Is a Silent Coup in Democratic Disguise Taking Place in Brazil?

After the first phase of overt military regime changes in Latin America, the 1954 CIA overthrow of Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz ushered in the era of covert coups. The list is well known: Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile. Much less well known is the 1964 coup that removed Brazil’s Joao Goulart from power, which was prepared by the Kennedy administration and completed shortly after his assassination. Noam Chomsky calls Goulart’s government “mildly social democratic.” Its replacement was a brutal military dictatorship.

Latin American coups are no longer commonly overt military actions or covert CIA actions. Since Obama came to power, coups, including Latin American coups, are silent coups. Unlike the earlier coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, these coups never take off their masks and reveal themselves as coups. They involve no tanks nor guns. They are coups that are silently disguised as domestic current events.

The new coups are cloaked in one of two disguises. In the first, the same minority who lost in the polls moves its message to the streets disguised as the voice of mass democratic expression; in the second, the minority executes its defeated desire in the disguise of the legal or constitutional workings of the legislature or the courts.

Brazil today is showing signs of both.

In 2002, the Workers’ Party’s (PT) Lula da Silva came to power with 61.3% of the vote. Four years later, he was returned to power with a still overwhelming 60.83%. In Brazil, a two term president must sit out a full term before running again. So, in 2010, Dilma Rousseff ran as Lula DA Silva’s chosen successor. She won a majority 56.05% of the vote. When, in 2014, Rousseff won re-election with 52% of the vote, the right wing opposition Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) went into panic.

The right wing panic was not just because democracy was failing as a method for advancing its goals. The PSDB panic was not just over the fourth consecutive loss at the polls to the more left wing PT. The panic became desperation when it became clear that, after the PT had succeeded in holding on to power while Lula DA Silva was constitutionally sidelined, he was likely returning as the PT’s presidential candidate. The return of Lula DA Silva elicited panic because DA Silva left office with an 80% approval rating. Democracy, it seemed, might never work for the PSDB.

The first opposition response was to refuse to accept the 2014 electoral results despite never proffering a credible complaint. The second was taking to the streets.

This donning of democracy to disguise a coup was first seen in the streets of Iran during the Green Revolution of 2009 and, later, in Venezuela. A minority whose voice was too quiet in the polling booth amplified it in the streets. Numbers too small to tilt the polls looked large when they poured out into the street where a defeated minority took on the appearance of a powerful democratic movement. A mass minority protesting in the streets produces a cry heard more loudly around the world than a silent majority in a secret and sound proof polling booth.

In Brazil, the mass demonstrations in the street are not representative of converted majority: they are made up of the same minority that lost to the PT in the polls. Too small in the polls, their numbers look like a huge expression of democracy in the streets: especially when amplified by a Brazilian media whose ownership is concentrated in the hands of a wealthy elite allied with the PSDB and the old dictatorship. Journalist Glenn Greenwald says that, despite the media representation of a mass expression of “The People,” the street protests are, not exclusively, but overwhelmingly made up “of the nation’s wealthier, white citizens who have long harbored animosity toward PT and anything that smacks of anti-poverty programs.” He says that “The number of people participating in these protests – while in the millions – is dwarfed by the number (54 million) who voted to re-elect Dilma less than two years ago. In a democracy, governments are chosen by voting, not by displays of street opposition – particularly where, as in Brazil, the protests are drawn from a relatively narrow societal segment.” As in earlier manifestations of the pattern, the mass street demonstrations are not the democratic expression of a new majority, but the amplified screams of a defeated and frustrated minority trying to take on the street what they have four times failed to take in the polls.

If that was the intent of the mass movement in the Brazilian streets, it was not enough or – with the immanent resurrection of Lula DA Silva – not fast enough.

Then came the high jacking of Operation Lava Jato and what could be the beginning of a constitutional coup.

This second type of silent coup was incubated in Latin America and first donned its democratic disguise in the legislative buildings of Honduras where democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was whisked out of Honduras with the kidnapping at gunpoint being dressed up as a constitutional obligation. After Zelaya announced a plebiscite to determine whether Hondurans wanted to draft a new constitution, the hostile political establishment falsely translated his announcement into an unconstitutional intention to seek reelection. The ability to stand for a second term would be considered in the constitutional discussions, but was never announced as an intention by Zelaya. The Supreme Court declared the President’s plebiscite unconstitutional, the military kidnapped Zelaya, and the Supreme Court charged Zelaya with treason and declared a new president: a coup in constitutional disguise.

