The Might and the Right: How Far Will Brazil’s Military Back Bolsonaro?
The Might and the Right: How Far Will Brazil’s Military Back Bolsonaro?
Members of the Brazilian Armed Forces take part in a military exercise as part of the Agata operation, on the Oiapoque River in Oiapoque, Amapa state, Brazil, on the border with French Guiana, on 31 October 2020. NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 16 minutes

The Might and the Right: How Far Will Brazil’s Military Back Bolsonaro?

As momentum builds for impeaching President Jair Bolsonaro, he relies on the armed forces for support. Will the generals stay the course? Could they break with him, at peril to their institutional interests? These questions, crucial to Brazilian politics, have no obvious answer.

Jair Bolsonaro is in a tight spot. Bedevilled by a pandemic whose seriousness he does not recognise and confronted with political rivals who are gathering strength, the Brazilian president nonetheless seems to have one ally he can count on. Bolsonaro, himself a former army captain, has filled his right-wing government with military personnel, handed the armed forces additional powers and done his utmost to rehabilitate the military dictatorship that ran the country for two decades until 1985. His rhetoric invokes values cherished in the barracks – order, nationalism and authority. But as pressure on his government mounts, with the COVID-19 death toll topping half a million and a presidential election looming in late 2022, the future of this partnership is becoming clouded with uncertainty. Much as the generals have benefited under Bolsonaro, and much as they may sympathise with his ideology, how far would they be prepared to go on his behalf?

The threat that Bolsonaro would attempt a power grab, potentially by resisting impeachment or rejecting defeat at the ballot box, and that the military would either back him up or decline to stop him, is a concern among the president’s opponents. In early June, former Brazilian President Michel Temer reportedly noted that Bolsonaro could be inclined to seize power illegally in 2022 if his electoral prospects weaken. Certain senior military figures have implied that the president would be justified in doing so: on 28 April, the head of the Brazilian Military Club, a guild for retired officers, issued a statement in which he condemned senators and Supreme Court judges accused of corrupt activities, and insisted that Bolsonaro call on the armed forces to “re-establish law and order”. Nonetheless, the strength of Brazilian institutions makes a coup and return to dictatorship seem far-fetched. Recent Supreme Court rulings and decisions by state governors have contradicted Bolsonaro. The president also lacks support from key players such as most media outlets, while the military itself has affirmed its commitment to adhering to its constitutional role.

Instead of defending Bolsonaro to the hilt, senior officers might be more interested in protecting themselves from the more noxious effects of his rule.

Moreover, relations between Bolsonaro and the top brass are complicated. A recent political spat between the president and military suggests that instead of defending Bolsonaro to the hilt, senior officers might be more interested in protecting themselves from the more noxious effects of his rule. At the peak of the pandemic in Brazil in late March, with around 4,000 deaths being recorded each day, Bolsonaro fired Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, seemingly out of frustration that he could not command the retired general’s unquestioning loyalty. The dismissal set in motion of a chain of resignations by the army, navy and air force commanders. Since then, relations between the military and civilian wings of the Brazilian government appear to have calmed. But the armed forces’ apparent fear that they have strapped themselves to a political time bomb may not yet have dissipated.

Turning against the Left

In the generals’ eyes, Bolsonaro’s attractiveness as a defender of military interests has never obscured his past quarrels with the armed forces. An army captain from 1974 to 1988, Bolsonaro became mired in controversy toward the end of his military career, largely due to his public complaints about troops’ poor wages. In 1988, army prosecutors accused him of planning to plant bombs in military units and at other strategic sites to protest low pay and budget cuts. The Supreme Military Court acquitted him of the charges.

After the trial, Bolsonaro resigned from his army post and turned to politics. In 1988, he was elected to the Rio de Janeiro city congress, and in 1990 he won a seat representing Rio de Janeiro state in the federal Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress), a position that he managed to retain until his victory in the 2018 presidential poll. During his seven consecutive terms as a congressional deputy, Bolsonaro was affiliated with eight different political parties and became a well-known advocate of military causes. According to the military expert João Roberto Martins Filho, Bolsonaro served in effect as a “union leader”, defending the interests of lower-ranking officers from his perch in the legislature.

After a generally unremarkable political career laced with obscene outbursts and attacks on women and LGBT individuals, Bolsonaro vaulted to national prominence in 2016. Throughout the impeachment proceedings against his predecessor President Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro was a savage critic of her political base in the Workers’ Party. He made himself a magnet for those deeply dissatisfied with her rule: the far right, conservative evangelicals, agribusiness, the police and the military, among others.

Substantial state investment in armaments and the prestige gained through participation in UN peacekeeping … fanned the military’s corporate pride.

