Brazil coup shows BRICS powers are no alternative to US imperialism

By Patrick Bond May 29, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On May 12, Brazil’s democratic government, led by the Workers’ Party (PT), was the victim of a coup. What will the other BRICS countries (Russia, India, China, and South Africa) do? Will they stand by as the reactionaries who took power in Brasilia pivot closer to Western powers, glad to warm Dilma Rousseff’s seat at the BRICS summit in Goa, India in five months’ time? Or take a stronger line, following the lead of Latin American progressive countries (Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and El Salvador)? Here in South Africa, few expect Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) government to react constructively on the international stage. Making waves isn’t likely at a time when Standard & Poors and Fitch are on a South Africa visit, deciding whether to downgrade the country’s credit rating to “junk” status, as happened in Brazil late last year. This is a shame because the last two weeks have offered excellent opportunities for diplomatic rebellion: revelations have emerged implicating the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in assisting the apartheid state’s 1962 arrest and twenty-seven-year imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. This isn’t exactly surprising; the State Department did keep Mandela on its terrorist watch list until 2008. Following these revelations ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa charged that the CIA “never stopped operating here. It is still happening now — the CIA is still collaborating with those who want regime change.” BRICS and Empire South Africa’s chief foreign policy spokesperson Clayson Monyela responded to Kodwa’s accusation with assurances that South Africa’s relations with the United States “are strong, they’re warm, and cordial.” But Kodwa’s cry of imperialism, in light of the Brazilian coup, has struck a nerve. Indeed, the argument that Rousseff’s ouster demonstrates that the purportedly anti-imperialist BRICS are under sustained attack by US empire is being repeated in a number of corners. Commentators like Eric Draitser, Pepe Escobar, Paul Craig Roberts and Hugo Turner, along with officials from Venezuela and Cuba, all make this claim. A founder of Brazil’s heroic Movement of Landless Workers (MST), João Pedro Stedile, was asked by Il Manifesto about why “a group of deputies from right-wing organizations went to Washington before the last elections.” He replied, “Temer will arrange his government in order to allow the US to control our economy through their companies . . . Brazil is part of the BRICS, and another goal is that it can reject the South-South alliance.” Another version of this anti-imperialist framing was heard at the South African Black Consciousness movement’s Black First Land First launch conference on May 13:
Brazil and South Africa are seen by the Western imperialist forces as the weak link in the BRICS chain. The strategy of imperialism is to get rid of presidents who support the BRICS process. Imperialism works with internal opposition parties to effect regime change.
The eloquent South African commentator Siphamandla Zondi, who directs the Institute for Global Dialogue (one of South Africa’s main foreign policy institutes), also shares this view. Zondi defends the BRICS project and disputes the argument put forth by myself and others that the BRICS actually serve a “sub-imperialist” role in the global economy — that they are fully complicit in reproducing inequality both within their own countries and between others in the Global South. In a challenge posted on Facebook he called for observers to recognize that “imperialism has, in the modern age, taken on racism, crude capitalism and patriarchy as its forms.” No to the coup, No to imperialism Rousseff is of course the victim of a coup. I hope the Brazilian people will rise up against the illegitimate interim government. But whether the coup was a product of imperialism, as Zondi and many others argue, requires a bit more circumspection. As WikiLeaks cables revealed, Temer was a mole for the US State Department a decade ago, playing what Washington considered to be an incompetent, ideology-free role as a political “opportunist.” Indeed, we witnessed a similar problem here in South Africa, with the country’s then lead spy, Moe