Three months after he left Brazil to avoid passing the presidential sash to his leftist rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president Jair Bolsonaro has flown back to the South American country hoping to prove his political career is far from over.
The far-right radical flew to the US on the eve of Lula’s 1 January inauguration and watched the historic transition of power from a rented villa near Disney World in Florida. It was from Florida, too, that Bolsonaro watched the 8 January assault on Brazil’s democratic institutions perpetrated by hardcore supporters seemingly bent on overthrowing Lula’s new government.
At 6.38am on Thursday Bolsonaro, who has refused to recognise Lula’s victory in last October’s election, finally returned from his self-imposed exile in the US.
Hundreds of diehard supporters had gathered at Brasília’s international airport to welcome him, including some who had travelled hundreds of miles from other states.
“It’s wonderful to know he’s back,” said Maria Venturelli, a 68-year-old from the north-eastern beach town of Prado. “It means hope. Hope of a better Brazil. Hope of a Brazil without corruption.”
Venturelli shed tears as she described how she believed Bolsonaro had saved her tourism company from bankruptcy during the Covid pandemic, during which he controversially resisted lockdown measures and undermined vaccination efforts.
“I have a personal debt to this man … I cannot abandon a man who didn’t abandon me,” said Venturelli, who said she had not been vaccinated against Covid and claimed, without offering proof, that three friends had died after receiving the shots.
Ludio Marcondes, a 42-year-old activist, had travelled to the airport reception from the midwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, to champion the man he called “the best president in the world”.
“If you do some research you’ll see that lots of countries in Latin America say they would like a president like Jair Messias Bolsonaro because he’s upstanding, he’s honest and he is a patriot. He’s folk like us,” claimed Marcondes, who sported a bright yellow Brazil shirt emblazoned with two automatic rifles.
Brazil’s capital had been put on “red alert” ahead of Bolsonaro’s return. On Wednesday night barricades and troops could be seen protecting the presidential palace, supreme court and congress – the three buildings ransacked by Bolsonaro backers at the start of the year during Brazil’s answer to the 6 January attack on the Capitol by supporters of his ally Donald Trump.
But fears of further violence were not confirmed on Thursday morning as Bolsonaro touched down in Brazil’s capital on board a Boeing 737 painted with images from Harry Potter.
Flag-waving supporters waiting for the former army captain at the airport were disappointed after their leader failed to appear through the sliding doors at arrivals. Security chiefs had reportedly ordered the ex-president be extracted through a side exit to avoid causing havoc.
His politician son Eduardo Bolsonaro did appear at the airport, however, to insist his father was still in the political game despite his three-month absence, which had frustrated many supporters.
“It is very symbolic that he is coming back to Brazil and his support is still very, very strong,” Eduardo, a pro-gun congressman who is close to Steve Bannon, told the Guardian.
What would his father, who does not now hold elected office for the first time in more than 30 years, do now?
“He will lead the opposition. He is a natural leader,” he replied, predicting that Lula would fail to complete his four-year term and vowing to fight for his impeachment.
Political observers are sceptical about Jair Bolsonaro’s immediate political future. The former president faces a litany of investigations into alleged crimes, including his handling of a Covid pandemic that killed at least 700,000 Brazilians and his role in the alleged attempted genocide of the Yanomami Indigenous people in the Amazon.
Bolsonaro is also reportedly facing an investigation into alleged embezzlement as a result of a mounting scandal involving millions of dollars of diamond jewellery and watches given to the ex-president by Saudi Arabia. “My father is not corrupt,” Eduardo Bolsonaro insisted at the airport, shrugging off those investigations.
Many expect that electoral authorities will strip Bolsonaro of his political rights, making it impossible for him to seek to return to the presidency at the next election in 2026.
As Bolsonaro boarded his flight home on Wednesday night, one passenger reportedly shouted her preferred destination for the far-right politician: “Jail!”
Even so, Juliana Dal Piva, the author of a book about the murky past of the Bolsonaro clan and long-running suspicions of corruption, said he remained a highly influential figure in Latin America’s largest democracy.
“He received 58m votes [in the election] and still boasts a great deal of popular support. Bolsonaro cannot be ruled out of Brazilian politics. It would be a grave error to play down the power that he still has,” Dal Piva said.
Beyond question is that Bolsonaro’s return to Brazil will once again raise the political temperature in a country struggling to reunite after four profoundly divisive years under his rule.
After leaving the airport, police escorted Bolsonaro to a hotel to meet political allies, just three miles from the presidential palace he once occupied and which his supporters recently trashed.
Outside, scores more of his hardcore supporters had assembled to insist their fight against Lula’s leftists would go on.
“It is today that the left will die!” bellowed Gemima Silva Santos.
“I am 67 years old,” Santos proclaimed, as Bolsonaro appeared to greet supporters. “And I am going into battle.”
( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )