Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson.
This week on CounterSpin: Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has said he supports dictatorship and torture, that religious and ethnic “minorities must fit in or simply disappear,” that his political opponents should “leave or go to jail,” that the only problem with Brazil’s military dictatorship is that they didn’t kill enough people, that police should have “carte blanche” to kill whoever they like, and that he’d rather his own son be dead than be gay. The analysis offered by a Washington Post headline, then, that “Bolsonaro’s Victory May Mean Further Shifts in Tolerance and Moderation,” might seem to be a bad joke, were it not that such pieces are all some US media consumers may encounter.
Migrants at the southern border seeking asylum from violence fomented by US policy underscore that we really are one world, interrelated. So how are US readers to understand what’s happening in Brazil, and its American flag-saluting, rape joke-making, Hitler-admiring president?
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Here to help us understand some of this is Brian Mier. He’s an editor at Brasil Wire and editor of the book Voices of the Brazilian Left. He’s a regular correspondent for the radio show This Is Hell, as well as a freelance writer and producer. He joins us now by phone from São Paulo. Welcome to CounterSpin, Brian Mier.
Brian Mier: Hi, how are you?
JJ: When twice-elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was being pushed out, in what many called a legislative coup, US readers weren’t reading quotes from the Organization of American States, for example, that was saying that this was not kosher, nor were they hearing about the objections of neighboring countries, some of whom pulled their ambassadors in protest, except perhaps via headlines like USA Today‘s “Leftist Leaders Leap to Defense of Ousted Brazilian President.”
So US readers were set up kind of weirdly for this election. Corruption was associated, if vaguely, with Dilma. And then, when her successor, Michel Temer, was clearly embroiled in stuff, Brazil was dismissed, as the New York Times put it, as just a “turmoil-prone nation.”
So then with the election itself, I mean, we heard about it, but the big-picture problems with it, like the leading candidate being in jail, were treated as externalities. What do you think that US listeners should know about the Brazilian election? What complicates the idea that Bolsonaro is a simple expression of what Brazilians want?
I guess the main point is that the leading candidate was arrested as part of a US cooperative anti-corruption investigation between the US Department of Justice and the Brazilian public prosecutor’s office.
Now, he was arrested with no material evidence, and the main beneficiaries of the fact that he and the PT party were removed from the race this year are American corporations. And so I think that Americans should know that their government, their corporations, had a hand in what’s happening down here, and had a hand in the return to fascism.
And I guess the second point is just that Bolsonaro is not the Brazilian Trump. He shouldn’t be normalized. Some Americans might think, “Well, Trump’s terrible but, you know, the United States hasn’t crashed and burned since he took office. So Bolsonaro coming to office in Brazil probably won’t be that big of a deal either.”
But it’s not the case. He’s not a Brazilian Trump; he’s a fascist. You know, Trump may say some things that are fascist, but Jair Bolsonaro is literally a former official from a neo-fascist military government, that ruled as a state of exception. They used to, for example, categorize all people as “workers” or “bums,” so if you were walking down the street, unable to prove to a policeman that you had a job, through showing documentation proving that, you would get arrested during the dictatorship. That’s not something that’s happening under Trump. Brazil under Bolsonaro won’t be like the US under Trump. It will be more repressive.
Just want to ask you one other question about Lula, because I think people had heard that Lula da Silva was in jail, but I think they might not understand how that happened. And, for example, a Washington Post news story—I was quoting before from an op-ed and analysis piece, but in their, you know, straight news story, the Washington Post said that Lula’s “reelection bid was upended when he landed in jail this year on corruption charges.” There are very particular factors about Lula not just being in jail, but not being able to run from jail.
Oh yes, exactly. The coverage has been really misleading. It’s unfortunate. What especially bothers me is the way it’s misleading in publications that have progressive readers. I mean, I can understand Fox News or something giving misleading, slanted coverage against Lula, because he’s a leftist. But it’s very frustrating to seeWashington Post, New York Times, NPR, run this innuendo and these semi-truths and mistruths about why Lula was arrested.
The fact is that he was convicted of committing undetermined acts. The judge, Sergio Moro, who is the leader of this US Department of Justice/Brazilian public prosecutors joint operation, called Operation Car Wash, was allowed to rule on his own investigation, with no jury, an eccentric Brazilian legal tradition, which goes back to the Inquisition; his literal title is that of inquisitor. He set up the investigation, and he was allowed to judge on his own multi-year investigation.
