Jair Bolsonaro Finds a Refuge in Orlando, Near the ‘Most Magical Place on Earth’

Bolsonaro’s Florida escape is a two-story house owned by a supporter, Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter Jose Aldo

Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump in 2019.
By Michael Smith and Felipe Marques
January 10, 2023 | 06:11 PM

Bloomberg — The faithful once again gathered early Tuesday outside the 3,600 square-foot house with the Disney-themed bedrooms near Orlando, where former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro had sought refuge from a re-election defeat.

They came to wish their leader — who remains in a local hospital — a quick recovery from a stomach ailment that struck him Monday. They’ve come daily since his arrival in Florida, even after Sunday, when thousands of his supporters rioted in Brasilia, ransacking the presidential palace, congress and Supreme Court buildings.

“I was on vacation in Orlando and thought it was important to be here, supporting Bolsonaro,” said Hebert da Rocha, 64, a Brazilian who’s lived in the Miami area for 28 years. He showed off a selfie he took with the former president in front of the house. “This is my therapy,” he said. “It’s my way of doing something for my country.”

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It’s a scene that’s played out over and over since the former army capitan decamped to the vacation home in a gated community favored by Brazilians that’s close to Disney World, the theme park called the “Most Magical Place on Earth.” He arrived Dec. 30, skipping the transition of power to his successor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on New Year’s Day.

Bolsonaro’s Florida escape is a two-story house owned by a supporter, Brazilian mixed martial arts fighter Jose Aldo. The sprawling home has nine bedrooms, including a child’s decorated with giant Minions, the yellow pill-shaped characters from the popular animated movies. (It’s also a derogatory nickname for Bolsonaro supporters.) Another is dedicated to Mickey and Minnie and a third to Moana, a realtor’s video tour shows. There’s also a home theater filled with stuffed Disney characters, a giant game room, and the requisite pool out back.

That the former president would choose Orlando as his refuge isn’t surprising. At least 30,000 Brazilians have made the area home, according to city estimates, and hundreds of thousands come as tourists every year. Brazilian voters in Florida cast ballots for Bolsonaro by a 4-to-1 margin, in stark contrast to his narrow loss to Lula back home, according to official Brazilian election results.

“He definitely has support in Florida, so it’s no coincidence he chose Orlando,” said Eduardo Siqueira, a retired University of Massachusetts Boston professor who specializes in Brazilian immigration. Bolsonaro’s also close to former President Donald Trump, who endorsed his re-election bid from Mar a Lago, in Palm Beach.

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Social media is filled with videos from the past few days showing Bolsonaro, usually clad in a soccer jersey or Polo shirt, leaving the home to greet supporters, his two Brazilian bodyguards in tow. He was also photographed eating at a KFC and wandering around a Publix supermarket, pausing to give a thumbs-up to a supporter.

“It’s so difficult to see him in Brazil, but here you can walk to the house and talk to him,” Vanessa Viani, 45, a Brazilian who lives in Orlando, said as she waited outside the house on Tuesday. “It’s amazing.”

One of Bolsonaro’s cabinet members also decamped to Orlando. Anderson Torres, head of public security in Brasilia and former justice minister, headed there Saturday, a day before the riots broke out, newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported. The governor of Brasilia fired Torres on Sunday and a warrant was issued for his arrest Tuesday as officials investigate his responsibility for the riots. Torres said he was on vacation in Orlando and hasn’t met with Bolsonaro, Folha quoted him as saying.

Some suspect Bolsonaro may be putting down roots. Aides have visited the Orlando arm of the Brazilian evangelical Christian church, Igreja Batista Atitude, where Bolsonaro’s wife Michelle is a devoted follower. The church counts more than 400 members, almost all Brazilians. “They are interested in attending,” said Nivaldo Nassiff, an associate pastor who’s lived in the Orlando area more than a decade.

Bolsonaro is following a decades-long tradition of Brazilians flocking to the Orlando area. Before the pandemic hit in 2019, 830,000 Brazilians came annually to visit Disney and other theme parks and shop, according to Visit Orlando. They’re lured by low prices for consumer goods at the malls, food, low-crime and, of course, Mickey Mouse, said Guilherme Arruda, one of hundreds of Brazilian real estate brokers in the Orlando area.

“It’s part of the collective conscience in Brazil that you have to visit Disney once in your life, so they keep coming,” Arruda said. Bolsonaro “should have his own reasons, but the Brazilian community should be an attraction.”

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Bolsonaro on Monday told CNN Brasil that he should be released from the hospital, where he was admitted after complaining of abdominal pain, in the next few days. He said he’d planned to stay in Florida until the end of the month but could return to Brazil earlier for treatment.

--With assistance from Josue Leonel

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