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On 60th Anniversary of US-Backed Coup, Brazilians Ask US to Declassify Records

The US planned for a possible invasion and sent agents to support the coup. Sixty years later, Brazilians need answers.

Pictures of people who were killed or went missing during the 1964-1985 dictatorship are layed out on the ground during a demonstration on the 58th anniversary of the military coup at Ibirapuera Park, in São Paulo, Brazil, on March 31, 2022.

Today marks a solemn anniversary in Brazil: 60 years ago, the Brazilian military seized power from the government of João Goulart, marking the start of over two decades of military rule.

Brazil’s 2014 Truth Commission report is the country’s only formal investigation into this period of dictatorial rule. The commission’s 2,000-page report revealed some grisly details of the dictatorship’s human rights abuses, identified over 400 individuals killed by the military, and shed light on Brazil’s role in destabilizing other Latin American countries.

To assist with the Truth Commission, then-Vice President Joe Biden hand-delivered declassified State Department records to former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — who herself had been imprisoned and tortured by the military regime. The records offered details about the dictatorship and Washington’s enabling of abuses, including a cable from former Ambassador to Brazil William Rountree arguing that condemning the regime’s human rights “excesses” would be “counterproductive.”

Biden’s delivery of the declassified records was symbolic, since the U.S. had supported the coup. The U.S. solidified its support for the putschists the year prior, drew up plans for a U.S. invasion if deemed necessary, and sent a naval task force to Brazil to support the military plotters. In the end, direct U.S. involvement wasn’t needed — Goulart fled to Uruguay by April 4. The coup was carried out by Brazil’s generals, but Washington celebrated it as a victory for its interests nonetheless.

On the one hand, U.S. support for the coup laid bare the hypocrisy of America’s supposed commitment to sovereignty and democracy. Gone was the Kennedy administration’s promise to reject a “Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.” The Cold War logic of siding with anti-communist dictators for the purpose of defeating the Soviet Union prevailed. Washington may have lost China, but it won Brazil — or so the thinking went.

However, even the most cynical arguments for aligning with undemocratic regimes for a strategic purpose often failed to bear fruit, given that many of these regimes departed from U.S. policy on key issues. Many historians of the U.S.-Brazil relationship contend that during this period their ties at times more closely resembled rivals rather than close partners. Rubens Ricupero, a former diplomat and minister of finance of Brazil, writes that, “Little by little, doubts turn[ed] into disappointment, and this le[d] to gradual disengagement in relation to the regime they had helped to create.”

When it first took power, Brazil’s military dictatorship closely followed Washington’s lead. Goulart was out, as was his “Independent Foreign Policy,” a non-alignment stance that emphasized self-determination, decolonization, and non-intervention, devised by the ousted president’s predecessor, Janio Quadros. In line with Washington’s desires, the dictatorship, which rotated through five different military general-presidents between 1964 and 1985, broke off relations with Cuba and even assisted the U.S. in its occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Washington also saw Brazil as a key ideological partner in destabilizing leftist regimes across Latin America. As one Brazilian general put it, the United States wanted Brazil “to do the dirty work.” And it did. Most prominently, the Brazilian regime played a critical role in the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile,. even secretly bringing members of the Chilean military to Brazil to discuss the potential coup. Brazil under the generals also participated in Operation Condor, the secret cooperation of right-wing military dictatorships in much of Latin America to assassinate, or “disappear” perceived leftists and other dissidents during the 1970s.

Over time, the Brazilian regime’s alignment with the U.S. waned and tensions bubbled up. Dr. Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira writes in his book “Brazil-United States: An Emerging Rivalry,” that “automatic alignment with State Department guidelines could no longer continue for long, as it no longer effectively corresponded to the national interests of a developing country that aspired to become a power.”

Despite the fact that the U.S. wanted the benefits of outsourcing its dirty work, it was not willing to accept the consequences that came with greater military autonomy for Brazil. Dr. Eduardo Svartman, a political science professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, told Responsible Statecraft that one early issue that emerged was over Brazil’s request for F-5 fighter jets.

“In the eyes of American politicians, if the great threat in Latin America was communist insurgents, there was no point to sell or transfer modern supersonic fighter jets to Latin American countries when helicopters would do the job much better,” Svartman said.

