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An Open Letter to the Ambassador Michael Fitzpatrick, the Interim Permanent Representative to the OAS

I was extremely disappointed to read today that you have unequivocally argued that impeachment process currently taking place in Brazil is democratic and legitimate. While acknowledging the dangers of comparing historical events from different time periods, the U.S. government is running the risk of repeating a tragic mistake it make in April 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the military dictatorship that had taken power, which ended up ruling the country for twenty-one years.

You have declared that: “There is a clear respect for democratic institutions and a clear separation of powers. In Brazil it is clearly the law that prevails, coming up with peaceable solutions to disputes.” You have also stated: “We don’t believe that this is an example of a ‘soft coup’ or, for that matter, a coup of any sort. What happened in Brazil complied perfectly with legal constitutional procedure and totally respected democratic norms.”

These are precisely the arguments that U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon used fifty-two years ago when he insisted that the Johnson administration immediately endorse the seizure of power by the military, which was legitimized by the formal application of the Constitution and a majority vote in Congress.

I am sure that you are familiar with the recent history of Brazil; nevertheless, it is certainly worth reviewing, given the current situation. I apologize if my remarks are extensive. I am an historian, and I honestly believe that understanding the past is important for comprehending the present. And, as Brazilian composer Tom Jobim once quipped, “Brazil is not for beginners.”

In 1960, Jânio Quadros, a Center-Right candidate, was elected president. João Goulart, a Center-Left politician, became vice president on a split ticket. Seven months later, Quadros suddenly resigned from office. Sectors of the military unsuccessfully tried to block Goulart from assuming the presidency.

The Right, unhappy with the fact that Goulart had taken office, organized a broad coalition to overthrow him. It included the Catholic Church, entrepreneurs, the major media, and large sectors of the middle classes. These events took place within the context of an economic crisis, inflation, and grassroots movements of workers, peasants, and sailors clamoring for greater economic and social inclusion.

As has been widely documented and revealed in declassified U.S. State Department documents, U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon and his military attaché Vernon Walters actively supported the conspiracy to overthrow Goulart. They used Cold War arguments that Goulart was being manipulated by the Brazilian Communist Party, that he was corrupt, and that he wanted to assume unlimited power. They assured Brazilian generals that if they forced Goulart out of office, the U.S. government would back the regime that replaced it. The Johnson administration even organized Operation Brother Sam, which sent aircraft carriers, arms, and supplies to back rebel troops should a civil war breakout.

On March 31, troops marched on Rio de Janeiro to overthrow Goulart. The next day, the president flew from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília to mobilize political support against this illegal seizure of power. Realizing that he would be unsuccessful, he took his family to his ranch in southern Brazil. He wanted to avoid bloodshed, so he did not call on his supporters to resist the coup d’état. As soon as his airplane took off, the President of the Senate declared that he had abandoned his office. The President of the Senate and the President of the Supreme Court, arguing that they were following constitutional procedures, swore in Ranieri Mazzilli, President of the Chamber of Deputies, as Acting President. According to the Constitution, Congress had thirty days to choose a new president. Today everyone, except defenders of the military dictatorship, call these events a golpe de estado, the coup d’état of 1964.

In numerous cables to the White House, Ambassador Gordon argued that what happened in Brazil complied perfectly with legal constitutional procedure and totally respected democratic norms. He lobbied hard for President Johnson to recognize the new government, which he did on April 2, legitimizing the golpe and placing the U.S. government’s seal of approval on this illegal change of power that was implemented with “legal constitutional procedures.”

On April 11, the 295 members of Congress elected General Castelo Branco as President of Brazil. This completed the “democratic” transition from a legally elected government to an illegitimate military dictatorship.

Immediately after recognizing the government of Mazzilli, on April 3, President Johnson called leaders of Congress to the White House to convince them that the U.S. government was supporting democracy in Brazil. Democratic Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon left the meeting and declared to the press: “The developments in Brazil did not result from action by a military junta or from a coup by a military junta. Instead, the overthrow of the presidency of Brazil resulted from developments in which the Congress of Brazil, acting under the Constitution of Brazil, was the guiding force, and was reinforced by a military group which backed up the preservation of the Brazilian constitutional system.”

In comments to his fellow Senators later that year, Morse reiterated his conclusions: “Tonight no Senator can cite Brazil as an example of a military dictatorship, because it is not. Self-government on the part of the Brazilian people continues to proceed. If anyone thinks not, let them look at what is happening in Brazil with respect to an exchange of points of view in Parliament, in the press, and in many sources and forces of public opinion.”

