The New Imperialism: Brian Mier speaks to This is Hell

On April 27, Brasil Wire co-editor Brian Mier was interviewed by Chuck Mertz of Chicago Radio Show This is Hell, about new book ‘Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil‘, which deals with the events, processes, and foreign interference which have brought the Latin American nation to its grave moment.

Chuck Mertz: Both major US Political Parties supported a coup in Brazil which brought a Neofascist to power. And after years of western media characterising the fascists as corruption fighters we are now seeing what they’re actually all about. Here to help understand what is happening in Brazil now and how and why we got to where we are, editor and correspondent Brian Mier, who edited and contributed to a new collection ‘Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil’ which is the second volume in his series “Dispatches from a coup in progress”. 

Brian, So you’ve reported to us on the coup in Brazil for years in realtime as it happened, in your book you offer a timeline of how the coup took place and questions which it leads you to ask. Why were Brazil’s successive presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and then Dilma Rousseff the target of a coup. What did they represent, what were they doing that so threatened their opposition, and apparently the U.S. that they needed to be targeted by a coup.

Brian Mier: Well it is interesting because they weren’t really radical anticapitalists or anything, and for a while, I know from the work I was doing at the time – I actually had someone from the World Bank tell me, in 2006, that they were supportive of the Lula administration and the Kirchner administration in Argentina because they represented a positive alternative to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, because they were implementing Social Democracies that were still pretty capitalist friendly, they maintained some neoliberal policies while trying to do redistribution, to eliminate poverty and generate jobs at home and things like that, so they weren’t super radical. But what I think happened is that starting in 2006 when Brazil discovered some of the world’s largest offshore oil deposits, in the pre-salt area offshore of Santos and Rio de Janeiro state, the following year the U.S. reinitiated its southern command, its southern fleet, the navy, and I think that the amount of oil that suddenly popped up in Brazil piqued the interest of the U.S., and the fact that Brazil refused to privatise this oil really annoyed the U.S., because you see what the government does to countries that won’t privatise their oil like Iraq, Libya etc. It’s usually enough reason alone for the U.S. to get interested in overthrowing a regime. But there’s all kinds of other factors as well, like when Hugo Chavez died the U.S. didn’t need this kind of positive example of center-left governments, that were for example opening up 50% of free university slots to Afro-Brazilian and poor youth, and doing a lot of things to subsidise family farmers – they didn’t need that anymore in Latin America so there’s an element of hegemony as well. It seems like with the current rollback of the pink tide which is happening all over Latin America the U.S. is really interested in just destroying any government that is left of center, any government that doesn’t do what capital wants, what imperialist capital wants in the region. So I think really it is a combination of a lot of factors, we know from Edward Snowden about all of the NSA spying, Brazil was the second most spied country in the world by the NSA during the Lula and Dilma presidencies – after the United States itself, it was spying on itself most, and Brazil was second. And so there’s all kind of issues at play, but those are the two that i think are most important.

Chuck Mertz: You write that: it is no secret that the U.S. government has been working to roll back the so called pink tide of center-left and left governments which flourished in the 2000s – as past guest on our show Mark Weisbrot from CEPR points out in a recent interview, Hillary Clinton admitted to supporting the coup government in Honduras in 2009, in her own autobiography. Brian, to you what explains why the U.S., its media, its citizenry, the voting public, seemingly doesn’t know or doesn’t care or doesn’t care to know about the U.S. impact on Latin America, why for instance wasn’t support for the Honduran coup an issue for Hillary in 2016, why don’t we seemingly care about the coup in Brazil or the impact of sanctions on Venezuela.

Brian Mier: Well I just think – and I bet that this is going to come as a shock to you Chuck because I’ve never criticised the hegemonic American media on your program before (laughs) – but I think that you have to view the media as a partner of the United States State Department in Latin America, as it has been for years, as it was during the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s in Latin America, and probably long before that, probably back to the Spanish War of 1898 or whatever, I mean if you want to really analyse the United States you look at the extended or the expanded state, it isn’t just the government, it is the corporations, the media corporations, the political parties, sectors of the higher education system, all working together to advance the economic interests of the United States in the region. So I think a lot of Americans who would be upset to know how the U.S. is intervening in Latin America, how it is meddling in foreign elections and also causing regime change and things like that, I think a lot of Americans would be interested to know about that, and would be against it if they knew it was happening, but they’re being misled deliberately by the U.S. media, so it is hard for me to even talk to people in the United States a lot of times, you meet someone who is super well educated and a nice and all that but they’ve been so brainwashed, that you mention that you think Maduro is a pretty good President and they just go through the roof (laughs) – its like cold war style stuff.

