A ‘Silent Coup’ for Brazil?

Brazil and other Latin American progressive governments are on the defensive as U.S.-backed political movements employ “silent coup” tactics to discredit and remove troublesome leaders, writes Ted Snider.

By Ted Snider

Brazil keeps its coups quiet (or at least quieter than many other Latin American countries). During the Cold War, there was much more attention to overt military regime changes often backed by the CIA, such as the overthrow of Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, the ouster of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973 and even Argentina’s “dirty war” coup in 1976, than to Brazil’s 1964 coup that removed President João Goulart from power.

Noam Chomsky has called Goulart’s government “mildly social democratic.” Its replacement was a brutal military dictatorship.

Brazil's ex-President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva.

Brazil’s ex-President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva.

In more modern times, Latin American coups have shed their image of overt military takeovers or covert CIA actions. Rather than tanks in the streets and grim-looking generals rounding up political opponents – today’s coups are more like the “color revolutions” used in Eastern Europe and the Mideast in which leftist, socialist or perceived anti-American governments were targeted with “soft power” tactics, such as economic dislocation, sophisticated propaganda, and political disorder often financed by “pro-democracy” non-governmental organizations (or NGOs).

This strategy began to take shape in the latter days of the Cold War as the CIA program of arming Nicaraguan Contra rebels gave way to a U.S. economic strategy of driving Sandinista-led Nicaragua into abject poverty, combined with a political strategy of spending on election-related NGOs by the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, setting the stage for the Sandinistas’ political defeat in 1990.

During the Obama administration, this strategy of non-violent “regime change” in Latin America has gained increasing favor, as with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decisive support for the 2009 ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya who had pursued a moderately progressive domestic policy that threatened the interests of the Central American nation’s traditional oligarchy and foreign investors.

Unlike the earlier military-style coups, the “silent coups” never take off their masks and reveal themselves as coups. They are coups disguised as domestic popular uprisings which are blamed on the misrule of the targeted government. Indeed, the U.S. mainstream media will go to great lengths to deny that these coups are even coups.

The new coups are cloaked in one of two disguises. In the first, a rightist minority that lost at the polls will allege “fraud” and move its message to the streets as an expression of “democracy”; in the second type, the minority cloaks its power grab behind the legal or constitutional workings of the legislature or the courts, such as was the case in ousting President Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.

Both strategies usually deploy accusations of corruption or dictatorial intent against the sitting government, charges that are trumpeted by rightist-owned news outlets and U.S.-funded NGOs that portray themselves as “promoting democracy,” seeking “good government” or defending “human rights.” Brazil today is showing signs of both strategies.

Brazil’s Boom

First, some background: In 2002, the Workers’ Party’s (PT) Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva came to power with 61.3 percent of the vote. Four years later, he was returned to power with a still overwhelming 60.83 percent. Lula da Silva’s presidency was marked by extraordinary growth in Brazil’s economy and by landmark social reforms and domestic infrastructure investments.

In 2010, at the end of Lula da Silva’s presidency, the BBC provided a typical account of his successes: “Number-crunchers say rising incomes have catapulted more than 29 million Brazilians into the middle class during the eight-year presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former trade unionist elected in 2002. Some of these people are beneficiaries of government handouts and others of a steadily improving education system. Brazilians are staying in school longer, which secures them higher wages, which drives consumption, which in turn fuels a booming domestic economy.”

However, in Brazil, a two-term president must sit out a full term before running again. So, in 2010, Dilma Rousseff ran as Lula da Silva’s chosen successor. She won a majority 56.05 percent of the vote. When, in 2014, Rousseff won re-election with 52 percent of the vote, the right-wing opposition Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) went into a panic.

This panic was not just because democracy was failing as a method for advancing right-wing goals, nor was the panic just over the fourth consecutive victory by the more left-wing PT. The panic became desperation when it became clear that, after the PT had succeeded in holding onto power while Lula da Silva was constitutionally sidelined, he was likely returning as the PT’s presidential candidate in 2018.

