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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

Bolsonaro supporters hit streets of Rio and hail new hero Elon Musk

Supporters of ex-president Jair Bolsonaro hold up a sign saying ‘Thank you Elon Musk'
Supporters of ex-president Jair Bolsonaro hold up a sign saying ‘Thank you Elon Musk.’ Photograph: Tom Phillips/The Guardian

Thousands of diehard supporters of Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro have hit the streets of Rio to champion their embattled leader and celebrate the new hero of their far-right movement: Elon Musk.

The tech billionaire has spent recent weeks using his social network X to bash Bolsonaro’s arch-enemy, the supreme court judge Alexandre de Moraes. Moraes is responsible for several investigations into Bolsonaro that could land the ex-president in jail, including one examining the alleged coup plot that preceded the rightwing insurrection in Brasília on 8 January 2023.

Since early April Musk has been on the warpath against Moraes, calling him “Brazil’s Darth Vader” and comparing his actions to those of a “brutal dictator”.

“This judge has brazenly and repeatedly betrayed the constitution and people of Brazil. He should resign or be impeached,” Musk tweeted.

Musk’s online campaign against Moraes – who has responded by including the X owner in an inquiry into the online dissemination of fake news – has outraged progressive Brazilians who suspect it is part of a calculated transnational ploy to undermine Brazil’s leftwing government.

The head of the governing Workers’ party, Gleisi Hoffmann, said Musk’s “truculent offensive” was an attack on the rule of law designed to boost Brazil’s far right. The first lady, Janja Lula da Silva, has accused X of being part of “a coordinated operation against democracy”.

But the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutistMusk has thrilled Bolsonaro followers, who accuse Moraes of waging an anti-constitutional crusade against far-right influencers, politicians and activists. In recent years, Moraes has instructed social media firms including X to block dozens of accounts belonging to allies or supporters of Bolsonaro and ordered the arrest of a series of figures linked to the ex-president.

On Sunday, Musk’s image and name were everywhere as tens of thousands of Bolsonaro followers congregated on Rio’s Copacabana beach to pay homage to both men.

Alfredo Queiroz, 68, travelled to the rally from the nearby city of Rio das Ostras with a banner emblazoned with the billionaire’s portrait and the words “Thank you Elon Musk.”

“He is supporting Brazil against this shameless bloody dictatorship that we have in this country,” he said.

Sergio Galvão, a 51-year-old Bolsonarista wearing a bright yellow football shirt, said: “Elon Musk has been an essential guy for us. God has used this man to expose the dictatorship that has taken hold in Brazil to the whole word. He is a crucial tool.”

“We want Bolsonaro back in power,” Galvão added as thousands of rightwingers marched down the beach to see the ex-president speak.

As Bolsonaro prepared to address the throng outside beachside apartment blocks adorned with yellow and green Brazil flags, a succession of rightwing politicians and preachers lauded Musk.

“Elon Musk is definitely watching what is happening here right now,” the pro-Bolsonaro congressman Gustavo Gayer told the crowd in Portuguese, before switching to English to send a message the billionaire could understand (and potentially share with his 181.5 million X followers).

“This is a message to the world,” Gayer bellowed. “Look at what is happening here in Brazil today. What you see here are freedom-loving people who are fighting for democracy.”

Minutes later, Bolsonaro continued the tributes, declaring: “[Musk] is a man who truly cares about the freedom of all of us.”

“He is the man who had the courage to show … the direction our democracy was going in and how much freedom we have lost,” Bolsonaro said, before requesting a round of applause for the South African-born billionaire.

Analysts said Sunday’s seafront mobilisation was the latest attempt by Bolsonaro to project political strength in the face of the increasing likelihood of imprisonment.

Bolsonaro, who was president from 2019 to 2023, has been banned from running for office and is facing a series of criminal investigations, the most serious of which relates to the alleged attempt to overthrow the government after his 2022 election defeat to Lula.

Last year a congressional inquiry claimed Bolsonaro had been the mentor of “a wilful and premeditated coup attempt” that sought to plunge Latin America’s largest democracy into political mayhem and perhaps even civil war in an attempt to retain power.

Bolsonaro denied those claims on Sunday and issued a rallying cry reminiscent of Donald Trump’s “fight like hell” appeal to followers before the 6 January Capitol invasion.

“We have to fight,” Bolsonaro said. “Otherwise we will go to the slaughterhouse like lambs.”

For all the bombast, Sunday’s march was markedly smaller than previous demonstrations and a shadow of the thumping show of political force Bolsonaro staged on the same stretch of beach before the 2022 election.

Then, Copacabana was so packed that Bolsonaristas took to the sea in speedboats and jetskis to get a better view of their leader. On Sunday, many admirers began wandering home – or to nearby bars – while Bolsonaro was still delivering his half-hour speech.

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