What is Bolsonaro doing in Florida?

What is Bolsonaro doing in Florida?
4 min read
Washington, D.C.
20 January, 2023
Brazil's ex-President Jair Bolsonaro was released from a Florida hospital earlier this month. People are now wondering where he will go next, as he faces accusations of inciting violence in Brazil.
Jair Bolsonaro waves to supporters before leaving Brazil. [Getty]

Florida has long been a haven for retirees, Latin American immigrants, and conservative politicians at the end of their careers. Jair Bolsonaro quickly found a warm welcome there upon his failed bid in the last Brazilian presidential election.

When Bolsonaro fled to the US state for medical care. many wondered what this would mean for the US. His arrival in Florida was followed days later by a violent insurrection with similarities to the one which took place in the US two years earlier

"The situation is maddening. We don't know how accurate the Bolsonaro accusations are about a rigged election," Patrick James, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, told The New Arab. "If it was fair, here's where we get into problems in the US."

In traveling to the US amid political turmoil at home, Bolsonaro joins a long list of other former international leaders who have done the same. The Shah of Iran is one of the first that comes to mind and many other Latin American leaders who have lived in exile in Miami. 

This episode has also revived memories of the US supporting repressive leaders over democratically elected ones in foreign countries. However, in the case of Bolsanaro, the US has proclaimed support for the democratically elected leader who replaced him.

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Following the narrow victory of the left-wing candidate Liuz Inacio Lulu da Silva on 30 October, a small but vocal group of Bolsonaro supporters alleged that the election had been rigged. 

Discontent grew, culminating in mob violence at the parliament building on 8 January, in which dozens of police officers were injured and an extensive amount of property was damaged, leading to comparisons with the 6 January insurrection in the US two years earlier.

It is believed that Bolsonaro arrived in Florida around 30 December, the media reported at the time, referring to flight trackers. He was admitted to a hospital in central Florida with abdominal pain, something that has afflicted him since he was stabbed during a campaign rally in 2018. He has since been released from the hospital.

Dozens of US Congress members had already signed a letter expressing support for Brazil's democratic process. This was followed by calls to extradite the former president from the US back to Brazil. Moreover, a group of US and Brazilian lawmakers have jointly condemned former US President Donald Trump for being a possible inspiration for the recent insurrection.

Meanwhile, in the central Florida city of Orlando, where Bolsonaro has been staying since being released from the hospital earlier this month, the former president has attracted something of a following. Local fans have been stopping by his home to express their support and take pictures with him, news reports have said.

It is unclear why Bolsonaro chose Florida for his hospital treatment. However, he might have felt welcome in a state with a large population of immigrants from Latin American countries and the Caribbean - particularly Cuba - who have embraced right-wing politics after fleeing left-leaning countries.

It also provides the relative stability that his home country doesn't always have, making it a convenient getaway.

"Particularly for political and business figures from Latin America, what's more important is it's a stable place. And if you get in trouble in your own country, it's a good place to high-tail it," Michael Desch, professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame, told TNA.

So far, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has kept a relatively low profile about his state's high-profile guest.  
"If I were DeSantis, I would keep a low profile. He has no equity in this. It's a federal, not a state, issue," says Desch. "By opening his mouth, he could get in trouble."

President Joe Biden, on the other hand, might need to tread more carefully, given his position, as well as the close ties between some conservatives in the US and in Brazil, including a Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference being held in Brazil last year. 

Still, the tension hasn't kept Biden from making his position clear. After Lula's win, his administration spoke extensively with the newly elected Brazilian president, who now has a White House visit planned for February.

As for other Democrats, a number of party leaders have signed letters to Biden and DeSantis urging for the expulsion of Bolsonaro from the US. 

For now, it's unclear what Bolsonaro's future plans are in Florida. The New York Times has said he will likely be there for at least a month. 

So far, he appears to be more welcome in Florida than in his home country, possibly thanks to the familiar demographics and a large contingency of people with a similar political ideology.

"He may wrap himself in the American flag," says James. "Florida has become a much more red state. It's seen as a refuge."