No Tanks On The Streets: Brazilian General Villas Bôas Admits Military Behind Coup

Military string pulling in Brazil’s “long coup” which returned them to government becomes clearer with confessions from the now terminally ill former head of the armed forces who oversaw it.

Through an exhaustive series of interviews, adding up to thirteen hours in total, General Villas Bôas revealed a rekindled desire to remove the left from power dating back to 2008, which only intensified with the election of Dilma Rousseff.

Ten years later, without tanks on the street, their man was President, as barracks broke out into celebration across the country.

As journalist Kennedy Alencar insists, it is time for a complicit media to stop calling these admissions “controversies”, and acknowledge their profound historical importance, and their centrality to what happens next.

In an explosive new book by Celso Castro, published by FGV, former head of Brazil’s Armed Forces General Villas Boas has confessed to a coup plot by Military high command to jail former President Lula and prevent him running for President in 2018.

The General reveals how a group of 15 senior Generals drafted a text, threatening in tone, which was posted on social media by Villas Bôas, and read out on air shortly afterwards by anchorman William Bonner, during Globo’s Jornal Nacional flagship news programme. This occurred the night before a crucial Supreme Court habeas corpus vote which, had it passed, would allowed Lula to remain free, and thus able to run for the presidency six months later. It was defeated by a single vote, of a visibly worried Minister Rosa Weber, who stated that she was voting against her opinion, in light of threat from the military.

Villas Bôas later admitted, only once Bolsonaro was safely elected, that he had intentionally threatened the Supreme Court, but the new confessions shed much more light on what amounts to a long game by the Military, a concerted organised effort to control the result of the 2018 election, and prevent the Workers Party, which had already been ousted by a parliamentary coup in 2016, from returning to power.

This was to enable their own chosen candidate, former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, to run and win against a relatively unknown candidate. He was the democratic packaging for their coup.

After his election, Villas Bôas and Bolsonaro praised each other publicly. When he left his position to serve as special adviser to the Presidency, Villas Bôas, now already sick and confined to a wheelchair, publicly told the President: “You bring the necessary renewal and release of the ideological bonds that hijacked free thinking”.

Bolsonaro responded: “Thank you, Commander Villas Bôas. What we have talked about will die between us. You are responsible for me being here.”

In the latest interviews, Villas Bôas further demonstrates his Bolsonarista mindset, claiming that “The more gender equality, the more femicide grows; the more racial discrimination is combated, the more it intensifies; the greater the environmentalism, the more it harms the environment”.

Having built some notoriety for outlandish public statements, a media profile, and name recognition, Bolsonaro’s pre-candidacy began in earnest following Dilma Rousseff’s victory at the 2014 election, when he was allowed by the Generals to begin campaigning for support within the Armed Forces itself. One of them would be installed as his vice, a guarantor of power, and the resulting government was and is dominated by military figures, controlling more ministries than at any time since the dictatorship ended.

Media organisations such as Globo, who played their own important role in the coup, have operated an absolute blackout, yet much of what Villas Bôas has admitted has long been known or suspected, and what independent media, including Brasil Wire, has been publishing for years, is now being corroborated by admissions and official documents.

However, the General’s confession has shocked the country, as this information moves into the mainstream.

Responding to the revelations, journalist Kennedy Alencar at UOL wrote: “The retired general  played a decisive role in changing the country’s history by reducing the PT’s chance of winning the 2018 presidential election and paving the way for the rise to power of Jair Bolsonaro (without a party), the worst president in the history of Brazil.”

The United States and Operation Lava Jato

Underpinning both the ouster of Dilma Rousseff and Bolsonaro’s victory two years later was the once heralded, now disgraced, joint US-Brazil anti-corruption investigation Lava Jato, which was conducted in sometimes open, sometimes covert and illegal collaboration with the Department of Justice, FBI, SEC, and very possibly other US agencies. It deliberately kept its activities secret from the Rousseff government, which was being spied upon by the United States in a manner befitting a wartime adversary, as was its oil company Petrobras, and others involved in the Lava Jato investigation.

Private messages now released by the Supreme Court show how the Lava Jato investigation collaborated with with the United States government to deliver political goals, with US agents meeting Brazilian prosecutors as regularly as every two weeks. In the messages, the then judge Sérgio Moro, who would go on to be appointed as Bolsonaro’s Justice Minister, is seen urging direct (illegal) contact with U.S. authorities to pursue the “important” case against Lula. Head prosecutor of the Lava Jato task force, Deltan Dallagnol, called the former president’s arrest “a gift from the CIA“.

