Inside Bolsonaro’s Surreal New Life as a Florida Man—And MAGA Darling

7 minute read

One month ago, he was leading the fifth-largest country in the world. These days, he is wandering around Florida supermarkets, eating fried chicken alone at fast-food restaurants, and holding court for supporters from the driveway of a modest home owned by a former ultimate-fighting champion in a gated community south of Orlando.

Jair Bolsonaro’s re-emergence in Florida is a bizarre spectacle, even for a state with a long history of providing haven to eccentric characters. The embattled ex-President of Brazil, who refused to concede his electoral loss in October, left the country for the U.S. on Dec. 30, two days before the inauguration of his successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. On Jan. 8, his supporters stormed the Brazilian Parliament, Supreme Court and Presidential Palace, violently threatening police and destroying property in an assault with eerie echoes of the attack on the U.S. Capitol carried out by supporters of Donald Trump.

Meanwhile Bolsonaro, once dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” has been hanging out just a couple hours’ drive up the Florida Turnpike from his former presidential counterpart. While Trump is camped out at his own waterfront estate plotting the opening moves of his next presidential campaign, it’s still unclear what Bolsonaro is planning during his stint in the Sunshine State. His TikTok account broadcasts carefully curated videos to his 74 million followers— smiling families wearing Brazilian jerseys delivering baskets of bread, strawberries, flowers, and Nutella; time-lapse montages set to emotional music, showing Bolsonaro hugging children and long lines of people waiting to snap a photo with him.

What is the ex-President of Brazil doing in Florida with his country—and his own legal future—enmeshed in turmoil? His original visa, thought to be an A-1 designation meant for diplomats and heads of state, would have expired after 30 days. Bolsonaro has now applied for a six-month tourist visa to stay in the U.S. and is waiting for the “desired results,” Felipe Alexandre, a Brazilian-American attorney representing Bolsonaro, told TIME. “He would like to take some time off, clear his head, and enjoy being a tourist in the United States for a few months before deciding what his next step will be,“ Alexandre said in an email statement.

Read More: Political Violence Spikes Ahead of Brazil Election

Yet the prevailing theory among both opponents and supporters is that Bolsonaro’s self-exile from Brazil is a maneuver to evade legal trouble. Bolsonaro, who, like Trump, blamed unfounded voter fraud conspiracies for his loss, is facing at least half a dozen investigations which could disqualify him from holding political office or result in a criminal sentence. These include allegations that Bolsonaro—who last year vowed “For God in heaven, I will never go to prison!”—leaked classified information, used “digital militias” to coordinate political disinformation campaigns, and attacked Brazil’s electoral system.

Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stand in front of the house he is staying as cardiologist Ricardo Pexoito Camarinha leaves, in Kissimmee, Fla., on Jan. 11, 2023.
Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stand in front of the house he is staying as cardiologist Ricardo Pexoito Camarinha leaves, in Kissimmee, Fla., on Jan. 11, 2023.Marco Bello—Reuters

The Brazilian Supreme Court also said it would investigate his role in instigating the crowds on Jan. 8, and new allegations surfaced this week that Bolsonaro’s aides tried to persuade lawmakers to annul the results of the October elections. “He’s actually running away, huh?” Rogério Correia, a lawmaker who belongs to Lula’s Workers’ Party, tweeted Jan. 30.

“This is an individual that is basically trying to avoid criminal investigations by seeking shelter in the United States,” says Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state lawmaker who represents an Orlando-area House district. “He is hiding behind a U.S. tourist visa.”

Until this week, Bolsonaro has kept a relatively low profile since arriving in Florida. Now, one week before his successor is set to come to the White House to meet with President Joe Biden, Bolsonaro is ready to break his silence. “I am 67 years old and I intend to remain active in Brazilian politics,” he said Wednesday. On Friday, he’s scheduled to headline an event alongside Charlie Kirk, a right-wing activist, at Trump’s golf resort in Miami.

The connections between the two former presidents go beyond the uprisings committed on their behalves. Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, has close ties to the Trump orbit, with former political strategist Steve Bannon, communications adviser Jason Miller, and Donald Trump Jr., among the MAGA figures who have joined him in pushing unfounded conspiracies about widespread voter fraud in Brazil. Eduardo Bolsonaro has spoken at American political events like the Conservative Political Action Conference and has been a frequent guest at Mar-a-Lago, posting photos of himself with Trump, Trump Jr., and Jared Kushner.

Experts say this isn’t the only reason Bolsonaro may have sought refuge in Florida. Many American right-wing activists have long been vocal Bolsonaro supporters. “There is a very strong connection between far-right groups and movements in Brazil and far-right groups in America, especially in Florida,” says Feliciano Guimarães, the academic director at the Brazilian Center of International Relations (CEBRI) in Rio de Janeiro. “Florida is a place where this connection with Brazilian far-right groups is strongest in the United States.”

Far Right Storm Brazilian Capital
Supporters of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro storm the Brazilian Parliament, Supreme Court and Presidential Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Jan. 8, 2023.Marcelo Correia—Camera Press/Redux

American far-right influencers have long been popular on Brazilian social media, says Michele Prado, an independent analyst who studies the Brazilian far-right and digital movements. In some circles, Bannon, conservative activist Ben Shapiro, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson are well-known figures, their commentary frequently translated into Portuguese.

“The core of the Bolsonaro government was formed largely by individuals who were inspired and disseminated here in Brazil the concepts produced by the American far-right,” Prado says. Bannon, for example has lauded the Bolsonaro supporters who attacked the government buildings as “freedom fighters” and popularized #BrazilianSpring, a hashtag that “incited violent action and the rupture of the democratic order here in Brazil through a populist revolution [and] was one of the most disseminated” online, says Prado.

Read More: The Insurrection in Brazil Is Part of a Broader Crisis of Trust.

Bolsonaro has largely shied away from publicly commenting on the developments in Brazil during his stay, and issued lukewarm criticism of his supporters’ actions on Jan. 8. But experts say it would take little to incite them if he chooses to speak out. “Many people are still shaken by what happened in the elections,” Bolsonaro said Wednesday, calling himself “more popular than ever.”

In Washington, Democratic lawmakers have ramped up the pressure on Biden to revoke Bolsonaro’s visa. A letter to Biden on Jan. 12 signed by dozens of lawmakers, including senior Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the President to “reassess [Bolsonaro’s] status in the country to ascertain whether there is a legal basis for his stay and revoke any such diplomatic visa he may hold” and said the U.S. should cooperate with Brazilian authorities in investigating the role he may have played in the attacks in Brasilia and any other criminal activity he committed in office.

The attacks in Brasilia were “built upon months of pre- and post-election fabrications by Mr. Bolsonaro and his allies claiming that the October 30 presidential election had been stolen,” they wrote. “The United States must not provide shelter for him.”

It’s hard to square the seriousness of the actions of his supporters back home with the surreal scenes in Florida. At an event organized in his honor by a conservative Brazilian expat group on Wednesday, Bolsonaro sat under a spotlight on a small stage in a strip mall in Orlando, perched on a purple armchair next to a fuzzy ottoman and a single flower. Videos posted by people in a small crowd of mostly Brazilian-American fans who paid up to $50 to see Bolsonaro show him draped in the Brazilian flag, surrounded by people praying over him and being serenaded by musicians.

“I just want to say thank you so much for everything, in America we’re so grateful for you,” said Jimmy Levy, a former American Idol contestant who has become popular with the MAGA crowd in recent years, performing hits like “God Against the Government” at anti-vaccine rallies and other right-wing events. “Everyone who is a patriot in America is standing with the patriots in Brazil.”

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