Jair Bolsonaro is in Florida.
Two weeks ago, he was president of Brazil. There were already multiple ongoing criminal investigations into his conduct before he left office, but he flew to the United States just before his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was inaugurated — and not long before his supporters rioted in a failed coup attempt.
Bolsonaro’s exit to Florida on the final weekend of his presidency certainly looks like an attempt to evade justice in Brazil.
Fortunately, the United States is under no legal obligation to shelter him. The Biden administration can and should deny him a visa and expel him from the country.
Bolsonaro Eats KFC in Orlando While His Supporters Attempt a Coup
After the election, Bolsonaro refused to accept defeat. He constantly played up conspiracy theories about Brazil’s voting machines, even though multiple audits have debunked his claims that these machines are unreliable or fraud-prone.
Americans who are accustomed to right-wing politicians spreading conspiratorial nonsense to their followers and then leaving office when the time comes might shrug at similar behavior emanating from the man the international media calls the “Trump of the Tropics.” But Bolsonaro’s refusal to accept the results was particularly worrying given the very different situation on the ground in Brazil.
A report in the Intercept in 2019 revealed that “Bolsonaro and his three politician sons” have “extensive, direct, multilayered, and deeply personal ties” to the “paramilitary gangs and militias responsible for Brazil’s most horrific violence” — including the 2018 assassination of socialist Rio de Janeiro city councilor Marielle Franco.
And Bolsonaro has repeatedly praised and defended the record of the right-wing military dictatorship that once ran Brazil. When Bolsonaro voted to impeach Workers’ Party president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, he gave an infamous speech dedicating his vote to the head of the dictatorship-era secret police. Earlier in his career, Bolsonaro had even said that the dictatorship didn’t finish “the job” by killing enough leftists.
While the Bolsonaro and Trump movements admire each other and the Brazilian right often consciously imitates the antics of their US counterparts, it would be a mistake to think these “militias” are the Brazilian equivalent of tiny groups like the Proud Boys. These are serious right-wing paramilitaries that control territory like drug gangs do. With friends like that, there were good reasons to worry that Bolsonaro’s refusal to concede defeat might signal an intent to use violence to retain power.
On Sunday, thousands of his supporters tried to do exactly that. They stormed Brazil’s presidential palace and its National Congress and Supreme Federal Court buildings in the federal capital of Brasilia. At least seventy people were injured. Five hand grenades were later found at the scene.
In some ways, it looked like a reenactment of the January 6, 2021, riot in the United States, but there were important respects in which Brazil’s January 8 was worse, including apparent complicity by military police and perhaps also some local officials. The governor of Brasilia, a longtime Bolsonaro ally, has been removed from office pending investigation of his role in the “security flaws” leading to the attack.
Fifteen hundred of the pro-Bolsonaro rioters have been arrested. Bolsonaro himself, though, is a free man. He went to the hospital for chest pains on the day of the attack, but in the week before, photos of him flooded social media. He was schmoozing and taking selfies with right-wing Brazilians in Orlando, wandering the aisles at Publix, and being photographed eating KFC while his supporters prepared to lay siege to Brazil’s congress and supreme court.
Jair Bolsonaro wandering around a Publix. pic.twitter.com/PKX3EJ1QgT
— Jonathan L. Krohn (@JonathanLKrohn) January 5, 2023
And where was Anderson Torres, the Federal District’s police chief? He spent the days leading up to the attack out of town. He was on vacation . . . in Florida.
You Don’t Have to Go Home. . . .
Some liberal and left-wing politicians have called for the United States to “return” Bolsonaro to Brazil. Extradition rules make things a little more complicated than that. But he can and should be expelled from the United States.
So far, Brazil’s ministry of justice has said they haven’t seen enough evidence to justify investigating Bolsonaro for his role in the January 8 attack. It’s possible they won’t find any in the coming days and weeks. Even though Bolsonaro’s own nephew participated in the attack, perhaps Uncle Jair was in the dark about what was being planned — and that if Bolsonaro and Torres crossed paths in Florida, all they talked about was the menu at KFC.
Of course, Bolsonaro was already under investigation for several other allegations, and it’s possible that one of these will eventually generate an extradition request. The United States can’t extradite him without such a request, and even if one were created, there’s a legal process to follow. Joe Biden can’t simply call Lula and say, “Sure thing, man, you take him.”
Some of the accusations Bolsonaro is currently facing — like operating a troll farm and spreading falsehoods about the election — wouldn’t be illegal in the United States. Others, like abusing his power to help his sons with their own legal problems, wouldn’t guarantee any eventual extradition request would honored.
Here’s the thing, though:
There’s no need to wait for such a request. If Bolsonaro traveled to the US on a diplomatic visa as president of Brazil, that would give him thirty days starting with Lula’s inauguration to file for a new one. As far as I can tell, no law or treaty compels the United States to approve his new visa — or stops the Biden administration from revoking a visa already granted. Bolsonaro could just be kicked out.
There’s something obscene about Bolsonaro being given safe haven from future prosecutions in Florida as large numbers of asylum-seekers fleeing genuinely horrific conditions in countries like Haiti are denied refuge. And after many decades of the US supporting right-wing coups against democratically elected left-wing governments in Latin America, it would send a powerful message to refuse to let a right-wing authoritarian (whose supporters just attempted such a coup) a comfortable exit to the United States.
In effect, then, the US can and should tell Bolsonaro what bartenders have been telling drunks at the end of the night since long before Semisonic turned the saying into a lyric:
“You don’t have to go home. But you can’t stay here.”