Brazil is still haunted by the ghosts of June 2013. Seven years on, as anti-government protests grow and police violence intensifies, its lesser known stories need to be re-examined in light of what has happened to the country since, and what is now better understood.
To this day, June 2013’s popular portrayal obscures espionage, infiltration, manipulation, incitement and the seeds of an economically and diplomatically submissive, re-militarized Brazil.
June 2013 can no longer be evaluated on its optics, nor can the geopolitical context in which it happened be dismissed.
“As a journalist, left-wing political activist and citizen, I have already established a belief about what is happening.
A crowd whose direction (course) became attacking public institutions, without representatives, kidnapped by far-right groups, which rejects political parties and harasses left-wing protesters, not only does not represent me but becomes something to be fought politically.
Or does anyone think that sectors of the armed forces and the Brazilian right are watching all this with their arms crossed?”
– Marco Weissheimer, journalist – Viomundo, 22/06/2013.
On June 5 2013, the world was shaken by the first revelations from a massive leak of documents from the United States National Security Agency, which was released to the media by former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor turned whistleblower, Edward Snowden.
The news was broken by Brazil-based journalist Glenn Greenwald, and over the coming days and weeks it would become clear that Brazil’s centre-left President Dilma Rousseff, her ministries, Brazil’s development bank, its agencies and strategic companies were being extensively surveilled by the U.S. Government and its “Five Eyes” allies such as Canada and the United Kingdom. There were obvious reasons for Brazil’s targeting by the United States: the strategic importance of its resources, its increasingly close relationship with China and Russia, namely protagonism in the BRICS multipolar system, and regional integration projects, which stood in the way of U.S. plans for the continent, according to then Ambassador, Thomas Shannon Jr.
Brazil was being spied upon to an extent befitting an adversary in times of war, not a friendly hemispheric partner.
Then a minor congressman, Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the U.S. espionage story as an attempt by Rousseff to distract from her political problems at home. He was joined in this by PSDB’s Nilson Leitáo, Ronaldo Caiado, of Dictatorship-heir party Democratas, and their future President of Congress, Rodrigo Maia; all of whom allied with the coming coup that would topple Rousseff, three years later.
Following the leak, Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon immediately fell on his sword, tendering his resignation as National Security Adviser that same day. Donilon would join both Council of the Americas elite member BlackRock and the Council on Foreign Relations over the subsequent months, taking with him the most intimate knowledge of U.S. policy and its long term goals in Brazil and Latin America as a whole.
Just 24 hours later, on June 6 2013, the first sizable protest of what would come to be called the jornadas do junho, took place in Sáo Paulo.
Organisers, the Passe Livre (Free public transport) movement, had held smaller protests in the months prior, but they began to take on new dimensions and diffuse messages, which even briefly included anger at the U.S. for mass spying on the Brazilian population.
One week later, on June 13, repression of the demonstrations had escalated. They would then multiply, fuelled to a large extent by public outrage at journalists being deliberately targeted with tear gas and rubber bullets. Targeting the faces and eyes of protesters and journalists has been a feature of police actions elsewhere, such as Chile in 2019, and most recently in the United States.
Photos of one of the journalists, Folha do Sáo Paulo’s Giuliana Vallone (pictured), with a serious eye injury, were on the cover of practically every newspaper the following day.
Vallone’s account of her ordeal was shared millions of times:
“I had already left the main conflict zone – in Consolacáo, where I had already been threatened by a Police officer for filming the violence – when I was hit. I was on Augusta with very few protesters on the street. I tried to help a woman lost in the chaos and take her inside a parking lot. The Choque (Riot Police) had returned to the truck carrying them. I checked to see if they had left when they came out again. I didn’t see any violent demonstrations around me, I didn’t speak in any way against the Police, I was using my Folha Identification and I wasn’t even recording the scene. I saw the policeman take aim at me and my dear colleague Leandro Machado and shoot. I got shot in the face. The doctor said my glasses possibly saved my eye. I covered both protests this week. I don’t regret participating in this coverage at all (although my family will freak out with that statement). I think what happened to me, other journalists and protesters, shows that there is, yes, a right side and a wrong side to this history. Which side do you Samba?”
