In 1964, a little discussed action was prepared by the Kennedy administration and carried out after his death by the Johnson administration. It represented the first steps in Kennedy’s plan to transform Latin America’s militaries from forces that defend against external threats, as they were intended, into forces that ensure "internal security" by controlling their own populations, as they would now be used.
The virus in Brazil that needed to be controlled was, in the words of Noam Chomsky, the "mildly social democratic" government of João Goulart. The virus would be killed and replaced with, again in the words of Chomsky, a "murderous and brutal" military dictatorship.
Brazil did not orchestrate the coup alone: they had substantial help from the Johnson administration. A field report filed by the CIA station chief in Brazil reveals U.S. knowledge of the coming coup: “A revolution by anti-Goulart forces will definitely get under way this week, probably in the next few days.” But the US went beyond complicity to cooperation. Johnson explicitly gave the green light to participation when he told Under Secretary of State George Ball and Assistant Secretary for Latin America Thomas Mann that, "I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do.”
And Johnson meant everything: covert and overt. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon told CIA Director John McCone, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk that those steps should include “a clandestine delivery of arms … pre-positioned prior any outbreak of violence” to the coup forces, as well as shipments of gas and oil. Gordon also warned them to “prepare without delay against the contingency of needed overt intervention at a second stage” after the covert involvement. Rusk would then send Gordon a list of the steps that would be taken “in order [to] be in a position to render assistance at appropriate time to anti-Goulart forces if it is decided this should be done.” The list, sent in a telegram on March 31, 1964, included dispatching US Navy tankers with petroleum and oil, an aircraft carrier, two guided missile destroyers, four destroyers and task force tankers for “overt exercises off Brazil.” The telegram also lists as a step to “assemble shipment of about 11 tons of ammunition.”
Brazilians would live and suffer through the results of that US cooperation for the next twenty-one years.
In 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would win an astonishing 61.3% of the vote. He would be re-elected four years later with a still whopping 60.83%. Being constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, his successor, Dilma Rousseff would win two more terms.
The Workers’ Party of Lula DA Silva and Dilma Rousseff was both effective and popular. By 2014, poverty in Brazil had been reduced by an astounding 55% and extreme poverty by an even more impressive 65%. Unemployment was down to a 4.9%. When Lulu left office after his two terms, his approval rating was 87%. Polls in Brazil show that Lula led in the polls and likely would have won the recent election had he been allowed to run.
But, he wasn’t. Lulu’s Workers’ Party was clearly not going to be removed at the polls, so it had to be removed in another way.
As in Honduras and Paraguay before, that other way would be a coup disguised as parliamentary and judicial proceedings. Dilma was charged with “violating fiscal laws by using loans from public banks to cover budget shortfalls, which artificially enhanced the budget surplus.” But, even if that not uncommon accounting manipulation were a crime – and the government’s federal prosecutor ruled that it was not – her removal was no normal proceeding of a parliamentary democracy: it was a coup.
A published transcript of a 75-minute phone call between Romero Jucá, who was a senator at the time of the call and soon to be the planning minister in the coup government of Michel Temer, and former oil executive Sergio Machado exposes “a national pact” to remove Dilma and install Temer as president. Jucá reveals that, not only opposition politicians, but also the military and the Supreme Court are conspirators in the coup. Regarding the military’s role, Jucá says, “I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it.” And, as for the Supreme Court, Glenn Greenwald reports that Jucá admits that he “spoke with and secured the involvement of numerous justices on Brazil’s Supreme Court.” Jucá further boasted that “there are only a small number” of Supreme Court justices that he had not spoken to.
With Dilma gone, and the Workers’ Party thrust from office, there remained the old problem of Lula DA Silva. Eligible to run again, he would surely return the Workers’ Party to power. So, he was arrested, convicted and barred from running for president in the 2018 election. Lulu was banished to prison over a bribe in which the construction company OAS offered him an apartment in exchange for inflated contracts. But no evidence was ever provided that Lulu accepted the bribe or ever stayed in or rented out the apartment.
With Dilma out of office and Lulu barred from running from office, the stage was set for the return of the remnants of the old dictatorship. Unlike the 1964 coup, the US didn’t need to provide covert or overt military backing to the coup. In the new age of silent coups that are disguised as democracy, all the US needed to do was acquiesce and provide political and diplomatic cover. Which they did.
