Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

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A Putschist Attack on Our Continent

, by GEBRIM Ricardo

“We know that as Brazil goes, so will go the rest of the Latin American continent,” US President Richard Nixon is said to have told his Brazilian counterpart Emílio Médici in a private conversation, justifying his support for the coup and the consolidation of the military dictatorship.

Indeed, the 1964 Brazilian coup – which, it has been revealed, strategic US government agencies helped plan and were involved in – was the first in a succession of a putsches that took place the following year in Indonesia and in several countries across our continent. It was the USA’s grand strategy, and it left deep scars, particularly in our region. Those who thought at the time that the military coup was merely a parenthesis and that the country would return to democracy in 1966 would pay dearly for their mistake. This was the case of many civilian supporters of the coup, such as Carlos Lacerda, Adhemar de Barros and Magalhães Pinto.

In all of these examples, the military was the state apparatus tasked with overthrowing democratically elected governments and unleashing a wave of repression which, even today, we are still fighting to shed full light on.

In his book Os Estados Unidos no desconcerto do mundo [The United States in a Disconcerted World], a Professor from Unicamp (Public University of Campinas, State of São Paulo) develops the concept of a US grand strategy which shaped all political decisions regarding international relations, irrespective of whether Presidents were Republican or Democrat. The military coups of the sixties, seventies and eighties were guided by a U.S. grand strategy based on the logic of the Cold War. For a long time, however, suggesting that the US might be involved was labeled a “conspiracy theory”.

It was only in 1981, seventeen years after the military coup in Brazil, that a substantiated analysis was published that showed that the USA’s involvement was no mere conspiracy theory. René Armand Dreifuss’s book, 1964: A conquista do Estado (Ação política, poder e golpe de classe) [1964: The Conquest of the State – Political Action, Power and Class Coup], based on extensive documents, presents irrefutable evidence of the deliberate creation of institutes such as the Institute for Research and Social Studies (Ipes) and the Brazilian Institute for Democratic Action (Ibad); of lobbying activities and of the funding of putschists to get them elected in Parliament from 1962, all of which was instrumental in the campaign to isolate and destabilise President João Goulart. Since then, many other official documents have been released that provide us with an even more accurate picture of the intricate planning and involvement of US strategists in supporting military dictatorships across our continent.

A Brazilian soldier salutes the flag. Garon Piceli - public domain

The same coalition of economic forces, classes and subclasses involved in the coups of the 1960s and 1970s is still at work and fuelling the attacks happening today. But, in spite of many similarities (such as the use of the upper middle class as a social base and spearhead for the entire middle class, and corruption as a pretext to mobilise), today’s attacks differ from the previous ones in terms of the state apparatus involved. It is no longer the military, but sections of the federal police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary that constitute the current “state wing” of the coup, which has at its centre a concentrated and powerful group of media.

Why is the military no longer involved? This is certainly a question that deserves to be studied in greater detail. For the time being, let us set out three main explanations:

  • 1. The international backlash that a classic military coup would predictably give rise to, would result in international isolation, because it would force multilateral bodies to take a stand. It would also, in all likelihood, result in economic sanctions and reproving (although purely formal) declarations even from the United States themselves;
  • 2. The USA’s desire to reinforce its self-constructed image as a defender of democracy, and which it has used in all its foreign interventions, even those based on military force (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria);
  • 3. It was impossible to rely on the Brazilian military to carry out the program of privatisation and national dismantling that is the core interest of the classes and various sectors behind the putsch. In fact, some projects that were considered strategic by the military, such as the geostationary defence and strategic communications space satellite (SGDC) and the construction of nuclear submarines, have actually been halted. [1]

We are facing a new development that some are already calling “21st century coups” or neo-putschism. The model was tested in Honduras and Paraguay, and was able to draw on experience gained in Georgia and Ukraine. It is, however, in our country that it is taking its most advanced form. The armed forces have been assigned a secondary role, as a back-up and possible source of support, but no longer take the leading role. Understanding this neo-putschism – its social and structural dimensions and impacts, as well the way it usually unfolds – is fundamental to facing the new historical period it aims to usher in.

There is an increasingly visible and recognisable “modus operandi”, even in photographs of the “Arab Spring”, in Ukraine, Venezuela, and more recently in Nicaragua, which are reminiscent of the events that took place in our country in 2013. Indeed, the new coups are part of a large-scale strategic effort by the US to preserve its political, economic and military hegemony.

Some common features are already evident, such as the use of Gene Sharp’s putschist manual to undermine the economic, political and military strength and stability of states, the use of information gathered by the National Security Agency (NSA), agreements and partnerships signed between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the federal police (of which the Public Prosecutor’s Office was also party in Brazil) and the coordination of joint investigations through the American-Iberian Association of Public Prosecutors. [2]

Here, a parallel can be drawn with the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s: military personnel were sent to Fort Bragg (California), Fort Leavenworth (Kansas) or to the School of the Americas (Panama) for training. Today’s training and cooperation agreements, which are central to the procedures and of the alliance between public prosecutors and the police apparatus, serve the same purpose.

It’s important to recall that information disclosed by Wikileaks in 2013 revealed the NSA had been routinely spying on the Brazilian government. This was even their priority target over a certain period. [3] Wikileaks also raised the alarm over the close cooperation between the federal police, the prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of Justice and US security and investigation agencies, which intensified from 2009 onwards.

