On July 25, 43 Democratic members of the US House of Representatives wrote to Secretary of State Kerry. The letter began:
We write to express our deep concern regarding recent developments in Brazil that we believe threaten that country’s democratic institutions. We urge you to exercise the utmost caution in your dealings with Brazil’s interim authorities and to refrain from statements or actions that might be interpreted as supportive of the impeachment campaign launched against President Dilma Rousseff.
Our government should express strong concern regarding the circumstances surrounding the impeachment process and call for the protection of constitutional democracy and the rule of law in Brazil.
On Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) also weighed in, noting, “After suspending Brazil’s first female president on dubious grounds, without a mandate to govern the new interim government abolished the ministry of women, racial equality and human rights.” He added: “The United States cannot sit silently while the democratic institutions of one of our most important allies are undermined.”
It is extremely rare to see this type of challenge to the policy of an administration from members of Congress of the same party, over a country as big and important as Brazil. In dealing with such a country, with a land mass that is bigger than the continental United States, more than 200 million people, and the seventh largest economy in the world, it is normal for Democratic legislators to defer to their Democratic president, especially in an election year.
Perhaps they did this because they know that the Obama administration is supporting this impeachment. A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently told me that this was indeed the case, and there has been other evidence that this is true.
At a press briefing on August 3, the State Department said that Kerry would respond to the congressional letter. No written answer has yet been received, but Kerry may have provided a nonverbal one by meeting with the interim government’s foreign minister, José Serra, during his current trip to Brazil. If this is his answer to the members of Congress, it is the equivalent of a raised middle finger.
Kerry didn’t have the gall to meet with Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer. A large majority of Brazilians want him to resign rather than complete the two and a half year remaining in the presidential term that he is occupying. But if the Brazilian Senate votes to convict President Dilma Rousseff later this month, Temer would be president through 2018. Temer was not even introduced at the Olympics, spoke for about 10 seconds, and according to the Washington Post, was then loudly booed. He has already been convicted for violating election finance laws and banned from running for office for eight years, and is implicated in other scandals.
By meeting with Serra, and issuing joint statements on a range of issues together after the meeting, Kerry is once again showing support for a government of dubious legitimacy. After all, Serra was not chosen by an elected president. In fact, a constitutional argument can be made that the interim president, Temer ― who was vice president prior to the impeachment ― shouldn’t even be choosing a whole new cabinet of people who seek to chart an entirely different course for the country (not coincidentally, a cabinet of all rich, white males). The elected president has not been dismissed; she is only suspended pending the outcome of a trial in the Senate. Therefore, the interim government should be a caretaker government, not acting like an elected government that just won a landslide political mandate.
By meeting with Serra, Kerry is helping to legitimize what many people in Brazil and throughout the world consider a right-wing coup d’état. He could easily have avoided meeting with Serra, just as he avoided the reviled Temer. So this is not a matter of protocol or diplomacy. Kerry has joined the interim government in a grand pretense: that it is already the constitutional government of the country, as though Dilma had already been convicted by the Senate. (In fact, the federal prosecutor assigned to the case concluded a few weeks ago that Dilma did not even commit a crime.)
Kerry is choosing sides in a polarized political situation. And he is choosing the side of a right-wing cabal of corrupt politicians, who ― according to leaked transcripts of phone calls ― are attempting to oust the elected president in order to shield themselves from further investigation and possible conviction of crimes.
This is a rotten thing for a US Secretary of State to do in the 21st century. Many Brazilians remember the role that Washington played in the 1964 military coup that brought them more than two decades of nasty dictatorship, under which Dilma’s predecessor, Lula Da Silva, was jailed, and Dilma herself was tortured. In case anybody missed the historical umbilical cord connecting that coup to the current one, as Glenn Greenwald noted, one of the pro-impeachment representatives in Brazil’s congress “explicitly praised the military dictatorship and pointedly hailed Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the dictatorship’s chief torturer (notably responsible for Dilma’s torture).”
The Obama administration’s response to this coup will also be remembered for a long time, and it will likely affect relations with future Brazilian governments. In the meantime, 43 members of the US Congress are still waiting for John Kerry’s written response to their letter.
Originally published in The Hill.