Five things to know about Brazil’s Jan. 6-like insurrection

Attacks against Brazil’s government institutions by thousands of the former president’s supporters drew shock and condemnation from President Biden and other world leaders, raising concern that similar violence in the U.S. had provided the playbook for antidemocratic violence.

Brazilian police on Monday appeared to have suppressed much of the violence that broke out the day before, where supporters of Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro targeted for destruction Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace.

Hundreds of the rioters are reported to have been arrested, with that number expected to rise while Brazil’s newly inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — who took office on Jan. 1 — promised to carry out justice against those who committed violence.

Here are five things to know about the crisis in Brazil:

What sparked the violence?

The attacks on Sunday came one week after Lula was sworn into office but followed at least two months of protests where Bolsonaro supporters contested the former one-term president’s defeat, claiming without evidence a rigged and stolen election.

But it so far remains unclear what sparked the unprecedented storming and destruction of government buildings on Sunday, in particular, said Valentina Sader, associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, where she leads the center’s work on Brazil.

“In a way we’ve been seeing protests in Brazil since it was announced that President Lula was the new president of Brazil. I think it’s hard to say at the moment what triggered it, especially the violence. I watched some videos where I saw and heard people saying ‘it’s the last chance, destroy it all,’ and things like that, but I think it’s too early to say.”

Lula narrowly defeated Bolsonaro in a runoff election on Oct. 30 — with 50.9 percent of votes compared to 49.1 percent for Bolsonaro, a difference that represented about 2 million votes.

Lula’s election victory was viewed as a rejection of Bolsonaro’s far-right populism, where the former president encouraged comparisons during his tenure to former U.S. President Trump.

While Bolsonaro did not publicly claim his election defeat was fraud, he did not publicly concede to Lula. Bolsonaro’s supporters appeared to latch on to the narrative that the former president was unjustly denied his seat in power, and called for military intervention.

Sader said that Brazil appeared primed to see some sort of violent political protests, but said the assault on the three democratic institutions was shocking.

“The extent of this invasion, the fact that we saw these three buildings of the three branches of power being invaded and depleted, I think shows how deep this threat to democracy was, yesterday.”

Bolsonaro left Brazil

Bolsonaro was reported to have arrived in the U.S. around December 30, two days before Lula’s inauguration. On Monday, he was reported to have been hospitalized in Florida for abdominal pain.

But the timing of Bolsonaro’s arrival in the U.S. — with the tensions among his supporters already high and under investigation on at least four probes by the Brazilian Supreme Court — has prompted calls from some Democratic U.S. lawmakers to expel the former president.

“Bolsonaro must not be given refuge in Florida, where he’s been hiding from accountability for his crimes,” tweeted Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas).

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday that the U.S. had not received any specific requests “just yet” from the Brazilian government in response to a question on whether Bolsonaro would be extradited or deported from Florida.

“If there is a law enforcement matter that needs to be adjudicated between the United States and Brazil, we have well-honed, well-practiced processes for doing so, and we’re prepared to do that. But … we haven’t received any specific requests just yet,” he said.

And Bolsonaro could be in the United States illegally if he entered the country as president using his official passport and visa, but did not apply to adjust his status after Lula took power.

“If an individual has no basis on which to be in the United States, an individual is subject to removal by the Department of Homeland Security,” said Price.

Similarities to Jan. 6 are not just skin deep

American progressive Democratic lawmakers were quick to categorize the violence in Brazil as being ripped from the playbook of Jan. 6, and saying that Trump should be held accountable to discourage copycat happenings abroad.

“Extreme right-wingers in Brazil, radicalized by rhetoric from former President, refuse to accept election losses [and] launch violent assault to undermine democracy,” tweeted Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “They watched America [and] used the same playbook. The world is watching. We must hold Trump accountable for [January 6].”

There are similarities in the political movements, organizers and leaders that kindled the violence in Washington and Brasilia, however.

“There is something that is generally common to the two movements and leaders, which is kind of the dog whistle approach — with a lot of ambiguity, say one thing but say it in a way that can be heard in a different way from the audience,” said Pedro Abramovay, director of the Latin America program at Open Society Foundations.

