The social democratic, left-wing government of Brazil was removed in a coup.
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Though that striking statement could be ripped from the headlines of newspapers today, it also describes the headlines of half a century ago, in April of 1964.
The Brazilian coup gets forgotten in the crowd of Latin American coups. In discussions of Latin American interventions, it often gets lost in the press of the 1954 Guatemalan coup against Jacobo Árbenz or the 1973 Chilean coup against Salvador Allende. But the Brazilian coup that was sandwiched between them was significant and merits more attention.
In Who Rules the World, Noam Chomsky explains that in 1962, President John F. Kennedy made the policy decision to transform the militaries of Latin America from defending against external forces to “internal security” or, as Chomsky puts it, “war against the domestic population, if they raised their heads.” The Brazilian coup is significant because it may have been the first major manifestation of this shift in the US’s Latin American policy. The Kennedy administration prepared the coup, and it was carried out shortly after Kennedy’s assassination. Chomsky says that the “mildly social democratic” government of João Goulart was taken out for a “murderous and brutal” military dictatorship.
The evidence that the US cooperated in the coup that removed Goulart from power is solid. The field report of the CIA station in Brazil shows clear US foreknowledge of the coup: “A revolution by anti-Goulart forces will definitely get under way this week, probably in the next few days.” President Lyndon B. Johnson gave Under Secretary of State George Ball and Assistant Secretary for Latin America Thomas Mann the green light to participate in the coup: “I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do.”
And the steps were substantial. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon told CIA Director John McCone, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk that those steps should include “a clandestine delivery of arms … pre-positioned prior any outbreak of violence” to the coup forces, as well as shipments of gas and oil. Gordon also told them to “prepare without delay against the contingency of needed overt intervention at a second stage” after the covert involvement. Rusk would then send Gordon a list of the steps that would be taken “in order [to] be in a position to render assistance at appropriate time to anti-Goulart forces if it is decided this should be done.” The list, sent in a telegram on March 31, 1964, included dispatching US Navy tankers with petroleum and oil, an aircraft carrier, two guided missile destroyers, four destroyers and task force tankers for “overt exercises off Brazil.” The telegram also lists as a step to “assemble shipment of about 11 tons of ammunition.”
This little-known historical record is interesting for its demonstration that the last time Brazil had a “mildly social democratic” government, the U.S. cooperated in its removal. The next social democratic government would be the now removed Workers’ Party government of Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.
How do we know that the maneuverings that removed Dilma Rousseff from power were a coup dressed in the disguise of parliamentary democracy? Because the coup leaders have told us so. Twice now.
A published transcript of a 75-minute phone call between Romero Jucá, who was a senator at the time of the call and soon to be the planning minister in the new Michel Temer government, and former oil executive Sergio Machado lays bare “a national pact” to remove Dilma and install Temer as president. Jucá reveals that, not only opposition politicians, but also the military and the Supreme Court are conspirators in the coup. Regarding the military’s role, Jucá says, “I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it.” And, as for the Supreme Court, Glenn Greenwald reports that Jucá admits that he “spoke with and secured the involvement of numerous justices on Brazil’s Supreme Court.” Jucá further boasted that “there are only a small number” of Supreme Court justices that he had not spoken to.
According to Greenwald, the Brazilian newspaper that first published the transcript, Folha de São Paulo, says that Jucá makes it very clear in the phone call that he believed the coup would “end the pressure from the media and other sectors to continue the Car Wash investigation,” the corruption investigations that were closing in on many members of the government, including many of the coup participants, leaders and the coup president, Michel Temer, himself.
According to Jucá, the head of Michel Temer’s party then, one of the intended purposes of the coup was to protect the coup leaders from the corruption investigation that was closing in on them.
According to Temer, the coup had a second purpose. In a post-coup speech in front of members of multinational corporations and the US policy establishment in New York on September 22, 2016, Temer brazenly boasted of his successful coup. Temer clearly told his American audience that elected President Dilma Rousseff was not removed from power for “violating fiscal laws by using loans from public banks to cover budget shortfalls, which artificially enhanced the budget surplus,” as the official charge stated. She was — the new, unelected president admitted — removed because of her refusal to implement a right-wing economic plan that was inconsistent with the economic platform on which Brazilians elected her. Temer’s economic plan featured cuts to health, education and welfare spending, as well as increased emphasis on privatization and deregulation.
