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Brailian presidewnt Jair Bolsonaro in a suit with a sash and General General Edson Leal Pujol in military uniform with a sash.
Hand in glove: former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro presiding over the inauguration of General Edson Leal Pujol as chief of the army in 2019. Mateus Bonomi/AGIF/Sipa USA

Brazil’s military is supposed to safeguard democracy – yet its power and self-image are a problem

The sacking of the three buildings comprising the seat of government in Brasilia on January 8 was a reminder of an unresolved tension in the heart of the Brazilian state: the role of the armed forces.

As in many other democracies, Brazil’s armed forces are supposed to be apolitical servants of the executive branch and subordinate to their civilian commander-in-chief, the president. But the Brazilian officer corps sometimes behaves and speaks as the saviour of the nation. It claims to be the “moderating power”, a role some argue is granted to them by article 142 of the 1988 constitution, which describes the military as the defender of “law and order”.

This belief is shared by a significant portion of the population – and the carnage of January 8 was the physical manifestation of the idea. A mob attacked the buildings housing of the main branches of government while calling for the armed forces to take power.

Some sort of coup attempt had been feared ever since the former president, Jair Bolsonaro, was ousted in a tight election in November last year by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was previously president between 2003 and 2010. Bolsonaro’s supporters believed that their leader could induce the army to provide the muscle in an attempt to put Bolsonaro back into power and overturn the 2022 election. But that did not happen. It now appears that the armed forces used Bolsonaro more cleverly than he used them.

Under Bolsonaro, the military held more than 6,000 jobs in the federal bureaucracy. It was able to obtain an exemption from pension reform, symbolising its privileged position within the state.

It achieved de facto control over the ministry of defence and stifled the creation of a cadre of civilian experts in defence and security. And it won generous budgets and big weapons programmes.

After Bolsonaro lost the election, the armed forces stood aside as Bolsonaro’s followers established camps outside military barracks around the country. And their response to the crowds storming the government buildings on January 8 has been criticised as slow and, in some cases, inadequate.

Too big for their boots

But before we congratulate the armed forces for not participating in a coup d’etat, it is important to recognise how their self-aggrandising vision of their political mission remains a problem for Brazilian democracy.

Examples of the expression of this vision abound. One occurred recently. On December 30 2022 Bolsonaro left Brasilia for Florida in the US without having conceded the election. On the contrary, he repeated his claims the election had been fraudulent and made it clear he wouldn’t participate in Lula’s inauguration ceremony, a traditional role for outgoing presidents in Brazil.

Bolsonaro’s departure from the country meant that Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired army general, became the acting president. And it was in this capacity that he gave a televised address to the nation on December 31 2022, saying that leaders who should have “pacified and united the nation around a project for the country … allowed silence or an inopportune and deleterious protagonism to create a climate of chaos and social disaggregation and in an irresponsible manner left the armed forces of all Brazilians to pay the bill”.

His words were interpreted as a criticism of the supreme court and the Brazilian congress – but also of his own former president: Bolsonaro himself.

Incendiary talk

At this point thousands of protesters were encamped outside army bases around the country, including hundreds located outside a base in Brasilia.

A woman sits looking at her phone outside a gate with a big pro-Bolsonaro banner.
Supporters of ousted president Jair Bolsonaro set up camps outside military barracks around Brazil. EPA-EFE/Sebastiao Moriera

While Mourao’s words were not well received by most of these protesters, they set up a dangerous dichotomy. On one side were the opportunistic, irresponsible, corrupt, self-serving and arrogant bosses in the supreme court, congress and much of the executive branch – politicians in it for themselves.

On the other side were the armed forces, older than the nation itself and moved by the values of hierarchy, discipline, order and love of country and the common good.

The protesters had been told that the election had been stolen. They had been told that the supreme court’s actions – such as the annulment of Lula’s conviction and the interventions against the spreading of “fake news” on social media during the election campaign – were illegitimate and that Lula should be in prison.

And so the protesters’ hopes became vested in the men in uniform who could intervene, as they had on so many other occasions in the nation’s history, including the founding of the republic in 1889, triggered by a military coup which ousted Emperor Pedro II.

This vision of army guardianship of Brazil, which is supported by so many people – despite its involvement in establishing the 21-year military dictatorship after the 1964 coup – is deeply rooted in the country. Brazil’s transition from democracy in the mid-1980s was unlike those of some of its neighbours, which also threw off rule by the generals in the same period.

In Argentina and Chile, for example, the return to a democratic regime was accompanied by transitional justice, a reckoning with the past and a recognition that the armed forces had strayed from their constitutional mission.

This did not happen during Brazil’s transition, and later, limited attempts at accountability, such as the Truth Commission of 2012-2014, were strongly rejected by the military. But, regardless of the reasons for its existence, the notion that the Brazilian military is a moderating power, and should be called in as the guarantor of Brazilian politics whenever there is a crisis, is alive and well with large sections of the population.

Important reforms aimed at strengthening civilian control over the military are now being proposed, and their consideration will generate vigorous debates. But the widespread belief that the armed forces are guardians of the nation is likely to remain alive long after Bolsonaro has faded into history.

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