It should be stressed that the neo-putschist use of the parliamentary system to validate the replacement of a government through a non-electoral route constitutes a decisive period, albeit a temporary one. The putschist process then continues with the adoption of formal legal provisions that are aimed at annihilating electoral opposition and stifling social resistance. The main agents of neo-putschism are not parliamentarians, but sectors of the police force, of the public prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Justice, aligned with the media monopoly, which seek to defend the class interests of the neoliberal coalition. It is important to understand this particularity.

As the putschist forces manage to rally the majority of members of the highest Court of Justice, primarily through media pressure, they are able to enforce a partisan interpretation of the Constitution, and thus to consolidate their political control while evading democratic debate. They can also rely on the corporate interests of the judiciary itself, and on its class profile, to help them achieve their goal. As Liliana Ayalde points out, “Political control of the Supreme Court is critical to politicians’ ability to secure impunity for crimes committed. Having friends at the Supreme Court is worth its weight in gold.” Ayalde was US Ambassador to Paraguay when the coup against President Lugo took place, and was then transferred to Brazil in December 2013, when Operation Lava Jato (“High Pressure Washing”) was gaining momentum, and remained there until the coup against President Dilma Rousseff had her removed from office.

Current developments in El Salvador are particularly symptomatic of the tactics used, particularly that of “rewarded denunciations”, [4] as used in the Curitiba court. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) even speaks of “an attempt to trigger a Brazilian coup in our country”. [5]

In today’s putsches, political representation is of little importance. What is important is establishing a set of (mainly economic) policies that will benefit the classes and sectors that support the coup. If, in order to achieve this, some of the old heads representing rentier capitalism have to roll, it will be done without any qualms. What is important is to expand and reinforce the economic and political policies that we shall call, for didactic purposes, “the coup’s agenda”.

The US strategy no longer relies on robust governments to limit the advance of the socialist block, as was the case during the Cold War. The current coups are attempts to create less space for political decision-making, so that the structural political and economic foundations can’t be shaken. It wants fragile governments caught in the net of neoliberalism. This is enforced through new repressive mechanisms that tirelessly seek to criminalise all forms of insubordination.

This new pattern of repression, which is mostly deployed through judiciary agencies, does not involve charges directly related to social or political battles. Instead, it seeks to incriminate grassroots activists and their allies for common crimes, particularly corruption. The methods get increasingly sophisticated with each new Federal Police operation: exaggeration of the facts; selective treatment of defendants; coercive institutional mechanisms applied to witnesses and defendants; the concept of domínio do fato; [6] damaging reputations; promoting a narrative of having dismantled “an immense corruption network that was bleeding the country dry”. These are the cogs of a powerful machine, constantly reinforced by the judicial system and fuelled by the media. Even after achieving its primary goals – ousting Dilma Rousseff and imprisoning Lula – this machine is allowed to keep churning away, in spite of being largely unpopular, while our usual methods of public denunciation (escrachos), protest, and demonstration give little or no results.

This new form of repression also involves measures designed to dry up the funding of the trade union movement, such as the abrupt decision to end mandatory contributions. Overnight, hundreds of trade union leaders have seen their organisations dismantled, and have had to fight desperately to survive, forced to give up resistance to the coup.

Of course, classic forms of repression will continue to be used, such as criminalising movements and activists, providing support to reactionary groups and even paramilitary action. These forms of repression, spurred by fascist hate speech and the ideological revival of the far-right, will force us to consider self-defence in the face of increasingly brutal violence.

If we fail to grasp the dynamics and scale of the current attack, we will continue to see this coup as something that can be overcome, as we did in the previous era, without fully appreciating the mutations at work.


[1The Geisel government, at the height of the dictatorship, established the second National Development Plan (1975-1979), which boosted industrial production chains and expanded state-owned companies, particularly in the energy sector.

[2In his work A Segunda Guerra Fria [The Second Cold War], Moniz Bandeira stresses that Professor Gene Sharp’s manual was central to the US strategy under the Bush administration, and was circulated very widely, having been translated into 24 languages, and used by various putschist groups (Chapter V).

[3According to Luis Fernandes, “The extent and the degree of surveillance were equivalent to those of nations considered a ’grave security threat’ to the United States, such as Russia or China. As well as spying on senior officials of the Brazilian government – including the President herself – the main target was the national oil company Petrobras”, in Lula and Dilma Governments: The Cycle Attacked [Governos Lula e Dilma : o ciclo golpeado].

[4Translator’s note: “Rewarded accusations” are a legal mechanism that legitimise threats of massive prison sentences in order to pressure an indicted individual to accuse others.

[5“The Constitutional Chamber [equivalent to the Brazilian Supreme Federal Tribunal] is seeking, in our opinion, to create a political situation favourable to oligarchy and its political party, creating an imbalance that is detrimental to the stability of our country and will predictably encourage electoral fraud. This will result in a disregard for the will of the people at the 2018 and 2019 elections.” (FMLN Declaration, March 2017).

[6Translator’s note: Refers to the possibility of convicting someone of a crime even when there is no evidence of his or her involvement in it, based on the notion that he or she must, in some way, be accountable.


This article was initially pubished in French on ritimo’s website on 8 January 2020.

Ricardo Gebrim is a Brazilian lawyer and leader of the political organisation Consulta Popular.