KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Far from the chaos in his homeland, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has found refuge among a swell of supporters in an unexpected location: An Orlando suburb near Disney World.
In the week since, he has been spotted waiting in line at Publix, eating alone at Kentucky Fried Chicken and posing for selfies with the bevy of fans who show up at the modest, two-story home where he is staying.
“My kids, they didn’t want to see Mickey Mouse, they wanted to see Bolsonaro,” Leandro Neiva, a Brazilian dentist, said as he, his wife and their two young children waited to greet Bolsonaro on Friday. “He is just like us. He could be at Mar-a-Lago with Trump, but he is here in Orlando, and everybody knows he is here.”
Bolsonaro’s Florida sojourn has become a flash point as scrutiny mounts over the most significant threat to Brazil’s democracy since the 1964 military coup. Lula has accused his predecessor of “encouraging” the attack through social media “from Miami, where he went to relax” — an accusation Bolsonaro denies.
“In fact, he ran away so he wouldn’t have to pass the sash to me,” Lula quipped in a speech Sunday night after the attack.
In the hours that followed his supporters’ riot, Bolsonaro was hospitalized with abdominal pains, his wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, wrote in an Instagram post Monday. He has been hospitalized several times since being stabbed during a campaign rally in 2018. “We are praying for his health and for Brazil,” Michelle Bolsonaro wrote.
A representative for AdventHealth Celebration — where Brazilian media outlets reported Bolsonaro had been transported to — declined to confirm his admission or share any details about his condition.
As the drama in Florida unfolded, some U.S. Democrats in Washington were calling on President Biden to rescind Bolsonaro’s visa, saying the former Brazilian leader shouldn’t be allowed to stay in Florida. Bolsonaro has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but some analysts say he could face future criminal probes on unrelated matters now that he no longer has presidential immunity.
“He’s a dangerous man. They should send him back to his home country of Brazil,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said during an appearance on CNN, adding Bolsonaro “used the Trump playbook.”
As he signed autographs from his supporters, at least one of whom flew from New York to try to see him, Bolsonaro declined to comment Friday about his time in Florida except to say the crowd of well-wishers was a sign that “everybody loves me.”
While in Brazil Bolsonaro is both loathed and revered, here expats overwhelmingly favor the man dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics.” They voted overwhelmingly to reelect him from expat ballot boxes in Miami. Like some supporters of former president Donald Trump, a contingent of Bolsonaro fans believe the election was stolen — without any evidence. Ahead of the vote, Bolsonaro said that if he were to lose, it could only be through fraud.
Bolsonaro has given no indication how long he plans to stay in Florida, a state that has long served as a haven for foreign leaders escaping political or legal turmoil at home.
Over the past century, strongmen and former leaders from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, Peru and Bolivia have relocated to the state, often buying property and seamlessly blending in with other expats from Latin and South America, some until their final days. Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado is buried at a cemetery in Miami’s Little Havana.
Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly and an expert on Latin American politics, said it is not uncommon for former Brazilian presidents to leave the country around the time of a successor’s inauguration. But in this case, Winter believes that Bolsonaro may be preparing to seek exile to avoid criminal prosecution in Brazil, although he cautions he may ultimately seek refuge in a country other than the United States.
“He has not officially been charged with a crime yet, so for now this is either an attempt to get away or a self-imposed exile, depending on who you believe,” Winter said. “I lean more toward the idea that it is the beginning of an exile, especially after what happened on Sunday.”
Bolsonaro is staying in a house owned by Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter José Aldo da Silva Oliveira at the Encore Resort at Reunion, a gated community located off a highway that leads to Disney World. He has been chauffeured around suburban Orlando in a white Lexus and has appeared to be living an exceptionally modest lifestyle for a former president.
In the days before Sunday’s attack, Bolsonaro would emerge every few hours to thunderous applause. Then, Portuguese-speaking security guards — one of whom wore a U.S. Army cap — would ask the crowd of well-wishers to form a single-file line as Bolsonaro greeted each of them, signing autographs and shaking hands. Some of the fans were Brazilians on vacation, others expats who back his conservative government and are enraged by Lula’s victory.
“We are in trouble now,” said Deborah Sartori, 48, who broke down in tears after meeting Bolsonaro. “I think Lula stole the election … and now we are worried about the future of Brazil.”
Lula “wants to make the entire South America, and Central America like one big country,” Antonio Fernando Mariz, 70, a Brazilian American who lives in Clearwater, Fla., said after Bolsonaro signed his T-shirt on Friday. “I was thinking about buying a property in Brazil, but now, absolutely not!”
Bolsonaro’s location in Orlando has quickly spread on social media, helping to turn the Encore Resort at Reunion into a quasi-pilgrimage for his supporters.
One Brazilian social media star and pastor with more than 1 million Instagram followers, Junior Trovão, said he was on vacation in Florida and decided to stop by Bolsonaro’s vacation property after seeing other posts on social media about the former president’s whereabouts.
“I came to talk to my president and see my president,” said Trovão, who posed for a selfie with Bolsonaro, alongside his family. “He is one of the most beloved presidents Brazil has ever had. Everyone loves him. Do you think any other president would do this?”
As he shared images of his day on Instagram, Trovão said he doesn’t fault Bolsonaro for fleeing to Orlando and that he hopes Bolsonaro stays as long as he wants, noting he can use social media to maintain contact with his supporters back in Brazil.
