The United States and Brasil: On Reaping What You Sow

By Jan K. Black

It was often said in Latin America in the early 1960s that when the United States sneezed, Latin America caught pneumonia. In fact, it was repeated year after year until the fall of 2008, when the United States caught pneumonia and Latin America sneezed.

Brazil, in particular, after a short spell of sneezing, rebounded to its pattern of robust economic growth, grounded in sophisticated research and development, diversified products and trading partners. Through years both of boom and, more recently, slump, redistributive domestic programs, like Bolsa Familia, and higher minimum wages have enabled Workers’ Party (PT) governments to narrow the country’s income gap. Meanwhile, the U.S. sinks deeply into debt to China and the domestic income gap continues to grow. The one percent are thriving; not so the 99.

The changing relationship between the United States and Brazil over the last couple of decades responds in large part to changes in the global power game and to how each of the countries has played the game. Currently undergirded by socially responsible civilian leadership and the legendary diplomatic skills of Itamaraty, the foreign ministry, Brazil can expect to be taken into account on issues of global import; moreover, its collaborative outreach has served to strengthen national self-confidence elsewhere in Latin America. Does that mean that the United States can be counted upon now to treat Brazil, and Latin America in general, with respect, like good neighbors rather than subservient and potentially subversive clients? Apparently not.

Brazil’s emergence in the twenty-first century as an economic power and a major player in international diplomacy has not deterred the United States from routine political manipulation and espionage. Much of it focuses now on commercial and financial undertakings, as US security interests and private corporate interests coincide in the competition for markets for weapon sales. Motives for snooping and plotting also include driving wedges between Brazil and its South American neighbors, as well as between Brazil and other trading partners, including China and Iran. For the United States the outcomes of such endeavors have been mixed; but the placement and recent outing of an intelligence asset at the highest levels of Brazilian government aroused indignation.

The Cablegate Scandal, so-called in reference to U.S. State Department cables liberated in 2010 by Wikileaks and circulated broadly through mainstream media, proved embarrassing to the United States and Brazil alike. Brazilian media had reported that Defense Minister Nelson Jobim was ruffling feathers in the Cabinet and his own ministry by pushing a US policy agenda. Revelation then that classified cables were passing regularly between Jobim and US Ambassador to Brazil Clifford Sobel, cables sometimes referring to Jobim as an “identity-protected source,” made his position untenable.

The coup de grace for any pretense of proper diplomacy on the part of the United States came with a new shower of classified documents leaked in 2013 by NSA contractor Edward Snowden and carried by The Guardian and TV Globo. These documents revealed that NSA and CIA data-mining targeting the private communications of millions of Americans was targeted at millions of foreigners as well, including the heads of government of allied countries. Along with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and many others, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was incensed that the US government had taped her most intimate conversations; but she was particularly disturbed that those agencies were also targeting Petrobras, the state majority-owned energy enterprise.

Both Rousseff and former President Lula da Silva called (in vain) for an apology from President Obama. Rousseff then canceled her scheduled state visit to the White House, blasted the U.S. global espionage program in an address to the United Nations, and entered into discussions with Chancellor Merkel on means of bypassing communications systems vulnerable to US snooping. Since then Brazil has drawn up plans to lay its own undersea fiber-optic cable, stretching from Fortaleza to Lisbon, to avoid surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies.

When Vice President Biden visited Brazil for the World Cup in July, President Rousseff may have appreciated his delivery of half-century-old declassified documents detailing methods of state-sponsored torture under the US-supported military regime–methods familiar to Rousseff, herself a torture survivor. But Biden’s contribution likely offered limited solace in the face of contemporary offenses. As Brazil commemorated the 50th anniversary of “O Golpe” – the 1964 coup d’état  – and the National Truth Commission performed its grisly task, Brazilians and friends of Brazil were asking not only why and how this happened, but to what degree the abuses of rights and threats to sovereignty are ongoing.

Washington’s long-term efforts in Brazil and elsewhere to undermine movements springing from lower class aspirations and strengthen groups favorable to U.S. investors were infused with a sense of urgency when João (“Jango”) Goulart assumed the presidency of Brazil in 1961. Declassified documents released recently by the National Security Archive reveal that officials of the Kennedy Administration were perturbed by Goulart’s proposed social reforms and contemplated promoting a military coup. (See Kornbluth)

Accelerating under the Johnson Administration, destabilization of the Goulart government involved the concerted effort of U.S. government agencies in collaboration with the multi-national corporate community and international financial institutions. While banks withdrew investments and withheld credit, the CIA, the Agency for International Development, and U.S. businesses channeled funds to political candidates, state governors, police and paramilitary groups, labor unions, media companies, and others inclined to plot against the federal government. Supporters of the government faced an elaborate campaign of divide and suppress, co-opt or conquer.