After all, Lula da Silva left office with an 80 percent approval rating. Democracy, it seemed, might never work for the PSDB. So, the “silent coup” playbook was opened. As the prescribed first play, the opposition refused to accept the 2014 electoral results despite never proffering a credible complaint. The second move was taking to the streets.

A well-organized and well-funded minority whose numbers were too small to prevail at the polls can still create lots of noise and disruption in the streets, manufacturing the appearance of a powerful democratic movement. Plus, these protests received sympathetic coverage from the corporate media of both Brazil and the United States.

The next step was to cite corruption and begin the process for a constitutional coup in the form of impeachment proceedings against President Rousseff. Corruption, of course, is a reliable weapon in this arsenal because there is always some corruption in government which can be exaggerated or ignored as political interests dictate.

Allegations of corruption also can be useful in dirtying up popular politicians by making them appear to be only interested in lining their pockets, a particularly effective line of attack against leaders who appear to be working to benefit the people. Meanwhile, the corruption of U.S.-favored politicians who are lining their own pockets much more egregiously is often ignored by the same media and NGOs.

Removing Leaders

In recent years, this type of “constitutional” coup was used in Honduras to get rid of democratically elected President Zelaya. He was whisked out of Honduras through a kidnapping at gunpoint that was dressed up as a constitutional obligation mandated by a court after Zelaya announced a plebiscite to determine whether Hondurans wanted to draft a new constitution.

The hostile political establishment in Honduras falsely translated his announcement into an unconstitutional intention to seek reelection, i.e., the abuse-of-power ruse. The ability to stand for a second term would be considered in the constitutional discussions, but was never announced as an intention by Zelaya.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court declared the President’s plebiscite unconstitutional and the military kidnapped Zelaya. The Supreme Court charged Zelaya with treason and declared a new president: a coup in constitutional disguise, one that was condemned by many Latin American nations but was embraced by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

This coup pattern reoccurred in Paraguay when right-wing Frederico Franco took the presidency from democratically elected, left-leaning Fernando Lugo in what has been called a parliamentary coup. As in Honduras, the coup was made to look like a constitutional transition. In the Paraguay case, the right-wing opposition opportunistically capitalized on a skirmish over disputed land that left at least 11people dead to unfairly blame the deaths on President Lugo. It then impeached him after giving him only 24 hours to prepare his defense and only two hours to deliver it.

Brazil is manifesting what could be the third example of this sort of coup in Latin America during the Obama administration.

Operation Lava Jato began in Brazil in March of 2014 as a judicial and police investigation into government corruption. Lava Jato is usually translated as “Car Wash” but, apparently, is better captured as “speed laundering” with the connotation of corruption and money laundering.

Operation Lava Jato began as the uncovering of political bribery and misuse of money, revolving around Brazil’s massive oil company Petrobras. The dirt – or political influence-buying – that needed washing stuck to all major political parties in a corrupt system, according to Alfredo Saad Filho, Professor of Political Economy at the SAOS University of London.

But Brazil’s political Right hijacked the investigation and turned a legitimate judicial investigation into a political coup attempt.

According to Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Professor of Sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, although Operation Lava Jato “involves the leaders of various parties, the fact is that Operation Lava Jato – and its media accomplices – have shown to be majorly inclined towards implicating the leaders of PT (the Workers’ Party), with the by now unmistakable purpose of bringing about the political assassination of President Dilma Rousseff and former President Lula da Silva.”

De Sousa Santos called the political repurposing of the judicial investigation “glaringly” and “crassly selective,” and he indicts the entire operation in its refitted form as “blatantly illegal and unconstitutional.” Alfredo Saad Filho said the goal is to “inflict maximum damage” on the PT “while shielding other parties.”

Neutralizing Lula

The ultimate goal of the coup in democratic disguise is to neutralize Lula da Silva. Criminal charges — which Filho describes as “stretched” — have been brought against Lula da Silva. On March 4, he was detained for questioning. President Rousseff then appointed Lula da Silva as her Chief of Staff, a move which the opposition represented as an attempt to use ministerial status to protect him from prosecution by any body other than the Supreme Court.

