Breaking Point: A Brazilian’s thoughts on Jan. 8th

Laura Allemann Chamon

I spent my Winter Study in Brazil. I thought I could use a month at home, in the sun and close to my family and friends. On Jan. 1, I watched President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva walk up the ramp of the executive office and receive the presidential sash. Seven days later, that ramp was filled with others — insurrectionists, fighting for the “good of the country.” I want to make one thing clear: What happened on Jan. 8 was not for the good of the country. 

On that day, I stared at the TV for hours, stunned, as the rioters attempted to overthrow our government — the breaking point of a story many years in the making. In 2018, two years after the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Lula was imprisoned for his role in Operation Car Wash, one of the largest corruption investigations in Brazil’s history, involving many members of Lula’s party and other government officials. The corruption scheme left us all reeling, trying to piece back our democracy and ourselves after discovering that our past president, twice-elected and beloved by all, had likely stolen from us and lied for many years. The country’s decision to elect Lula as our president again was apprehensive: It meant putting a man who took a lot from us back in power, giving him the chance to do it all again. And yet, that was still the choice the population made — he was elected. 

The attempt on Jan. 8 was so jarring not only because of the complete disregard for our election results, but also because of its sheer scope. Seeing insurrectionists break windows, ruin artworks, and flip desks completely destroyed the sanctity of our nation. We all saw the people breaking the barricades, running past police officers towards the heart of our government, managing to breach all three branches of power, the three buildings that define us. They took over: For those many hours, they were in control. It was not just an attack on President Lula; it was an attack on our democracy, which has already gone through so much in recent years at the hands of Lula and Bolsonaro. It was a direct call for a military dictatorship: a return to dictatorship of 1964 and its 21 years of suppression, violence, and missing bodies at the hand of military tyrants. 

And the rioters didn’t do it alone. They had support: Someone financed buses to take them to the capital, along with a place to stay, food to eat, and even a massage therapist. Not to mention the military’s lack of resistance to the attack, or the involvement of members of the government including the Governor and Secretary of Public Security of the Federal District. The police and security forces were slow to respond, leading to the suspicion that they were at the very least underprepared, and at worst, complicit. Bolsonaro is under investigation by authorities for his role in inspiring the rioters. The attempt was planned and executed with Bolsonaro’s circle standing by it. 

Regardless of the support they received, they do not represent our country. A few thousand people do not speak for 200 million. I am not denying that the election was a very close call. But disliking the government and attacking it are two very different things. Brazilians must take the attempted coup as a sobering act, one that shows the lengths some will go to. It reminded us of how tenuous our democratic system is and how much damage has been done to it, especially in the past four years. However, it does not reveal a lack of support for Lula’s presidency or the preservation of our constitution — an electoral system we so pride ourselves on. That distinction is necessary for us to be able to move past the attack and thrive under this new administration.

We also must examine the similarities between the attack in Brasília and the attack on the United States Capitol Building. It is clear that what happened on Jan. 8, 2023, was inspired by the events of Jan. 6., 2021. It was a replica of something already done, Brazilians copying the actions of those from other countries. To me, it is an example of the “mutt complex,” which author Nelson Rodrigues describes as the inferiority in which Brazilians place themselves relative to the rest of the world. We have for so long been placed below other nations that we have adopted that mentality. I feel like we have become the puppy that trails along behind the rest, the little kid that copies what the adults do. We did what they did, but took it much further, making the attack even more of a spectacle. This comparison, as necessary as it is to demonstrate the instability of global democracies, is not enough to understand the current situation in Brazil. 

The biggest thing that the events of Jan. 8 showed me was just how important it is for me to be an active participant in my country’s democratic system. When the most recent Brazilian elections occurred in Oct.  2022, in a group of 16 Brazilian members of the College, only three of us were able to vote. The College did not provide us with enough support, did not initially give us transportation to the two voting locations in Massachusetts after having promised it, and would not pay for any necessary accommodations due to their mistake, causing some students to have to miss the elections and pay a fine from the government. Many of the Brazilians also did not know they even had the opportunity to vote internationally — their options as foreign students were never explained to them. International students at the College should be allowed to have a political voice, even while away from home. Our opinions deserve as much recognition as those of domestic students. Witnessing something of this stature happen in your country — and knowing you couldn’t respond to it — is a deeply distressing thing. How do you watch your democracy fall while you just stand there aimlessly?

The College prides itself on student advocacy, on having a community that is politically active and concerned about the world around them. International students being excluded from this activism goes against the College’s entire ethos. While the administration prides itself on the effectiveness of organizations such as EphVotes, the focus remains on domestic students. Their participation in democracy is constantly defended and promoted, whereas students of other nationalities have to contend with remaining stagnant. Our choice to leave our countries does not mean we abandoned our own fights for representation in democracy. Jan. 8 should be a wake up call: My constitutional right does not matter any less because I’m not at home. 

Laura Allemann Chamon ’25 is from São Paulo, Brazil.