Brazil’s elected government is in the news, but is it in the middle of a coup? Unlike Latin American coups in the 20th century, Brazil’s current turmoil involves no armies and no bloodshed — but Brazil could see a regime change, a “soft coup.”
I’ve been studying Latin American politics for the past 20 years, and documenting the right-wing strategy of manipulating public opinion to discredit socialist governments. What’s happening in Brazil has happened elsewhere.
A brief summary of the political crisis in Brazil
In Brazil, South America’s continent-sized, resource-rich giant, the Workers Party (PT) won the presidency in 2003 and has remained in power for the past 13 years. Led by Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, a charismatic leader Newsweek once called “the most popular politician on earth,” the PT built its broad appeal on economic policies that generated growth with low inflation, and created social programs for income redistribution in one of the most unequal countries in the world.
In 2011, Dilma Rousseff replaced her mentor and became the country’s first female president. Rousseff never enjoyed the same popularity as Lula, who was implicated in 2016 in a corruption case and money-laundering case involving the state-owned oil company Petrobras. Prosecutors have never accused Rousseff of being involved in the corruption, but the speaker of Brazil’s lower house has pushed forward impeachment charges against her for alleged misuse of money from public banks to cover gaps in the government budget. On April 11, a committee in Brazil’s lower house voted to recommend impeachment.
The full lower house is expected to vote on the impeachment on April 17. If a two-thirds majority votes for impeachment, the process would then be forwarded to the Brazilian Senate.
Both Lula and Rousseff have accused Brazil’s right-wing parties of conspiring to bring down the PT presidency, calling it a coup attempt. In an April 12 interview, Rousseff accused Vice President Michel Temer of conspiring openly “to destabilize a legitimately elected president.” In early April, thousands of Rousseff supporters protested in Brazil’s cities, chanting “There’s not going to be a coup.”
But there is a deeper story than just corruption, or simple opportunism by Rousseff’s political adversaries. Recent events in Latin America suggest that what’s happening in Brazil is part of a broad right-wing campaign to tarnish the PT and bring down Rousseff, as well as Lula.
Using a range of tactics, right-wing parties seek to tarnish left-wing politicians in power through institutional, as well as non-electoral and undemocratic means.
We’ve seen a similar right-wing backlash against socialist regimes play out successfully in Paraguay and Honduras. Right-wing parties have attempted to undermine left-wing regimes in Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Venezuela. Those on the left being targeted by the Latin American right see this strategy as the equivalent of a 21st century coup.
Corrupt investigations of corruption?
In the Brazilian case, the calls for impeachment are based on flimsy, indirect charges and double standards. To date, there is no evidence linking Rousseff to the corruption scandal. Meanwhile, the Brazilian speaker of the House, Eduardo Cunha, who is leading the impeachment charge, was named in the Panama Papers as taking bribes from a multinational corporation involved in the Petrobras corruption case. Likewise, many of the other right-wing politicians leading and supporting the impeachment efforts are in fact facing corruption charges themselves.
If the impeachment succeeds, Michel Temer would be the first president of Brazil representing his party (the PMDB) in over 25 years. But Temer himself may soon face impeachment charges for corruption.
While the right’s targeting of Rousseff could be unethical, it is legal and is being carried out through formal institutional channels. But impeachment proceedings are only one element of the right’s backlash against socialist governments in Latin America.
Looking closely at the tactics against left-leaning governments
The most powerful – and illegal – attacks against the left in Latin America involve surveillance, online hacking and cyberattacks, including smear campaigns via social media and news outlets. Teams of high-tech political operatives conduct illegal spying, including installing spyware in opposition offices, and stealing campaign strategies and opponents’ donor databases. These teams hack into and deface campaign websites and slander opponents. According to one analysis, using fake social media accounts to manipulate public opinion was a key part of attempts to discredit socialist candidates in Nicaragua, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and other countries.
As discussed here in the Monkey Cage, a judge ordered Brazil’s wiretapping of phone calls between Rousseff and Lula — so there is an appearance of a legal justification. In a highly unusual move, the judge who ordered the wiretaps immediately released the transcripts of conversations between the two to the public. Instantaneously, right-wing news outlets and social media began manipulating their conversations to give the appearance of wrongdoing and inflaming public sentiment against the Rousseff government.
While all of this might sound like a conspiracy theory, a recent Bloomberg story, “How to Hack an Election,” uncovered the depth and pervasiveness of this right-wing strategy.
International hacker Andres Sepulveda now faces prison time for his role in an international right-wing movement interfering in various Latin American elections. Through his revelations, we can appreciate the institutional, psychological, news and social media tactics the right has developed to challenge 21st century socialism in Latin America. While Sepulveda was not hired to work in Brazil, the smear campaign against Rousseff takes a page directly out of his playbook.
For now, the PT is fighting back. As a well-organized national political party in Brazil, the PT is not likely to fold even if Rousseff’s impeachment moves forward. But what happens in the coming weeks in Brazil has longer-term implications for elected socialist governments throughout Latin America.
Héctor Perla, Jr. is an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His book “Sandinista Nicaragua’s Resistance to U.S. Coercion” will be published by Cambridge University Press in June.