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A State Department spokesperson repeatedly refused to comment on the momentous political crisis in Brazil during his daily press briefing on Friday — in almost ludicrous contrast to his long and loquacious criticisms of neighboring Venezuela.
When questioned on the stark contrast, increasingly exasperated department spokesperson Mark Toner replied, “I just — again, I don’t have anything to comment on the ongoing political dimensions of the crisis there. I don’t.”
Watch the spokesperson’s responses below:
The State Department has long been eager to criticize Venezuela’s left-wing government, which has pursued policies antagonistic to global corporations. In contrast, it has been silent about the takeover of Brazil by a staunchly right-wing, pro-business government that is making the privatization of state industry a priority.
Friday’s exchange began when The Intercept asked Toner why the U.S. has been joining in regional criticisms of Venezuela’s democratic backsliding but has ignored Brazil’s political crisis, where right-wing lawmakers voted on May 12 to suspend the elected government and open impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff.
“I’m not aware of the particular allegations that you’ve raised. … We believe it is a strong democracy,” Toner replied.
“Do strong democracies allow the military to spy on political opponents?” we followed up, pointing to recent reports that the new administration is spying on the former government. When Toner again deflected, saying he didn’t “have any details” about the surveillance, veteran Associated Press State Department reporter Matt Lee jumped into the fray, asking if the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff was itself “valid.”
Toner continued to deflect, affirming U.S. confidence in Brazilian institutions.
But when Pam Dawkins of Voice of America asked about Venezuela and “the state of democracy there” in light of the delay of a proposed recall referendum put forth by the country’s opposition, Toner’s tone changed dramatically.
In a response that went on for two full minutes, Toner got all moralistic, asking Venezuela to respect democratic norms. “We call on Venezuela’s authorities to allow this [proposed recall referendum] process to move forward in a timely fashion, and we encourage the appropriate institutions to ensure that Venezuelans can exercise their right to participate in this process in keeping with Venezuela’s democratic institutions, practices, and principles consistent with the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
Lee felt obliged to note the contrast. “You just — those are two very long responses, critical responses, about the situation in Venezuela,” he said. “And yet Brazil, which is a much bigger country and with — a country with which you have enjoyed better relations merits, what, two sentences?”
“I just — again, I don’t have anything to comment on the ongoing political dimensions of the crisis there. I don’t,” Toner stated.
“But you — you have plenty to say about the political situation in Venezuela.”
“We do,” Toner replied.
“Why is that?” Lee followed up.
“Well, we’re just — we’re very concerned about the current …” Toner started, before being interrupted by Lee once more.
“Why aren’t you very concerned about Brazil?” Lee probed.
“Again — well, look, I’ve said my piece. I mean, I don’t have anything to add.”
Another reporter then jumped into the fracas, asking Toner if the composition of the new Brazilian cabinet — it is composed entirely of men, many of them tied to large industries in the country, and replaces the cabinet led by the first female leader in Brazil’s history — raised any concerns.
“Look, guys, I will see if we have anything more to say about the situation in Brazil,” Toner concluded.
As popular pressure mounts against the nascent, scandal-plagued interim government of Michel Temer, a final vote on impeachment may occur as early as next month.