Brazil cannot afford to let Bolsonaro off the hook

The ongoing episode of post-election violence shows what Brazil needs today is not reconciliation but de-radicalisation.

Bolsonaro supporters block a roadway in Brazil
Supporters of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro block the Presidente Dutra federal road during a protest against President-elect Lula da Silva in Jacarei, Sao Paulo state, Brazil, November 1, 2022 [File: Roosevelt Cassio/Reuters]

“I have nothing to do with your son’s eye. Take a plane and go. You won’t go through here.” This is what a supporter of Brazil’s outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro told a desperate father begging him to end the roadblock between the central Brazilian cities of Sorriso and Cuiabá so that his nine-year-old son would not miss a crucial surgery to repair his cornea.

The father’s pleas fell on deaf ears. His son and the 24 other patients on the same medical transport bus all missed their appointments.

This, sadly, is Brazil’s new reality.

Since Bolsonaro lost his attempt to secure another term as Brazil’s president in October, thousands of his most fanatical supporters have been occupying major roads across the country, demanding – despite there not being any evidence of fraud – the election be overturned or the military intervene to keep the far-right leader in power.

At first, these roadblocks were inconvenient but largely peaceful. But as weeks passed by and no real pathway for Bolsonaro to remain in power appeared, the protests gradually turned violent. Especially in states where the president has a large support base, such as Santa Catarina, Mato Grosso and Rondônia, “Bolsonaristas” started using homemade bombs and firecrackers to stop traffic. They blockaded roads with burning tyres, bins and tree trunks. They set trucks, and in one case, an ambulance, on fire. Truck drivers across the country reported being assaulted and robbed.

The violence perpetrated by Bolsonaro supporters is not limited to roadblocks either. In Rondônia, the president’s supporters allegedly targeted a water pipeline and shot at the building of a newspaper critical of his government. In Santa Catarina, they attacked Federal Highway Police officers with stones. In Brasilia, they shot at a bar known to be frequented by the left.

In Santa Catarina, Paraná, and other states, business owners believed to be supporting President-elect Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party (PT) received offensive calls and negative reviews on social networks. Their names, phone numbers and company addresses have been shared by supporters of the outgoing president in WhatsApp and Telegram groups and some have received death threats as a result. Some Bolsonaristas have even suggested “marking” the doors of the homes and businesses of PT voters with stars – in reference to the PT logo – in a tactic reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

Of course, none of this is at all surprising or unexpected.

Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has been preparing the country for this moment. In the past four years, he repeatedly incited violence against leftists, human rights activists, feminists, LGBTQ communities, the poor and everyone else not blindly supportive of his government. He ensured the most violent elements in his support base have easier access to weapons.

His government also embarked on a process to weaken democratic institutions and fill the country’s security forces with his far-right supporters. He empowered the most dangerous sectors of Brazilian society, from violent groups linked to agribusiness to evangelical fundamentalists and other right-wing extremists.

All these efforts led to the 2022 elections being the most violent in Brazil’s recent history with countless incidents of election-related intimidation, abuse of authority, aggression and even a few cases of murder being recorded across the country. And since Bolsonaro definitively lost the election, there is no sign that the chaos and violence that engulfed the country will come to an end any time soon.

Rather uncharacteristically, while his supporters are wreaking havoc across Brazil in his name, Bolsonaro has virtually disappeared from the spotlight and retired to his presidential palace since the second round of the election.

Some believe this is a sign that he has finally accepted defeat, but there is likely another – and much more sinister – explanation for his absence. Soon after Bolsonaro’s defeat, computers at the Planalto Palace, the seat of the presidency, were wiped under the excuse that a “threat” had been detected. So it is not unreasonable to assume that the president may be spending his last days in office at home with his most trusted confidants and destroying any evidence that could incriminate him in a future investigation.

In a country that has always been very violent, roadblocks and other acts of political violence are extremely worrying as they can lead to the disintegration of the state. Already struggling with drug gangs and militias, for Brazil, sustained political violence perpetrated by Bolsonaristas could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Some argue that to avoid further chaos and to bring Bolsonaristas back into the national fold, Brazil needs to embark on a process of reconciliation. But as the president and his supporters are clearly uninterested in participating in democracy and co-existing with others in Brazilian society peacefully, reconciliation will take the country nowhere. What Brazil needs today is a process of de-radicalisation, that can only be successfully completed if Bolsonaro and those financing and promoting acts of political violence in his name are punished.

Such a process has already begun. Late last month, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who heads the country’s electoral court, fined Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party, as well as his former coalition partners Progressive and Republican parties, 22.9 million reais ($4.27m) for insisting on a “bad faith” lawsuit challenging the election result.

No fine can be a sufficient punishment for a president and a political movement that brought Brazil to the brink of collapse, but this is still an important step in the right direction. Brazil cannot move forward, and leave political violence behind, without holding Bolsonaro and his cronies to account for the pain they inflicted on the people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.