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Former U.S. consul in Rio de Janeiro raises new alarms about Brazil's Bolsonaro

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been called the Trump of the tropics. He won his first election easily but is facing a tough reelection this fall. And now he's been casting doubt on Brazil's election system, making claims very similar to false claims that former President Trump has made about U.S. elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Through interpreter) We want clean and auditable elections. I can't participate in a farce backed by the president of the electoral court.

FLORIDO: These sorts of attacks have Scott Hamilton very worried. Hamilton was the U.S. consul in Rio de Janeiro until last year. After retiring from the State Department last week, he published a stinging op-ed in Brazil's largest newspaper. And he joins us now. Scott Hamilton, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SCOTT HAMILTON: Thank you so much, Adrian.

FLORIDO: In your piece, you said that Bolsonaro has a messianic vision and that he's sabotaging the integrity of his country's democratic process ahead of October's elections. What have you seen?

HAMILTON: Well, when I was in Rio, I saw President Bolsonaro do a number of things that caused me tremendous concern. He attacked the judges as partisan figures who cannot be trusted. He criticized the outstanding electronic voting system in Brazil. He castigated the media as purveyors of fake news. He lambasted civil society. He also said that only fraud or God will remove him from office. And most recently, Mr. Bolsonaro has said that the military in Brazil must be involved in running a parallel vote count. So taken individually, none of those things are normal. But taken collectively, I think they should have alarm bells ringing in Washington.

FLORIDO: Is your fear that he might refuse to vacate the presidency should he lose the election?

HAMILTON: I do, frankly. I think our mismanagement of the relationship with Brazil during the Bolsonaro administration under both presidents Trump and Biden means that we are risking sleepwalking to disaster as Brazil prepares to hold these elections. I think Bolsonaro is thinking very hard about whether he will leave office or not.

FLORIDO: Well, you wrote in your piece that the U.S. has been too passive and that it needs to speak up now about this. What do you think the U.S. government should be saying? And should they be saying it publicly?

HAMILTON: I think, starting even a couple of years ago, we should have been telling Mr. Bolsonaro that the electoral system in that country was one that should not be intimidated in the manner in which he was seeking to do. More than that, I think, we should also have been far more public about visiting with the independent democratic institutions in Brazil, like the supreme court, like the electoral tribunal, and making it clear that we have confidence in their professionalism and integrity.

FLORIDO: You published this column shortly after retiring from the State Department. But I have to ask, when you were the U.S. consul in Rio, how strongly did you raise these sorts of alarms to colleagues in Washington or to counterparts in the Brazilian government?

HAMILTON: I raised it three times before I left Brazil. I raised it first in around June of 2020 with our ambassador, Ambassador Chapman. And when I had that discussion with him, he made it very clear that he was not persuaded that there was an issue. I raised it again a few days after President Biden was inaugurated in January in a written form to the ambassador again. And that got no response at all, nothing whatsoever. And so when I left Brazil in July of last year, I wrote again to half a dozen senior officials in Washington and in Brasilia. And I only got one response to that note, which was favorable, indicating that it would be forwarded to others in the government. But if such messages have been passed to Bolsonaro, I'm not aware.

FLORIDO: How is your article being received by everyday Brazilians? What have you heard from people you know there?

HAMILTON: I think that Brazilian society is about as polarized as the United States. And so there are, quite clearly, a large number of people who share my view. On the other hand, of course, there are people who feel Bolsonaro has been sent by God to save the country from communism and that any effort to get in his way of that mission is inappropriate and unwarranted. And so I suspect there are plenty of people who would strongly disagree.

FLORIDO: Scott Hamilton was the U.S. consul in Rio de Janeiro from 2018 until 2021. Thank you for joining us.

HAMILTON: Thank you so much, Adrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAJDAR JUNAID'S "DASTAAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Roberta Rampton is NPR's White House editor. She joined the Washington Desk in October 2019 after spending more than six years as a White House correspondent for Reuters. Rampton traveled around America and to more than 20 countries covering President Trump, President Obama and their vice presidents, reporting on a broad range of political, economic and foreign policy topics. Earlier in her career, Rampton covered energy and agriculture policy.