The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As protests sweep Latin America, Bolsonaro warns Brazil: Don’t try it here

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, fifth from left, and his cabinet arrive for a ceremony in Brasilia last week. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

RIO DE JANEIRO — The continent is in tumult. Violent protests, or the threat of them, seem to be everywhere. Administrations are teetering. And in Brazil, the ingredients fueling the unrest — widespread inequality and anger at elites — are in bountiful supply.

Now the country’s most electrifying politician, the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is fresh out of prison, mobilizing his base, giving speeches and demanding that his followers take to the streets: “We have to follow the example of the people of Chile, of Bolivia.”

But the streets remain empty — for now. And the federal government is warning, in increasingly strident language, that it had better stay that way.

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President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing nationalist who speaks admiringly of the country’s former military dictatorship, has called the protests in Chile, Colombia and beyond “terrorist acts,” and asked the National Congress this week for the authority to use the military to stop any violence that might arise here. His son and his finance minister have taken the rhetoric further, musing publicly that it might be necessary to dissolve the Congress and shut down the press if, as Eduardo Bolsonaro said, “the left radicalizes.”

The unrest sweeping through several South American countries reached Colombia on Nov. 21, when thousands marched against the policies of President Iván Duque. (Video: Reuters)

The ongoing brinkmanship and speculation is revealing the character of a Brazilian government that has little precedent in recent history. Rather than quell fears of his autocratic intentions, Bolsonaro and his government are instead reacting to something that hasn’t happened — and which analysts call unlikely — with threats, partisanship and appeals to one of the darkest periods in the nation’s modern history.

“He’s not comfortable in the institutional straitjacket, so he keeps teasing and testing the institutions of the country,” said Dawisson Belém Lopes, a political scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “The point is this isn’t a normal government by any criteria. It’s totally unparalleled under any metric you employ.”

In Brazil, one of the most politically explosive terms is “AI-5.” The infamous decree, issued by the military dictatorship in 1968 to consolidate its power, sharply curtailed political and press freedoms, leading ultimately to the institutionalization of censorship and torture.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, a federal congressman, evoked AI-5 recently as a possible response to leftist agitation. “There will arrive a moment when the situation will be the same as it was in the 1960s in Brazil,” he said in an interview on YouTube last month. The left “is an internal enemy, difficult to identify, here inside the country. I hope it doesn’t come to that point, but we have to be aware.”

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The president’s son was widely criticized for the remark and ultimately walked it back. But that didn’t stop Finance Minister Paulo Guedes from raising AI-5 again this week. Asked what he thought of Lula’s call for mobilization, he said Brazilians shouldn’t be surprised.

“When the other sides wins, within 10 months you’re already calling everyone to destroy the streets?” said Guedes, visiting Washington to meet with business leaders. “What kind of responsibility is that? Don’t be afraid if someone asks for an AI-5. Hasn’t it happened before?”

Jair Bolsonaro asked the National Congress on Monday for authority to stop violence with soldiers.

“A protest is one thing,” he said. “Vandalism, terrorism is another thing entirely. If you set fire to buses, kill innocent people, set fire to banks, invade ministries, that is no protest,” he said.

Was the resignation of Bolivia's Evo Morales due to a coup? Washington Post South American bureau chief Anthony Faiola says that depends on your political view. (Video: The Washington Post)

If lawmakers grant him an emergency decree, he said, “the protest will be stopped. . . . Congress will tell us whether they want us to stop these terrorist acts or not.”

For now, the streets are quiet. Lula, sprung from prison this month while he appeals convictions for corruption, has commanded rallies attended by thousands — but hasn’t succeeded in organizing protests.

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva released from prison

In the threats, analysts perceive a political intent. Bolsonaro has not been a consensus-building politician; he governs by division. In his telling, Brazil and the world are in the throes of an ideological clash between the right and left.

“It’s to feed the politics of the base,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political strategist in Brasilia. If he comes out strong against protests — even if they’re fictional — and labels them leftists, he’ll look powerful and strong to a base that sees the world through his ideological prism.

“It’s what Trump does,” he said, referring to the U.S. president. “He uses strong words and threatens extreme actions that then aren’t taken.”

Creomar De Souza, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Brasilia, expresses confidence that protests won’t explode in Brazil. He called Bolsonaro’s threats to use the military a “distraction” to draw attention from more-pressing matters.

“It’s only for looking,” De Souza said. “When they use this rhetoric, no one is talking about how strong the dollar is against the real. No one is talking about how they lack a legislative agenda.”

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Speculation about whether South America’s season of protest will spread next to Brazil, he said, fundamentally misunderstands the trend lines.

If anything, he said, the protests began here in 2013, when millions flooded the streets in a public indictment of corruption and feckless governance.

The ultimate outcome of that discontent was the removal of former president Dilma Rousseff, a protegee of Lula, and the rise of Bolsonaro, a former fringe lawmaker who campaigned against corruption and violent crime.

Now, De Souza said, the country appears more exhausted than anything else.

“But who knows,” he cautioned. “This could all change next week.”

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