Brazil, Southcom And The Push Towards War

Brazil’s former President Lula da Silva has expressed concern about the threat of armed conflict involving Brazil, and questioned the new National Defence Policy announced by Bolsonaro’s military dominated government.

The new policy document highlights the possibility of growing tensions on the South American continent which could lead Brazil to mobilise the military in order to guarantee “national interests” and possible conflicts involving neighbouring countries. This has been interpreted as referring to Venezuela.

The redefined policy comes amid a huge increase in the federal budget for Brazil’s Armed forces, donation of US Military equipment to Brazil since Bolsonaro’s election, and joint exercises, with US and Colombian forces near the Venezuelan border since 2017.

Lula published a short statement on Friday 17 July: “I have read with concern the reports on the new edition of the National Defense Policy. Our governments tried to make PND and the National Defense Strategy instruments of peace, sovereignty and autonomous development.”

The new National Defense Policy is the antithesis of the Lula government’s’ own. Analyst Marcelo Zero writes that “in 2005, the new National Defense Policy (PDN) was launched, which gave special emphasis to training in the production of materials and equipment with high added value in technology, with a view to reducing the country’s external dependence in this strategic area. In addition, a number of strategic projects such as the nuclear submarine and the new fighter jets were created or strengthened to promote strategic deterrence in all scenarios. In turn, the National Defense Strategy (NDT), launched in 2008, established the “revitalization of the defense material industry” as one of the three pillars for national defense, alongside the reorganization of the Armed Forces and its composition policy….Foreign policy and defense policy therefore pointed to the same direction: the construction of an independent nation with its own geopolitical and geostrategic interests.

Now, the defense policy, in tandem with the Bolsonaro’s poor foreign policy clearly illustrates the country’s weakening and deepening of its economic, political and technological dependence.”

The former President, who was on course to win the 2018 Presidential election before being jailed by the joint US-Brazil “anti-corruption” operation Lava Jato, raised the spectre of Brazilian involvement in military conflict on behalf of other nation’s interests: “It is alarming to realize that old theories about rivalries with neighbors are being revived and that our Armed Forces may be used for actions incompatible with constitutional principles of non-intervention and self-determination of peoples.” Lula said.

Lula went on to reference a recently broadcast meeting between US President Donald Trump and US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) generals. Comparing them to members of a Baseball team, Commander Adm. Craig S. Faller boasted that Colombian Brigadier General Juan Carlos Correa, and Brazilian Major General David are paid by Colombia and Brazil “to work for me.”

Such a blatant public display of Colombia and Brazil’s submission shocked observers, not least because the two neighbours would be the most likely military allies in a threatened US attack on Venezuela.

Lula lamented this abandonment of the country’s sovereignty: “The concern is heightened when we see the automatic alignment and submission illustrated by the shameful video of a Brazilian general treated as employed by the head of the southern command of the USA, the same organisation responsible for possible armed actions against Latin American countries.”

Former President Lula’s statement concluded: “Brazil urgently needs to regain its national sovereignty. And that should be the goal of a new edition of the National Defense Policy.” 

Brazilian involvement in a possible US military confrontation with Venezuela has been a possibility since Bolsonaro took power.

Whilst Brazilian Armed Forces top brass are believed to oppose conflict in Venezuela, with Trump threatening military action since 2018, it is feared that whatever happens, Brazil will be involved. Trump-allied Bolsonaro and his far-right cabinet’s public anti-Venezuela sentiment has confounded these fears, as has the building of a media narrative for “humanitarian” intervention in the oil-rich country.

Bolsonaro visited Southern Command’s Florida headquarters on March 8 2020: “This is the first time a Brazilian President visits U.S. Southern Command. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will meet with U.S. Navy Adm. Craig Faller, as well as other command leaders to discuss the growing defense-cooperation partnership between Brazil and the United States. During the visit, the U.S. and Brazil will sign a bilateral Agreement on Research Development, Test, and Evaluation Projects that will expand opportunities for both countries to collaborate and share information on the development of new defense capabilities.” explains a Southcom press release.

Former Foreign and Defence Minister Celso Amorim warned that Brazil could support a US invasion of its northern neighbour, remarking that Ernesto Araújo, Bolsonaro’s Foreign Minister, already “supported Pompeo’s plan for Venezuela’s transition”.

