NYT and Latin American Coups: In Hybrid War “Nuance” Is A Rhetorical Weapon

On June 10, 2020, the New York Times ran a front page article headlined “Coup Threats Rattle Brazil as Virus Deaths Surge”.

To seasoned Brazil watchers this was not in itself shocking. The writing has been on the wall for quite some time. President Jair Bolsonaro and his far-right supporters have threatened such an “auto-coup”; the dissolving of congress and the supreme court, since before he was even elected in October 2018.

What did exacerbate existing concerns was how quickly the New York Times altered its headline.

Within a matter of hours, out was the word “Coup”, replaced with “Military Action”.

Observers asked why the headline was changed, and who gave the instruction. Given historical precedents, their alarm was justified.

After all it was the New York Times, in 1993, whom an osbscure ex-military congressman told that if he was ever elected he would initiate an “auto-coup” inspired by Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, on his first day in office. 25 years later that man was President.

Such a move now would mark the consolidation of gradual military takeover of governance in Brazil since the 2016 coup to oust President Dilma Rousseff.

Just two days previously, on June 8, the NYT had admitted that its depiction of of Bolivia’s October 2019 election as fraudulent had been wrong, based on false information provided by the Organisation of American States. Think Tank CEPR had provided extensive evidence attesting to the validity of the election, which was ignored or dismissed, with doubt cast upon the honesty of the organisation itself.

At the time of Bolivia’s coup, a NYT interpreter column headlined “Bolivia Crisis Shows the Blurry Line Between Coup and Uprising” argued that “The Cold War binary of “bad” coups and “good” popular revolts no longer applies”, and insisting that “experts on Bolivia and on coups joined forces on Monday to challenge the black-and-white characterizations, urging pundits to see the shades of grey.”

In this era of hybrid war, there is a tendency to define a “coup” purely in terms of aesthetics – for it to mean “old school” military takeovers; tanks on the streets, politicians arrested, civilians massacred and so on. Given that Bolivia ticked most of these boxes, and added a few news ones of its own, such as the use of paramilitary militias to physically attack and humiliate elected officials,  the coup’s western media whitewash required a new level of intellectual gymnastics, especially when compared to Brazil’s slow motion institutional creep.

Conversely, the OAS had congratulated Brazil on its 2018 election, in which the leading candidate Lula da Silva, had been jailed to keep him from running, against the explicit requests of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Beyond this, the election was also stained by illegal disinformation campaigns, voter disenfranchisement and other irregularities. Yet the OAS made no complaint whatsoever.

August 22 2020 DataFolha poll had former President Lula 20% ahead of nearest rival Jair Bolsonaro, and on brink of a first round victory

As a result, Brazil’s 2018 election was and still is repeatedly referred to in Western media as “free and fair” when it was nothing of the sort, and it’s possible annulment by the Supreme Electoral Court is the principal motivation behind the “auto-coup” threat.

Dilma Rousseff had forewarned that the 2018 election would be the second phase of the coup which brought down her government, two years prior. She was right. She also predicted that, as had happened 50 years prior, a new more repressive authoritarian phase of the coup was still to come.

Following the NYT piece, the Brazilian Embassy in the U.S. issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to democratic ideals. The statement was shared un-ironically by Luis Almagro, head of the OAS.

“Brazil’s institutions are working” was the mantra of pro-coup pundits in the buildup to Rousseff’s ouster, and the rhetorical emphasis on constitutionality has been a feature of practically every coup in the region. Venezuela in 2002, Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2012, Brazil in 2016, Venezuela and Bolivia in 2019 shared similar scripts, and just as the NYT was admitting its mistakes on Bolivia, documents were released which indicated a new U.S.-backed coup plot against Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Late on Friday 12th May 2020, the Brazilian Presidential Palace issued a statement, signed by President Bolsonaro, Vice President General Hamilton Mourão and Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, which was seen as formalisation of the military takeover threat. Just a few weeks prior six former Defence ministers issued a plea for the Armed Forces to protect Brazil’s democracy and resist calls for intervention.

“No evidence”

Media denial of Latin American coups is an obvious flag for foreign involvement. There’s a long tradition of this, not least in the New York Times.

Insertion of doubt is often even more effective than outright denial.

In 1973, it was deemed paternalistic to suggest that CIA was involved in the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende. The day after his death, a New York Times editorial entitled “Tragedy in Chile” attempted to apportion blame for the coup on its principal victim.

“No Chilean party or faction can escape some responsibility for the disaster, but a heavy share must be assigned to the unfortunate Dr. Allende himself. Even when the dangers of polarization had become unmistakably evi dent, he persisted in pushing a program of pervasive socialism for which he had no popular mandate. His governing coalition—especially his own Socialist party—pursued this goal by dubious means, including attempts to bypass both Congress and the courts. Dr. Allende might have survived had he been able or willing to consolidate his considerable gains for socialism and to offer genuine cooperation in the Congress to the opposition Christian Democrats, Chile’s largest party.”

