Florida man Bolsonaro puts awkward twist on Biden democracy push

Defeated Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's stay in Florida as his supporters rioted at home presents awkward optics for the United States, which under President Joe Biden has vowed to champion democracy.

Florida has for decades served as a home in exile to Latin America's former strongmen and right-wing leaders and more recently is the adopted state of Donald Trump, Bolsonaro's political soulmate who has pushed a narrative of rigged elections.

In scenes reminiscent of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, Bolsonaro supporters in Brasilia swarmed the presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court for four hours on Sunday.

They unsuccessfully pleaded for the military to intervene against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose January 1 inauguration Bolsonaro refused to attend.

Biden offered "unwavering support" for Brazilian democracy in a phone call and invited Lula to the White House. But some left-wing lawmakers in both the United States and Brazil have asked the United States to go further and expel Bolsonaro.

"Domestic terrorists and fascists cannot be allowed to use Trump's playbook to undermine democracy. Bolsonaro must not be given refuge in Florida, where he's been hiding from accountability for his crimes," US Representative Joaquin Castro wrote on Twitter.

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security advisor, said the United States has not received any requests from Brazil on Bolsonaro but would take them "seriously."

"The awkwardness is normal, in a way," said Valentina Sader, associate director of the Atlantic Council's Latin America Center.

"What happened in Brazil pulled the United States into this conversation because President Bolsonaro was here," she said.

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But Bolsonaro's absence could also offer an opportunity for Lula, who instead of focusing on his predecessor is able to benefit from unity as Brazilians across the political spectrum condemn the attacks, Sader said.

After defeating Trump, Biden vowed a global push to encourage democracy. The Brazil attack could make Lula even more of an ally as he and Biden exchange lessons, Sader said.

Unlike the voluble Trump, Bolsonaro has kept a low profile in Florida where he was spotted eating alone at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. He is staying near Disney World at the Orlando home of Brazilian former martial arts champion Jose Aldo.

Bolsonaro took to Twitter to condemn the "pillaging" of public buildings. In an interview with CNN Brasil, he said he had planned to return at the end of January but is looking to leave earlier for health reasons after being treated Monday at an Orlando hospital for injuries related to a 2018 stabbing attack.

Bolsonaro left the hospital Tuesday and returned to Aldo's home again, an AFP reporter observed.

But even if he does not plan self-exile, Bolsonaro -- often called the "Trump of the Tropics" -- has found a ready following in Florida, home to nearly one-quarter of Brazilians in the United States, which he visited in 2020 and 2022 as president.

Famous previous leaders who have fled to Florida range from Gerardo Machado, dubbed the "Tropical Mussolini" when he ruled Cuba nearly a century ago, to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who flew to a Miami mansion after being overthrown but was denied asylum by Jimmy Carter's administration.

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Bolsonaro is not known to have met Trump since heading to Florida but his son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, has been tight with Trump's veteran strategist Steve Bannon.

Bannon has vocally urged an investigation into Brazil's electronic voting system, which has historically won global praise for its efficiency.

Bannon, who was sentenced to prison for refusing to testify to a congressional committee probing the Capitol attack, has promoted his brand of nationalism overseas. Besides Bolsonaro, Bannon has championed leaders including Hungary's Viktor Orban and India's Narendra Modi and European far-right parties.

Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that Trump has helped make election denialism an international force.

He said Brazil was especially suspectible due to the strong parallels to the United States. Beyond the Trump-Bolsonaro alliance, Brazil has seen a growing role of religion in politics and a sharp divide between cities and rural areas.

But Carothers said there were more countries to watch with caution including Mexico, where President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has pushed to overhaul the election system, and Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is up for election this year, four years after his party forced a rerun of the mayoral election in Istanbul.

Election denialism "is not really a new idea," Carothers said.

"It's just that Trump has pushed it forward as a strategy and pushed it in the world's face, that even in the United States you can question elections."

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