OK, and the ruling was that they could not define any specific act of corruption that Lula committed. First they accused him of being involved in Petrobras, petroleum company, corruption; that charge was removed from the court case two years ago. The day Lula was arrested, the Guardian said that his arrest was connected to Petrobras corruption, which is erroneous; it was not. In fact, the judge said specifically that there was no Petrobras connection in the ruling.
His corruption charges were connected to supposed illegal reforms in a beachfront apartment. The courts were unable to prove that Lula ever owned the apartment. The apartment is registered in the name of the building company that built the building. They’re unable to prove that he ever visited the apartment, and they were unable to prove that any reforms actually took place.
Nevertheless—even if he had received a free apartment and gotten these reforms that clearly didn’t happen, because they’ve taken pictures inside the apartment, it’s a mess—even if that had happened, the date that they alleged this all took place was after he left office. So there was no way of proving quid quo pro.
Furthermore, the case is handled in Curitiba, Paraná, a neighboring state, in a local court which has no jurisdiction in the town where the apartment exists.
So it’s just full of improprieties. And I feel like what you see these days with a lot of journalism is, it’s almost just like PR that they repeat, in a lot of papers, when they talk about foreign news. I didn’t see any journalists for a major American newspaper do any kind of investigative work on this, weighing the merits of the case against Lula or not. They just kept repeating what the prosecution was saying the whole time.
And the ironic thing is, it’s not even the first time that a former Brazilian president has had his life destroyed over phony allegations involving reforms on an apartment. Because when the military dictatorship took office in 1964, the media spent a year and a half accusing former President Juscelino Kubitschek, who was still very popular at the time, of having received illegal reforms on a luxury apartment in Ipanema. And after a year and a half, it came out that he was never the owner of the apartment. So they didn’t even invent an original way to arrest Lula.
And you’re right, of course, that in US reporting on the election, that was—to say “underexplored” is to say too little. We saw phrases like, in that Washington Post story, “Lula landed in jail…” and there was definitely an assumption that he deserved to be there, and that should not be factored in when we were thinking about what would happen with the election.
Another thing that I was surprised by was in a Washington Post news story; it was really focused about Bolsonaro’s social media-centered campaign: “He overcame challenges with the power of social media, speaking directly to voters.” We were told that “backers became voracious consumers of his missives on Twitter and WhatsApp,” where, we’re told, “white men and wealthy voters, eager to turn the page after a decade of left-wing rule, rallied to Bolsonaro’s side.”
This Washington Post piece had space for how Bolsonaro grew up a “nerdy kid” in a German-Italian family. But they didn’t have any mention of the slush fund, which other accounts have led me to understand was reportedly used to fund this social media campaign that the Post is profiling, and that was also super hateful, was it was it not?
Oh, yeah. OK, first of all, from the starting point, that when Lula was removed from the presidential race, illegally, against the orders of the UN Human Rights Committee, which are legally binding in Brazil, because Brazil signed the second optional protocol on political and civil rights at the UN—when Lula was pulled out of the race, he’d been behind bars for two and a half months, in solitary confinement, prohibited from speaking to the press, and he still was polling higher than every other candidate combined in the polls. He had more than double the support of Bolsonaro when he was removed from the race, a month before the election.
OK, so then you look at what Bolsonaro did. Steve Bannon apparently was helping a little bit with this. They set up an illegal campaign slush fund that had over four times the monetary value in it as Bolsonaro’s entire official campaign fund. And they used it to illegally obtain personal data on targeted segments of WhatsApp users.
Brazil is the biggest consumer of this WhatsApp social media app in the world. Over half of all Brazilians use it. And so they created thousands and thousands of WhatsApp groups, of 256 people each, specifically targeted to certain demographics, like Evangelical Christian women, for example, and they just bombarded them with slander and hate speech.
OK. So for example, there’s a poll that came out that said 84 percent of the people who voted for Bolsonaro believe that when the PT party was in power, they created a “gay kit” and distributed it in the public school system, to try to convince children to become homosexuals. Eighty-four percent.
OK? They were spreading information that Fernando Haddad, who was Lula’s replacement candidate, was a child molester. They said that if Haddad was elected, the government was going to create a kind of panel that would declare whether children were gay or not at the age of five. And they bombarded Evangelical Christians with this.
And so the main reason that Bolsonaro was elected was because 84 percent of his voters thought that Fernando Haddad’s government would try to make their children gay; because their brains are just fried by this illegal use of social media apps. Just like in the US, you have all these Americans now who think the Earth is flat, you know, it’s like this kind of thing.