Chuck Mertz: You write that the corruption investigation Operation Carwash which led to the coup has been transformed into a multi-country operation that has resulted in corruption charges against 8 current or former Latin American leaders, the U.S. government was involved in at least 41 coups in the 100 year period ending in 1994 and in the case of many of them, such as the 1964 coup in Brazil, the information about U.S. involvement took decades to come out. After careful analysis conducted over the past 3 years at Brasil Wire, we already know enough however that there is a relationship between the U.S. Department of Justice and Brazilian “regime change”, through Operation Carwash. So in the past, the U.S. could argue that “we simply didn’t know what our big bad government was up to”, this time we know but it’s not being reported. Does that make the U.S. public any more complicit in the coups you see taking place today in Latin America that coups predating 1994? Are we any more complicit today because at least Brasil Wire and Telesur English has been reporting on what is happening in Brazil?

Brian Mier: Well I think it comes down to this. It’s a very complex question, but if you believe in international law, international human rights law, and you believe in the rule of law in the United States, then you know that ignorance is no excuse. So if your tax money is going to finance regime change operations in other countries that are resulting in deaths, then you are kind of complicit in that, I hate to say it. But I don’t think its really reasonable to expect Americans to know what is going on in Latin America right now by the level of misinformation that everyone is being bombarded with, in the media, on social media, it has got really sophisticated – social media has created a whole new dimension to this. And you don’t even really need censorship anymore, because you have algorithm tweaking, to bury anyone on social media who is talking about what is really going on in Latin America.

I saw a report today in Spain for example, that the far right is doing exactly the same thing with the WhatsApp social media app that it did in Brazil last year. Last October, they’ve suddenly started bombarding millions of people in Spain, with hate speech messages on WhatsApp, in the exact same manner they did in Brazil, WhatsApp is supposed to be encrypted so you can’t police it, and how can the average person protect themselves against this kind of stuff, it’s a whole new way that people are being manipulated, you don’t need censorship anymore, if you can just lie about things and perform character assassination and slander over this massively popular social media app.

Chuck Mertz: And that’s not the only way in which this coup was reinforced. The way that it started, you write how the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Republican Senator Ted Stevens who was then the senior ranking member of the U.S. Senate and at the time of his leaving office was the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history, he was Republican from Alaska, Stevens was indicted only 100 days before his attempted re-election, was found guilty only 8 days prior to the vote, and ended up losing by only 2% but all charges were dropped immediately following his electoral loss. You write: after a special prosecutor is assigned to investigate prosecutorial misconduct the charges are reversed and two different U.S. Department of Justice officials are accused of criminal negligence. Problems with the prosecution include relying almost entirely on plea-bargain testimony from a single, unreliable witness, exaggerating the value of the repairs that were going to be done to an apartment or a home, leaking misinformation to the media, and violating Brady rules, destroying, hiding or refusing to permit evidence beneficial to the defence. Then you ask: could this case have been used by the DOJ as a blueprint for the remarkably similar, frivolous investigation against Lula. Now, Stevens was the Senator who famously called the internet a series of “tubes”, while he was sitting in on the commerce committee during net neutrality hearings, while confusing the internet with email, he was also a supporter of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” – an expensive and unnecessary infrastructure project in Alaska, and Stevens was very pro-logging. But while Stevens was originally in denial about climate change, he became a supporter of the fight against climate change, and he was also pro-choice despite being Republican. So, do you have any sense of why the Department of Justice under the George W. Bush administration, would test lawfare out on a Republican Senator, Ted Stevens, do you think the Republican party was trying to get rid of one of their own? Why would they want to do that?

