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Brazil: ‘Malvinas’ moment for the armed forces?

...having backed Bolsonaro's efforts to steal the elections and everything else

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29 August 2023. In 1982 the Argentine armed forces suffered a humiliating defeat after their failed attempt to invade the Islas Malvinas, the South Atlantic archipelago held as a colony by Britain, but long claimed by Argentina. This demoralization hastened their exit from power after seven years of tyrannical repression.

The question Brazilians are now asking is, are their armed forces now facing their own Malvinas moment, not for a disastrous overseas adventure but for trying to intervene in their country’s elections and overthrow the elected president?

The question has been prompted by revelations about the full extent of the military’s role in Bolsonaro’s attempt to steal last year’s elections and, after narrowly losing, to support a coup against the winner, Lula. Added to those revelations, there has been evidence of corruption, with details of how military officers close to Bolsonaro helped to sell off the many valuable presents received from foreign governments.

A kleptocrat at work

Bolsonaro emerges as a kleptomaniac, scheming to steal everything he could get his hands on, from the elections themselves to campaign donations, from gold and diamond studded watches to gold plated statues, diamond necklaces and cufflinks, given as presents to the president of Brazil, not to him personally.

The Bolsonaro government attempted to import diamonds worth R$16m (£2.6m) for Michelle Bolsonaro, a present from the Saudi Arabian government to the president and his wife. Video: CNN, 4 March 2023

The detailed revelations of the ex-president’s crimes have come not only from the hearings at a Congressional committee of inquiry in Brasilia, but also from messages on the mobile phones of his aides confiscated by the federal police during their inquiries.

The testimony of Walter Delgatti Neto. Video: Ao Vivo, August 2023

Brazilians watched in fascination as a professional hacker, Walter Delgatti Neto, now serving a 20 year sentence for his criminal activities, described during the televised proceedings, a meeting with Bolsonaro in the presidential palace to discuss how to interfere with the electronic voting system.

Federal Police gain access to the four mobile phones of Bolsonaro’s lawyer. Video: Brazil Urgente, August 2023

They saw the federal police interrupt the dinner of the family lawyer, Frederic Wassef, to relieve him of the four mobile phones he carried, one exclusively for talking to Bolsonaro.

The involvement of Cid’s father will further stain the army’s reputation. Video: UOL 11 August 2023

They witnessed the stubborn refusal of his top military aide, Mauro Cid, a man described as his ‘faz tudo’ or factotum, to open his mouth during questioning by the congressional committee. But then they saw Mauro Cid’s father, an army general, inadvertently reveal his own role in the scandal by taking a picture with some of the jewels that included his own reflection. Not only corrupt, but incompetent. Who needs soap operas?

Bolsonaro used the presidential plane to fly his expensive gifts undetected to the United States, where they were offered for sale at auction houses. When this was revealed, he ordered his aides to hurry to the US and buy back the Rolex watches, returning them to the national treasury.

While Bolsonaro’s scandalous attempts to flog off the equivalent of the crown jewels have become the butt of innumerable jokes and cartoons, the more serious question that emerges is the revelation that in 2022 the armed forces actively supported the losing candidate’s attempts to change the result of Brazil’s presidential elections, acting unconstitutionally.

Interfering with elections

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Five years ago they decided to embark on an electoral project which aimed to elect Jair Bolsonaro, although he was an ex-army captain with a disreputable military record, and a seven times elected legislator with little to show for almost 30 years of living off public funds. The front runner, Lula, was conveniently disqualified and imprisoned on charges which were later overturned.

Once Bolsonaro was elected, the armed forces did not hesitate to enjoy the perks of office, with thousands of officers taking jobs in the administration, including the disastrous general who became health minister during the pandemia, Eduardo Pazuello. Army purchases now included steak, salmon, fine wines and Viagra in vast quantities.

During the 2022 campaign they actively worked to discredit Brazil’s respected electronic voting system, repeatedly attacking its integrity. The hacker received by Bolsonaro in the Alvorado Palace was also received by the Minister of Defence to discuss ways of hacking into the voting system to change votes. If it were not such a failsafe system, they might have succeeded.

When Lula won the election and Bolsonaro refused to acknowledge the result, encouraging his supporters to blockade roads and camp outside military barracks, the army did nothing to disperse them.

Finally on 8 January when hordes of Bolsonaristas invaded the Supreme Court, the Congress and the presidential palace, threatening Brazil’s democratic institutions and wrecking national treasures, the palace battalions who should have been on guard were nowhere to be seen,along with the pro-Bolsonaro military police (PM), whose chief officers have now been arrested.

Ex-Commander of the Policia Militar, arrested with other officers for their failure to halt the attempted coup of 8 January, further accused of illegally taking goods worth R$1m (£160,000) from São Paulo to Brasilia. Video SBT News, 22 August 2023.

And when they eventually held an inquiry to find out why the invasion had not been stopped, the Army concluded it was the fault of the new government, in power for just a week, not the military commanders who had allowed hundreds to camp outside their gates and on 8th January, march down the road to the congress, presidential and Supreme Court buildings, undeterred by the forces of law and order. The protesters called on the armed forces to overthrow Lula, and the armed forces did nothing to stop them.

As a result the credibility of the armed forces, which had been slowly rebuilt after the disastrous 21 years of military dictatorship, has plummeted, as the revelations show not only their failure to defend democracy, but their corruption.

Not just bad apples… the tree itself is rotten

Their disastrous decision to back Bolsonaro in order to stop at all costs the election of Lula, has backfired and the attempt to limit the damage by blaming a ‘few bad apples’, is not working. Individual officers are being called for questioning by the federal police; Bolsonaro’s factotum Lt. Colonel Mauro Cid, is in custody;while Bolsonaro himself is due to be questioned. But many commentators believe it is the role of the armed forces as an institution which ought to be questioned, their participation in an attempt to overthrow an elected president which must be investigated.

Is this the Malvinas moment for the Brazilian armed forces? They are not in power, but they still seem to attribute to themselves the right to decide who is. Has the moment finally come when they accept their constitutional role as a professional army whose task is to defend the country from external threats, not decide who runs it?

Lula to the rescue?

Ironically help is most likely to come from Lula himself, the man they wanted to prevent from becoming president. Lula seeks to avoid confrontation at all costs, because he has his hands full negotiating with congress in order to get legislation approved, and his tactic now is to placate the armed forces, approving a bigger defense budget, discouraging attempts to use the opportunity to make them toe the line. He wants them to accept him, something many military are still viscerally opposed to, with their heads still set in the anti-communist doctrine of the Cold War. This maybe the Malvinas moment for the armed forces, but whether they will now abdicate from any political involvement remains to be seen.


Main image: Military Police Colonel Fabio Augusto Viera, remaining silent under interrogation before the Joint Congressional Commission investigating the violent uprising of 8 January 2023, when pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators stormed the buildings of the three branches of government in Brasilia. Photo: Marcos Oliveira/Agência Senado.