brazil USA

Audi has followed closely the case of Dos Santos — who himself has taken refuge in central Florida, with enthusiastic expat support, because he faces an order for his arrest in Brazil for, among other things, a profanity-laced video he posted in 2020 for his online blog Terça Livre (Free Tuesday). Federal prosecutors say he threatened a Supreme Court justice, Luis Roberto Barroso, who was investigating Dos Santos’ disinformation campaigns.

“You’ll soon see what we’re going to do you!” Dos Santos shouts furiously at one point in the video.

Dos Santos denies the charge. But he’s notorious in Brazil for mastering platforms like Telegram to spread malicious disinformation about the electoral system, Bolsonaro opponents and the COVID-19 pandemic. When one of Bolsonaro’s several heath ministers criticized Bolsonaro's often hostile pandemic denialism — which critics say helped saddle Brazil with the world’s second highest COVID death toll — Terça Livre broadcast lies that he was a sexual pervert.

We are in a spiritual war against malignant forces inside and outside Brazil.
Mario Martins

Audi points out Brazilian authorities are now looking into his role in inciting the coup-mongering rioters in Brasília this month. “His extradition case has been re-opened,” since Jan. 8, she says. “He’s a fugitive.”

Which is why Audi questions whether Bolsonarista groups like Yes Brazil USA will and should continue to lavish the kind of endorsement on Dos Santos that it gave him when he too was a guest of honor at the motorcycle rally held for Bolsonaro last summer in Orlando.

Larissa and Mario Martins declined an interview with WLRN. In an email, they said they “repudiate” the Jan. 8 violence in Brazil — although they, like many Bolsonaristas, suggest the mayhem was really engineered by leftist “infiltrators”. But they insist that Dos Santos is innocent of the charges against him and that he is instead a persecuted “political refugee.” Almost all Bolsonaristas here agree.

Brazilian social media influencer Allan dos Santos gesturing at the Brazilian Supreme Court building in Brasilia in 2020

“His case is a violation of human rights,” says Brazilian expat Bruno Contipelli of Miami, a leading Bolsonarista who says Brazilians across Florida have been making donations to aid Dos Santos as a cause célèbre.

Contipelli argues federal judges and prosecutors in Brazil are too often fighting the politically polarized country’s rampant disinformation problem by violating free speech rights — especially the rights of pro-Bolsonaro figures like Dos Santos.

“The Supreme Court of Brazil is against Bolsonaro,” Contipelli says, “so it’s making Dos Santos a criminal – making opinion a crime.”

Dangerous territory

Many Brazil observers concede its judicial system these days risks crossing that line — especially when judges like Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who also heads Brazil’s highest electoral court and is leading the investigation into election disinformation, feel they’ve been insulted.

“They are venturing into really dangerous territory” that would concern U.S. First Amendment adherents, says Anthony Pereira, a Brazilian and director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.

I wonder if the Florida Bolsonaristas realize that embracing Bolsonaro's election denialism undermines the democratic rule of law they claim they’re trying to protect back in Brazil.
Anthony Pereira

But Pereira says that doesn’t excuse figures like Dos Santos — and Bolsonaro — from using lies to ignite violent mobs in Brazil.

Nor, he adds, does it absolve the diaspora here from promoting what he calls “anti-democratic disinformation,” especially since Brazil’s Bolsonaristas look up to the expat community in the U.S. and especially Florida. He points out one of Bolsonaro's most ardent pockets of support in Rio de Janeiro, Barra da Tijuca, sports a replica Statue of Liberty and considers itself the "Brazilian Miami."

“It is striking how the diaspora in Florida does play an outsized role — and really augments Bolsonaro’s hardcore message inside Brazil,” Pereira says.

“And I wonder if they realize that embracing his election denialism undermines the democratic rule of law they claim they’re trying to protect back in Brazil.”

He believes that influence may be one reason the Jan. 8 Bolsonarista rioters emulated the violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump on the U.S. Congress — and that it’s no coincidence Bolsonarista extremists like Dos Santos have long been mentored by MAGA extremists like Steve Bannon, who was convicted last year for contempt of Congress.

“The only thing missing in the Jan. 8 attack” in Brasília, says Pereira, “was a guy wearing horns and body paint.”

Brazilian expats in Miami's Bayfront Park in December protesting former Brazilian President Bolsonaro's election loss..

Meanwhile, Florida will remain a focal point outside Brazil. That was apparent when Bolsonaro’s former Justice Minister, Anderson Torres — who at the time of the Jan. 8 attacks was the security minister for the Brasília federal district — suspiciously left for Florida himself on the eve of the violence.

While Torres was here this month, Brazilian authorities charged him with deliberately allowing the assaults on the government buildings. He denies the charge.

In a search of his home in Brazil they found a document that is essentially a blueprint for a military-backed coup to restore Bolsonaro to power. He does not deny its existence, but insists it was never a serious plan. When Torres returned to Brazil last weekend he was promptly arrested.

As for Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Supreme Court is now investigating his role in stoking the Jan. 8 attacks. He has said he’ll leave Florida by the end of this month — but has not indicated whether he’ll return to Brazil or lay low in another country.

No expat motorcycle rallies appear to have been planned for him until then.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.