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Why Jair Bolsonaro left Brazil for Florida (and what Biden could 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.
Mauro Pimentel
AFP via Getty Images
Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, pictured here at an election debate in October, left his country for Florida two days before his term ended.

Updated January 9, 2023 at 9:43 PM ET

Hundreds of supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonarostormed 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, 2021, 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 Inácio Lula da Silva, said that those who broke into the buildingwould 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, 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.

Bolsonaro was lying low in Orlando, Fla., where he has beenresiding since late December. And now analysts say Bolsonaro being outside Brazil helps shield him from legal consequences he could face back home.

On Monday, his wife said on Instagram that Bolsonaro had been admitted to a Florida hospital with abdominal pain related to his 2018 stabbing. Bolsonaro tweeted on Monday evening that he had been discharged.

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

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 Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who, Bolsonaro's supporters claim, is trying to silence free speech. The allegations against the former president span from using the federal police to protect his sons to spreading baseless election fraud claims.

A sitting Brazilian president 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 for fraud claims and alleged power abuses.

Following this weekend's violence, he could also see fresh investigations, which his successor threatened Monday in a letter co-signed by Senate and Supreme Court leaders.

"We are united so that institutional measures are taken, in the terms of the Brazilian laws," reads the letter, which was posted to social media. "The country needs normality, respect and work for the nation's progress and social justice."

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
Getty Images
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva meets with government ministers Monday to address the previous day's riots at the Planalto presidential palace.

Like in the U.S., Brazil's judiciary is independent, but presidents, in practice, have been able to apply pressure in 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 — which could play a role in whether 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 attacks on Twitter on Sunday, saying that invasions of public buildings were not the same as peaceful protests.

He also rejected the notion that he bore responsibility for the attacks, 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.
Mauro Pimentel / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
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.

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 die-hard Bolsonaro fans caused 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 Bolsonaro, 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. Trump and Miller had yet to weigh in on the riots as of Monday afternoon. Bannon called the rioters "freedom fighters" in a post on Gettr, the social media platform founded by Miller.

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 U.S. government's role in Bolsonaro's Florida retreat, especially given the ideological similarities to the Jan. 6 attack.

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

"Nearly 2 years to the day the US Capitol was attacked by fascists, we see fascist movements abroad attempt to do the same in Brazil," she added.

Rep. 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.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden and Jair Bolsonaro, then Brazil's president, attended a bilateral meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last June.

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

Many heads of state enter the U.S. on a temporary A-1 visa, which doesn't have a uniform time limit but varies depending on the purpose of the visit.

It's unclear whether Bolsonaro entered the U.S. on an A-1 visa, and it's also unclear whether such a visa would've expired when his term did.

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

But John Feeley, who served as ambassador to Panama during a presidential extradition case, says the visa question is beside the point: "There's nothing that prevents Biden from saying to Bolsonaro, 'You have to be out in 24 hours.'"

A Biden decision to keep Bolsonaro in the U.S. might be less of a political decision than a safety one: Bolsonaro's return could spark more violence.

Should Biden decide not to deport Bolsonaro, a Brazilian judge could start the extradition process by signing an arrest warrant based on pending investigations.

If Bolsonaro 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.

How lengthy? One recent precedent is the case of former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, who fled for the U.S. in 2015 after his term ended amid impending criminal investigations.

Feeley, who was ambassador at the time, said that Martinelli's arrest warrant was issued by the Panamanian Supreme Court in 2015 and posted to Interpol in 2016. But thanks to bureaucratic delays and various legal holdups, Martinelli wasn't arrested for another 18 months.

It was nearly two years later, in 2018, that he was finally extradited to Panama, where he was eventually acquitted. Martinelli is now leading polls for the 2024 presidential election.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.

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