Members of Congress are raising the alarm about the potential for a violent crackdown in Brazil, as the country hurtles toward the second round presidential vote on October 28. Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who has recently threatened to jail political opponents and unleash a wave of extrajudicial executions of alleged criminals, appears all but assured to win the vote and take the presidency.
In response to the simmering crisis, several representatives in the U.S. are calling on the State Department to remain vigilant about the potential for the breakdown of Brazilian civil society.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., is circulating a letter among colleagues calling for a robust response to any human rights violations on the horizon.
“As you may be aware, Mr. Bolsonaro regularly praises Brazil’s former military dictatorship, has been charged with hate speech toward minority groups and said that he will not recognize the election results if he loses,” the letter, addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, states. “In response, we ask that you make it clear to the government of Brazil that the United States of America finds these positions unacceptable and that there will be severe consequences if Mr. Bolsonaro follows through on his threats during the presidential campaign.”
“With a leading presidential candidate who is calling for widespread purges, the militarization of the entire country and who promises to stack his cabinet with military officers,” the letter further notes, “it is not inconceivable that Brazil could return to the dark authoritarian days of its recent past.”
The letter is still collecting signatures on Capitol Hill. So far Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc.; José Serrano, D-N.Y.; Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.; Frank Pallone, D-N.J.; Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif.; Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; Hank Johnson, D-Ga; Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill; Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.; Jim McGovern, D-Mass.; Bobby Rush, D-Ill.; Jamie Raskin, D-Md.; Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; and Alma Adams, D-N.C., have all signed on. In addition, the letter was endorsed by a number of nongovernmental groups, including the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Just Foreign Policy, the union umbrella AFL-CIO, Washington Office on Latin America, United Steelworkers, and the United Auto Workers.
The letter’s co-signers are overwhelmingly members of the House Progressive Caucus, left-leaning members who have been increasingly outspoken on foreign policy. Members of the caucus pressured Democratic leadership to revoke U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led war in Yemen, citing lack of congressional authorization and the increasing death toll from the conflict.
If Democrats take control of the House of Representatives this election cycle, as many polls predict, the Progressive Caucus is likely to swell in numbers to its largest in history, providing lawmakers with a substantial voice to hold the State Department and other agencies accountable. Lee, the California Democrat who signed the letter, is currently running to chair the House Democratic Caucus, the fourth-highest position in the party.
The Khanna letter strongly suggests that Democrats may exercise influence over current U.S. aid to Brazil, demanding that “U.S. assistance and cooperation with Brazil is contingent on the upholding of basic human rights and democratic values by its leaders.”
The U.S. has provided Brazil with at least $17 million in defense and law enforcement assistance since 2012, according to Security Assistance Monitor, a nonprofit watchdog group. The assistance includes training for police and the transfer of excess U.S. military stockpiles to Brazilian security forces.
Bolsonaro has said he wants to give police officers free rein to kill, noting that an officer who “kills 10, 15, or 20 with 10 or 30 bullets each” should receive a “a medal and not be prosecuted.” He has also pledged to loosen restrictions for gun ownership, a promise that has sent the share price for Forjas Taurus, the largest gun manufacturer in Brazil, soaring in recent weeks. But Brazil, notably, is among the top importers of small arms, such as handguns and rifles, another area in which lawmakers could conceivably apply pressure.
The letter also lists a number of politically motivated murders in recent weeks in Brazil, noting that the country is on edge not only from Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, but also from “a massive false news campaign on social media, which has reportedly received millions of dollars of illicit funding from private sector actors.”
Many of the “fake news” articles have been distributed through WhatsApp, the chat platform owned by Facebook. The misinformation has been a pervasive problem despite the Menlo Park, California-based company’s promises to open an election “war room” to combat its spread. Citing the misinformation, the Khanna letter suggests that Congress may demand answers from Facebook about the problem.
Update: October 25, 2018, 7:57 p.m. EST
This story has been updated to include five additional members of Congress who signed the letter after the story was published.