Shaik, offering the same sort of tell-all function — before becoming a key liaison to the BRICS New Development Bank. But as concrete evidence of a US-led coup in Brazil this fact seems insufficient. Moreover, Rousseff herself denied the role of imperialism a week after the impeachment, during a Russia Today interview: “I don’t believe external interference is a primary or a secondary reason for what’s happening now in Brazil. It’s not. The grave situation we see now has developed without any such interference.” She repeated this when pressed by the interviewer, so it was crystal clear that she blames the old oligarchs for her downfall. This point was reinforced by subsequent revelations about the coup plotters’ local motivations, to avoid their own prosecution for corruption. Moreover, the interweaving of racism, patriarchy, and global capitalism is also not as straightforward as it once was. When Obama’s allies hit the Honduran government in 2009, for example, it was a black man and a woman (Hillary Clinton) in Washington who Africa Command’s agendagave international credence to the local capitalist elite’s coup against a progressive democrat. Similar concerns about Obama’s role on the African continent have also been expressed — appropriate considering the Africa Command’s agenda. But the role of the BRICS countries shouldn’t be downplayed in these geopolitical power plays. The United States is made more dangerous by the sub-imperialist geopolitical functions that Deputy Sheriff Zuma regularly accepts, such as endorsing NATO’s bombing of Libya which led to regime change in 2011, supporting Israel even during its periodic mass murder of Gaza civilians, happily hosting US-South African military exercises, and even bragging openly that the South Africa army will serve as Obama’s “boots on the ground.” This isn’t to say that crude imperialism has faded away. Looking just at the 2009–2012 years when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, Washington’s Blog writer Eric Zuesse summarizes repeated US incursions in Honduras, Haiti, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine (and one might add Paraguay too). Yet, despite this impressive list of imperialist interventions, US “regime change maneuvers in the rest of the black world,” as Zondi phrases it, are not that common. They are not needed at the moment, especially in Africa, where the local leadership is already supine when it comes to Washington’s agenda. Neoliberal multilateralism Simply put, “racism, crude capitalism and patriarchy” associated with twentieth-century US imperialism have been largely replaced by Obama’s neoliberal multilateralism — a style of governance that the BRICS have bought into, not opposed. This isn’t something to celebrate. Multilateral neoliberalism leaves the BRICS countries far less able to pursue any positive South-South interventions. Indeed, Rousseff’s ouster demonstrates this clearly and the incoming Temer regime is likely to pursue a desperate course to re-establish its global position. The westward drift announced last week by Temer’s foreign minister, José Serra, plus Brasilia’s renewed neoliberal agenda on the home front, suggest this will be the case. But while it’s obvious that Serra is going to become much more active as a sub-imperial ally of the United States than was Rousseff, Rousseff also did little of substance on the foreign policy front aside from occasional anti-Yankee rhetoric (such as when she learned from Edward Snowden that Obama had bugged her phone and email). As the thoughtful (and generally pro-BRICS) commentator Oliver Stuenkel recently lamented:
Rousseff failed to articulate anything resembling a foreign policy doctrine, and Brazil’s foreign policy since 2011 was shaped, above all, by the President’s mind-boggling indifference to all things international and foreign policy makers’ incapacity to convince Rousseff that foreign policy could be used to promote the government’s domestic goals — as both [former Brazilian presidents] Lula and Fernando Henrique Cardoso so skilfully showed.
Serra, on the other hand, has promised that:
Priority will be given to the relationship with new partners in Asia, particularly China, this great economic phenomenon of the twenty-first century, and India. We will be equally committed to modernizing the bilateral exchange with Africa, the big neighbour on the other side of the Atlantic . . .

