The discreet US campaign to protect the Brazilian election

Image: Pawel L.


Amidst widespread speculation about an attempted coup, the Biden administration pressed politicians and generals to respect the result.

As Brazil prepared to hold a presidential election in October of last year, many government officials around the world viewed the election with a growing sense of apprehension.

The incumbent president, far-right Jair Bolsonaro, openly flirted with the possibility of subverting democracy in the country. He attacked the electoral process, claiming that the electronic ballot boxes used by the Brazilian authorities were unreliable, supporting their replacement by a paper ballot. He constantly suggested that the vote could be rigged, as Donald Trump had claimed in the US.

But in the end, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva's victory in October was accepted without any serious objection on Bolsonaro's part, and the veteran left-wing politician took office on 1o. January of the following year.

The fact that the election did not suffer any significant contestation testifies to the vigor of Brazilian institutions. But it was also in part the result of a quiet, year-long campaign by the US government to get the country's political and military leaders to respect and protect democracy, something that has so far not been widely and fully publicized.

Its aim was insistently to hammer out two messages for the recalcitrant military and for Jair Bolsonaro's close allies: Washington remained neutral on the outcome of the election, but would not support any attempt to question the electoral process or its outcome.

O Financial Times spoke with six current or former US officials involved in this effort, as well as several Brazilian institutional political figures, to piece together the story of how the Biden administration pursued what a former high-ranking member of the Department of The US state called it an “unusual” campaign involving the sending of messages during the months leading up to the election, through both public and private channels.

All the people heard made it clear that the greatest merit for saving Brazilian democracy in the face of Jair Bolsonaro's offensive belonged to Brazilians themselves and to the country's democratic institutions, who remained firm in the face of extraordinary challenges on the part of a president willing to do anything to maintain up in power.

“It was the Brazilian institutions that actually ensured that the elections took place,” said one of the senior US officials consulted. "But it was also important that we send the right messages and maintain a firm policy on this."

The US had a very clear political incentive to demonstrate its ability to shape events in the region. Being for a long time the dominant external power in relation to Latin America, the US has seen this power shaken by the growing presence of China.

Washington also had a more direct motivation. After the insurrection of January 6, 2021, promoted by supporters of Donald Trump in the US capital, trying to reverse the result of the 2020 election, President Joe Biden took very seriously any attempt by Jair Bolsonaro to call into question the result of a free and legitimate election, according to several US officials.

The campaign was not without risks. The United States has often faced criticism in the region for getting involved in its internal affairs; in 1964 Washington supported a military coup in Brazil that overthrew leftist president João Goulart, paving the way for a dictatorship that lasted 21 years.

Such events instilled in the Brazilian left a lasting skepticism about the position of the United States. Lula shared such skepticism, claiming in 2020 that Washington had “always been behind” efforts to undermine democracy in the region.

Joe Biden's government needed to find a way to get its message across without making the United States a punching bag in the midst of a highly disputed election that could be the subject of contestations.

The solution found was that of a persistent but quiet campaign, concerted between various government instances, including the military, the CIA, the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House. “It was a very out-of-the-ordinary effort,” said Michael McKinley, a former high-level State Department official and former ambassador to Brazil. “It was a strategy that took a whole year to implement, with a very clear and specific objective: it was not about supporting one candidate against another, but focusing on the (electoral) process, to ensure that it worked”.

Supporting the electoral process

According to Tom Shannon, a former top official at the State Department, the process began with the visit to Brazil by Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, in August 2021. A statement from the Embassy in Brasilia said that the visit “reaffirmed the enduring and strategic relationship between the United States and Brazil,” but Sullivan left his meeting with Bolsonaro very concerned, according to Shannon.

“Jair Bolsonaro continued to talk about fraud in the US elections and continued to understand his relationship with the US in terms of his relationship with President Donald Trump,” said Shannon, who was also ambassador to Brazil and maintains very close contacts in the country.

“Sullivan and the team that accompanied him returned to the US thinking that Jair Bolsonaro was really capable of trying to manipulate the election result or contest it, as Trump had done. In this way, a lot was invested in thinking about how the United States could support the electoral process without appearing to be interfering in it. And that's how it all began".

With the beginning of the electoral process, Brazil became a powder keg. The country was deeply divided between Jair Bolsonaro, a former captain and close ally of Donald Trump, and Lula, a left-wing icon whose success in reducing poverty in his first two terms had been tarnished by a conviction for corruption and his subsequent prison. Lula was released after some time and then his conviction was annulled based on irregularities committed during the process.

Brazilian democracy ran a clear risk, in a country with a modern history marked by a military dictatorship. Jair Bolsonaro praised the regime that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, and in his first term irrigated the Armed Forces and police with praise and funds, increasing their budgets and assigning key positions in his government to active-duty military personnel.

