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Brazil’s Military Strides Into Politics, by the Ballot or by Force

RIO DE JANEIRO — Members of Brazil’s armed forces, who have largely stayed out of political life since the end of the military dictatorship 30 years ago, are making their biggest incursion into politics in decades, with some even warning of a military intervention.

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Brazil’s Military Strides Into Politics, by the Ballot or by Force
Ernesto Londoño
Manuela Andreoni, New York Times

RIO DE JANEIRO — Members of Brazil’s armed forces, who have largely stayed out of political life since the end of the military dictatorship 30 years ago, are making their biggest incursion into politics in decades, with some even warning of a military intervention.

Retired generals and other former officers with strong ties to the military leadership are mounting a sweeping election campaign, backing about 90 military veterans running for an array of posts — including the presidency — in national elections this October. The effort is necessary, they argue, to rescue the nation from an entrenched leadership that has mismanaged the economy, failed to curb soaring violence and brazenly stolen billions of dollars through corruption.

And if the ballot box does not bring change quickly enough, some prominent former generals warn that military leaders may feel compelled to step in and reboot the political system by force.

“We are in a critical moment, walking right up to the razor’s edge,” said Antonio Mourão, a four-star general who recently retired after suggesting last year, while in uniform, that a military intervention might be necessary to purge the corrupt ruling class. “We still believe that the electoral process will represent a preliminary solution for us to shift course.”

The military’s push into politics is a major shift — and for many Brazilians, a worrisome one. The country’s military dictatorship lasted 21 years before ending in 1985. Since then, Brazil, Latin America’s largest country, has experienced its longest stretch of democratic rule. Many are fiercely protective of the separation between politics and the military, guarding against any potential slide toward authoritarian rule.

But the former generals, officers and veterans organizing campaigns for October’s national elections say that “military values” like discipline, integrity and patriotism are vital to fixing Brazil, a nation they consider poorly governed, dangerously polarized and embarrassingly irrelevant on the world stage.

Analysts and politicians say the chances of a military intervention are probably remote, but they are wary of the rising political profile of military figures, particularly because the country has not fully come to terms with its authoritarian past.

Military personnel tortured people suspected of being dissidents with electric shocks or beat them as they hung from walls, according to a 2014 truth commission report. At least 434 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. Yet Brazil has done far less than many of its Latin American neighbors to punish the abuses committed during the 1960s and 1970s, adding to concerns about giving military figures more political power.

“The eventual election of these military officials may lead to the adoption of authoritarian proposals, especially when it comes to public security,” said Carlos Fico, a historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

The growing appeal of Brazil’s armed forces in politics comes amid a rightward shift in South America and rising authoritarianism in democratic nations including Poland, Hungary, the Philippines and Turkey.

“In each country, this movement has a different facet, but in the background it has to do with dissatisfaction and fear,” said Fico.

Mourão, the former general, and other retired officers are avidly backing the presidential bid of a far-right congressman, Jair Bolsonaro, a tough-talking former army captain who has proposed contentious measures to restore order, including giving police freer rein to kill criminals.

Bolsonaro, the first former military officer to mount a viable bid for the presidency since democracy was restored, recently said he would appoint generals to lead ministries, “not because they are generals, but because they are competent.”

The campaigns seize on broad frustrations across Brazil. Faith in the nation’s democracy and government institutions has cratered in recent years, especially after the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the enormous kickback schemes that have tainted all major political parties.

A survey by Latinobarómetro, which tracks public opinion across Latin America, found last year that only 13 percent of Brazilians were satisfied with the state of democracy, the lowest ranking among 18 nations. The poll also found that only 6 percent of Brazilians supported their government, ranking well below other deeply unpopular governments, including those in Venezuela and Mexico.

But the military has largely escaped such criticism. While a majority of Brazilians distrust the current president, Michel Temer, the nation’s Congress and Brazil’s mainstream political parties, 8 out of 10 respondents had a favorable view of the armed forces, according to a 2017 poll by Datafolha.

