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The pro-Bolsonaro ‘rebellion’ was pathetic – and, for now, made President Lula stronger | Richard Lapper

Cboy in canary yellow soccer shirts or draped in the colors of the Brazilian flag, pro-Bolsonaro activists applauded a group of heavily armed police as it marched into their midst in Brasilia on Sunday.

Hundreds of far-right followers have been gathering in Brazil’s modernist capital since late Friday. On Sunday afternoon, they passed the security cordons and demolished the elegant buildings that house the most important democratic institutions in the country – the presidential palace, the supreme court and the two houses of congress. Now, they seem to have thought that these police were moving in to help them secure control, reverse the alleged fraud that deprived Jair Bolsonaro of a second term, and overthrow what they described as the left-wing dictatorship now in power.

However, just a few minutes later, the same officers, a unit of the federal government’s national forces, bundled them into buses and took them to police cells. With more than 1,000 people detained, the first phase of the promised pro-Bolson uprising ended not in the collapse of the military coup, but in whimpers.

For the radical fringes of the movement, the outcome marked a disappointing end to what had been a sad time. Their leader, Bolsonaro himself, is hardly a source of inspiration. In a bad mood and mostly silent since his narrow election defeat in the second round in late October, the former army captain left the country. Stripped of the political immunity he once enjoyed, the former president reportedly fears being the target of legal action and has gone to the country in Florida, a US state widely favored by other anti-communist conservatives from Cuba and other parts of Latin America.

Nor were the much-vaunted soldiers of much use. For more than two months, thousands of activists have been squatting in informal camps set up in front of the barracks, from where they unsuccessfully called for intervention. Many campers moved away. Many of those who remain are conspiracy buffs. Some harbor the illusion, for example, that General Augusto Heleno, perhaps the most hard-line of Bolsonaro’s military allies, is already ruling from behind the scenes and that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the winner in October, has already been deposed.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Lula gradually began to organize a new government. At a cost, he forged an alliance with the self-serving center and center-right politicians of the Centrao, or grand center, in an attempt to secure the support of the Congress. Labor loyalists hold key cabinet posts, but jobs have been found for leaders from a range of more conservative allied parties, including some with highly dubious credentials. Lula has taken steps to reverse some of the most damaging measures of the Bolsonaro era, for example by tightening gun controls.

On Sunday, at the end of his first week in office, the president acted quickly to secure the Brazilian capital, taking control of the police force from the state government of Brasilia (which, like Washington, is a federal district and enjoys state status). Police initially assigned by local authorities to protect government facilities did little to deter the attackers; within hours both the governor and his security secretary, a politician who had been a minister under Bolsonaro, were suspended.

Much remains to be done. It is possible that the radical right’s campaign could get a second wind this week if notorious Bolsonaro-supporting truck drivers carry out their threats to block roads and surround oil refineries, potentially cutting off fuel supplies to Brazilian cities. After the election, convoys of able-bodied trucks stopped traffic for several weeks, although with the support of court orders these barricades were eventually cleared. On Sunday night, reports came in that highways were blocked in several states. Pro-Bolsonaro websites also warn of a third phase, with military intervention needed just to restore order.

This, however, judging by what was supposed to be a total occupation of government buildings on Sunday, could turn out to be a failure. For all the damage caused – glass windows smashed, modernist artwork cut out, and furniture and electronic equipment smashed – these attacks hardly represented the first phase of the rebellion.

What are the consequences? In the short term, Lula is probably reinforced. Moderate conservative allies were quick to condemn the violence on Sunday. But so were the opposition leaders. In fact, the more visionary leaders of Brazil’s far right, such as Hamilton Murao, a former vice president, and Tarcisio de Freitas, Bolsonaro’s former infrastructure minister and recently elected governor of Sao Paulo, are playing a much longer game.

They are determined to build on the increased popularity of social conservatism in Brazilian society in recent years, which is reflected in the growth of, for example, the evangelical Protestant church. In last October’s election, the right made gains in Congress, increasing its representation compared to 2018, a year that was seen as a major success for conservative progress. Now he will look to build on this political capital and won’t think twice, if necessary, about getting rid of a man nursing his wounds in Florida.

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