Brian Mier: Well Chuck, from what I know about it, I think that the operatives in the DOJ, a lot of whom were based out of the southern region of New York, are connected to the corporate Democrats, and in this case, from what we see. I can’t really speculate on the Ted Stevens case, I’m not an expert on it, and obviously he’s not someone who is politically or ideologically aligned with Lula. What I find interesting, though, is just that the tactics were almost identical. And some of the same people were involved in that case that were involved in Operation Carwash/Lava Jato, and so tactically it is interesting, just as I noticed during the Robert Mueller investigation, which had some of the people who were working on Operation Lava Jato/Carwash, like Andrew Weissman on it – they were using similar tactics. Not that this means that Trump isn’t a giant heap of human garbage, scumbag, con-artist but the tactics they were using against him were similar – for example leaks to the media, with information that would later turn out to be not very accurate, so the media gets whipped up into this whole frenzy, like it did with Russiagate. And when the information actually comes out there wasn’t that much there. This is exactly what they did to Lula and it is what happened with other Latin American leaders, who were tied up in the same Operation Carwash, like Michelle Bachelet in Chile, even Alan Garcia who killed himself last week, was suffering from these kind of constant media leaks which override innocence until declared guilty if you’re being accused of being guilty for two years while the investigation is ongoing, in the media. So, I mention Ted Stevens in the book just because of the tactics, I don’t think its something that’s necessarily…i’m not a mind reader, I don’t know what’s going on inside the deep state or the U.S. DOJ or the FBI or anything like that, but I notice that there’s tactical similarity in a lot of what they’re doing, and it’s not very democratic, much much less so in Latin America than in the U.S. where at least technically it’s the U.S. government, it is officials whose salaries who are paid by U.S. taxpayers who are investigating their own people. It’s really bizarre when you see this happening in foreign countries, it is an example of new imperialism, according to the way that the Department of Justice reinterpreted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, starting around the time of the Enron case in 2002/2003 the U.S. FBI and DOJ now have the right to go into foreign countries and arrest people or collaborate with local judiciaries and prosecutors to have people arrested. And this stuff is happening all over the world now, you know, I was in South Africa a couple of weeks ago, on a speaking tour, and I know that there’s a lot of criticism of Jacob Zuma but I also learned that Students for Liberty, the Koch Brothers-funded Libertarian think-tank which was heavily involved in the protests against Lula and Dilma in Brazil – they fly “young leaders” to the U.S. and train them on how to hold protests, how to use social media to organise corruption protests they started operating in South Africa, like a year before Zuma was thrown out on corruption charges, and he was basically thrown out because of illegal reforms that took place on some vacation property of his, so it was kind of similar to Ted Stevens, and Lula. Just like with Ted Stevens, I’m not saying he was some kind of paradigm of good governance or anything like that but there were some things he was doing – he was considered to be farther left that some other people in the ANC. So I just think that, as I mention in the title of the book, this is a kind of new imperialism: anti-corruption investigations have been weaponised by the U.S. and it’s like the new excuse to take down foreign leaders, and maybe in some cases the leaders deserve to be taken down and in other cases they don’t but the U.S. shouldn’t really have the right to do it themselves – it’s an issue related to self-determination and sovereignty. If there’s a problem with a leader who is corrupt then the people of that country should take them out, the U.S. shouldn’t become the world’s corruption policemen, because all you have to do is scratch the surface of Pentagon spending, the Iraq war, and all of this, and you easily discover that in dollar terms the U.S. is the most corrupt country in the world. So what does it care about corruption? It’s targeting foreign companies, foreign leaders to benefit U.S. corporations mostly, that’s what it looks like. Because the American corporations benefitted tremendously from the ouster of Dilma Rousseff and the arrival of Jair Bolsonaro. Microsoft, Boeing….all the oil companies like Chevron and Exxon….are making a fortune off of this.

Chuck Mertz: I want to get back to something you mentioned, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Now that’s defined as a U.S. law prohibiting U.S. firms from paying bribes to foreign officials in furtherance of a business deal. How does a law meant to stop U.S. officials from bribing other nations, I mean that sounds like a good way to stop corruption committed by the U.S. – how does that lead to Operation Carwash, were U.S. companies at the heart of the corruption, were they the ones causing the corruption, was the United States trying to investigate and stop U.S. companies from corrupting Brazil?

