Bolsonaro’s Brazil Return Draws Supporters and Security Concerns

Former Brazilian president returns home after three months in Florida to re-energize the right-wing movements he inspired

(Bloomberg) — A small crowd of supporters welcomed former President Jair Bolsonaro as he returned to Brazil after a three-month vacation in Florida, a homecoming meant to help re-energize the right-wing movements he inspired.

Security was tight in the nation’s capital for Bolsonaro’s Thursday morning arrival, with police restricting access to the airport where he landed and monitoring the movement of buses bringing supporters of the right-wing leader to Brasilia. The restrictions aimed to prevent the sort of security fiasco that erupted on Jan. 8, when Bolsonaro backers carried out riots and ransacked major government buildings just one week after the inauguration of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Bolsonaro’s much-anticipated trip home ended an extended stay in the US that began in December, just two days before the official close of his presidency. He is returning now in attempt to establish himself as a leader of the opposition to Lula, the leftist who narrowly defeated Bolsonaro in October. 

But he is also facing legal scrutiny on numerous fronts, including one probe into his alleged involvement into the riots and another case involving $3 million worth of jewelry allegedly gifted to Bolsonaro by Saudi Arabia. Prosecutors on Thursday summoned Bolsonaro to provide evidence in the latter case next week. He has denied wrongdoing.

Bolsonaro arrived in Brazil just before 7 a.m. on a commercial flight from Orlando. A crowd of about 100 people gathered at the airport, according to police estimates. They sang Brazil’s national anthem and performed chants calling for the former president, but he left the airport without appearing publicly. 

“He will lead the opposition for sure,” said lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, who greeted those who had waited to see his father. “He never stopped leading. Against Lula, he’ll always be opposition. We have values and we have no price.” 

Other supporters gathered outside the headquarters of Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, where he met with allied lawmakers. Bolsonaro is not scheduled to speak publicly on Thursday, the party said in a statement ahead of his arrival.

Security concerns

Security authorities sought to keep the area around the airport clear in order to avoid disruptions at one of Brazil’s busiest hubs. They are on alert for larger crowds later in the day. There are no current plans to shut streets, but authorities said Wednesday that they would prevent trucks from entering parts of the city and would not allow demonstrators to set up camps around Brasilia.

Some fans of the former president nevertheless arrived in hopes of catching a glimpse of Bolsonaro, who retains a devoted following among conservative Brazilians. 

Read More: Bolsonaro Returns to Brazil to Lead Opposition Against Lula

João de Quadros, a 70-year-old retired truck driver, traveled 1,390 km (863.71 miles) on a bus between Curitiba, in the southern state of Parana, and Brasilia. He arrived on Wednesday and slept on a mat at the airport waiting for his political idol. He left the passenger terminal with just a photo of a man dressed in costume as Bolsonaro, but said he wasn’t frustrated. He still hoped to meet the former president.

“This trip was worth it,” he said. “It was worth it until now to have made all this effort to come here and meet Bolsonaro.”

Rivalry renewed

Despite Bolsonaro’s defeat in the presidential election, the Liberal Party won the largest share of seats in Brazil’s congress last year. Party leaders have said they hope his return can provide a boost to the movement known as Bolsonarismo, especially at a time when Lula is facing mounting challenges and a slowing economy.

Bolsonaro criticized Lula in an interview from Orlando, telling CNN Brasil that “Brazil is not doing well” under the leftist, and that he hopes the country “doesn’t go down the path” of neighboring Venezuela.

But it is possible that the former president’s return will hand a jolt to Lula, who benefited from Bolsonaro’s high rejection rates during last year’s election, said Nara Pavão, a politics professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco. 

The leftist’s allies pounced on the size of the gatherings that welcomed Bolsonaro home, using the absence of massive crowds to argue that his influence had waned during the time spent abroad. 

“Once again he showed that he is a clay-footed leader,” Alexandre Padilha, the government’s Minister of Institutional Relations, said during a news conference in Brasilia. “The reception at the airport flopped.”

(Updates with comments from Eduardo Bolsonaro, Alexandre Padilha and supporters)

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