SÃO PAULO—The biggest and busiest city in South America was forced into a stunning standstill Monday night after supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro blocked roads across the city to protest the results of a fair and free election.
Hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters, embittered by the victory of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva on Sunday, blocked the highway to the main airport in São Paulo, setting up barricades, chanting phrases like “Lula the robber!” and starting fires in the middle of the road.
Hundreds of roadblocks in every state in the country threaten to plunge Brazil into chaos.
The populist rightwinger has yet to concede the election since the unprecedentedly close result was announced Sunday, with leftist former president Lula winning by just 1.8 percentage points. In a brief speech on Tuesday evening, Bolsonaro again refused to concede, but his chief of staff later confirmed that the Brazilian president will allow a peaceful transition to the new administration led by Lula.
With fears mounting that Bolsonaro could take a leaf from the playbook of his close ally, Donald Trump, and refuse to accept the result, truckers loyal to the incumbent have taken matters into their own hands.
Roadblocks and protests demanding a military coup to stop Lula from being certified as president have erupted in all but two Brazilian states, according to reports. Brazil’s federal highway police said over 300 protests had partially or completely shut down roads around the country, while authorities in the capital Brasilia closed traffic access to the central government esplanade amid fears that Bolsonaro’s supporters were planning to stage a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court, which they perceive as having given Lula favorable treatment.
Videos shared on social media show blockages along the 1,000-mile-long BR-163 highway that links companies in the Amazon basin with ports in the north of the country. One clip shows a fire burning as vehicles block the road, with a remix of a Brazilian song using the lyrics “Bolsonaro 22” playing in the background.
Side effects included widespread flight delays at São Paulo airport after crew members and support staff were unable to get through the blockades. Inside the airport, even Brazilians who had voted for Bolsonaro were fuming. One mother, who said she had voted for Bolsonaro, was on the verge of tears after being stranded in the airport for 10 hours with three young children and her elderly in-laws. “Only in Brazil,” she said, as she worked with an airline to try and locate her family’s lost luggage.
One Brazilian man—a cab driver who had been involved in the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations—went straight from the protest to the airport to pick up passengers impacted by the airport mayhem he had helped cause. “I ditched my motorcycle near the protest and went right to work,” he said. He emphasized that the protests were “peaceful,” but admitted he was hoping for a military coup to take place in the next few months before Lula takes office.
Truckers make up one of Bolsonaro’s key constituencies and have benefited from some of his policies, including lowering the cost of diesel. They’ve previously been known to take drastic political action in Brazil, even creating food and medicine shortages with a massive drivers’ strike over fuel prices in 2018. The country still relies almost entirely on road infrastructure.
The greatest concentration of blockades was reported in the Bolsonaro stronghold state of Santa Catarina and the agricultural heartland of Mato Grosso do Sul, according to local authorities. Normando Corral, president of the farm group Famato, told Reuters that agricultural shipments could be disrupted if the blockades in Mato Grosso continue. “It’s too soon to say if it’s going to interfere with the flow of production, because the blockades started yesterday,” Corral said Monday. “I don’t know how long it will last.”
Later on Monday, Supreme Court judge Alexandre de Moraes, the top election official in Brazil, ordered highway police to “take all necessary measures” to clear the roadblocks. He also threatened to imprison the highway police chief if he refused to comply with the directive, adding that truckers still blocking the roads on Tuesday would each be fined around $19,300 per hour.
While international leaders including Joe Biden, China’s Xi Jinping, and even Russian President Vladimir Putin have all congratulated Lula on his electoral victory, Brazil now anxiously awaits to hear if Bolsonaro will allow the peaceful transfer of power to take place. Although he’s previously made alarming statements that “only God” will remove him from power, the populist leader’s social media accounts and those of his three politician sons have remained unusually quiet since the weekend.
Bolsonaro’s communications minister, Fábio Faria, said the nationalist leader would not speak out about the election result until Tuesday.