Brian Mier: There were a series of amendments – it was originally a good law made with the best intentions after the Watergate scandal – so that now it refers to any bribe that takes place anywhere in the world, that happens in dollars, or any corrupt activity in which some kind of financial transaction takes place within the United States. And so because of the multinational nature of capital flow these days, and because the dollar is the standard currency, it pretty much opens up anywhere, any country that signs this kind of partnership with the U.S. which is most countries, because when it was pushed through it looked really innocuous, you know they tried to use Operation Carwash to take down Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, and Venezuela just basically said “screw you guys”, we’re not  a party to this agreement, the FCPA. But you look at Alan Garcia’s suicide last week – he was under investigation from a joint U.S. anti-corruption operation – Carwash. So it is being used to kind of cherry pick leaders who for whatever reason the U.S. doesn’t like, I don’t know what the deal was with Garcia, i’m not an expert on Peru, I know he wasn’t a very admirable leader, and not comparable with Lula or Michelle Bachelet, or Cristina Kirchner. Kirchner, who is now leading all polls for the Presidency in Argentina, also at risk of being arrested before the elections begin, just like they did with Lula. You see, it is really crazy, it is the new imperialism, it’s not just governments anymore, its corporations and governments, its not just the CIA, its corporate intelligence companies, outsourced intelligence companies, the whole conjuncture has changed, but the results are the same – the U.S. corporations continue to work with the U.S. government to enact regime change to benefit their own financial interests, as they have been doing since the late 1800’s at least in Latin America.

Chuck Mertz: You write that: on August 2, 2013 in an act designed to strengthen the fight against corruption in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff sanctions law 12850 which for the first time in Brazilian history enables plea bargained testimonies to be used as evidence in criminal proceedings, for the first time ever Brazilian public prosecutors begin working with plea bargain testimonies, before this Brazilian prosecutors had no experience building cases based on plea bargains. Is this then an indictment of the U.S. justice system and how the Department of Justice gets convictions in the U.S. as well as how they have influenced Brazilian officials to do so as well, are you opposed to, do you think there’s something inherently wrong with plea bargain testimonies?

Brian Mier: Look I think that the coerced plea bargain testimony, made for a partial asset retention and sentence reduction is highly problematic if it is the only piece of evidence used to indict somebody. Ok, I’m not against for example that evidence being admissible in court but it should be qualified. The jury should know that this testimony was made in exchange for sentence reduction, and how much sentence reduction took place, but I’m not against it per se. What i’m against is it being used as the only evidence. That’s crazy, because you’re talking about somebody who has already been arrested for being dishonest, who is now oftentimes changing the story until it is just right, in order to get a sentence reduced from 30 years to 1 year of house arrest. And to be able to keep millions of dollars, this is what we saw in Brazil with these plea bargain testimonies, now lets keep in mind that Jair Bolsonaro is President now, because the leading candidate, who was polling at twice the amount of support he was, Lula, was thrown in jail based on one coerced plea bargain testimony, made by a convicted corrupt businessman, who in exchange for this testimony was able to keep tens of millions of dollars in bribe money, and had his 30 year prison sentence reduced to time served, a little bit of house arrest, almost nothing. Ok? And he changed his story 3 times before they gave him the deal. So something is highly wrong in this scenario, because you can just blackmail people into saying what you want them to say and they just read it off your script, and then they get this deal. And so it’s really bribery if you’re telling someone they can keep 10 million dollars of bribe money if they tell their story in this certain way. And so I think that in order to convict someone, plea bargain testimony should be acceptable evidence but the jury should know it is coerced, and there should also be material evidence so that people can triangulate and not base it entirely on one person’s word against another’s.

Chuck Mertz: To what extent was this a popular coup? How much was the public convinced of Dilma’s guilt, of Lula’s guilt, before they were proven innocent, or at least in Dilma’s case she was proven innocent.

