The future of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who flew to Florida in his last days in office, is emerging as a potential diplomatic issue between Brazil and the US amid calls for his expulsion for inciting insurrection.
Bolsonaro arrived in Florida on 30 December when he was still president, in which case he could have entered on an A-1 visa reserved for foreign leaders. The state department said on Monday it could not comment on individual cases, but said in general if a foreign official entered the US on an A-1 visa and then ceased to be engaged on official business, it would be the responsibility of that official to leave within 30 days, or be subject to removal by the Department of Homeland Security.
Bolsonaro has distanced himself from the mob which stormed government buildings in the capital, Brasília, on Sunday, denying accusations from his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, that he had encouraged the rioters from the US.
Leading Democrats have called for Bolsonaro’s visa to be revoked, so that he would not be allowed to use Florida as a base for destabilising Lula’s government.
“The United States should revoke any visas held by Jair Bolsonaro and if Brazil requests Bolsonaro’s extradition – whether for crimes related to the January 8 attack or other crimes he may have committed while in office – we should fully comply,” Democratic congressman, Joaquin Castro, a member of the House foreign affairs committee, told the Guardian.
Joe Biden issued a joint statement on Monday with the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, condemning “the January 8 attacks on Brazil’s democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power”.
“We stand with Brazil as it safeguards its democratic institutions. Our governments support the free will of the people of Brazil,” the statement said, adding that the three leaders looked forward to working with President Lula.
The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told journalists on Monday that there had been no contact between the administration and Bolsonaro, and the US had yet to receive any requests from the Brazilian government related to the former president.
“Of course, if we did receive such requests, we treat them the way we always do. We treat them seriously,” Sullivan said.
Democrats are concerned that Florida, run by a hardline Republican governor and presidential contender, Ron DeSantis, is increasingly becoming a hotbed for far-right putschists. Recent attempted coups in Haiti and Venezuela have been plotted from there and the state has become the permanent home of Donald Trump, a close Bolsonaro ally who continues his refusal to acknowledge his own election defeat in 2020, at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
The Washington insurrection by Trump supporters on 6 January 2021 is widely seen as a model for the Brasília attacks, and a top Trump aide, Steve Bannon, has been linked to the Bolsonaro family, spreading false claims on social media alleging that last year’s Brazilian presidential election was rigged and referring to the Brazilian rioters as “freedom fighters”.
“For months before the attack on Three Powers Plaza, Bolsonaro was working with Steve Bannon and other former Trump advisers to spread lies about Brazil’s election and undermine faith in Brazilian democracy,” Castro said. “The nations of the world look to the United States to model democracy, and when Trump was not held accountable for inciting the insurrection at the US Capitol, rightwing extremists in Brazil took notice.”
“There’s a kind of hotbed of far-right communities there, that are clearly building on each other,” said a US congressional aide familiar with discussions on the unfolding situation in Brazil. “Governor DeSantis and former president Trump’s presence at Mar-a-Lago have both made Florida a place where these things seem to happen, so I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the planning for this had happened in Florida.”
Republicans, including Trumpists, have largely stayed silent on the Brasília riot, with the exception of a Pennsylvania congressman, Brian Fitzpatrick, a member of the House foreign affairs committee, who condemned the violent attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power. Fitzpatrick said on Twitter he looked forward to working with Lula.
Bolsonaro is reported to be staying in Kissimmee, near Orlando’s Disney World, in the vacation home of a retired Brazilian martial arts star, José Aldo, part of a resort condominium near a busy highway. On Monday he was reported to have been admitted to hospital, complaining of “severe abdominal pains” before later being released.
The Brazilian government inquiry into the Brasília insurrection is also likely to focus on the role of Anderson Torres, Bolsonaro’s justice minister who was in charge of security in Brasília, who was also in Orlando over the weekend. Torres, who was fired on Sunday, claimed to be there on a family holiday and to have had no contact with Bolsonaro.
If Brazil’s supreme court issued an arrest warrant for Bolsonaro and he then refuses to return to Brazil to give himself up, Brazil could issue an Interpol red notice prompting his arrest by US federal agents. Bolsonaro could then try to fight extradition and seek asylum in US courts, potentially triggering a prolonged legal battle.