Jair Bolsonaro’s presence in the US has turned into a diplomatic quandary for President Joe Biden after supporters of the former Brazilian leader stormed government buildings over the weekend.
What initially appeared to be a target for humor — Bolsonaro was photographed eating at a KFC and strolling through a Publix supermarket in Florida after he arrived in the US in Dec. 30 — became far more serious after thousands of his supporters invaded Brazil’s congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace on Sunday. Bolsonaro’s successor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, accused him of encouraging the riots.
The violence bore echoes of the Jan. 6 insurrection in the US, and the Biden administration, which has aligned itself with Lula’s government, is weighing what to do next with Bolsonaro, who was an ally of former President Donald Trump and shared his hard-right populism.
Biden appears to have the power to revoke Bolsonaro’s visa and kick him out of the country, and is already coming under pressure from progressives to do so.
The former president is now hospitalized near Orlando, Florida, with abdominal pains, according to his wife. He’s had several operations since he was stabbed in the abdomen while campaigning in 2018.
He could wage a lengthy legal battle over his status. And then there’s the question of whether Lula and his supporters actually want him back in their country.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that the US hadn’t received an extradition request from Brazil. Behind the silence from Brasilia, administration officials are considering whether they can do anything to spur Bolsonaro to leave the US, according to people familiar with the conversations.
The White House said on Monday evening that Biden and Lula had spoken by telephone, and the American president “conveyed the unwavering support of the United States for Brazil’s democracy.” Biden also invited Lula to visit Washington early next month. The invitation was accepted, according to the statement, which did not mention Bolsonaro by name.
One challenge for US officials seeking to hasten Bolsonaro’s departure is figuring out how he got into the US. There is uncertainty within the administration about what visa he obtained, the people familiar with the matter said. He may have used his diplomatic passport, or he could have used a personal passport and be visiting Florida on a tourist visa.
The discussions of the options are at an early stage, and have included asking him to depart or exploring grounds to cancel his visa, the people said. They asked not to be identified because no decisions have been made.
Bolsonaro’s fate isn’t just about Brazil. There are heavy political overtones for the US, too. Bolsonaro and Trump are political allies who pursued nationalist agendas and endorsed each other’s re-election bids. Both also fanned suspicions about their country’s election systems and refused to concede after their defeats. Bolsonaro arrived in the US on Dec. 30 while he was still president, skipping Lula’s inauguration.
Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist who championed false claims of a rigged 2020 US presidential election, used his War Room podcast and posts on the social-media site Gettr to push the idea that the Brazilian election was stolen and to support the rioters.
After Lula defeated Bolsonaro, Bannon posted on Gettr on Oct. 30 that “this Election Was Stolen in Broad Daylight.” Bannon called the rioters “Brazilian Freedom Fighters” on Gettr and said, “Lula stole the Election, Brazilians know that.”
The comments were in keeping with Bannon’s past support for Bolsonaro and his family. After Trump lost his re-election bid, Bannon advised Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo and suggested Bolsonaro’s Brazil was an embodiment of the style of right-wing nationalism Trump had sought to impose in the US.
“In many ways, Brazil’s movement is actually far more advanced than we are in the United States,” Bannon told Bloomberg News at the time.
Some Democratic lawmakers have urged Biden to extradite Bolsonaro, adding to pressure on the administration. Representatives Joaquin Castro of Texas and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York condemned the actions of Bolsonaro’s supporters as domestic terrorism.
“The US must cease granting refuge to Bolsonaro in Florida,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet. “Nearly two years to the day the US Capitol was attacked by fascists, we see fascist movements abroad attempt to do the same in Brazil.”
Bolsonaro condemned the destruction of public property by some of his supporters, taking to Twitter over the weekend to say “depredations and invasions of public buildings like we saw today, like the acts done by the left in 2013 and 2017, are not within the rules.”
But that hasn’t stopped some officials from demanding that he return.
A Brazilian senator asked top court Justice Alexandre de Moraes on Monday to order Bolsonaro’s immediate return to the country. Senator Renan Calheiros said Bolsonaro needs to explain his alleged encouraging of the rioters who stormed Brasilia. He asked the court to issue an arrest order if the former president refuses to cooperate with the investigation.
Moraes, who presides over an investigation of alleged acts against Brazil’s democracy, has already issued several arrest warrants for Bolsonaro’s supporters.
US administrations have moved quickly in the past to respond to extradition requests when they come. In 2018, the US extradited former Panama President Ricardo Martinelli, who was later acquitted on espionage and embezzlement charges.
“We have not as of yet received any official request from the Brazilian government related to this issue,” Sullivan said. “If and when we do we’ll deal with it, and if and when we have any information to provide, we will do it.”
Bolsonaro doesn’t yet face criminal charges in Brazil, meaning the Lula government has no basis for an extradition request. That could change as its investigation into the riots proceeds.
While declining to discuss Bolsonaro individually, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that people who travel to the US on what’s known as an A visa, which is reserved for government officials and diplomats, have 30 days to change their immigration status if they leave their job while in the US.
“It would be incumbent on the visa holder to take that action,” Price said. “If an individual has no basis on which to be in the United States, that individual is subject to removal by the Department of Homeland Security.”
Asked if the US was waiting for Lula’s government to reach out, Sullivan said “I don’t want you to take that as the implication.”
“The United States takes action on visas all the time, for all kinds of reasons,” Sullivan said. “On this particular case, this particular individual, again, I have to proceed with extreme caution in terms of how I talk about it because of the legal issues and precedent issues involved.”