The second appearance of this coup pattern occurred in Paraguay when the right wing Frederico Franco took the presidency from democratically elected, left leaning Fernando Lugo in what has been called a parliamentary coup. As in Honduras, a coup was made to look like a constitutional transition. The right wing opposition opportunistically capitalized on a skirmish over disputed land that left at least eleven people dead to unfairly blame the deaths on President Lugo. It then impeached him after giving him only twenty-four hours to prepare his defense and only two hours to deliver it.

Brazil is manifesting what could be the third emergence of the same pattern. Operation Lava Jato began in Brazil in March of 2014. It began as a noble judicial and police investigation into government corruption. Lava Jato is usually translated as “Car Wash” but, apparently, is better captured as “speed laundering” with the connotation of corruption and money laundering.

Operation Lava Jato began as the uncovering of political bribery and misuse of money. It revolved around Brazil’s massive oil company Petrobras, and the dirt that needed washing was found on all the major political parties in a corrupt system, according to Alfredo Saad Filho, Professor of Political Economy at the SAOS University of London. However, the right has car jacked the car on the way into the car wash and turned a legitimate judicial investigation into a political coup attempt. According to Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Professor of Sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, although Operation Lava Jato “involves the leaders of various parties, the fact is that Operation Lava Jato – and its media accomplices – have shown to be majorly inclined towards implicating the leaders of PT (the Workers’ Party), with the by now unmistakable purpose of bringing about the political assassination of President Dilma Rousseff and former President Lula DA Silva.” De Sousa Santos calls the political repurposing of the judicial investigation “glaringly” and “crassly selective,” and he indicts the entire operation in its refitted form as “blatantly illegal and unconstitutional.” Alfredo Saad Filho says the goal is to “inflict maximum damage” on the PT “while shielding other parties.”

The ultimate goal of the coup in democratic disguise is Lula DA Silva. Criminal charges – which Filho describes as “stretched” – have been brought against Lula, and, on March 4, he was detained for questioning. President Rousseff has recently appointed Lula her Chief of Staff. The opposition has represented Lula’s appointment as an attempt to use ministerial status to protect Lulu from prosecution by any body other than the Supreme Court. But Filho says this representation is based on an illegally released and illegally recorded conversation between Dilma Rousseff and Lula DA Silva. The conversation, he says, was then “misinterpreted” to allow it to be “presented as ‘proof’ of a conspiracy to protect Lula. . . .” de Sousa Santos adds that “President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet has decided to include Lula DA Silva among its ministers. It is its right to do so and no institution, least of all the judiciary, has the power to prevent it.”

No “Presidential crime warranting an impeachment has emerged,” according to Filho. As in Honduras and Paraguay before, an opposition that despairs of its ability to remove the elected government through democratic instruments has turned to undemocratic instruments that it hopes to disguise as judicial and constitutional. In the case of Brazil, this coup in democratic disguise, has been called a “political-judicial coup” by Professor de Sousa Santos.

In both Honduras and Paraguay, the U.S., though publicly innocent of knowledge, privately knew the democratic machinations were coups. Less than a month after the coup, the White House, State Department and many others were in receipt of a cable sent from the US embassy in Honduras. In an almost comic lack of subtlety that was clearly never meant to be public, the cable is called “Open and Shut: the Case of the Honduran Coup”. In it, the embassy says “There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup . . . .” The cable adds that “. . . none of the . . . arguments [of the coup defenders] has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution”.

As for Paraguay, US embassy cables say that Lugo’s political opposition has as its goal to “Capitalize on any Lugo missteps” and “impeach Lugo and assure their own political supremacy”. The cable notes that to achieve their goal, they are willing to “legally” impeach Lugo “even if on spurious grounds”.

History will tell whether Brazil’s silent coup will succeed. History also waits to see what the US knows. Professor de Sousa Santos suggests that that history may be interesting. He says that the US imperialism has returned to its backyard in the form of NGO development projects, “organizations whose gestures in defense of democracy are just a front for covert, aggressive attacks and provocations directed at progressive governments.” He says their goal is “replacing progressive governments with conservative governments while maintaining the democratic façade.” He finishes the implied syllogism with the claim that Brazil is awash in financing from American sources, including “CIA-related organizations.”

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history. An edited version of this article originally appeared on ConsortiumNews.