As U.S. Brazilian Community Grows, so Does Its Political Engagement—At Times From the Far Right
Days before radical supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court on January 8, 2023, groups of conservative Brazilians in the U.S called on social media for their fellow citizens to participate in a nation-wide mass protest. They wanted to overturn their federal government, claiming the country’s presidential elections were rigged. Bolsonaro, the incumbent, lost his bid for reelection to former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This past June Bolsonaro was barred from running for office again until 2030 after Brazil’s highest electoral court found him guilty of abuse of political power and misuse of public media during his recent election campaign.
The social media posts, some of which have been deleted since January 8, asked people to go to the streets, agribusiness leaders to stop production, distributors to stop making deliveries, protesters to block the delivery of gasoline and Brazilians to “surround” and “besiege” government buildings in the country’s capital, Brasilia.
Four days before January 8, a U.S.-based group, Congresso Conservador Brasileiro (Brazilian Conservative Congress, CCB-USA), posted a video on Instagram of the 2022 occupation of the presidential palace in Sri-Lanka with the subtitle “This will happen in Brasilia soon…the patriot mass??????.”
A version of this story was published by palabra.by NAHJ.
Messages like this, small U.S.-based protests, Brazilian-led conservative conferences and a GoFundMe campaign raising money to support demonstrators in Brazil are among the actions of an ultra-right movement of Brazilian immigrants in the U.S. that has emerged in recent years.
On the GoFundMe Page, Fátima Heath, part of the leadership of CCB-USA, claims that President Lula da Silva was kidnapping and torturing January 8 protesters in a “concentration camp” and called the situation an “urgent humanitarian crisis.”
The protesters, who were camping in the capital, were arrested for allegedly destroying public property and taken to Brazilian Federal Police Headquarters until they could be processed. After three days, more than 1,000 were arrested, according to Brazilian media. Brazilian government officials responded to the accusations of mistreatment saying the protesters were given access to clean bathrooms, chairs, food, water and medical care.
Through WhatsApp groups, so-called “alternative news” channels, protests and social media, members of groups like CCB-USA advocate for and promote conservative principles, defending Bolsonaro and his values: God, homeland, family and freedom. According to Brazilian media reports, Bolsonaro’s motto championing these values was inspired by a slogan associated with Brazilian fascism in the 1930s. While CCB-USA’s members support Bolsonaro’s ideals, they say they don’t condone the violence perpetrated on January 8.
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The number of Brazilians who identify with this far-right movement in the U.S. and the extent to which its supporters were involved in the January 8 attacks is unclear. Together, CCB-USA and Yes Brazil USA, a South Florida group, have more than 40,000 followers on Instagram.
Bolsonaro and his hard-right policies have broad support among Brazilians living in the U.S. though not everyone who backs the former president defends the January 8 events or supports the spread of misinformation. Historically, Brazilians living abroad have voted for centrist candidates in Brazilian presidential elections according to Instituto Diáspora, a research organization that analyzes the behavior of Brazilians living outside of Brazil. But in the last two national elections Bolsonaro won the votes of the majority of U.S.-based Brazilians who went to the polls.
When it comes to U.S. politics, the number of Brazilian Americans elected to public office has increased in recent years, the majority of them Democrats. But according to local government officials and Massachusetts activists, Brazilians in the U.S. are, overall, not engaged in Brazilian or U.S. politics, although that is starting to change.
Many Brazilians in the U.S. are undocumented, and don’t speak English, which community leaders say likely makes them fearful of engaging in social or civic life outside of their immigrant circles. Migration Policy Institute and the Department of Homeland Security estimate there were between 178,000 and 200,000 undocumented Brazilians in the U.S. between 2018 and 2019.
When asked for their political views it is not uncommon for Brazilian immigrants to say that they are overloaded with work and don’t have time for politics.
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CCB-USA, is based in Framingham, Massachusetts, which has one of the largest Brazilian communities in the U.S. Heath said that last year, CCB-USA sent money to support some of the nonviolent demonstrations throughout Brazil protesting the Brazilian election results, though she denied to say how much.
“We have asked for donations of the WhatsApp groups…(…) We sent it to the camps in Bahia, which needed portable bathrooms, we sent it to Santa Catarina when there was hail and many tents broke, and then it got cold, so they needed to buy blankets,” she said.