For Amorim, the threat of war is real. “They will probably do the same with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as they did with Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1989.” observing that “It would be the first US invasion in South America for 100 years,”

“The US set up the drug scenario because it cannot say that Maduro has weapons of mass destruction.” the former Defence minister remarked.

Amorim was appointed Defence Minister by Dilma Rousseff in August 2011,  after her government had opposed US-NATO intervention in Libya, heightening tensions with the Obama administration.

Rousseff has since talked about foreign actors who seek to transform South America into a theatre of war.

Gunboat diplomacy

Southcom’s expansion and Brazil’s political disintegration over the past decade go hand in hand.

Facing off the so called Pink-Tide of progressive governments in Latin America, threatened by autonomous regional and international integration projects, and affronted by rejection of free trade agreement the FTAA, bringing the region firmly back into Washington’s sphere of influence had become a foreign policy priority. Whilst conflict with Chavez’s Venezuela had the headlines, no country was more key to this strategy than Brazil.

Admiral Faller visited U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (USNAVSO)/U.S. 4th Fleet headquarters at Naval Station Mayport, Florida on June 26, 2020. Southcom’s publicity material describes how “U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet supports U.S. Southern Command’s joint and combined military operations by employing maritime forces in cooperative maritime security operations to maintain access, enhance interoperability, and build enduring partnerships in order to enhance regional security and promote peace, stability and prosperity in the Caribbean, Central and South American region.”

The fourth fleet, dormant since 1950 was reinaugurated in July 2008, attracting fierce criticism from then President Lula da Silva, whose government was still celebrating the discovery of enormous new offshore oil wealth – sub salt or pré-sal reserves – whose state control was legally protected, and which as envisaged would transform Brazil into a major producer.

While Lula was personally furious, the Mercosul parliament of Brazil and its neighbours also voted to oppose the fleet’s re-establishment.

A classified state department cable dated July 10 2008 released by Wikileaks responded to Brazilian suspicion and anger.

“Summary: During the Mercosul Summit in Argentina, President Lula together with other South American leaders, such as Bolivian president Evo Morales and Venezuelan president Chavez, criticized the re-establishment of the Fourth Fleet Chavez, with Lula at his side, called it a “threat” to the region and an attempt to grab the region’s natural resources…”

The cable appears to emphasise Embassy’s concerns over Brazilian media reports about the fourth fleet, rather than the Lula government’s response: “The 2 July editions of daily newspapers O Globo, Folha de Sao Paulo and Valor Economico, among the most widely read national newspapers, contained articles with inaccurate facts about the establishment of the Fourth Fleet and reported criticism of it by Venezuela President Hugo Chavez and Brazilian President Lula during the Mercosul Summit in Argentina…President Lula suggested that its reactivation was due to Brazil’s recent offshore oil discoveries and stated that he had already instructed Foreign Minister Amorim to request explanations from Secretary Rice.”

Defence minister Nelson Jobim is quoted in the cable as having told reporters that: “Brazil will not allow the Fourth Fleet to enter and operate within the limits of the (Brazilian) territorial sea. This is not a boast, but a warning. If it enters territorial waters, Brazil will have every right to protest and the U.S. will not want a diplomatic incident. Anyway, the reactivation shows an urgent need to re-equip and modernize the Brazilian Navy…”

Intriguingly the cable also reveals that Vice President José Alencar, who like his successor Michel Temer belonged to a different, centre-right political party to the President, had a direct channel to the United States Ambassador Sobel, and was contradicting the sentiments of President Lula. Alencar called for the US to respond: “Alencar, who had just made unexpected and effusive public remarks in support of our bilateral relationship, told the Ambassador that “nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of the U.S.-Brazil partnership.” Alencar recommended that Secretary Rice place a call to President Lula explaining the purpose of the Fourth Fleet and how it is actually a positive vehicle for improved relations.”

Then foreign minister, Celso Amorim did not see it in terms of improved relations and demanded a meeting with US Ambassador Sobel, the cable notes: “Echoing Lula’s comments linking the Fourth Fleet to oil discoveries along the Brazilian coast, Amorim raised his concern over comments, which he suggested had come from U.S. officials, that one of the purposes of the Fleet was to protect strategic resources in the region, to “include oil”. (Note: We are not aware of U.S. government officials having made such comments. End note).”

