The uprising in Brazil raises questions about the loyalty of the security forces

Sunday afternoon’s invasion of Brazil’s presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court by a mob of several thousand supporters of far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro was dramatic and shocking. But as an attempted coup, it fizzled out very quickly.

The extremists overran the country’s main government buildings with surprising ease, pointing to the possible connivance of some security forces tasked with guarding the modernist complex in the heart of the capital Brasília. But once they occupied the seats of the executive, judiciary and legislature, the protesters articulated no plan beyond smashing windows and furniture, damaging artwork and filming each other.

Within hours, the security service cleared the then-vacant buildings, restored order, and made several hundred arrests. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was visiting São Paulo state, immediately condemned the rioters and ordered federal authorities to take over security in the capital. The Supreme Court suspended the governor of Brasília for his failure to prevent the invasion.

Brazil’s main news media are united in condemning what they call “acts of terrorism” by the far right and calling for punishment for those involved. No political leader of any importance has supported the mob’s actions or demands. Even Bolsonaro, who previously fueled the lunacy of his far-right supporters with attacks on the integrity of Brazil’s electoral system, said on Twitter that the “devastation and invasions of public buildings . . . had crossed the line.”

It was a big drama with a touch of farce: the most serious attack on Brazilian democracy since the end of military rule in 1985 by demonstrators who had no visible leader on the ground and who carried out no clear plan. They seemed to be hoping that the army would respond to their uprising by overthrowing the elected government and bringing back Bolsonaro.

But when security forces moved into the government district of Brasília, they were not supposed to join the demonstrators, but remove them. Whatever sympathies some soldiers or police officers may have – and some clearly have – for the far-right protesters’ agenda, the leadership of Brazil’s security forces has so far stood firmly behind democracy.

“My biggest concern in the coming days is what will happen to the security forces and their ability to ensure security across the country,” said Monica de Bolle, Brazil expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “To what extent will authorities across the country be able to contain such acts and this type of domestic terrorism?”

The invasion did not come out of the blue. Since Lula clinched a narrow second-round victory over Bolsonaro in late October last year, groups of far-right protesters have camped outside army barracks in different parts of the country, demanding that the military remove Lula. Troops did not join these protests, but they did not remove them either.

Before Sunday, few were taking these protests seriously. They were unable to prevent Lula’s inauguration on January 1, which took place peacefully in a carnival atmosphere. The Supreme Court has now ordered the far-right protest camps to be removed within 24 hours.

Bolsonaro bears heavy responsibility for the off-putting scenes in Brasília. His failure to clearly accept his electoral defeat, his morose refusal to appear at the inauguration to hand over power, and his reluctance to order an end to the ongoing protests all contributed to this sordid debacle. He was last seen publicly in Florida, a convenient distance to watch the drama unfold.

The failed uprising highlights the difficulties Lula faces as he begins his third term as president in far less favorable economic and political circumstances than his previous administrations from 2003 to 2010. While most Brazilians strongly support the democratically elected government, he has a sizable minority have never forgiven the left-wing leader for the corruption that flourished during his Workers’ Party (PT) rule, or the deep recession unleashed by the mismanagement of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.

In addition to a flagging economy, rising poverty and a highly polarized society, the 77-year-old president now has to deal with uprisings by the extreme right.

“This will be a major distraction for the Lula government over the next few weeks and months,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo. “The challenges Lula faces are enormously complex, affecting not only the economy but also a deeply divided society with radical elements, possibly involving parts of the security apparatus.” The uprising in Brazil raises questions about the loyalty of the security forces

Adam Bradshaw

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