Brazil's Violent Transition

January 12, 2023
March 9, 2023

President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is built on fantasy in many parts of the world, but nowhere is that more true than in Latin America.

One week ago, I highlighted how many of Latin America’s left-wing governments appeared headed for crisis or even collapse. When it came to Brazil, I suggested that the situation was not yet bad enough to pose a risk to the newly elected President Lula da Silva taking office, but that his odds of serving a full-term were diminishing rapidly.

The violence that rocked the city of Brasilia on Sunday shocked even those pessimistic about Lula’s presidency. Crowds of Bolsonaro supporters stormed the National Congress and Supreme Court, both of which were not in session, while Lula was likewise out of town visiting flood victims.

It is hard to determine what level of official complicity existed. The governor of Brasilia dismissed his Secretary of Security, who had previously served under Bolsonaro in the federal cabinet, and has reportedly fled to Florida, but it is unclear if he was complicit, or a scapegoat.

Rumors on the left that the CIA or other organs of the United States government were somehow involved are absurd, and generally being treated that way. After all, the Biden administration made no secret of its determination that Bolsonaro not be reelected to a second term, or its partiality toward Lula. But without a doubt, those efforts have contributed to the climate that produced the demonstrations. Millions of Bolsonaro supporters watched a stream of U.S. officials take sides against Bolsonaro, and more importantly, urge institutions such as the Brazilian Supreme Court and Congress to do so as well. When Bolsonaro defied polls showing him behind by double digits to lose the runoff 50.9%-49.1%, Bolsonaro supporters could be forgiven for believing that if the U.S. and major international financial actors had been “neutral,” the result would have been different.

To worsen matters, not only did Bolsonaro supporters feel the election had been stolen, but many of Lula’s supporters on the left felt they had been “cheated” of a victory. Lula had run heavily to the center, picking his 2006 center-right opponent as his vice president, and his victory had been a lonely one, with one of the most right-wing congresses in Brazilian history set to enter office next month.

Rather than feeling grateful to the United States, Lula seems to have resented the impression that his victory had been delivered by Biden, and retaliated in the one area where he did not need the support of the Brazilian Congress: foreign policy. Even before being inaugurated, Lula, who had been careful to keep distance from Hugo Chavez in prior terms, openly chose to pick a fight with his own advisers over embracing Maduro, and to defy the United States by making clear his lack of support for Ukraine. He sought to revive the moribund Goldman Sachs marketing concept of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) seemingly prove his anti-American bona fides.

These actions left U.S. policy in a state of confusion. The Biden administration defined the Lula v. Bolsonaro contest in terms of “democracy” vs. “authoritarian” populism, and Lula’s success as president as a test of democracy. At the same time, Lula had seemingly chosen to follow a line hostile to Biden administration objectives. The Biden team therefore found itself with a domestic Brazilian policy at odds with its geopolitical approaches to Ukraine, Russia, and China, as well as the region.

At the same time Lula threw U.S. policy into chaos, his aggressive, some might say revolutionary, foreign policy caused further panic among his opponents at home. The decision of Jair Bolsonaro to flee the country out of fear of prosecution, combined with Lula’s gestures toward Maduro and Cuba, triggered panic among Bolsonaro supporters, and the complicity of the Brazilian Supreme Court and “conservative” Congress in Bolsonaro’s defeat and persecution ensured there was little trust in either institution to stand up to a Lula who decided to behave unconstitutionally.

The events in Brasilia are unlikely to have been any sort of genuine coup attempt, as they served the interests of no one. For Bolsonaro, they provide a justification for charges to be filed that will keep him in exile and unable to lead an opposition movement at home. For conservatives within the Congress and courts, they force them to condemn Bolsonaro and rally to Lula, making it more difficult to oppose the new president. Lula’s more extreme supporters are the only ones who might benefit, but even in that case, the Brazilian markets have seen accelerating capital flight since the election. An economic crisis is the type of thing that could trigger an impeachment or actual coup, especially if it hit his poor supporters hardest.

The most probable conclusion, then, is that the protests were the spontaneous result of the environment of confusion and crisis that has been created. The response, especially by the Biden administration, will determine whether they are a warning that causes everyone to reassess, or a chance for opportunists to press ahead with catastrophic agendas.

It will be extremely tempting for the left-wing activists around Lula to try to use the violence to reverse the mixed verdict of the 2022 congressional elections, much as some Democrats saw in January 6th the opportunity to reverse their down ballot setbacks and justify an aggressive legislative program on the rationale of “defending democracy.” This would involve demands for the prosecution of Bolsonaro and his cabinet, as well as efforts to purge the “compromised” military and police commands. Opposition by Congress or the courts would be explained as efforts by those involved in past “coups” including Lula’s own prosecution and the impeachment of his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, to hide their alleged complicity.

Such an ill-advised effort to purge the military and courts while prosecuting political opponents would almost certainly trigger an actual coup attempt. Its success would throw Brazil into crisis. Its failure would pave the way for a left-wing dictatorship in Brazil much as the failed 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela.

It is in the interests of the United States to prevent this slide into Brazilian authoritarianism of either left or right. It is critical that Biden pressure Lula against using these events as a pretext for his own “self-coup” which can only end in the collapse of Brazilian democracy.

That will require pressure both direct and indirect. There is one clear message the United States can send about its disapproval of political purges. The Biden administration can ignore calls from AOC and others to expel, extradite or otherwise persecute Jair Bolsonaro or any of his former officials who have taken refuge in the United States. Washington must make it absolutely clear that under no circumstances will it be a party to Lula’s efforts to politicize the Brazilian judicial system against his opponents.

In the longer term, the Biden administration needs to learn that little good comes from projecting their own domestic “rule or ruin” attitude onto foreign political parties. Whether it is in Hungry or Brazil, opposition parties will happily pretend to mouth the words the Biden team wants in exchange for support, but it does not mean they are “democratic” or “pro-American,” and the net effect is that America will end up taking responsibility for things it cannot control and leave everyone blaming the Yankees.

There may still be time to avert total disaster in Brazil. But it will require decisive action from a Biden team that has shown itself slow to recognize mistakes, and even slower to act on that recognition – the consequences of which the world just witnessed in Brazil.

Originally published on AMAC.


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