Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro led a motorcycle caravan of between 10,000 to 15,000 people, local police estimated, in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, the second such event this month.
Bolsonaro, an avid motorcycle rider, led a significant but much smaller bike caravan around a tour of Brasilia in honor of Mother’s Day two weeks ago. The president appears to be increasing the frequency of such events in anticipation for the 2022 presidential election, in which he will have to recreate the enthusiasm of his conservative supporters in 2018 but likely face a more popular opponent: socialist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who attempted a failed campaign against Bolsonaro from prison at the time. The nation’s Supreme Court, largely composed of Lula appointees, overturned his conviction on million-dollar corruption charges in March, allowing him to run for office again.
Lula said in an interview published last week with the French magazine Paris Match that he would run for president again only if he entered the race as a frontrunner and if his health allowed. He is 75 years old.
The Rio de Janeiro motorcycle event was not explicitly a campaign stop but clearly meant as an occasion for Bolsonaro supporters to gather and cheer on their leader. Bolsonaro also issued remarks to the crowd reiterating his opposition to the use of social distancing and lockdowns to combat the spread of Chinese coronavirus, a stance that has attracted condemnation from both the governors in Brazil who have imposed lockdowns and international leftist politicians.
According to the Argentine news outlet Infobae, Bolsonaro rode around on his motorcycle for half an hour, touring the town and leading thousands of others on their own motorcycles. He also made some stops to take photos with other riders and greet supporters. Neither he – who contracted coronavirus last summer – nor most of those in attendance wore masks or kept their distance. The Brazilian network G1 noted in its report on the event that the city of Rio de Janeiro currently has a mask mandate in place as well as a 1.5-meter social distance rule. The governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, Cláudio Castro, welcomed Bolsonaro when he arrived from Brasilia and lent his support to the event, leaving unclear if anyone violating the coronavirus measures would face legal action.
Bolsonaro posted videos taken overhead of his ride through the city on Twitter, thanking supporters and referring to the event as “certainly, the largest motorcycle ride in the history of Brazil.”
– Obrigado Rio de Janeiro.
– Um abraço meu Brasil. pic.twitter.com/i4CUDf5uEg
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) May 23, 2021
– Certamente o maior passeio ciclístico da história do Brasil.
– Nas novas concessões de rodovias federais não será cobrado pedágio de motociclistas.
– Boa noite a todos. pic.twitter.com/KoFZkuKaF3
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) May 24, 2021
In remarks to the crowd following the ride, Bolsonaro vowed he would use his power as head of state to “guarantee everyone’s freedom.”
“We are ready, if necessary, to take all actions to guarantee everyone’s freedom,” Bolsonaro reportedly said. “We have the right to profess faith, the right to work and come and go.”
Bolsonaro specifically condemned governors who imposed coronavirus lockdowns as having “simply ignored the vast majority of the Brazilian population and, without any scientific evidence, decreed lockdown, confinement, and curfew. Today you already know what a democracy is and what an attempted dictatorship sponsored by these governors is.”
The left-wing newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo complained in its coverage of Bolsonaro’s remarks that he vowed to the audience not to use the military to impose coronavirus lockdowns, referring to the military as “my army.” Bolsonaro’s remarks insisting the military, under his orders, would “never take to the streets to keep you inside” were at odds with years of left-wing criticism accusing Bolsonaro of glorifying military dictatorships.
Folha went on to highlight an incident in which a CNN reporter attempted to approach the crowd but was met with chants of “garbage!” and ultimately retreated. Brazilian military police provided escorts to the journalist to ensure he could leave the area safely.
Bolsonaro’s motorcycle rides are a show of political strength that will be increasingly necessary as Lula, whose case was remanded and thus may at any time again lose the privilege of running for political office, makes his intention of challenging Bolsonaro clear. Lula was convicted of using over a million dollars in illegal kickbacks to purchase a luxury beachfront triplex in 2017, resulting at its peak in a sentence of upwards of 20 years in prison. The Supreme Court did not weigh in on Lula’s guilt, instead ruling that the judge who initially convicted him did not have jurisdiction over the case, leaving open the possibility of Lula returning to prison by 2022.
Lula’s public statements since his release do not indicate that he expects to return to prison. In the French magazine interview last week, he said he would challenge Bolsonaro if Lula was “in the best position to win the presidential election and in good health.” He insisted he was a “good” president and cited his policy of distancing Brazil from the United States and fostering closer ties with rogue states such as China and Russia, ties Bolsonaro has largely maintained.
Under Lula, a nationwide corruption net later unveiled in a police investigation known as “Operation Car Wash” consumed the federal and many local governments. The scheme required private contracting firms, often the disgraced Brazilian firm Odebrecht, to bribe politicians to receive lucrative infrastructure contracts. The contracts would overcharge and the firms would use the excess cash to pay off the politicians. The police investigation that unveiled the operation resulted in dozens of arrests of officials in multiple political parties.