Brazil Protests: What Happened And Why It Matters

Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro clash with security forces as they raid the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, 08 January 2023.
Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro clash with security forces as they raid the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, 08 January 2023.

Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro clash with security forces as they raid the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, 08 January 2023.

Protesters stormed the government buildings of Brazil over the weekend, calling for the current president to be ousted from office.

In their thousands, frustrated demonstrators demanded change, triggering chaotic scenes which have been compared to the riots witnessed in Washington DC on January 6 2021.

Leaders from around the world were quick to condemn the rioters, as Brazil’s president fights to get the situation back under control.

Here’s what you need to know.

What happened?

Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace were all overrun by former president Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters on Sunday, January 8, wearing the colours of the national flag, yellow and green.

Not many officials were working in the buildings at the time because it was a congressional recess, while videos being shared online seem to show there were few military police present.

Forty-two clips showing the damage from the demonstrators were shared on Twitter by journalist Carlos Alberto Jr, who claimed they had come from the official workplace of the Brazil president.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

At least 300 people among the thousands who stormed the buildings have been arrested, according to the federal district’s civil police, and authorities are still investigating the incident.

Some within Brazil have since asked if the police had ignored the warnings about an incoming uprising, underestimated the protesters’ abilities, or had been complicit in the attempted insurrection.

Current president, leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was forced to declare emergency powers on Sunday before the national guard was sent into the capital, and the centre of the capital (Brasilia) was closed for 24 hours.

Shortly before he arrived in the capital himself, Lula said there was “no precedent in the history of our country” for such violence, and said it was the “acts of vandals and fascists”.

He also said security forces had shown “incompetence, bad faith or malice” in letting the demonstrators passed.

What did the demonstrators want?

They wanted a military intervention to remove Lula from the presidential office – he was only inaugurated on January 1.

He narrowly beat former president Jair Bolsonaro in an election on October 30, although the right-wing politician and his supporters then started to perpetuate claims that the election was “stolen”, and called for the army to stage a coup.

The former president refused to say he conceded the election to Lula afterwards. He has also helped perpetuate the false claim that the electronic voting system in Brazil was subject to fraud, though he has no evidence.

Many of the protesters had actually been camping outside the federal army headquarters since October before moving in on the government buildings, although another 40 buses were used to move the protesters to the capital.

Rioters were also hoping to spark nationwide protesters, and according to the BBC’s South America correspondent Katy Watson, some even wanted Lula to return to prison.

He spent 18 months in jail after being sentenced to nine years in 2017 over corruption – but the convictions were then annulled.

Why are people comparing it to January 6?

Bolsonaro’s supporters were attempting to cast doubt on the election process, and oust the democratically elected president.

Similar events unfolded during the January 6 insurrection of Capitol Hill (in Washington DC) by Donald Trump supporters in 2021. A government committee to investigate exactly what happened during the shocking turn of events two years ago only concluded at the end of December.

Bolsonaro, who has occasionally been called “Trump of the Tropics”, shares many of Trump’s conservative views, and both former presidents refused to attend their successors’ inauguration.

Trump also championed Bolsonaro during his election bid last year, releasing a statement which claimed they were “great friends”. Trump added: “He fights hard for and loves the people of Brazil – just like I do for the people of the United States.”

Bolsonaro’s lawmaker son Eduardo Bolsonaro has also met with Trump repeatedly recently, along with the former president’s ally Steve Bannon and senior campaign adviser Jason Miller.

Bolsonaro is also said to have moved to Florida in January to avoid attending Lula’s inauguration, where Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is situated.

Despite the clear parallels between this event and January 6, Trump is yet to speak out.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

What will happen next?

Pro-democracy rallies are now being called by leftist leaders and groups across Brazil in response as tensions remain high.

Lula has read a freshly signed decree for the federal government to assume control of security in the federal district, dubbing the protesters “fascist fanatics”.

He also claimed the former president had encouraged their uprising – a claim Bolsonaro rejects.

Six hours after the violence erupted, the former president tweeted that peaceful protest is part of democracy, but pointed out that vandalism and invasion of public buildings are “exceptions to the rule”. He did not openly condemn the protesters.

In the meantime, Brazil’s minister of institutional relations said all the buildings would be inspected for evidence, including fingerprints and images.

The city’s governor Ibaneis Rocha has also been removed from his post for 90 days by the Supreme Court.

He apologised for Sunday’s events, but supreme court judge Alexandre de Moraes said he had failed to prevent the riot and was being “painfully silent”.

Justice minister Flavio Dino also claimed the acts amounted to terrorism and coup-mongering, and that authorities have begun tracking those who paid for the buses that transported protesters to the capital.

“They will not succeed in destroying Brazilian democracy,” he said. “We need to say that fully, with all firmness and conviction. We will not accept the path of criminality to carry out political fights in Brazil. A criminal is treated like a criminal.”

World leaders have spoken out against the riots, including US president Joe Biden, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, along with leaders from Chile, Colombia, Mexico, China and Turkey.

Related...