A year later, in October 1965, when the military government abolished direct presidential elections, Morse came to a different conclusion. Realizing that the regime’s democratic trappings were for appearances’ sake only, he stated: “News of the seizure of dictatorial power by the Brazilian military junta marks a disastrous reversal for liberty in Latin America. What is even worse is the continuation of American financial backing of such a regime. . . . The semantics from Washington and from the Brazilian cabal, seeking to allay fears for democratic institutions in that great nation, will not fool any but those who want to be fooled.”

Many who fought against the military regime and many others who remember or have studied about its authoritarian rule have argued that the current political maneuvers to oust the democratically elected government of President Dilma Rousseff is another coup d’état. You have forcefully argued that “there is a clear respect for democratic institutions and a clear separation of powers” in Brazil today. But is that the case? Are you, like Senator Wayne Morse in 1964, perhaps being fooled by appearances of constitutional procedures and separation of powers in the impeachment process when there are no tanks in the streets and no generals heading the government?

How can there have been a democratic procedure in the Chamber of Deputies, when Eduardo Cunha, the president of that body, who entirely controlled that house, was removed from his office a week after the vote to recommend to the Senate impeachment proceedings? An appeal had been made to remove him from that position last December for abuse of power, but a member of the Supreme Court sat on the request until it was clear that Cunha had ensured that the opposition had the necessary two-third vote to favor the impeachment of President Rousseff. How many Congresspersons did Cunha and his allies buy or win over with promises to be in the new government? How can a process overseen by a person who had been indicted for money laundering and taking bribes be legitimate?

How is there a separation of powers when members of the Supreme Court make public statements about cases that are under consideration, reveal their political opinions in the media, pre-judge cases that have not yet been tried, and with this influence the public debate and political actors? Moreover, the Supreme Court has been excessively arbitrary in deciding which cases to review, taking six months to issue an injunction against Eduardo Cunha and then making a speeding decision against the appointment of Lula to a post in Rousseff’s government. These cases are examples, among many, of a perverse ways in which the judiciary has become enmeshed in politics, rather than remaining separate from it

How can you say that there have been democratic procedures when agents of the police and justice systems selectively leaked information from the Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption investigations to create a climate hostile to the government and its allies? Why was it an alleged charge of a misuse of a function for President Rousseff to appoint ex-President Lula as her Chief of Staff because she was supposedly shielding him from corruption investigations, when Interim President Michel Temer has appointed seven people under investigation for corruption to ministerial positions? Isn’t he abusing his power in an effort to protect his allies?

Why is President Rousseff being charged with violating the Law of Fiscal Responsibility for pedaladas, when Interim President Michel Temer did the exactly the same thing when he was acting President during times that Rousseff was out of the country? And what about her predecessors, Presidents Lula and Cardoso, who engaged in similar budgetary actions, to say nothing of at least sixteen Brazilian governors, including Aécio Neves, President Rousseff’s rival in the 2014 election.

While you did not mention it in your declarations, you also failed to point out another shortcoming in the current political situation in Brazil, namely, a situation in which there is freedom of the press (and the mass media in general) only for those who own it. Today conservative forces, which control the major newspapers, magazines, and television stations, systematically present partial reporting on events in order to influence public opinion. It is as if Fox News were to control all of the major media outlets in the United States. Fortunately, social media has served as an alternative source of information, but it doesn’t have the weight of the mainstream media.

The first week of the new government has revealed a radical new, but actually old, agenda for Brazil that intends to rollback all of the progressive social changes that have taken place over the last thirty years since the end of military rule. Those who were outraged by the fact that Michel Temer did not appoint a single woman or a person of African-descent to ministerial positions were not clamoring for tokenism. That act was not a public relations blunder. It symbolized the intent of a government. Temer blamed his allies for not provided names of women and Afro-Brazilians, in an effort to free himself of responsibility for the appointments. Yet his comments speak loudly about the nature of his allies that brought him to power and the nature of the new “democratic” government. In the first week of his governance, he has already announced that he is going to reduce social rights in the countryside and introduce cutbacks in the social security system, education, and housing, all of which will largely affect the poorest sectors of Brazilian society.

In 1964, the U.S. government was on the wrong side of history. It never apologized to the Brazilian people for supporting a military dictatorship. Now, five decades later, I fear that it is once again endorsing an illegitimate process. Those who don’t learn from history are forced to repeat it.

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James Green

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