On January 8, 2023, far-right supporters of defeated former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stormed government buildings in Brasília, apparently in grotesque imitation of the fiasco in which Donald Trump’s supporters did the same thing in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. In the following report, our comrades in Brazil detail the trajectory leading up to these events and discuss the conundrums that opponents of fascism face in Brazil as a consequence.
Yesterday’s far-right incursion poses questions that anarchists and other anti-fascists must confront around the world.
Who is driving far-right efforts to escalate civil conflict and transform state institutions into a battlefield? While many in the United States have suggested the involvement of Steve Bannon, Brazil and Latin America in general have a long history of coups led by local military and right-wing forces and supported by centrists as well as conservatives within the United States government. Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro himself was absent from Brazil during the storming of the buildings, having fled before his presidential term ended. It is probably a mistake to reduce these events to the machinations of few autocrats.
Whoever was behind the incursion, why was the debacle of January 6, 2021 deemed successful enough to be worth repeating? Was the goal of the participants to seize power, to exert pressure on the incoming administration or provoke it into overreacting, to legitimize extra-legal tactics as a step toward building a fascist movement? Or is there no rational goal here, only the side effects of the campaign strategies of far-right demagogues, the increasing polarization of a fragmenting society, and the irresistible pull of memetic tactics?
How can the marginalized populations that are targeted by fascist movements mobilize to defend themselves without legitimizing the same institutions of state that both fascists and centrists employ against them? How can anarchists and others who are invested in profound social change prevent far-right “rebels” from monopolizing the way that the general public sees tactics that we, too, will need to use, albeit in pursuit of liberation?
We hope the following contribution will help our comrades to think through these questions.
Elections Do Not Stop Fascism
Since the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro and the victory of Luís Inácio Lula da Silva by a margin of less than 2% in the Brazilian presidential elections of October 30, 2022, the mobilizations of the extreme right have been escalating in both scale and violence. Soon after the announcement of Lula’s victory, demonstrators camped out around army barracks and blockaded roads, contesting the election results and calling for military intervention. Many of these camps were equipped with chemical toilets, tents, and kitchens; they were financed by businessmen and politicians aligned with Bolsonarism and the extreme right. In November, the Federal Superior Court ordered that the accounts of some of the funders should be blocked, signing search and seizure warrants.
As we documented, truck drivers organized by employers’ groups blocked hundreds of roads across the country, benefitting from the indulgence of the Federal Highway Police (PRF). When these blockades were defeated, the momentum shifted to urban Bolsonarist movements, especially the encampments in front of military barracks. The camps that had begun with a more diverse character, including elderly people and children, became predominantly male, with the participants more willing to use force. Lynchings of people attempting to cross the blockades, kidnappings, and even torture of those who disagreed with their tactics or views became commonplace.
A pro-Bolsonaro occupation. The class interests of the participants are clear enough.
On the night of December 12, during the formal recognition of President Lula and his vice president Geraldo Alckmin as the winners of the election, the radicalized street base of Bolsonarism advanced one step further in a general rehearsal for the events of January 8. Groups that were camped in Brasília attacked a police station and the headquarters of the Federal Police. Bolsonaro supporters set fire to five buses and three cars in response to the arrest of an Indigenous man named Serere Xavante, an evangelical pastor and Bolsonarist. Xavante was accused of organizing towards a coup, making threats, and promoting attacks on the democratic rule of law; the Minister of the Federal Supreme Court, Alexandre de Moraes, ordered his arrest.
The Federal Supreme Court ordered the arrests of dozens of people involved in the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations and in the financing of the camps. The left continued to bet that institutional repression would suffice to rein in the Bolsonaristas. Counting on laws and institutions that had done nothing to diminish the momentum of the far right left the streets open to fascist organizing. In general, despite the aforementioned arrests, the police and other authorities continued to treat the Bolsonarist movement permissively.
The image of a bus in flames—formerly a symbol of the fight against state repression and capitalist exploitation, seen in protests against the bus fare increase in 2013, the FIFA World Cup in 2014, and police violence in the urban periphery—is now associated with “right-wing terrorism.” The legalist and institutional left, represented by the incoming government, is adopting the role of “defender of law and order.”
Unable to bear electoral defeat, Bolsonaro left his supporters to fight on their own for his dream of a coup. On December 30, he departed for Orlando, Florida in the presidential plane with his entourage and family members; public money paid for everything. His vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão, became acting president, making a statement praising “the alternation of power in a democracy.”
The extreme right now sees both Bolsonaro and Mourão as traitors. But without Bolsonaro, Bolsonaristas only became more enraged and volatile.
On Christmas Eve 2022, the driver of a fuel truck found an explosive device in the vehicle and alerted the police. The author of the attempted attack, George Washington de Sousa, was arrested and confessed to intending to blow up the vehicle near the Brasília airport before Lula’s inauguration, in hopes of forcing still-president Bolsonaro to establish a state of siege. The authorities discovered a considerable stock of weapons in Washington de Sousa’s apartment; he claimed to have acquired these over the years, motivated by Bolsonaro’s speeches. This drew the attention of the authorities, including Lula’s incoming administration, to the ways that the Bolsonarist occupations were recruiting and radicalizing the far right.
