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Bikers Rally In Southern Brazil In Support Of President Bolsonaro

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBIKES REVVING)

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This is the scene this weekend in the southern city of Florianopolis in Brazil, many thousands of motorbikes streaming through town, led by the country's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. What were they all doing there? NPR's Philip Reeves is there and joins us now to tell us more. Hello.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Phil, that sounds like a lot of bikers. Just how big was this event?

REEVES: Yes, it was a lot. People started gathering before dawn. There were men and women, young and old. And when Bolsonaro showed up, he jumped onto a motorbike - a Honda that was parked there waiting for him, and set off, leading a sea of motorized flag-waving supporters into town, where he addressed a rally. I stood and watched the procession. And it took 40 minutes from beginning to end to go by. Police say there were around 24,000 bikes. So it was quite a spectacle. Bolsonaro started doing these motociatas, as they're called here, in May. This was his seventh in - and this morning, he's doing another one in the capital, Brasilia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why is he doing this?

REEVES: Well, there's an election next year. He's down in the polls. Brazil's Senate is holding a televised inquiry into the government's disastrous pandemic response. He's taking a hammering at that. Remember, COVID here's claimed more than 560,000 lives. He's a populist, like Donald Trump, who he reveres. And he seems to need to have this kind of personal contact with his base. And there's another issue in play. Bolsonaro is rallying grassroots support right now for a big fight that he's having with the judiciary over Brazil's voting system. Bolsonaro says, without providing any conclusive evidence, that the system's vulnerable to fraud. He's actually threatened to cancel next year's elections unless it's changed. Now, that could be posturing, but people are taking it seriously. This week, hundreds of prominent Brazilians, including leaders from banking and industry, came out with an open letter warning Bolsonaro against what they described as authoritarian adventures and saying Brazil's elections must be respected.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that all sounds very familiar, I'm afraid. How are his opponents there reacting to all of this?

REEVES: Well, in the last three months, people, especially from the left, have also been taking to the streets. There have been some very large anti-Bolsonaro protests, particularly in Rio and Sao Paulo, with tens of thousands on the street on occasions. These have been about a range of issues but particularly about the catastrophe that is the pandemic and delays getting vaccines. His chief opponent in the forthcoming elections is former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva - Lula, as everyone calls him. Now, he's well ahead in the polls. And - but yesterday, Lula called Bolsonaro's campaign to change the voting system madness and says it's a sign that Bolsonaro is scared that he'll lose the election and get arrested. As for the motorcycle parades, he is getting criticized for those, too. People are asking questions about the cost because they require helicopters, personal security and policing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Florianopolis, Brazil. Phil, thank you very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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