Photo Jonathan Blair

Friday, April 30, 2021

Bolsonaro and the Brazilian military

Reacting on Facebook to my recent piece on Lula in Open Canada, Fraser Taylor pointed out that, aside from the Covid situation, the key variable was the role of the military: "the role of the military. I think that a coup is unlikely but who will the military support and what deals will be made."
I answered that "the military issue is complicated. Bolsonaro's has strong support among the rank and file, as he does among the states-based "military police," which has its own command in each state, and 50% more members than the federal military. Officers are another story: Bolsonaro has talked the talk and brought several generals in his cabinet--and they have brought other officers in their own cabinets. When he talks about "his" military and disrespect standard rules of promotion, however, the establishment is reminded that he was expelled for violating military discipline as a captain, and they don't like that at all. Lastly: Brazil will be a mess for at least another decade and they may want to leave the management of the mess to civilians..."
Here is more meat around that bone: As the Thais Oyama suggests, the top brass are doing their best to protect the military from the increasingly broad backlash against Bolsonaro's criminal mismanagement of the COVID crisis.
Here is the Google translation of a column on a recent letter by the head of the Military Club and the link to the letter itself:

Thaís Oyama

Pazuello's summons to COVID Parliamentary Commission Inquiry [CPI] irritates the Army and makes the Military Club go wild

04/29/2021 11h52

The president of the Military Club, Reserve Division General Eduardo José Barbosa, published yesterday a text in which he defends the application, by the Executive Power, of the infamous article 142 of the Constitution - the one that talks about the use of the Armed Forces to guarantee "the law and the order "and which is brandished by President Jair Bolsonaro every time he feels run over by the Supreme Court.

In the text, General Barbosa points to the Supreme Federal Court, the National Congress, the press, Minister Gilmar Mendes [a Supreme Court Judge], ex-President Lula and Senators Omar Aziz (PSD) and Renan Calheiros (MDB) - President and CPI rapporteur for Covid. None of the characters was named in the article, entitled "The power of darkness in Brazil". In it, Eduardo José Barbosa also says that the criticized institutions "chickened out" and now want to blame President Jair Bolsonaro "for what they did not let him do".

The general's text needs to be read in perspective.

The Military Club, a bunker for Army reserve officers, is the Force's most strident political voice. There, the generals, free from the restraints of active duty, shout at will against whom and what they want. General Hamilton Mourão presided over the Club when he accepted to be candidate for vice on Bolsonaro's slate, when he called Colonel Brilhante Ustra, a former DOI-CODI [military investigation units during the dictatorship, infamous for their use of torture] chief and the first military man to be recognized by the courts as a torturer, as a hero.

But if General Barbosa's text is one or two shades higher than what even some of his most prominent reserve colleagues would adopt, it is certain that, at some points, it reflects precisely what even active duty officials think.

As one of them says: "It is intolerable to hear someone like Renan [the President of the CPI, a conservative anti-Bolsonaro who happens to be one of the most corrupt members of Congress] wanting to teach a moral lesson and summoning a uniformed general to testify".

Covid's CPI scheduled for next Wednesday the testimony of the former Minister of Health, General Eduardo Pazuello, who is still active and is now in the General Secretariat of the Army, in Brasilia.

Not that Pazuello is very prestigious in the ranks of the Force. The maskless parade he performed in a shopping mall in Manaus last Sunday even angered the Army High Command (those who attended the inauguration ceremony of the new commander, General Paulo Sérgio Nogueira de Oliveira, could see how the members of the institution take the recommendations of the anti-covid manual to the letter: with the exception of Minister Braga Netto [the new Minister of Defense], who took off his mask for a moment when speaking, no one was without it for a second).
Pazuello's display of nonchalance in the mall, therefore, was seen as deserving even of a public reprimand by the Force command, which did not happen.

But it is one thing for a general to suffer internal criticism from his peers and quite another to be "publicly embarrassed by people like Renan", as an active official in the government says.

General Barbosa's text may call attention to the stridency, but it contains a message shared by generals, from active duty and in pajamas: it will be noisy if Covid's CPI, when targeting Pazuello, hits the Army.

Lula is Back

Brazil is going through the worst crisis of its modern history. As of this writing, the pandemic has killed more than 400,000 Brazilians, with 60,000 COVID-related deathsin March alone, and reaching 20,000 per week in April. Mortality is on an explosive growth path as hospitals are running out of oxygen and now of the painkillers needed to intubate patients. Thousands are waiting for admission into intensive care units while people are treated and die on hospital floors. Bodies are piling up in morgues and cemeteries, and funeral homes are running out of caskets. Infection levels are such that the country threatens to turn into the world’s foremost incubator of COVID variants.

Meanwhile, the president who bears much responsibility for the scale of the crisis and the awful government response to it tells Brazilians to stop “whining,” complains Brazil looks like "a country of fags” and publicly mocks people gasping forair.

Incredibly, Jair Bolsonaro’s political prospects were, until recently, not that bad. The opportunism of the centre-right coalition that dominates Congress, the deep divisions that plague the opposition, the relatively good growth expectations for next year (+3.6%), along with incumbency and a still sizable core group of fanatical supporters gave him solid chances to win a second mandate in the fall 2022 presidential elections.