We will also take advantage of the opportunities offered by inter-regional fora with other developing countries, such as the BRICS, to accelerate commercial exchanges, investments and sharing of experiences.
Sub-imperialism Many who see Brazil as the victim of imperialism also hold the corresponding view that Brazil, along with the other BRICS countries, plays a progressive role on the global stage. Zondi articulated this viewpoint concisely in a recent piece for the Cape Times:
The [BRICS] platform has become the most powerful platform for the pursuit of global reform . . . Brazil has been a crucial voice in global debates about the reform of global governance, including the IMF and World Bank, and about fair and just outcomes for the developing world in world trade negotiations . . .

Brazil has spoken out on the agenda of decent work, food sovereignty, a greater Western contribution to the global response on climate change, ecological justice and the end to ecological imperialism. Brazil has also been an advocate of the responsibility to protect.

We may miss this now. Brazil is an important part of the effort today to shift global power from the former colonial powers and their diaspora in North America to all regions of the world. It is a key partner in South-South co-operation.
Many South Africans are impressed with the BRICS, but the reality of Brazil’s global maneuvering is much less rosy. In the most important multilateral settings, BRICS elites have worked against the interests of the world’s majority and against the environment. Consider Brazil’s actions in the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Since 2010 it has been working to reconfigure voting power (“voice”) in the institution. It has successfully increased its vote by 23 percent (with China also up 37 percent, India up 11 percent and Russia up 8 percent). Yet the US still won’t give up its veto power – it is the only country with more than 15 percent required – and the BRICS’ total vote is now just 14.7 percent. Worse, the restructuring deal that made this rise possible was detrimental to African countries: Nigeria just lost 41 percent of its voting power, along with Libya (39 percent), Morocco (27 percent), Gabon (26 percent), Algeria (26 percent), Namibia (26 percent) and even South Africa (21 percent). From this perspective “BRICs versus Africa” seems a more apt way to describe Brazil’s role in “reform of global governance” at the IMF. Brazil’s maneuvers at other global governance institutions — including the World Trade Organization (WTO) which is currently headed up by Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo — are equally damaging. According to the ordinarily pro-BRICS NGO Third World Network (TWN), Brazil conspired with the United States and the European Union at the WTO to “[ensure] that India did not get the language it proposed” to maintain vital food subsidies, which in coming years will lead tens of millions of Indian peasants to suffer. As TWN’s Chakravarthi Raghavan put it, “on the eve of Nairobi, Brazil unilaterally abandoned the G20 alliance to join the US and EU, in trying to act against China and India,” not to mention against the world’s poor. Of course, Brazil’s behavior is not unique. China and Russia persistently block efforts by Brazil, India, and South Africa to permanently join the Security Council. The point is simply that intra-BRICS solidarity, let alone broader South-South solidarity, is hard to find in reality. The issue of Brazil’s role in battling the global environmental crisis also deserves greater scrutiny. In 2009 Lula supported — alongside the United States, India, China, and South Africa — the Copenhagen Accord, which voided the Kyoto Protocol’s binding emissions-cut premise, contained utterly unambitious emissions targets, and also wrecked the UN process that year. Moreover, Rousseff was a booster of the pro-corporate “Green Economy” gambit at the Rio Earth Summit in 2012 that was (semi-successfully) rejected by most of the Global South. She is also a proud signatory to the 2015 Paris UN climate deal, a deal which assures catastrophic global warming and also now legally prevents climate victims in the Global South from suing the Global North for its climate debt. Brazil has also combined forces with the EU — against Bolivia — to “open the same carbon trading loopholes that undermined the last global climate deal,” according to Oscar Reyes of the Institute for Policy Studies. He notes that “the Paris Agreement explicitly allows countries to count emissions reductions made in other countries as part of their own domestic targets, referring to these by the euphemism ‘internationally transferred mitigation outcomes.’” Finally, the claim that “Brazil has also been an advocate of the responsibility to protect” simply doesn’t hold water. Consider Haiti and the “right to protect” role countries like Brazil are tasked with carrying out. As Brazil expert Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research explains,
The UN occupation of Haiti is really a US occupation — it is no more a multilateral force than George W Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq.

And it is hardly more legitimate, either: it was sent there in 2004 after a US-led effort toppled Haiti’s democratically elected government. Far from providing security for Haitians in the aftermath of the coup, [the UN mission in Haiti] stood by while thousands of Haitians who had supported the elected government were killed, and officials of the constitutional government jailed.
Despite Brazil’s UN-designated “right to protect” responsibilities it has done nothing to expose or oppose these crimes of occupation which include the rape and sexual abuse of Haitian children by UN soldiers. The Haiti experience, according to Weisbrot (a PT sympathizer), “eviscerates Brazil’s potential for moral leadership in the world.” Meanwhile back in Johannesburg, lefty-sounding rhetoric from the ANC’s Luthuli House is nothing more than politicians blowing dust into the air. When ANC leaders call the courageous South African public protector Thuli Madonsela a “CIA agent,” or declare that the Mandela Washington Fellowship program of the US Embassy is training kids for “regime change,” they show off anti-imperialist feathers. But in reality, Washington has no beef with Pretoria. The ANC has always excelled at talking left while walking right. US empire is real and oppressive, but it shouldn’t prevent a clear and critical appraisal of the BRICS countries’ true role in the world. Especially if we want to forge alliances to change the world, not merely shift around the Titanic’s first-class deck chairs. Bond is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and an honorary professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is co-editor of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique. An earlier version of this article was originally published at Jacobin.

Written by Mark Weisbrot…

It is clear that the executive branch of the U.S. government favors the coup underway in Brazil, even though they have been careful to avoid any explicit endorsement of it. Exhibit A was the meeting between Tom Shannon, the 3rd ranking U.S. State Department official and the one who is almost certainly in charge of handling this situation, with Senator Aloysio Nunes, one of the leaders of the impeachment in the Brazilian Senate, on April 20. By holding this meeting just three days after the Brazilian lower house voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, Shannon was sending a signal to governments and diplomats throughout the region and the world that Washington is more than ok with the impeachment. Nunes returned the favor this week by leading an effort (he is chair of the Brazilian Senate Foreign Relations Committee) to suspend Venezuela from Mercosur, the South American trade bloc.

