The storming of hordes of Bolsonaro’s supporters into the Three Powers Plaza in Brasilia and the attack on the venues of the presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Federal Court (STF) disrupted the Sunday peace in the Federal Capital. Unrest spread like wildfire throughout the interior of Brazil and a good part of the world. While most of the national and international public opinion was shocked by such a destabilization operation, the most informed sectors of the country considered it as a likely scenario, particularly since January 3rd when an attempt to bomb Brasilia airport had been averted.
The government's lack of foresight in the face of a series of potentially serious events, as they turned out to be, is therefore inexplicable. Not even the formation of a crisis cabinet had been contemplated. Yet, despite the initial moments of confusion and improvisation, the response was appropriate and rapidly showed results. Justice Minister Flávio Dino immediately took the lead in regaining control of the situation, with a decisive and energetic action that contrasted with the doubts expressed in the previous days by his colleague in the Defence Ministry.
In the heat of the moment, comparisons began to be drawn between what happened and the attack on the Capitol in Washington on January 6th, 2021. And although the events bear great similarities -Steve Bannon's remarks are indicative in this regard-, there are also important differences, starting with the fact that Lula was already a sitting president when the destabilisation attempts took place. Thus, trying to get the military's support to oust him was much more complicated than if the coup had taken place by the end of last year.
Another important development was that sectors of the Military Police (as well as many members of the Armed Forces, both retired and on duty) took no action against the demonstrators. Some even seemed to show certain sympathy and proximity to the demonstrators. The number of troops available to respond in the event of serious disturbances against public order was clearly insufficient, and it would have been practically impossible for Bolsonaro’s supporters to break into iconic buildings in the capital if it hadn’t been for the passive response of the uniformed forces. This was compounded by the complicity of top-level state authorities in Brasilia in charge of providing security against those who sought to destabilize the establishment.
Assuming that the purpose of the assault on the headquarters of the three branches of government was to undermine Lula da Silva, it is likely that the final outcome will be precisely the opposite. The almost unanimous response of the Brazilian political system, including the state powers, the political parties and their main leaders, as well as the press and civil society, was overwhelming. Not only were the protesters branded coup plotters and terrorists, but there were also calls for thorough inquiries into those who took part in, instigated, and financed the movement.
Hopefully, Lula's government's most pragmatic side will be strengthened. One thing that Sunday's events proved is that the task of bringing Brazilian political life back to normal will be gruelling and that such an objective cannot be attained by appealing only to the most radicalized militants.
Moreover, the scale of the events might work as a boomerang against Bolsonaro. The images of the devastation of part of the historical and cultural heritage of the Brazilian people is by no means a desirable letter of introduction. What is more, the gravity of what occurred has led some former allies of ex-President Bolsonaro and other potential partners to turn their backs on the former army captain and great defender of Donald Trump's conspiracy theories.
Against this background, it would be ideal to see a swift end to the Sunday uprising, as though it had been a nightmare or an early rehearsal for the forthcoming carnival. However, there should be no room for complacency. The roots of Bolsonaro’s support have proved to be extremely solid, so new episodes of unrest cannot be ruled out. A more vigilant attitude on the part of the Brazilian State, Lula's government and the intelligence services would be welcome. After all, it is Brazil's democracy that is at stake.
Text originally published in El Periódico (Spain)
Carlos Malamud is Emeritus Professor of American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Spain) and Senior Researcher at the Real Instituto Elcano. He is a Corresponding Member of the Academy of History of Argentina. His latest book is: "El sueño de Bolívar y la manipulación bolivariana. Integración regional y falsificación de la historia en América Latina" (Alianza Editorial, 2021).
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