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Brazil's President Mobilizes His Base. And Like Him, They're Bikers

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Supporters of Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, will hold mass demonstrations next week on the country's Independence Day. Bolsonaro plans to participate. The far-right president is in conflict with Brazil's courts and Congress right now. His opponents fear these demonstrations could trigger violence against these institutions. NPR's Philip Reeves reports Bolsonaro has been mobilizing his base.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're on a wide road close to the shores of the South Atlantic. Down the street lies one of Brazil's most popular seaside resorts, the city of Florianopolis. It's an overcast winter morning in the middle of a pandemic. This area should be quiet right now - not today.

There are thousands of people here. Some of them have been here since before dawn. They have flags planted on the front of their bikes. We have bikes in every shape and size here, some real monsters.

These monsters belong to some of Jair Bolsonaro's most passionate supporters. They've come here to ride with the president. Paulo Roberto Carvalho and his wife set out on their Suzuki at 2:30 in the morning to join this rally. He's a mechanic.

PAULO ROBERTO CARVALHO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "This is very important for our country," says Carvalho. "A golden opportunity to show our support for Bolsonaro." His wife, Elielda, says this is about defending Brazil's liberty from being destroyed by corrupt leftists.

ELIELDA CARVALHO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "We'll fight for that to the end," she says.

Bolsonaro arrives on the back of a truck. He's wearing a black leather Harley-Davidson jacket. It has a picture of an angel on the back. Waiting for Bolsonaro, parked in front of the multitude, there's a sparkling blue Honda 750. His security men hoist him on top of the bike.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

REEVES: Bolsonaro stands on it and waves. He puts on a white helmet with the word president written on it, fires up his Honda, and he's off. A river of bikes, large and small, follows in his wake and snakes into town, headlights blazing. The cavalcade takes 40 minutes to pass because there are 24,000 bikes, the police later say. In the last four months, Bolsonaro has led 10 motorbike rallies through cities around Brazil.

PEDRO DORIA: It's something new in Brazil. We've never seen something like that.

REEVES: Political columnist Pedro Doria is author of a book about fascism.

DORIA: It's a lot about showing off his masculinity. I'm a man. I'm strong. You know who did this? Benito Mussolini in Italy in the '20s.

REEVES: Most of Brazil's 28 million motorcycles are small commuter bikes. Honda has the lion's share of the market, yet plenty of Brazilians relish the big beasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS BLARING)

REEVES: The Harley-Davidson showroom in Rio de Janeiro, where they're celebrating a sale. The first factory Harley opened outside the U.S. is in the Amazon rainforest in the Brazilian city of Manaus. And its most popular bike?

CARLOS ROOSVELT: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "The Fat Boy," says after-sales manager Carlos Roosvelt. "It's one of the stars of Brazil's motorbike culture."

ROOSVELT: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "A culture that's all about brotherhood," says Roosvelt, "Rock and roll, of course, and some classic American films."

ROOSVELT: "Easy Rider," "Easy Rider." Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO BE WILD")

REEVES: "Easy Rider," Peter Fonda's 1969 counterculture movie about a disastrous road trip across what was then, as now, a polarized America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO BE WILD")

STEPPENWOLF: (Singing) Born to be wild.

MARCILIO SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: On the polarized streets of Rio, Marcilio Santos is showing me around his Harley. It's a black Electra Glide 1200, on which you can lean back as if you're in an armchair that can travel at 130 miles an hour. Santos is an evangelical pastor and, at 63, a P.E. instructor. He's also head of one of Brazil's thousands of motorcycle clubs, a Christian group called The Lion of Judah.

SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He shows me a sticker on his helmet, given to him for riding in a Bolsonaro rally. Talk to Pastor Santos for a while, and it's clear he sees himself as a freedom-loving patriot, defending Brazilians against multiple threats - communism, the mainstream media, left-wing judges. Santos says he loves Bolsonaro's rallies because they bring together people who share these views.

SANTOS: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Society is watching this," he says. "Bolsonaro is enlisting a gigantic army of like-minded people." That army has cheered as Bolsonaro has threatened and picked fights with the judiciary and Congress and alleged voter fraud without evidence. Bolsonaro has also threatened to cancel next year's elections unless Brazil's vote-counting system is changed. That's a big theme at his biker rallies, to the alarm of this man.

JASON RUIZ: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Jason Ruiz is a locksmith and owner of a battered old Yamaha 250. He's also the founder of Metal Reds, a leftist biker group in the seaside town of Rio das Ostras. He's appalled by Bolsonaro's efforts to exploit Brazil's biker culture because it's a counterculture.

RUIZ: (Through interpreter) The history of motorcycling is about rebellion, of being against the system.

REEVES: "It's about listening to music like this," says Ruiz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VINGADOR: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Brazil's antifascist band, Vingador. As for the idea that Bolsonaro's bikers are defending liberty...

RUIZ: (Through interpreter) What do they mean by liberty? They're defending Bolsonaro, who wants to shut down Congress and the Supreme Court and supports military dictatorship.

REEVES: That question does not bother the bikers streaming through the streets of Florianopolis. This month, Bolsonaro is planning more big rallies. The president will be hopping onto his Honda again, leading hordes of bikers who will follow him anywhere.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Florianopolis, Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEPSTREAM'S "BLUE (ASCENSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.