In September 2019, Brazilian Minister for Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araújo met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington D.C. and the pair announced a new U.S.-Brazil bilateral agreement to open up the Amazon Rainforest to private sector development. Araújo called the agreement “…the Holy Grail of Brazil’s foreign policy, at least for the private sector”.
Behind this announcement is the story of how U.S. state and corporate power successfully captured political processes in the South American giant in order to deliver a submissiveness necessary for such a neocolonial project.
Part One: Park Avenue’s dirty, deadly Amazonian secrets
The Amazon region’s agricultural potential and mineral wealth have long been coveted, and its sovereignty is a debate as old as the Brazilian Republic itself. Levels of access to it for foreign capital under the Wall Street friendly far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro are unprecedented.
To justify this, an entreguista false dichotomy has co-opted the nationalistic talking points of sovereign development, and pits prosperity directly against the protection of Brazil’s rainforest and its inhabitants.
Prior to taking office, Bolsonaro remarked in an interview that the Amazon does not “belong” to Brazil anymore, yet foreign rhetoric over the 2019 forest fires has perversely allowed him to appear as a defender of Brazilian sovereignty – the very opposite of what he, who during his election campaign saluted the U.S. flag at an event in Miami, actually was.
Many of the US and Multinational companies benefitting most from Bolsonaro’s scorched earth strategy in Amazonia share something important, and overlooked, in common: they’re members of Wall Street Lobby and Think Tank, Council of the Americas (AS/COA). Headquartered at 680 Park Avenue, New York, it is also the publisher of its own in-house magazine, Americas Quarterly.
Of its members invested in the Brazilian Amazon, the biggest is so called invisible giant, Cargill, Incorporated. With $115bn in yearly sales, it is the largest privately held company in the world. It is one of the foreign companies most active in Amazonian agribusiness, with the slogan: “helping the world thrive”.
Minnesota-based Cargill arrived in Brazil during 1965, following the U.S.-backed Coup the previous year. Its present day activities include the growing of Sugar Cane for Ethanol biofuel, Cocoa, Cotton and key concern, Soybean cultivation and processing, with its own infrastructure of terminals spread across nine Brazilian states.
U.S. Congress member Henry A. Waxman recently called Cargill “The Worst Company in the World” in an extensive report on its destructive activities, in particular related to Soy cultivation:
“The people who have been sickened or died from eating contaminated Cargill meat, the child laborers who grow the cocoa Cargill sells for the world’s chocolate, the Midwesterners who drink water polluted by Cargill, the Indigenous People displaced by vast deforestation to make way for Cargill’s animal feed, and the ordinary consumers who’ve paid more to put food on the dinner table because of Cargill’s financial malfeasance all have felt the impact of this agribusiness giant. Their lives are worse for having come into contact with Cargill.” said Waxman.
The report notes that those displaced by plantations, “have experienced sharp increases in cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, and other illnesses linked to pesticides and herbicides used to grow soy.”
Over a decade ago, Cargill faced another damning report, that time from Greenpeace, over the Santarém Soy Terminal in the Amazonian state of Pará. It was then that it began to invest heavily in PR campaigns and this new look Cargill would be depicted as a “custodian”, rather than destroyer of the rainforest. It would promote projects such as small scale organic cocoa cultivation to deflect from its destructive principal activities. Crucially it would make a high-profile pledge, along with fellow Council of the Americas members Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) and Bunge, not to source Soy from deforested land. At the time this was a PR Coup. There was a loophole however: they were free to source from deforested land that contained mixed crops.
In 2018, once it was clear that former President Lula da Silva would be prevented from running for President, and literally weeks before Jair Bolsonaro’s election in October, Cargill revealed plans for expansion. These included building a brand new Soy Terminal at Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia.
The new facility would be on the edge of highway BR-319, where the so called “ring of fire” was burning out of control the following winter in neighbouring Amazonas state. At that time of announcement it made little sense logistically. It was as if they were betting on imminent deforestation, the opening up of indigenous and forest reserves, to make it viable. This is precisely what has happened. Bolsonaro had run on a platform that was explicit in its intent to strip Indigenous peoples of their reserves.
