AS/COA and Fake News: How a corporate think tank molds mainstream media narratives on Latin America

When Luis Inacio Lula da Silva took office in 2003, one of his first moves was to prioritize open source software for the federal government computer systems in order to reduce costs, increase competition, generate jobs and develop the knowledge and intelligence of the country in this area.  Although it was never fully adopted by all government ministries, by 2010, this move had saved taxpayers over R$500 million. 6 weeks after taking power, in October, 2016, as he cut funding to support for women victims of domestic violence from R$42 million to R$16 million under the excuse that he couldn’t afford it, President Michel Temer announced that the government was going to spend  R$140 million  migrating to Microsoft products for its computer systems. Microsoft is not the only corporation that benefited from the 2016 coup against Dilma Rousseff. Boeing is in the process of taking a controlling share over the mixed capital aerospace conglomerate Embraer, the world’s third largest airplane manufacturer and a matter of national pride to Brazilians.  After meeting with Monsanto directors in February, 2018, the Temer administration announced plans to legalize use of the Monsanto pesticide Glyphosate, which recently faced a ban in Europe. Shortly after auctioning off 8 offshore oil fields to international petroleum corporations such as Chevron and Shell in October, 2017, Michel Temer issued a presidential decree providing an estimated R$1 trillion in tax abatement for foreign oil companies working in Brazil. Microsoft, Monsanto, Boeing, Chevron and Shell have all benefited financially from regime change in Brazil. What else do they have in common? They are all corporate members of Americas Society/Council of the Americas, the think tank which, under the guise of caring for the Latin American people, has supported austerity policies and right-wing governments in Latin America since its founding by David Rockefeller in the 1960s.

AS/COA’s news magazine Americas Quarterly is geared towards an elite public, distributed in airport VIP lounges around the continent, and given out as a membership bonus, with individual membership costs starting at $10,000/year. It’s main function, however, seems to be public relations,  feeding corporate friendly news stories into media companies across the hemisphere,  with commentary from AS/COA staff frequently appearing on CNN, NBC, Bloomberg, NPR, in press agencies like Reuters and AP,  and in newspapers spanning the region from Clarin in Argentina to the Los Angeles Times. Links to these articles, TV and radio appearances are detailed on AS/COA’s website and easily available for anyone who wants to quantify bias or look for narrative patterns. I chose to look at narrative patterns in AS/COA’s media feeds over two periods, for the past year, from February 24, 2017 to February 24, 2018, and during the three month period before Dilma Rousseff’s removal from office, on May 13, 2016.

AS/COA’s recent priorities

Between February 24, 2017 and February 24, 2018, AS/COA staff either appeared in or were quoted in Anglo media stories 102 times (excluding stories on art, which I am leaving out of this analysis). This includes 39 stories about Venezuela, 13 stories about NAFTA and 7 stories about Brazil.

The stories on  Venezuela, the country with the World’s largest petroleum reserves, can best be classified as regime change propaganda. There is no attempt to provide balanced coverage in any of the articles to which AS/COA staff  contribute to by speaking to anyone from the Venezuelan working class, the majority of which still support the Maduro regime. The language used is similar to that used to describe countries like Libya before US military operations. Venezuela is in a state of catastrophe, democracy has collapsed, the country is in a state of crisis.  As AS/COA’s Eric Farnsworth says to CNN, “There are people in Venezuela who are literally starving. This is apocalyptic stuff. I would call Venezuela a failing state.” Although hunger is a terrible phenomenon, it is present in all nations in the Americas. According to the World Hunger Education Service, in 2015, 6.3 million American families suffered from extremely low levels of food security. It is highly doubtful that anyone at AS/COA will ever cite this statistic to call the US a failed state.

The 13 stories about NAFTA are exemplary because they illustrate a long term objective of AS/COA and its founder and former director David Rockefeller to bolster neoliberal free trade agreements. Rockefeller was influential in creating both NAFTA and the failed FTAA, and AS/COA has traditionally ranked among the biggest cheerleaders for these controversial agreements.  Although the benefits of NAFTA for the working class have failed to live up to the promises, from the language of the articles AS/COA and its corporate backers support the continuation of NAFTA and are worried that Donald Trump is jeopardizing the agreement.

Seven stories on Brazil that appeared in the Anglo media last year include content from AS/COA. Two of these media appearances represent a continuing strategy to treat the controversial and partisan Lava Jato prosecution team as superheroes, which started with a 2016 Americas Quarterly magazine cover which dressed lead prosecutor Sergio Moro up as a member of the Ghost-busters.

Moro has been widely criticized both nationally and internationally for breaking Brazilian law when he released illegally taped phone conversations between Lula and Rousseff to Globo television network. He has been criticized for failing to prosectute anyone from the PSDB party, whose top members like Jose Serra and Aecio Neves have been involved in a series of multi-million dollar bribery and illegal campaign financing scandals, while focusing most of his efforts on what appears to be an attempt to prevent Ex-president Lula from running for president in 2018, based on charges with no physical evidence that he received illegal reforms on a beach front apartment, entirely based on one plea bargain testimony by a corrupt businessman who changed his initial story to implicate Lula in exchange for sentence reduction. He has been accused of conflict of interest, because he wife served as legal advisor to PSDB Vice Governor of Parana, Flavio Arns. In December, 2017, Odebrecht lawyer Tacla Duran accused the Lava Jato prosecution team of running a sentence reduction industry through Moro’s wife’s law firm. Moro has been accused of pressuring businessmen to change their plea bargains to implicate Lula. He has been accused of adulterating financial records from Odebrecht. He was accused of sadistic behavior after he ordered police to arrest former finance minister Guido Mantega during his wife’s chemotherapy session inside Albert Einstein hospital. He was accused in a article that was shared on the Brazilian Army website, of destroying 5 hard drives worth of physical evidence of bribery handed over by Odebrecht, in a move which is widely seen to have been made to protect PSDB politicians. He was recently accused of ethical violations when it was uncovered that he is living in a 256 meter luxury apartment which he owns in Curitiba while collecting a judicial rent subsidy. He has been accused of legally harassing his critics, as in the case of ordering the police to raid the house of legal scholar Rafael Valim,who organized a seminar with UN Human Rights Commission lawyer Geoffrey Robertson criticizing the Lava Jato team of using Lawfare. And, most importantly, he has been accused of sabotaging the economy by paralyzing Brazil’s largest construction companies  in 2015 instead of treating them as too big to fail, in a move which caused an immediate 500,000 layoffs in the construction sector and, according a study cited by BBC, a 2.5% drop in the GDP. None of these events have resulted in any question into bias or the ethics of Sergio Moro within AS/COA, however. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, its Vice President Brian Winter lionizes Moro as Brazil’s Teddy Roosevelt.

