Bolsonaro and democracy in Brazil

When I wrote my book on military terror in Brazil (please ignore the ugly cover if you click on the link to the left. #uglybookcovers) I thought that the processes and events that I described were consigned to history. Then as well I believed that my articles on torture described a political practice that had passed in Latin America, and certainly in the West. My confidence proved to be misplaced after 9/11, which brought the U.S. crimes at Abu Ghraib, and the CIA’s adoption of waterboarding. Similarly, authoritarianism and populism have moved to the forefront in Brazil, as the nation has elected a former army officer (Jair Messias Bolsonaro) best known for his outrageous political rhetoric. And his vice-president -another former military officer, Gen. Antonio Hamilton Mourão- makes even more extreme statements than he does.

The forces that gave Bolsonaro this opportunity -the Car Wash scandal, the corruption of both the left-wing Worker’s Party and the traditional right, the regional attention that Venezuela’s collapse has received, the economic downturn since 2015- may be particular to Brazil. After Brazil’s National Museum burned to the ground, many Brazilians believed that this event symbolized how their government had misplaced priorities, and was as corrupt as it was oblivious. Nonetheless, this forms part of a global trend that is testing institutions and democracies globally. For a good overview of what is happening in Brazil, I recommend this Huffington Post piece by Travis Waldron: “Brazil Is About To Show The World How A Modern Democracy Collapses.”

One might think that this title exaggerates the level of the danger in Brazil. As always, the website of Brazil’s Military Club provides a good window into the armed forces’ thinking. One recent editorial (under the news and articles heading) described the global outrage at Bolosonaro’s election, and asked whether these commentators had seen Brazil’s corruption in previous years, and the support for Venezuela? Where was the human rights desk at the UN while Brazil’s leftist President Lula was financing Venezuela’s Maduro? The article ended with a Portuguese phrase: “estamos ***** para o que vocês pensam.” Even if you don’t read Portuguese, the stars probably give you a good idea of the sentiment. One incredibly brief post on the Club’s website denounced the Supreme Federal Court’s decision to free two people. The piece was only a single sentence, and it’s brevity made it read as a warning, as its only point seemed to be that the military was following the judiciary’s decisions. Another article, “Nunca Antes” used heated rhetoric to warn of the ideologies that had killed millions, which were now overturned by the stunning triumph of Bolsonaro. According to the author, since Bolsonaro’s victory those police who killed criminals in the streets were now applauded by the population.

The point is this: Bolsonaro has significant military backing, the armed forces feels authorized to speak out on the decisions of the judiciary, and officers describe Bolsonaro’s opponents as people who subscribe to ideologies (Communism and Socialism) that have killed millions. Officers are comparing the ideology of Brazil’s Workers Party to that of the communists behind the failed uprising of 1935. As my book discusses the military concealed the true roots of the 1935 Communist uprising within the armed forces itself as well as the involvement of traditional political leaders in the original plot. The real complexity of this event certainly isn’t being recalled now. The military has long used terror and censorship to shape Brazilians’ memory of their past; now it evokes a simplistic and horrifying vision of the past as a warning for the future.

If after the Cold War the military believed that authoritarianism now lacked all legitimacy, some officers now believe that Brazil shouldn’t care any longer what those newspapers or political leaders in North America or Europe say. And by depicting their opponents as traitors who endanger the lives of millions, they are adopting the same rhetoric that the military used to justify overthrowing democracy earlier. Of course, the Military Club does not represent the thought of all Brazil’s officers, and never has. Still, after perusing the journal, the picture that Waldron paints appears to be an apt one. The current period has many parallels to the period before 1964.

Of course, the military is seldom united at any point in time. In the aftermath of the 1964 coup the army spent years expelling officers and soldiers, because some commanders intensely resisted the military’s intervention. Indeed, if the outgoing President had listened to their warnings -or been willing to lead a counter-coup- the coup might not have taken place, or at least would have faced serious armed resistance. The structures that shaped military terror were not first used against civilians, but rather against members of the armed forces itself. Amongst those soldiers and officers who particularly suffered were those who had fought alongside the United States in World War Two. Alfred Stepan has argued (Rethinking Military Politicsthat one of the reasons that military gave up power in 1985 was because it was having increasing difficulty managing its internal divisions, particularly the threat posed by the very intelligence services that it had created. To understand the military, you have to trace and evaluate these internal struggles.

So there are always factions within the armed forces, and right now there is a powerful military faction defined by nationalism. This group is particularly fearful of the United States. Bolsonaro recently discussed the idea of a U.S. base in Brazil near Venezuela. This idea is anathema to these officers in particular, but also to most officers in general. Many military officers have a deep suspicion of the United States’ intentions in the Amazon, which stretch back to the 1850s, when southern politicians in the United States had dreams of an empire throughout the Americas. The views of these nationalist officers are unlikely to change quickly. So the military’s apparent unity around Bolsonaro might not last. For all his reliance on military men in his administration, tracking military affairs requires sustained attention. President Vargas in the 1930s balanced one military faction against another, and deliberately sought ways to keep his cabinet and the military divided, so he would remain the arbiter. Perhaps Bolsonaro will prove to lack the cunning to conciliate and balance military factions over time? One thing is for sure, once the military begins to intervene in power, it may reach the point that it no longer feels that it needs Bolsonaro anymore.

For anyone who might wish to read more about the origins of military terror in Brazil -or a more complex picture of the 1935 uprising, covered on pages 12-18- please read my brief article on the topic, which is publicly available. You will need to click on the blue download button once you reach the page at this link:

Smallman, S. (1999). Military terror and silence in Brazil, 1910-1945. Canadian Journal Of Latin American And Caribbean Studies = Revue Canadienne Des Études Latino-Américaines Et Caraïbes, 24(47), 5-27.

It’s also worth remembering in the current political climate that the Brazilian military itself has long been plagued by corruption, which at times was so extreme as to threaten the institution’s unity. Operation Car Wash has proved Brazil’s political elites -on both the left and right- to be morally bankrupt. But given its own history, the military lacks the moral authority to clean the Augean stables. Nor is it in the military’s own interest to become engaged in civilian affairs. The lesson of the past is that the more the military participated in civilian matters, the more corrupt it became. I can’t help but think that as I write these words that today there are some old army officers in Brazil -some of whom I knew in the early nineties- who are watching current events with concern.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

Brazil burning by Shawn Smallman. Apple pencil in Procreate

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