Support for Bolsonaro from the armed forces was nothing new, but it received a jolt in 2016, reflecting the military’s sharply deteriorating relationship with the Workers’ Party. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, had served as president on behalf of the party before Rousseff. Throughout Lula’s two terms in office, starting in 2003, ties between the left-leaning government and the military remained cordial. Substantial state investment in armaments and the prestige gained through participation in UN peacekeeping – notably the mission to Haiti – fanned the military’s corporate pride. Numerous officers and military experts proclaimed success in stabilising Haiti and reducing violent crime there, often putting these achievements down to particular characteristics of the Brazilian military, notably its historical involvement in community and economic development and the social background of the troops, many of whom come from poor families. These same considerations help explain the military’s popularity in Brazil itself, where governments are traditionally inclined to call out the troops when faced with massive logistical headaches, like the World Cup or Olympics, or stubborn social problems such as violent crime. The latter spurred the military occupation of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas during rollout of the Pacifying Police Unit Program in the 2000s.

Rousseff, on the other hand, saw the military’s allegiance to her presidency drain away. At the start of her first term (2011-2015), she courted military resentment by firing the long-serving Defence Minister Nelson Jobim, who was popular with senior commanders but had riled the president after alleged critical comments about two other female ministers. Stripping the ministerial status of the Institutional Security Office, a department traditionally occupied by the military, further soured relations.

But it was the establishment of the Truth Commission, signed into law by Rousseff in 2011 with the task of investigating crimes committed during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, among other human rights abuses, that poisoned the president’s reputation in the armed forces for good. The military regarded the Commission as a vindictive left-wing ploy, created by a former guerrilla fighter (Rousseff had been tortured by the military regime, and imprisoned for two and a half years from 1970 to 1972) and devoted solely to the military´s alleged misdeeds while ignoring crimes committed by insurgents whom the armed forces branded “terrorists”. In the eyes of the military and the U.S. government at the time, the ouster of President João Goulart in 1964 had come not a moment too soon, with the danger of communist revolution imminent. Goulart’s policies had included land reform and nationalisation, although the coup’s immediate spark was a sailors’ protest that the naval high command perceived as a mutiny.

The Tryst with Bolsonaro

As the military’s trust in the Workers’ Party evaporated and the 2018 presidential election approached, Bolsonaro emerged as a staunch defender of military interests and ideology. The top brass, and several senior commanders in particular, shared his conviction that the military regime had heroically defeated communism and thus secured Brazilian democracy. Despite their warm relations with Lula, they suspected that what they portray as far-left dogma remained rife in Workers’ Party ranks and among allied political forces. They also agreed with Bolsonaro that it was imperative to restore conservative values in place of “cultural Marxism” and to intensify efforts to curb violent crime.

Military support for Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign ranged from discreet background assistance ... to overt shows of solidarity by retired or soon-to-retire officers.

Military support for Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign ranged from discreet background assistance – political activism is prohibited for serving personnel – to overt shows of solidarity by retired or soon-to-retire officers. Several retired generals, including Hamilton Mourão (now vice president), Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz (former interior minister) and Augusto Heleno (now head of the Institutional Security Office) played an active role in the campaign, both by giving Bolsonaro public backing and by privately lobbying the top brass on behalf of a candidate whom many generals still distrusted due to the charges against him in 1988. The military as a whole displayed its support by repeatedly inviting Bolsonaro to cadets’ graduation ceremonies.

Another key platform for the military’s electioneering was social media. According to recent research, a significant number of high-ranking officers opened Twitter accounts in the six months before the 2018 presidential election, with most of them voicing support for Bolsonaro or lambasting his opponent from the Workers’ Party. Perhaps the most telling tweet came from General Villas Boas on 3 April 2018, on the eve of former President Lula’s trial before the Supreme Court, which paved the way for his arrest and prohibition from candidacy. The general posted that “the Brazilian Army believes that it shares the desire of all citizens to repudiate impunity and respect the Constitution, social peace and democracy, as well as keeping an eye on its institutional missions”, a remark that was widely interpreted as a veiled attempt to pressure the Supreme Court to remove Lula from the electoral race. Two years later, Villas Boas acknowledged in an interview for a book that the army high command had drafted his tweets.