Brian Mier: Well the country is heavily polarized right now, so it’s a bout 50/50. About 50% erroneously thought that Dilma was guilty of something because of years of illegal leaks to the media, including an illegally taped telephone conversation between Dilma Rousseff and Lula, which was taped by Sergio Moro, the judge who prosecuted, investigated and ruled on his own prosecution against Lula, which he recorded and leaked to the major television stations, that was broadcast over the air, that didn’t prove any crime committed, but had the pair of them using swear words – this is an example of how the media collaborates with regime change.

Just talk to any American Liberal now, I’ve got relatives and stuff who just go through the roof if I suggest that Putin didn’t throw the elections to Trump, because of so much misinformation in the media.

Chuck Mertz: Why do you see Bolsonaro as a Neofascist, what is the likelihood that U.S. support for him would continue under a U.S. President that was from the Democratic Party?

Brian Mier: It depends on the Democrat. I could see someone like Joe Biden making some angry scolding comments and continue to work with Bolsonaro. I can see that. Because you know what it’s like with the Democrats, it’s lip service, they pay lip service to human rights, but they have no qualms about supporting massive human rights violations around the world, as long as the people use the right kind of language. So I can see support continuing with Biden, I could not see the same kind of support continuing for Bolsonaro if Bernie Sanders or or Elizabeth Warren or Tulsi Gabbard, or one of these more progressive Democrats were elected.

But an example of why Bolsonaro is a Neofascist. Really, I refer to him as a client-fascist or a sub-fascist, according to Noam Chomsky’s definition of the term in the 1970s, which he created to describe these military dictatorships in Latin America back then. Because unlike Hitler for example, he’s not trying to take over the world, he’s created an internal enemy which he wants to wipe out, at the service of another imperialist power, which is the U.S. – he’s like a sub to the U.S., to U.S. domination, but he’s a fascist. And for an example of his fascism, I could give you a hundred, but here’s a recent one: today he signed a presidential decree, eliminating all funding for the study of sociology, social sciences and philosophy in the public university system, which implies its going to be wiped out of the high school curriculum as well. Currently all high school students are required to study philosophy and social sciences, for all three years of Brazilian high school. These two subjects were outlawed during the past military dictatorship in 1971, they outlawed sociology, so this is a clear example of how they’re trying to incrementally push towards fascism in this country.

Chuck Mertz: You write that: violent, incompetent, corrupt the wager is now how long Bolsonaro’s imbecilic spectacle can last, self-destruction ahead of schedule is the best hope that Brazil’s progressives, minorities, even majorities have. How is that self-destruction going, because the New York Times had an article on April 14th headlined ‘Bolsonaro’s popularity sinks after a rocky 100 days in office’, that story started like this: “I wasn’t born to be President” Brazil’s President Bolsonaro said in an address from his official residence, “I was born to be a soldier” the tone used by Bolsonaro, a former army captain was lighthearted, but the message underscored how turbulent his first few months have been, in just over 100 days in office he has used up much of his political capital with little progress on key issues to show for it, Brazilians are growing impatient. So how is Bolsonaro’s self-destruction progressing?

Brian Mier: Well if you had asked me this a month ago or something I would’ve said that I was thinking that he was going to be out in a couple of months, but his visit to CIA headquarters in Langley along with his Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who was the guy who investigated, judged on his own case and put Lula in jail, they both visited CIA headquarters in Langley, it was the first time a Brazilian President has ever done that, and he had not even met with Brazilian intelligence at that point yet, so that was interpreted in Brazil as a kind of message being sent out to people who were trying to take him out within his own coalition – that he has backing from the U.S. so I don’t know, at this point there are all kinds of indications that he might fall, but the real thing that international capital is worried about, is pushing through retirement pension reforms, which they’re trying to turn over management of to private capital and reduce the monthly payments to half minimum salary, and raise the retirement age, so that people are forced to get their own private retirement plans from private banks, which would generate a lot of money, so that’s the big push that’s going on right now, and some people are saying that all of these gaffes that Bolsonaro and his cronies are making, all of these embarrassing public statements is just a kind of hybrid war technique, to keep the left confused, so that they can push through these pension reforms. If they manage to push through these pension reforms I don’t see Bolsonaro falling, I see the media making a lot of money out of daily articles about Bolsonaro’s stupid tweets and people wringing their hands about how bad he is, and him making it through the whole term, just like Trump. Because this seems to be almost like the new normal now. Everyone thought Trump was going to fall too in the first couple of months.