But Filho says this representation is based on an illegally recorded and illegally released conversation between Rousseff and Lula da Silva. The conversation, Filho says, was then “misinterpreted” to allow it to be “presented as ‘proof’ of a conspiracy to protect Lula.” De Sousa Santos added that “President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet has decided to include Lula da Silva among its ministers. It is its right to do so and no institution, least of all the judiciary, has the power to prevent it.”

No “presidential crime warranting an impeachment has emerged,” according to Filho.

As in Honduras and Paraguay, an opposition that despairs of its ability to remove the elected government through democratic instruments has turned to undemocratic means that it hopes to disguise as judicial and constitutional. In the case of Brazil, Professor de Sousa Santos calls this coup in democratic disguise a “political-judicial coup.”

In both Honduras and Paraguay, the U.S. government, though publicly insisting that it wasn’t involved, privately knew the machinations were coups. Less than a month after the Honduran coup, the White House, State Department and many others were in receipt of a frank cable from the U.S. embassy in Honduras calling the coup a coup.

Entitled “Open and Shut: the Case of the Honduran Coup,” the embassy said, “There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.” The cable added, “none of the . . . arguments [of the coup defenders] has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution.”

As for Paraguay, U.S. embassy cables said Lugo’s political opposition had as its goal to “Capitalize on any Lugo missteps” and “impeach Lugo and assure their own political supremacy.” The cable noted that to achieve their goal, they are willing to “legally” impeach Lugo “even if on spurious grounds.”

Professor de Sousa Santos said U.S. imperialism has returned to its Latin American “backyard” in the form of NGO development projects, “organizations whose gestures in defense of democracy are just a front for covert, aggressive attacks and provocations directed at progressive governments.”

He said the U.S. goal is “replacing progressive governments with conservative governments while maintaining the democratic façade.” He claimed that Brazil is awash in financing from American sources, including “CIA-related organizations.” (The National Endowment for Democracy was created in 1983, in part to do somewhat openly what the CIA had previously done covertly, i.e., finance political movements that bent to Washington’s will.)

History will tell whether Brazil’s silent coup will succeed. History may also reveal what the U.S. government’s knowledge and involvement may be.

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.

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17 comments for “A ‘Silent Coup’ for Brazil?

  1. Joe L.
    March 30, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    It always amazes me that the United States which always declares its’ love for democracy and that it is a “city on a hill” continually interferes in other countries democracies moreover for its’ own geopolitical motives and greed – isn’t that dictatorial? I hope that Latin America can continue on with its’ Bolivarian Revolution and resist Washington. I can’t blame countries for booting out US, and Western, NGO’s because they always have a very dirty agenda. If anyone has not seen it watch John Pilger’s “War on Democracy” (https://vimeo.com/16724719) OR Oliver Stone’s “South of the Border” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvjIwVjJsXc) – these should be mandatory viewing for us in the west to understand what our governments are doing in other countries. Plus it shows the utter stupidity of our media when it comes to other countries that we don’t like.

  2. ranney moss
    March 30, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Snider’s list of coups at the beginning made me wonder what the US is really up to over the decades. If memory serves, every one of them (Guatamala ’54, Chile ’73, Argentina ’75, Brazil ’64) were progressive governments (at least progressive for the time) and were replaced (with our considerable help) with brutal, repressive, military governments. We talk “democracy” all the time and hold ourselves out as a purveyor of democratic ideals, but we are constantly tearing down democracy in other countries and installing brutal dictatorships – and not just those in South and Central America it seems. I wish Consortium News would publish an essay on THAT subject! What is really going on here? Our founding fathers didn’t have this in mind when they created a “republic” -if you can keep it”, as Franklin said. At least I don’t think they did. Are we essentially Fascist, and have been more or less since WWII? I hope someone will address this.

    • sgt_doom
      April 10, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      Pretty obvious to see what is going on just taking that first coup in Guatemala during the Eisenhower Administration — President Arbenz, a capitalist by the way, wanted some land which had been previously gobbled up by United Fruit and was laying fallow — for land reform in order to create a middle class for a future healthy economy.

