Bolsonaro returns to Brazil after 3-month stint in Florida

Author: Eléonore Hughes, Carla Bridi and Mauricio Savarese / AP
Published: Updated:
Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro waves to supporters at the Liberal Party’s headquarters in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, March 30, 2023. Bolsonaro arrived back in Brazil on Thursday after a three-month stay in Florida, seeking a new role on the political scene. (AP Photo/Gustavo Moreno)

Former President Jair Bolsonaro arrived back in Brazil on Thursday after a three-month stay in Florida, seeking a new role on the political scene as authorities in the capital braced for the far-right populist’s return.

Hundreds of supporters dressed in yellow and green chanted for him as they waited in the capital city of Brasilia, where the far-right leader is the subject of several investigations. The Federal District’s security secretariat mobilized hundreds of police officers and the Esplanade of Ministries was closed to prevent gatherings.

Bolsonaro left Brazil just before the end of his presidential term. In so doing, he broke with tradition by declining to hand the presidential sash to his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who won the October election with the narrowest finish since Brazil’s return to democracy over three decades earlier.

While in the U.S., Bolsonaro kept a low profile, although he delivered several speeches to Brazilian expatriates and conservatives, including at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.

For the first time in 30 years, the lawmaker-turned-president does not hold elected office.

“I’m without a mandate, but I’m not retired,” Bolsonaro told television network Jovem Pan on Monday.

Before boarding a flight to Brazil at Orlando International Airport, he told CNN Brazil he did not plan to lead the political opposition to Lula, a claim his allies don’t believe.

Hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters gathered at Brasilia International Airport early Thursday. They chanted against Lula and repeated the motto of a protest that triggered Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship: God, family and liberty.

However, they did not see the far-right leader come out of the main exit and instead faced morning traffic to gather outside his Liberal Party’s headquarters to show their enthusiasm.

“Bolsonaro was the best president we’ve ever had; I had never seen an administration like his,” said Marinalva Wanderley, 71, who brought five members of her family from Sao Paulo to the Liberal Party’s headquarters. “I think he was in the U.S. with Donald Trump to see what is best for Brazil and the U.S. We will have a much bigger opposition (to Lula), that’s for sure.”

Bolsonaro was expected to speak to lawmakers in a private meeting later Thursday. His party said in a statement that he was not expected to deliver a speech.

A horde of his supporters stormed and ransacked the capital’s most important government buildings on Jan. 8, one week after Lula took office, seeking to oust the new president from power.

Bolsonaro’s aim to reassume political prominence may be stymied by a series of investigations, including whether he incited the Jan. 8 uprising. Recent revelations by newspaper Estado de S.Paulo regarding three boxes of expensive jewelry allegedly brought to Bolsonaro from Saudi Arabia have exposed the former president to greater legal jeopardy.

His return to Brazil has been repeatedly delayed, and some had speculated he could postpone indefinitely in light of his legal troubles. Steve Bannon, a longtime ally of Trump and considered a strategist of the global far right, told Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo this week that Bolsonaro should never have left the country and dismissed the importance of the investigations.

Bolsonaro’s first objective upon his return will be to rally opposition to Lula’s government, said Mayra Goulart da Silva, a political scientist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“Bolsonaro decided to return to Brazil because no clear opposition leader to the government has emerged,” da Silva said, adding that the vacuum might otherwise be filled by someone else.

Next year’s municipal elections are an important step toward gaining political momentum for a possible 2026 presidential run. Bolsonaro is expected to throw his support behind his Liberal Party’s mayoral candidates who, if victorious, can use their stature to stump for him.

In addition to probes into the diamonds, Bolsonaro is the subject of about a dozen investigations by Brazil’s electoral courts into his actions during last year’s campaign, particularly related to his unsubstantiated claims that the electronic voting system is susceptible to fraud. If Bolsonaro is found guilty in any of those cases, he would lose his political rights and be unable to run for office in the next election.

Hughes reported from Rio de Janeiro and Bridi reported from Brasilia.

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