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Bolsonaro's return to Brazil met with 'Myth' chants; but welcomers are few, his troubles far from over

He has to face a number of investigations in the country

Bolsonaro-return Jair Bolsonaro waves to supporters at the Liberal Party's headquarters in Brasilia, Brazil | AP

There was applause as Jair Bolsonaro stood up after the GOL commercial flight that took him back to Brazil landed in Brasilia at 6:40 am local time. A couple of hundred supporters wearing the canary yellow jersey of the country’s national team and draped in flags – a trademark of Bolsonaro supporters – chanted “Mito,” (myth), as they waited outside the international arrivals section of Joscelino Kubitschek Airport.

It was a return to the best of times for Bolsonaro, who rose to prominence as Brazilian conservatives began the practice of meeting him at airports with the chant during the 2018 presidential campaign—a chant that took even greater significance and was bolstered by his survival of a stabbing during a campaign event in September 2018.

It was also a return that could mark the beginning of the worst of times for the former president who, some say, escaped the country using the presidential apparatus and visa extended to sitting heads of state to fly to the United States before Inacio Lula da Silva assumed office January 1.

The arrival may be the easy part. There are a number of investigations that Bolsonaro will have to face in Brazil, including the most recent development of the discovery of a stock of jewels received from Saudi Arabia—worth millions of dollars—some of which were improperly imported into the country, without registration or disclosure. The discovery of jewels led to a series of declarations by Bolsonaro and his attorneys that included a complaint that the was “being crucified for jewels he did not receive and did not anything about.” 

That statement and subsequent explanations of what was disclosed as an attempt to secure the jewels for his wife, were discredited before Bolsonaro settled into a declaration that he did “nothing wrong.” Later, two more stacks of jewelry were disclosed. The last one, given to Bolsonaro in person in Saudi Arabia and stored in the farm of a supporter near Brasilia three months after he left the presidency was disclosed not by Bolsonaro, but by an investigative newspaper.

During the previous Lula presidency, courts decided that gifts received by the country’s president belonged to Brazil’s patrimony, and records show that such gifts were so introduced to the country and handed over to the government.

In Bolsonaro’s case, he had to be ordered months after leaving office to not sell or use the jewels he received from Saudi Arabia.

On January 5, he will have to respond to an inquiry by Brazil’s Federal Police. The case has the potential to resonate with the public and undermine efforts by Bolsonaro’s Partido Liberal (PL) party to canonise him as their leader, and leader of the opposition to President Lula.

Before leaving Orlando last night, Bolsonaro told CNN he was not going to head any opposition, but the PL party has been counting on using his base as a way to provide wide support to their hold on power, conscious of the 58 million votes he garnered in the 2022 election and the large number of his supporters that were elected to office in the election’s first round. Their initial plans were to hold a massive welcome gathering, which did not materialise.

Federal Police and security arrangements in the wake of the January 8 violence by his supporters, forced Bolsonaro to take a detour from those gathered at the airport to greet him. He left, reportedly upset at being denied access to those waiting, by a back exit from the airport, lowering his window and sticking a thumbs-up signal but not stopping to waive or greet other supporters.

Barely a few dozen people were waiting for Bolsonaro's arrival outside the PL headquarters in central Brasilia where a welcome party was planned. The party was downplayed as a non-event by organisers. The expectation was for a massive and adoring public welcome along the way. The public was informed of his schedule well in advance, but the large numbers expected were just not there for the former president.

Police announced on Wednesday that they would restrict access beginning in the evening to the city’s Three Powers Plaza which was the centre of the January 8 attacks, but as of late Wednesday night, traffic in the areas went unimpeded.

A small but effusive group of elected officials and politicians chanted the return of Bolsonaro as he arrived in the upper floors of the party’s headquarters. Many of those outside, however, did not stay long. 

Beyond the investigations into the Saudi jewels, Bolsonaro is also facing investigations for this role in the January 8 attacks. He famously refused to accept the results of the election, emulating Trump, and failed to turn over power at Lula’s inauguration ceremony, just as Trump had done in the US in 2021. As Trump’s role is under serious investigation in the US, Bolsonaro is under investigation for his role in the January 8 anti-democratic riots.

Online forums that backed Bolsonaro during the election witnessed an erosion of support as many felt abandoned by him when he left for the United States in what many see as cowardice “to save his own skin”. 

Nonetheless, a few recent comments cheer the Trump-like return to Brazil in the face of the Saudi jewelry investigations.

Bolsonaro is also under investigation in multiple criminal probes that include spreading misinformation about the elections and the use of federal police to protect his son.

There are also ongoing investigations on his role during the Covid-19 pandemic which could result in criminal charges, stemming from his undermining of social distancing norms and use of masks as well as “prescribing” unproven drugs for Brazilians. Bolsonaro does not hold a medical degree, nor has he even claimed medical training. A Brazilian senate committee has previously recommended that he be charged with crimes against humanity.

Two hours after the former president entered the PL headquarters, a large part of the small crowd waiting outside had dispersed. A few flag-caped supporters stood waving a few flags, waiting patiently to see Bolsonaro who was inside holding a strategy meeting. By 11 am local time, there was no sign of the returned former president addressing the few still waiting outside.

A leaked statement from the former president, recorded on a personal cell phone during the meeting, implied that he was claiming that he is being persecuted. He was also heard complaining that he did not receive an armored car for his journey from the airport. 

It is not a practice in Brazil for former presidents to receive armored vehicles. Bolsonaro said since he was attacked once, he is at higher risk than others. 

Brazil’s capital is a wide, open, mostly safe, and peaceful city with none of the violence and danger typical of larger cities like Sao Paolo.

The party has rented a house for Bolsonaro in Brasilia’s tony Botanical Gardens neighborhood.

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