– Giuliana Vallone, journalist. 14/06/2013.
In the end it only took a few Sáo Paulo Military Police officers to spark the next wave of protest; it would now be nationwide, and it would would shake Dilma Rousseff’s Government to its foundations.
Dozens of activist groups, political parties, social movements, cultural collectives, artists and digital influencers were all now onboard with this inchoate uprising, and were encouraging their followers to join. By the next morning, many of them did not know what it was.
“Are you singing the national anthem? They won’t be satisfied with the government until Olavo de Carvalho reaches the presidency.”
– Maira Mee, activist, 8pm 17/6/2013
Images of that first night of mass demonstrations, June 17, were beamed around the world, as São Paulo’s protesters took the Marginal Pinheiros highway, and those in Brasilia occupied the roof of congress. Yet this time, with cameras watching, the Military Police did not intervene.
In the main flashpoint of Sáo Paulo, the Military Police were controlled by the centre-right opposition, the then U.S.-backed PSDB.
“Police violence was sponsored by the state government, an intermediary sphere between the federal and municipal governments in the hands of the opposition. We will never know whether the governor [Geraldo Alckmin] ordered the repression. We know that the military police has a considerable degree of autonomy.
The repression in São Paulo triggered the national uprising. At that point, the Right hijacked the form of the protests, taking advantage of its anti-state and anti-politics bias. After a decade of marginalization, the conservative camp found in the format of the 2013 protests a channel through which it could make a comeback in the political arena.
It is fundamental to clarify that the conservative movements instrumentalized the form of the protests, but not the content, which they promptly discarded. Instead, they expressed the resentments of the middle class after a decade of progressive politics in Brazil.”
– Fernando Haddad, 2018
Given what the Sáo Paulo Military Police actions had generated politically, Fernando Haddad, then City Mayor, opened up the possibility that Sáo Paulo PSDB State Governor Geraldo Alckmin gave the order for Police to target Journalists; that it was a deliberate and strategic provocation.
At that moment whoever PSDB put up as a candidate was almost certain to lose against Rousseff.
By June 20 the demonstrations were solidly anti-government in character, with visible far-right elements, and buildings such as the Foreign Ministry in Brasília, and City Hall in São Paulo attacked by protesters. Brazil was now in flames.
“There’s an unwritten understanding among foreign correspondents that the U.S. wants PSDB in power.”
– American journalist, off record, 22/6/2013
Police and Military Training
In June 2013, the FIFA Confederations Cup football tournament was underway in Brazil, the FIFA World Cup was due the following year, the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 and, over previous years, training programmes had been set in motion between Brazilian State Governments and the United States.
According to investigative journalism platform Agência Pública, from 2012, the FBI and other agencies had been training 837 police officers from 12 host cities on a variety of courses, which also included digital investigation and even media relations – at a cost of $2.2 million US dollars in the first two years.
Between 4th and 7th of June 2013, a U.S. Police training programme was being conducted in Brasília called “Project Centurion” which taught officers “to securely exchange intelligence information with U.S. agencies and 51 other countries”. 29 Police officers participated.
In addition, according to Folha de Sáo Paulo newspaper, Academi (formerly Blackwater), the private Paramilitary organisation founded by Erik Prince, was conducting training of Brazilian Soldiers and Federal Police agents at its base in Mayok, North Carolina.
“We do not ask, we do not propose, we do not indicate any specific direction. The organization, the dynamics, the instructors, the funding, the location, are all up to the US government.”
– Andrei Augusto Passos Rodrigues, Federal Police Delegate since 2002. Head of Extraordinary Security Secretariat for Major Events (SESGE)
Described as a “Macro Agreement” between the two countries, the training program continued unchanged even after the revelations of U.S. spying against President Dilma Rousseff. In effect an accord negotiated between friendly nations was being implemented by an adversary, within the other’s borders.