In August 2021, he ordered tanks to parade in front of the National Congress and the Federal Supreme Court, while legislators voted on his proposal to reinstate the printed vote, which, incidentally, was unsuccessful.

Some generals were bothered by Jair Bolsonaro's attempts to politicize an institution that had tried to stay out of politics since handing over power to civilians in 1985, and expressed concern about the risk of the military violating the Constitution. Jair Bolsonaro's vice president, Hamilton Mourão, was one of them.

Shannon recalls a visit by Hamilton Mourao to New York for a private lunch with investors in July last year, as tensions flared in Brazil. After rebutting questions about the risks of a coup d'état, repeating that he remained confident that the Brazilian Armed Forces were committed to democracy, Mourão got into an elevator to leave. At this moment the former ambassador joined him.

“As the door closed, I said to him, 'You know your visit here is very important. You've heard the concerns of those around the table on these issues. Quite frankly, I share those concerns, and I am very concerned indeed'. Mourão turned to me and said: 'I am also very worried'.” A spokesman for Mourao declined to comment.

electronic voting

That same month, Jair Bolsonaro launched his campaign for re-election. “The Army”, he told supporters, “is on our side”.

A few days before this announcement, the president redoubled his efforts to cast doubt on the electoral process. He brought together 70 ambassadors and at this meeting he made a presentation questioning the reliability of the Brazilian electronic voting system. The country had been a pioneer in the matter as early as 1996, and is the only one in the world that collects and counts votes entirely digitally.

Now, Jair Bolsonaro was suggesting that the machines were prone to fraud. US officials, alarmed, decided they needed to step up their campaign messaging. They argued that with that meeting, Jair Bolsonaro had drawn the international community into the controversy over electronic voting machines and that Washington needed to clarify its position on the matter.

The next day, the State Department did something out of the ordinary, endorsing the electoral system, saying that “Brazil’s time-tested electoral system and democratic institutions serve as a model for the nations of this hemisphere and the world.” whole".

“The US declaration was very important, especially for the military,” says a senior Brazilian official. “They receive equipment and training from the US; therefore, maintaining good relations with the United States is very important for the Brazilian military. That statement was an antidote to military intervention.”

A week later, the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, took advantage of a visit to a meeting of regional defense ministers, held in Brasilia, to send a very clear message. In his speech he declared that the military and security forces should remain under "strict civilian control".

In private conversations, Austin and other officials made clear to the military the risks involved in supporting any unconstitutional action, such as a coup d'état. “There would be very important negative ramifications as far as bilateral military relations were concerned if they took any action contrary to respecting the outcome of the elections,” said a senior US administration official.

There was also new emphasis on this message for the Brazilian military leadership by General Laura Richardson, head of the North American Command for the South, which includes Latin America, during her visits to Brazil in September and November, according to government sources. William Burns, director of the CIA, also went to Brazil and told the Bolsonaro administration not to try to jeopardize the elections.

“The secretary of defense, the director of the CIA, the adviser for national security affairs visited Brazil during an election year,” said McKinley. “Is this a common procedure? No, it's not".

The USA also provided some practical help for the electoral process, helping to overcome difficulties in obtaining certain components, mainly semi-conductors, necessary for the manufacture of new ballot boxes. Former ambassador to Brazil, Anthony Harrington, managed to streamline connections within the Texas Instruments chip factory, to, he said, "identify the need for semiconductors and to prioritize their impact on democratic elections."

The State Department and some high-ranking Brazilian officials also urged Taiwanese officials to give priority to orders for semi-conductors manufactured by Nuvoton, a Taiwanese company, which were used by the polls, according to two sources.

At the same time that the US was carrying out its messaging, key figures in Brazilian institutions were organizing private meetings with military leaders in an attempt to persuade them to stay within constitutional limits and also calling attention abroad to the risks of a military coup. Some of them talked to the Financial Times, requesting to remain anonymous due to the extremely sensitive nature of the discussions. Many still prefer not to mention their role.

A high-ranking Brazilian official who got involved in these issues recalls that Bolsonaro's Minister of the Navy, Admiral Almir Garnier Santos, was the most “difficult” among the military chiefs. “He was really leaning towards more radical action,” says the official. “So we had to do a hard job of dissuasion; the State Department and the US Military Command said that they would break the (military) agreements with Brazil, from personnel training to other types of joint operations”.

During a tense dinner at the end of August, with some military chiefs staying until XNUMX am, civil authorities tried to persuade them that the electronic voting machines were not rigged against Bolsonaro and that they should accept the election result.