Chuck Mertz: You mention a new corruption scandal, Bolsogate, what is Bolsogate? And does it have the potential to take the Bolsonaro Government down?

Brian Mier: If there was a functioning rule of law, it would. So you know about Marielle Franco, the wonderful Rio de Janeiro socialist city councilwoman who was assassinated last year….and all the evidence is pointing to these right-wing paramilitary militias which have wrested control of many of Rio’s favelas from the drug trafficking gangs, where they operate extortion rackets and implement their own brutal form of justice – shooting people for smoking marijuana and stuff – she was a major enemy of these militias and of police brutality, and the evidence is that this militia called the Escritorio do Crime carried out the assassination against her. So after that came out it came out that the leader of the Escritorio do Crime militia, both his mother and wife, worked for over 10 years, in Jair Bolsonaro’ son Flavio’s congressional cabinet, and that another member of his cabinet was busted laundering massive amounts of money, passing it back and forth, and there were ghost employees on the payroll who were passing 90% of their salaries to this one guy who is also connected to militias, and he was making these transfers to Jair Bolsonaro’s wife and to his son Flavio. And so this guy has kind of disappeared, they’re trying to bring him to testify, the whole case is being softened by this supposed anti-corruption hero Sergio Moro who is now justice minister, he’s protecting the militias now, and so they finally arrested the gunmen accused of killing Marielle Franco, and one of them lived two doors down from Jair Bolsonaro in this gated luxury community, and he’s a retired police officer, who would never be able to afford anything like that if he was working legitimately, and then it came out that Bolsonaro’s other son used to date this guy’s daughter. And there are photos on the internet of Bolsonaro at bbqs with this guy and with the other gunman and things like that, and so its actually a pretty big scandal to think that even if Jair Bolsonaro didn’t know about Marielle Franco’s killing, he’s associated and his sons definitely associated with the killers on a regular basis. It’s a pretty big scandal, it’s not just something that relies on plea bargain testimony, there’s bank records of money laundering, and computer hard drives showing that the gunmen were doing all this research on Marielle, and when they see this guy’s hard drive they found that he was doing all this similar research on a worker from amnesty international, who actually used to be my assistant when I was at Actionaid, and two people from an NGO in Maré favela where Marielle Franco was from. So this should be a giant scandal, but it has kind of been buried now, buried internationally, because all of the big newspapers are really super interested in these pension reforms going through, so they’re kind of backing down a little bit on this. The intercept is still on it because of Glenn Greenwald, Glenn was friends with Marielle, but the other big international papers are downplaying it, they’re not really talking about it much.

Chuck Mertz: So Brian, explain to me, why did the Dead Kennedys cancel their Brazil tour?

Brian Mier: Laughs. Well I was shocked, I don’t know whether you ever went to a Dead Kennedy’s show, but I went to see them at the Metro in 1984, it was one of the best shows I ever saw in my life, but I mean, I stopped listening to them 30 years ago or whenever.

So they launched this tour poster that was amazing, it looked like the Dead Kennedys at the height of their powers, it was a family of clowns, in Brazil national football team jerseys where instead of the Brazilian flag it is a cross, the child clowns are holding automatic weapons, and their standing in front of a burning favela with tanks running under it, and one of them is saying “I love the smell of poor dead in the morning.”

So this poster went viral in Brazil, completely viral. So then all of the Bolsominions which is what we call the people who support Bolsonaro, started giving them death threats, threatening to go and shoot up the venues where the concerts were going on. And a day later their tour manager says “Well this poster doesn’t necessarily reflect the political views of the Dead Kennedys. It was made by another artist.” and so now a lot of people are super disappointed with the Dead Kennedys because it looked like the old Dead Kennedys. And then they decided to cancel the tour, and now they’ve said that they actually really liked the poster when they saw it and they authorised it but they weren’t expecting this kind of super fascist reaction. Some people are speculating that they received death threats from one of these Militias, so it’s an interesting story, you know…