Crucially it then tried to suggest that even the well known U.S. plots against Allende, about which he had spoken at the 1972 United Nations General Assembly, were unrelated to current events in Chile.

“While there is no evidence that the Nixon Administration seriously considered the maneuvers against Dr. Allende suggested in 1970 by the C.I.A. or the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, it is essential that Washington meticulously keep hands off the present, crisis, which only Chileans can resolve. There must be no grounds whatsoever for even a suspicion of outside intervention.”

One year later this deceit was exposed, by journalist Seymour Hersh, in the New York Times.

The modern iteration of the paternalism trope is the claim that to suggest, or even demonstrate U.S. involvement, “denies agency” to the local opposition.

There also persists a disingenuous either/or strawman which attempts to force definition of regime change operations as being solely internal or foreign in origin, when, in Latin America and elsewhere, they almost always involve domestic powers in collusion with foreign support, in recent times usually the United States Government and/or its private actors.

There is, then, something quite perverse about treating US foreign correspondents as sole arbiters of whether their country is interfering in the one where they are based.

Edge of Democracy

Many NYT readers would only discover the reality of what happened in Brazil from 2013-18 through Petra Costa’s oscar-nominated documentary ‘The Edge of Democracy’, albeit with Bolsonaro already in power.

That it took that long was a result of a media failure equivalent to editorial cover the NYT and others gave to the Iraq invasion, or the destruction of Libya.

Brazil watchers are accustomed to “nuance” from the New York Times. It was dripping from their coverage of the 2016 mediatic/institutional coup against Dilma Rousseff. With self-proclaimed “Brazil experts” on hand to provide “nuanced” takes which merely obfuscated the situation for the average reader.

In an April 2016 piece on the New York Times opinion pages headlined A House-Cleaning or a Coup? Is Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment a crackdown on corruption or a takeover by influential conservatives?”, several ostensibly different viewpoints were presented in short columns.

Final of the three was Economist Laura Carvalho, who was able to state unequivocally, and correctly, that Rousseff’s ouster was a coup, but only after Carlos Pio, a partner in Augurium Risk Consultants had claimed the opposite, even insisting that Rousseff’s clearly illegitimate impeachment was positive for democracy.

But first up was Bloomberg writer Alex Cuadros, under the almost comic heading: “The Dispute in Brazil Is Far From Black and White”. Whilst criticising its corrupt protagonists, Cuadros accused Dilma Rousseff of “conveniently oversimplifiying” her ouster  in calling it a coup, adding that “The Workers’ Party has itself to blame for using bribery to maintain power.”

Four years later it is very clear that of those writers, only Carvalho gave an accurate reading of Brazil’s situation. Yet it was reduced to a matter of opinion. It is unclear how the average NYT reader would have interpreted the combination of these three viewpoints.

Similar was done over former President Lula’s arrest, and irregularities in the prosecution were systematically ignored.

“Anti-Corruption” cheerleader and friend of Judge Sérgio Moro, Council of the Americas’ Brian Winter, complained and demanded alterations to a op-ed by Lula in the New York Times which warned of the right-wing coup underway in Brazil, and even published what he called a “more honest” version of it. On the Latin America desk of the NYT was Juliana Barbassa, a former colleague of Winter at COA’s in house magazine, Americas Quarterly. Winter congratulated the NYT on publishing “corrections”. Two months later Jair Bolsonaro was President-elect of Brazil.

 The Vaza Jato leaks published by the Intercept would later confirm that Lula’s prosecution was indeed a political persecution as the former President had insisted, and his removal from the 2018 election was a coup in its own right, with Sergio Moro effectively bringing far-right Bolsonaro to power in exchange for the Justice Minister position. It also confirmed that United States agents were operating illegally, and in secret, within the prosecution.

Jair Bolsonaro and his sons Eduardo, Flavio and Carlos at Council of the Americas Headquarters, New York, 2017

Commentary which is ostensibly from the left, yet originating from corporate philanthropy, right-wing think tanks and Libertarian organisations helped cast doubt upon not only on the 2016 coup, but also on Bolsonaro’s far-right credentials. There was denial, for example, that he could really be called a “fascist”. This echoed the rhetoric of his own supporters, and aided his international marketing as simply a “business friendly law and order candidate” or “arch conservative”.

Council of the Americas manipulates mainstream media narratives on Latin America through both its own magazine, and appearances in mainstream media platforms where it holds influence, such as thew New York Times.

