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Biden Can’t Ignore America’s Role in Brazil’s Insurrection

As the U.S. president hosts Lula, they must commit to defending democracy together.

By , a co-founder and co-director of the Brazilian investigative journalism outlet Agência Pública.
Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro invade Planalto presidential palace in Brasília on Jan. 8.
Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro invade Planalto presidential palace in Brasília on Jan. 8.
Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro invade Planalto presidential palace in Brasília on Jan. 8. SERGIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images

On the evening of Jan. 8, U.S. President Joe Biden took to Twitter to condemn an invasion of government buildings by a violent mob. Hours after a crowd vandalized the National Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential palace in Brasília, the official @POTUS account bashed the “assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil.”

On the evening of Jan. 8, U.S. President Joe Biden took to Twitter to condemn an invasion of government buildings by a violent mob. Hours after a crowd vandalized the National Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential palace in Brasília, the official @POTUS account bashed the “assault on democracy and on the peaceful transfer of power in Brazil.”

It all felt like déjà vu. Almost to the day, Brazil was seeing a remake of the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol, which sought to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory. A day after Brazil’s insurrection, Biden called new Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to convey his “unwavering support” for the country’s democracy. The two decided to meet in Washington in February and are convening on Friday.

Now, together at the White House, Biden and Lula must face the uncomfortable reality that the two insurrections that sought to overturn their respective election victories are parts of the same plot. What’s more, Brazil’s iteration would likely never have occurred had the United States not experienced what it did on Jan. 6, 2021. The two attacks were in many ways fueled by U.S. social media companies’ reluctance to police disinformation related to the election results—and Brazil’s was empowered by the U.S. justice system’s failure so far to hold former U.S. President Donald Trump to account. Though Biden was not involved personally in either riot, as U.S. president he has a unique responsibility to help Lula combat anti-democratic forces in Brazil.


Trump’s Big Lie—which falsely claims that he won the 2020 U.S. presidential election and more generally that recent U.S. elections have been riddled with fraud—did not start after the 2020 election. Trump has promulgated the narrative since 2016. “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he tweeted just 19 days after being elected via the Electoral College (but losing the popular vote).

Since the 2021 insurrection, Trump’s claims have emboldened far-right politicians all over the world. In June of that year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to undermine a vote that gave power to the opposition by saying, “We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country.” His narrative included a conspiracy about a so-called deep state and calling the media a “propaganda machine enlisted in favor of the left.” That same month, Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori promoted her own Big Lie about election fraud while she delayed conceding to Pedro Castillo (who would later be ousted by Peru’s Congress).

But nowhere was Trump’s Big Lie replicated as eagerly as in Brazil. Former President Jair Bolsonaro copied so many of Trump’s rhetorical tactics to undermine trust in elections that they sounded almost like a Portuguese-language dubbing of the U.S. president. After his inauguration in 2019, Bolsonaro claimed that he had won the election by a bigger margin than he had in reality. And ahead of last October’s contest against Lula, Bolsonaro’s administration promoted—and then pushed for a behind-the-scenes investigation of—bogus claims of widespread fraud in Brazil’s electronic voting system. Bolsonaro’s allies even made a last-minute attempt to halt the Oct. 30 runoff vote by claiming that Brazil’s electoral court was preventing radio stations from airing the same number of ads for Lula’s and Bolsonaro’s parties—a Brazilian version of Trump’s “Stop the Count.”

It’s no accident that Brazil’s insurrection so closely mirrored the one in the United States. The far-right movements in the two countries are deeply interconnected.


Ties between the Bolsonaro family and Trump aides date back to 2018. That year, Eduardo Bolsonaro—the former president’s third son and a member of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies—met with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and soon after became the South American representative of the Movement, a coalition of far-right extremists in Europe and Latin America that Bannon had founded. In a September 2022 interview with BBC News Brazil, Bannon praised the then-Brazilian president’s expertise in engaging his supporters through social media and said both he and Eduardo have “charisma” that is lacking in U.S. politics. He also acknowledged that he spent a lot of his time “talking backstage” with the Bolsonaros during the 2022 Brazilian presidential campaign. Two of Bolsonaro’s other sons, Carlos and Flávio, are also deeply involved in the former president’s political enterprise; Carlos manages his social media profiles.

Since Bannon and Eduardo Bolsonaro met, Eduardo has spent a great deal of time in the United States, meeting at least 80 times with members of the U.S. far right. He was even in Washington in the days before and after Jan. 6, 2021. The grounds for his visit are still not clear; at the time, the Brazilian Embassy in Washington said the foreign ministry was not aware of the trip. While in Washington in January 2021, Eduardo met with Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, as well as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who is reported to have suggested that Trump should declare martial law to stay in power.

