Earlier this summer, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) met with civil society leaders from Brazil who warned that President Jair Bolsonaro might not accept a loss in elections set for October. This has been widely discussed in international media, and Sanders came away from the meeting convinced that it’s not just idle chatter: The threat of a Bolsonaro coup is real.
Such fears have prompted Sanders and his staff to draft a resolution that would seek to get ahead of any such eventuality. It would express the view of the Senate that if Bolsonaro loses and refuses to step down, the United States will view it as an unacceptable outcome.
The resolution — which we have viewed in draft form — declares that the United States will immediately recognize the election outcome that international monitors deem free and fair. And it warns that the United States will reevaluate its relationship with any government that assumes power through undemocratic means, including a military coup. It says this could imperil future U.S. aid.
“It is absolutely imperative that the U.S. Senate make it clear through a resolution that we support democracy in Brazil,” Sanders told us in an interview. “We look forward to a free and fair election.”
Such a Senate vote, Sanders said, will make it crystal clear that, in the event of an undemocratic outcome in Brazil, the United States will “not be supportive with military aid” and “we will not be recognizing an illegitimate government.”
Sanders’s office confirms that the resolution is backed by some prominent foreign policy-focused Senate Democrats, such as Tim Kaine (Va.), Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.). And Sanders is working to round up additional support in hopes of holding the vote in early September, well in advance of Brazil’s October election.
There is reason to believe Brazil could be facing a crisis. Polls have shown challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leading Bolsonaro by considerable margins, and while Bolsonaro denies plans for a coup, he has relentlessly attacked the country’s electoral system as vulnerable to manipulation.
Earlier this year, Bolsonaro traveled to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin, then went to Hungary and met with its prime minister, Viktor Orban. The visits underscore Bolsonaro’s role in an emerging cross-national alliance of right-wing authoritarians, strongmen who get elected then rig their country’s political system to remain in power with an approach sometimes called “competitive authoritarianism.”
Sanders sees this kind of evolving right-wing authoritarian internationale as one reason the Senate should forcefully express the United States’ insistence on a free and fair election.
“What we are seeing all across the world are massive attacks and rollbacks to democracy,” Sanders told us, citing Russia, China, Hungary and “the growth of right wing movements throughout Europe, where people are giving up on democracy and moving toward authoritarianism.”
“We have groups that have done that right here in the United States,” Sanders said.
All of which raises complications. Sanders told us he hopes to win over as many senators from both parties to support the resolution as possible: “I’m seeking the support of 100 members of the United States Senate.”
But given Donald Trump’s alliance with Bolsonaro, it’s an open question how many Republicans will join. And Republicans might balk at a resolution that dares to suggest a Trump ally is anti-democracy (which would be even more perverse at a time when they are shielding Trump from accountability for his effort to destroy our own democracy).
Still, Sanders suggested that Republicans may see the wisdom of joining such a resolution. “I would hope my Republican colleagues understand that … we have got to use our capabilities as a world leader in making sure other countries move forward in a democratic way.”
Which raises another interesting nuance: Such talk about exporting democracy is often associated with throwing around U.S. military power in the world. But Sanders appears to intend this as a positive, non-military way U.S. power can exert a pro-democracy influence abroad, in keeping with his calls for a progressive internationalist movement that champions liberal democracy everywhere as the answer to global authoritarianism and the problems of the future.
Such an effort, Sanders argued, won’t be enough without dramatic efforts at home and abroad to “strengthen democracy by making governments more accountable to the needs of working people.”
But for now, Sanders said, it is critical to draw a line against autocracy and authoritarianism where it poses immediate threats: “The United States should make it clear that we support the democratic process in Brazil and countries around the world.”