So it’s hardly, as they are saying in the media, “Oh, Brazilians are worried about violence, they’re worried about corruption.” That wasn’t it. It was straight-up homophobia, was the main social media factor in getting Bolsonaro elected.
Another thing they did was, I don’t know if you saw these #NotHim protests that happened all over the world, right? On the day of those protests, Bolsonaro’s people took these photos from SlutWalk protests, that happened a year earlier of—you know how SlutWalk is, topless women, women in lingerie and stuff like that—and they bombarded millions of Brazilians with images from SlutWalk, saying that they were live photos taken of the #NotHim protests.
And so immediately after this, after the #NotHim protests—which were huge protests, also underreported in the media; there were at least a million people on the streets of Brazil, 150,000 in São Paulo alone, and American newspapers were saying tens of thousands of people nationwide, right? Huge protests. After they ended, Bolsonaro gained 5 percentage points in the polls with women, because they bombarded Evangelical Christian women with these SlutWalk photos.
So there’s a lot missing from US media coverage of the election itself. But then, what was in it was, in some cases, just… “craven” is the word that comes to mind. We talked a couple of weeks back on the show about US financial media, the business pages. The New York Times had a story in the business section, “Brazil’s Markets Have Surged on Hope of Bolsonaro Victory. Can He Deliver?”
There’s at least a kind of frankness in that business reporting, that straight-up says, we don’t care about fascism as long as the bottom line is happy. But straight news pieces tend to take that investor point of view, but then try to retrofit some kind of democratic principle in there. And so you certainly wouldn’t get a sense of US involvement, US meddling in Brazilian politics, which you’re talking about this time around; it’s certainly not the first time, in terms of US meddling there.
Yeah, of course not. In fact, let’s be frank: There aren’t really any countries in Latin America that the US doesn’t meddle in.
There was a Harvard Review article published in the ’90s, which counted 44 US-backed coups in Latin America between 1898 and 1994. And so we’re in a situation where the US was involved in the 1964 coup in Brazil, and actively supported the dictatorship, which lasts until 1985. Bolsonaro was a member of that government, and he’s appointing three former generals who were also active during the dictatorship to cabinet positions.
I mean, that alone shows there’s, at the very least, a hangover of US meddling in this current situation, not even taking into account the joint Department of Justice/SEC/Brazilian public prosecutors operation, Operation Car Wash, which the US Department of Justice and SEC have collected over $1 billion in fines from Brazilian companies, so far, through this investigation.
And at the Atlantic Council last year, Kenneth Blanco, who is acting assistant attorney general, gave a speech in which he talked about illegal collaboration that was going on between the Department of Justice and Sergio Moro, who was the Operation Car Wash director, and his team. He didn’t use the word “illegal,” but he said there was constant “informal” communication, which made the processes more “agile.” And he bragged about them arresting Lula in this speech. You can watch it online.
The problem is, informal communication with foreign government officials is a crime in Brazil. So Lula’s defense lawyers used that to file a motion for dismissing the entire case, which was far down in the courts now. But they’re openly admitting that they’ve engaged in illegal communications with the Brazilian government in this case. It’s not even a case of speculating that the US is involved in it.
Operation Car Wash was used to destabilize Dilma Rousseff’s government before the 2016 coup. They couldn’t find any crimes to connect her with on it. So she was impeached on a budgetary infraction that was legalized by the senate one week after she left office, called “fiscal peddling.” But her name was certainly dragged through the mud in the American media related to this Operation Car Wash. The week before the 2014 presidential elections, the New York Times associated her with Petrobras petroleum corruption, which was under investigation, Operation Car Wash, eight different times.
So this this American/Brazilian joint operation was a key factor in taking Dilma Rousseff out of office, and arresting Lula and removing him from the elections. And now the man in charge of it, Sergio Moro, who was hailed as an anti-corruption crusader in the American media for two years, has accepted the Justice minister position in Bosanaro’s neo-fascist government. So he’s been a political actor all along.
It’s outrageous that the man who removed the leading candidate from the elections is now taking a cabinet position with the candidate who he helped.
It does boggle, and on the point of US intervention, which, you know, the US corporate media’s history of looking the other way on that, of course, is clear. But there also is concern, therefore, about the regional and international impact of Bolsonaro coming to power, because some people were looking to South America as maybe offering a kind of alternative, as maybe building power that could serve as a counter in the hemisphere to the United States. But now it looks like Bolsonaro maybe is going to be pulling out of things like BRICS, for example.
