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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Lula becomes Brazil’s president, with Bolsonaro in Florida

Magno Rodrigues, a former mechanic and janitor who has spent the past nine weeks camped outside the Brazilian army headquarters in hopes that the military would prevent Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva from taking office, in Brasilia, the capital, Dec. 31, 2022.

By Jack Nicas and André Spigariol

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took the reins of the Brazilian government Sunday in an elaborate inauguration, complete with a motorcade, music festival and hundreds of thousands of supporters filling the central esplanade of Brasília, the nation’s capital.

But one key person was missing: the departing far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro was supposed to pass Lula the presidential sash Sunday, an important symbol of the peaceful transition of power in a nation where many people still recall the 21-year military dictatorship that ended in 1985.

Instead, Bolsonaro woke up Sunday 6,000 miles away, in a rented house owned by a professional mixed-martial-arts fighter a few miles from Disney World. Facing various investigations from his time in his office, Bolsonaro flew to Orlando on Friday night and plans to stay in Florida for at least a month.

Bolsonaro had questioned the reliability of Brazil’s election systems for months, without evidence, and when he lost in October, he refused to concede unequivocally. In a sort of farewell address Friday, breaking weeks of near silence, he said he tried to block Lula from taking office but failed.

“Within the laws, respecting the constitution, I searched for a way out of this,” he said. He then appeared to encourage his supporters to move on. “We live in a democracy or we don’t,” he said. “No one wants an adventure.”

On Sunday, Lula ascended the ramp to the presidential offices with a diverse group of Brazilians, including a Black woman, a handicapped man, a 10-year-old boy, an Indigenous man and a factory worker. A voice then announced that Lula would accept the green-and-yellow sash from “the Brazilian people,” and Aline Sousa, a 33-year-old garbage collector, played the role of Bolsonaro and placed the sash on the new president.

In an address to Congress on Sunday, Lula said that he would fight hunger and deforestation, lift the economy and try to unite the country. But he also took aim at his predecessor, saying that Bolsonaro had threatened Brazil’s democracy.

“Under the winds of redemocratization, we used to say, ‘Dictatorship never again,’ ” he said. “Today, after the terrible challenge we’ve overcome, we must say, ‘Democracy forever.’ ”

Lula’s ascension to the presidency caps a stunning political comeback. He was once Brazil’s most popular president, leaving office with an approval rating above 80%. He then served 580 days in prison, from 2018 to 2019, on corruption charges that he accepted a condo and renovations from construction companies bidding on government contracts.

After those convictions were thrown out because Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the judge in Lula’s case was biased, he ran for the presidency again — and won.

Lula, 77, and his supporters maintain that he was the victim of political persecution. Bolsonaro and his supporters say that Brazil now has a criminal as president.

In Brasília, hundreds of thousands of people streamed into the sprawling, planned capital, founded in 1960 to house the Brazilian government, with many dressed in the bright red of Lula’s leftist Workers’ Party.

Yet elsewhere in the city, thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters remained camped outside the army headquarters, as they have been since the election, many saying they were convinced that at the final moment Sunday, the military would prevent Lula from taking office.

“The army has patriotism and love for the country, and in the past, the army did the same thing,” Magno Rodrigues, 60, a former mechanic and janitor who gives daily speeches at the protests, said Saturday, referring to the 1964 military coup that ushered in the dictatorship.

Rodrigues has spent the past nine weeks sleeping in a tent on a narrow pad with his wife. He provided a tour of the encampment, which had become a small village since Bolsonaro lost the election. It has showers, a laundry service, cellphone-charging stations, a hospital and 28 food stalls.

The protests have been overwhelmingly nonviolent — with more praying than rioting — but a small group of people have set fire to vehicles. Lula’s transitional government had suggested that the encampments would not be tolerated for much longer.

How long was Rodrigues prepared to stay? “As long as it takes to liberate my country,” he said. “For the rest of my life if I have to.”

The absence of Bolsonaro and the presence of thousands of protesters who believe the election was stolen illustrate the deep divide and tall challenges that Lula faces in his third term as president of Latin America’s biggest country and one of the world’s largest democracies.

He oversaw a boom in Brazil from 2003 to 2011, but the country was not nearly as polarized then, and the economic tail winds were far stronger. Lula’s election caps a leftist wave in Latin America, with six of the region’s seven largest countries electing leftist leaders since 2018, fueled by an anti-incumbent backlash.

Bolsonaro’s decision to spend at least the first weeks of Lula’s presidency in Florida also shows his unease about his future in Brazil. Bolsonaro, 67, is linked to five separate inquiries, including one into his release of documents related to a classified investigation, another on his attacks on Brazil’s voting machines and another into his potential connections to “digital militias” that spread misinformation on his behalf.

As a regular citizen, Bolsonaro will now lose the prosecutorial immunity he had as president. Some cases against him will probably be moved to local courts from the Supreme Court.

Some top federal prosecutors who have worked on the cases believe there is enough evidence to convict Bolsonaro, particularly in the case related to the release of classified material, according to a top federal prosecutor who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential investigations.

On Sunday, Lula told Congress that Bolsonaro could face consequences. “We have no intention of revenge against those who tried to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological plans, but we will guarantee the rule of law,” he said. “Those who have done wrong will answer for their mistakes.”

It is unlikely that Bolsonaro’s presence in the United States could protect him from prosecution in Brazil. Still, Florida has become a sort of refuge for conservative Brazilians in recent years.

It is not uncommon for former heads of state to live in the United States for posts in academia or similar ventures. But it is unusual for a head of state to seek safe haven in the United States from possible prosecution at home, particularly when the home country is a democratic U.S. ally.

Bolsonaro and his allies argue that he is a political target of Brazil’s left and particularly Brazil’s Supreme Court. They have largely dropped claims that the election was rigged because of voter fraud, but instead now claim that it was unfair because Alexandre de Moraes, a Supreme Court justice who runs Brazil’s election agency, tipped the scales for Lula.

Moraes was an active player in the election, suspending the social-media accounts of many of Bolsonaro’s supporters and granting Lula more television time because of misleading statements in Bolsonaro’s political ads. Moraes has said he needed to act to counter the antidemocratic stances of Bolsonaro and his supporters. Some legal experts worry that he abused his power, often acting unilaterally in ways that go far beyond that of a typical Supreme Court judge.

Still, Bolsonaro has faced widespread criticism, on both the right and the left, for his response to his election loss. After suggesting for months he would dispute any loss — firing up his supporters and worrying his critics — he instead went silent, refusing to acknowledge Lula’s victory publicly. His administration carried out the transition as he receded from the spotlight and many of his official duties.

On Saturday night, in his departing speech to the nation, even his vice president, Hamilton Mourão, a former general, made clear his views on Bolsonaro’s final moments as president.

“Leaders that should reassure and unite the nation around a project for the country have let their silence or inopportune and harmful protagonism create a climate of chaos and social disintegration,” Mourão said.

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