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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Richard Luscombe in Kissimmee and Constance Malleret in Rio de Janeiro

Exiled Bolsonaro lives it up in Florida as legal woes grow back home

Jair Bolsonaro, the former Brazilian far-right president, poses with supporters outside his Florida home in Kissimmee, on 22 January.
Jair Bolsonaro, the former Brazilian far-right president, poses with supporters outside his Florida home in Kissimmee, on 22 January. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Among the most popular traditions at Florida’s Disney World are the daily character appearances that allow the public to get up close to the theme park’s star attractions.

Just a few miles down the road, beneath the palm trees of the lushly landscaped Encore resort at Reunion, Brazil’s exiled former president appears to have embraced the custom.

From the rented villa where he’s been holed up for a month, Jair Bolsonaro regularly steps out to mingle and be photographed with adoring supporters who come to pay homage, many of them vacationers from his own country.

Now, after 30 days as a temporary guest in the US, since his tearful farewell from Brazil two days before the inauguration of leftist successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Bolsonaro has decided he likes Florida so much that he wants to stay longer.

Apparently fearful he could be arrested if he sets foot back in Brasília as the investigation continues into the 8 January attack by his supporters on the country’s democratic institutions, Bolsonaro has applied to US authorities for a six-month visitor visa.

“He would like to take some time off, clear his head, and enjoy being a tourist in the United States for a few months before deciding what his next step will be,” his immigration attorney, Felipe Alexandre, said in a statement.

The implications of the move are potentially significant in both countries. In the US, Bolsonaro’s application poses a tricky dilemma for the Biden administration, already under pressure from Democrats who wrote a letter on 12 January urging the president to revoke his diplomatic visa.

It has also disappointed some among Bolsonaro’s legions of supporters at home and in Florida, (where an estimated 130,000 Brazilians live, according to the US Census Bureau).

Many had hoped the events of 8 January would be a forerunner to a triumphant return to Brazil for Bolsonaro. Instead, presumably mindful of the need to avoid upsetting his US hosts, he condemned the violence and “pillaging and invasions of public buildings” by his supporters. Some analysts believe the insurrection strengthened Lula’s position, but most Bolsonaristas remain unswervingly loyal to their ex-leader, and his discredited insistence that his election defeat by Lula was fraudulent.

“Lula is a criminal, vermin,” said Maria Fatima Cordosa, 71, a Brazilian expatriate who made an eight-hour drive with her American husband from their South Carolina home to Kissimmee for an emotional meeting with the man she calls her “forever president”.

Cordosa said she was among those who wanted Bolsonaro to return home and “take back” the country she said was looted by Lula and the “communists” on its supreme court.

“They stole everything, not just the election,” she said, as she joined about 25 others on the sidewalk as the ex-president emerged from his villa to sign autographs and pose for photographs.

“The judicial system is corrupt. Only Bolsonaro can save Brazil from these criminals.”

Efforts to ask the notoriously prickly Bolsonaro about his status were thwarted by a minder, who intervened quickly to halt this reporter’s questions and ensure exchanges with his supporters were restricted to pleasantries.

Brazil’s ex-president Jair Bolsonaro mingling with supporters outside his rented villa at Encore Resort at Reunion in Kissimmee. Florida.
Brazil’s ex-president Jair Bolsonaro mingling with supporters outside his rented villa at Encore Resort at Reunion in Kissimmee, Florida. Photograph: Richard Luscombe

But experts in Florida say Bolsonaro is in an undesired and somewhat awkward position, at risk of appearing increasingly weak to supporters by disengaging from developments at home, while uncharacteristically having to refrain from his trademark fiery rhetoric and bombast.

“He knows that he needs the goodwill of the Biden administration now, and he better not be doing too much agitprop or Democrats in Congress – more of them – will start saying, ‘Well, why should we have this guy here?’” said Anthony Pereira, professor of international relations at Florida International University’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, and founder of the Brazilian Studies Institute at King’s College London.

“I don’t know all the calculations on the US government side, but you’d think they would wait to see if the Brazilians request extradition. If the US were somehow to deny him this request for six months or kick him out with nothing coming from the Brazilian side they might look a bit biased.

“He’s always been good also at kind of having a quite decentralized, diffuse movement where lots of other people speak and he can be content to continue to do that … people like [rightwing blogger] Allan dos Santos or his sons Eduardo and Carlos can do the hard-hitting stuff and he can stay out of that.”

Sandra Câmara, a manager at the Pão Gostoso bakery in a Brazilian mall on Orlando’s international drive, says the former leader’s residence in Florida is almost the only topic of discussion.

“It’s 99% that, and only 1% soccer right now,” she said. “Everyone here loves Bolsonaro.”

At Camila’s restaurant in the same mall, Brazilian vacationers Vinícius and Mário De Souza believe Lula’s supporters “sabotaged” the 8 January protests to make Bolsonaro look bad, and that the former president would be in danger if he returned. “Lula would have him jailed, there is no doubt,” Mário De Souza said.

In Brazil, meanwhile, Bolsonaro faces a number of criminal inquiries, including an investigation into his alleged role in the Brasília uprising. The supreme court has launched five parallel inquiries into the events to investigate financial backers and intellectual authors as well as the rioters, while prosecutors have presented charges against nearly 500 people involved in the ransacking.

Political commentator Kennedy Alencar said that Bolsonaro’s attempt to remain abroad is as good as an admission of guilt.

“He is one of the instigators, one of the main instigators, of the attempted coup on 8 January, there is not the slightest doubt about that. He gave guidance, encouragement, and he knows that he can be held responsible,” Alencar told news site UOL.

Adding to the inquiries stacking up against the former president, the supreme court justice Luís Roberto Barroso on Monday authorized an investigation into whether the Bolsonaro government committed crimes including genocide against the Yanomami Indigenous people, who are currently suffering a humanitarian crisis.

The news that Bolsonaro was seeking to extend his stay in the US was met with wry derision. “He’s actually running away, isn’t he?” tweeted Rogério Correia, a lawmaker from the governing Workers’ party.

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