KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — As Brazil reels from mobs of rebels swarming its seats of power, its former leader has decamped to a Florida resort, where throngs of supporters flocked to cheer on their ousted president.
Devotees have traveled in recent days to the temporary home of Jair Bolsonaro, a fenced-off area with towering waterslides, for a chance to see him. He signed autographs, hugged children and took selfies with adoring crowds, some sporting “Make Brazil Great Again” shirts.
“I will always support him,” said 31-year-old Rafael Silva, who left Brazil eight years ago and now installs flooring in central Florida, standing outside Bolsonaro’s rental home on Monday. “He was the best for the country.”
In the early afternoon, a handful of supporters in yellow shirts disappeared when the rumor spread that Bolsonaro was hospitalized with stomach pains. His condition was not clear, but a photo was published by Brazilian newspaper O Globo showed him smiling from his hospital bed. He has been hospitalized several times since surviving the stabbing in 2018. A hospital spokesperson did not immediately respond to a phone call and text message.
Before Sunday’s angry storming of Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court and presidential palace, Bolsonaro had been seen repeatedly in this central Florida community, wandering the aisles of a Publix supermarket, eating alone at a local KFC and, most of all, surrounded by clusters of adoring fans.
Although the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office said it received a request from the Secret Service to provide a police escort for Bolsonaro when he arrived and he was still a sitting president, he has not been surrounded by a noticeable security phalanx.
“He will feel right at home in Florida’s right-wing ecosystem of grifting and podcasting, finding allies with whoever thinks they can use him to advance their far-right agenda,” said Andy Reiter, a professor of politics and international relations at Mount Holyoke College who has researched foreign strongmen.
His new home, the Encore Resort at Reunion in suburban Orlando, consists of furnished rentals with foosball tables, screening rooms, Disney decor on the walls and Mickey Mouse stuffed animals on the beds.
If that all seems too strange, the sight of the former leader of one of the world’s largest countries wandering in a fenced area a stone’s throw from Walt Disney World in shorts, consider the history.
A stream of regional leaders have called the state home, at least for a time, over the past half century, from Haiti’s Prosper Avril to Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza to Panama’s Manuel Noriega. Alongside a roster of other Latin American notables, they have set up camp in both modest homes and elaborate mansions and, in the case of Noriega, a prison cell in Miami, where he served 17 years on drug charges.
A flood of Brazilians have been lured to the region over the past two decades, and in turn have transformed Central Florida with a host of Brazilian shops and restaurants.
Florida has the largest population of Brazilian-born residents — nearly 130,000 people — of any U.S. state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Many more are coming as visitors, with 830,000 Brazilians traveling to Central Florida in 2019, the third largest international market for the area.
Although Lula da Silva won Brazil’s election by more than 2 million votes, Brazilian voters living in Florida appear to have strongly favored Bolsonaro. Election data for Brazilians living abroad shows 56 polling places listed under Miami, the only Florida city under which data is collected.
In each of the 56 precincts, Bolsonaro won, some by margins of 6-to-1. In all, more than 16,000 votes were counted among Brazilians under the Miami umbrella, with 81 percent favoring Bolsonaro.
“He’s very popular among the Brazilian emigres in central Florida,” said Joel Stewart, former honorary consul for Brazil in Orlando. Brazil opened a consulate office in Orlando last year.
Bolsonaro has long been called “South America’s Trump”, so it can come as no surprise that he ended up just a few hours’ drive from the former US president’s Palm Beach compound. Both rode to power fueled by right-wing, anti-establishment anger, pursued nationalist platforms while in office, then spread lies about voter fraud in their own defeats. Supporters of both men stormed government seats in anger after their preferred candidate lost.
Rodrigo Constantino, a right-wing Brazilian commentator who lives in Florida, says he sees parallels between Bolsonaro’s support in the state and the re-election triumph of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. Both, he said, constituted rejections of “the totalitarian, vigilante, economic egalitarianism and sensationalist demagoguery of the radical left.”
Whatever anger may exist against Bolsonaro in Brazil, Constantino says Brazilians living in Florida will understand and accept him.
“If he wants to come to my house and eat barbecue and talk about football or talk bad about communism, he will be very well received,” Constantino said.
Sedensky reported from New York. Associated Press reporter David Biller in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.
Follow the authors on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP and @Sedensky.