Through a series of coordinated, limited statements, the United States appears to be distancing itself from Brazilian neofascist president Bolsonaro, the coup-threatened coming election, and its own involvement in the disgraced anti-corruption operation which brought Bolsonaro to power in the first place.
This article was updated on 10/5/22 with new relevant information.
As then reported in BRASILWIRE, US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns visited Bolsonaro and key Military allies in July 2021. It was one of several visits by members of the new Biden administration to reach out to the Bolsonaro government, triggering speculation that the US would continue in its support for the far right US-allied candidate, regardless of the change in president, and his Brazilian counterpart’s alliance with Donald Trump.
The visit came as Bolsonaro camp were intensifying pre-emptive attacks on Brazil’s electoral system and democratic institutions, centred around disinformation about the electronic voting machines, and a campaign to shut down the Supreme Court.
Biden administration discomfort with the perception that it supports Bolsonaro in this antidemocratic context has led to a series of statements by US government officials, including undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland, expressing confidence in Brazil’s electoral system, and denouncing Bolsonaro’s efforts to undermine it ahead of an election he is on course to lose, to leftist former president Lula. Frontrunner then as now, Lula was prevented from running in 2018 by the joint anti-corruption operation Lava Jato, which was conducted with both open and covert collaboration with the United States. Lava Jato prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol was caught in leaked conversations calling Lula’s prosecution “a gift from the CIA“, which enabled Bolsonaro to be elected.
The UN human rights committee recently found that US-Brazil operation Lava Jato was biased, and violated due process, Lula’s privacy and his political rights. In another example of the distancing and damage limitation taking place, just prior to the ruling US Government linked think tank the Wilson Center, which had championed Lava Jato (Carwash) and hosted its now disgraced crusading judge Sergio Moro, held an interview with Lula’s defence laywers, Valeska Martins and Cristiano Zanin. The interview with the lawyers was conducted by Nicholas Zimmerman, who sought to reduce documented US involvement in Operation Lava Jato, and thus Dilma’s removal and Lula’s imprisonment – the fates of two successive presidencies – to an “insinuation”. It is not made clear to the reader that Zimmerman was, while Lava Jato was collaborating openly and covertly with US agents, “Director for Brazil and Southern Cone Affairs at the White House National Security Council.“
Following his inauguration in early 2019, Bolsonaro visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He was the first Brazilian president ever to do so. Shortly before Burns’ visit to Brazil, a White House spokesperson openly admitted that the CIA and other agencies were involved in anti-corruption operations in Latin America of the type which jailed Lula.
Reuters now report that unnamed sources claim that Burns then “told senior Brazilian officials that President Jair Bolsonaro should stop casting doubt on his country’s voting system ahead of the October election”.
Reuters report that the “comments by CIA Director William Burns came in an intimate, closed-door meeting in July, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Burns was, and remains, the most senior U.S. official to meet in Brasilia with Bolsonaro’s right-wing government since the election of U.S. President Joe Biden.”
“A third person in Washington familiar with the matter confirmed that a delegation led by Burns had told top Bolsonaro aides the president should stop undermining confidence in Brazil’s voting system. That source was not certain whether the CIA director himself had voiced the message.”
Anglophone media has so far shied from talk of US involvement in Brazil’s democratic crisis since the 2014 election. Yet now, with a series of coordinated statements, the United States appears to be distancing itself from Brazilian president Bolsonaro, the coup-threatened coming election, and its involvement in the anti-corruption operation which brought Bolsonaro to power in the first place.
The Reuters report continues: “Two of the sources warned of a potential institutional crisis if Bolsonaro were to lose by a narrow margin, with scrutiny focused on the role of Brazil’s armed forces, which ruled the country during a 1964-85 military government that Bolsonaro celebrates.”
Reuters go on to reveal detail that BRASILWIRE reported last July: “During his unannounced trip, Burns, a career diplomat nominated by Biden last year, met at the presidential palace with Bolsonaro and two senior intelligence aides – national security adviser Augusto Heleno and Alexandre Ramagem, then-head of Brazilian intelligence agency Abin. Both were Bolsonaro appointees.Burns also dined at the U.S. ambassador’s residence with Heleno and Bolsonaro’s then-Chief of Staff Luiz Eduardo Ramos, both former generals. Brazil’s military has historically enjoyed close ties with the CIA and other U.S. intelligence services.”
The final line in particular is highly unusual to see in anglophone media coverage of Brazil, where US involvement is practically taboo, and it reinforces the impression that the Reuters report is a CIA-scripted effort at damage control. If the institutional crisis does come to a head in October, the United States will want to have pre-emptively distanced itself, even as some US government-aligned commentators exaggerate the chances of a legitimate Bolsonaro victory at the ballot box.
One of the Reuters sources claimed that Generals Heleno and Ramos sought to dismiss the significance of Bolsonaro’s repeated allegations of voter fraud. General Augusto Heleno is head of Institutional Security and said to be one of the originators of the long term military plot to remove the Workers Party from power. On May 1 he addressed a pro-Bolsonaro protest themed around “freedom of expression”, and again centred on attacks upon the Supreme Court, Electoral Court and electronic voting system.
Heleno, who the US government know all too well, has a history of past statements threatening Brazilian democracy. In May 2020 he issued an unprecedented open statement to the country. In the letter, he warned of “unpredictable consequences” should the Supreme Court not abandon its demand for President Bolsonaro to present his mobile phones as evidence in an ongoing investigation into a criminal fake news operation, which spread lies about Bolsonaro’s political opponents during the 2018 election campaign.
