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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bolsonaro supporters try to ‘paralyze’ Brazil as they wait for him to speak

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro blocking traffic on the main road to São Paulo’s main airport in Brazil on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.

By Jack Nicas, Laís Martins and André Spigariol

Brazil entered its second day of silence from President Jair Bolsonaro following his election loss as his supporters around the country blocked roadways and other infrastructure with demands that the election be overturned.

On Tuesday, protesters partially blocked the highway leading to the nation’s largest airport in São Paulo, forcing the cancellation of at least 25 flights. Protesters also set up hundreds of blockades across the rest of the country, disrupting traffic, according to the federal highway police.

The demonstrators said they were trying to shut down or “paralyze” the country in order to draw intervention from the military, hoping it was a path to overturn the results of Sunday’s election, in which Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist, defeated the far-right incumbent.

Echoing baseless claims from Bolsonaro before the vote, protesters claimed in interviews and in posts on social media that the vote was stolen — and that they believed they were carrying out what the president wanted.

“We want to hear from our president,” said Reginaldo de Moraes, 45, an evangelical pastor standing on the side of the highway leading to São Paulo’s airport. “He has to speak, and we are going to listen. He is our president.”

Bolsonaro has, so far, not spoken publicly. For years, the president has attacked Brazil’s election system as rife with fraud, despite a lack of evidence, and said repeatedly in recent months that he would only accept an election that he believed was “clean.”

His silence left one of the world’s largest democracies on edge that there might not be a peaceful transition of power.

Several government ministers urged the president to concede on Monday, according to three government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings.

By Monday evening, Bolsonaro had retired to the presidential palace to finish drafting a public response, according to one of the officials, a senior member of Bolsonaro’s administration. The president planned to release that response on Tuesday, although what exactly he would say and when remained unclear, the senior official said.

The officials stressed that the president would make the final decision.

The result was confusion inside the government and across the nation. Even as the president stayed silent, his chief of staff spoke with two top advisers to da Silva, according to the president-elect’s spokesperson, who added that officials in Bolsonaro’s government were giving signs that there would be a normal transition.

While the protests by Bolsonaro supporters were largely nonviolent and were smaller than the mass demonstrations that some officials had feared before the vote, the disruptions were expanding.

The federal highway police said there were 220 active blockades in 21 of Brazil’s 27 states as of Tuesday morning, and that they had broken up 288 blockades since the election ended.

In some cases, it appeared that some law enforcement officials were not intervening in the protests.

On Monday, three federal highway police officers stood and watched as protesters blocked the main highway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil’s two largest cities.

In Rio de Janeiro, the federal highway police and state police spoke with protesters before they partially blocked a key bridge linking the city with a neighboring area. The police watched for two hours before the protesters dispersed amid heavy rains. Posts and videos on social media also showed the federal highway police not taking immediate action against blockades across the country.

Late Monday, Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice, ordered the federal highway police and state police to clear all federal highways. Under the order, the director of the federal highway police faced arrest and a $20,000 fine if his agency did not comply.

Around the same time, hundreds of protesters had begun blocking the road to São Paulo’s main airport, Guarulhos International Airport, causing long lines of traffic and forcing airlines to cancel 12 flights on Monday and 13 flights on Tuesday.

Just after 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, the federal highway police sprayed a chemical agent toward dozens of protesters who were still blocking two of the three lanes of the airport highway, clearing the blockade. Traffic was flowing within minutes. The police arrested one protester. Demonstrators then stood on the side of the highway waving flags, as authorities warned them to stay off the roadway.

Reginaldo de Moraes, the evangelical pastor who helped lead the protest, said he and other demonstrators were demanding that the military investigate the voter fraud they believed rigged Sunday’s election.

“We want the truth about the voting machines,” he said. “We don’t believe them, and we want the army to take over and count the votes correctly.”

Alexandre de Moraes, the Supreme Court justice, had already issued an order against the federal highway police earlier this week. On Election Day, federal highway officers stopped at least 550 buses carrying voters to polls, questioning people aboard.

Alexandre de Moraes, who is also Brazil’s elections chief, then ordered the agency’s director to explain why. Election officials said the traffic stops delayed some voters, but did not prevent anyone from voting.

The head of the federal highway police has posted extensively about Bolsonaro on his official Instagram account. That includes a post on the eve of the election that urged people to vote for Bolsonaro, according to O Globo, one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers. (The kind of message he posted automatically disappears from Instagram after 24 hours and was no longer visible.)

While the protesters are calling for military intervention, a military spokesperson said Tuesday that the blockades were a police matter.

The president, Brazil’s Congress or the Supreme Court have the power to order the military to contain crowds in emergencies, and some government officials and academics had worried before the election that Bolsonaro could try to use that power if he refused to concede. As of Tuesday, the military had not commented publicly on the election.

Bolsonaro has attacked Brazil’s electronic voting machines for years, claiming that they are vulnerable to fraud. As a result, three out of four of his supporters trust the machines only a little or not at all, according to various polls in recent months.

There is no credible evidence of fraud in the voting machines since they were introduced in 1996, and independent security experts said that while the machines are not perfect, multiple layers of security prevent fraud or errors.

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