A couple of weeks ago I was walking down the street at Portland State University, and I ran into one of my favorite colleagues, who has studied Latin America’s militaries throughout a very long career.
“I’m getting rumbling from the boys,” he said.
“What boys?” I asked. “The military?”
“Your boys,’ he said, because of my work on the Brazilian military. “They’re not happy.”
“A coup?” I said. “It will never happen.” He cocked his head skeptically.
“The younger generation will never accept it,” I said. “This is not 64. They won’t put up with it. The United States won’t either. No nation in the Americas would accept it. Besides, think about it,” I said. “Brazil is in a terrible economic situation. If you were the generals, would you want to take power now?’ He nodded at this, but I felt that perhaps he wasn’t fully convinced.
We talked about many things, and then parted on a beautifully sunny day. At the time, I was certain that a coup was unthinkable. I had done research in the Brazilian military archives in the 1990s. At the time, it had been 7 years since Brazil had returned to democratic rule. The military had intervened in politics so many times that nobody was convinced that this was more than an interval in a long alteration of regimes. For me, it was a remarkable time as a scholar. It was like being in Eastern Europe or Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. All of the documents that the military had created -and assumed would never become visible- were now open to view, if you worked hard enough and were lucky. I wrote articles about military terror and corruption, but at the same time Brazil made remarkable social, political and economic process, which seemed to make my work increasingly irrelevant.
When I was in Brazil in 92/93, inflation was perhaps 1,700 percent a year. You could watch old banknotes being blown down the street by the wind, like the leaves in a New England fall. When I changed U.S. dollars I had to spend them as quickly as possible, because they could lose much of their value in a week. When I went to purchase a stamp for a letter, the clerk would have to pull out a calculator, to figure out what stamps cost that day. The country had suffered the debt crisis, inflation, and a lost decade. I remember watching as the Congress voted to impeach the President for corruption. Everytime a member of Congress voted “no,” the crowd in the heart of Rio de Janeiro would roar its disapproval. When the measure passed, the crowd went wild. I had seen Fernando Collor de Mello speak perhaps a year before at Yale, and even my advisor Emilia Viotti da Costa, whom nobody would accuse of being neoliberal, had been impressed. Now he was impeached.
I was back in Brazil in 2005 when another major political scandal broke. I saw protestors waving underwear on the ends of sticks, and recall my feeling of utter confusion. I strained to understand their chant, which was something like this:
“We all want underwear like that.” I thought, I must be hearing this incorrectly.
When I learned that the ruling party’s bagman had been caught with a 100,000 dollars worth of currency in his underwear (I believe that he told the policeman, “Who trusts the banks?”) I thought that perhaps I would be present for another impeachment. Brazil was booming, however, and President Lula was popular. Brazil had become a global example in the fight against HIV/AIDS, made progress fighting deforestation in the Amazon, brought millions out of poverty, and seemed to be escaping its painful political past. Brazil was emerging on the global stage, and the sense of pride was palpable.
When I talked with my colleague in Portland, a coup seemed unthinkable. Brazil had changed too much. My conversation, however, had left my unsettled. I had a great deal of trust in my colleagues’ contacts. He was certainly far better connected than me, who since 2000 had drifted off to do work on Global Health and Indigenous history in Canada. Was I missing something? It had been over two decades since I spent all those days in Rio de Janeiro’s Military Club, in the naval records at Ilha das Cobras, and the air force archives. Maybe I was out of touch.
Then I began to pay more attention to the Brazilian news. President Lula had been very popular as President, but Brazilians were now rethinking his stature. He gave an interview in which he talked not only about his wish to run for President again, but also the threat of another coup. So people were talking about this danger seriously. President Dilma Roussef’s polling numbers had reached a 9% approval rate. This week Brazilian newspapers reported that the President was limiting some powers of military commanders over personnel decisions. So it would seem that President Rousseff has been concerned as well.
I still think that all the reasons that I gave my colleague to explain why a coup could not take place were true. I cannot see it succeeding. Of course, two years ago I would also have said that Russia would never try to change the borders of Europe by force, but there is an irregular war in Ukraine. So I find myself worrying, and planning to spend more time tracking Brazilian news.
I will be teaching my Modern Brazil course as a fully online class for the first time this fall. I’ve had fantastic support from two outstanding course designers, and a librarian who has helped me to track down streaming videos. The class is full. Brazil always seems to be popular. There are always a couple of musicians in the class, who are there because of their love of Brazilian samba or drumming. We’ll talk about Clarice Lispector -who fascinates everyone who reads her work- and Brazilian literature. We’ll talk about the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, Race, and the Amazon. We’ll also spend a week exploring Brazil’s history of civil-military relations.
I was recently on a PhD. thesis proposal defense, and I found myself arguing that regimes could be corrupt yet efficient. I’ve been rethinking my argument lately, and I know that I was wrong. What’s happening in Brazil now is less a story about the power of the military than it is about the political legacies of corruption, which has deeply tainted the Workers’ Party. This month the President of Guatemala -who had been an officer during the country’s terrible civil war- was arrested because of his own involvement in a corruption scandal. Throughout Latin America, a new generation will not accept corruption. While this creates dangerous problems, it also represents a powerful and positive change from the past, and thus gives more cause for hope than worry.
To read my own work on military terror in Brazil, please click here.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University.