With the extreme-right President in office, Cargill announced explicit support for deforestation in an open letter to soybean producers in Brazil, and its opposition to environmental protection projects in the irreplaceable Cerrado Savanna biome. The 2019 Mighty Earth report also presented evidence of merciless deforestation, led by demand from Cargill, Bunge Limited and ADM, on an industrial scale in the Cerrado. COA member Goldman Sachs is also heavily invested in Sugar Cane/Ethanol in the region which contradicts their stated policy, namely that they “will not finance any project or initiate loans where the specified use of proceeds would significantly convert or degrade a critical natural habitat.”
In 2012, Bunge’s sourcing of Sugar Cane from ancestral lands of the Guarani indigenous people, became a worldwide controversy with Oxfam and Survival International campaigning to force fellow COA corporate member Coca-Cola to cease using crops from those areas of Southern Brazil. Pesticides from their cultivation was damaging the health of inhabitants, and their chief Marcus Vernon had been murdered while resisting theft of ancestral land.
Cargill, Bunge, ADM and Goldman Sachs are just four corporate members of Council of the Americas that are active in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, and linked to the fires raging across the region, which were started intentionally to enable expansion of available land, principally for Soy cultivation and Cattle.
Other current or recent members of the Council actively or historically invested in the Transmazonian region include, from agribusiness: Continental Grain Company. From finance: BlackRock, BNP Paribas, J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Scotiabank, Citigroup, Inc, Santander. From Seeds and Pesticides: Bayer-Monsanto, Dow Chemical. From Oil and Gas: Chevron, ConocoPhillips. From the mining sector: Barrick Gold Corporation, Rio Tinto, Hothschild Mining, and so on.
Americas Society / Council of the Americas has an estimated $10M in annual revenue. In corporate memberships alone, Council of the Americas earned in excess of $30 million dollars between President Dilma Rousseff taking office in January 2011, and the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro in January 2019. This is small change for the companies it represents. In addition it has extended funding from patron members Chevron and HSBC.
Intriguingly it also has a dedicated, separately funded anti-corruption working group, which features, according to its website “AS/COA corporate, Chairman’s International Advisory Council, Board of Directors and President’s Circle members.” This group is bankrolled “by corporate members and foundations”, and is “an action-orientated network focused on producing concrete results and contributing to the reduction of corruption in Latin America. The AWG navigates Latin America’s evolving anti-corruption movement by convening the region’s top corruption figures and corporate leaders who are determined to see the historic crackdown on graft continue.”
Given what has been revealed about the shadowy political motives, judicial malpractice, blackmail, bribery and inherent corruption of their principal example to the continent: Brazil’s Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash), Council of the Americas’ anti-corruption working group itself is suspect by association. Lava Jato had significant responsibility for both the removal of elected President Dilma Rousseff, and the prevention of her predecessor Luis Inacio Lula da Silva from returning to the Presidency in 2018.
It is essential to put newly reset corporate and government relations between the U.S. and Brazil into the context of what has happened over the past decade, the hand of Washington and Wall Street in the political shifts across the region, and the fraternity of power at an organisation like Council of the Americas.
Council of America’s centrepiece event is their annual Washington Conference of the Americas, held at the U.S. Department of State each May, which it calls “the premier Washington event on the Western Hemisphere, will bring together senior officials from the U.S. administration and distinguished leaders from across the region to focus on the major policy issues affecting the hemisphere.”
With the election of Barack Obama, and Hillary of Clinton as Secretary of State there was a shift in the tone of relations between the U.S. and Latin America, but also a definite continuity in the pursuit of long term foreign policy goals. On May 13, 2009, Clinton delivered a speech to Conference of the Americas about the way forward for Latin American democratisation:
“As Jim Steinberg said earlier, democratic elections are now the norm throughout our hemisphere, but the ballot box alone is not enough. This is something that we feel very strongly about, and it comes with our deepest commitment to democratic ideals, but our recognition that sustainable democracies do more than just have elections. So we have to join together in 21st century partnerships to build vibrant civil society, to demand accountability from democratic institutions, to insist on the rule of law, to help build independent and capable judicial systems, and respect for human rights.”
