Explosive new book dissects the soft coup that brought fascism to Brazil

Image of Mike Pompeo and Jair Bolsonaro, January 2019
John McEvoy

On 28 October 2018, Brazil elected a fascist, racist, sexist, and homophobic president. And an explosive new book delves into how that happened, providing a crucial point of reference for resistance in the process.

Washington’s pivotal role

Tired of rising crime and government corruption, Brazilians lashed out at the old and discredited political order to elect a “controversial” outsider, Jair Bolsonaro, who represented “Brazil’s best chance in a generation to enact economic reforms”. Or that’s the version of events that many Western media outlets tried to sell their readers, anyway.

But according to Year of Lead. Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil, an explosive new book published by Brian Mier and Daniel Hunt of independent news site Brasil Wire, the prevailing account is chronically oversimplified. As the book lays out in stunning detail, this narrative overlooks Washington’s pivotal role in the slow disintegration of Brazilian democracy. “What’s being done to Brazil,” the book begins, “is a neo-colonial project, conducted in darkness, and hiding in plain sight.”

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‘The dirtiest election year in modern Brazilian history’

Year of Lead refers to 2018, “Brazil’s dirtiest election year in modern history”, in which “the leading candidate was jailed, a rising star was assassinated, and a fascist ascended”. It’s dedicated to “rising star” Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro-based politician and human rights activist who was murdered on 14 March 2018. With the election of Bolsonaro, a man who openly advocates violence against left-wingers and minority groups, justice for her murder does not seem forthcoming. And the leading progressive candidate’s jailer, Sérgio Moro, is now Bolsonaro’s minister of justice. Elections, it seems, don’t get much dirtier than this.

The book consists of reports, testimonies, and expert analysis from 21 contributors. It begins by untangling the factors that allowed Bolsonaro’s rise. Notably, it details how former president Dilma Rousseff was deposed for a crime “generated in the coup’s imagination”, and how presidential front-runner Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva was controversially jailed, under clear pressure from Washington. As academic Bryan Pitts writes in the book:

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The U.S. helped Brazilian prosecutors develop strategies that have been used to target only certain political parties – those most opposed to U.S. hegemony – and the Department of Justice has collaborated with the Brazilian prosecutors to achieve spurious convictions.

And in contravention to international law, Lula was then banned from participating in the 2018 election.

“Lawfare”, the authors argue, represents a strategic shift from the type of military aggression sponsored by Washington across Latin America during the 20th century. As Lula’s lawyer Valeska Martins claims in the book:

We are able to identify all of the dimensions, tactics, and strategies typically used in Lawfare in the persecution of Lula.

A US-backed neoliberal assault

While the US may have changed tactics, it has not changed course. Year of Lead highlights that Washington’s interference in Brazil threatens a repeat of the ‘years of lead’ suffered during Brazil’s military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. As Hunt writes:

We don’t want to study and understand the mechanics of what is being done to Brazil and the region now in 40 years time, we don’t have that luxury.

And indeed, they are not drawing on hindsight or reflections: many pieces in the book are reports that were written in real time as events unfolded in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s alliance with ‘Chicago school’ economists, for instance, should be a stark warning from the past about what we can expect from a cocktail of neoliberalism and military force:

The first time that Latin America witnessed an organic union between the military and the Chicago Boys in a government was in 1973 in Chile, a chapter of history written in buckets of blood. All that is left for Brazilians is to find out what kind of situation this dangerous association will lead to.

Why the assault? Because US dominance was “genuinely threatened” by left-leaning governments

Year of Lead also shows that independent media outlets like Brasil Wire are crucial to providing information otherwise absent in the corporate press.

Former Brazilian minister Celso Amorim says in the book:

a picture is worth 1000 words. There was a cover of the American issue of the Economist which showed an upside down map of the Americas. South America was on the top and the rest was below it. The title of the front page article was “Nobody’s Backyard”…

these things suddenly raised eyebrows in Washington and someone said ‘well we have to put these things right, put these guys where they belong, which is in the back yard’.

Indeed, the ‘Pink Tide‘ of left-leaning governments sweeping to power in Latin America at the turn of the century sent shock waves through political circles in Washington. The corporate press seems to have been far quicker to recognise its threat to US regional hegemony, however, than Washington’s attempts to crush it. In a later article entitled Time to bury Che Guevara for good, for instance, the Economist claimed that:

Some Latin Americans failed to notice that US meddling in the region largely ended with the cold war.

But some ‘mainstream’ media outlets, the book’s authors would contest, have failed to notice that US meddling in Latin America hasn’t ended at all. They write:

With the fall of its allied Washington consensus governments to the so called pink tide at the turn of the century, US primacy in the region was genuinely threatened for the first time in generations…

In answer to these defeats, parallel to the War on Terror in the Middle East and War on Drugs already present in the region, a new front, a “War on Corruption” opened up across the continent, becoming part of official foreign policy in 2002, just prior to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva taking the Brazilian Presidency at his fourth attempt.

Independent media filling a journalistic vacuum

Corporate outlets like the Guardian have been central to disguising – or outright refusing to acknowledge – Washington’s role in Brazil’s soft coup. The authors write, for instance, that:

When challenged in a personal conversation on why the US DOJ’s role in the case had not been reported, one of its writers claimed that “our readers wouldn’t be interested in that information”.

There is a sense that the authors feel that they’re filling a journalistic gap that the Guardian vacated long ago:

A platform with enormous reach, we hope for the sake of social progress, and the need to confront fascism, that is it is not too late for The Guardian to put its house in order, rebuild its reputation, and give itself honourable purpose.

Progressive media critics are harder on The Guardian because they’re one of the few platforms from which anyone has any expectation at all.

As Year of Lead argues with great urgency, the first step out of this catastrophic mess is documenting how Brazil got here in the first place. And as the authors document, we already know more than enough about the roots of Brazil’s coup to see the direction it’s going.

The fight is now on to resist Brazil’s descent into a neoliberal-fascist dictatorship. And Year of Lead will be a crucial point of reference to this resistance.

Featured image via US state department

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