The CIA Told Bolsonaro To Stop Undermining Brazil’s Elections. He Hasn’t.

The head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in July urged top Brazilian government officials to put a stop to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to sow doubt about the integrity of the country’s electoral system ahead of Brazil’s 2022 election, Reuters reported Thursday, citing anonymous sources within the U.S. government.

CIA chief William Burns relayed the message to his Brazilian counterparts in multiple previously unreported meetings, according to Reuters, telling them to push Bolsonaro to stop spreading Trump-like conspiracies about widespread voter fraud and other baseless claims of electoral malfeasance.

Bolsonaro has stoked conspiracies about Brazil’s election system for years. Ahead of the 2018 election, which he won, he often claimed that the only way he could lose was through rampant fraud and irregularities.

Bolsonaro, who reveres former U.S. President Donald Trump, began intensifying his attacks on the Brazilian electoral system immediately after the 2020 U.S. election and the insurrection that followed. He adopted many of Trump’s favorite lies, including that widespread fraud had occurred and that significant numbers of dead voters’ ballots had been cast. He suggested that the problems would be even worse in Brazil. And he launched a monthslong effort to overhaul Brazil’s electronic ballot system.

Burns’ advice, along with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s subsequent insistence in August meetings that Bolsonaro respect his country’s democracy and electoral process, may demonstrate that the Biden administration shares concerns that Bolsonaro may try to undermine Brazilian democracy — and even attempt to foment his own version of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — should he lose October’s presidential election.

Events since those meetings, however, highlight Bolsonaro’s intent to defy any concerns coming from Washington or within Brazil, and suggest that the authoritarian-minded leader doesn’t plan to change course ahead of the election. The U.S., meanwhile, has largely shifted its focus to solidifying global opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and needs Brazil’s support for that effort.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro meets with his supporters during a demonstration in Brasilia on May 1.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro meets with his supporters during a demonstration in Brasilia on May 1.

Photo by Mateus Bonomi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Bolsonaro on Thursday night dismissed the Reuters report as “fake news” during a routine Facebook live appearance he uses to address Brazilians.

He then used the forum to further undermine the electoral system. Bolsonaro said his party would hire a private company to audit the 2022 election in order to give Brazilians confidence the contests are conducted “free from any suspicion of external interference.”

The pledge draws eerie parallels to the conspiratorial “audits” conservatives conducted in Arizona and other states in a failed attempt to prove Trump’s 2020 defeat was illegitimate.

Bolsonaro also warned that the Brazilian armed forces, which many experts have worried might aid his attempts to undermine the election and Brazil’s democracy, would not act as mere “spectators” of the electoral process.

It was only his latest effort to erode confidence in the elections.

The same month that Burns met with Brazilian officials in Brasilia, Bolsonaro’s defense minister, an army general, backed the efforts to sow doubt in the looming elections, according to newspaper reports. Then, on Sept. 7, 2021, Bolsonaro and his supporters went forward with a rally against the country’s Supreme Court — a massive demonstration that many experts feared would result in a Jan. 6-type insurrection a year before Brazil’s elections.

The Sept. 7 protests didn’t result in a dramatic democratic rupture. But they still represented a direct threat from Bolsonaro to a democratic institution that has sought to restrain his authoritarian impulses, refute his election conspiracies, and thwart his attempts to undermine Brazil’s democracy, the world’s fourth-largest.

“This was in July, when the CIA was in Brazil, and in September he did what he did,” said Thomas Traumann, a Brazilian political expert. “Obviously, he just ignored the message.”

There is no evidence for Bolsonaro’s wild claims about Brazilian elections, and many of his allegations make even less sense in the context of Brazilian political contests than Trump’s do in the United States. Voting is mandatory in Brazil, and its election system is far more efficient than the one in the United States. Many prominent election experts said the changes Bolsonaro sought would likely lead to more fraud and uncertainty, not less.

But for Bolsonaro, that is not the point. Much like Trump, experts say, he’s attempting to sow just enough doubt about Brazil’s system to mobilize his rabid right-wing supporters if he loses October’s election, which most polls suggest he will.

The open question — and most dangerous — is what the military would do. Brazil’s armed forces have largely abstained from domestic political affairs since the end of the country’s military dictatorship in 1985. But Bolsonaro has built a military cocoon around himself, placing former soldiers in key positions of influence throughout his government and bolstering support among the military’s rank and file.