“I think at the right time he will go back,” Trovão said.
Paulo Blikstein, the director of the Lemann Center for Brazilian Studies at Columbia University, said Bolsonaro could easily continue to use Florida as a base from which he could rile up his supporters and use social media to “spread disinformation.”
“I think Bolsonaro might just decide to stay in the U.S. and, doing internet stuff, spread disinformation and keep his supporters happy,” he said. “He could stay in the U.S. for a long time and still be an important voice in Brazil.”
Though Sunday’s insurrection was eerily similar to the chaos unleashed in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, some are cautioning against making too direct a comparison between Bolsonaro and Trump.
Winter noted there is no indication that Bolsonaro urged his supporters to storm government buildings, and he did issue a public statement condemning those actions as chaos was unfolding.
“Bolsonaro did not stand in front of the Brazilian Congress and urge his followers to go show their strength,” he said. “He was 4,000 miles away, and at least in public, silent on Sunday.”
Yet, Winter believes the scenes of mob violence in Brasília has increased the pressure on prosecutors to charge Bolsonaro with a crime.
“If Bolsonaro is trying to play the long game, it got more complicated after Sunday,” Winter said. “Most of the people who previously advocated leniency are now saying, ‘If we don’t prosecute, we will continue to run into problems like we did on Sunday.’”
If he is charged, Winter believes Bolsonaro would try to claim exile, either in the United States or perhaps in Europe. If in the United States, Winter doubts the Biden administration would grant it. Bolsonaro’s best hope, he said, could be to drag out the process until after the 2024 presidential election.
“If Interpol is after him, I don’t think Joe Biden’s America would shelter him,” Winter said. “But Ron DeSantis’s America might.”
What type of visa he entered the country with remains unclear. Reuters reported that Bolsonaro likely utilized an A-1 visa, which is given to diplomats and government leaders participating in official activities. State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to discuss the details of any individual’s visa situation, citing privacy rules. But he noted that holders of an A-1 visa present in the U.S. have 30 days following the cessation of their official status to apply for a different visa. After that, they are subject to removal by the Department of Homeland Security.
Fabio de Sa e Silva, a professor of Brazilian studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Biden administration could revoke Bolsonaro’s visa at any point.
“There is no need for any formal procedure or formal request from the Brazilian government or any authority,” he said. “It’s entirely within the discretion of the U.S. administration.”
If Bolsonaro does attempt to remain in Florida, Orlando would be a telling destination. While earlier generations of Brazilian expats flocked to South Florida, community leaders say Orlando has drawn a growing number of compatriots.
“We say Orlando is the best city of Brazil,” Marcello Ribeiro, 37, a Brazilian who moved to Orlando two years ago said as he waited to meet Bolsonaro on Saturday. “Florida is a very nice place, and the weather in Orlando is very similar to Brazil.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, there are about 115,000 Brazilians in Florida, representing 22 percent of all Brazilians living in the U.S. Brazilians bought $700 million in Florida real estate from August 2020 to July 2021, trailing only Canadians, Argentines and Colombians in statewide home purchases during that period, a report from the Florida Realtors, a trade association, found.
Several Brazilian Bolsonaro supporters said that besides the weather, Brazilians are increasingly drawn to Florida because it has a reputation for being a hub of conservatism, including being the home of both Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
“I think now for me, Florida is the best place in the United States because with Biden, and here we have Republicans and I think it is more safe and better,” said Michel Pires, 49, who sold his furniture store in Brazil last year and bought a house in the Encore Resort at Reunion.
But there are signs that some residents and visitors to the community have become uneasy over the spectacle that now plays out daily in front of Bolsonaro’s residence.
One woman complained to the resort security on Saturday that the crowds threatened to derail her wedding. She was scheduled to get married at a gazebo in the resort and the crowd of Bolsonaro supporters was in direct line of sight for her photographs.
“I don’t even know this man, but these people are going to be in my wedding photos,” the woman, who identified herself only as Heather, pleaded with Bolsonaro’s security guards.
Besides the commotion in front of his residence, Bolsonaro appears to have mostly gone unnoticed.
On New Year’s Eve, a video of Bolsonaro eating alone at a KFC restaurant went viral. When a Post reporter visited the restaurant over the weekend, the staff said they did not know Bolsonaro had been there.
“Did he have security guards with him?” Karen Jones, the shift supervisor, asked after being shown a photograph of the former president eating next to the photo montage of KFC’s founder, Colonel Harland Sanders. “It was definitely this store … I am sure we may have seen other famous people in here but we don’t even know it.”
At least for now, Bolsonaro’s Brazilian supporters know exactly where they can find him.
Maria Lucia, 65, works as a home health aide in New York City and spent $362 on a plane ticket so she could fly to Orlando over the weekend. She wrapped herself in a Brazilian flag and waited patiently for Bolsonaro to wander out of his house to greet about 200 well-wishers.
Bolsonaro, wearing blue jeans and a soccer jersey, hugged Lucia as he signed her flag.
“I will hang this in my apartment,” said Lucia, as she beamed over the encounter. “What other president would do this?”
Emmanuel Felton, Karen DeYoung, Annabelle Timsit, Júlia Ledur, Paulina Villegas, Razzan Nakhlawi and Scott Clement contributed to this report.