On January 1, 2023, Lula was sworn in under tight security. This made him the only president elected three times by democratic vote in Brazil—and Bolsonaro the first president to fail to be re-elected, as well as the first president in the democratic era to refuse to pass on the presidential sash at an inauguration ceremony. The images of representatives of Indigenous peoples, workers, Black people, the disabled, and the excluded passing the banner to Lula circulated worldwide, signifying optimism—though palliative measures for a capitalist society in obvious decline will probably not offer much more than a brief superficial improvement before the collapse.
In any case, the feeling of calm after the “defeat of fascism at the polls” did not last even a week.
The Revolt of Those Escorted by Cops
Although participation diminished after Lula assumed power, far-right protests and encampments continued. In the first days of January, Bolsonaro supporters called a demonstration for Sunday, January 8. Approximately 4000 people who had been protesting at the gates of the barracks in several cities around Brazil took chartered buses to the capital city of Brasília, joining forces for a mass demonstration repudiating Lula’s inauguration as president. The crowd included a large number of civil servants, employees of parliamentary representatives, and even deputy mayors of smaller cities. They claimed that the elections were rigged and that Lula was the head of a criminal gang seeking to embezzle money from Brazil to finance “communism.”
When the buses to the capital arrived, fascists dressed in the T-shirts of the Brazilian soccer team marched in the early afternoon, experiencing no interference or police harassment in a place that is usually heavily policed and difficult to access. They approached the buildings of the National Congress, the Federal Supreme Court, and the Palácio do Planalto (the presidential palace). These are the seats of the three federal powers of Brazil: legislative, judiciary, and executive. The demonstrators stormed the buildings, destroying windows, equipment, and furniture and damaging and stealing historic objects and rare works of art by Candido Portinari, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, and Victor Brecheret valued at millions of dollars. They stole documents and weapons from the Institutional Security Office on the ground floor of the Planalto Palace; this suggests the possibility that some of them had prior access to information about the location of these.
As in the events at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, the protesters filmed everything they did themselves, showing their faces and posting the footage live on social media without any concern about risk. Ironically, they carried off an action defying the very powers that many people had trusted would suffice to rid society of fascism after the election of a left-wing progressive government.
The invaders benefitted from the tacit support of the Military Police of the Federal District, commanded by Governor Ibaneis Rocha; they experienced no opposition or police repression for at least three hours. Police permitted them to enter the buildings. Only at 6 pm did the police manage to take some initiative and surround the buildings. Several videos show police officers taking selfies and laughing as protesters invaded Congress; others show police officers fraternizing with the Bolsonaristas inside the invaded buildings.
Only after 8 pm did police including the National Force—who are usually so eager to attack teachers, students, and Indigenous peoples—manage to peacefully “contain” the protest, arresting about 200 people. In videos, we see the police removing Bolsonaristas peacefully, with no injuries or deaths, despite the Brazilian police being arguably the most lethal in the world.
This institutional reaction only began when Lula, who was in a city in the interior of São Paulo, issued a decree of Federal Intervention in Public Security of the Federal District, naming the Secretary of Public Security of the Ministry of Justice, Ricardo Cappelli, as intervenor until January 31, 2023. In practice, this means removing the government police from the case (the Military Police and Civil Police) and handing the case over to the federal government police (the National Security Force and Federal Police). In the evening of January 8, the Minister of Justice and Public Security made a statement saying that investigations had been opened, the financiers of the buses had been identified, and that around 200 people had been arrested.
The Minister of Justice, Flávio Dino, a former judge and former governor of the state of Maranhão, also spoke, making a measured speech in which he tried to safeguard the legitimacy of the institutions of government, depicting the participants in the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations as isolated radicals who would be treated as criminals, thereby emptying the event of political content while describing it as an attempted coup d’état. The Minister of the Supreme Court, Alexandre de Moraes, who had been active throughout Bolsonaro’s administration as a “guardian of the democratic institutional order,” also ordered the removal of the governor of the Federal District, a well-known supporter of Bolsonarism.
Today, the day after the events, the situation remains perplexing for the press and the authorities, despite the fact that the demonstration had been announced for months on Bolsonarist networks.
A Local Manifestation of a Global Fascist Wave
There are many similarities between the events of January 8, 2023 in Brazil and the events of January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. But there are also significant differences, starting with the political leadership of the fascists.
Jair Bolsonaro has always positioned himself as a supporter of Donald Trump, aligning himself with global far-right movements like those in Poland and Hungary. Bolsonaro has connections to Steve Bannon, who mentored Bolsonaro’s sons for the 2018 presidential campaign and claimed last year that Bolsonaro’s election was the second most important for his movement. After the defeat, Bannon and Trump advised Bolsonaro to contest the election result. Even so, it is not possible to say that there is direct interference from Bannon or the international extreme right.
