The Coup, one year on & how Anglo media failed Brasil

At this time of crisis in the media industry, it is with regret that an article like this even needs to be published, but analysis of the failure of Anglo media on Brazil, the world’s 5th most populous country, from 2012-2016 is important not only for the historical record, but for other countries facing similar internal and external attacks. This is not the first time we have needed to critique media coverage of Brazil during this process.

Firstly it is important to define Brazil’s (Soft, Parliamentary, Institutional/Mediatic) Coup of 2016 in a way that accounts for all its components. This subversion of Brazil’s Democracy wasn’t limited to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the insistence that “impeachment isn’t a Coup” remains a common rhetorical device amongst supporters of her overthrow.

In reality there was a range of standpoints, from outright denial, to support with caveats, through to a fear that if the situation was defined as a “Coup” it would be bad for the country’s image and interests. This echoes depiction of the 1964 Military Coup as Democratic and a “Revolution“, used to this day by some supporters, including defeated Presidential candidate Aecio Neves in 2014. (Conversely Rousseff opponents tried to define Coup to mean “Military Coup” so as to exclude the term from usage to describe her fate).

Many of these views have evolved or altered in the year since, in light of new events and information. For the purposes of this article we can define the Coup as these main elements:

Precursor of destabilisation: June 2013’s “spontaneous” street protests grew as a left movement against right-wing Governors such as Rio de Janeiro’s Cabral and São Paulo’s Alckmin. This coincided with a Social Media storm of indignation across a range of frustrations with services, and Police brutality against protesters, which turned protests of a few thousand into hundreds of thousands. The rightward shift of this amorphous group significantly weakened Dilma Rousseff’s Government, which just a month previously enjoyed record approval ratings. In response to the protests, Rousseff proposed a plebiscite on Political Reform, and that all royalties from the massive subsalt oil and gas fields be invested in education & health for the coming decades, as a “Passport to the future”. These measures were opposed by her then Vice President, Michel Temer.

Media as political actor: TV Globo, Grupo Abril, Folha, & Estadão‘s systematic anti-left bias, misrepresentation of economic data, propagation of Anti-Corruption pretext, active promotion of synthesised Anti-Dilma street movements.

Lawfare: Lava Jato’s selective prosecution of PT, up to and including prevention of Lula da Silva’s 2018 Presidential candidacy. Complicity of some Judiciary. Supply of Anti-Corruption pretext to media.

Paralysis of Government: Eduardo Cunha was elected head of Congress amidst vote buying allegations. Cunha then paralysed the Rousseff Government, for example making essential economic adjustments impossible, while using congress time to push through preposterous new measures.

Economic self-sabotage: Effects of Lava Jato also exacerbated cyclical recession and crystallised public discontent, accounting for a 2.5% contraction in GDP in 2015 and hundreds of thousands of lost jobs as construction and energy, plus their dependent sectors were paralysed by the investigation. 

Illegal Impeachment of Dilma Rousseff: Commenced following her 2014 election victory, with defeated opponent refusing to accept result. Congress head, after sabotaging her attempts to govern, then engineered her impeachment. She was voted out by both houses of congress despite being found innocent of any impeachable offence, nor was she cited in any testimony from the Lava Jato investigations. Congresspeople were threatened of consequences should they vote against impeachment, and as of February 2017 a scheme in which around 140 votes were “bought” has come to light. Some have depicted her impeachment as simply the “Opening Ceremony” of the Coup.

Post-Impeachment installation of defeated opposition in Government: The result of Rousseff’s removal was the installation of a Government very similar in personnel & policy to the one that lost the 2014 election, with PSDB and DEM parties, who had not themselves won a national election since 1997, taking power with the PMDB under Vice President Michel Temer. No members of Rousseff’s administration survived and in his first 24 hours, and Temer moved quickly to erase traces of the Worker’s Party progressive legacy, axing the ministries responsible for Women’s rights, for Racial Equality, for Agrarian reform and the Ministry of Culture. It was the first all-white, all-male cabinet since the dictatorship of Geisel in the 1970s.

