Brazil Army wakes from decades-old slumber as elections near

By SAMY ADGHIRNI AND SIMONE IGLESIAS | Bloomberg | Published: April 14, 2018

Brazilian President Michel Temer last week mulled replacing the interim defense minister, a four-star Army general, with a professor of philosophy. The military was quick to give a thumbs down.

"Are you crazy?" read the message from a top-ranking officer to a presidential aide. Temer opted to keep the general on for the time being.

The episode illustrates how the armed forces in Latin America's largest nation are becoming increasingly vocal and assertive, some 33 years after the end of military rule. In February, they took over public security in Rio de Janeiro state; last week General Eduardo Villas Boas, commander of the Army, shocked the nation with a message essentially warning the Supreme Court not to grant former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's appeal to stay out of jail.

The military's elevated profile on the national scene coincides with a discernible shift among Brazilians to the political right and growing disillusionment with democracy. Brazilians' satisfaction with democracy is the lowest in Latin America, according to a Latinobarometro poll published in January, while other polls show them ranking the church and the military as the institutions in which they have the greatest confidence.

The most popular presidential hopeful after Lula is former Army Capt. Jair Bolsonaro, who advocates getting tough on crime by handing out guns and denies the 1964-85 military regime was a dictatorship.

The president's press office didn't reply to a request for comment when asked about the naming of a defense minister and suggestion that the military had grown stronger with the government in a weaker position.

Discontent with corruption, uncertainty ahead of the October presidential election and growing violence has spilled from the barracks into the open. Many officers were dismayed by the risk that Lula, who as president promoted an inquiry of human rights violations during the 1964-85 dictatorship, could avoid prison for a corruption conviction and possibly return to power.

"General Villas Boas, as I and all military personnel see it, fulfilled his duty in warning the country, authorities and society, that the institutions were heading for an abyss," retired Army general Paulo Chagas said in an interview. "Villas Boas is saying it's better not to have the order upset, otherwise we'll have to act."

Not everybody in the military agreed with Villas Boas. Air Force Commander Nivaldo Luiz Rossato urged enlisted personnel to abstain from putting personal opinions over institutions and said the Armed Forces ensure not only sovereignty but also "peace among the brothers we are."

In the past three years, Brazil's political and business establishment was rattled by the arrest of leading executives and politicians. Lula's predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in 2016, a politically seismic event that helped plunge the economy into its deepest recession on record.

Retired general Chagas sees the challenge of addressing the rising violence in Rio de Janeiro as an opportunity for the armed forces. The government, however, urgently needs to clarify the rules of engagement so that soldiers can act "more efficiently," he argued. "The Brazilian armed forces have always solved the problem, always."

Such talk riles many Brazilians, particularly those who suffered under military rule. "Villas Boas' tweets were a threat to democracy, he clearly wanted to influence the outcome of the Supreme Court on Lula," said lower house Deputy Ivan Valente, who was jailed and tortured during the dictatorship. "The government should have fired the general, but it is too weak to do so. Temer wasn't even capable of appointing a civilian minister of defense."

Indeed, the defense minister makes no secret of his desire to stay in the job.

"I understand it would be natural for me to stay in the job," Defense Minister Joaquim Silva e Luna said in an interview this week in Sao Paulo. "My relations with the commanders and the forces is perfect and complete, and it is reasonable to expect that this continues but the president will have the final word."


Bloomberg contributor: Fabiola Moura