Seeds Of A New Coup In Brazil

As Bolsonaro arrest looms, allies set stage for coup after possible Trump victory, but will they succeed?


After a year in which Brazil’s GDP grew at a rate over 3 times higher than projected by the IMF, unemployment hit an 11-year low, and the number of Brazilians living with severe food insecurity dropped from 33 million to 20 million, President Lula has angered international business elites, the military, and evangelical Christians. This has led to a month of negative reporting in Brazil’s mainstream and social media reminiscent of the smear campaigns in the lead up to the 2016 coup against Dilma Rousseff.

On Monday, March 18, Lula summoned his cabinet ministers for a meeting on communications strategies, after polls showed his approval rating has slipped from 54 to 51%. While this type of downward oscillation wouldn’t normally be cause for worry, taken together with the media smear campaign it rang alarm bells. While the Lula government may still be too popular for it’s enemies to overthrow (especially due to his 68% approval rating in the Northeast), months of continued attacks could weaken it enough to take action if Donald Trump, whose far-right backers are close to the Bolsonaro family, is elected this Fall. Furthermore, lowering popularity ratings could force Lula to make more compromises with the ruralistas – the multi-party caucus comprising over 60% of Congress that represents Brazil’s traditional agribusiness families (read: descendants of big slave-owners), and their multinational agro allies like Cargill.

Purging the military

On February 8, as part of investigations into the failed, Jan. 8, 2023 coup attempt, Brazil’s Federal Police raided the homes of some of the most powerful deep state actors in Brazil, including retired General Augusto Heleno, who has long been believed to be untouchable. Known internationally as the military commander of the UN’s Minustah occupation of Haiti during the Cite Soleil massacre, Heleno is remembered in Brazil for his role as aide-de-camp to General Sylvio Frota during the military dicatatorship. Commander of the Ministry of the Army and leader of an hardline internal faction called the tigradas, General Frota repeatedly ignored President Geisel’s orders to phase out torture and executions of political prisoners. He was fired in October, 1977 after trying to to trigger an auto-coup that would have made him the new dictator.

As Jair Bolsonaro’s Institutional Security Chief, General Heleno oversaw 17 governmental departments including ABIN, the national intelligence bureau.

On March 15, the Federal Police released the deposition transcripts of 27 defendents and witnesses from its investigation into the Jan. 8, 2023 coup attempt. One of the many bombshells was General Heleno’s “astonishment” at learning that Air Force Commander Carlos Baptista Jr. refused to support any form of rupture with the democratic rule of law. What the depositions show is that the police now have enough evididence to indict former President Bolsonaro, 2022 vice presidential candidate, General Walter Braga Neto and former Navy Commander, Almir Garnier Santos for treason, and that the main reason the coup failed was because the Army refused to support it.

The Lula administration has made strides purging the military brass of coup supporters, but the Attorney General’s jurisdictional transfer of investigations from military to civil courts has angered powerful people in the armed forces.

The Wrath of the Zionists

Lula’s statement on Gaza at a February 18 press conference at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, has also become the subject of intense domestic and international criticism. Lula said, “ When I see the wealthy world announce that they are ceasing humanitarian support for the Palestinians, I wonder about the political consciousness and the amount of compassion in the hearts of these people who don’t see that what is happening in the Gaza Strip isn’t a war – it’s a genocide. What is happening to the Palestinian people right now in the Gaza Strip is unprecedented in history. Actually, it happened when Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

Lula made this statement 14 weeks after he first publicly accused the Israeli government of committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza, and he wasn’t the first public figure to suggest there are similarities between the genocide in Gaza and Nazi atrocities like the Warsaw Ghetto, but his comment triggered a diplomatic war with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared him “personna non grata”, and Brazil’s most powerful Zionist lobby group CONIB – which had already been persecuting anti-Zionist Jewish journalists like Breno Altman – used the Brazilian press to accuse him of antisemitism. If Netanyahu expected a groveling apology, it never arrived. The next day, Brazil recalled it’s ambassador from Israel. As Globo, CNN Brasil, and Folha de S. Paulo accused Lula of antisemitism, Workers Party President Gleisi Hoffman wrote:

“Netanyahu’s response to President Lula confirms the brutality of the leader of an extreme right-wing government that is leading his country to disaster and to the repudiation of the international community. He ignores that Brazil is no longer governed by a fascist like him. Netanyahu should worry about the rejection he arouses in the world and in his own country before attempting to rebuke those who denounce his policy of exterminating the Palestinian people. He has neither the moral nor political authority to point fingers at anyone.”

Brazil’s Jewish population numbers around 140,000 – not big enough to sway a national election. However the episode hurt Lula with Brazil’s Israel-worshiping Evangelical Christian demographic, which comprises 31% of the population. It is a group that the Workers’ Party had been making steady gains with, but whose members are now being micro-targeted on social media with footage from other wars and video games, and disinformation about Palestinians “beheading babies”.