Post-Impeachment implementation of extreme neoliberal policies which had been rejected by voters in previous 4 electionsIt was not simply a caretaker administration – this was a sea change: an economically neoliberal policy platform being implemented in hours, by an administration which theoretically may only have had 6 months in power – the “Bridge to the Future” policy document and PEC241/55 austerity proposal to freeze public investment in health & education for 20 years. 

Compromised Judiciary: collaboration between Temer Government and Gilmar Mendes, appointment of hardline authoritarian, PSDB-affiliated Temer ally, Alexandre de Moraes to the Supreme Court following unexplained air-crash which killed Judge Teori Zavascki, until 2043.

Forced Electoral changes: Efforts to change electoral system to a District or Parliamentarian system – without public consultation or referendum – intended lock the Post-Coup Coalition in power for forseeable future elections (after it had lost four in a row).

It must also be explained that there were not simply two sides, or good & evil to this crisis – there were at times ostensibly conflicting interests that sometimes aligned opportunistically for a common objective – like Lava Jato and the old Right Wing “Udenista” bloc – spread across PSDB, DEM, PMDB parties and others, and former PT allies, many of whom faced their own threats from the investigation.

A widely held belief on the left was that the objective of Lava Jato was to remove PT from Brazil’s political landscape and prevent Lula’s return to the presidency in 2018. With that, the extreme liberalisation of Brazil’s economy could begin in earnest, unimpeded – foreign actors and local elites alike would enjoy the rewards, as the Country’s enormous Public Sector was turned into low-hanging fruit for private investors. This process began literally hours after Rousseff’s suspension. The ‘Bridge to the future’ policy document was PMDB’s articulation of PSDB’s own core neoliberal programme which was defeated at the ballot box in 2014. It also appeared to have been translated from English, featuring phrases not found anywhere in Portuguese. Michel Temer admitted in September 2016 following Rousseff’s permanent removal that her refusal to accept that policy document, given its extreme nature and inherent threats to worker’s rights, was the actual reason that they pursued her removal. He made this admission at a New York event organised by Rockefeller’s Americas Society & Council of Americas (AS/COA) (a Latin America equivalent of the Atlantic Council) where he was asked what security plans he had to deal with public opposition unrest to this radical economic programme.

A Chevron funded lobby whose membership is a dizzying list of the most powerful corporations in North America and beyond, Council of the Americas (Formerly Business Group for Latin America) was set up by David Rockefeller in 1962 on the instruction of President Kennedy, expressly to interfere in elections & prevent left wing Governments coming to power in the region. As well as the overthrow of Allende in Chile from 69-73, It was active in Brazil’s 1962 election & the Coup of 1964, which removed President João Goulart against a similar backdrop to that which Rousseff faced.

Only zealots, the disingenuous or politically naive still maintain that Operation Lava Jato is pure of both conception and execution. Its roots can be traced to a 2004 document written by prosecuting judge Sergio Moro, in which he bases a hypothetical future operation on Italy’s 1990s Mani Pulite or Clean Hands, an anti-corruption purge which enabled the political rise of Silvio Berlusconi, the most corrupt political leader Italy had ever had. Moro’s plan continued to develop with the blessing and apparent cooperation of the U.S. State Department, who in this cable detail what would become Lava Jato under the banner of a project called “Bridges”. None of this was acknowledged by mainstream Anglo media, who instead repeated the mantra “Brazil’s institutions are working” whenever news from Lava Jato broke.

In the months and years prior to the Coup, foreign coverage often had the appearance of an orchestrated PR campaign, and in a sense that’s what it became – in that it included tacit editorial understanding not to use the word Coup and insofar as it was possible, to depict constitutional and democratic business as usual.

