RIO DE JANEIRO - Former president Jair Bolsonaro left the United States Wednesday night on a flight home to Brazil, a country deeply divided by his governance and policies, where he faces an array of investigations that could ultimately end his political career and even put him in prison.
The 68-year-old politician quietly boarded a commercial flight out of Orlando just before 10 p.m. When he lands early Thursday morning in Brasília, it will be his first visit to the capital since he departed Brazil in late December, shortly before the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the ensuing attack on the city’s most important federal buildings by thousands of Bolsonaro backers.
He is expected to head straight to the headquarters of his Liberal Party without making any public comments or addressing supporters.
The return of such a polarizing figure comes at a particularly vulnerable moment for the country, which is still reeling from the most divisive election in its history and the shocking scenes of violence that it unleashed. Bolsonaro’s presence could again galvanize the far right and antagonize the governing left.
“His political capital remains very strong,” said Odilon Caldeira Neto, coordinator of the nonpartisan Observatory of the Extreme Right, based in Minas Gerais. “All indications point to his capacity to mobilize people on the right.”
Bolsonaro has announced his intentions to lead the opposition to the Lula administration, and his party plans to feature him in early campaigning throughout the Northeast region for the 2024 municipal elections. He is expected to maintain a residence in an upscale part of Brasília, where his wife, Michelle, has been living as he weighed when to come home.
It remains unclear why Bolsonaro decided to leave Brazil after narrowly losing the election to Lula - he decamped on a tourist visa to the Orlando suburb of Kissimmee - or why he waited more three months before returning. Though he has frequently expressed fears of jail, he was counseled by advisers while in Florida that his risk of imprisonment in Brazil remained low.
He is the target of 20 investigations, six of them criminal. The allegations against him are legion and seem to grow by the day. Authorities are investigating whether he spread fake news about the country’s electoral system or if he inflamed a mob to invade and vandalize the Presidential Palace, the Supreme Court and Congress after his defeat.
Senior judicial officials told The Washington Post in January that insufficient evidence had surfaced at that point to order his arrest.
More recently, his administration has come under investigation for its response to a humanitarian crisis in Yanomami Indigenous territory and whether Bolsonaro maneuvered to wrongfully keep jewelry from the Saudi government that was worth several million dollars. Bolsonaro officials have denied wrongdoing on both fronts and subsequently returned some of the valuables, but the probes continued. He is scheduled to present testimony in the jewelry case in early April.
The outcome of any of these investigations could be far-reaching - not only for Bolsonaro, but for Brazil.
The former army captain spent much of his final year in office campaigning against the electoral system as much as he did against Lula, undermining its credibility in frequent public statements and asserting without evidence that the election would be marred by fraud. His claims were never substantiated, but millions of bolsonaristas still believe corrupt, unseen powers colluded to keep their leader from office.
There are widespread fears that the country could again hit social turbulence if Bolsonaro is arrested or disqualified from running for office again. Even if he escapes the inquiries unscathed, he will face questions over whether he’ll be able to mount another successful national campaign. Some of his fiercest supporters have grown to doubt his political acumen.
“It was Bolsonaro who resuscitated Lula, by minimizing the pandemic, by calling it a little flu, by playing with something serious,” said Claudinei Junior, 36, a supporter in rural São Paulo state. “I don’t think he’ll be able to galvanize enough support if he comes back.”
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The Washington Post’s Marina Dias in Washington contributed to this report.