Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro left his country for the United States on Friday, 48 hours before his leftist rival President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was set to take office, saying in a teary goodbye speech he had “lost a battle but not the war.”
Bolsonaro, who has barely spoken since losing the election, has not confirmed where he is going, but plane tracking data suggests he is heading to Florida, where his security staff are already in place.
He has repeatedly said he would not hand over the presidential sash to Lula at Sunday’s inauguration, breaking with Brazil’s democratic tradition.
He may also face legal risks from remaining in Brazil as his presidential immunity expires when Lula takes office.
Vice President Hamilton Mourao is now acting president, his press office told Reuters, confirming Bolsonaro had left the country. But Mourao will not pass the presidential sash to Lula either, a spokesperson said, raising questions about who will hand over the ceremonial ribbon to the leftist.
Website FlightAware, which monitors air traffic, showed the presidential plane departed Brasilia shortly after 2pm local time, bound for Orlando, Florida.
“I am in flight, back soon,” Bolsonaro was quoted as saying by CNN Brasil. His press office did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The U.S. embassy in Brasilia referred questions about Bolsonaro’s trip to the Brazilian president’s office.
Before takeoff, Bolsonaro delivered an emotional final address on social media in which he ran through the highlights of his time in office, sought to defend his legacy, and tried to inspire his followers into keeping up the fight against Lula.
Some of his base have refused to accept Lula’s victory, believing Bolsonaro’s baseless claims that the October election was stolen. That has contributed to a tense atmosphere in the capital Brasilia, with riots and a foiled bomb plot last week.
Bolsonaro labeled the bomb plot a “terrorist act” for which there was no justification. He sought to distance himself from George Washington Sousa, the man who confessed to making the bomb, and who told police that Bolsonaro’s call to arms inspired him to build an arsenal of guns and explosives.
“The man had ideas that are not shared by any citizen, but now they classify him as a ‘Bolsonarista’,” the president said.
However, Bolsonaro also praised protesters who have been camping outside army barracks across the country, urging the military to stage a coup.
“I did not encourage anyone to enter confrontation,” he said, adding that his supporters had merely been seeking “freedom.” He said the protests had been “spontaneous,” with no leadership or coordination.
Bolsonaro’s swift exit is a disappointment for many on the right, where his reputation has taken a beating for his post-election silence. His political associates want him to lead the conservative opposition to Lula with a view to ousting him in the next election in 2026.
Some of his diehard supporters at the entrance of the Alvorada Palace, the presidential residence where he lived, called him a “coward” during his speech, according to a Reuters witness.
Others felt abandoned by his departure.
“It feels as if my boyfriend has left me,” said Deise Casela, a 57-year-old widow, touching the Brazilian flag that was lowered after Bolsonaro left the residence. “I am mourning again.”
(Reporting by Ricardo Brito, Gabriel Araujo, Ueslei Marcelino and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)