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Authorities in Brazil have been rounding up rioters who attacked Congress

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Brazilian authorities are investigating the origins of Sunday's attacks in the capital of Brasilia. The images, eerily similar to the January 6 attacks in the United States, showed thousands of supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro storming government buildings, beating a mounted police officer. Brazil's newly elected leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, accused the rioters of trying to overthrow democracy, and he blamed Bolsonaro for encouraging the violence with speeches and lies about Bolsonaro's election loss. For more, I'm joined by former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Michael McKinley. Good morning, Ambassador.

P MICHAEL MCKINLEY: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So I want to start with the democratic institutions in Brazil. This is the fourth-largest democracy in the world. After these attacks, are these institutions in real jeopardy now?

MCKINLEY: I don't think so. In fact, Brazilian democracy over the last 38 years since it was restored has gone from strength to strength. And you've seen mature, complex institutions evolve with a strong judiciary, Supreme Court, with a very active, powerful Congress, executive branch that works, incredibly free media environment, active civil society. And so while this assault is definitely of concern, I don't think there should be serious questions about what happens to Brazilian democracy going forward.

I would suggest that the events since Lula was elected on October 30 in the second round of presidential elections and to include a peaceful inauguration on January 1, attended by up to 300,000 people and 17 heads of state from around the world, actually demonstrated that despite very strong polarization in the society, it did not succumb to some of the tensions we saw after our November election in 2020, which culminated in January 6 with a very direct, concerted effort to overturn U.S. elections involving a president, senators, congressional representatives, state and election officials. What happened, though, is of great concern.

FADEL: But what there was concern around was the law enforcement and whether they were sympathetic, military walking with protesters to these buildings.

MCKINLEY: Brazilian security forces, like security in most countries, is layered. And so what was in evidence, at least so far, is questions about the commitment of the federal district - that is the capital police of Brasilia - to prevent the crowds from reaching the three key buildings, the presidential palace, the Congress and the Supreme Court. Fewer questions have been raised about the armed forces, for example, or the national police. And within hours, just as in Washington on January 6, the protesters were cleared. We've seen up to 1,500 people already detained. There were a series of encampments around the country outside of military barracks and official buildings.

And within 24 hours of what happened on January 8, there has been a concerted effort to remove these encampments from around - which were protests, peaceful protests, calling for military intervention, were all removed or are in the stage of being removed - to include in the most important state in Brazil, Sao Paulo, where a governor who's seen as sympathetic and allied with Bolsonaro has been very firm in condemning what happened on January 8 and moving to take action against any of these protests that have been taking place around the country over the last many weeks. So I would suggest that there's - should be less concern about the loyalty of the security forces. But again, what happened raises a lot of concerns.

FADEL: Now, President Biden spoke with President da Silva yesterday and expressed his support. What kind of support should or can the U.S. extend, especially when it hasn't figured out how to tackle this exact problem at home?

MCKINLEY: Actually, what we've seen is the United States, since last year in the run-up to the election, been strongly supportive of Brazilian elections with visits by senior U.S. officials during the campaign to say there was a real need for democratic process to go forward. And since Lula's election, regular contact between President Biden and President Lula, phone calls, Secretary Blinken speaking with his counterpart shortly after the inauguration, invitation to the White House in February, I think a very strong relationship is in the process of being built up.

FADEL: Do you think this incident will affect the relationship between the U.S. and Brazil long term? It sounds like you think it's going to make it stronger.

MCKINLEY: I think it will. And in fact, we've seen this relationship strengthening because there are so many tough issues on the global stage that need to be addressed, from energy questions to food production to dealing with China and trade to regional tension points like Venezuela. And Brazil is a critical player on all of these questions and certainly on the key geostrategic, global macroeconomic issues, potentially a central player in finding responses to the challenges we face. So I think - and let me mention climate change, where special envoy John Kerry has already signaled his interest in working strongly with Brazil. And President-elect Lula at the time was in the Cairo climate summit, emphasizing that his government would take the issue very seriously going forward. There's plenty to work with.

FADEL: Former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Michael McKinley, thank you so much for your time.

MCKINLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.