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A year after pro-Bolsonaro riots and dozens of arrests, Brazil is still recovering

On Monday, Lula and other officials will gather in Congress for the peculiar exhibit called “Unshakeable Democracy” in a symbolic ceremony aimed at reassuring Brazilians of the strength of their democratic system of government

Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, protest outside the Planalto Palace building in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.
Protesters, supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro, protest outside the Planalto Palace building in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.Eraldo Peres (AP)

Brazil’s Congress has everything ready to open an exhibit Monday featuring pieces including a tapestry crafted by renowned artist Burle Marx and a replica of the country’s Constitution dated 1988.

The display is notable not because of the rarity of the objects, but because they are the living memory of one of the grimmest episodes in Brazil’s recent history: As unprecedented riots in support of former president Jair Bolsonaro took place on Jan. 8, 2023 in government buildings in the capital Brasilia, the tapestry was damaged and the replica Constitution was taken.

Many saw the rioting as part of a failed attempt by Bolsonaro to remain in power following his election loss. A year and hundreds of arrests later, Brazil is still recovering.

“Brazil’s society still doesn’t know how to handle what happened, there’s no consensus,” said Creomar de Souza, founder of political risk consultancy Dharma Politics. “Brazil’s society is now in extreme opposites. And parts of those opposites are in a place that they cannot reconcile with the other.”

Mimicking the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by defenders of outgoing U.S. president Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court buildings, in one of the biggest challenges to Latin America’s most populous democracy.

A year later, around 400 people out of about 1,500 remain jailed facing charges for the riots and Bolsonaro has been under investigation by the Supreme Court over his role in the mayhem. But the country is still reeling from an episode that some say they are proud of.

Members of the three branches of power in Brazil say democracy and its guardrails have been restored after the trashing of the government buildings. But arrests have led supporters of the former president to say their freedom of speech is being violated and claim they are politically persecuted.

Some of them have also voiced unfounded claims that the riots were actually led by the current administration and its supporters. Bolsonaro made the same claim in an interview on Saturday.

Rio de Janeiro-based businessman Pablo Diniz, 44, rejects calling all protesters in Brasilia that day rioters. He even believes the discussion of Jan. 8 is not about democracy.

“There was a bit of everything there. There were people claiming for their rights. There were infiltrated people,” he said. “There were some good old ladies there, people who are patriots. I am a patriot. … I went to the streets (on Jan. 8) too, peacefully. I was there to fight for democracy for all.”

Bolsonaro was barred by a court last year from running for office again until 2030, in a case not related to the riots but to his unfounded claims that the electronic voting system in the past presidential election was rigged. Despite that, his far-right base remains numerous on the streets and feels capable of challenging President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

But on Monday, Lula and other officials will gather in Congress for the peculiar exhibit called “Unshakeable Democracy” in a symbolic ceremony aimed at reassuring Brazilians of the strength of their democratic system of government.

Lula told Brazilian media outlets Friday that Monday’s event could help to show how Brazilians should work to be able to live “the entire 21st century without any coup d’état.”

Following the events on Jan. 8, Brazil’s Senate paid about $40,000 to recover the tapestry made in 1973, which was stained by urine and torn in pieces. Supreme Court justices initially feared the replica of the Constitution had been stolen after a Bolsonaro supporter was filmed allegedly carrying it outside of the building. But days after the insurrection they found the real piece hidden in one of the building’s museums.

Many politicians associated with Bolsonaro are choosing not to show up at the “Unshakeable Democracy” event.

One of Bolsonaro’s staunchest supporters, lawmaker Carla Zambelli, said she and many in her base will ignore the gathering, which she called “a ridiculous waste of energy and public funds.” Sao Paulo Gov. Tarcisio de Freitas, deemed by many supporters of the former president as a potential political heir, traveled to Europe on vacation and will not attend either.

De Souza, the political risk consultant, says the establishment’s reaction to the riots was swift because the friction between Bolsonaro and other authorities, especially Supreme Court justices, was already in place before the 2022 presidential elections. But he said that doesn’t mean the country’s democracy has now returned to normalcy and can just move forward.

“There are trials for a first layer (of rioters),” he said. “That is an attempt to sell the idea of normalization from then onward.”

But the riots by Bolsonaro supporters in Brasilia made many moderates steer away from the far-right leader.

Cristina Melk, 68, a resident in the upscale Lagoa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, said she couldn’t vote for Lula in the 2022 elections despite disliking then-president Bolsonaro as well. The insurrection made her promise to her children that she would vote for anyone but allies of the far-right leader in the future.

“I never liked Lula’s style and the populist way he governs, but nothing can be worse than what we saw that day,” said Melk during her morning walk around the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake.

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