The military is back in Brazilian politics

Mauro Pimentel, AFP | Members of the Brazil Armed Forces patrol during an operation inside the favelas of Chapeu-Mangueira and Babilonia at Leme neighbourhood, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 21, 2018.

More than 30 years after Brazil’s junta left power, the consensus that the military should stay out of politics has been broken, amid widespread dissatisfaction with the political class after several years of corruption scandals and economic turmoil.


The frontrunner in October’s general elections, Jair Bolsonaro – whose lurid far-right proclamations have earned him the moniker “the tropical Trump” – is a former military officer who has made numerous laudatory comments about the junta that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

Giving a speech in parliament before voting in favour of the impeachment of the then centre-left president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, Bolsonaro announced that he was dedicating his vote to the memory of Colonel Brilhante Ustra, a former head of the military dictatorship’s internal intelligence agency, which was responsible for torturing Rousseff in the 1970s, when she was imprisoned for guerilla activities.

Bolsonaro has consistently expressed a glowing view of military rule since he was first elected as a lawmaker in 1991. Most notably, he declared in 1999 that if he became president, he would use it as an opportunity to shut down parliament and launch a military coup: “I have no doubts – I would start the coup on the very first day – […] let’s make this a dictatorship.”

‘It will bring trouble’

Bolsonaro picked as his running mate Antonio Hamilton Mourao, a former general who retired from the military earlier this year. In 2017, Mourao said that senior military figures had talked about overthrowing the government in a coup, if the courts did not punish corrupt politicians.

“Either the institutions solve the political problem through the courts, removing those elements involved in illegal acts from public life, or we will have to impose the solution,” he said in a speech at a Masonic lodge in Brasilia.

“We have very well-made plans,” Mourao continued. “This solution won’t be easy. It will bring trouble, you can be sure of that.”

Political comments by serving military officers are forbidden by Brazilian law. However, when questioned by a journalist about Mourao’s speech, the head of the army, Eduardo Villas Boas described him as a “great soldier” and insisted that the military has a constitutional right to “intervene” if Brazil is “on the edge of chaos”.

Villas Boas’s statement was untruthful. The Brazilian constitution does not give the army the authority to intervene in such situations.

Signs say 'military intervention now' in 2015 protest against then President Dilma Rousseff
Nelson Almeida, AFP | Demonstrators hold signs reading "Military intervention now" as they rally to protest against the government of president Dilma Rousseff in Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo Brazil on 15 March 2015.

‘People are thinking of a coup as desirable’

Analysts say that the idea of a coup has sizeable support amongst a largely disillusioned Brazilian electorate.

“People are thinking of a coup as desirable,” said Paula Armendariz Miranda, a researcher at the University of Minnesota specialising in Latin American politics. “They think it could solve the country’s problems,” she told FRANCE 24.

A 2017 poll by Latinobarometro, which gauges political sentiments across Latin America, found that a mere 13 percent of Brazilians were happy with the state of democracy – the lowest proportion amongst the 18 countries surveyed.

“There is a large feeling that Brazilians are very dissatisfied with the country’s political class, thanks to a combination of factors, including an economic crisis and corruption crisis,” said Fernando Bizzarro, a researcher on Brazilian politics at Harvard University, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“There is even less trust than there was historically,” Bizzarro continued. “Brazilians have always been sceptical of their politicians, but never as much as they are now.”

‘The sense of crisis has led to nostalgia’

In 2014, the country entered its most severe recession ever, which lasted for three years. The same year, judicial authorities launched the Operation Car Wash investigation into money laundering among Brazil’s political and business elite, starting with Petrobras, the majority state-owned oil company.

Operation Car Wash sparked a variety of investigations into financial impropriety, leading to Rousseff’s impeachment, her popular social democratic predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva going to jail in a highly divisive verdict, and the current president, right-winger Michel Temer, facing an array of corruption allegations.

Rising violence has exacerbated feelings of disenchantment with the political class. Brazil’s murder rate hit a record in 2017, with more than 63,000 homicides – a rate of 175 per day.

In February 2018, Temer deployed troops to the state of Rio de Janeiro, in an attempt to shore up security after an upswing of violence during the Rio carnival. The general in charge of the operation said it was a “test case” for further military deployments across Brazil. For his part, Bolsonaro proposes a militarised police force, with the power to shoot and kill with impunity.

“The sense of crisis has led to nostalgia, bolstering the idea of the old military government as clean and effective,” added Juan Albarracin, a Latin American politics specialist at Icesi University in Cali, Colombia, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“Several years ago, a certain section of the population wouldn’t have bought into this narrative,” he continued. “That makes it scary. Many of these people don’t know or don’t remember how bad the military regime was.”

‘Many negative consequences’ of amnesty laws

Indeed, it seems there may be a fine line between amnesty and amnesia. Before the junta was removed from power, a law was passed protecting military government officials from crimes committed in the name of the regime.

By contrast, officers in the junta that ruled neighbouring Argentina from 1976 to 1983 were tried and prosecuted in 1985, and a 2005 Supreme Court ruling annulled the pardons they were granted in 1989.

“There is widespread evidence that amnesty laws are associated with many negative long-term consequences,” said Bizzarro. “When people who do bad things are not punished and are still around, it creates the perception that democracy is not that much different from authoritarianism.”

Thus, amnesty laws “undermine the consolidation of the rule of law, undermine the consolidation of human rights – and they undermine democracy", he continued.

Democracy ‘only game in town – for now’

Nevertheless, experts say that a coup is unlikely. “Whether it is an option or not is a question of whether political elites back it up, and I don’t think that would be possible,” said Armendariz Miranda.

Brazil’s political and economic elites “recognise that democracy is the only game in town – for now”, said Albaraccin.

Yet Bolsonaro’s approving remarks on military rule appear to give him a substantial edge as he campaigns for democratic elections. He currently tops the polls with 22 percent of the vote.

Given that unpopular figures in the Brazilian establishment, such as Rousseff, were ardent opponents of the junta, “portraying himself as pro-military dictatorship adds to Bolsonaro’s image as anti-establishment", said Bizzarro.

In addition to Bolsonaro’s run for the presidency, around 90 military veterans are standing for office at both national and regional levels, a factor that many view as a suggestion that Brazil will move even further to the right.

“The combination of an anti-establishment mood and high violence means that voters favour candidates with hardline policies,” Bizzarro argued.

If elected, the Harvard researcher continued, not only are these veterans likely to push for harsh policies on law and order, but also, “most are likely to favour socially conservative policies on issues like abortion”. Large-scale privatisations and severe cuts to welfare programmes are also on the cards.

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