Brazil now has its own version of the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of defeated President Donald Trump. Two years and two days later, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the National Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace in Brasilia, cementing Bolsonaro’s credentials as the “Trump of the tropics.”
The uncanny similarity between the failed insurrection in Brazil and the attack on the US Capitol highlights the many similarities between Bolsonaro and Trump. Both are far-right, anti-democratic one-term presidents who have served misinformation and bravado during the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Both have exploited the press and challenged the independence of their judiciary. Both claimed that only massive fraud and rigged voting machines could defeat re-election bids. Their legacy is the millions of citizens who questioned the integrity of their country’s elections and the thousands who attacked their capitals and brutalized police officers in a futile attempt to overthrow democracy.
But the subtle differences between the postpresidencies of Bolsonaro and Trump underscore the importance of prosecuting former anti-democratic leaders. Many Americans fear that charging Trump with inciting an insurrection would result in a tit-for-tat dynamic in which each successive administration uses the courts to settle political scores. But Brazil’s history since the restoration of democracy in 1989 suggests otherwise.
Fernando Collor, Brazil’s first democratically elected president after the end of the military regime, resigned in 1992 after being accused of influence peddling. He was impeached anyway, and thus disqualified from holding elected office again. Collor was later acquitted of the criminal charges, and eventually his political rights were restored, allowing him to run for (and win) lower office.
Subsequent charges were brought against Brazilian presidents later, and some were subjected to judicial abuses, but Brazil did not get sucked into an endless cycle of retaliatory trials. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who succeeded Collor, was a vocal critic of his successor (and current president), Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. But Lula’s administration has not used the judicial system to settle scores. Lula himself was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 12 years in prison before his conviction was overturned, and he was released in 2019 after serving less than two years. In the end, Lula regained his political rights and continued to run for the presidency again, defeating Bolsonaro, but the reasons for the indictment were not purely political.
Bolsonaro himself could face charges linked to a fake news farm operating out of the presidential palace, as well as for spreading false information about electronic voting. When Bolsonaro’s political party asked the electoral court to annul millions of votes, the court fined him for attempting to undermine the country’s electronic voting system and froze his assets. Brazilian media has reported that Bolsonaro is effectively trying to avoid prison for himself and his family members by offering to stop attacking democracy in return for a pardon. Some have speculated that his current residence in Florida is an attempt to escape possible charges at home.
Bolsonaro’s legal exposure may explain why he has suddenly deviated from the playbook after years of closely following in his idol’s footsteps. Despite Bolsonaro’s refusal to concede in the presidential election, his chief of staff acknowledged in early November that there would be a peaceful transfer of power. While Trump continues to claim he is the victim of widespread electoral fraud, Bolsonaro has remained silent. And while Trump rallied rioters on Jan. 6 and continued to defend their actions, Bolsonaro stormed out of his stronghold near Disney World to Denounce this week’s violence in Brasilia.
Venezuela illustrates the dangers of letting insurgents get away with it. As the country’s experience shows, when ambitious dictators re-emerge, they tend to come back even more daring. In 1992, Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez led two failed coups against the elected Venezuelan government. Then-President Rafael Caldera released Chávez early from prison before he was elected president in 1998. He then oversaw the destruction of Venezuela’s democracy and ruined its economy.
Ecuador offers another cautionary tale. In 2000, a severe economic crisis led to mass protests against the country’s elected president, Jamil Mouawad. The Army colonel at the scene, Lucio Gutierrez, stood by and watched as the protesters swarmed the National Convention. The protests then turned into an attempted coup, led by Gutierrez and other military officers. Gutierrez did not face a criminal trial for the attempted coup.
In 2002, Gutierrez ran for president and won. The disdain for democratic institutions he had previously displayed became a hallmark of his presidency, as he suspended the Supreme Court and later declared a state of emergency. His term ended with his escape from Ecuador by helicopter after Brazil offered him political asylum.
The final chapter of Bolsonaro’s story has yet to be written. But we are already seeing hints that fear of indictment has led to his discipline. Americans should heed this lesson: Although impeaching former presidents carries risks, the cost of allowing insurgents and autocrats to escape accountability can be prohibitively high.
Susan Stokes is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Director of Faculty at the Chicago Center for Democracy. Most recently, she co-authored Why Bother? Rethink Participation in Elections and Protests.