Latin America Advisor

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Is Brazil’s Military Getting Too Involved in Domestic Politics?

Recent comments by people in Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s inner circle have raised concerns about the stability of Brazil’s democracy. // File Photo: Brazilian Government-. File Photo: Brazilian Government.

Comments by people close to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has spoken fondly of the country’s former military dictatorship, have amplified concerns about the stability of Brazil’s institutions. Eduardo Bolsonaro, a congressman and the president’s son, recently warned of a looming “rupture” in Brazil’s democracy. Last month, Augusto Heleno, a retired general and the president’s national security advisor, said there could be “unpredictable consequences for national stability” after the Supreme Court allowed an investigation of Bolsonaro’s supporters. Are the comments empty threats, or is the stability of the country’s democratic institutions at risk? Is Bolsonaro positioning himself for a “power grab,” as some critics suggest, and to what extent is Brazil’s military likely to increasingly wield its power in political matters? How well are Brazilian institutions, such as the Supreme Court and Congress, prepared to repel undemocratic tendencies that troubled Brazil so much in the past?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “Brazil’s democracy is under enormous stress. The country’s economy has been stumbling for half a dozen years, failing to achieve even modest growth. Employment remains sky high, with rising poverty and inequality. No fan of democracy or human rights, President Bolsonaro regularly sings the praises of Brazil’s 21 years of military rule. He recently joined demonstrations demanding the shutdown of Congress and the Supreme Court, which along with governors, mayors, media, some cabinet members and many private groups, have effectively resisted many of the president’s most outrageous policy initiatives. The good news is that Brazil’s democratic institutions continue to hold their own. Bolsonaro’s trivializing of the coronavirus and disregarding all medical advice, besides contributing to a massive death toll, rivaling that of the United States, has intensified political polarization and left the economy more endangered. Some analysts consider Brazil well on its way to authoritarian rule, noting that ex-military commanders fill about half the nation’s cabinet posts, while another 3,000 officers hold other government appointments. So far, however, the military has generally been a force for political moderation. For many, preserving Brazilian democracy requires Bolsonaro’s impeachment. But impeachment has drawbacks. Removing the third of the last five elected Brazilian presidents signals democratic frailty, not strength. Another impeachment could well inflame politics and produce uncertain and potentially high-risk confrontations between Bolsonaro’s allies and opponents. And Bolsonaro may already have cornered sufficient congressional and public support to defeat the attempt to oust him. He could emerge stronger, with weaker opponents and greater chances for re-election. The best hope for a democratic outcome may be for Bolsonaro to finish his term and lose his re-election bid. However, polls show he today retains a solid 30 plus percent support—enough to be a serious candidate in 2022, particularly if the economy begins to pick up. The survival of Brazilian democracy, albeit damaged, is likely, but not assured.”

Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, professor at Insper College in São Paulo: “Most of Bolsonaro’s threats against the Supreme Court and Congress are just rhetoric to fire up his base. But there is reason for fear about the future of democracy in Brazil if a majority of the active-duty military decides to join him in some kind of attempt to break up the constitutional rule. Congress and particularly the Supreme Court have been strongly resisting his authoritarian inclination. Bolsonaro was elected in part because of the polarization that existed between supporters and opponents of former President Lula, whose influence has been considerably reduced, especially after he was released from jail last November. Nowadays, there is no left-wing leader to justify the ideological war climate that Bolsonaro tries to create by attacking those he and his inner circle consider ‘cultural Marxists,’ a broad and loose definition that includes anyone who is not entirely aligned with the president. Without a credible ideological enemy, it is hard to believe the armed forces could embark on an adventure that would endanger their well-established good reputation among most Brazilians. More than a few retired high officials have been echoing Bolsonaro’s threats. But the military commanders consistently reiterate they will not deviate from their constitutional duties. However, the political environment is very volatile and fueled by pain and uncertainty generated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the dire recession. Any spark in this climate could inflame social unrest (as happened in June 2013), and that could be used as a pretext for military action.”

Anya Prusa, senior associate at the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “Brazilian democracy has proven its resilience in recent years, and a sudden rupture seems unlikely, but democratic culture faces mounting challenges. Concerns regarding Jair Bolsonaro’s commitment to democracy remain strong, given his frequent use of misinformation and repeated support for proauthoritarian protests. Yet attacks on the press, the LGBTQ+ community and other groups, and alleged violations of legal and democratic norms, have thus far been met with institutional rebuttals. During the first few months of Covid-19, the health ministry, Congress, and state and local leaders implemented evidence-based measures to confront the pandemic—often overruling the president to do so. In these moments, the presence of the military in government was viewed as a moderating, stabilizing force. However, political tensions have escalated dramatically following the departure of two health ministers and the resignation of once-powerful Justice Minister Sérgio Moro. The military has assumed even more power: almost half of Bolsonaro’s cabinet ministers are now current or former officers. Bolsonaro faces too much opposition at the national and subnational levels to consolidate greater power, even with military support. Investigations into the activities of Bolsonaro’s family and close affiliates have intensified clashes between Bolsonaro and other institutions, but the country has little appetite for an impeachment, given the grave public health and economic crises. For now, there appears to be equilibrium between the presidency, Congress and the judiciary. Still, devastating and long-lasting social and economic impacts of Covid-19 could lead to further instability, and there is a real risk of a slower chipping away at fundamental rights and democratic norms, particularly if the country’s democratic institutions decide to bend for fear of breaking.”

Adriana Erthal Abdenur, Rio de Janeiro-based social scientist: “Brazil’s military is not monolithic, but there is a rigid hierarchy in place, with a leadership that clearly relishes the opportunity to openly admire the authoritarian, anti-human rights streak from the dictatorship and which reveres the torturers of that era. Those leaders do not necessarily respect Bolsonaro as a former soldier, but they are immensely grateful to him for returning the armed forces to power and for expanding the special benefits that the military enjoys. From their public statements, it is clear that a number of generals, including some who are in power, would like to have even greater constraints placed on the Supreme Court, Congress and civil society. For now, at least, they seem tolerant of Bolsonaro’s conscious testing of democratic limits, as well as of the bumbling response to the multiple crises at hand—the pandemic, the surge in deforestation in the Amazon and an economy that was already sputtering even before the coronavirus arrived in Brazil. They have proven willing to mortgage the political capital accumulated through their past role in science, development, peacekeeping and disaster response to cling to power amid declining popular support and international concern.”

Cláudio Gonçalves Couto, associate professor in the Department of Public Management at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation: “Bolsonaro and his allies constantly make threatening statements against democratic institutions, albeit mostly in a covert way, so that they can later say that it was not really a threat. This way of acting, which we call ‘blow-bites’, characterizes Bolsonaro’s political performance throughout the 30 years of his political career. With each new attack on institutions, the president increases the tension between political actors and advances some squares on the board, so that when he retreats, he never returns to the starting point, but somewhere ahead. In this way, by cornering those who could impose limits on him, he gains ground in his advance toward an institutional rupture. This should in no way surprise us; Bolsonaro has never hidden his penchant for authoritarianism. It is past time for a stronger reaction against this, which is already underway with the fake news investigation. This investigation is very likely to reach Bolsonaro’s children and closest allies—those he considers his support base and his media. As he continually loses support in society due to the chaotic administration he leads, and there seems to be no consensus among the active military on attempts at institutional breakdown, I do not believe that the chances of a successful coup are real. However, there is a real risk of a conflagration between armed groups of supporters of the president, including in military policing of the states, and his opponents. This would also be very bad.”

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