And while Bolsonaro had a stronger alibi than Trump regarding direct involvement in inciting or directing the violence — the riots occurred after Bolsonaro had left power and relocated to the United States — both leaders fostered political movements that factored into the riots.

“You have to look at the record of remarks over the past several years by the president and members of his family, sowing distrust in the electoral system, that’s what did all the damage,” said Gabrielle Trebat, regional director for Brazil and the Southern Cone at consulting firm McLarty Associates.

Beyond the leaders and the perpetrators of the violence, there are also similarities in the political context that so far is unique to Brazil and the United States.

“Brazil and the U.S. are the two cases in which [authoritarian] leaders were defeated in their first attempt at re-election, in all the other cases they were reelected and after the second term, the attacks on democracy were almost irreversible,” said Abramovay, pointing to democratic backsliding in Hungary, Turkey and India as examples.

The insurrection was digital

Like the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Brasilia riots were largely motivated, coordinated and organized online.

Several factors contributed to the ultimate outbreak of violence: A political leader’s denial of election results, a shared misinformation ecosystem, and a two-tiered social media organizing structure.

Alex Krasodomski, a senior research associate in the Digital Society Initiative at Chatham House, told The Hill he believes technology has undermined society’s ability to compromise around a shared reality.

“And that’s abundantly clear looking at Brazil. When you look at the sort of the parallel information ecosystems that spring up around Trump, spring up around Bolsonaro, this is not left and right, disagreeing over an approach versus a set of facts, It’s fundamental disagreement over what the facts are.”

Like on Jan. 6, 2021, Brazilian riot organizers used different social media platforms depending on the type of information they were conveying and the audience they were seeking to reach.

On Jan. 6, organizers used mass market platforms like Twitter to convey their broader political message, but the minutiae of the attack on the Capitol was shared on more restricted platforms, including direct messaging apps and right-wing forums like Parler.

Similarly, the Brazilian rioters relied on the Telegram app — a Russian messaging platform currently based in the United Arab Emirates — to communicate the more sensitive parts of their plans, according to Krasodomski.

“The fact that this is primarily being organized on Telegram versus being organized on Twitter I think is a really an actually very interesting and critical difference. If you think about the levels of … engagement that takes place between Twitter and the government, and let’s say, Telegram and the government … I think that is interesting,” said Krasodomski.

Looking ahead: Lula faces democracy challenge

Like President Biden, Lula will kick off his presidency leading a politically divided country dealing with an unprecedented attack on its democracy.

“In a way, both Brazil and the U.S. are facing similar challenges with democracy. The U.S. had Jan 6 and Brazil now has Jan. 8 — I hope that this is also an opportunity for Brazil and the U.S. to share lessons, and share experiences on this front, on what are the next institutional steps that Brazil will take to identify and then punish the ones that were involved in these anti-democratic acts,” Sader said.

The aftermath and investigation of the riots could boost Lula, who left the presidency in 2010 with historically high approval ratings, but only just eked out a win over Bolsonaro in 2022.

“In the short term, it could galvanize support for his presidency, which is controversial — he won by a razor-thin margin — 49 percent of voting Brazilians did not vote for President Lula,” said Trebat.

“Over the long term, though, I think it would remind President Lula and everybody that watches Brazil, that observes Brazil, that Brazil remains deeply, deeply divided. And there is a faction of the electorate that feels that this election was fraudulent and it was stolen, and they are distrustful of the political classes in Brazil,” she added.

Still, Brazilian democratic institutions — like their U.S. counterparts — have been stress-tested beyond their design, so far without reaching their breaking point.

“These events showed that Brazilian democracy was threatened, but at the same time it showed the resilience of democratic institutions. The fact that we saw a quick response and a united front from all heads of these three branches of government of Brazil — so the president of Congress, President Lula, as well as the elite of the judiciary, putting out a statement condemning these acts, I think it’s a testament of the resiliency of democratic institutions in Brazil,” said Sader.

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