And, over the last eight months, heads of the armed forces have repeatedly raised doubts about the integrity of the electoral process to Brazil’s top elections court, often repeating Bolsonaro’s claims about potential vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines, which the Supreme Electoral Court has said are safe.

The U.S. seems aware of that risk. Burns delivered the message to retired Gen. Augusto Heleno, a close Bolsonaro adviser, after Heleno downplayed concerns about Bolsonaro’s election conspiracies, Reuters reported.

Heleno did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment. But he appeared with Bolsonaro on Facebook live, and said he never had a conversation with Burns about Brazil’s elections.

Burns’ meetings and the decision from U.S. officials to leak details of them now could be interpreted as a signal from Washington to the military’s top brass that it should not entertain or join Bolsonaro’s crusade against democracy, as many fear it might.

The U.S. intelligence apparatus and Brazil’s military have close relationships that date back to the Cold War. On social media, the Reuters report that the CIA had been charged with delivering a pro-democracy message generated caustic reactions from many Brazilians, given that the agency and the U.S. government backed the 1964 military coup that established the brutal dictatorship that ruled Brazil for more than two decades.

The Reuters report may offer “some comfort” that the upper echelons of the armed forces might prize the maintenance of existing relationships and training partnerships over any Bolsonaro attempt to undermine the election, said Andre Pagliarini, a Brazilian American historian at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

“To put it really simply, the Brazilian military has never acted in a way that clearly violated Washington’s expressed will,” said Pagliarini, who also writes a column for The Brazilian Report and whose research often focuses on Brazilian military history. “Bolsonaro might get a general here or there to go along with him, but the armed forces as a whole can and will read the room.”

Bolsonaro has repeatedly attempted to show that the top ranks of the Brazilian military share his concerns about Brazil's election system, and said they will act as more than mere "spectators" in 2022's contest.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly attempted to show that the top ranks of the Brazilian military share his concerns about Brazil’s election system, and said they will act as more than mere “spectators” in 2022’s contest.

AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

But Bolsonaro seems intent on escalating his attacks against democracy, and at least some military leaders continue to embrace them. Before his Thursday night pledge that his party would hire an outside firm to audit the election, Bolsonaro this week pushed Brazil’s top elections court to cancel an invitation to the European Union to observe the 2022 contest.

Heleno’s appearance on Facebook live suggests at least some top members of the military are ready to back Bolsonaro’s claims, and the right-wing president’s efforts to show that he has the top brass on his side could soon include the naming of Gen. Walter Braga Netto, who has already questioned the integrity of the electoral process, as his running mate.

Bolsonaro has clearly integrated military leaders into his government. But advisers to his most formidable election opponent, leftist former President Lula da Silva, have also worked to form close ties with military leaders in an effort to thwart any potential coup attempt. They believe most active generals — as opposed to the retired military officers Bolsonaro leans on — would refuse to go along with any plot to undermine Brazil’s democracy, the journalist Andréia Sadi reported Thursday.

Former U.S. officials have called on the Biden administration to send stern signals in response. Retired diplomat Scott Hamilton, who served as U.S. consul in Rio de Janeiro from 2018 to 2021, wrote in a major Brazilian newspaper last week that the United States should threaten to place multilateral sanctions on Brazil if Bolsonaro attempts to undermine or overturn an election loss.

But the Biden administration, which has sparred with Bolsonaro over climate-related goals and deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest, spent the early part of 2021 attempting to improve relations with the Brazilian government. The White House now sees Brazil as vital to global efforts to isolate Russia in the wake of its February invasion of Ukraine.

Biden met with Brazil’s ambassador to the U.S. at the White House in early April. State Department officials met with their Brazilian counterparts in Brasilia later that month in an attempt to bolster ties between the two countries amid the Ukraine crisis. Afterward, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said that “the United States and Brazil need each other” and that Russia was “undermining the principles that the U.S. and Brazil stand for.”

The situation in Brazil is even more worrisome now, Traumann said, than it was ahead of the Sept. 7 demonstrations last year. Despite Thursday’s report, recent U.S. efforts to cozy up with the Bolsonaro government suggest that the 2022 election is not at the forefront of Washington’s considerations.

“For me, it seems that the Biden administration will not try to make a fuss about Brazil,” Traumann said. “At this moment, they are really worried about Ukraine. They are not really worried about Brazilian democracy.”

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