After his inauguration, Bolsonaro, accompanied by Sérgio Moro, became the first Brazilian President ever to visit CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Moro appears in leaked US State Department cables as early as 2009, in what appears to be discussion of a prototype Lava Jato investigation.

In light of Villas Bôas confessions, the working relationship between the Military and the implementers of the plot to jail Lula; Sérgio Moro, and the Lava Jato task force, appears yet more obvious and rudimentary. Moro was very useful to the Armed Forces, as Professor Manuel Domingos Neto observed: “The military love Sérgio Moro because he’s the face of moralism.”

Nowhere was this more flagrant than the Military awarding Moro their two highest honours. The first, the Peacemaker Medal, for “services to the Army” during the coup against Dilma Rousseff, and the other, the Order of Military Merit – the Armed Forces’ highest award, of which only 100 have ever been issued – just as Lula da Silva’s politically motivated prosecution neared its conclusion. 

The Brazilian Military are many things, subtle isn’t one of them.

Villas Bôas also confessed to there being pressure from the Business and Banking community for the military to intervene during Lula’s judgement. Another book, “Os Onze”, described how the Supreme Court and Workers Party faced an imminent threat of Military intervention – a “dark scenario” – during the 2018 election.

Leslie Backshies, the head of the FBI’s international corruption unit, who was active in Brazil from as early as 2012, boasted of how their collaboration with local prosecutors had “toppled Presidents” in Brazil.

The Coup against Dilma Rousseff

The Military’s involvement in Brazil’s democratic disintegration did not begin with the plot to jail former President Lula. In late 2020 Michel Temer revealed military collusion in the coup which brought him to the presidency at the expense of Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Villas Bôas confirms this consultation with then Vice President Temer on the possible approval of Rousseff’s impeachment. 

As Kennedy Alencar notes: “In practice, he secured the Armed Forces’ endorsement of the 2016 parliamentary coup and appointed the chief minister of Temer’s Institutional Security office, Sérgio Etchegoyen.”

Senator Romero Jucá was famously caught on tape talking of the military as an integral part of the ‘grand national agreement’ that was the plot to remove Dilma in 2016: “I’m talking to the generals, military commanders. Everything is quiet, the guys say they will guarantee it. They are monitoring the MST (landless workers movement), I don’t know what else to do…” This was depicted in Petra Costa’s Oscar nominated documentary, ‘Edge of Democracy’.

Crucially Villas Bôas also spoke of how the Military’s disquiet with the Workers Party and the wider left in government began years before obvious signs were visible. It intensified in 2008 after the demarcation of indigenous lands. This stirring was led by a group which included General Heleno, who already held a vendetta against Lula and the PT for their treatment over his disastrous MINUSTAH command in Haiti. Heleno was first choice for the Bolsonaro Vice Presidency, but instead took over the Insitutional Security office. The VP position was passed on to General Mourão, another of the group opposed to the Workers Party over land demarcation and other ideological issues. Mourão had been removed as head of Southern Command by Villas Bôas in 2015 for inciting a “patriotic battle” against the Rousseff government.

Around the same time as the land demarcation, during Lula’s second mandate, another key trigger for the Military desire to intervene politically was the National Truth Commission, already being pursued by a victim of torture during the dictatorship, Dilma Rousseff, who was then Lula’s chief of staff. After her election she put the commission to work, culminating in the release of its findings in 2014, which infuriated Military top brass. After the amnesty which absolved many responsible for horrors of the dictatorship, Generals and their families faced scrutiny and possible repercussions for the first time.

One of these was Sérgio Etchegoyen. General Etchegoyen and his family fought to have the name of their father, former General Leo Guedes Etchegoyen, who had died in 2003, removed from the list of 377 state agents considered responsible for crimes against humanity during the dictatorship. A tribunal voted to maintain Etchegoyen’s name on the list, further enraging his son.

After Dilma’s impeachment, Etchegoyen would be appointed head of the newly recreated Institutional Security Office (GSI), and Villas Bôas would be retained in his position. Dilma Rousseff recalls: “After the coup, in the form of an impeachment without a crime of responsibility, the military with whom Temer met repeatedly while plotting to overthrow the government stood by the new president – one maintaining command of the army, the other being named chief of the Institutional Security Office.”