We cannot say if such training programmes had any impact at all on the policing of June 2013, only that they were underway, and that U.S. penetration and compromise of Brazil’s law enforcement had already long been a concern.
Between 1999 and 2004, journalist Bob Fernandes of magazine Carta Capital published 15 detailed reports on U.S. espionage activity in Brazil. He exposed a shocking level of American infiltration at both the Federal Police and Brazil’s Intelligence Agency, ABIN.
On April 13 2004, just over one year into Lula’s first term, Brazil’s Foreign Relations and National Defense Commission (CRE), together with the Joint Intelligence Control Commission, heard the testimony of Carlos Alberto Costa, the former head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in Brazil.
This hearing was called in urgent response to an interview with Fernandes published a month earlier, in which Costa admitted that the U.S. intelligence services were wiretapping the Presidential Palace and Itamaraty Foreign Ministry.
Costa also stated that the Brazilian Federal Police had been “bought” by the Americans.
In early 2012, the FBI guided a ‘Anonymous’ hacking operation against Brazilian targets, including Internal Affairs Division of the Military Police of Brazil and the Globo Television Network.
Jailed hacker Jeremy Hammond explained what he and others had been instructed to do: “The FBI took advantage of hackers who wanted to help support the Syrian people against the Assad regime, who instead unwittingly provided the U.S. government access to Syrian systems, undoubtedly supplying useful intelligence to the military and their buildup for war.”
More recently the Department of Justice and FBI’s expansion into Brazil included collaboration on discredited anti-corruption operation Lava Jato, which attempted to influence the 2014 election, underpinned the 2015/16 coup against Dilma Rousseff, and intentionally jailed Lula da Silva to prevent him returning to the Presidency in 2018.
And ABIN, the National Intelligence agency which should have technically been protecting Brazil from such infiltration of its law enforcement agencies was, according to Carlos Alberto Costa, “prostituting itself”, by asking for money from foreign governments, during the first Lula administration. (Source: Agência Senado).
ABIN’s general director in 2013, Wilson Roberto Trezza, explained that the agency was taken completely by surprise by the growth of the protests.
“This large demonstration arose mainly from an absolutely inexplicable and unexpected growth of the Passe Livre Movement. If you asked me on the first day, when 200 people met up, if I would say that, a week later, we will have 300 thousand people in Candelária – nobody would say that. Intelligence is not divination or an exercise in futurology, it is a technical activity. You work based on available data”
– Wilson Roberto Trezza, general director of the Brazilian Intelligence Agency – ABIN – Valor, 28/06/2013.
ABIN then announced that they were to begin monitoring social networks for suspicious activity, including WhatsApp. This is more significant with hindsight, given the role WhatsApp played in the subsequent campaign to impeach Dilma Rousseff and the election of Jair Bolsonaro. ABIN’s plan to monitor WhatsApp was ridiculed, yet the messaging platform’s function in the disinformation or “fake news” campaigns during the 2018 election is now central to calls for the annulment of the result.
ABIN’s plan to monitor social media also had the effect of re-directing fresh public anger, about NSA eavesdropping, towards Rousseff’s government itself.
ABIN is now under military control.
The Ghosts of ’64
The Military were widely perceived as bystanders during June 2013 and the coup that followed. Yet some were joining in.
According to firsthand information received by Brasil Wire, U.S. Colonel Keith W. Anthony, who served as commandant of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) was present at demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro to protest against Dilma Rousseff.
WHINSEC is the re-brand for the School of the Americas, notorious for the training of dictators and torturers, but is also known for the indoctrination of Latin American military personnel with monetarist ideology and the superiority of the U.S. system. WHINSEC/SOA has had a longtime home in Rio de Janeiro’s Escola Superior de Guerra (Higher War College), where the U.S. first trained Brazilians its own National Security Doctrine – namely that the enemy is internal, not external, which turned Brazil’s and other Latin American militaries into what Noam Chomsky called “glorified Police Forces”.