2014 presidential election runner up, Aecio Neves, from the PSDB party, was accused on 5 counts of receiving bribes ranging from R$3 million to R$50 million. In short, all counts are a lot more serious than allegedly receiving reforms on an apartment, which has resulted in a 9.5 year prison sentence. In one of his last moves before stepping down as Federal Public Prosecutor, Rodrido Janot asked the supreme court to drop all charges against Neves.  AS/COA ignored this in a New York times homage to Janot, comparing him to a soldier in a fight to build the rule of law.

Both Janot and Moro have written for Americas Quarterly and AS/COA regularly flies them up to New York for speaking engagements. Both will be honored at an AS/COA event in New York on March 2.

AS/COA during the lead up to the coup

In the book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erick M. Conway document how, for the last 50 years, corporate funded think tanks and foundations have worked to deliberately confuse the public on the issue of climate change in order to weaken support for air pollution regulation. A common strategy used by these institutions and their shills is to discredit the science, spread confusion and promote doubt. When looking at AS/COA’s influence on the media during the 3-month period before Dilma Rousseff was first forced out of office, it becomes clear that this was the tactic used to confuse the American public into doubting whether a coup had taken place. Furthermore, this doubt-mongering campaign, waged in AS/COA feeds to the media, in Americas Quarterly and by its employees on twitter, succeeded in molding the dominant Anglo media narrative on the coup, even reproduced in ostensibly liberal publications such as the Guardian which only mentions the word in quotation marks. According to the AS/COA narrative on the impeachment, Dilma Rousseff was not impeached because of the infraction of fiscal peddling which: 1) she was subsequently exonerated from; 2) is common practice in municipal, state and federal branches of government in Brazil; and 3) was legalized a week after she was thrown out of office. According to AS/COA vice president and Americas Quarterly editor Brian Winter, who is not an economist, she was thrown out of office because of her handling of the economy. Does it sound confusing to hear someone simultaneously argue that it was not a coup, while stating that the official reason for the impeachment is invalid? It’s supposed to. During the 3 month period before May 13, 2016, when Rousseff was first thrown out of office, AS/COA fed 29 stories into the English language media. 14 of them were about Brazil. AS/COA’s three primary messages in these articles are: 1) It’s not a coup; 2) Brazil’s democratic institutions are working; and 3) The impeachment is a positive thing for Brazil.

On May 3, 2016, Brian Winter emphasized all three of these points  in a discussion on National Public Radio with three other neoliberal commentators. The impeachment vote was yet to take place. Impeachment architect Eduardo Cunha was yet to be arrested for receiving $1.5 million in bribes and money laundering. Information that a prominent stock broker bribed Congressmen to vote in favor of the impeachment had not yet leaked to the media. Nevertheless, a glib, upbeat Brian Winter was already explaining that it wasn’t a coup. “ Is it a coup?” he said, “No, I don’t think it’s a coup. Is it potentially a flimsy case for which to make an impeachment, especially when you have all this corruption going on in the background? That’s arguable.”

As the Brazilian Congress, the majority of whom were facing corruption charges of their own, prepared to throw out the first woman president for a technicality which she didn’t commit, Winter said, “it’s actually progress because it’s a product of an independent judiciary and other institutions like the media, like even the maligned Congress, working more or less as they’re supposed to.”

As in other media appearances during the lead up to the coup, Winter expressed confidence in the “flimsy” impeachment process, saying, “it’s unclear exactly how this is going to end in Brazil. Success is not guaranteed. But as it stands right now, it looks like a positive thing”. Two weeks earlier, he spoke even more positively about the impeachment to the Christian Science Monitor, saying that Brazil was on the verge of a tidal change in Brazilian politics”.

Part of the job of confusing the public entailed quelling fears that Brazil might be on the verge of a return to dictatorship. As Michel Temer has now turned the Rio de Janeiro State security apparatus over to the Military, who are causing human rights abuses against a primarily black, poor population and as General Walter Braga Netto says that Rio is a pilot project for the rest of Brazil, one wonders why an AS/COA spokesman would go on National Public Radio and say, “Amid all this chaos and all these incredible things that have happened over the last year, I always tell people the one thing that absolutely will not happen in Brazil is a military coup”.

As a comprador class of US-puppets sells off Brazil’s natural resources and technological patrimony to international corporations, the companies that finance AS/COA are lining their pockets. Most of these companies are also major advertisers in America’s largest media companies. Can they be trusted to provide objective reporting on Brazil?

As Noam Chomsky once said, “if you abandon the political arena somebody is going to be there. Corporations aren’t going to go home and join the PTA. They are going to run things.”


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.