Definitely, no, he’s really bungling things up, in terms of Brazil’s role on the world stage. Lula, in addition to lifting 40 million people above the poverty line, which is no small feat in a country like Brazil, and ending the hunger crisis, what he did was, on the foreign policy level, he really reached out to other countries around the world to build some kind of alternative to just relying on the US. Now during the Cold War, when the dictatorship was in power, Brazil was heavily dependent on the US for everything; but the world’s changed, and the US isn’t even Brazil’s largest trade partner anymore.
Bolsonaro got in trouble mimicking some of Trump’s ridiculous rhetoric against the Chinese. And China just stepped in and said, “Look, we’ll pull out, if you guys start bad-mouthing us. We just want to remind you that we’re your largest trade partner.”
You know, you can only get so far copying Trump on the foreign policy level and thinking you’re going to depend entirely on the US. The world’s changed since the 1980s, when he was a military dictatorship official.
You and others, like Glenn Greenwald, have underscored that Bolsonaro is not the Brazilian Trump; that you have to pay attention to the differences there. But in a sense, like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro did go from punchline to president, including with TV hosts now saying they were sorry they had him on back in the day. One said she only had him on so often because she was trying to make fun of him, and show the low level of representatives we are electing, you know.
I’m guessing that it was these voids that we’re talking about in the media conversation, not just about Bolsonaro, but about the various elements of Brazilian politics, that’s part of what encouraged you to work on this book, Voices of the Brazilian Left. Can you tell us, finally, a little bit about that? And what work you hope that book can do?
OK. Well, this actually kind of responded to what I feel were big holes in the progressive media coverage of Brazil. Because there’s this kind of false narrative that started when Lula was still president, often focused on, you know, the World Cup and the Olympics and some problems that were related to those issues, and it’s issues that I was very involved with. I wrote a book in Portuguese about the Olympics and human rights abuses and stuff.
But they were used to develop this narrative that Lula was kind of like a Tony Blair of Brazil. That he was someone who used to be a leftist, and when he took power, he became a neoliberal, and turned his back on the labor unions and the social movements, and that this is why people were getting upset with his government, and blah blah blah. And the one thing these people had in common—and I’m talking about publications like even The Nation and NACLA, which I write for sometimes, and Jacobin, publishing this kind of stuff that didn’t really explain what was going on, right? And the one thing they all have in common is, no one was ever talking to anyone from social movements or labor unions.
And so what I came up with was this idea of Voices of the Brazilian Left, to interview key people from the unions and the social movements about what’s happening in Brazil during the lead-up and aftermath of the 2016 coup. Of course, everyone in the MST, the CUT labor union federation, the urban social movements, everyone was critical of the PT and Lula, but they didn’t abandon them. They said, “Look, this is the best we could do at the time.”
People don’t realize that, for example, during 13 years of PT government rule, they never had more than 22 percent representation in Congress. And so they could only get things passed by going into coalition.
The problem with this narrative, that Lula and the PT were neoliberal, is that it gives this misconception in the mind of the casual reader that neoliberalism caused 40 million people to move out of poverty; and that’s never happened anywhere in the world. The main reason that poverty dropped in Brazil was because of over 100 percent minimum wage hikes, adjusted for inflation. In dollar terms, when Lula took office, the minimum salary was, like, 50 US dollars a month; when he left office, it was over $300 a month. That’s why 40 million people rose above the poverty line, and that’s not neoliberal at all. One of the key tenets of neoliberalism is minimum wage suppression, right?
So it’s a long answer, probably, but I decided that since no one in the North was interviewing these people, someone should. And that’s why I decided to do this book, you know? Because there’s a lot of nuance. Yeah, I mean, Lula and Dilma were not radical leftists, but it really does a disservice to the labor unions and the social movements who support the PT party, to say that they’re just straight-up neoliberals.
And it does a disservice to anyone’s understanding, in general, of Brazilian politics. You won’t understand what happens next if you imagine that people are responding to something that’s different than what they are in fact responding to.
We’ve been speaking with Brian Mier; he’s an editor at Brazil Wire; they’re online at BrasilWire.com, and that’s also the place you can get information on the book Voices of the Brazilian Left. Brian Mier, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
Thanks a lot.
And that’s it for CounterSpin for this week. CounterSpin is produced by FAIR, the national media watch group based in New York. The show’s engineered by Erica Rosato. I’m Janine Jackson. Thanks for listening to CounterSpin.