U.S. military attachés encouraged and coordinated factions of the Brazilian military in plotting a coup d’état. And in case Brazilian military conspirators should begin to falter, the United States had a naval carrier task force standing by. The subsequent militocracy saw many thousands exiled, purged, imprisoned, tortured, and/or murdered by death squads. With “constructive bankruptcy,” unemployment soared as production and economic decision-making were denationalized. A gradual “decompression” got underway in the late 1970s, and the Potemkin parliament began to take its role seriously.

But it took some three decades and a president personally victimized by the dictatorship for the government to begin to investigate what had happened to their country.

Apart from what we are learning about contemporary US espionage in Brazil, how might we discern other ongoing operations on the underside of U.S. imperial designs for Latin America? The Watergate mantra, “follow the money,” is always a good lead; but the most effective tactics for empire-maintenance are subtle, played out daily beneath the radar. They become routine, scarcely recognized for what they are either by those who carry them out or those on the receiving end. They become visible, as in Brazil in the early 1960s and Chile in the early 1970s, only when they appear to be failing to keep insufficiently subservient leaders and movements “under control,” whereupon more aggressive tactics are employed.

In order to tilt or maintain power balances within client states, the hegemonic power injects its interests directly into the undertakings and prospects of every politically-articulated group in the target society—an array of groups or social categories that is subject to change over time, as are the tools and tactics for nurturing or suppressing. Groups to be suppressed or co-opted would be infiltrated or replicated so as to weaken by provoking schisms and siphoning off funds and personnel.

The strategy in broad outline is designed to continuously unite and strengthen the right, divide and weaken the left, and scare the bejeebers out of the middle class. Some operations for provoking regime change or manipulating electoral outcomes, previously carried out by the CIA under relatively deep cover, are now undertaken almost openly through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its two partisan offspring organizations. Intelligence agents operating under cover of other government agencies are joined in the enterprise by “private” contractors and numerous NGOs, whose personnel may be witting, un-witting, or should-be-witting but in denial. Middle class mobilizations they are able to generate are greatly enhanced by social media. Following upon an Associated Press investigation, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last April asked USAID to turn over records on the secret “Cuba Twitter” program. The effectiveness of this CIA effort to provoke social unrest was uncertain. Online activism, however, helped to organize massive middle-class protests in Brazil in spring 2013 that proved damaging to the economy and the PT government.

The damage was compounded by police brutality employed in “crisis intervention.” Militarized under the dictatorship and still sharing the ideology, impunity, and modus operandi of the armed forces, the police impersonated occupiers of enemy turf. As in 1964, when Brazil’s federal government was restrained by the constitution from interfering in such state affairs as police operations, the US assumed the task of training police, this time supposedly to deal with the World Cup. As reported by Elizabeth Leeds, 22 Brazilian military and federal police officers underwent military and paramilitary training last March, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, at the North Carolina headquarters of Academi, infamous formerly as Blackwater. Meanwhile in Brazil, 800 police from nine states received training from the FBI.

Shock and awe of modern police power notwithstanding, the most important innovations in the global power game derive from an ever-increasing concentration of wealth. Monetization and commercialization capture everything from breathable air to body parts and presidencies. Technological and bureaucratic innovations, from electronic funds transfers to electronic voting machines to cell phone and internet data-mining, multiply the levers available to the ambitious. Corporate money-movers – known now as “market forces” – are thus able to wreak havoc on uncooperative countries with virtual anonymity and absolute freedom from responsibility.

By the same token, leaders suspected of being serious about following through on a popular mandate begin to pay a kind of insurance premium to the creditors—in the currency of their freedom of speech and of action—even before they are elected to office.  During Brazil’s presidential election of 2002, the credit-rating enterprise Standard and Poor operated a “Lula Meter.” When Lula moved up in the opinion polls, the interest rate Brazil was forced to pay on its loans rose accordingly. Lula won an impressive victory nevertheless, but most governments—now including that of the United States—can be shaken simply by the threat of “market jitters.”