The Brazilian government disagreed, believing it was important to have a modern military in order to project power in South America. The generals accordingly grew more reliant on Europe, buying several Mirage fighter aircrafts from France. They eventually pushed the F-5 sale through several years later, but it was an early lesson that the U.S. may not be their most reliable partner.

Though the U.S. remained an important supplier of critical components for Brazil’s burgeoning national arms industry, Brazil’s supply of U.S.-made arms imports decreased from 92% to 14% of its total arsenal over the course of the dictatorship.

The U.S. also grew frustrated with Brazil’s move towards positions associated with the non-aligned movement. Though Brazil was never a full member of the movement, in the early 1970s, it supported the decolonization of the Lusophone countries in Africa, emphasized non-intervention, and recognized the MPLA in Angola. Elements of the Independent Brazilian Foreign Policy had returned.

Perhaps the biggest source of tension between the U.S. and Brazil was over the development of a nuclear program. Brazil refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, arguing that nuclear technology was vital for its development. After the U.S. suspended the supply of enriched uranium for Brazil’s research reactors, the regime turned to West Germany and negotiated a major nuclear agreement in 1975.

In an internal report, the CIA claimed that Brazil’s nuclear ambitions posed a “fundamental challenge” to U.S.-Brazil relations. Without informing the Brazilians, newly-elected Vice President Walter Mondale tried to lobby the German government to cancel the agreement.

Washington also grew frustrated with the generals’ authoritarianism and human rights abuses. The regime passed a series of “institutional acts” — the first of which came just days after the coup — that gave them sweeping powers, including suspending the rights of opposition leaders and power to declare a recess in Congress. Ricupero writes that “with each new attack on the legal order or violation of rights, the embassy in Rio de Janeiro was forced into dialectical contortions to calm the State Department’s unrest.”

Pressure on rising authoritarianism and the nuclear issue came to a head during the Carter administration, which applied human rights as a criteria for military assistance more directly. After the Carter State Department criticized Brazil for its human rights abuses in 1977, the Brazilian government retaliated by suspending the Joint Military Commission between the U.S. and Brazil, its Naval Mission, and a long-standing bilateral military accord. According to Washington’s then-ambassador to Brasilia, Robert Sayre, “U.S.-Brazil relations just went to pieces.”

Despite a brief rapprochement with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, Brazil became critical of Washington’s revival of more interventionist policies under his administration. Washington’s decision to side with Britain against neighboring Argentina during the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982 confirmed Brazilian suspicions that the U.S. was not a reliable partner. For the first time ever, “the hypothesis of war with the United States became an object of study in the Armed Forces,” writes Bandeira.

Brazil also opposed the so-called Reagan Doctrine, which sought to overthrow leftist governments in Central America and southern Africa. The U.S. had become not just a distant partner but something altogether new: an emerging rival. Many of these disputes between the two countries remained well into the period of democratization that began in 1985.

There is a lot that is still unknown about this chapter in Brazil’s history, and the U.S.’ relationship to the military regime. Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive who also served as the liaison between the U.S. and Brazilian governments for the Truth Commission, estimates there are still thousands of records that remain classified, including many sensitive records from the CIA and the Department of Defense.

“[T]he degree to which the United States is sitting on documentation about repression in Brazil is the degree to which the United States is not assisting Brazilian society in reminding itself about the horrors of what happened behind closed doors in secret detention centers,” Kornbluh told Responsible Statecraft.

To start, President Biden could honor a request from 16 Brazilian civil society organizations to declassify these records. The groups’ appeal states that declassification would “provide valuable information about human rights violations committed during the Brazilian dictatorship and clarify the degree of the United States’ involvement in or knowledge of these events. This act of transparency would also strengthen the foundations of the U.S.-America relationship, fostering trust and collaboration on important issues such as human rights, democracy, and regional stability.”

The Luiz Inácio “Lula” da SiIva government is unlikely to formally request these documents from Biden himself. In an effort to appease leaders of the Brazilian Armed Forces who still hold the 21-year dictatorship in high regard, Lula controversially canceled all formal demonstrations of the 60th anniversary. But even without an official commemoration, millions of Brazilians from Manaus in the Amazon to Florianopolis in the far south are organizing demonstrations to send a message of “dictatorship never again.”

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