Brazilian students, professors react to Jan. 8 insurrection on democracy in Brasília

The College funded transportation for Brazilian students to vote absentee from Boston in Brazil’s October general election.

by Daniel Modesto and Arizbeth Rojas | 1/24/23 5:00am

On Jan. 8, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, former president of Brazil, stormed various government buildings in the country’s capital Brasília, including the Brazilian Congress, Presidential Palace and Supreme Court. The attack came just days after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s inauguration. Following two voting periods in October, leftist President Lula won the runoff election with 50.9% of the votes over the  then-incumbent Bolsonaro.   

According to Kai Kenkel, a visiting professor at Dartmouth from Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro, similarities are being drawn between the attacks on Brasília and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in 2020. 

“There were lots of parallels in the sense that you had this kind of extreme right wing movement using violence against the physical institutions of democracy,” Kenkel said. 

Kenkel noted two main differences between the nature of these attacks — the fact that President Lula had already been inaugurated and that military support for President Lula was unclear. 

Dartmouth Brazilian Society co-president Luka Faccini Zanon ’25 also noted that the Brazilian attack was against three branches of government, not just one. Zanon said democracy is relatively new in Brazil, which adopted its democratic constitution in 1988

Spanish and Portuguese professor Carlos Cortez Michillo called the U.S. attack on the Capitol an “example” for what transpired in Brazil. 

“Since the day that we found out we would have a second round in our elections, I got scared of a coup or something happening, but I wasn’t expecting it after Lula was already president,” Zanon said. 

Zanon added that members of the Dartmouth Brazilian community have found ways to stay engaged politically by voting in Brazil or casting an absentee ballot from Boston. This October election cycle, the College paid for coaches to go to Boston so that Brazilian students could vote, he added.

Michillo said he voted while visiting Brazil in October. During this time, he said he saw a “very diverse crowd” of people camping in front of army headquarters in São Paulo following the election results. 

Rafa Carlos ’20 said he was staying in a wealthy, conservative neighborhood in the left-leaning city of Refuge on the day of the insurrection. He said some conservative residents expected and were happy about the insurrection —  which was not the case for the majority of Brazilians, he said.

“From my perspective, no one thought it would happen,” Carlos said. “Bolsonaristas were fighting for it, they had been camping in front of military bases. Everyone was laughing at them … . People never thought a coup would actually happen.”

Kenkel, on the other hand, said he was not surprised by the attacks because people had been camping in the streets for months. According to Kenkel, one reason why the attack may have been delayed until days after President Lula assumed Office is that Bolsonaro left for Florida on Dec. 30. 

“If their great leader hadn’t left the day before Lula took power, then maybe they would have felt more empowered to [riot] on the day that Lula came to power,” Kenkel said.

When the insurrection happened, Ryan Rocha ’26 — who was on campus at the time of the events — said he was most worried about his family’s safety, noting that after Bolsonaro lost, there were massive protests that blocked major highways. Rocha said he felt mixed feelings of sadness and frustration over the destruction of buildings in Brasília.

“It was really — not necessarily frustrating — but it was sad to see the destruction that the Bolsonaristas promoted in the National Congress and in other places that they stormed during the insurrection,” Rocha said.

Another factor in the attack was the uncertainty surrounding the stance of the Brazilian armed forces, according to Zanon. Kenkel added that it was unclear whether the armed forces would protect the government against the attack or support the insurgents. 

“Personally, I think that the two biggest threats to Brazilian democracy are the extreme right wing movements, and the fact that the armed forces are practically completely isolated from any kind of civilian control whatsoever,” Kenkel said. “The political influence of the armed forces needs to be reduced.”

Michillo noted that the Brazilian Armed Forces played a role in the 1964 coup d’etat, in which a military dictatorship was established. He explained that Brazil has a history of the armed forces becoming involved in political life, rather than solely defending the rule of law. Moreover, the army is now polarized with supporters on both sides — mirroring the polarization of the country itself since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 — making the situation even more troublesome than before, Michillo added. 

“It’s very polarized,” Michillo said. “You feel that in conversations, you feel that in streets.”

Brazil’s Supreme Court announced, five days after the event, that it will investigate the Jan. 8 attack. According to Kenkel, one main element the court will look into is the financing of the riots.

Kenkel added that there is also a fear of legal repercussions for the attack. Brazil’s former minister of justice Anderson Torres, for example, was arrested  on suspicion of omission and connivance upon his return to Brazil from Florida, according to Reuters. Currently, Bolsonaro remains in Florida. 

“He may not be coming back for fear of being held accountable legally for what happened on the eighth of January,” Kenkel said. 

Minchillo said this event has shed light on the real risk of people organizing a coup. However, Brazil has now shown that it will defend democracy. 

“Violence is not acceptable,” Michillo said. “Trying to stop the democratic process is not acceptable.”

Carlos said he hopes that the government reinforces their democratic foundations and that those responsible are held accountable.

“I just want our democratic institutions to prove that they’re strong,” Carlos said. “And as we said here, during the counter protests — sem anistia (no amnesty).”

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