There is a lot at stake here for the major U.S. foreign policy institutions, which include the 17 intelligence agencies, State Department, Pentagon, White House National Security Council, and foreign policy committees of the Senate and House. An enormous geopolitical shift took place over the past 15 years, in which the Latin American left went from governing zero countries to a majority of the region. For various historical reasons, the left in Latin America tends to favor national independence and international solidarity, and is therefore less willing to go along with U.S. foreign policy. I remember the first time I saw Lula Da Silva. It was in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2002. He was speaking to a crowd at the World Social Forum, and standing under a huge banner that said “Say No to Imperialist War in Iraq.”

Lula is a good diplomat, and he maintained a good personal relationship with George W. Bush during their overlapping presidencies. But he changed the foreign policy of Brazil, and contributed to the regional development of an independent foreign policy. In 2005 at Mar del Plata, Argentina, the left governments buried the U.S.-sponsored “Free Trade Area of the Americas,” thus putting an end to the American dream of a hemispheric commercial agreement based on rules designed in Washington. Brazil under the Workers’ Party also strongly backed Venezuela against U.S. attempts to isolate, destabilize, and even topple its government. Lula’s first foreign trip after his re-election in 2006 was to Venezuela, where he supported President Hugo Chávez in his own re-election campaign. The Workers’ Party(PT) government also supported regional efforts to overturn the U.S.-backed military coup in Honduras, and successfully opposed the expansion of U.S. access to military bases in Colombia in 2009. And many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment (including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) did not appreciate the Brazilian government’s role in helping to arrange a nuclear fuel swap arrangement to settle the dispute with Iran in 2010, despite the fact that it was actually done at Washington’s suggestion.

Washington’s Cold War never ended in Latin America, and now they see their opportunity for “rollback.” Brazil is a big prize, as is evidenced by the new foreign minister in the interim government. He is José Serra, who ran unsuccessfully for president against first Lula (2002) and Dilma (2010), and is expected to use his current position — if this government survives — as a springboard for a third shot at the presidency.

In his 2010 presidential campaign, Serra went to unusual lengths to demonstrate his loyalty to Washington. He accused the Bolivian government of Evo Morales of being an accomplice to drug traffickers and attacked Lula’s government for its attempts to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. He also criticized them for joining the rest of the region in refusing to recognize the post-coup Honduran government, and campaigned against Venezuela as well.

This is the kind of guy that Washington wants, very badly, in charge of Brazil’s foreign policy. Although corporations are obviously a big player in U.S. foreign policy, and they literally do much of the writing of commercial agreements like NAFTA and the TPP, the number one guiding principle in Washington’s foreign policy apparatus is not short-term profit but power. The biggest decision-makers, all the way up to the White House, care first and foremost about getting other countries to line up with U.S. foreign policy. They did not support the consolidation of the Honduran military coup because Honduran President Mel Zelaya raised the minimum wage, but because he headed a vulnerable left government that was part of the same broad alliance that included Brazil under the PT. These governments all supported each other, and they changed the norms of the region so that even non-left governments like Colombia under Juan Manuel Santos mostly went along with the others.

That is what Washington wants to change right now, and there is much excitement in This Town about the prospects for “a new regional order,” which is really the old regional order of the 20th century. It won’t succeed — even by their own measures of success — any more than George W. Bush succeeded in his vision of reshaping the Middle East by invading Iraq. But they could help facilitate a lot of damage trying.


Patrick Bond is an advocate of the notion that the BRICS countries are sub-imperialist; ie that they may not be as mighty as the main imperial power as the US, but that it is only their relative lack of power which prevents them from oppressing other nations in the same way as the US does. Where they can, they will.

But he runs into a difficulty when the governments of the BRICS (at least some of them) can be ousted with the backing of the US or its connivance, or when US courts can help to impose huge exactions on them. Of course, there is no possibility of reciprocal action by them against the US precisely because the US is the sole imperial hegemon.

So, lacking any support for his original thesis from actual events he resorts to increased invective against these governments and their (often genuine) failings.But invective is not analysis. As he admits, the S African government can only do what it does because it is accepted by the US. The same applies to Brazilian intervention in Haiti.

When regional powers act in a way contrary to US interests we have regime change. Welcome to the real world, with one dominant imperial power.