The GSI had only been dissolved seven months earlier, following the dismissal of its head General José Elito Siqueira. Siqueira, the only military member of Rousseff’s cabinet, had been in conflict with Dilma for years over the National Truth commission, and was eventually fired on 2nd December 2015, when the GSI was folded into the Government Secretariat.

On the very same day, the impeachment request against Rousseff was accepted by President of Congress Eduardo Cunha, and the coup against her government officially began.

The Ghosts of ‘64

Developmentalist and Nationalist tendencies within the Brazilian military have been gradually supplanted by generations indoctrinated in the supremacy of Liberal economics, by WHINSEC and its predecessor the notorious School of the Americas. A young Villas Bôas was one such graduate in the 1960s.

Michel Temer admitted immediately after her removal that Dilma Rousseff was taken out, not for corruption or budgetary impropriety, as was alleged, but for her refusal to adopt the “Bridge to the Future” neoliberal policy document. This economic platform included a 20 year constitutionally enforced freeze on public education and health investment. The document caused controversy because appeared to have been translated from English and economist Marcio Pochmann noted similarities between “Bridge to the Future” and the “Government Economic Action Plan”, drawn up with the U.S. Government, which followed the Coup of 1964.

Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot, whose team member called for Lula to be shot in the head, told the World Economic Forum that Operation Lava Jato was “pro market”, a political position it was not supposed to have.

The military coup of 1964 was depicted by its supporters and foreign media such as the New York Times as a democratic revolution, and the dictatorship called itself a civil-military government.

Then as now, it was never only the military involved, and a “Government of Military and Business” is a realistic depiction of how Brazil is now ruled.

As many warned, key ingredients of the 1964 coup were present in Brazil during the multi-phase “long coup” of 2013-18; A plot to impeach a President, Brazilian Military and Business support, U.S. Government, Business and Military support, and crucially the penetration and steering of Brazil’s civil society, funded from both the Brazilian and U.S. business and banking communities, which now intertwine more closely than ever, at the Council of the Americas and other North American think tanks and lobbies, each with their own formidable capacity for propaganda.

Whereas from 1961-64 Brazil had the IPES and IBAD organisations, bankrolled by what would become Council of the Americas, which were “civil society” groups promoting “democracy” by campaigning against João Goulart and allied congressional candidates, in the modern era Brazil had neoliberal think tanks like Paulo Guedes’ Milennium Institute. Brazil also had protest organisations such as VemPraRua and MBL with foreign funding from the Atlas Network and its libertarian billionaire donors, plus a myriad of NGOs and media organisations with foreign philanthropic funding, which amongst other things helped infuse the June 2013 protests with a nebulous anti-corruption message – one which ultimately enabled Operation Lava Jato and a Bolsonaro presidency.

A key difference between this and a classical Military coup in the public imagination is the physical act of power transfer; the removal of presidents and candidates by force. In the modern era these were conducted by a compromised judiciary and law enforcement, under the tutelage of the Armed Forces. Great effort appears to have gone into deniability that a Military-led coup was taking place.

Always in the shadows; always there merely to “guarantee order and stability”; at the point of a gun; hidden under a General’s jacket.

Kennedy Alencar is indignant in his conclusion: “For those who gave testimony, concerned with their place in history, Villas Bôas made it very clear which path he decided to follow. The wrong one. The one towards the trash can of history.”

In 2014, when Brasil Wire was founded, it was motivated by fear that a coup was coming. That fear was justified. We and many others also saw that such a coup would not be characterised by tanks on the streets, but be the kind that had recently befallen Paraguay and Honduras – yet on a far grander scale, given the sheer size and complexity of the country. Such analyses, based on a plethora of available evidence including leaked documents, diplomatic communications, expert opinion, the geopolitical scenario and historical precedents, were dismissed as “conspiracy theory” and laughed off by some in the media who were effectively paid to obscure and obfuscate what was really happening in the country, such as claiming, as the U.S. State Department itself did, that “Brazil’s institutions are working”.

Once again Brazil’s diligent independent media got it right. Corporate media, by accident or design, got it tragically wrong.

Nobody is laughing now. And the coup is by no means over.