“Free And Fair”: US Government’s Unsettling New Calm On Brazil Election

Until recently US lawmakers and officials had warned of “democratic decline” in Brazil. Now emerges a new official insistence that the coming election will be “free and fair”. There are few examples in Latin American history that suggest anyone should take such a statement at face value.

Over the the past twelve months, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, and CIA director William Burns, have all, through official statements, interviews, or media leaks, commented on threats to the electoral process in Brazil ahead of the October 2 presidential election, a do or die vote, considered to be the most pivotal since restoration of democracy in the 1980s.

Yet in the past week, both incoming United States Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, at her Senate confirmation hearing, and US Assistant Secretary of Commerce Don Graves, have appeared with a new and near identical script.

This new narrative seeks calm and asserts that Brazil’s 2022 presidential elections will be “free and fair”. A return to familiar reasurring language of public diplomacy.

Brazilian analysts do not agree. On the eve of Bagley’s hearing, the UN Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Diego Garcia, received a document in which 85 Brazilian professors and jurists warned of an “unprecedented” authoritarian risk to the October election.

“Brazil’s institutions are working” redux

In their letter to the UN, the Brazilian scholars wrote: “Those who believe that democracy in Brazil is sufficiently guaranteed and protected, and that the institutions are functioning perfectly, are mistaken. It is not exactly easy to see when the line between democracy and dictatorship has been crossed, and Brazil may be crossing that line in the coming months.”

At her hearing, Ambassador Bagley was challenged on Bolsonaro’s threats to the electoral process.

“You are going to a country where democratic regression is a real concern. We are concerned as the current leader of Brazil is tempted to undermine the essence of the electoral process,” said Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, President of the Foreign Relations Commission.

Bagley told Senators that despite what Bolsonaro has said, Brazil “…has democratic institutions, an independent Judiciary and Legislature, freedom of expression. They have all democratic institutions to carry out free and fair elections. I know that it will not be an easy process, because of all the comments from him (Bolsonaro), but, despite that, we all have these institutions and we will continue to express confidence and expectation in a fair election,”.

Bagley then went on to praise Bolsonaro’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos França, and the Minister of the Economy, Paulo Guedes, as “moderates”.

Bagley’s praise of Guedes is key, as he was central to US business support for the Bolsonaro project in 2018. In economic terms at least, Guedes is no moderate. The Chicago school graduate is an advocate of extremist ultraliberal policy, and a veteran of Pinochet’s Chile.

Meanwhile Bolsonaro’s pro-US, pro-Israel Minister of Foreign Affairs, França has voiced opposition to the presence of EU election observers in October, on the grounds that Brazil is not a member of the European Union. This followed the exposure of a Mossad-linked Israeli cybersecurity firm which had been irregularly contracted by the Brazilian Armed Forces to help “supervise” the election.

Also noteworthy is that the hearing focussed on insinuations of Russian and Chinese electoral interference, and the tenuous suggestion that Bolsonaro, the most US-subservient Brazilian president in history, and the military-dominated government he fronts, is somehow allied with Vladimir Putin. The unsubstantiated idea that Russia might meddle in the October election was first suggested in a BBC Brasil interview with Undersecretary of State, Victoria Nuland.

As the United States also considered Brazil’s 2018 election to be legitimate, despite then and current frontrunner Lula da Silva jailed through a trumped up prosecution in which the US was directly involved, the return of this newfound confidence in the electoral system is noteworthy, coinciding as it does with some developments in bilateral relations which should impact the Biden administration’s electoral preferences. This of course includes the need for Brazilian crude oil to offset the issues with Russian supply.

From “democratic decline” to “free and fair”

In September 2021, the same Senate democrats had sounded the alarm on Brazil’s “democratic decline and creeping authoritarianism under Bolsonaro”.

A letter to Secretary of State Blinken from Menendez along with Dick Durbin, Ben Cardin, and Sherrod Brown voiced their concerns over Brazilian “President Jair Bolsonaro’s defiance of basic democratic norms.” echoing the themes discussed at Bagley’s hearing eight months later.

The Senators wrote of Bolsonaro’s “repeated challenges to the rule of law and promises to disregard rulings of his country’s Supreme Court”, that he “has reiterated that he will only end his current tenure in office by being ‘jailed, killed, or victorious.’”, “has repeatedly insisted that he will refuse to concede the elections if he loses.” and that “He also claims, without evidence, that these elections will constitute a farce marred by fraud barring a substantial reform to the voting system.”

The Senators letter concluded, however, with a telling remark, echoed in Bagley’s hearing: “Our partnership with Brazil should be a bulwark against undemocratic actors, from China and Russia to Cuba and Venezuela, which seek to undermine democratic stability in our hemisphere.”

It was at the time of the Senator’s letter to Secretary of State Blinken that he met in New York with Brazilian Foreign Minister Carlos França.