Maria Helena Moreira Alves, in State and Opposition in Military Brazil, talks of this in the context of the 1964 military coup: “The immediate antecedent of the takeover of state power was a well-orchestrated destabilization policy, which involved multinational corporations*, associated-dependent Brazilian capital, the U.S. government, and Brazil’s military–in particular, a group of military officers of the Higher War College (Escola Superior de Guerra, ESG).” (*Business Group/Council of the Americas).
James Green writes in ‘We cannot remain silent’: “A month after the coup, the U.S. ambassador gave his fourth talk at the Escola Superior de Guerra. This institution, founded in 1949 and modelled after the U.S. National War College, provided a forum for military and civilian leaders to exchange ideas about Brazilian national problems and international issues. Lincoln Gordon’s talk “New Perspectives on Brazilian-North American Relations,” offered an optimistic view of international politics…Gordon pointed to four recent victories for the “cause of freedom” in the world: the growing Sino-Soviet split; large scale purchases of U.S. wheat by the Soviet government, reflecting a weakening of its national economy; recent elections in Venezuela and the “Brazilian Revolution.” In Gordon’s assessment, the Brazilian Revolution stood side by side with the Marshall Plan, the end of the Berlin blockade, the defeat of Communist aggression in Korea, and the solution of the missile crisis in Cuba as one of the critical moments in world history at the mid century.”
The Dictatorship’s ideological legacy is embedded in the Brazilian military to this day.
Six years after the 2013 protests, outgoing head of Brazil’s Armed Forces, General Eduardo Villas Boas, himself a graduate of Rio’s Higher War College in Senior Policy and Strategy Studies, would congratulate newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro.
The intervention of Villas Boas in the prosecution of former President Lula is credited with his elimination from an election race he was on course to win, opening the door to a Bolsonaro presidency, and return of the Military to government for the first time since 1985. Bolsonaro would ultimately provide democratic packaging for military rule.
At a ceremony marking his departure from command of the Army to serve as special adviser to the government’s office of institutional security, Villas Bôas, now sick and confined to a wheelchair, told President Bolsonaro: “You bring the necessary renewal and release of the ideological bonds that hijacked free thinking.”
“Thank you, Commander Villas Bôas. What we have talked about will die between us. You are responsible for me being here.” Bolsonaro said.
After the mass protests erupted in mid to late June 2013, President Rousseff addressed the nation, initially trying to ride the protest wave and pass progressive legislation through a frightened congress. She would for example reiterate her call to constitutionally enforce that proceeds from Brazil’s enormous pré-sal offshore oil and gas fields to be invested in public education and health, a popular initiative which dismayed the multinationals. Rousseff also proposed a plebiscite for the formation of a constituent assembly on political reform. The latter would ultimately be blocked by her “opposition within Government”, Vice President, U.S. informant and eventual usurper, Michel Temer.
Some were already warning of a Temer-led parliamentary coup similar to the one that would eventually befall Rousseff, three years later.
Constitutional amendment PEC37, derided as “the legalisation of corruption”, in practice would’ve theoretically made the future excesses, institutional and economic damage of Operation Lava Jato impossible. It was voted down by a terrified congress, most of whom had supported it just weeks prior. This was, at the time, seen as a major victory for the protesters.
In this climate of destabilisation, under that pressure from the streets, in August 2013 Rousseff would, insisting she had nothing to hide, also hastily sign off on a package of anti-corruption legislation that would ultimately be both her own and her government’s undoing. These amendments, such as the admission of plea bargain testimony as evidence, enabled the birth of operation Lava Jato, which did not eradicate systemic corruption, as it purported to do, but ultimately broke Brazil’s democracy.
The ghosts of 1964 were already haunting Brazil in 2013, and in right wing circles, the Workers Party, then 10 years into Government, was being depicted, quite absurdly, as a “dictatorship”.