At this very moment a Coup d’état in Honduras was well in motion, one which Clinton – whose 2016 campaign team had also lobbied for COA member Monsanto – later admitted that she and her administration had supported.
The ousted President Manuel Zelaya was given refuge in Brazil’s Tegucigalpa Embassy, which was besieged by U.S. trained Honduran Military, and even targeted with what was described as a “Neurotoxic” hydrogen cyanide gas attack, leaving Zelaya, his assembled allies, and embassy employees complaining of symptoms. The new U.S. supported post-coup regime threatened to close the Brazilian embassy altogether, in what was a major test for Brazil’s diplomacy under the government of Lula da Silva, and an early flashpoint with the new Obama administration. Clinton was already in conflict with Brazil, over its brokering of an Iranian nuclear deal, one which the new Obama administration were unhappy with, specifically how Brazil was able to negotiate without them. Brazil was also unique in the global south in that it had both mineral Uranium and the proprietary technology to process it. Only the United States and Russia shared this capability.
A decade later the politically imprisoned Lula would remark that “Obama was much harder towards Brazil” than his predecessor George W. Bush, and that “I am sure that Hillary Clinton does not like Latin America.”
In response to the degenerating human rights situation in Honduras, protesters invaded a Council of the Americas meeting at their New York headquarters. In a video of the incident, a demonstrator is violently ejected after accusing the Council of funding the Honduran Coup, and of complicity in the murder of activists Berta Caceres and Nelson Garcia. “Emotional issues, ladies and gentlemen.” responds AS/COA Vice President Eric Farnsworth, as the young activist is manhandled away down the corridor.
Honduras was a harbinger of things to come for Latin America, but such brute force made way for more sophisticated processes, and far tighter control of optics.
The then senior editor of Americas Quarterly, Jason Marczak, went on to found the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in 2013, along with Peter Schechter of CLS Strategies, who had been contracted by the post-coup interim government of Roberto Micheletti to improve the Honduran regime’s image in the United States. NATO adjunct Atlantic Council would later throw its full weight behind Brazil’s Operation Lava Jato.
Months after Clinton’s 2009 speech at COA, Judge Sérgio Moro would appear for the first time in leaked State Department cables, at a Rio de Janeiro event conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice. The event was part of the so-called project bridges, in which Brazilian prosecutors would learn “best practices” from their U.S. counterparts, such the utilisation of plea bargain testimony, and the formation of prosecution task-forces – specifically in Brazil’s hard-right strongholds of Curitiba and Campo Grande.
Three years later in 2012, Bunge, whose then CEO Alberto Weisser sat on Council of the America’s board, were accused, along with fellow members Cargill, Monsanto, ADM and others, of acting behind the scenes in the buildup to the Coup which removed Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, with the U.S. Government’s tacit support. U.S. Ambassador Liliana Ayalde had already stepped down following the release of leaked State Department cables which showed her discussing a future coup plot against him, several years prior.
In Paraguay, as Brazil, Soy, and the land upon which to grow it, was the key, and with COA members like Bunge, Monsanto, and Cargill’s interests well served by the removal of Lugo, a Liberation Theologist whose sympathy for peasant struggles was a nuisance for the multinational producers. Lugo’s VP from right-wing coalition partner PLRA, Federico Franco, assumed the Presidency and insisted the impeachment was fully in accordance with the Paraguayan constitution.
Some in Brazil already feared that Paraguay was an omen for what would befall them. They were right.
Whilst regional trade bloc Mercosur suspended Paraguay, calling Lugo’s impeachment illegitimate, Americas Quarterly was on hand to justify the Paraguayan coup, interviewing a representative of the so called Human Rights Foundation, who denied any such coup had taken place, insisting that everything was in accordance with the constitution. HRF organises the Oslo Freedom Forum, and has been criticised by Latin American scholars for criticising only left wing governments in the region, whilst late Canadian writer Jean Guy Allard called HRF a “CIA front”. HRF was founded by Libertarian Thor Halvorssen, the cousin of far-right Venezuelan politician Leopoldo Lopez, and supporter of multiple coup attempts in that country. Halvorssen has described socialism as a violation of human rights and his HRF is part of the Atlas Network, which has been involved in right-wing regime change operations across Latin America, funded by U.S. billionaire-founded organisations such as the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, Cato Institute, the Institute of Human Studies and John Templeton Foundation.