Brian Mier writes: “Between February 24, 2017 and February 24, 2018, AS/COA staff either appeared in or were quoted in Anglo media stories 102 times (excluding stories on art, which I am leaving out of this analysis). This includes 39 stories about Venezuela, 13 stories about NAFTA and 7 stories about Brazil. The stories on  Venezuela, the country with the World’s largest petroleum reserves, can best be classified as regime change propaganda. There is no attempt to provide balanced coverage in any of the articles to which AS/COA staff  contribute to by speaking to anyone from the Venezuelan working class…”

Another occasional Americas Quarterly contributor, Vincent Bevins, recently made a jump to the New York Times. Bevins, a former Los Angeles Times and Washington Post correspondent, is the author of new book Jakarta Method, about US-backed anti-Communist genocides during the Cold War. He was recently challenged by lawyer Cristiano Zanin for a remark, which appeared to suggest that the concept of lawfare (“The strategic use of the law for the purpose of discrediting, damaging or annihilating an enemy”), was a PT (Workers Party) argument, and equated Bolsonaro’s legal situation with that of his client, Lula da Silva. He denied any apparent inference was intentional.

Throughout the coup, the very idea of politically motivated and targeted prosecutions was dismissed by right-wing forces and corporate media as a “PT narrative”. Insistence that the PT were not actually being persecuted was a cornerstone of media cover for that coup. Those accusations of political bias and persecution, accusations which were echoed by other political parties, scholars and neutral commentators, have long since been vindicated. Thus reappearance of similar looking rhetoric from influential journalists is bound to cause alarm.

Both in public and in secret, the U.S. Department of Justice was collaborating illegally on Operation Lava Jato, the anti-corruption purge which underpinned both Brazil’s coup of 2016 and the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, with U.S. agents instructing their Brazilian counterparts to keep the collaboration hidden from Brazil’s Federal Government.

This has yet to be acknowledged by the New York Times, or by its journalists.

In a June 2016 editorial headlined Brazil’s Gold Medal for Corruption, the NYT editorial board quoted Lava Jato’s leader, U.S. trained Moro: “Systemic corruption schemes are damaging because they impact confidence in the rule of law and in democracy,” Sérgio Moro, the federal judge who has overseen the Petrobras investigation, wrote in an essay in Americas Quarterly last month, adding, “Crimes that are uncovered and proven must, respecting due process, be punished.””

The headline was particularly ironic. It would be unknown to NYT readers that Moro, who would later bring Bolsonaro to power through the jailing of electoral frontrunner Lula, had been regularly awarded the highest military awards for his services to the country, following every stage of the coup.

The NYT also chose this moment to attack Bolivia’s President over alleged corruption: “Brazil is not the only nation in the region bedeviled by corruption. A scandal in Bolivia has tarred the image of President Evo Morales.”

When Moro and Operation Lava Jato’s political motivation was exposed via Telegram conversations leaked to the Intercept in June 2019, the NYT’s headline read simply:

“Leaked Messages Raise Fairness Questions in Brazil Corruption Inquiry”. – NYT 10/6/2019

The issue for the NYT was not the growing evidence of a coup and U.S. interference in Brazilian democratic and judicial process, but “fairness”.

The cases of both Bolivia and Brazil are perfect examples of what journalist and historian John McEvoy describes as paralysis of the present, where evidence of U.S. involvement in foreign regime change is ignored by western media, for years, or even decades, until it is too late and the damage is done. This is often a matter of life and death, as international solidarity, an invaluable weapon for the defence of democracy and human rights, is eroded by the doubt such “nuance” generates.

A Democratic Revolution

In 1964 the New York Times initially called Brazil’s own Military takeover a “coup“.

Within weeks the word “coup” had been replaced by “revolution”, as depicted by its Brazilian protagonists.

“President Castelo Branco inherited a desperate economic and financial situation. He has emphasized that he earnestly desires to correct the great social injustices that obtain in Brazil today. He deserves to be given every chance to do so. Revolutions are not made in a day or a month.” a May 11 1964 editorial insisted.

It would be over a decade before the U.S. role in it would be acknowledged by the paper, yet it would be minimised. Former US ambassador to Brazil at the time of the coup, Lincoln Gordon, was forced to admit the dispatch of a carrier group to Brazil ready to intervene if leftist forces resisted. Yet, he was also allowed to deny that the C.I.A. was involved in the coup itself.

Documents released in the 1970s revealed that not only was the U.S. involved extensively, direct military intervention by the superpower had been discussed for several years. Extensive penetration, infiltration and CIA training, for example of military, trade union personnel, police, was combined with the resources of U.S. corporations channelled through a cutout organisation called Business Group for Latin America, which is now called Council of the Americas (AS/COA). Brazil in 1964 was arguably the Latin American blueprint for a new kind of state/corporate hybrid war.

Yet “nuanced” commentary will ignore or obscure this history, and will continue to minimise U.S. involvement in Latin America; insisting that the coups it backed simply would’ve happened anyway.

From its archive of fossilised propaganda, The New York Times will provide the citations.