In April that year, Aécio Neves of PSDB had attracted quiet controversy by calling the 64 Military Coup a “revolution” at a private event. Neves had recently approached David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s strategist to help build his Presidential candidacy. Eighteen months later it would be Neves, whose grandfather Tancredo was credited with helping bring the dictatorship to an end, who would refuse to accept the election result, call his supporters to the streets, and initiate what would become the actual coup against Dilma Rousseff.
“The Brazilian Revolution”
“It cannot be compared with the Arab Spring, except for the use of technologies and social networks. I think it is more comparable with Turkey. I see these movements as post-modern May 68’s: collective emotion, which causes contagion and spreads uncontrollably. It can dry out, but leaving a real wound, and afterwards it cannot be as it was before.” – Michel Maffesoli, sociologist – O Globo, 22/06/2013.
Brazil’s 2013 protests were deemed “the Brazilian spring” without hesitation. In the southern hemisphere it was actually the beginning of winter.
In his speech at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro on March 20, 2011, Barack Obama talked about the Arab Spring to his Brazilian audience:
“Today we are seeing the struggle for these rights unfold across the Middle East and North Africa, we’ve seen a revolution borne out of a yearning for basic human dignity in Tunisia, we’ve seen peaceful protesters pour into Tahir Square, men and women, young and old, Christian and Muslim. We’ve seen the people of Libya take a courageous stand against a regime determined to brutalise its own citizens. Across the region, we’ve seen young people rise up, a new generation demanding the right to determine their own future. From the beginning we have made clear that the change they seek must be driven by their own people.”
Beneath the surface, there was tension between the Obama administration and Rousseff’s Government over what was happening in the Middle East, the U.S. role in it, and in particular the issue of Libya.
“Brazil – a country that shows that a dictatorship can become a thriving democracy. Brazil – a country that shows democracy delivers both freedom and opportunity to its people…..Brazil – a country that shows how a call for change that starts in the streets, can transform a city, transform a country, transform a world.” the U.S. President concluded.
Brazilians who knew how the so called Arab Spring actually developed had every reason to be wary of what they were seeing in their own country. Doubters warned of right-wing infiltration, possible hidden influence on the protests, and the intense social media storm which was fuelling them.
The perception that something was wrong on the streets, that it could be the beginning of a coup, was quite common. So was reflexive denial that this could possibly be the case. Brazil is an enormous and complex country, and the coup didn’t happen then as some had feared, but June 2013 was the first rupture that would enable it.
Fernando Haddad later talked about how he and his colleagues were taken completely off guard by the explosion of discontent on social networks, and about how at that time they knew nothing of the digital propaganda strategies now associated the rise of the far-right internationally.
“During the protests of 2013, there was already a perception that the virtual intervention could be sponsored. There was no mention back then of Cambridge Analytica, a company that would go on to intervene in Trump’s election using data mining.”
“Would there have been an Occupy Wall Street in the United States with a left-wing government in power? The question sets out the problem. When the protests exploded, 80 percent of the population supported Dilma Rousseff’s government, which was widely considered to be left-wing. There were no corruption scandals, inflation was low, and the economy was still growing.” – Fernando Haddad, 2018
It is difficult to convey just how dramatic and disorientating this sequence of events was. To this day, many of the protests original protagonists refuse to countenance that they may have been unwittingly used for a political purpose that was not their own.
Inspired by the role of citizen media in the Arab Spring, in March 2013 a new Brazilian independent network was born, called Mídia Ninja. Originating from the controversial Fora do Eixo organisation, it was launched with coverage of the World Social Forum in Tunisia. Tunisia had been the model of the North African revolutions, yet was by then hurtling towards chaos following the assassination of secular leader Chokri Belaid one month before. By June 1, Ninja was reporting directly from the Gezi protests in Turkey. It would then become the de-facto “critical left” voice of Brazil’s June 2013 protests, and succeed in initially shaping the mainstream narrative, before coming under fire itself.