      The largest investor in United Fruit at that time was Floyd Odlum, who was also the major financial backer of President Eisenhower’s presidency (many cite the connections of the Cabots — one on the board of directors, the other a shareholder also — but aren’t aware of Floyd Odlum, a relatively obscure financier [Hilton, various Hollywood products, etc., and the manufacturer of all the gas storage tanks for the gas stations around the country back then, plus various and sundry mine and mining operations].

      Recommended Reading:

      The Devil’s Chessboard, by David Talbot

      Dark Money, by Jane Mayer

      Wealth, Power and the Crisis of Laissez Faire Capitalism, by Donald Gibson

      Battling Wall Street: the Kennedy presidency, by Donald Gibson

      Web of Debt, by Ellen Brown

  3. ranney moss
    March 30, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    Snider’s list of coups at the beginning made me wonder what the US is really up to over the decades. If memory serves, every one of them (Guatamala ’54, Chile ’73, Argentina ’75, Brazil ’64) were progressive governments (at least progressive for the time) and were replaced (with our considerable help) with brutal, repressive, military governments. We talk “democracy” all the time and hold ourselves out as a purveyor of democratic ideals, but we are constantly tearing down democracy in other countries and installing brutal dictatorships – and not just those in South and Central America it seems. I wish Consortium News would publish an essay on THAT subject! What is really going on here? Our founding fathers didn’t have this in mind when they created a “republic -if you can keep it”, as Franklin said. At least I don’t think they did. Are we essentially Fascist, and have been more or less since WWII? I hope someone will address this.

    • Joe L.
      March 30, 2016 at 7:28 pm

      Not just that but many of Latin America’s dictators were trained at the School of the America’s, now WHINSEC, which is located in Fort Benning, Georgia. The Guardian wrote an article on this shortly after a graduate of the School of the Americas pulled off the coup in Honduras in 2009 and they went onto point out that 11 Latin American dictators, and I believe their death squads, were trained at the School of the Americas. That is why I scoff whenever I hear Kerry, Obama, or any other official start talking about “Democracy” and “Freedom” when clearly the US has no respect for either.

    • Tom Welsh
      March 31, 2016 at 12:14 pm

      I agree completely, but this subject has been covered repeatedly and comprehensively in the progressive press over the years. See Chomsky, Blum, Parenti, et al, and scores of books and articles readily available.

  4. Bob Van Noy
    March 30, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    Alan Dulles as described in “The Devil’s Chessboard” was a master at creating legendary scenarios and putting them into play as director of the CIA. This approach appears to now be refined and played out by various NGO’s. It must be stopped. America’s international image is a disgrace. Also if American industry is involved, and thrives under the protection of the American people and military they must be exposed and severely fined and regulated.

    • Joe L.
      March 30, 2016 at 7:20 pm

      I remember reading about the 2 Dulles brothers – one on the board of United Fruit and the other the head of the CIA (I believe). I believe in 1954, Guatemala was going to make some land reforms and then these 2 brothers concocted a plan to overthrow Arbenz. Dirty, dirty stuff. For me, one of the most telling things was when John Pilger was interviewing former Senior CIA Official Duane Clarridge in his documentary “War on Democracy” and Mr. Clarridge declared that it was O.K. for the US to even overthrow a democracy if it was in US interests and that the world better get used to it – https://vimeo.com/114561495.

      • Bob Van Noy
        March 30, 2016 at 10:07 pm

        Great link Joe L. Thanks.

        • Joe L.
          March 31, 2016 at 12:52 pm

          Bob Van Noy… You are very welcome. That is just a snippet from John Pilger’s “War on Democracy” documentary and if you are interested then here is a link to the full documentary on Vimeo – https://vimeo.com/16724719. Cheers.

          • Bob Van Noy
            March 31, 2016 at 3:00 pm

            Watched it, stunned, worse than i thought. Thanks Joe L.