The moment was crucial: Jair Bolsonaro called for mass demonstrations in his favor on September 7, Independence Day. Garnier did not respond to requests for comment on the story.

Luís Roberto Barroso, the STF judge who at the time presided over the Superior Electoral Court, said that he also requested a pronouncement on the matter from the US State Department.

I sometimes asked (Douglas Koneff, then acting ambassador in Brazil) for statements about the integrity and credibility of our electoral system and the importance of our democracy”, recalls Barroso. "He actually made a statement and more than that: he got the State Department to do the same in support of democracy in Brazil and the integrity of the system."

The US embassy declined to comment on the details of confidential meetings held during the election period.

the inner circle

With elections increasingly imminent, US officials felt that Jair Bolsonaro should hear statements from those in his close circle. They identified political allies and aides close to the president who were not happy with his attempts to stay in power come what may, and who would be willing to urge him to respect the election result.

Arthur Lira, President of the Chamber of Deputies, Vice President Mourão, Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, Minister of Infrastructure in the Bolsonaro government, and Admiral Flávio Rocha, Secretary of Strategic Affairs of the Presidency, were the targets of messages from the USA about the need to protect the integrity of the elections, according to sources involved in the process.

Senior US officials stayed in regular contact with them and other key figures in the Jair Bolsonaro government. “We had the feeling that many people around Jair Bolsonaro were pressuring him to do the right thing,” said a senior official.

On October 2, none of the candidates achieved an absolute majority. But after the second round it was clear that Lula had won an indisputable victory, albeit by a small margin.

Some of Jair Bolsonaro's main allies, including Freitas and Lira, quickly recognized the leftist's victory. “Within 24 hours they accepted the result of the second round,” McKinley said. "What a blow to anyone who claimed there was room to contest the result."

Shocked, Jair Bolsonaro disappeared from public view and did not concede defeat, although he reluctantly instructed government officials to cooperate with the transition.

With Lula's inauguration on January 12 looming, tensions were mounting. On December XNUMX, pro-Bolsonaro rioters attacked police headquarters and set fire to vehicles in Brasilia. A week later, the former captain attended a dinner with more moderate members of his close circle, according to one of those present at this meeting.

With doubts about his willingness to pass the presidential sash to Lula on inauguration day, some of Jair Bolsonaro's allies wanted to persuade him to follow his plan to go abroad, avoiding the inauguration ceremony, according to the same source.

When Bolsonaro left Brazil for Florida two days before Lula's inauguration, Americans, along with many Brazilians, heaved a sigh of relief. But the danger was not over.

On January 8, thousands of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro staged an insurrection in Brasília, invading Congress, the headquarters of the STF and the Palácio do Planalto, headquarters of the Presidency, asking for military intervention. The military did intervene within a few hours, but to quell the protests. More than a thousand protesters were arrested.

Police investigations later found documents in the possession of Jair Bolsonaro's Minister of Justice, Anderson Torres, and one of his top advisors, Lieutenant Colonel Mauro Cid, which outlined the step-by-step process to annul the election result and maintain up in power.

Anderson Torres, who spent five months in jail this year awaiting trial, said the document found in his home was "leaked out of context" and "was not legally valid". We were unable to make contact with Mauro Cid for comment.

The United States decided to make one last effort to respect the elections. Joe Biden was in Mexico, attending a summit of North American leaders, at the time of the January 8 insurrection. Upon seeing the news about what was happening, "he immediately asked to talk to Lula", said a high-ranking member of the government. “After the telephone contact, he proposed to the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and the Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that they release a joint statement supporting Lula and Brazil. It was the first time such a thing had happened in North America.”

With the mutineers arrested, the military under control and Lula in power, Brazilian democracy appears to have survived that potential threat.

For the Biden government, relations with Brazil have improved, but there are still points of friction with the new government. Lula showed little recognition for the US campaign in favor of respecting the election. His first visit to Washington in February of this year was a minor one-day event.

In April he took a huge delegation to China for a three-day two-city visit. On this occasion, Lula refused to endorse US restrictions on Huawei, the Chinese company in the technology sector, criticized Western support for Ukraine and supported the Chinese initiative to seek an alternative to the US dollar.

A spokesman for Lula insists that in Washington Lula spoke "about the defense of democracy and threats from the extreme right", and that a more extensive visit to the US is under consideration.

“People around here understand that there would be political differences,” says Shannon. "But there's a touch of irritation and resentment underneath it all that actually surprised everyone... It's like he refuses to acknowledge everything we've done."

*Michael Stott, Michael Pooler e Bryan Harris are journalists from the Financial Times.

Translation: Flavio Aguiar.

Originally published in the newspaper Financial Times.

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