Rousseff was not on board. So she was thrown overboard. In the words of Temer’s confession:
And many months ago, while I was still vice president, we released a document named ‘A Bridge to the Future’ because we knew it would be impossible for the government to continue on that course. We suggested that the government should adopt the theses presented in that document called ‘A Bridge to the Future.’ But, as that did not work out, the plan wasn’t adopted and a process was established which culminated with me being installed as president of the republic.
The second purpose, then, was the implementation of an unpopular right-wing economic plan.
So what’s happening now in Brazil? What did Jucá and Temer say would be happening in Brazil? They are protecting themselves from prosecution for corruption and making real a radically right-wing economic plan.
The attempt to insulate themselves from the prosecution that was sure to come if Dilma remained president began quickly with the Brazilian Congress’ attempt to pass a law that would retroactively protect members of the Congress from corrupt election financing. Temer and others have been implicated in the “caixa dois,” or second box scandal in which they accepted undeclared contributions as bribes. Temer himself interestingly declared that he would not veto the amnesty law.
The plan to protect themselves continued to unfold when, a few months later, the lower house of Brazil’s congress passed a law that would allow members of congress accused of corruption to accuse the prosecutors and judges of abusing their authority. This law, then, would allow politicians accused of corruption to pursue the prosecutors who were pursuing them. After protests on the streets of Brazil and legal challenges to annul the vote, the proposal is back at square one in the house. The progress of the bill will be decided after the ministers return from recess this month. The president of the senate has expressed the desire to continue with the proposal. Though the outcome is unknown, the introduction and the continued pursuit of the law clearly expose the coup government’s intent.
So, that’s part one of the coup plan unfolding according to plan. And part two is also predictably unfolding as Temer announced in New York. In his short time in office, Temer has ushered in a host of privatization and austerity measures. But the feature presentation was still to come.
In October 2016, the Chamber of Deputies approved the draft of a constitutional amendment that would limit annual increases in government spending to the inflation rate of the previous year for the next 20 years. What they passed was not just a draft of a law, but of an amendment locked into place for the next two decades by the constitution. The amendment would effectively freeze spending on social and welfare services, including health and education, just as Temer promised in New York, despite the government’s assurances that it will not affect health and education.
In December 2016, Brazil’s Senate passed the draft into law. Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said, “This … radical measure … will place Brazil in a socially retrogressive category all of its own.” He went on to say that the “amendment would lock in inadequate and rapidly dwindling expenditure on health care, education and social security, thus putting an entire generation at risk of social protection standards well below those currently in place.” The UN special rapporteur condemned the amendment as “clearly violat[ing] Brazil’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which it ratified in 1992, not to take ‘deliberately retrogressive measures’ unless there are no alternative options and full consideration has been given to ensure that the measures are necessary and proportionate.”
So, events in Brazil are unfolding exactly according to the expressed plans of the coup leaders. The removal of Dilma Rousseff was a coup, and the coup was executed to protect the coup leaders from corruption charges and to allow them to return Brazil to the regressive right-wing road it was on prior to the more socially progressive left-wing governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff that the oligarchs and corporations so opposed.
Unlike the 1964 coup, the degree to which the US was complicit is not yet known. Though, according to Latin American expert Mark Weisbrot, “there is no doubt that the biggest players in this coup attempt — people like former presidential candidates José Serra and Aécio Neves — are US government allies.”
But the US is at least tacitly complicit, because the day after the impeachment vote, Sen. Aloysio Nunes of the new coup government began a three-day visit to Washington. Nunes is no small player in the coup government; he was the vice-presidential candidate on the 2014 ticket that lost to President Rousseff and a key player in the effort to impeach Rousseff in the Senate. Nunes scheduled meetings with, amongst others, then-chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, as well as with Undersecretary of State and former Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon.
The willingness to go ahead with the planned meetings with Nunes right after the coup suggests at least tacit acceptance or approval on the part of the Obama administration. And now, despite President Trump’s assurances that his government would not follow the interventionist path of Presidents Clinton and Obama, Trump has already offered Brazil the same tacit approval and support. In December 2016, Temer and Trump agreed on a phone call “to improve business relations.” According to Temer’s office, the two presidents “agreed to launch, immediately after the swearing in of the new American president, an agenda for Brazil-US growth.”
So, what’s happening in Brazil today? Just what the coup leaders said would be happening in Brazil today.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.