When his running mate was near-fatally knifed while campaigning this month, Brazilian vice presidential candidate Hamilton Mourão hurled diplomacy out the window. Rival presidential candidates in Brazil’s race grew unusually solemn, condemning the attack against far-right retired army captain Jair Bolsonaro, and denouncing hate and violence. No matter. “If people want to use violence, it is we,” Mourão proclaimed, referring to Brazil’s military, “who are the violence professionals.”
Mourão, 65, is a retired four-star general who has risen to heights he “never expected.” Chosen as a last-minute backup for vice president — a year after he publicly defended a military coup and earned his second army demotion — he now has a good chance at landing one seat away from Brazil’s presidency, according to the polls. Before his nomination, Mourão already symbolized the growth of military participation in Brazil’s politics as director of a training program for military and ex-military candidates. His new mission is to demonstrate approachability as a counterpart to the bombastic Bolsonaro and sell voters and the international community on the idea that two military men who laud Brazil’s dictatorship period are the best solution to a volcanic social and economic crisis.
A more fluid and less easily rattled communicator than Bolsonaro, Mourão has been repeatedly dispatched to speak with Brazil’s investment community.
Mourão’s love of the military developed during childhood, when his father’s army career shuttled the family around southern Brazil and even to a two-year stint in Washington, D.C. He enrolled in an army college in Rio de Janeiro, where, according to his friend — and now a fellow general — Eduardo Barbosa, he was “a jokester, but with very firm ideas.” With a self-professed affinity for the technical rather than academic side of military studies, Mourão eventually served missions in Angola and Venezuela and returned to domestic command of more than 50,000 men and women. His career earned him such respect inside Brazil’s army that when he announced his candidacy for president of Brazil’s Military Club — a massive, influential officer-run group — all of the competition withdrew.
During this time, Mourão also staked out his position among the ideological groups inside Brazil’s military. His cohort praises life under Brazil’s 1964–85 military regime — when the country was ruled by a series of generals and hundreds of dissidents were tortured and killed — and scoffs at the quality of civilian rule since then. The more moderate cohort, embodied by army commander Eduardo Villas Bôas, argues the military should play an auxiliary rather than leading role in governance.
Since 2014, a federal anti-corruption probe in Brazil known as “Lava Jato” (Car Wash) has revealed widespread bribery across top levels of government, fueling resentment among Mourão’s sympathizers, including civilians. “The idea that the army should return to rule is stronger in some parts of civil society than in the army itself,” says State University of Rio political scientist Maurício Santoro, who has taught international relations to aspiring Brazilian military officers since 2005. In 2015, a giant inflatable doll of Mourão began to appear at street protests calling for the impeachment of center-left president Dilma Rousseff. An alliance of far-right and center-right Congress members voted Rousseff out of office in 2016.
Brazil’s right-wing resurgence fueled Bolsonaro’s path to current leader in the presidential polls. His support is strongest among men, the far right and young internet users; to diversify, Bolsonaro originally courted vice presidential prospects including an evangelical pastor turned senator and a prominent female law professor. Commenting on the last-minute choice of another military figure, Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo told Brazilian media he always urged his father to choose a vice president who is “a ‘knife in the skull’ guy,” local slang for military and police aggression, so that it “won’t be worth seeking an impeachment.”
A more fluid and less easily rattled communicator than Bolsonaro, Mourão has been repeatedly dispatched to speak with Brazil’s investment community. In an interview earlier this month, he appeared relaxed and said he was enjoying the campaign. A pair of veterans sat in his office waiting room, there to “give him a hug,” said his secretary. Mourão says his years living in the United States during the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy warned him of the dangers of “a country divided” and of how “we have to understand people and we have to comply with people.”
But polls suggest a Bolsonaro-Mourão victory would keep Brazil socially fractured. The top presidential contender is also the candidate with the highest “rejection rate” — the percentage of people who say they would not vote for him in any scenario. Many Brazilians are horrified at Bolsonaro and Mourão’s repeated praise of the man who ran one of the Brazilian dictatorship’s most notorious torture centers, Carlos Ustra. São Paulo Councilman Gilberto Natalini, who was an 18-year-old medical student when Ustra beat him and tortured him with electric shocks, says Mourão and Bolsonaro would usher in “slaughter and fratricide as a way to do politics.” Mourão has falsely claimed there is a lack of proof that Ustra tortured and told me: “I knew the man. I knew his principles. And people who say a lot of things about him didn’t know him.”
Maria Celina D’Araujo, a political scientist at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, says she doubts Mourão’s ability to engage nonmilitary sectors of government to solve social problems, calling him “intellectually weak.” Mourão’s idea of showing strength has become especially clear in the wake of the stabbing.
From the hospital, Bolsonaro told Mourão to “moderate our tone.” Mourão told television interviewers the next night the campaign would focus on sharing “our proposals for the country” in online messaging, “instead of everybody shooting below the waist,” a tactic meant to paralyze opponents. The journalists asked him about his past statements in favor of a military intervention and of the government torturer, Ustra. Mourão defended both, visibly alarming the panel. About Ustra, he said, “heroes kill.”Ustra. Mourão defended both, visibly alarming the panel. About Ustra, he said, “heroes kill.”
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