Blinken made no public remarks about Brazil’s democratic process, then went on to skip a potentially embarrassing Brazil visit on his subsequent South American tour. He would call França again in January 2022 however, urging the Bolsonaro government to ally with the US against anticipated Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Subsequently the US asked Petrobras to increase crude oil production to cover shortfall in Russian supply caused by the war and subsequent sanctions. Petrobras refused.

On April 1, members of Lula’s team announced in Folha de S.Paulo newspaper a game changing plan for a unified currency to help integrate and protect sovereignty in South America, removing dependence on the US dollar.

Weeks later, a delegation, containing multiple energy officials and led by Victoria Nuland, went to Brazil for “high level dialogue” with the Bolsonaro government. Shortly after meetings, a plan to privatise Petrobras was announced, which was interpreted as an attempt for Bolsonaro to secure the kind of national and international business backing he enjoyed in 2018.

In addition, on the same day state energy company Eletrobras moved one step further towards privatisation, which former president Dilma Rousseff described as an abdication of Brazil’s sovereignty.

This makes the subtle change of script from US officials all the more unsettling.

Business as usual

On May 18, as Elizabeth Bagley was being prepared for her Ambassadorial post, US Assistant Secretary of Commerce Don Graves was leading a mission of 70 American corporate executives to Brazil, Graves told media that businessmen from both countries are not worried about the Brazilian electoral system and the risks of instability. “The real concern is with the resilience of supply chains, inflationary pressures and facilitating investments on both sides.” Graves insisted.

Graves said, echoing Bagley’s remarks, that the Biden administration believes that “a winner will be elected freely and fairly in Brazil”, and that he hopes that after the elections, business and trade between the two countries “continues as usual”, in what he called a “long-term partner democracy”.

One of Graves’ priorities was to convince Brazilian authorities on the importance of President Jair Bolsonaro’s presence at the June 9-10 Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Bolsonaro has not yet made a decision whether to attend. Given democratic threats made by Bolsonaro, his invitation contradicts official justifications for the exclusion of Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela, which threaten the Summit’s already diminished credibility.

Update: On May 24 former US Democratic Senator & lobbyist and Biden advisor Christopher Dodd met Jair Bolsonaro at the Planalto Palace, outside the president’s official schedule. He was joined by US embassy business officer Douglas Koneff, with the special envoy reportedly sent by President Biden to talk Bolsonaro into attending the Summit of the Americas.

Graves said the US Department of Agriculture and the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture are working with the White House to find alternative fertilizer sources to Brazil, after Bolsonaro’s meeting with Putin to secure supply. This also needs to be viewed in context of the decimation of Brazil’s own fertilizer manfuacturing capacity, caused by the US-backed carve up of Petrobras.

On the same day as Bagley’s hearing, Brazilian Senator, Carlos Bolsonaro, son of current far-right president, told SBT news that without changes at the Electoral Court (TSE), the response to defeat in October will not be “judicial”. It was the latest threat of what is being called the most pre-announced coup in history.

Bolsonaro said “you only have to look at what is happening in the United States”, it is assumed referring to what is also being called a coup threat.

This puts him, his father and the government on the opposite side to the Biden administration and DNC – domestically. Does this automatically translate into support for opposition to Bolsonaro? Possibly. Does it signify US desire for frontrunner Lula to win? Absolutely not.

Regardless, the Biden administration is intensifying meetings with a US-allied president and government which is heading for defeat and openly threatening a coup if they don’t win the election.

US preference

Regardless of change in US leadership, the military dominated government which Bolsonaro fronts came to power through a process which straddled the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.

Recent US media coverage, such as in the Washington Post, has talked up Bolsonaro’s modest growth in opinion polls following the exit of Sergio Moro from the race, and has cast doubt on Lula’s ability when he is anything up to 20 points ahead, while in Brazil itself major newspapers such as Folha de S.Paulo are instead detailing the coup threat, reiterating that this election should not be treated as normal.

It is increasingly difficult to imagine any genuine US preference for a Lula government, despite reductive wishful thinking to that effect. Would he bring stability? Economically, administratively, he would bring competence and coherence after four years of kakistocracy, but not necessarily to the benefit of the United States. A cursory glance over US attitudes towards him as president from 2003-2010, in State Department cables and other communications, reveals a passive hostility. Obama’s frivolous “you’re the man” or “world’s most popular president” remarks about Lula have long since ceased to have meaning, not least in light of the US role in his prosecution and jailing to prevent his return to office, which was in motion long before Trump’s election.

The leaked account of Burns’ meeting with Bolsonaro loyalist chiefs General Heleno (Insitutional Security Office) and Ramagem (ABIN, Brazilian Intelligence) made it sound as if their meetings with the CIA in Brasilia were not a routine occurrence. Occasionally these meetings are revealed by accident, as was with General Etchegoyen, Heleno’s predecessor.

Put simply: At every stage, the US supported the processes that returned the Brazilian Military to government.

There are of course genuine signs that there are progressive voices in the DNC who favour a Lula victory, with caveats, and also a core in the Biden administration who would prefer Bolsonaro – or at least Paulo Guedes – to remain in power.

So long as the latter outcome happened “freely and fairly”, who could complain?