That, analysts and retired generals say, is the reason Temer has given military officers unusual power in his Cabinet. In a break with the past, Temer appointed a general in February to lead the Defense Ministry. Public calls for a military intervention surfaced back in 2013, as fringe right-wing groups made that a rallying cry during a chaotic wave of street demonstrations taking aim at the leftist government then led by Rousseff.

Since then, calls for a military intervention have grown louder, perhaps most strikingly during a nationwide truckers strike in May that paralyzed the country for more than a week.

“This is a cry of desperation against all of this corruption,” said Luciano Zucco, a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel who took a leave of absence from the army this month to run for a state legislature seat. Still Zucco said he was opposed to a coup. “The intervention has to happen through votes,” he said.

Gen. Eduardo Villas Bôas, the current commander of the army, said in a recent speech that those who talked about military intervention did not understand the “democratic spirit that reigns in all the barracks.”

Even Rousseff, a former political prisoner who was tortured during the 1970s by the military government and considers her impeachment a political coup, said she would be stunned if today’s generals attempted to take power.

“The generals I have met would not be seduced by these types of adventures of a military intervention,” she said in an interview. “There are many people trying to create the conditions for that, but for my part, I don’t believe it.” Maurício Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University, said that while no one in Brazil was calling for a lasting dictatorship, many Brazilians, particularly those who did not live through military rule, found the idea of a short intervention appealing.

“Four years ago, I would have said never, but now I would say, It’s not probable, but in some circumstances it could happen,” he said. “You have many people in Brazil who like the idea of the military throwing out the current political class and in six months calling for a new election.”

The debate over such an intervention has grown as active duty and retired high-ranking generals have weighed in on political issues in ways not seen since the dictatorship years. Bôas, the commander of the army, took the highly unusual step in April of issuing a statement on Twitter that was widely interpreted as a warning to the Supreme Court.

At the time, the justices were considering whether former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should begin serving a 12-year sentence for corruption. It was a particularly big decision, because da Silva was running for president again and appeared to be the front-runner in the race.

Then Bôas raised tensions further by declaring that the military “repudiates impunity,” referring to the possibility that the Supreme Court could allow da Silva to remain free pending further appeals. The statement alarmed critics who saw it as an inappropriate venture into politics, at best. (In a split decision, the court ruled he could be imprisoned.)

Eliéser Girão Monteiro, a former army general who is running to be governor in Rio Grande do Norte, has called for the impeachment of members of the Supreme Court over decisions that have led to the release of politicians convicted of corruption.

The political system created by the 1988 constitution had become a “cave that apparently has no emergency exit,” Monteiro said in an interview. While he personally does not support a military takeover, he added, “The only emergency exit people are talking about is a military intervention.”

Mourão, the former general, said that none of his contemporaries relished the idea of rupturing the democratic order. But he said that unrest could force their hands if the judiciary’s crackdown was stymied or if violence continued to surge.

“We want to adhere to the rule of law as much as possible,” Mourão said. “But we can’t let the country stumble into chaos.” When the military took power in 1964, leaders of the junta argued that Brazil was drifting toward communism. Military leaders still do not refer to that era as a dictatorship, contending that the armed forces in fact preserved democracy by sparing Brazil from the rule of authoritarian socialists.

Brazil’s economy grew briskly during the early years of military rule, leading some historians to refer to the era as an “economic miracle.” But foreign debt ballooned during that period and inequality widened, setting the stage for a hyperinflation crisis that crippled the economy during the 1980s.

The press was censored and the absence of an independent judiciary meant that abuses and corruption were seldom investigated. Before the military gave up power, the government passed an amnesty law that has shielded officials of that era.

The amnesty law has prevented Brazil from undergoing the kind of post-dictatorship reckoning that has kept the militaries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay at arms length from politics, analysts say.

The lack of accountability could also enable a younger generation of Brazilians to romanticize what a new military intervention could bring, said Pedro Dallari, a jurist who oversaw the truth commission.

“The fact that the memory of the dictatorship dimmed with time, because the problems weren’t confronted, generates this risk,” he said.

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