“To Brasilia we sent more because they had more needs, including for the first aid tent. We took donations to send money to buy medicine, water and such. But there was a moment when we noticed people were tired of donating, so we came up with this idea of creating the GoFundMe to reach other communities, not just Brazilians, but also Americans and Canadians,” Heath said.
Heath said she doesn’t have an estimate of the total number of CCB-USA members, but claims there are groups in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Washington, who all stay in touch.
Gaining Ground, Gaining Representation
As of 2021, Brazilians made up between 0.7% and 1.3% of all U.S. immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute and US Census estimates. While relatively small compared to groups from other countries, the Brazilian immigrant population in the U.S. grew by about 48% between 2010 and 2019, according to the institute. At the same time, Brazilian American representation in U.S. politics has increased in the past seven years at the local, state and federal levels.
In 2016, Carlos A.F. da Silva was elected to the Higham, Massachusetts school committee. According to a Brazilian American newspaper, da Silva was the first Brazilian immigrant elected to public office in the U.S.
A year later, Margareth Shepard was elected to city council in Framingham, Massachusetts, and was celebrated by Brazilian media as the first Brazilian American to hold that post.
Then, in 2018, Alice Mann was elected state representative in Minnesota.
All in all, Feet in 2 Worlds found records of 12 Brazilian Americans elected to office in recent years.
There are currently five Brazilian Americans serving as state representatives: Priscila Sousa, Rita Mendes and Danillo Sena in Massachusetts, Farley Santos in Connecticut and Alice Mann in Minnesota.
Perhaps the most prominent Brazilian American in politics today is Republican Representative George Santos, son of Brazilian immigrants who was elected to Congress from New York last year. Santos has been charged with fraud in a 13-count U.S. federal indictment and recently confessed to stealing checks in a deal with Brazilian authorities to drop criminal charges. He remains under intense scrutiny after he allegedly fabricated numerous aspects of his personal and professional history, and is currently under investigation by an U.S. House of Representatives Ethics Committee.
From the Center to the Right
To Alvaro de Castro e Lima, founder and president of Instituto Diáspora, support for Bolsonaro among Brazilians in the U.S. is connected to the lack of a single candidate that centrist voters could support in elections caused by the fading influence of a center-left Brazilian party, PSDB (the Brazilian Social Democratic Party). When given a choice between the right and Lula da Silva from the PT (Workers Party) on the left, Lima said, voters living abroad who traditionally have supported moderate PSDB candidates, chose the right.
In 2018, Bolsonaro ran against Fernando Haddad, a left-leaning candidate. Among Brazilians living in the U.S., 82% voted for Bolsonaro, according to the institute’s data.
In the 2022 election, Bolsonaro lost some of his support in the U.S., receiving 65% of the votes, while Lula da Silva, the current president, received 35% according to the institute’s data. Lula da Silva narrowly won the election with about 51% of the total vote [in Brazil and abroad], compared to about 49% for Bolsonaro.
To Carlos Borges, CEO of the Focus Brazil Foundation, a U.S.-based cultural organization, Bolsonaro intensified political polarization in Brazil, and, consequently, in the Brazilian community in the U.S., giving ground to radical groups on the fringes.
“[Bolsonaro] gave, here in the U.S., the freedom for the community to present themselves as conservative, bringing up topics which, until then, weren’t [publicly] discussed,” Borges said. “Until then, nobody was beating their chest, proudly identifying as a patriot, and associating patriotism with all the radical ideas that have always been symbols of Bolsonarism.”
Where Brazilians and American Conservatives Meet
Many of the values and positions endorsed by Brazilian conservative groups in the U.S. are similar to those of the American right. They oppose abortion and gender-and-sexuality education in schools, defend citizens’ right to carry guns, question the integrity of their electoral systems, and attack mainstream media as dishonest.
In June of 2022, CCB-USA and Yes Brazil USA separately organized two Brazilian conservative conferences in the U.S.: The Brazilian Conservative Congress in Framingham, Massachusetts, and the 1º Congresso Conservador Brasileiro da Flórida (First Brazilian Conservative Congress of Florida) in Orlando and Margate.
On their Facebook page, CCB-USA said the conference included talks about “agribusiness in Brazil and how it is demonized by the left”, “the truth as a weapon in the narratives war” and “the impact of legislative uncertainty on the business sector” .
