Why Jair Bolsonaro left Brazil for Florida (and what Biden can do about it)

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, pictured here at an election debate in October, left his country for Florida two days before his term ended.
Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, pictured here at an election debate in October, left his country for Florida two days before his term ended.
Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed public government buildings on Sunday, calling for the military to take over Brazil's government after spending more than two months denying the results of the country's presidential election.

In scenes evocative of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, supporters of the Trump-styled populist leader smashed windows, clashed with police and raided Brazil's congressional building, its Supreme Court and the Planalto presidential palace.

With the riots now under control, the country's newly installed president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said that those who broke into the building would be "found and punished."

But what about the man who united the rioters in the first place?

Bolsonaro wasn't on the scene.

In sharp contrast to the U.S. insurrection attempt, the far-right leader didn't promise to walk to the government building with his supporters. He didn't deliver any rallying speeches or even publicly address his supporters at all.

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Bolsonaro was laying low in Orlando, Fla., where he has been residing since late December. It's a move that was likely more than sheer coincidence.

Why did Bolsonaro leave Brazil for Florida?

Graffiti reading "New Constitution" can be seen next to smashed windows at the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, on Monday.
Graffiti reading "New Constitution" can be seen next to smashed windows at the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, on Monday.
Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images

Bolsonaro left Brazil just two days before his term ended, with Lula's inauguration on Jan. 1.

The decision read like a symbol of his disdain for the peaceful transition of power, but the move and its timing could also help insulate Bolsonaro from legal jeopardy.

The former president is under investigation in at least four criminal probes, according to Reuters.

All four investigations are led by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who Bolsonaro's critics claim is trying to silence free speech. The allegations guiding the probes span from using the federal police to protect his sons to spreading baseless election fraud claims.

Brazil's sitting presidents can't be arrested unless convicted by the Supreme Court, according to the country's constitution.

But now that Bolsonaro has left office, he could be tried by any number of courts. According to Reuters, Bolsonaro is facing 12 requests for investigation at the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) for fraud claims and power abuses.

He could also see fresh investigations following this weekend's violence, which his successor threatened in his inauguration speech.

"We do not carry any spirit of revenge against those who tried to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological designs, but we will guarantee the rule of law," Lula said, not mentioning Bolsonaro by name. "Those who erred will answer for their errors."

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva meets with government ministers Monday to address the previous days riots at Planalto Palace.
Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva meets with government ministers Monday to address the previous days riots at Planalto Palace.
Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Like in the U.S., Brazil's judiciary is independent, but presidents, in practice, have been able to apply pressure to criminal probes. The federal police, which has already investigated Bolsonaro, is now run by a Lula ally.

Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Brazil's Getulio Vargas Foundation, said that leaving the country lends Bolsonaro the appearance of less responsibility for the riots ā€” which could play a role in whether or not he faces legal consequences.

"The electoral justice system has made clear that if he explicitly incites his followers, he may lose his political rights," Stuenkel said on NPR's Morning Edition.

What has Bolsonaro said about the attacks?

Bolsonaro indirectly condemned the attack on Twitter yesterday, saying that invasions of public buildings were not the same as peaceful protests.

He also rejected the notion that he bore responsibility for the attack, saying there was no evidence to support the claim.

But for months, Bolsonaro has been stoking beliefs that the country's electronic voting system was prone to fraud, even as mounting terrorism threats left the country on edge.

Bolsonaro supporters are taken by bus Monday to federal police headquarters. They were taken into custody after the riots at government buildings in Brasilia on Sunday.
Bolsonaro supporters are taken by bus Monday to federal police headquarters. They were taken into custody after the riots at government buildings in Brasilia on Sunday.
Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Lula's election win, which came with the slimmest margin in a generation, was quickly recognized by politicians across the spectrum and governments around the world. But Bolsonaro never conceded defeat.

His allies filed a lawsuit to annul a batch of votes, but the case was quickly dismissed, spurring more protests.

Some tactics looked strikingly similar to those used in the U.S. after the 2020 presidential election. In one case, truck drivers and diehard Bolsonaro fans caused national transportation nightmares by blocking roads in over a dozen Brazilian states, prompting the Supreme Court to issue orders to federal highway police.

Bolsonaro's son and fellow lawmaker, Eduardo, held several meetings with former President Donald Trump, Trump's longtime ally Steve Bannon and senior campaign adviser Jason Miller, according to several U.S. news outlets.

Bolsonaro's decision to reside in Trump's home state also hasn't escaped notice.

Biden is facing pressure to send Bolsonaro back to Brazil

On Twitter, President Biden condemned this weekend's riots, framing them as an "assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil."

"Brazil's democratic institutions have our full support and the will of the Brazilian people must not be undermined," he added. "I look forward to continuing to work with @LulaOficial."

But already, some are raising questions about the government's role in Bolsonaro's Florida retreat.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted the U.S. must "cease granting refuge to Bolsonaro."

"Nearly two years to the day the U.S. Capitol was attacked by fascists, we see fascist movements abroad attempt to do the same in Brazil," she added.

Representative Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, told CNN that "Bolsonaro should not be in Florida" and "the United States should not be a refuge for this authoritarian who has inspired domestic terrorism."

What options would Biden have for sending Bolsonaro away?

President Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attended a bilateral meeting at the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last June.
President Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attended a bilateral meeting at the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last June.
Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. doesn't need a legal justification to revoke a foreigner's visa, which it might have to do in the case of Bolsonaro.

That's because many heads of state enter the U.S. on an A-1 visa, which is normally canceled after the recipient leaves office, according to diplomatic sources quoted in Reuters.

But that changes if a recipient is in the U.S. before their term ends. There's no set time limit on how long someone can stay in the United States on an A-1.

The State Department had not returned NPR's request for comment at the time of publication.

Another potential scenario would be a Brazilian judge signing an arrest warrant for Bolsonaro, given the impending investigations.

If he refused to return on his own, he could be detained by U.S. agents, which could, in turn, lead to a lengthy extradition battle in the courts.

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