Mídia Ninja was lauded internationally, in newspapers such as in the New York Times and Guardian. Its leaders would go on to back State Department favoured liberal-left, environmental candidate at the 2014 election, Marina Silva, of the newly created Rede Sustanabilidade (Sustainability Network) Party. Yet, once Marina’s Presidential run was over, they would support Rousseff at the second round, and then adopt an unambiguous anti-coup position. International media interest in Ninja appeared to evaporate as quickly its resistance to the coup grew.
Several weeks into June 2013’s mass protests, with the support of hegemonic media, the core messages and character of those on the streets had shifted from left to right, with a confused and nebulous anti-politics, anti-corruption sentiment, and its original protagonists went home in dismay.
With symbols of the traditional left attacked by the growing far-right presence, under chants of “Sem Partido!” (No Parties!), many present could not explain why they were there at all. There was also an insistence that the protests were uniquely horizontal and leaderless, despite there being both visible and unseen individuals controlling media platforms and protest organisation.
The concept of leaderless resistance was coined by retired CIA officer Ulius Louis Amoss in the 1950s. He proposed it as a means by which to prevent penetration and destruction of CIA cells in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. His ideas were then adopted by White Nationalist groups in the United States during the 1980s, and critics point to how protest can be co-opted when deploying these strategies.
How quickly and easily June 2013 was hacked and inverted should be a lesson to any protest movement. Both left and right now cite it as the beginning of the process which got Brazil to where it now is. For Brazil’s progressives the timing could not have been worse; what they then believed was their moment had been stolen, and helped send Brazil directly into the arms of reaction and neo-colonial submission.
Sociological attempts to define and explain the June 2013 protests, taken at face value, now look obsolete given what has happened to Brazil since. Yet much of the historical record is written in these terms.. Now, people openly talk about June 2013 in the context of unconventional war strategy and colour revolutions, given their eventual result.
Conversely, corporate commentators still talk about the protests within the frame of a growing “dissatisfied middle class”, which is similar to the language with which newspapers such as the New York Times used to whitewash Chile’s Military Coup of 1973.
As they did Chile’s coup against Salvador Allende, the business community privately cheered the wave of politically ambiguous black bloc protests that shadowed June 2013, in the expectation that they would further destabilise Rousseff ahead of the coming election.
The English language hashtag #ChangeBrazil circulated for the eyes of the world. “Change Brazil” would then be the name chosen for the right-wing bloc behind U.S.-backed PSDB at the 2014 election, the parliamentary group which would ultimately bring down Dilma Rousseff via impeachment.
There was another forgotten, and perhaps trivial footnote to June 2013: the arrest of Justin Jasper in the United States. The 22 year old from Las Vegas, who described himself as an “self-employed journalist” and “anarchist”, was discovered in Seattle, near the University of Washington, sleeping in a truck containing body armour and multiple weapons, including a scoped rifle, shotgun and around 10 Molotov cocktails.
He was carrying detailed maps to three Seattle campuses and a recording of a podcast in which he said he was going to back the “Brazilian revolution” by doing something “somewhere in the Western United States.”, “I’m going to make sure people understand and notice it,” Jasper said.
Amidst the white noise of the protests, this bizarre story briefly seemed more pertinent than it likely was, yet it was at the least indicative of how what was happening inside Brazil was being perceived outside. International perception of June 2013 was shaped by a small, closely-knit group of Anglo journalists. Their reporting was not always accurate, nor was it always in good faith.
Whatever was in Jasper’s head, down in Brazil something quite different was in motion, perhaps the very opposite of his imaginings.
There are many more hidden stories from that Brazilian winter, and this essay does not intend to explain unequivocally what happened, but to perhaps provoke new conversations about what did.
As a nation again attempts to free itself from far-right, military dominated governance, the lessons of how it got here – not least the lessons of June 2013 – may hold the key to its future.