Yes Brazil USA leaders said on Facebook their conference would allow participants to know how they can help Brazil while living in the U.S., and on an Eventbrite description, they said the purpose of the conference was to “align ideas and promote networking among people who want what is best for [Brazil].”
Heath said that for the next CCB-USA conference the group aims to reach not only Brazilians living in the U.S. but also other U.S. conservatives. She said she and another group leader were invited last year to attend CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, TX. CPAC bills itself as “the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world.” Heath said attending CPAC helped her understand the similarities between the Brazilian and American right.
“[CPAC] allowed me to imagine ‘if we’re defending the Brazilian right-wing conservative movement, why not join forces and also defend the American right-wing conservative movement’?,” she said. “The same injustice that the conservative movement suffers in Brazil, the Republicans suffer here. They are called ‘racist,’ ‘homophobic,’ ‘xenophobic.'”
In 2023, Heath attended CPAC again, posting photos and videos with American and Brazilian conservative figures, such as Doctor Robert Malone, a man who claims to be the inventor of the mRNA and DNA vaccines and questions their current safety. The conference was held from March 1 to March 4 in Washington, DC.
Heath said CCB-USA is supporting Republican Shirley Maia-Cusick, a Brazilian American running for U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 2024.
Maia-Cusick is active in American conservative politics and supported Bolsonaro during his reelection campaign. Last October, she attended a CCB-USA Bolsonarist rally in Framingham, according to the Brazilian American newspaper Brazilian Times.
Yes Brazil USA is also actively engaged with aspiring figures in right-wing U.S. politics. Bruno Portigliatti, a Brazilian American candidate for Florida State Representative from Orange County, spoke at their Florida conference.
During last year’s midterm election campaign, Yes Brazil USA asked its Facebook followers to support Republican candidates Joe Budd, who ran for a U.S. House seat representing Florida, and William “Bill” Reicherter, who ran for Florida State Senate. Both candidates lost in the general election.
Overcoming Barriers and Distractions to Political Engagement
In contrast to those running for office or mobilizing within Brazilian conservative groups, it can be challenging to get Brazilians in the U.S. involved in politics and civic life.
“It’s a big commitment of time and people don’t see that as a priority in their life,” said Framingham Mayor Charlie Sisitsky.
The city has hired Portuguese-speakers for its staff and reached out to local Brazilian religious leaders in an effort to strengthen ties to the community, Sisitsky said. Framingham has also made an effort to continue to host voting sites for Brazilian presidential elections so local residents would be “comfortable occupying” a political space to allow “an easier transition” into government work, said Priscila Sousa, a Massachusetts State Representative elected in 2022. Voting locations vary over the years, but most recently, the city has been a voting site for Brazil’s presidential elections in 2022, 2018, 2014 and 2010.
Sousa immigrated to the U.S. when she was 7 years old. She said the local Brazilian community is “maturing” and hopes that will also be reflected in the local Framingham city government.
Brazilians began to immigrate to the U.S. in larger numbers in the 1980s, according to the Migration Policy Institute. According to Heloisa Maria Galvão, co-founder and Executive Director of the Brazilian Women’s Group, an NGO based in Boston, Massachusetts, many of the people who came in that first wave managed to establish a life and obtain U.S. citizenship. They now have the opportunity to engage in U.S. politics, as voters, candidates and elected officials.
“If you think [people] came [40 years ago] without documentation, without knowing English, as kids, and made it, [the journey] was really fast,” Galvão said. “I think we need to celebrate that.”
To Instituto Diáspora’s Lima, the rise of political polarization between Brazilians who support the left and those who support the right has created divisions in the immigrant community. Instead of working together to address common issues such as increasing access to education and expanding immigrants rights, they end up focusing on their home country’s political disputes.
“The Brazilian political division in the U.S. is extremely hurtful for the immigrant population because [people] fight the Brazilian fight and forget immigrants have their own agenda [in the U.S.],” Lima said.
With the end of the Brazilian presidential election season, his group is now working to get the focus back on the local immigrant community, and extending the right to vote to lawful permanent residents in local elections.
“What we are trying to build now is an agenda that doesn’t depend on people’s political views in relation to Brazil,” he said.
Immigrants in a Divided Country is a multimedia online magazine series by Feet in 2 Worlds that explores the current political landscape from the perspective of immigrants. You can find links to additional stories in the series here.
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