The United States has a Jair Bolsonaro problem.
The far-right former Brazilian president flew to Florida two days before his term ended on Jan. 1, having challenged the results of the Oct. 30 runoff election that he narrowly lost to leftist rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. On Sunday a violent movement of election-denying Bolsonaro supporters stormed Brazil’s presidential palace, Congress and Supreme Court.
After watching supporters of former U.S. leader Donald Trump invade the U.S. Capitol two years ago, Democratic President Joe Biden is now facing mounting pressure to remove Bolsonaro from his self-imposed exile in suburban Orlando.
“Bolsonaro should not be in Florida,” U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democratic lawmaker in Congress, said on CNN. “The United States should not be a refuge for this authoritarian who has inspired domestic terrorism in Brazil. He should be sent back to Brazil.”
Castro said Bolsonaro, a Trump acolyte now based in the former president’s home state, had “used the Trump playbook to inspire domestic terrorists.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, echoed those views.
“The US must cease granting refuge to Bolsonaro in Florida,” she tweeted on Sunday.
Brazil’s O Globo reported on Monday that Bolsonaro had been admitted to a U.S. hospital with abdominal pain.
Their comments turn up the heat on Bolsonaro, and highlight Washington’s big decision about his future.
Bolsonaro had a fractious relationship with Biden, and was already on weaker ground back home in Brazil after losing broad protections from prosecution when he stepped down as president. Those probes could lead to his arrest or prevent him from running for office, Reuters reported last week.
In Washington, a person familiar with the matter said the Biden administration was still gathering information on what happened in Brasilia on Sunday and who may have been behind it. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there would likely be no decision on Bolsonaro’s visa status until there is a clearer picture of what happened.
John Feeley, who was the U.S. ambassador to Panama from late 2015 to 2018 when the Central American nation sought the extradition of its former President Ricardo Martinelli, said the most immediate threat to Bolsonaro would come if his U.S. visa were revoked.
“The United States – or any sovereign nation for that matter – may remove a foreigner, even one who entered legally on a visa, for any reason,” Feeley said. “It’s a purely sovereign decision for which no legal justification is required.”
Martinelli was extradited from the United States back to Panama in 2018, three years after Panama’s Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for him.
A U.S. consular official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bolsonaro had almost certainly entered on an A-1 visa, which are reserved for heads of state, diplomats and other government officials. A second source, a senior former U.S. diplomat, also believed it was almost certain that Bolsonaro had entered on an A-1.
Normally the A-1 is canceled after the recipient leaves office. But with Bolsonaro having left Brazil and entered the United States before his term ended, the official suspected his A-1 was still active.
The official, who has experience with the cancellation of visas for former heads of state, said there is no set time limit on how long someone can stay in the United States on an A-1.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” the official said. “Who knows how long he is going to stay?”
A State Department spokesperson said “visa records are confidential under U.S. law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases.”
Bolsonaro may be in no hurry to return to Brazil, where he is accused of instigating a violent election denial movement with baseless claims of electoral fraud.
Lula, who pledged in his Jan. 1 inauguration speech to go after Bolsonaro if needed, blamed his predecessor for Sunday’s violence. Brazilian police
The former president “is encouraging this via social media from Miami,” Lula said on Sunday, a day before Brazilian soldiers backed by police dismantled the Bolsonaro supporters’ camp in the capital. “Everybody knows there are various speeches of the ex-president encouraging this.”
In a tweet on Sunday, Bolsonaro rejected Lula’s accusations and said the invasion had crossed the line of peaceful protest.
Bolsonaro was already under investigation in four Supreme Court criminal probes before stepping down as president.
In the wake of Sunday’s invasion, legal experts said Bolsonaro may find himself the target of a Supreme Court probe, led by crusading Justice Alexandre de Moraes, into anti-democratic protests, which has already yielded several arrests.
If Moraes were to sign an arrest warrant while Bolsonaro is in the United States, the former president would be technically required to fly back to Brazil and hand himself over to police. If he refused, Brazil could issue an Interpol Red Notice to prompt his arrest by U.S. federal agents.
If Bolsonaro were detained on U.S. soil, Brazil would then have to formally seek his extradition. Bolsonaro would be free to appeal in the U.S. courts, or he might attempt to seek asylum, although that offers no guarantee of preventing his eventual return to Brazil.
The United States has not received any official requests from the Brazilian government regarding Bolsonaro’s status, the White House said on Monday.