Crucially the State Department communication admits that the Brazilian Armed Forces had been briefed by the United States about the creation of the new fourth fleet, but crucially the Brazilian foreign ministry had not been informed“Amorim stressed that this was a politically sensitive issue, and based on friendly and open relations, he was surprised that he had received no communication on this issue from the State Department. When asked about the Fourth Fleet during Mercosul, President Lula turned to Amorim to ask him for guidance, who was forced to reply that he only knew what had appeared in the press. The Ambassador noted that Admiral Stavridis had briefed Admiral Moura Neto and the Brazilian military on the Fourth Fleet, but acknowledged that we had failed to brief the Foreign Ministry.”  The United States bypassing the Brazilian foreign ministry would become a feature of operation Lava Jato years later.

The cable also complained of “sensationalist” media reports depicting the fourth fleet as a carrier strike group: “Moreover, some of the press articles reported, inaccurately, that the USS George Washington and 11 other vessels will make up the fleet, and Brazilian military analysts are quoted asserting that this is a U.S. move to reaffirm Latin America as its area of influence and to respond to Brazilian efforts to establish a South American Defense Council that would stand outside the U.S. orbit.”

It is at least a cruel historical curiosity then, that Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS George Washington arrived on an unscheduled stop in Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara bay on November 24, 2015. Barely a week later, on December 2, Congressional President Eduardo Cunha accepted a petition for President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, beginning a process which resulted in Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency and Brazil’s governmental submission to the United States, the cut-price privatisation of Brazil’s offshore oil wealth, and decimation of its state controlled oil company, Petrobras, as had been feared by Brazilians a decade before.

After four consecutive election wins, the defeat of Brazil’s popular left-wing Workers Party government was eventually delivered with lawfare strategies which were being developed by the Department of Justice while all eyes were on the fourth fleet, which the State Department then insisted to Amorim would be a “fleet with no ships”.

Yet exactly twelve years after its re- inauguration, fleet has 6 to 7 U.S. Navy ships deployed to it, is active off the Venezuelan coast, and after a failed coup and attempted invasion by Colombia based mercenaries, President Trump is now insisting that “something will happen” soon in the country.

“A problem” for the United States

As he left office in December 2010, one of Lula’s final acts as president was to publicly and enthusiastically endorse wikileaks release of these classified diplomatic cables. This was a humiliation for Hilary Clinton’s State Department. Beyond the public appearance of amicable relations with both George Bush Jr and Barack Obama, Lula was considered a problem for the United States.

In July 2019, Sobel’s successor, Ambassador Tom Shannon Jr admitted that Brazil under Lula & Dilma disrupted US plans for South AmericaShannon revealed that the United States believed Brazil was moving towards the construction of a cohesive international bloc of progressive and left orientation. This would be an obstacle to the resuscitation of the Free Trade Area of ​​the Americas.

At the time of the fourth fleet’s re-inauguration, another controversy was brewing. On October 30, 2009 an agreement was signed between the United States and Colombia which would allow the US military use of 7 existing bases in Colombia: Two naval bases at Cartagena and Tolemaida, three air force bases at Malambo, Palanquero, and Apiay and two army bases at Larandia and Tolemaida.

Documents outlining the agreement were released despite President Obama denying such a deal was being negotiated, whilst US stenographers dismissed the news as a public relations blunder, a misunderstanding, or a myth.

The agreement talked of the “opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America” including threats from “anti-U.S. governments.”

Lula expressed concern about the US’s military expansion in Colombia, only to later say he accepted Obama and President Alvaro Uribe’s insistences that use of the bases was intended for Colombian “internal affairs” only.

Meanwhile in Ecuador, another of the Pink Tide’s incumbent presidents, Rafael Correa had ended the United States ten-year, rent-free lease of the Manta airbase. US forces officially vacated Manta one month before the Colombia pact, at a handover ceremony in September 2009, which Foreign Minister Fander Falconi called  “a triumph for national sovereignty.” Living in exile, Correa now faces a lawfare campaign of his own, similar to that which prevented Lula facing Jair Bolsonaro at the 2018 election.

The United States had no military bases in Brazil since the end of the second world war. This began to change with the removal of Dilma Rousseff on spurious grounds in 2016, which was tacitly supported by the U.S. government and endorsed by its business community.

Former Foreign Minister Samuel Pinheiro wrote in 2017: “The Americans’ main objective is to have a military base in Brazilian territory with which it can exercise its sovereignty, outside of the laws of the Brazilian authorities including military, where they can develop all types of military activities. The location of Alcantara in the Brazilian Northeast facing West Africa is ideal for the United States for it’s political and military operations in South American and Africa and its world strategy to confront Russia and China.”

