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Brazil: how the generals placed the captain in check

Will Bolsonaro be sidelined, like mad King George?


Veteran journalist Luis Nassif explains the Military’s silent and gradual seizure of power from President Bolsonaro in five acts.

This is an edited version of the article published in Brasil Wire and translated by Brian Mier. The original in Portuguese was published by GGN.

Act 1 – How they got ready to intervene against Bolsonaro

On Friday 3 April, when Bolsonaro threatened to dismantle the quarantine system for controlling Covid-19, Gilmar Mendes, who heads the STF, Brazil’s Supreme Court, informed the President’s advisors that the measure would not be approved. They asked him to speak directly with their boss, the President himself.

The conversation took place on the following day, with General Luiz Eduardo Ramos, head of the powerful Secretariat of Government and Bolsonaro’s Chief of Staff, General Braga Netto, present.

Bolsonaro insisted that he was going to overturn the quarantines. Gilmar Mendes argued back, warning that this would provoke a political crisis and that the Supreme Court would not permit it. This was the first confrontation with Bolsonaro. The second, with Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, would take place the next day.

During the first meeting, Mendes reminded them of the period of rolling electricity blackouts during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration [in 2001-02] and how the crisis was handled by setting up a high command [more powerful than the UK’s Cobra Committee, more like a War Cabinet] inside the Presidential Palace, coordinated by Pedro Parente, the then Chief of Staff. This organization, and Parente’s skills, were fundamental in overcoming the crisis.

Gilmar then suggested that a coronavirus high command be set up in the presidency, with Supreme Court President Dias Toffoli, Chamber of Deputies leader Rodrigo Maia and Senate leader Davi Alcolumbre.

He was demonstrating the importance of the Supreme Court itself, which would act as the body to set guidelines for the judiciary, as the National Justice Council had done when it recommended that judges reduce the number of people given prison sentences for minor offences. It is likely that that was where the idea came of having a high command headed by General Braga Netto.

Sometimes, however, the political game has reasons for its actions that cannot be explained by normal reasoning. That’s where the unknowns in military thinking come into play. When an important suggestion coincides with current military strategy, it is time to be worried.

Act 2 – The other interventions by the military

The Armed Forces stopped directly intervening in politics after re-democratization in 1985, but it remained in the wings, acting indirectly. Although, theoretically, the President of the Republic is the commander-in-chief of the military, they didn’t lift a finger on two occasions when the president was attacked.

The first was during the Fernando Collor administration. Collor had had angered the military by closing the National Intelligence Service and halting the nuclear program.

The second was during the Dilma Rousseff administration. Rousseff angered the military when she created the Truth Commission [to investigate torture and other human rights abuses during the dictatorship (1964-1985)].

Jair Bolsonaro is a different matter altogether. There is resistance to him in the military high command, but he has majority support among the younger officers, sergeants, non-commissioned officers, as well as the Policia Militar [despite the name, the PM carry out much civilian policing].

In addition to his influence within the Armed Forces, Bolsonaro is supported by an aggressive segment of the Brazilian far right. If he were deposed now there would be civil unrest on the streets, something that did not happen with either Collor or Rousseff.

So, although neutralising Bolsonaro is a priority, he is being kept in office as part of a political calculation.

Act 3 – The role of General Mourão

If Bolsonaro fell, Vice President General Hamilton Mourão would take over. He would have problems negotiating with the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate because he has no political support base. He would have to rely on a broad coalition of political forces, probably have to be coordinated by Congressional President Rodrigo Maia, and would be prevented from running for office in the next election.

If neither Bolsonaro nor Mourão could run for President, the military think there would be a risk that the PT (The Workers’ Party) and the left could return to power.

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Therefore, they decided to implement a careful strategy. Bolsonaro would continue in power, playing the role of a mad English king[1], so that his public appearances would not damage the long-term image of the presidency.

It’s against this background that we can understand the Order of the Day, issued by Army Commander Edson Leal Pujol and Vice President Hamilton Mourão adopting Gilmar Mendes’ suggestion.

Act 4 – how to execute a military intervention

“The role of the armed forces is to defend the country against internal enemies.”

In 1999, in the midst of the agitation against the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Complementary Law 97 was passed and in 2001 Decree 3897. These regulated the operation of GLO (Guarantee of Law and Order), permitted under the constitution, which grants police powers to the military to use in cases of civil unrest, under the express orders of the Presidency of the Republic.

During the Temer government, due to security crises in several states, GLO operations were deployed continuously, under the supervision of then Justice Minister (now Supreme Court Minister) Alexandre de Moraes.

On May 7 2016 I warned about the Temer-Moraes strategy of bringing the military back onto the scene, when General Sérgio Etchgoyen was appointed Chief of the powerful Office of Institutional Security.

“The way for the military to return to politics,” I wrote, “would be to re-establish a military structure under the control of the federal government. This would be different from the now extinct GSI (Office of Institutional Security of the Presidency) and closer to the SNI (National Intelligence Service) and of the presidential intelligence service.

“The man heading up these arrangements is General Sérgio Etchegoyen, Brazilian Army Chief of Staff, who comes from a family that has played a key role in the history of the Brazilian Army. ”

Not just that. While in power, Alexandre de Moraes did everything he could to resurrect the [dictatorship era] concept of the internal enemy, in order to justify military intervention should the Temer government come under attack. This culminated in the ludicrous idea of a ‘terrorist cell’ supposedly being organized over the internet.

Act 5 – The challenges ahead

There are two minor obstacles to this strategy of isolating Bolsonaro without removing him from power.

The first is Bolsonaro himself, with his sons, who are out of control. The second is how General Braga Netto himself will behave. Will he accept the suggestion of a high command composed of the three branches of government, the Ministers and civil society representatives? Or will he act entirely within the military hierarchy?

There is another urgent problem to face which is the boycott deployed by the entire federal bureaucracy against Finance Minister Paulo Guedes.

In 2001, before heading the high command, Pedro Parente had worked in every area of public services, starting at the Bank of Brazil, then as Treasury Secretary at the Central Bank, where he set up and coordinated the SIAFI (Integrated Financial Administration System). He knew how the machine worked and was trusted by the technocrats.

Guedes, on the other hand, came in like a bull in a china shop. His plan to issue R$600 stipends to informal sector workers during the pandemic, infuriated the whole government machine with bureaucrats refusing to implement the measure, on the pretext that they feared being targeted for prosecution by the TCU (Federal Audit Tribunal) – a justifiable fear giving the agency’s record for omnipotence.

How General Braga Netto will face this challenge is unknown. Will he coordinate actions of the various different sectors, or is he a centralizer who will barricade himself behind military power? He is faced with the impossible task of keeping Bolsonaro in the presidency.

For starters, Bolsonaro and his children are uncontrollable. Secondly because there is a real possibility that Donald Trump may be defeated by Joe Bidden in the US elections, which would make Bolsonaro’s position unsustainable.

In any event, this is the first chapter of the post-Bolsonaro era.

[1] The authors wrote: ‘Bolsonaro seria colocado no papel da rainha louca da Inglaterra’, but the comparison is surely to the mad English king, George III, who after prolonged illness, both mental and physical, was sidelined in 1811 by the Regency Act under which the Prince of Wales acted as regent until the king’s death in 1820.