There was a large intake of new U.S. journalists between 2010 and 2012, including several belonging to the Inter-American Press Association, who have long stood accused of manipulating news coming from the Americas. The narrative shift on Brazil can be considered to have begun in earnest from 2012, with depiction changing from a brave country, economically, culturally and politically vibrant, which was finally emerging from its permanent status as the “country of the future”, to that of permanent catastrophe and failed state. Young Journalists were sent to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, often with U.S. NGO/Think Tank funding and a remit to critique Dilma Rousseff and PT from right and left, breaking the halo-effect which had made Lula da Silva the most popular politician on Earth, and amplifying U.S.-friendly opposition figures such as Marina Silva and Aecio Neves. In addition, keystones of Brazilian culture and national integrity were critiqued and deconstructed, feeding the so called Vira Lata, or Stray Dog complex, helping fuel identity crisis and collapse in national self-esteem, just years after the country held its head high on the international stage for the first time in its history.

The core of anglophone commentary came from a small clique of journalists and commentators circled loosely round Council of the Americas Corporate members Bloomberg, CNN (Time Warner/Turner), plus colleagues at Reuters, NYT, Washington Post, NPR, and AS/COA’s own magazine Americas Quarterly. There was also regular liason between AS/COA – which is home to former State Department officials – and Journalists, some of whom were given sponsorships and expenses paid trips to the US where they would participate in special journalistic programmes in the years prior to Rousseff’s impeachment.

Reuters Brazil were at the time facing their own accusations of partiality, around the “podemos tirar se achar melhor” scandal, which appeared to censor damaging information about politicians from centre-right opposition PSDB. This situation pre-empted the departure of bureau chief Brian Winter to the position of Vice President at AS/COA & editor of Americas Quarterly (AS/COA’s in-house magazine). Winter had previously ghostwritten English language biographies for PSDB’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe – both neoliberal figures whose administrations were aligned to the United States. Reuters advertised for Winter’s replacement in a politicised manner, emphasising a continuation of the narrative established over the preceding years, that of tacit opposition to Dilma Rousseff.

Also of note is the promoted/sponsored commentariat, and how they interacted with established Journalists to shape narratives on social media. Usually connected to Washington DC think tanks, these individuals often have a current book release which validates perception as expert consultant. These included a Cato-associated former Bloomberg writer who, to the bewilderment of many followers, maintained that there was no Coup taking place, post 2014 election, throughout Rousseff’s impeachment and subsequent revelations, even at one point refuting the extensively documented role of the United States in the 1964 Military Coup.

An easy place to observe this echo chamber in motion is Twitter news aggregator, Scharlab, where there is little or nothing in the way of counterpoint to “economically orthodox” centre-right positions, which is occasionally dressed in the weaponised language of human rights and anti-corruption. Most of this coverage reflects the positions of Brazil’s own oligarchic media, such as Veja, Folha & Estadão, who all backed Dilma Rousseff’s illegal impeachment.

Watching how Latin America is reported in general is informative – Venezuela being the current extreme, where US commentators depict Venezuelans wanting further US Sanctions or Military intervention. These kind of talking points are often echoed by the same individuals who supported Rousseff’s impeachment. Then there is the polar disparity between the attitude towards Democracy in Venezuela and Brazil, both in the State Department itself, as illustrated in this video, and amongst think-tanks such as AS/COA.

AS/COA is not the only example but has an important function – like an interface between State (U.S.) & Corporate Power, Neoliberal Politicians in Latin America and everyday English-language media from the region, such as Reuters & Bloomberg in particular. Similarly, Ford Foundation’s traditional focus has been on the funding of journalists, scholarly research, and cultural projects, with a fundamental remit to promote a “Non-Marxist left”. It has been said that such NGO’s & Think Tanks now perform many of the tasks the CIA used to handle in-house.

There has also been a marked shift in the opposite direction on Argentina following the election of Macri, despite economic shocks that have followed. Long depicted as a basket case under Cristina Kirchner, now with agreement to establish US bases there it is almost as if Argentina is being groomed for a new leadership position in the southern cone, taking on Brazil’s mantle. Macri has stated that Venezuela is not a Democracy, and seeks its expulsion from Mercosur – a long held US objective. He also talks about expanding Mercosur all the way to Mexico. Yet any Macri-led Mercosur would most likely be in a Neoliberal form more similar to the continent-wide FTAA, the brainchild of David Rockefeller, which was roundly rejected by Lula and Nestor Kirchner when pushed by George W. Bush in the early 2000s.