In this election year, as Lula’s PT successor sought re-election, Standard and Poor, Moody’s, and other institutions interfered again, sharply downgrading Brazil’s credit-rating. Even so, until August it had appeared that Rousseff’s candidacy was unassailable. But a plane crash changed all that; it killed the presidential candidate of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), Eduardo Campos, elevating Vice-Presidential candidate Marina Silva to the top of the ticket. A former senator and environmental minister, Silva had only recently joined the PSD, but her populist profile, as a devoutly religious up-by-her-bootstraps Amazonian rubber-tapper, drew a sizeable following among NGOs and evangelicals. Having signaled openness to privatization of the central bank, dismantlement of Mercosul, and concurrence with the US on allies and enemies, she also had backing from “the markets” and support through “civil society” programs of USAID and NED.

Silva’s climb in the polls, from August to September, to a virtual tie with Rousseff, alarmed many of Brazil’s ranking politicians, diplomats, and scholars. The country’s most distinguished historian of international politics, Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, suggested that a “regime change” effort might be underway. But a week ahead of the October 5 general elections Silva’s fortunes began to slip. As Rousseff rose again to a comfortable lead in the polls, the “markets” sounded their alarm with a stock-market plunge. Nevertheless, unemployment was low and wages were high. Poverty levels had declined, according to the World Bank, from 16% of the population in 2007 to 9% in 2012. Markets notwithstanding, the economically vulnerable know they are considerably less vulnerable with the PT in power.

Rousseff maintained her lead on election day, with 41% of the vote, but other results were dumbfounding. The unabashedly conservative candidate of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), Aécio Neves, previously trailing as a distant third, bolted ahead of Silva – at 33% to 21% – into the October 26 run-off. Silva’s financial underwriters slipped over seamlessly to Neves, but moving voters was not so easy. Silva’s appeal rested in the smoke and mirrors blurring her policy profile. Neves’ stance had no such useful lack of clarity. Rousseff prevailed in the run-off with 51.6% to Neves’s 48.4% “The Markets” responded with another peevish plummet. Rousseff made a conciliatory call to unity for the common good. The election was over, but the power game was not.

Barack Obama’s 2008 election offered a great opportunity for a new start in relations with Brazil and, by extension, Latin America. Opinion polls at the time showed Obama even more popular in Brazil than in the United States—his message of hope and change had great resonance there. Brazilians seemed to understand that the inexorably widening gap between recognized needs of nations and the insatiable appetites of the global private sector constituted both challenge and opportunity to pursue a mutually supportive relationship. The bad news is that the U.S. government seems disposed instead to continue to penetrate the power game in Brazil, seeking to manipulate personnel and policy outcomes. The good news for Brazilian and U.S. citizens alike is that such dark-side diplomacy proved futile.

Ironically, Brazil’s National Truth Commission Report, documenting systematic torture and other crimes during the dictatorship, came out almost simultaneously with the US Senate Report on Torture. For the United States, consequences of the havoc or sabotage our cloak and dagger set have been able to unleash on Brazil and other countries may be less significant than the boomerang effect on the home front. The street spectacle of militarized policing we have seen in Ferguson, Missouri, calls to mind the training undertaken in Brazil and elsewhere since 1964, when it was offered by the U.S Public Safety Assistance Program (CIA under cover of USAID) to select Brazilian police forces in the run-up to counterrevolution. As US Senator Hubert Humphrey observed a decade later in the surreal political climate of the Watergate Scandal, all of the under-covered and underhanded tricks employed to corrupt democratic process and undermine the pursuit of the public interest overseas had come home to roost.

Jan Knippers Black, Professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, has published many books, including “United States Penetration of Brazil,” (1977); in Portuguese translation, “A penetração dos Estados Unidos no Brasil,” Editora Massangana (2009)

Original version of this article was published at NACLA.ORG, reproduced with permission of author.

Image: President Dilma with Vice-President Biden (Blog do Planalto / Creative Commons)


By Jan Knippers Black PhD

Professor at The Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. She has also been a senior associate member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford; a faculty member in the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester-at-Sea Program; a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico; and a research team supervisor at American University. She has authored or edited and co-authored a dozen books and has co-authored a dozen more. She has also published over 200 chapters and articles in reference books, anthologies, journals, magazines, and newspapers.