Chaos Below the Equator: CUA Visiting Professor Explains Brazilian Capital Riot


Courtesy of Rolling Stone Magazine

By John Maggio

After two close and divisive rounds of voting, former two-time President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as “Lula” for short, defeated the incumbent Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, in late October of 2022. On January 8th, 2023 in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, thousands of anti-Lula protesters and right-wing factions encircled and stormed the National Congress building, Palácio do Planalto (translation to “Plateau Palace”, the Presidential Palace), and the Federal Supreme Court building. CUA’s visiting politics professor from Brazil, Dr. Gustavo Santos, explains the history behind this chaotic attack.

Dr. Santos, is an alum of the school, graduating from Catholic University with a Ph.D. in Political Theory in 2013. He teaches classes on Political Theory, Comparative Politics, and Latin American Politics. He was formerly a civil educator at a German think tank in Brazil, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, an international political education organization by Germany’s center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union.

“Lula was one of the founders of the Workers’ Party (PT) founded at the end of the government dictatorship… A left-wing party that started out as a socialist party with socialist leanings,” said Dr. Santos. “[I]t had some pretty radical factions within that party. It was the result of the coming together of academics, church leaders, and labor union leaders.” 

Lula became somewhat of an icon for the poor and laborers in the country, coming from the northeast of Brazil, a poorer region of the country. This symbolism of him helped him when he ran for President, coming in second twice (1989, 1994, & 1998), and finally being elected in 2002.

Concerns rose within Brazil that Lula would enact policies similar to other far-left Latin/South American leaders, such as his colleagues President Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Dr. Santos says that Lula later promised to not have such economic policies.

“At the end of the second mandate of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the the Social Democracy Party (PSDB) leader, he [Lula] wrote a letter committing himself to observing the orthodox of the economic policies of the previous government, because there was a fear among the Brazilian leaders and the market that they [the PT] would implement left-wing, statist policies,” stated Dr. Santos. 

Lula was able to be elected after promising not to enact such policies. His term was also marked by a corruption scandal, with an investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, by the federal police to look into the ties between high government officials and members of Petrobras, a state-owned petroleum company. Dr. Santos believes that Lula had knowledge of it.

“There was a serious corruption scandal in his government that he was able to sideline…, some of his main party colleagues, leaders in his government went to prison because of that, but he was able to stay out.”

Lula, who stated he did not know of such acts in his government, was sentenced to 12 years in late 2019. Lula was President from 2003 to 2010.

After retiring as a military captain, he became a state and federal Deputy (name of elected officials instead of “representatives” like in the U.S.) the demographic of military officers and military police.

Dr. Santos described the former president, stating, “He was a conservative, with an agenda of defending security, harding laws, crime, defending the police, work benefits and safety against allegations of police violence. He represented this business.”

When he was elected as President in 2019, he was a member of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), before leaving the party to be a member of the Liberal Party (PL). Both are more conservative parties. Dr. Santos says that Bolsoanro ran for President, he was in “the right place, at the right time” in terms of the figure for the socially-conservatives in the country opposing a long line of left-wing parties, administrations, and politicians in the past few years that were seen as corrupt after Operation Car Wash.

His presidency was one full of divisiveness from both inside and outside government officials. This includes genocide charges and “fake news” allegations.

Dr. Santos states that in the past few years, the Supreme Court has made some unusual decisions, especially leading up to the 2022 election. One example he gave was a ruling in November of 2018. The Supreme Court ruled that Lula’s convection was unlawful, something that was never expressed in Lula’s appeals before his sentencing. He only served 580 days of his 12-year prison sentence. Another example Dr. Santos mentioned, includes when a Supreme Court Electoral Tribunal ruled to “pre-censor” Bolsonaro supporters on social media for possible “manipulations of facts” of Lula, while nothing similar was against Lula supporters for such things as calling Bolasnaro a fascist or “threat to democracy.”

On January 8th, with fears over censorship and a possible corrupt politician being freed from prison by a corrupted judicial system, many stormed government buildings in an act Dr. Santos describes it as either “chaos or stupidity.”

AFP reports that 1,500 have been arrested, but with roughly a third being released shortly for various “humanitarian” concerns.

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