The motivation for the two invasions of government buildings is also similar in the content of the supposed conspiracy: Bolsonaro supporters allege that the elections were rigged in favor of a globalist elite sympathetic to communism and China, with the objective of destabilizing nationalist governments in order to disseminate what they call “gender ideology,” encourage drug use, and promote the interests of international criminal cartels. Following the example of the alt-right elsewhere around the globe, they declare themselves liberal in their economic program and conservative in their cultural program. Thus, they claim to defend the traditional Christian family as a means to spread white supremacy, hatred of LGBTQI+ people, and anxiety about a supposed communist threat.
On both January 6, 2021 and January 8, 2023, a fascist mob claiming to be the true representatives of the people and refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the electoral process that defeated their candidate invaded the physical headquarters of the constituted powers to generate chaos in hopes of suspending the result of the elections.
After decades of democratic management, during which practically all parties accepted that as the only possible form of politics in the era of capitalist globalization, the extreme right has placed politics back in the field of dispute and confrontation. It is increasingly clear that the consensus built in the post-World War II period around the formula capitalism + liberal democracy + human rights, which ignored the contradictions and inequalities inherent in the capitalist and state system, has been broken. Significantly, it is the right that is betting on this rupture, explicitly endorsing civil war, while most of the left still cling to democratic institutions and the management of an increasingly precarious peace.
The events in Brazil differ from the events in the United States in that the Bolsonarists cohered around something older than the Trump cult, something that is specific to Brazilian political history: nostalgia for the dictatorship that was installed by a civil-military coup with the assistance of the United States in 1964 and allegiance to all the aspects of the dictatorship that persist in Brazilian society.
In the formulation of the psychoanalyst Tales Ab’Sáber: “What remains of the dictatorship in Brazil? Everything, except the dictatorship.”
Supporters of Bolsonaro taking advantage of the leniency of the police to present themselves as rebels.
Unlike what happened in the United States after the election of Biden, the Brazilian Armed Forces—comprised of officers trained in military schools permeated by the anti-communist discourse of the Cold War context and by the historical revisionism that calls the military civil coup the “‘64 revolution”—are a fundamental part of the coup movements. Social and electoral Bolsonarism involves numerous reserve officers from the army, navy, and air force. Active-duty officers barely disguise their support for the pro-Bolsonaro protesters; since 2014, they have made public statements expressing opposition to leftist parties and candidates. The most obvious proof of the support of the Armed Forces for the coup movements is their tolerance of the camps outside their barracks, which would certainly not have been accepted if the content of the demonstrations had been different.
In hopes of brokering a rapprochement within the institutions, the coalition led by the institutional left that won the elections of October appointed José Múcio to the Ministry of Defense—a right-wing politician who is a friend of the military, whose party (the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro) used the motto “God, Family, Homeland, and Liberty.” In his statement on the demonstrations, Lula admitted that the Minister of Defense had not acted to evict the occupations around the barracks.
Anarchists and other anti-fascists march on January 9, 2023 in Belo Horizonte against the threat of fascism in Brazil.
What is happening today in Brazil shows the strength that the extreme right has gained over the past decade, capitalizing on a diffuse social fascism that has always existed in Brazilian society. The democratic institutions that were introduced with the 1988 Constitution of Brazil did not know how to defend themselves against this—or else did not desire to. We can see this from the very beginning, in the participation of the military in the process of reintroducing democratic elections in the 1980s and the “constitutional role” of the military as guarantors of state power.
The biggest shame for the left as a whole—and especially for those who consider themselves radicals—is that the government of Jair Bolsonaro and his militias has reorganized the entire state structure, dismantling public health, education, and environmental protections while targeting Black and Indigenous people, women, and LGBTQI+ people, all in the midst of a global pandemic that killed more people in Brazil than the per capita average worldwide. Yet we were unable to respond throughout those events—neither with a general strike, nor by shutting down cities and highways, nor by invading the president’s palace.
Now all of those actions, which we should have taken to defend ourselves against the far right, are associated with the far right. This contributes to a discourse that will paralyze us, rendering it impossible to wield the leverage we need to against fascists both outside and inside state institutions, not to mention the other parties that will also use the institutions of government to continue imposing the worst effects of capitalism on us.
We need to foment popular revolt that includes all the disenfranchised sectors of society, everyone who is targeted by fascists, everyone who suffers under capitalism even when it is managed by a progressive government. We must not delegitimize insurrection when the state apparatus is in the hands of the center-left while the streets remain in the hands of fascists and security forces. We must find ways to resist, rejecting the blackmail of those who claim that the most important thing is to maintain order, with their eternal moralism in defense of private property and state power.
A march on January 9, 2023 in Belo Horizonte against the threat of fascism in Brazil. The participants are chanting “Step back fascist—popular power is on the streets!”