How Team Biden Tried to Coup-Proof Brazil’s Elections

Sunday’s election in Brazil will be a test for more than Jair Bolsonaro’s integrity.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attend a bilateral meeting at the 9th Summit of the Americas.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attend a bilateral meeting at the 9th Summit of the Americas.
U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attend a bilateral meeting at the 9th Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on June 9. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past year, U.S. President Joe Biden has deployed top administration officials to meet with their Brazilian counterparts and convey a simple message to President Jair Bolsonaro: Don’t derail Brazil’s democracy.

Top officials from the White House, Defense Department, State Department, and even the CIA have held meetings and calls with Brazilian officials to try to head off any efforts by Bolsonaro to subvert the results of the country’s heated presidential elections.

The diplomatic surge comes as the right-wing populist Bolsonaro faces off against left-wing candidate and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a hotly contested runoff vote in what has proved to be one of the most divisive elections in the country’s history. The latest polls show Lula with a slight edge over Bolsonaro.

Over the past year, U.S. President Joe Biden has deployed top administration officials to meet with their Brazilian counterparts and convey a simple message to President Jair Bolsonaro: Don’t derail Brazil’s democracy.

Top officials from the White House, Defense Department, State Department, and even the CIA have held meetings and calls with Brazilian officials to try to head off any efforts by Bolsonaro to subvert the results of the country’s heated presidential elections.

The diplomatic surge comes as the right-wing populist Bolsonaro faces off against left-wing candidate and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a hotly contested runoff vote in what has proved to be one of the most divisive elections in the country’s history. The latest polls show Lula with a slight edge over Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro, taking a page from the playbook of former U.S. President Donald Trump, has tried to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of the upcoming vote by claiming without evidence that the country’s electronic voting system has a history of fraud and that parts of the country’s independent judiciary favor Lula in the race.

Lula beat Bolsonaro in the first round of elections in early October but failed to win by a high enough margin to avoid a second round of elections. The final vote takes place on Oct. 30. Bolsonaro has for months cast doubt on the security of Brazil’s polling machines and urged his supporters to “go to war” if the election is “stolen.”

For Team Biden, the playbook from a man sometimes called the “Trump of the Tropics” looks all too familiar. Bolsonaro’s efforts to lay the groundwork for an election challenge mirrors Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on the 2020 U.S. presidential election results, a campaign that culminated in a deadly pro-Trump mob attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, with an eye to violently overturn the election results.

Some experts and former officials believe that despite the high tensions in the hotly contested election, Brazil’s democratic institutions have strong enough guardrails to protect against any possible power grab or efforts to undermine the results by Bolsonaro.

“It will be a stress test for Brazil’s democratic institutions and one that we have never had since Brazil transformed to democracy in the 1980s,” said Pedro Abramovay, the Rio de Janeiro-based director of the Latin America program at the Open Society Foundations and a former Brazilian justice ministry official during Lula’s presidency, from 2003 to 2010.

“Brazilian democracy since the late 1980s has just gone from strength to strength,” said Michael McKinley, the U.S. ambassador to Brazil from 2017 to 2018.

Still, the U.S. diplomatic campaign in Brazil underscores how worried the Biden administration is that Bolsonaro could refuse to accept defeat in the upcoming vote and offers a window into how the post-2020 election violence at home has left its imprint on Biden’s foreign-policy team.

“There’s a parallel here with what we saw after the U.S. elections in 2020 and then Jan. 6—I think it’s made everyone’s antennae much more sensitive to these things,” said Matt Duss, a former top foreign-policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders and an incoming fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Sanders and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine passed a resolution in the U.S. Senate last month voicing support for Brazil’s democratic institutions, in a less-than-subtle signal from Congress to Bolsonaro.

For Team Biden, the diplomatic spadework began even earlier. In July 2021, just months after entering office, Biden’s CIA director, William Burns, traveled to Brazil to meet with senior Brazilian officials, and during the meeting, his delegation warned them that Bolsonaro should stop casting doubt on his country’s electoral process. It was the opening gambit in a quiet campaign by Washington to preempt any moves by Bolsonaro to undermine Brazil’s democracy, current and former officials said.

A month after Burns’s visit, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Brazil to reinforce the same warning: Don’t undermine the elections. This June, Biden’s team signaled that the U.S. president had relayed the same message again during his meeting with Bolsonaro at the high-level Summit of the Americas meeting in Los Angeles. A month after that, it was U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s turn, pushing the chief of the Brazilian armed forces to commit to upholding safe and transparent democratic elections. Bolsonaro, a former Brazilian Army captain, has tried to leverage nostalgia for the country’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 in his political campaign. (The United States provided support to Brazil’s military as it plotted the coup in 1964.)

“The Biden administration expects all candidates to respect and accept the results of free and fair elections. We have made this clear to Brazilian officials, just as we do concerning elections held in countries around the world,” a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council told Foreign Policy when asked about the matter. “We are monitoring the upcoming elections in Brazil closely. We trust the Brazilian people and have faith in the strength of Brazil’s democratic institutions.”

It remains unclear how effective the U.S. diplomatic campaign was behind the scenes, but analysts say there are some early signals it paid off. The Brazilian news outlet Estadao reported on the matter last month, suggesting that U.S. pressure may have played a hand in persuading Brazil’s armed forces not to back any unfounded claims by Bolsonaro of fraud in the first round. The Brazilian military disputed the report.

“I think it had an effect on the military,” Abramovay said. “I think it’s really hard for the Brazilian military to imagine support for any anti-democratic adventure without U.S. support.”

Experts and officials said the Biden administration has to strike a careful and delicate balance in this campaign, pressing Bolsonaro to uphold election results while avoiding any hints it would favor one candidate over the other—and all the while being mindful of Washington’s checkered past meddling in Central and South American elections during the Cold War era.

McKinley, the former U.S. ambassador, said Brazil’s democratic institutions can stand up to the high-stakes political pressure. “Over time, they have built up strong electoral tribunals that supervise elections, work with state governments, state electoral officials in a centralized system that commands tremendous credibility,” he said. That’s backstopped, he said, by a Supreme Court that enforces the rules.

“Though that does not take away from what is a very tense election underway at the moment,” McKinley added.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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