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From presidential palace to KFC: Bolsonaro’s peculiar exile in US

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Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a "Power of the People Rally" at Trump National Doral resort in Miami, Florida, on February 3, 2023./AFP
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Feb 06, 2023 - 01:52 AM

DORAL, UNITED STATES — He used to preside over Latin America’s largest country and its 214 million people. Now Brazil’s former far-right leader lives in a small Florida town and eats alone in a fast-food restaurant.

Bolsonaro, 67, has found an unusual refuge in the United States, where he arrived in late December, several days before his supporters stormed government buildings in Brasilia in an attempt to overturn the election victory of his rival, leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

At home, Bolsonaro is being investigated over his alleged involvement in the unrest, which he denies.

From the lavish presidential palace, Bolsonaro, a political soulmate of former US president Donald Trump, went on to live in a small community of nearly identical houses near the Disney World resort.

In his first six weeks in the United States, Bolsonaro has kept a low profile, staying at the Orlando home of Brazilian former martial arts champion Jose Aldo, making a trip to a local supermarket and being photographed eating fried chicken alone at a KFC fast-food restaurant.

On Friday, the man who until recently commanded huge crowds in his home country, spoke to some 400 supporters during an event organized by the American conservative organization Turning Point USA at the Trump National hotel in the city of Doral, near Miami.

It was unclear if Trump himself played any part in organizing the event.

‘More popular than ever’ 

The meeting had the vibe of an election rally. Bolsonaro spoke passionately about fulfilling his duties to his country — except that the man dubbed the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ was in Florida, several thousand miles (kilometers) away from his homeland.

“There is no greater satisfaction than that of having fulfilled a duty,” Bolsonaro said of his presidency. He spoke before an audience dressed in elegant suits and dresses as well as the yellow-and-green shirts of the Brazilian soccer team.

Three days earlier, Bolsonaro spoke in the ballroom of a shopping mall restaurant in Orlando at an event put together by the Brazilian expatriate community in Florida.

Bolsonaro, who had repeatedly cast doubt on Lula’s narrow victory in an October 30 runoff, again questioned his election loss, calling himself “more popular than ever.”

“Many people are still shaken by what happened in the elections…. But we will face this moment and, God willing, we will win together,” he said.

But Bolsonaro added that he regretted “what some inconsistent people did” during the unrest.

The crowd was welcoming at both Florida events, with supporters hugging and taking selfies with him and cheering him on.

What next? 

Bolsonaro faces an uncertain future.

After publicly declaring his intention to return to Brazil at the end of January, Bolsonaro earlier this week applied for a new visa to be able to stay in the United States for six more months.

And one of his sons, Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, suggested last week that the former president had no return date.

“It may be tomorrow, or six months from now, or he may never come back,” he told reporters.

On Tuesday, at the Orlando restaurant, Bolsonaro nevertheless promised to “remain active in Brazilian politics.” He didn’t elaborate.

Now it remains to be seen whether Bolsonaro maintains a low profile or whether he tries to boost his standing in the United States.

“I’ve always been a huge admirer of the American people — their liberties, their patriotism and their love of the flag,” he told the gathering Friday.

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