The US knew that it was a coup: the coup leader publicly told them so. In a post-coup speech in front of members of multinational corporations and the US policy establishment in New York on September 22, 2016, Michel Temer brazenly boasted of his successful coup. Temer clearly told his American audience that elected President Dilma Rousseff was not removed from power for “violating fiscal laws by using loans from public banks to cover budget shortfalls, which artificially enhanced the budget surplus,” as the official charge stated. She was – the new, unelected president admitted – removed because of her refusal to implement a right wing economic plan that was inconsistent with the economic platform on which Brazilians elected her.
Rousseff was not on board. So, she was thrown overboard. In the words of Temer’s confession:
And many months ago, while I was still vice president, we released a document named ‘A Bridge to the Future’ because we knew it would be impossible for the government to continue on that course. We suggested that the government should adopt the theses presented in that document called ‘A Bridge to the Future.’ But, as that did not work out, the plan wasn’t adopted and a process was established which culminated with me being installed as president of the republic.
The US also provided political cover in the form of acknowledgment. The very day after the vote that impeached Dilma Rousseff, Senator Aloysio Nunes of the new coup government began a three day visit to Washington. Nunes is no small player in the coup government: he was the vice-presidential candidate on the 2014 ticket that lost to President Rousseff and a key player in the effort to impeach. Nunes scheduled meetings with, amongst others, then-chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, as well as with Undersecretary of State and former Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon. According to Latin America expert Mark Weisbrot, Shannon "is the most influential person in the State Department on US policy in Latin America." More significantly, Weisbrot says, his would be the most influential voice in the recommendation to John Kerry about what the American position on the coup of Dilma Rousseff should be.
The willingness to go ahead with the planned meetings with Nunes right after the coup clearly demonstrated the tacit acceptance and approval on the part of the Obama administration of the coup government.
And, it was not the only meeting. Weisbrot also reports that Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Temer government’s interim foreign minister, José Serra. By meeting with a representative of the coup government, and even issuing several joint statements with him, the US recognized and validated the illegal government.
As in 1964, the coup that the US cooperated with assured the transition from a mildly socialist government to an extreme right wing government. The first ushered a "murderous and brutal" military dictatorship into Brazil; the second returned one of its officers.
Lulu and Dilma may not have broken any Brazilian laws, but Lulu was guilty of something much bigger. He had broken three American laws. He piloted a foreign policy course that was independent of America and provided an alternative model of government: perhaps the greatest crime in American eyes. Significantly, this course included cooperation with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and even eulogizing Chavez in the New York Times upon Chavez’ death. He joined Turkey in side stepping American perfidy by successfully brokering a uranium swap deal that looked like the American plan minus the American tricks: an act of independence on the world stage that won him, not praise or thanks – since it would get highly enriched uranium off Iranian soil – but a reprimand for being meddlesome. And, finally, Lulu was a formidable figure in allying Brazil, with its seventh biggest economy in the world, with organizations like BRICS that offered an alternative to America’s vision of a unipolar world with America as its hegemon.
It was for these crimes, and not for bribes or accounting manipulations, that Lulu, Dilma and the Workers’ Party had to go. In 1964, the social democratic government of João Goulart was removed and replaced by the military dictatorship. The recent Brazilian election finished the coup against the Workers’ Party and returned Brazil to elements that both praised and belonged to the former dictatorship.
Jair Bolsonaro, the new leader of Brazil, was a captain in the military dictatorship. When he cast his impeachment vote against Dilma Rousseff, he dedicated it to the memory of Carlos Alverto Brilhante Ustra, the head of the military dictatorship’s torture unit – Rousseff was one of the people he tortured – and honored the general responsible for the brutal 1964 coup. His dedication seemed intended to signal the return of the dictatorship.
Bolsonaro has defended torture and advocated military and police slaughter as a way of dealing with crime. Immediately upon his election, Human Rights Watch felt compelled to issue a statement calling on Brazil’s judiciary "to resist any attempt to undermine human rights, the rule of law, and democracy under Jair Bolsonaro’s government." Human Rights Watch referred to Bolsonaro as "pro-torture" and "openly bigoted". Bolsonaro has criticized the military dictatorship for torturing people, not because it is wrong to torture, but because they should have killed them instead. He also said that the dictatorship should have killed 30,000 more people than they did. Human Rights Watch also list as concerns for democracy that Bolsonaro has promised to end all activism and terminate state advertising from media outlets that criticize him.
So, after over half a century, our work in Brazil is done. The 1964 Kennedy-Johnson coup removed João Goulart and his social democratic government from power and brought in a brutal military dictatorship. The contemporary coup in Brazil removed Lula DA Silva and Dilma Rousseff and their independent left leaning government from power and has ushered in the terrifying threat that Brazil could return to the kind of government and government policies that Bolsonaro has praised.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.