          • Joe L.
            March 31, 2016 at 4:18 pm

            Bob Van Noy… Well I am glad that you watched it and I hope that more people do. I believe if more people realized what our western governments were doing in other countries, which is the exact opposite of democracy and freedom, then maybe this could finally come to an end. We are living in a time of real “world” problems and I believe that we need to move beyond “Empire” to work together irrespective of borders to solve them. One thing that I found interesting was how the attempted coup occurred in Venezuela in 2002 with snipers on rooftops, demonization of the government, immediate acceptance of the new coup government, along with media coercion, and the IMF stepping in to offer its’ support – when I saw what happened in Ukraine then I immediately thought of Venezuela 2002. Even the same NGO’s – National Endowment for Democracy and USAID who helped finance the coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002 did the same in Ukraine (with now even a person from USAID becoming Ukraine’s new Finance Minister) – interesting!

          • Joe L.
            March 31, 2016 at 5:15 pm

            Bob Van Noy… One last thing, I think when you break down these conflicts to the bare bones it almost seems like the US, and the west, are waging war on the poor of the world. It seems to me that we want, or our governments and corporations want, to have all countries privatize their resources so that our corporations can go in and strip a country of its’ assets shipping the wealth out from the countries which enriches us (or our corporations) meanwhile keeping the people poor so that they can produce the goods we need for cheap. I think that is also why many people in the west, the US in particular, see socialism as a dirty word because if people or countries warm up to socialism and some resources are kept under a countries control then it keeps it out of the hands of western corporations.

  5. Tristan
    March 30, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    It isn’t a comical coincidence that the nations which are suffering political and economic insecurity are those which the United States has marked either as supporters of economic systems in conflict with unrestrained free market capitalism or as regimes which need to be changed in order to implement the benefits of such.

  6. Jacob
    April 2, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    The U.S. works with right-wing elites in the target countries; it doesn’t overthrow governments all by itself. They maintain a symbiotic relationship with the U.S. which has the means to protect capital. The local neoliberal comprador elites want to keep labor cheap and compliant and, of course, take all steps necessary to prevent any democratically elected socialist government from redistributing land to the peasants/common people. When socialists are in control of government, there is always the possibility of land reform in favor of the common people, and that would be a potential threat to the land-owning elite as well as foreign corporate land owners. This is nothing new in history. Julius Caesar was politically very similar to modern-day socialist reformers because, as a “populare,” or man of the people, he intended to redistribute land to the common people and to forgive debts which were causing a financial crisis in Rome. He was murdered by the Senators who were themselves major creditors and landed elite who could’ve lost their land to Caesar’s reforms. Socialistic reformers are correctly perceived as potentially ruinous to the owners of capital, i.e, capitalists, throughout history.

  7. Rafael
    April 8, 2016 at 10:55 am

    What do you think if your government is being investigated for corruption, if the president is being investigated because his presidential campain was financed by money from big enterprises who won public biddings in exchange of big donations?
    What do you think if this same government starts to do everything to stop the investigations and starts to call this investigation a coup?
    And what do you think if this same government starts to use public money (from CUT) to pay (I said “PAY”) people to go to the streets to protest against this suposed coup? They pay from R$30,00 to R$100,00 to everyone disposed to do this. This is not even refuted, everyone can go to these protests and see for itself.
    The people is divided in two. Those who are against corruption and support the efforts to wipe out corruption from government and opposition and those who need R$30,00 or R$100,00 to buy food or pay debts.
    There’s no coup. There are many politicians from government that are not being investigated nor arrested. The same for the opposition. Please dont take a position based on nothing. If Dilma or Lula did in a serious country what they did in Brazil, they would be already in jail.

  8. sgt_doom
    April 10, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    A truly brilliant article by a truly brilliant journalist — something of a rarity today!

    But isn’t this what NED and especially Fisher’s Atlas Network were all about — going subtle and easily fooling Americans?

    I remember I used to follow so-called “progressive” Air America radio shows, and was always contacting either Mike Malloy (who really get agitated with me) and Thom Hartmann because they would frequently get things wrong, especially Malloy.

    Thailand’s military would stage a faux “pro-democracy” coup (sending out young military types in civilian dress to pose as protesters at the airport, etc.) and Malloy would easily buy it, and support it, etc., when it was actually anti-democracy in action!

    What Mr. Snider writes about appears to be quite successful, most unfortunately!

Comments are closed.