The “Soldier of the Homeland” and “the Patriot” loitered outside the jungle infantry brigade in this distant Amazon city, beseeching the troops inside to launch a military coup.
“SOS armed forces! Save our nation!” said the Soldier, a brawny marine corps reservist who gave his nom de guerre for fear of being jailed.
“We want the armed forces to establish law and order,” agreed the Patriot, a 30-year-old cosmetics saleswoman with similar anxieties about being identified.
The pair have been camped outside the base in Boa Vista since November 1, the day after their radical rightwing leader, Jair Bolsonaro, saw his hopes of a second presidential term dashed in Brazil’s election.
Nearly two months later, with the leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva poised to take power, the pair are among thousands of citizens who continue to protest outside military installations across the country, demanding a coup that never came.
“If need be, we’ll stay here for 120 days – or a year. But we will not surrender our homeland,” insisted the Soldier, a 34-year-old former gold miner and marine. “We will not accept this guy as our president,” he said of Lula. “We will never accept this.”
With just days until Lula’s inauguration, they would appear to have little choice.
On the afternoon of 1 January, the leftist icon, who governed from 2003 to 2010, is due to be formally returned to the presidency at the age of 77. Vans have begun removing Bolsonaro’s belongings from the presidential residence after an anarchic four-year reign during which there were nearly 700,000 Covid deaths and a surge in Amazon destruction.
Many progressives have poked fun at the Bolsonarista demos outside military barracks and regional commands, amid some bewildering displays of devotion to Brazil’s outgoing president.
At one rally in south Brazil, pro-Bolsonaro militants were filmed singing Brazil’s national anthem to a tire. Elsewhere, they have been filmed prostrating themselves in prayer or screaming wildly outside special operations bases and engineering units, in the hope of sparking an uprising.
Footage of weird marching sessions has also been ridiculed on social media.
But some experts caution against sneering at the protests, which, while small, suggest the radical grassroots movement energized by Bolsonaro’s presidency is likely to outlive his rule.
“It’s cadre formation,” the Duke University Latin America expert John D French said of the pro-Bolsonaro vigils. “They are building a movement.”
Consuelo Dieguez, a journalist who has written a book about Brazil’s burgeoning right, said she had initially been one of those giggling at the eccentric demonstrations of allegiance to Bolsonaro from predominantly elderly supporters.
“At first I thought it was all rather funny. [I wondered] where have all these lunatics come from?”
But as the weeks went by, and the protesters dug in, Dieguez’s amusement turned to distress. “I still think these people are bonkers but I no longer think it’s funny,” she said.
Dieguez’s angst stemmed not from the scale of the mobilizations, which involved only a sliver of the 58 million voters who backed Bolsonaro’s failed campaign against Lula. “If all of Bolsonaro’s voters had hit the streets, goodness knows what might have happened to this country… there’d have been a rebellion,” she said.
Nor did she see any risk of the military actually staging a pro-Bolsonaro coup d’état. “Bolsonaro’s finished. Everyone’s abandoning him,” she said.
What disturbed Dieguez was the level of extremism on show at the rallies.
“It’s almost an aberration that you have people in society thinking and acting in such a way. It’s shocking. How did society produce this? How can people be so dissatisfied they feel inclined to stand outside an army barracks asking for military dictatorship? What’s going on? … What happened to our society to produce such radicalized people?” she asked.
The risks of such radicalization exploded into view this month when hardcore Bolsonaristas rampaged through the capital, Brasília, burning buses and cars, in what some saw as an attempt to spark a 6 January-style insurrection. Security has been stepped up to shield Lula and his supporters from similar violence at his swearing-in ceremony.
But the Soldier and the Patriot saw nothing radical or anti-democratic about their actions, and denied being “vandals” or “crooks”.
“We’re family people … we all feel aggrieved and this is our cry for help so the armed forces come and intervene,” said the Soldier, urging a military junta to seize power to purge Brazilian politics of leftist kleptomaniacs.
As the sun beat down on their roadside protest camp, they regurgitated a stream of falsehoods and insinuations about how Bolsonaro was robbed of re-election by fraud-riddled voting machines and tyrannical supreme court judges.
“Bolsonaro was the real winner,” the Patriot declared.
“We want either a new election or for President Bolsonaro to take charge,” said the Soldier, hailing a “historic” patriotic movement he claimed had attracted 10,000 locals to the gates of the jungle infantry brigade where he stood.
On the afternoon the Guardian visited only about a dozen remained, sat on plastic garden chairs and in hammocks and surrounded by banners reading: “Brazil Was Stolen”, “Civil Resistance” and “We fervently want peace”.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Dieguez. “But it’s worryingly ridiculous.”