In response to Heleno’s denials, the source claims that “Burns told them that the democratic process was sacred, and that Bolsonaro should not be talking in that way.”
“Burns was making it clear that elections were not an issue that they should mess with,” said the unidentified source, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It wasn’t a lecture, it was a conversation.”
As the leak reached Reuters, Heleno sat flanking Bolsonaro in his regular live broadcast on social media, where the far right president declared that the Armed Forces would not be “spectators” in the coming election.
“It is unusual for CIA directors to deliver political messages, the sources said. But Biden has empowered Burns, one of the most experienced U.S. diplomats, to be a low-profile mouthpiece for the White House.”
Again, this is far more intimate information than is usually made available, and the reliance on unidentified government sources raises suspicion about the intent and integrity of the story.
Following Burns’ visit, as reported by Brasil Wire at the time, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also went to meet Bolsonaro and, the Reuters report claims he “raised similar concerns about undermining trust in elections” but “Burns delegation’s message was stronger than Sullivan’s, the Washington-based source said, without elaborating.”
Reuters sought out the US State Department for comment (or indeed vice versa, Reuters has history -editors).
“It is important that Brazilians have confidence in their electoral systems,” said an unnamed official “adding that the United States is confident of Brazil’s institutions, including free, fair and transparent elections.”
Faith in Brazil’s institutions, or “Brazil’s institutions are working” was a consistent US State Department and commentariat mantra throughout Operation Lava Jato, the 2016 coup, and election of Bolsonaro.
Reuters then elaborate on a “fresh sign of disquiet among some of Washington’s foreign policy establishment” noting that former U.S. consul in Rio, Scott Hamilton, had written shortly prior in Brazilian newspaper O Globo that “the United States should make it clear to Bolsonaro that any effort to undermine elections would trigger multilateral sanctions.”
A subsequent article in conservative, anti-Workers Party Veja magazine by Biden family friend and Dilma Rousseff’s former spokesman Thomas Traumann. The regular Council of the Americas contributor reported how Hamilton’s article was endorsed by the State Department, and describes how “Copies of Hamilton’s article were distributed by US diplomats to executives of multinationals doing business in Brazil. One of these executives told me that he understood the gesture as implicit support for the warnings and that a challenge by Bolsonaro along the lines of what Donald Trump tried in 2020 could turn Brazil “into a new Russia, with investors hastily fleeing to avoid suffering sanctions”, referring to the sanctions imposed since the invasion of Ukraine.”
On May 10, Reuters reported that The US asked Brazil in March to increase its crude oil output to curb soaring prices amid international sanctions against Russia, but Brazil refused.
“We are … doing everything possible with our allies and partners to mitigate the economic impacts of Russian actions on other economies like Brazil,” a State Department spokesperson told Reuters. “We are working with energy companies to surge their capacity to supply energy to the market, particularly as prices increase.”
Yet Petrobras denied any meeting with the State Department. “It did not respond to a request for comment when asked if it had been contacted by any other U.S. government agency.” Reuters clarified.
The same day the report on the Petrobras meeting was published, Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland was back for an exclusive interview with BBC Brasil (effectively a soft propaganda instrument of main US ally the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in which she reiterated US desire to “free and fair elections” in Brazil, notwithstanding that the 2018 elections, with the leading candidate jailed in collusion with United States agencies can not be considered “free and fair”.
Crucially the BBC interviewer turns the narrative from denial of US intent to interfere in the election to the “threat” of Russian interference: “We will have presidential elections this year in Brazil. Does the US have any concerns or reason to believe that the Russians will try to interfere or meddle in the process?” the BBC asks.
Nuland riffs on the theme, without presenting evidence: “Obviously, we have concerns. We’ve seen Russia meddle in elections around the world, including in the United States and Latin America. Therefore, on my recent visit to Brazil, I urged the government to be extremely vigilant, and the opposition as well, to ensure that outside forces are not manipulating their electoral environment in any way. This needs to be an election by Brazilians for Brazilians, about their own future.”
Also key here is that the US Undersecretary of State claims to have communicated with “opposition”. It is so far unclear whom she is referring to. On her recent trip to Colombia, she reportedly met with all presidential candidates except leftist frontrunner Gustavo Petro.
Asked how the US would react interference in the electoral process, Nuland responds: “We want free and fair elections in countries around the world and particularly in democracies. We judge the legitimacy of those who claim to be elected based on if the election was free and fair and if the observers, internal and external, agree with that. So, we want to see, for the Brazilian people, free and fair elections in Brazil”.
This media-government back and forth completes what looks at the very least like a concerted public diplomacy exercise – an effort to ensure that, whatever happens in October, the United States can not be blamed for it.
That the CIA can casually release such information to a news agency about what it has permitted the Brazilian government can and cannot do during election should be a scandal in itself. It won’t be. It will however be a test of the tacit media embargo on mention of US intelligence relations with Brazil, its government and armed forces.
The question remains whether this orchestrated public diplomacy can be taken at face value, as many in the mainstream Brazilian media are doing, or if it masks genuine State Department objectives and involvement this October.
One thing is clear however: the Biden administration may not care for Bolsonaro’s public persona, but he has delivered for American interests, and just four years ago the US saw Lula jailed rather than allow him a return to the presidency – lest we forget – in a process set in motion while Joe Biden was vice president.
(Updated 10/5/22 with new relevant information)