On March 8, however, a Supreme Court judge nullified the criminal conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, ruling that the tribunal that condemned him did not have the jurisdiction to do so. His decision was endorsed in April by the full Court, which also ruled the judge who presided his trial, SergioMoro, had been partial and decisions he made during the proceedings were tainted. A new trial will take years to complete. In the meantime, the 76-year-old da Silva is free to face off against Bolsonaro next year.

Lula, as he is universally known, is by far Brazil’s most popular politician of the last 50 years. He ended his second mandate in 2011 with an 80 per cent rate ofapproval, though corruption allegations have tarnished his reputation since. He was president when billions of dollars of public monies were diverted to political parties and intermediaries in exchange for their support for hispolicies. Evidence that he benefitted financially is evaporating by the day, but the scale of the scandals and the involvement of several of his closest advisors make his claims to be the victim of a full-fledged conspiracy difficult to swallow.

However, out of resignation or cynicism, Brazilian voters tend to see corruption as an inherent part of their national politics, especially if it is tempered with meaningful action or change. And on this front, Lula is untouchable.

Helped by the explosive increase in China’s demand for natural resources in the early 2000, he presided over the fastest period of growth since the mid-1960s and, crucially, the largest and broadest reduction of poverty in the history of the country. While his progressive outlook doesn’t make him the first choice of the business sector, he has proven to be remarkably pragmatic and credible rumours already signal his interest in recruiting a centrist business person as candidate for vice-president. Brazil’s economic elites would not fear a radical turn to the left in the country’s economic policies were Lula to return to the presidency.

For all these reasons, he is Bolsonaro’s worst nightmare. Polls show Lula and Bolsonaro neck-and-neck when it comes to Brazilians’ voting intentions — and this is without any campaigning by Lula, or even a formally declared candidacy.

* * *

Interesting, you might say, but why should the prospect of an electoral victory by Lula more than 18 months from now matter to Brazil, the Americas and Canada?

Lula’s return matters in Brazil because it changes the calculations of all political forces in the country. On the Left, presidential hopefuls must now know that they have to wait until at least 2026 to even think of winning, because their current supporters will most likely vote for Lula in a polarized 2022 contest,.

Things are more complicated on the right. The Brazilian Congress is fragmented, with 24 parties dividing up 513 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 81 in the Senate. The government’s core coalition is made up of only 150 deputies and 12 senators, while the opposition has 170 deputies and 18 senators. The balance of power is held by the so called “Fat Centre.” Members of this group have no well-defined ideology and are almost purely opportunistic. For them, their families, friends and financial backers, bargaining every one of their votes, and getting re-elected to keep doing it, is all that counts. With Lula in the picture, the price of their support for Bolsonaro’s policies will increase and he will need to demonstrate that supporting him in 2022, instead of Lula, will increase their chances of winning.

All this has shaken up President Bolsonaro’s life and weakened his electoral prospects. He’s panicking, and it shows on several fronts. One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s finally announced the creation of a committee to fight it. He’s replaced several of his ministers. He’s tried — and failed — to increase his own executive power while reducing that of Congress. He’s also tried to get the explicit support of the military hierarchy for his opposition to the restrictive COVID-19 measures imposed by some governors and mayors and in his fights with the Supreme Court. These efforts backfired, however, when the commanders of the army, navy and air force resigned following the dismissal of the Minister of Defense, himself a four-star general, who was resisting Bolsonaro’s pressure to involve the military in the politics of pandemic management.

The long-term domestic effect of Lula’s return would obviously depend on how he does in the presidential elections. Were he to win, it is easy to see a period of Joe Biden-like calmness and moderately progressive policies that would help stabilize the country. Lula’s Worker’s Party doesn’t have a great reputation for competent economic management. Party member Dilma Rousseff, who succeeded Lula as president in 2011, squandered much that Lula had achieved. Still, it is difficult to imagine anything worse for the country than the utterly anachronic hyper-liberalism of Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s current finance minister, whose narrow obsession with privatization comes straight out of the 1980s.

Lula’s return clearly matters for South America. In the short term, Brazil’s numerous neighbours are bound to benefit from a more rational pandemic policy born out of Bolsonaro’s growing fear that someone will capitalize on his mismanagement of the COVID crisis. In the mid- and long-term, the prospects of Lula’s regaining power would be encouraging in a region where Venezuela remains the epicenter of the worst refugee crisis in the America’s history, where democratic crises are multiplying and where an experienced diplomatic bridge-builder is sorely needed. Over his eight years in power, he was the linchpin of a golden age of pragmatic regional problem-solving through presidential diplomacy, and the face of a Left as committed to democracy as it is to social justice.

Canada should also root for Lula. Ottawa’s attempts to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to hold open elections and stop violating human rights, along with similar efforts directed at President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, are hampered by the presence on its side of a Brazil led by] Bolsonaro, an authoritarian and overt apologist of military rule. While Lula’s diplomacy never quite aligned with Canada’s core strategic interests, its pragmatism, its support for multilateral diplomacy and its commitment to a humane world order certainly accorded well with Canadians’ values and international outlook. Conversely, the re-election of Bolsonaro or, worse, a coup in the face of probable defeat, would definitely plunge South America as a whole into a period of instability and democratic decay, an outcome clearly at odds with both Canadian interests and values.

[This piece was first published in Open Canada]