The US and Brazil: A Complicated Partnership
There were a few nervous chuckles around the National Security Archive yesterday after news broke that Brazilian hackers targeted a NASA website in misdirected retaliation for the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying on the South American nation. Despite targeting the wrong website (luckily not the Archive’s), the hackers’ frustration is echoed across Brazil, one of the most outspoken critics of the NSA’s surveillance practices. After Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled her visit to Washington because of NSA activities, it’s worth revisiting the complex, oftentimes rocky, bilateral relationship to keep current tensions in perspective.
While relations have traditionally been distant, the US-Brazilian partnership that emerged during the early 1970s nonetheless shaped South America’s democratic development in profound ways. Specifically, the US and Brazil colluded both to rig the 1971 Uruguayan presidential election, and to overthrow the democratically elected Chilean government. Declassified documents from those years demonstrate not only how both nations actions’ empowered the “rise of dictatorship in Chile,” they also show just how unscrupulous both American and Brazilian leaders could be.
In 2009 the Archive posted a Top Secret December 9, 1971, memorandum of conversation (memcon) between President Richard Nixon and Brazilian President Emilio Garrastazú Médici discussing Brazil’s role in overthrowing Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile. The memcon notes Nixon offered support for Brazilian intervention in Chile, stating, “[t]he President said that it was very important that Brazil and the United States work closely in this field… If money were required or other discreet aid, we might be able to make it available. This should be held in the greatest confidence.” Despite top-level agreement between the two leaders, a CIA memorandum from later that month noted that the secret talks between the Brazilian and American leaders concerned some Brazilian officers, especially General Vicente Dale Coutinho. Coutinho argued that “the United States obviously wants Brazil to ‘do the dirty work’” in South America.
A December 20, 1971, Top Secret memcon supports General Coutinho’s belief that the US encouraged Brazil to get its hands dirty on the US’s behalf. The December 20 memcon details Nixon’s meeting with British Prime Minister Edward Heath, and illuminates the US taking advantage of Brazil’s shared concern that leftist groups not succeed in Uruguay as they had in Chile with Salvador Allende’s election. Nixon’s policy on South America was frank, he said: “[o]ur position is supported by Brazil, which is after all the key to the future…The Brazilians helped rig the Uruguayan election… There are forces at work which we are not discouraging.”
This perspective doesn’t justify the NSA’s surveillance practices or mitigate Brazil’s frustrations, but history suggests that US-Brazilian relations will weather the storm, even if relations remain cool. For a closer look at the events of the early 1970s, visit the Archive’s website.