Four years later, Agribusiness was a principal supporter of the coup to overthrow Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and the later election of far-right Jair Bolsonaro which it created the conditions for. The Atlas Network’s Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL) was one of the organisations which campaigned for Rousseff’s illegitimate impeachment. It was a spin-off of Students for Liberty, which trained MBL’s leaders in the U.S., after arriving in Brazil in 2012 with an Atlas Network sponsored summer workshop. With its own brand established during the protests of June 2013, it was following the 2014 election that MBL began to solicit funding from Brazilian companies such as JBS and Ambev, right-wing opposition parties PSDB, DEM and even Rousseff’s coalition ally PMDB. The other, was a larger yet more discreet group called Vem Pra Rua (Come to the street). It was founded by Rogério Chequer, who had come from the world of investment banking, first at COA member Deutsche Bank, and then new vehicles he co-founded: Discovery and the unrelated in all but name, Atlas Capital Management. He returned to Brazil in 2012 after fifteen years in the United States investment banking sector to work in “corporate communications”, and emerged as a high-profile leader of the ultimately successful movement to impeach Dilma Rousseff.
Following her removal, Rousseff’s VP from centre-right coalition partner PMDB, Michel Temer, assumed the Presidency and insisted the impeachment was fully in accordance with the Brazilian constitution.
Americas Quarterly was back to provide a corporate friendly sheen for the collapse of Brazil’s Democracy, to the delight of its jubilant patrons, and Ayalde was again the U.S. Ambassador in charge.
Following the Coup, Ambassador Ayalde would move to Southern Command, as it worked to establish the first US Military presence on Brazilian soil since the second world war. Brazil is to also poised to become an associate member of NATO, like its neighbour Colombia. Her predecessor in Brazil, Tom Shannon, has since said that the governments of Lula and Dilma represented obstacles to US plans for the continent. These plans included the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas), a Council of the Americas promoted, continent-wide successor to NAFTA, to which Lula was vehemently opposed, and along with Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, defeated at the 2005 Mar del Plata conference.
Such long term plans, which span Democrat and Republican administrations, can be traced back decades, in documents such as the National Security Study Memorandum 200, adopted as policy in 1975, and classified until the 1990s. Principally a study on how population growth could jeopardise the supply of strategically important minerals from resource rich “less developed” countries such as Brazil, it warns specifically against the dangers of a growing young population who may at some point adopt anti-imperialist ideology.
With Dilma gone, Americas Quarterly would run a special issue called ‘Fixing Brazil’. This was a mammoth business opportunity, masked in the language of progress. Whereas Honduras and Paraguay had been openly called coups in Northern media, a herculean PR effort went into denying that what had happened in Brazil had constituted one. This was conducted in tandem with Brazil’s embassies under the command of new foreign minister José Serra. Serra, like Michel Temer and Sérgio Moro had appeared in a key State Department cable, which reported that he had promised Patricia Padral, director of Chevron Brazil, that he would change the rules to favour foreign Oil producers if elected President in 2010. He lost to Rousseff.
Within months of Rousseff’s ouster six years later, Council of Americas companies were amongst the first to benefit from the immediate policy shift; Chevron themselves, ExxonMobil and Shell from Serra’s promised abandonment of the pré-sal law protecting Brazilian involvement in Oil & Gas exploration; Boeing from the cut-price sell-off of Embraer; Dow and Monsanto for liberalisation of elsewhere illegal pesticides and further consolidation of their seed monopoly.
Senator Aloysio Nunes (PSDB), a State Department point man at that time, who visited US officials and corporate representatives within hours of Rousseff’s removal, later admitted that Operation Lava Jato had manipulated her impeachment.
In September 2019 Temer would casually refer to the impeachment as a Coup on live television…