The elder Bolsonaro, for his part, did not condemn the attempted U.S. insurrection, stating that “there were people who voted three, four times, dead people who voted,” which is false. He used Trump’s Big Lie to say Brazil needed paper ballots in its own elections, otherwise “we [in Brazil] will have a problem worse than the United States.”

After Bolsonaro’s family and close allies helped spread Trump’s Big Lie, key actors in the “Stop the Steal” campaign also planted the seeds of mistrust in Brazil’s electoral system.

In August 2021, Eduardo was a keynote speaker at an event Lindell hosted in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the businessman promised he would reveal proof of election fraud in 2020. (His attempt to do so failed miserably.) On stage, Eduardo attacked Brazil’s electronic voting system, saying, “You dial the number of your candidate and pray to God that your vote will be correctly counted.” Bannon, who was sitting by his side, then claimed that the 2022 Brazilian election would be “the second most important in the world and the most important of all time in South America. Bolsonaro will win unless it is stolen by, guess what, the machines.”

Bannon was among the first to call on Bolsonaro not to concede to Lula last October; he did so on a Gettr livestream just hours after results showed Bolsonaro’s defeat. Bolsonaro never conceded—and remained publicly silent for 44 hours after the election results were announced while his supporters violently blocked roads and camped in front of military premises. He did not condemn them and left the country for Florida two days before the end of his term.


Now, as Lula and Biden meet, Bolsonaro remains in the United States. And with the news that the former Brazilian president recently applied for a six-month U.S. tourist visa, his presence is becoming more uncomfortable for the U.S. political establishment. Several House Democrats have called for the Biden administration to order Bolsonaro out of country, as more information surfaces about his role in a wider plot to subvert Brazil’s election. While Brazilian authorities have so far said there are no grounds to request Bolsonaro’s extradition, recent developments in ongoing investigations into the Jan. 8 attacks have placed Bolsonaro at the heart of a plot to overturn last October’s election results.

Apparently seeking to make a comeback as the darling of the extreme right, Bolsonaro spoke at an event at a Trump golf course in Miami last Friday hosted by the far-right organization Turning Point USA. Some of Bolsonaro’s most prominent Brazilian supporters, such as YouTuber Allan dos Santos and businessman Paulo Figueiredo—once a business partner of Trump in Rio de Janeiro—are also based in the United States, engaging in Portuguese-language disinformation campaigns aimed at Brazilian audiences from U.S. soil.

The Biden administration has a responsibility to help fight ongoing threats to Brazil’s democracy. Many of the people spreading disinformation in Brazil are based in the United States—Bolsonaro included. They have also mostly spread their lies on U.S.-run social media sites—platforms that suffer a lack of oversight due to Washington’s failures to pass substantive tech regulations. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the continued failure to hold Trump legally accountable for the U.S. Capitol riot sends the message that anyone can use the Big Lie as a valid political strategy and get away with it.

The Biden administration must take a decisive stance on these issues. U.S. and Brazilian authorities should coordinate on not only Bolsonaro’s status but his supporters’ actions in U.S. territory. One U.S. law makes it a crime to organize or help an attempt to overthrow a government. But it is unclear whether this could apply to Bolsonaro and his followers. Can repeating a false claim about the legitimacy of an election be framed as an attempt to overthrow a government?

The White House should also pressure U.S. social media companies to better moderate foreign-language content and engage with foreign authorities on how best to curb threats to democracy in other countries. Research shows that Silicon Valley has failed to properly combat election-related disinformation in non-English languages. The bulk of Meta’s 2022 election-monitoring resources, for example, were geared toward the U.S. midterms, despite the Meta-owned WhatsApp having been central to the spread of election-related falsehoods in countries such as Brazil.

Finally, the U.S. Justice Department’s investigations into Trump must move forward. While Biden has rightly stayed away from the investigations to avoid the suggestion of political interference—and should continue to do so—their slow pace has cast doubt on whether justice will be achieved at all, particularly as Trump campaigns for the 2024 U.S. presidential election amid growing calls to “move on.” To the outside world, the message so far is that the main culprit of Jan. 6, 2021, is getting away with it—and political forces in Brazil are watching attentively.

The Brazilian justice system, by contrast, has moved more swiftly in the wake of the Jan. 8 attacks to combat anti-democratic forces. The day of the invasion, Lula ordered federal security services to intervene in Brasília. A few weeks later, Lula fired the head of the army who resisted punishing a military officer with close ties to Bolsonaro who is under investigation.

These steps notwithstanding, bilateral collaboration between Biden and Lula is essential to protect democracies worldwide. Today, the two leaders’ response must be strong and their message clear: We will not let the Big Lie become the new normal. Democracy will win.

Natalia Viana is a co-founder and co-director of the Brazilian investigative journalism outlet Agência Pública. She has worked on investigations as part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, including the Panama Papers and “Evicted and Abandoned.” She is the president of the Brazilian Association of Digital Journalism and a 2022 Nieman fellow. Twitter: @VianaNatalia

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