With those longer term objectives in mind, you know exactly what to expect from the finance press, especially the “Watchtower” of the Neoliberal faith, the Economist. But it is the other areas of the Liberal media which really demonstrate the premise of this article and the trend of attacking a progressive government from an ostensibly left position, is worthy of particular attention. During the Impeachment, one Rio-based North American Journalist lamented that they couldn’t find any non-leftist history professors to corroborate their narrative.

Following its sister paper, the Observer, joining The Economist and Washington Post in calling for Rousseff’s resignation, there was also the strange case of the UK’s Guardian Newspaper. It altered a Pro-Temer headline, suggesting he had Brazilian’s support, to something framed entirely differently – the new headline suggesting the possibility of a Coup. This followed an angry response from the public. A Guardian contributor in Brazil complained off-record that they did not know who was writing/framing this material.

Coup denial

Master narratives, near identical talking points and statements on social media, obfuscation & self censorship – it was no surprise to see most falling into line when the Coup finally came. Those who didn’t comply could be observed on social media being slapped down by their editors for the use of the word Coup – in particular those at international news agencies. When the word Coup was used it was usually within scare quotes, dripping with innuendo. One British freelance journalist told Brasil Wire that they had to consciously stop sharing material which depicted the Soft Coup taking place out of fear of being blacklisted from possible future work from organisations such as Reuters.

In a precarious industry much of the self-censorship can be put down to professional self-preservation. However, this can and very often does dovetail with bad faith, and that too is strategic.

With absolute denial already implausible the “smart line” became how it was an “unfortunate” or “unfair” situation but “could not be called a Coup”. This position too became quickly untenable with the release of conversations between Senator Romero Juca and businessman Machado which detailed a “grand national agreement” including the legislature, judiciary and military. The plan was to put Temer in the presidency to “stop the bleeding” of Lava Jato before it reached them – with PT decapitated it would have served its purpose.

In addition, key figures such as President Michel Temer, Ministers Romero Juca & Jose Serra & Lava Jato prosecutor Sergio Moro had various documented involvements with State Department, dating back over a decade, which were ignored.

Public resistance to the Coup, large street demonstrations that had been occurring in parallel to, and at some points eclipsing those against Dilma Rousseff, were almost entirely ignored by international media, and still are. Such oppposition to the extreme enforced austerity policies of Temer’s Government underlines how the Brazilian left see the Coup – not merely a reference to Rousseff’s impeachment – with some respected commentators calling it the “Systematic dismantling of an emerging power“.

Closing Ceremony

So what was the answer to this shredding of the Coup denial narrative? Say nothing. Only a small core of Bloomberg, Reuters & AS/COA associated personnel continued to outright deny that a Coup had taken place, while most professional commentators simply avoided mention for fear of controversy. The Economist kept the faith, its notoriously insensitive Brazil editor glibly dismissing “Coup Rhetoric” as late as October 2016. Thankfully there were other independent platforms who published more accurate depictions of the situation.

With the Olympic closing ceremony filling the news cycle, pivotal acts of the Coup complete, and with most of the key writers quiet, many left the country entirely within days and weeks of Dilma’s final removal on 31st August. They followed an exodus of rich foreigners trying to unpick their interests from Brazil since 2015, many fearing catastrophe & collapse, some even civil war.

This story should and likely will someday be a case study in how oligarchic international media can combine to create a false narrative about a sovereign nation, a narrative which just so happens to serve local Comprador Elite interests and North Atlantic Economic & Foreign Policy objectives.

Ignorance, incompetence, bad faith? In all likelihood it was a mixture of the three.

After helping to enable the Coup by muting international outrage and opposition, it is ironic that so few of those responsible remain in the country to live with the societal consequences.