‘He was just chilling’: Bolsonaro settles in to life in Florida amid chaos in Brazil

Supporters gather outside house where former Brazilian president is staying while in exile in the US

After Jair Bolsonaro left the Brazilian presidency and slunk off to the US, the first place he dined out was a KFC restaurant, wedged between an empty fairground and a pirate-themed crazy golf course, off a busy highway in the mid-Florida city of Kissimmee.

“He was just chilling, minding his own business,” one employee said, surrounded by locals sitting at sticky tables under fluorescent lights beneath a massive replica chicken bucket dangling from the roof.

Since leaving the plush confines of the presidential palace in Brasília a little more than a fortnight ago, Bolsonaro has camped out on the outskirts of Orlando – minutes away from Disney World – even amid chaos in his home country.

On January 8th, pro-Bolsonaro protesters stormed government buildings in Brasília, claiming – without evidence – his election loss to the leftwing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October had been rigged. It was in some senses a Brazilian repeat of the insurrection in Washington almost exactly two years earlier, when supporters of Donald Trump, a staunch Bolsonaro backer, stormed the US Capitol.


Bolsonaro’s security detail was underwhelming, consisting as it did of two men lounging on white plastic chairs, chatting with the crowds

Bolsonaro, who led Brazil for four years from 2019, now faces an uncertain future and multiple investigations. The country’s supreme court has named him in a criminal investigation as being potentially responsible for the riots. The electoral court is also processing 16 lawsuits against him relating to the riots and his presidential campaign.

But for now, at least, Bolsonaro’s sojourn near the resort “where dreams come true” has provided some respite from reality. Outside his Orlando vacation home – an eight-bedroom “McMansion” owned by former mixed martial arts fighter José Aldo – hordes of wellwishers laden with flasks and lunch boxes have regularly gathered.

“I’m here today to see Bolsonaro and say to him: ‘Brazil is not good today because the election was a fraud’,” said Cassio, a 39-year-old factory manager from outside São Paulo, who has moved temporarily to Florida to study English. “Here, there are many Brazilians and they support Bolsonaro.”

When the Financial Times visited the compound last week, Bolsonaro’s security detail was underwhelming, consisting as it did of two men lounging on white plastic chairs, chatting with the crowds as they prayed, chanted and sang. One rousing rendition of the national anthem prompted an intervention from resort management: “Other people live here too,” growled the guard.

When he first arrived, Bolsonaro had made regular appearances, emerging from the house to shake hands and pose for selfies. But after the unrest in Brasília, he adopted a lower profile. The glad-handing ceased altogether the day after the riots. He had just returned from a stint in a Florida hospital connected with a condition related to a 2018 stabbing.

Doctors had ordered bed rest and a liquid diet, his security men said, much to the chagrin of a carful of youths who drove by with an offer of picanha steak.

“We are on vacation, but I [brought] my [Brazil] shirt because I knew I was going to see him,” said Wanderlucio da Silva, who was clad in Brazilian green and yellow. “This is part of the vacation,” added the 44-year-old owner of a painting business in Connecticut, who was visiting Disney World with his wife.

More Brazilians live in the US than any other foreign country, and more in Florida than any other state. The US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates about 130,000 Brazilians live in the Sunshine State. Many of them lean right politically, especially in Miami, where expats voted overwhelmingly for Bolsonaro in October’s election.

Bolsonaro’s supporters hope he will one day re-enter politics – and potentially the presidential palace

“Brazilians love the United States,” said Antoninio Parisi (61), standing outside Bolsonaro’s Orlando vacation home. “We had a dream in Brazil that Brazil looks like Florida – the way Florida is now.”

Allegations of election fraud were rife among the supporters, many of whom recited the Trumpian refrain that the country’s electronic voting machines were unreliable.

“We don’t believe that Lula will be in the place that he is [for long]. We believe that he is a fake,” said Madalena Andrade (63), who was visiting from Miami, where she works as a language teacher. “And we are sure, mainly because – I don’t know if you have seen – but most of the votes [were] for Bolsonaro. It was stolen and it was proved.”

Most were keen to distance themselves from this month’s riots, though many suggested the culprits had been provoked, or that leftwing agents were responsible. “They went across the line. Personally, if I was there, I [would not be] the one that is going to break windows and doors – never never,” said Parisi. “[But] when you get stressed ... we do things that we are not supposed to do.”

Parallels between Trump and Bolsonaro – and the behaviour of their diehard fans – have been inevitable. Many supporters of the man dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” spoke warmly of the former US president, who had a close relationship with his Brazilian counterpart. “Like Trump worked for the American [people], he [Bolsonaro] has worked for his people – Brazilian people,” said Wanderlucio da Silva.

As with Trump, Bolsonaro has been accused of sowing doubt over the election by questioning its legitimacy well in advance of polling day, even if he did not directly call for an uprising, as his US counterpart did.

Beyond the compound, many Brazilians were less enamoured of their ex-president. “I don’t like him and I don’t want to know anything about him,” said Maria, a student who had just moved to the area from Rio de Janeiro, and was preparing for her shift at a bar.

Bolsonaro has given mixed signals about whether he intends to leave Florida, although his visa is expected to expire soon.

Most locals still remain unaware of their celebrity guest. At the local Publix supermarket – founded by the Jenkins family, prominent Trump supporters – Bolsonaro was seen roaming the aisles in the days before the insurrection.

“I’ve no idea who that is,” said Jay Alvarez, the store manager, who, upon being shown a video of the visit, tried to pin down the exact date based on the make-up of the battery and peanut displays.

Bolsonaro’s supporters hope he will one day re-enter politics – and potentially the presidential palace. But as investigations that could bar him from office mount, that prospect has dimmed.

Back at the former president’s Florida residence, loyalists bemoaned a witch hunt. “We see right now what is going on. And we don’t want that to keep on happening, because it’s not healthy to our country,” said Paul Marques (71), a travelling pastor and theology teacher.

“But God is in control,” he added. “And he is the one that gives and takes.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023