The Military in Power

Since his election, President Bolsonaro has leaned heavily on the military to fill government posts. Retired or active military personnel have consistently occupied ten of 23 cabinet positions since 2019. A 2020 report further noted that 6,157 military officers were in federal government jobs – a higher number than the same headcount under the military regime. Perhaps counterintuitively, in the eyes of the president’s critics the military’s presence in the state appeared, at first, to be no bad thing; they believed that the officers’ competence, incorruptibility and moderation would serve to cushion the country from the effects of Bolsonaro’s erratic behaviour. Early friction between the president and several of his military ministers lent credence to this perception: by mid-2019, six army generals had already quit the government, while senior officers called for sensible government policies when the pandemic hit Brazil in mid-2020. This approach contrasted with Bolsonaro’s own attempts and those of his close allies to belittle the virus, resist movement restrictions, and blame the pandemic on the Chinese Communist Party.

These differences were largely patched up, however, as the military secured a bevy of additional perks. For instance, officers occupying government posts are allowed to earn salaries from both the armed forces and the state (even the total exceeds the constitutional salary cap) under new ministry of finance regulations; they are largely exempt from pension cuts; and they are the only branch of the public sector that got a wage hike in the 2021 federal budget. Bolsonaro also saw to it that the military’s institutional powers were significantly enhanced, above all through their involvement in policing deforestation in the Amazon.

All these privileges, powers and special benefits under the auspices of a hard-right government have come at a high reputational cost to the military, spurring calls for it to break with Bolsonaro. Nothing better exemplifies the tensions than the disastrous mishandling of COVID-19, led in large part by General Eduardo Pazuello, who served as health minister for much of the pandemic. When the president opposed lockdowns and movement restrictions, and adopted a deeply anti-scientific understanding of the dangers posed by the virus and how to fight it, senior military officers appeared meekly to follow his cues. The armed forces were tasked with mass production of hydroxychloroquine, touted by Bolsonaro as a protective measure without evidence of its effectiveness. Three million pills have since been manufactured in military laboratories, amid media reports that the army has been buying raw materials for the drug without following proper procurement procedures and paying over three times the market price.

But it is the military’s role in the health ministry that has brought it the most derision. Two civilian health ministers departed in the pandemic’s early days after disagreeing with Bolsonaro. From June 2020 until his resignation in March 2021, General Pazuello was placed in charge of the ministry, where he proceeded to watch over a series of worsening blunders and controversies. These included changing the data released daily by the ministry so as to spotlight recoveries rather than infections or deaths (a plan that was abandoned in the face of criticism); the appointment of over twenty military officers to key positions in the ministry, displacing technical staff; the refusal to buy tens of millions of Pfizer vaccine doses in late 2020 and recent accusations of corruption and bribery in the vaccine procurement process; and, most seriously, the failure to respond to January’s oxygen crisis in Manaus as a fresh wave of infections, seemingly driven by the P1 variant, brought a rapid depletion in the city hospitals’ stocks. At least 50 people died as a result.

Just as in the health ministry, the expanding military role in the Amazon has been associated with far from impressive results and with the suspicion that its job is to provide a smokescreen for the administration, which has no real interest in the environment. Handed the mandate to protect the rainforest in 2019 as raging fires in the Amazon stirred global alarm, the army was given extra funding and responsibility for coordinating federal environmental monitors as part of Operations Green Brazil 1 and 2. Even so, the deforestation rate and the number of fires have steadily increased, while the number of fines and penalties handed out for illegal activities in the Amazon has fallen. According to the Climate Observatory, a group of civil society organisations dedicated to preventing climate change, Bolsonaro and former Environment Minister Ricardo Salles, who resigned on 23 June soon after the Supreme Court began looking into charges that he protected illegal logging from a police probe, have been systematically aiming to weaken environmental protection laws, cut budgets and dismantle watchdogs.

A Relationship on Thin Ice

Days after Pazuello’s resignation, attention turned to Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, a conservative ideologue and scourge of “globalism” and the left, who was taking flak for his mishandling of orders for COVID-19 vaccines. Araújo was eventually forced to resign on 29 March. His departure was followed just hours later by a far more significant fissure: the dismissal of Defence Minister and retired General Fernando Azevedo e Silva. The commanders of the army, navy and air force quit the next day.

From what is known of these events, it appears that Bolsonaro was displeased with the lack of public support for his more controversial policies from the army chief, Edson Pujol, and to a lesser extent the defence minister. According to media reports, as well as interviews with experts on the military, the defence minister protested Bolsonaro’s decision to replace the army chief, prompting his sacking; in his letter of resignation, Azevedo e Silva said he had endeavoured to preserve the armed forces as an impartial state institution. To replace Azevedo e Silva, Bolsonaro immediately appointed former General Walter Braga Netto, who in terms of military rank stood beneath the army chief. Upset about Azevedo e Silva’s dismissal and the choice of a perceived junior to the defence ministry’s helm, the three force chiefs also jumped ship.

