Will Brazil's Generals Return to Power? They Say No
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President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s fondness for Brazil’s former military dictatorship is sparking concerns he will return the country to that past.
By Andres Schipani & Joe Leahy
Brazil’s senior military leaders are moving to calm concerns that the incoming presidency of far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro will usher in the return of the armed forces to power in the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
The election of Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has expressed nostalgia for the country’s 1964–85 military dictatorship, did not “represent a return of the military to power,” says Gen. Eduardo Dias da Costa Villas Bôas, commander of the Brazilian army. “The military has been absent from politics since 1985, after the end of the military government, and that’s how it intends to maintain itself, independent of whether the president-elect is a retired captain from our Brazilian army,” he adds.
Once a fringe dweller in Brazil’s Congress for his views endorsing the country’s former military rule, including its use of torture, Bolsonaro has sought to allay concerns about his democratic credentials after winning elections late last month. Although he has a strong base of far-right supporters, his victory was also seen as a referendum on the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), which was bidding for a fifth consecutive presidency.
The PT presided over the country’s worst recession, biggest corruption scandal and a rising homicide rate in its last years in power, leading many voters to favor Bolsonaro’s promises of greater security and a return to traditional “family values.”
There’s an evident risk above all because of the indisposition of the president-elect as regards democracy.
Francisco Martinho, historian, University of São Paulo
But Bolsonaro’s radical past rhetoric, disparaging remarks about gays, women and Black people, and verbal attacks against leftist foes has led some to fear the veteran congressman would lean toward authoritarianism when he takes office on Jan. 1.
“For me there’s an evident risk above all because of the indisposition of the president-elect as regards democracy,” says Francisco Martinho, a historian of conservative and authoritarian governments at the University of São Paulo. He says the test would come when Bolsonaro is faced with a moment of civil tension, such as a strike or legal challenge.
Since winning the election, Bolsonaro has sought to underline his commitment to Brazil’s democratic Constitution, appearing in Congress recently at a ceremony to mark the 30 years of its existence. “In a democracy there is only one north, that of the constitution,” he told lawmakers while holding a copy of the document.
Villas Bôas says the country was “politically mature,” with strong institutions. “Brazil will not turn into a fascist country. That’s not in our nature,” he says. “The armed forces adopted the democratic axis of the federal constitution. There is not space for exotic adventures.”
Military officers are hopeful the new government will provide them with more resources, particularly for patrolling Brazil’s vast land frontier. According to World Bank data, the country is already home to the largest armed forces in Latin America, followed by Colombia, which was fighting a Marxist insurgency until 2016.
Bolsonaro is making use of those armed forces, having named former generals as possible ministers, including retired Gen. Augusto Heleno as national security adviser.
Referring to suggestions from some quarters that the presence of generals in the Cabinet could signal a resurgence of military rule, Heleno says: “That is so much nonsense — it is not even worth considering.”
He points out that there were already generals serving on the Cabinet of incumbent President Michel Temer and also in the United States. “The country invests a lot in its military in terms of intellectual preparation, strategic knowledge, political knowledge and principally knowledge of Brazil,” Heleno says, adding that this expertise could be put to use in government.
Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College, agreed that having a Brazilian president “that once served as a junior officer and admires the military” would not bring about a return to military rule in Brazil, any more than U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointments, such as retired Gen. John Kelly as chief of staff or H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, “has brought about militarization in the U.S.”
Some of Bolsonaro’s proposals could, however, face opposition from his erstwhile colleagues in the military, including moving the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, analysts say. Such a move would rile trading partners in Muslim countries in the Middle East and also Brazil’s own extensive Arab communities.
Military officers also dismiss expressions of hostility among some in Brazil’s far-right toward socialist Venezuela, which is engulfed in economic crisis, and talk that the border between the two nations would be shut. “Closing the border is a utopia,” Heleno says, adding that Brazil would remain open to help Venezuelan refugees.
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