The plan to lease Alcantâra to the US has accelerated since Bolsonaro came to power. Rutger’s University associate professor Sean T. Mitchell wrote that on August 20 2019, “Brazil’s House Committee on Foreign Relations and National Defense approved the “Technology Safeguards Accord” that would allow the United States to use the Alcântara Launch Center in Maranhão, bringing the controversial agreement closer to possible ratification by Brazil’s Congress. President Jair Bolsonaro celebrated the vote, tweeting “For 20 years we have waited for an agreement that could put us in the select group of nations in the space race.” This was a strange turnaround, since Bolsonaro had forcefully opposed a very similar accord, when he was a congressman, nearly 20 years before.”

An important but overlooked detail in Southcom’s heightened relationship with Brazil is that its Civilian Deputy to the Commander and Foreign Policy Advisor is none other than Lilana Ayalde, who was US ambassador to Brazil from 2013-17, specifically during the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff. Prior to the Brazil post where she succeeded Tom Shannon Jr., and a two years as deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Department of State, Liliana Ayalde was Ambassador to Paraguay from 2008-2011.

Ayalde left Paraguay under a shadow, following the release of leaked State Department cables which showed her discussing a future coup plot against elected president Fernando Lugo, several years before.

Before Paraguay, Ayalde had spent 1999-2008 heading USAID in Bolivia, then Colombia. Along with then Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg, in 2007 USAID was expelled from the country upon revelation of this attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Evo MoralesJuan Ramon Quintana, Bolivia’s minister of the presidency, emphasized the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia’s direct role in a plot to assassinate Morales: “In 2007 the embassy of the United States installed a Center of Operations in order to execute a civil-prefectural coup to apply plan A, which was the coup, and plan B, which was the assassination.”

Morales also expelled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents from Bolivia, accusing the DEA of inciting the autonomy-seeking opposition in eastern provinces. (In 2015 the DEA would also open its own new Brazil office in Rio de Janeiro.)

Bolivia’s Morales would eventually be removed via a violent coup d’etat in November 2019. It was supported by both the United States and Brazil’s new far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro. Bolivia’s presidential jet’s presence in Brazil on the day of the coup, and frequent trips to the country since, have caused suspicion that Brazil’s hand in the coup may have been greater than previously thought.

Ayalde’s tenure in Brazil also coincided with joint US-Brazil “anti-corruption” operation Lava Jato’s initiation and busiest, most destructive phase. New revelations of US Department of Justice and FBI’s illegal collaboration, guidance and financing of the Lava Jato task force, which in the FBI’s own words “toppled” Brazilian presidents Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva, mean that Ayalde and predecessor Tom Shannon should be facing serious scrutiny.

After leaving the Brazil Ambassador post on January 11, 2017, with Michel Temer in power and Brazil already shifting towards US strategic and economic alignment, Ayalde assumed her new role at Southcom just ten days later.

This re-alignment with United States Southern Command is described by UNESP researcher Héctor Luís Saint-Pierre“It could be paradoxically concluded that we have Armed Forces to defend US interests, including the deregulation of the national economy and the appropriation of Brazilian wealth.”

Despite vacuous nationalist posturing, Jair Bolsonaro is the most overtly submissive Brazilian president in history. Aside from saluting the US flag and visiting National Security Adviser John Bolton, he was the first ever to visit CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Celso Amorim remarked: “No Brazilian president had ever paid a visit to the CIA, This is an explicitly submissive position. Nothing compares to this.”

Lula’s language on US interference has intensified since his politically-motivated imprisonment – itself the fruit of the now discredited US-Brazil operation Lava Jato. He recently told Al Jazeera that the United States was “always behind regime change” in Latin America.

In an earlier interview with Brasil Wire and the late Michael Brooks, Lula remarked: “Now Brazil is an island, subordinated in an embarrassing manner to the interests of Trump and asking Trump for favors. The fact is that no government does favors for another government. We have State policies for relations with other States, that have to be respected. So that’s it, my dear. Brazil is not respecting itself. Brazil has returned to the times of colonisation.”

Having refused to commit Brazilian forces to the Iraq invasion, and opposed NATO intervention in Libya, there would be no clearer confirmation of Brazil’s re-colonized status than its participation in the United States’ new military adventures.