The US Should Learn From Brazil and Actually Punish Its Coup Plotters

The riots in Brazil have drawn Jan. 6 comparisons, but they’re even more reminiscent of a different episode: the Bolivian coup that liberals misguidedly backed. Another big difference from Jan. 6: Brazil is actually prosecuting its high-level coup plotters.

A demonstrator is escorted away as a camp of supporters of Brazil’s far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro that had been set up in front of the army headquarters in Brasilia, Brazil, is dismantled on January 9, 2023. (Mauro Pimentel / AFP via Getty Images)

The scenes out of Brazil this past week have drawn comparisons to the Donald Trump–induced US Capitol riot of 2021, with hundreds of supporters of far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro storming and vandalizing Brazil’s congress, supreme court, and presidential palace, convinced that left-wing president Lula da Silva didn’t really win the election.

But we should remember that January 6 wasn’t the first of the coup attempts that have sprung up in reaction to every inch forward of Latin America’s second Pink Tide. That distinction belongs, rather, to the successful Bolivian coup of 2019, which was enabled, backed, and legitimized by the same US press outlets decrying Trump and his supporters’ actions and by US-dominated institutions like the Organization of American States (OAS).

Sunday’s events followed a different course than past examples of right-wing coups in Brazil. In the most recent such case, the Brazilian right took power thanks to a legal coup, in which accusations of fiscal irresponsibility and trumped-up corruption charges were used to impeach then-sitting president Dilma Rousseff and imprison current president Lula before he could launch a second presidential campaign. In times past, the abrogation of Brazil’s democracy had been principally a matter of the military seizing power.

The playbook was a little different this time: first, the pro-Bolsonaro Brazilian Federal Highway Police carried out a not-very-subtle voter suppression effort on Election Day, before the losing candidate baselessly alleged voter fraud that supposedly rendered his opponent’s win illegitimate. Then, on Sunday came the flood of rank-and-file Bolsonaristas ransacking the halls of power, easily bypassing the meager security meant to deter them, with some officers taking selfies and chatting amiably with members of the mob. (Though, to be fair, since it’s Brazil, calls for the military to intervene have been a running feature throughout.)

This is all very much a Brazilian version of what happened in Bolivia nearly four years ago, when a late influx of vote tallies — not unlike the kind that put Joe Biden over the top in 2020 — put left-wing incumbent Evo Morales’s lead beyond the margin needed to take the election to a runoff. As the Right baselessly charged election fraud — bogus charges that gained crucial legitimacy from the backing of the OAS and the establishment US press and by the European Union’s subsequent recognition of the coup government — the country was paralyzed for days by often-violent mass protests and a police mutiny, which saw some officers shake hands with and join the protesters. Before long, the officers guarding the presidential palace abandoned their posts, and Morales, at the suggestion of the military, resigned and fled.

Saying that this was backed by the liberal press, by the way, is not a flippant exaggeration. As it blamed “the arrogance of the populist” for the episode and chided leftist leaders for terming it a coup, the New York Times Editorial Board affirmed that what happened to Morales was one of those situations where “forcing him out often becomes the only remaining option.” Using the event to take a customary shot at then UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for condemning the coup, the liberal Guardian’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour blithely charged there’d’ been “ballot stuffing.” The Washington Post Editorial Board, meanwhile, stressed “it was not a coup in the usual sense” before arguing that Morales “was ultimately responsible for the chaos,” partly because “he was unable to accept that a majority of Bolivians wanted him to leave office.”

Even the “straight” reporting on the coup tended to foreground and lend credence to the Right’s nonsense fraud claims, arguably even more damaging than the opinion writing. This kind of thing went on for a shockingly long amount of time, even after several studies came out debunking claims of electoral fraud in Bolivia’s, some of them covered in the very papers that continued to support the coup narrative. It all looked particularly hypocritical once these same press outlets turned around and started painting Trump’s similar but far less competent coup attempt a year or so later in completely different terms.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. Would right-wing efforts to overturn their election losses across Latin America still have happened without all this Western support? Probably. But it’s hard to argue that the backing the Bolivian coup got from both left-hating conservatives and misguided liberals in the West didn’t play a role in emboldening these antidemocratic forces nor in helping them succeed in Bolivia. This didn’t necessary happen because of the malign motives of Western leaders and press outlets, but because of their self-imposed ideological blinkers, namely an unsophisticated blanket hostility to all types of “populism,” one which equated the principled socialism of left-wing leaders like Jeremy Corbyn with the predatory cruelty of far rightists like Trump.

There’s another lesson we in the West can learn from Bolivia and Brazil, which have both moved, to different extents, to ensure their respective coup plotters actually face legal consequences for what they’ve done.

The Bolivian government recently sentenced its coup president to ten years in prison and just arrested another coup leader. Brazil, meanwhile, has arrested Bolsonaro’s former justice minister and security chief for the capital at the time of the riot, arrested the man who served as commander in chief of the federal military police during the incident, and are investigating the agribusiness-linked financiers of the riot — though it has, so far, not requested Bolsonaro’s extradition from Florida, despite Lula personally blaming him for what happened. The judge who issued the arrest warrants argued that “in such a sensitive moment for Brazilian democracy . . . one cannot use the excuse of ignorance or incompetence.” (Incidentally, institutions from the Times and the Post to the Guardian and Human Rights Watch had roundly condemned Bolivia’s prosecution of its coup plotters as “revenge justice” and a “lawless course” that would lead to dictatorship).

You couldn’t get a starker contrast to the United States, where the elites who plotted to steal the 2020 election have, as usual, faced no real accountability apart from being used as Democratic Party campaign fodder, and punishment has overwhelmingly focused on low-level trespassers and rioters. Even more ominously, while Brazil is at least trying to hold those responsible for the day’s security failure to account, with Lula outright accusing security forces of “incompetence, bad faith or malice,” US elected officials have actually worked to shield security officials from scrutiny and consequences for their own similar, highly suspicious failures. And as for the oligarchs who financed Trump’s attempt to overturn the election? Not only did nothing happen to them — they’ve quietly gone right back to throwing money at election deniers.

The events of January 6 were no doubt one inspiration for what’s happened in Brazil. But that episode was itself prefigured and arguably made possible by a Latin American coup backed not just by a far-right US administration but by European governments and much of the liberal US establishment. We should reckon with this not only to prevent future antidemocratic blowback in the United States. Instead of leaving the coup attempts in Brazil and Bolivia as models for homegrown coup plotters, maybe we can actually see their governments as models for how to effectively respond.