Corruption in the Brazilian military

Today I gave a talk at the World Affair’s Council in Portland on the upcoming impeachment process in Brazil. Brazil’s Senate will vote in May on whether to initiate a trial against President Dilma Rousseff. A simple majority vote within the Senate will be enough to remove her from power for 180 days, while it considers her case. In that event, the Senate would then have to vote by two-thirds to impeach the President. If this were to happen, what would then occur next?

There are significant allegations of corruption surrounding Michel Temer, the Vice-President. According to one poll, 58% of Brazilians would like to see him impeached, and only 2% of Brazilians say that they would vote for him. Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the Chamber of the House of Deputies, is next in line for the Presidency after Temer. There are, however, allegations that he also has been involved in political corruption. In this context, if President Dilma Rousseff is impeached any new government is likely to be politically weak, and itself vulnerable to repeated impeachment processes.

In this context, it’s worth remembering that corruption is not confined to Brazil’s civilian elites. In 1964 the Brazilian military justified its coup by referring to political corruption, while declaring that it was “the nation’s savior.” At the same time, the military itself had a long history of corruption so serious as to create disruption and anger within the services. The more involved in civilian affairs the armed forces became, the more embroiled in corruption they grew. For anyone interested in this history, I would recommend my own article on the topic:

Smallman, Shawn C.. 1997. “Shady Business: Corruption in the Brazilian Army Before 1954”. Latin American Research Review 32 (3). Latin American Studies Association: 39–62.

President Rousseff has denounced what is taking place in Brazil now as a coup. I would disagree with this characterization because a coup is an extra-legal event, whereas her impeachment is taking place within a constitutional framework. Her favorability rating in Brazil is currently at 9%; most Brazilians wish to see her go. Whether one agrees with the impeachment process or not, this is very different from a military coup.

While there will be political drama during the Olympics this August, I do not believe that there is risk of a real coup. The generals would have little stomach for coming to power during a period of disastrous political and economic turmoil. The younger generation would not accept such a coup, which is different from what polling data suggested in the 1990s, when the idea of authoritarian rule retained some legitimacy in the country. The international community would also reject a coup. For all of these reasons, I believe that whatever takes place in Brazil, it will occur within a constitutional framework. It’s also worth remembering that Belgium recently endured well over a year without a government, and Spain is in a not dissimilar position now. For all of the chaos and scandal that the nation faces, Brazil will endure.

Notwithstanding the current political crisis, Brazil is not a failed state. Instead, it is undergoing a cultural and generational shift in which political corruption is no longer tolerated, together with the paternalistic politics of the past. Brazil has an independent judiciary, real areas of institutional strength within the state, a politically active middle class, and a diversified economy. For all its economic problems, Brazil is in a very different position than Venezuela, which is overwhelming reliant on oil. Brazil is facing political corruption in a way that some other Latin American nations -such as Mexico- are not. One could argue that Brazil will emerge from this crisis stronger for this change. The question is, does Brazil have a new set of political leaders to whom it can turn?

If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, 2016



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