The break between the military and president that some of Bolsonaro’s opponents long for may not be imminent.

Two different accounts of these events have become commonplace in the media and political circles. Much of the media reported that the defence minister and force chiefs had valiantly resisted the president’s efforts to ensure their absolute loyalty to his political and electoral dictates; that their departure signalled they would not comply with Bolsonaro’s every whim; and that the military as a whole might eventually abandon the government. Yet the break between the military and president that some of Bolsonaro’s opponents long for may not be imminent, according to a number of political analysts. Instead, they argue that the late March peak in the pandemic and the president’s political tribulations presented an opportunity for the military to distance themselves from Bolsonaro and his catastrophic health policies. According to this line of analysis, the goal of the top brass was not to decisively ditch the president, but to restore their own credibility while retaining access to the considerable benefits of state officialdom.

There is some evidence to support this second perspective. The new defence minister, Braga Netto, has not only accompanied the president on his extra-official activities, including weekend walkabouts to meet his supporters, but also gave a short speech at an anti-lockdown demonstration called by Bolsonaro in Brasilia on 15 May. During a rally days later, former Health Minister Pazuello stood beside the president and said a few words to the crowd, violating the rules forbidding the military from taking part in political events. The new army chief nevertheless went on to exonerate Pazuello, earning rebukes from prominent former generals and Vice President Mourão.

What to Expect?

Twenty-one years after taking power in 1964, faced with major unrest, the military handed power back to civilians, claiming that they had accomplished their solemn mission to pacify the country and preserve democracy. Their return to the heart of the state under Bolsonaro has certainly roused fears, but the president’s critics also hoped that the military would ensure a degree of probity in a government with limited experience and an ultra-conservative agenda. These hopes appear to have waned.

Instead of toning down the president’s more outlandish positions, several individuals from the top brass have instead lent their support to some of those positions, especially regarding the pandemic response. The military’s technical competence has come under scrutiny following the poor results in dealing with illegal deforestation and fires in the Amazon. Dragged into the media spotlight as a result of their positions of power in the state apparatus, military personnel have also been exposed to accusations of corruption and embezzlement, with two of the most telling cases involving diversion of funds earmarked for fighting deforestation and forest fires, and an overpriced project to rebuild warehouses in Rio de Janeiro reportedly approved by a colonel from the health ministry. The latter bypassed procurement procedures and used COVID-19 emergency funds to contract a company that was blacklisted due to alleged fraud involving the armed forces.

The recent friction between Bolsonaro and the military could be seen as serving the armed forces’ interests by distancing them from the government’s failures.

For these reasons, the recent friction between Bolsonaro and the military could be seen as serving the armed forces’ interests by distancing them from the government’s failures. These moves have also helped reinforce the perception in the media and among politicians that the armed forces will not back an attempt by the president to subvert the Brazilian constitution should he face impeachment or lose the 2022 election. Impeachment remains unlikely: a total of 120 impeachment requests are pending in the Lower House of Congress, and although public support for such a process has risen, many doubt that Congress will follow through. But Bolsonaro seems likely to contest any defeat at the polls. He has already cast doubt upon the electronic voting system’s reliability, stating in January that “if we do not have paper ballots, a way of auditing the vote, we will have a problem bigger than what happened in the U.S.”.

As for what the military might try to do as the 2022 presidential race unfolds, much as it has sought to walk a fine line, its options are limited. The military presence in state institutions remains large, has benefited many individuals and brought additional prerogatives for the military as an institution. Its full withdrawal from government would strip the executive of nearly half its cabinet ministers, and place in peril hundreds of key posts in almost all ministries and thousands of positions in the federal administration – a huge decoupling that could plunge the government into a grave institutional crisis. On the other hand, it would be risky to shore up Bolsonaro, if only half-heartedly, as the pandemic rages on and the election battle heats up: the military could find itself further enveloped in political matters. The risk would be especially high if the president foists uncomfortable and controversial responsibilities on the armed forces, such as calling on troops to contain public demonstrations or enlarging their current support for election logistics, which traditionally includes ensuring access to the ballot for remote settlements and providing security if requested to do so. Speaking at a late May luncheon with officers in the Amazon, Bolsonaro declared that the military were “political beings” and said he was sure they would support him in 2022.

A last possibility is that the military opts for a “third way”: seeking an alternative to both Bolsonaro and the Workers’ Party whom the top brass could cheer in the 2022 presidential race. But opinion polls suggest that no candidate stands a chance against the established dyad of Lula or Bolsonaro in that election.

With Brazilian politics more polarised and caustic than ever, the burning question – how will the armed forces position themselves? – is unlikely to go away.

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