Brazil’s “Second Chance”: Shaping a Way Ahead Beyond Corruption


2015-10-20 By Kenneth Maxwell

Lincoln Gordon, former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, wrote a book called Brazil’s Second Chance which was published by the Brooking’s Institution in Washington DC in 2004.

Gordon had been a visiting fellow at Brooking’s for many years. He is famous (or rather notorious) in Brazil for his role during the military coup of 1964. He always struggled subsequently with what he did, or did not do, during that pivotal year. He was even obliged to write a supplement to his book in response to newly declassified documents. Lincoln Gordon died in 2009 at the age of 96.

The Brazilian military regime predates by a decade the military dictatorships’, which came to dominate the southern come of South America after General Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in September 1973.

What happened in Brazil in 1964, as well as the U.S. reaction to the Brazilian military regime, however, proved to be model for the later dictatorships in the southern come of Latin America.

Lincoln Gordon maintained that his actions had been badly misinterpreted. His aim had been (bizarrely as this must seem today in the light of subsequent history) to defend democracy in Brazil not to destroy it. He always argued that João Goulart (Jango) posed a communist threat, and that this justified the way in which the U.S. embraced the coup with embarrassing, and almost preemptive, enthusiasm.

A former Harvard professor of government and political economy, Lincoln Gordon, like many Harvard professors at the time, greatly admired President John F. Kennedy, a Harvard graduate, who had appointed him to be the US ambassador to Brazil. Gordon came to the job with impressive credentials.

Among many other achievements, Dr. Kenneth Maxwell was the first holder of the Chair of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University. Credit Image: Bigstock
Among many other achievements, Dr. Kenneth Maxwell was the first holder of the Chair of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University.
Credit Image: Bigstock

He had been a very young administrator of the Marshall Plan in London and Paris, where he had been centrally involved in the democratic reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War. He was to be the principal agent in Brazil for Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress”, and his appointment demonstrated how critical Gordon was to Kennedy’s plan to provide a democratic anti-communist alternative in Latin America.

Lincoln Gordon was a classic Cold War liberal, and as such, like President Kennedy, he saw Brazil as the next and most important target for an expanding Castro revolution in the Americas.

But in 1963 Lincoln Gordon was right about one thing.

The Brazilian military coup was welcomed not only by the U.S. government, then run by Lyndon Johnson, who had become president after the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, but also by many Brazilians, including many leading politicians.

There were always important civilian supporters of the Brazilian generals, and they remained important participants in the political process after the generals ceded power.

A very similar phenomenon was true about the end of military rule when those who had supported the rule of the generals became active participants in the newly established civilian led regime, including, most notably José Sarney, who had only shifted his position towards the end of military rule, and who became, following the unanticipated death of Tancredo Neves, the first civilian president of the first post military government.

Lincoln Gordon was, however, relatively sanguine about Brazil’s prospects when he published Brazil’s Second Chance in 2004. He thought Brazil would make it this time. He based his judgment on a technical analysis of what Brazil had experienced economically since 1964.

But he ended with a caveat: Political reform was needed to fully consolidate these gains.

He did not mention corruption.

The state run oil company Petrobras which is at the center of the current political and corruption scandal only got a passing nod. He had very little to say about the judiciary which now provides the Brazilian federal judge, Sergio Moro, who with his team of prosecutors in Curitiba, Parana, has almost single handedly unraveled the whole sorry mess.

Tancredo Neves in the month after his (indirect) election as the first post-military regime president in 1984, and before his unexpected death, had gone out of his way to travel the world, including to the US, to preempt any potential concerns.

At a critical moment when foreign interference might well have clouded the horizon for the democratic transition in Brazil, as well as damaging the prospects for prospective democratic transitions elsewhere in South America, the US administration, then run by the Republican, Ronald Reagan, reacted positively.

The Pinochet regime for example lasted until 1990, but its legitimacy in the eyes of outsiders, and most especially of the US, was severely compromised after Brazil successfully re-established civilian rule peacefully in 1985.

The irony of all this is that the current crisis in Brazil comes when another Harvard educated liberal democrat is back in the White House.

Barack Obama is no Cold War macho liberal like Jack Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson to be sure. He is much more a “shrinking violet” as far a foreign engagements are concerned, at least to his Republican Party critics, and evidently also to Vladimir Putin. And Obama has certainly lanced the boil, which has bedeviled U.S. relationships in the hemisphere by taking steps to end the diplomatic standoff with Cuba.

But Obama is also a Harvard educated liberal democrat and his relationships with Brazil has been clouded by the cyber-spying by the U.S.’s NSA on Dilma Rousseff’s cell phone and on Petrobras, according to Edward Snowden’s revelations.

And U.S. influence in Brazil is now exercised, for better or worse, less by the White House, and more by the U.S. Federal Courts and Federal Prosecutors, as well as the Justice Department, and by the FBI, all acting in ways that are at times independent of (a largely absent) U.S. White House policy.

And acting in ways, which can actually (and perhaps ironically) help Brazil deal with its crisis of corruption, which is international in scope.

Eduardo Campos, the former governor of Pernambuco state in northeastern Brazil, in his last interview before he was killed in a plane crash during the presidential campaign last year, said: “We are not giving up on Brazil.”

Was then Lincoln Gordon’s relative optimism in “Brazil’s Second Chance” misplaced?

Certainly many of the old ambiguities about democracy in Brazil have returned with a vengeance. As have many of the old demons, which have led to the collective evasion about the role individuals, played before, during, and after, the military regime.

And which also led to the convoluted rationalizations of those who like Lincoln Gordon, beloved they were defending democracy while effectively ending it.

All of which demonstrates how the Brazilian elite has an infinite capacity to negotiate the un-negotiable and to pretend that nothing has changed and that everything remains the same.

Or put, another way, have democratic (small D) contributions have more positive impact on Brazil than Democratic (large D) policy intrusions from Harvard liberals?

Editor’s Note: Among many other achievements, Dr. Kenneth Maxwell was the first holder of the Chair of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University.