On March 19th, far right São Paulo governor, Tarcisio de Freitas, who is slated as Bolsonaro’s likely successor in the 2026 Presidential elections, joined Goiás Governer Ronaldo Caiado in Isreal to personally apologize to Benjamin Netanyahu for Lula’s remarks, and most certainly to also work on strategies for deposing the Workers Party.

Manufacturing a show of force

On February 25, an estimated 69,000 people arrived in São Paulo on private buses from across the country. Reporting by Agencia Publica showed that most buses had been chartered by right wing politicians who plan on running in this year’s local elections. Tens of thousands of residents of São Paulo joined the crowd. They came out to protest against Brazil’s Supreme Court ,which has authorized a series of federal police investigations against former President Bolsonaro for alleged crimes including: embezzling $3.2 million in jewelry; using Israeli spyware to set up a parallel espionage agency to spy on 30,000 Brazilians; and plotting a failed coup d’ etat that combined a riot in Brazil’s capital of Brasilia with terrorist attacks on 16 transmission towers and a failed airport bombing attempt.

Due in part to the Federal Police cutting off illegal funding channels to Carlos Bolsonaro’s “hate network”, the repercussions in Brazil’s social media were underwhelming. The protest didn’t make the top 10 most popular searches on google that day, ranking below 9 football matches and a scandal involving right wing media outlet Jovem Pan. Internationally, however, photos and drone footage were used by Israeli media and government officials to falsely portray it as a “pro-Israel” protest, and right wing operatives like Tucker Carlson framed it as a show of strength by Bolsonaro who, unable to set up a nation-wide protest similar to those held in over 35 cities on International Women’s Day this year, opted to hold it in a single city. It may have been financed from the top down to appear as a grass roots protest, but it gave hope to the 25% of the Brazilian electorate who still refer to themselves as bolsonaristas.

Revolt of the hedge fund managers

On March 7, Petrobras, Brazil’s publicly traded, majority government-controlled petroleum company, shocked its private shareholders. The company announced it was lowering its dividend payouts to 45% of free cash flow, knocking it out of the list of the World’s top 20 highest dividend-paying companies from its 2022 position of number 2. The move is part of the Lula government’s strategy to rebuild the company after years of systematic dismantling following the 2016 coup against Dilma Rousseff. Limiting dividend payouts to investors to a “mere” R$72.4 billion ($14.5 billion US), will enable Petrobras to strengthen its reserves and invest more in research and development. However, the move infuriated elites, including foreign interests which control 26% of the shares in the company. Brazil’s big media outlets like Globo, which has been fighting for full privatization of Petrobras for decades, attacked Lula for “not understanding economics” and called for for the resignation of Petrobras Director, Jean Paul Prates, who refused to bow to the pressure.

When asked about the new policy during an interview with SBT TV on March 12, Lula said, “Petrobras isn’t just a company that has to please the shareholders who invest in it. It has to think about the 200 million Brazilians who are its real owners. If you only listen to the whining of the market you can’t do anything. The market is a ferocious rhinoceros, a dinosaur. It wants everything for itself and nothing for the people.”

Hybrid warfare

As Chico Cavalcante writes, “we are facing a meticulously constructed public opinion. The unfavorable poll numbers result from hybrid warfare – a contemporary form of political struggle based on the continual destabilization of governments through social networks and the press. It is a tactic that reinforces the social media algorithms’ tendency to favor disinformation, contributing to increased polarization which generates a vicious cycle, pushing public opinion towards simplistic solutions to the complex problems of society and the economy – in other words, towards the right.”

The groundwork is being laid for Brazil’s 4th coup in less than 100 years. Whether it will succeed or not depends on multiple factors. Working with disgraced former Lava Jato judge Sergio Moro, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice helped sabotage Brazil’s economy to transform a a mild recession into a crisis in 2015 during the lead up to Dilma Rousseff’s illegal impeachment. It’s hard to imagine elites pulling off a coup this year, during a period of economic growth and successful redistributive social polices. One thing we should be sure of, though, is that if Trump is elected, they will try, given his and his backers’ close ties to the Bolsonaro family. The idea that a future Biden administration could get involved with a coup attempt should also be taken seriously. After all, US support for the coups in 1964 and 2016 happened under Democratic Presidents. Furthermore, the US attempted 72 coups around the world during the Cold War. Why would a new Cold War be any different? One thing the last 120 years of history demonstrates is that any time a nation in the Global South tries to exercise even a moderate level of sovereignty, the US starts planning a coup.

This article was first published in Counterpunch, and can be seen in its original format here.