What does the Brazilian military do now?
Fifty years after the coup that overthrew progressive President João Goulart and installed a military dictatorship, Brazil’s Armed Forces are nowhere near the centers of political power. The few that want them back in charge can’t get more than 1,000 people to their marches. In recent weeks, Brazil has remembered the 50th anniversary of the golpe, and criticism for the generals who occupied the presidency during military rule was so overwhelming, that a key question has returned to the public debate:
What should the role of the military be in South America’s powerhouse?
First, a look back at history.
Since the Paraguayan War (1864-1870), Brazil’s Armed Forces have rarely been in demand. But the Air Force’s effective participating in Italy during World War II kept their popularity just high enough for Air Marshall Eduardo Gomes to run as a conservative presidential candidate against Eurico Gaspar Dutra, in 1945. He lost, and ran another time in 1950, against former (non-military) dictator Getulio Vargas. Gomes lost again, but the military remained a key player.
In 1955, another general lost the race for the presidency to a civilian: Juarez Tavora – who is known for opposing the creation of state-run oil company Petrobras and the legacy of the Vargas government. He was beaten out by Juscelino Kubitschek, the man that would go on to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília. Many historians claim Kubitschek spent freely in order to keep the military from overthrowing him. It worked.
In 1960, a more liberal general attempted to get into the Presidential Palácio do Planalto. Henrique Lott, a big fan of the political marketing machine pushed by Dwight Eisenhower, eventually lost to conservative Janio Quadros. In a separate election for the vice-presidency, left-of-center João Goulart won. What no one expected was for Quadros to resign a few months later – some say he did so because wanted to be returned to power by the people. That never happened.
After taking power, Goulart eventually had to flee the country after the 1964 coup, and the rest is history. The military regime was a mess. A brutal mess. After it ended, and after the failed presidencies of friends of the dictators, like José Sarney and Fernando Collor de Mello’s, opposition to the dictatorship has dominated mainstream politics. In a country with no clear outside enemies and a revived democracy, what could the Armed Forces do?
Brazil spends about US$ 8 billion of its GDP on defense every year – the least of its BRIC counterparts – despite worries about protecting its huge pre-salt layer oil reserves, its enormous border with ten nations as well as the largest Atlantic coastline in the world. Minister of Defense Celso Amorim, like his predecessors, says Brazil’s military strategy is based on diplomacy and dissuasion. That means, it seems, that ideally those 350,000 men should just be available for backup. Or, to go to Haiti for United Nations missions.
Others want more out of the government’s investment in the military. Having the Armed Forces on the streets has surely worked during huge political conferences, general elections and sporting events, such as the 2007 Rio Pan American Games. They will be used similarly in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. But many Brazilians want the Armed Forces to act as backup police forces, especially against heavily armed drug dealers hidden in favelas all over the country.
We saw this demand manifest in one favela complex in Rio de Janeiro last week. The Complexo da Maré was occupied by 2,700 troops from the Army and Navy, who will stay until the World Cup is over.
But in general, Armed Forces higher-ups don’t want their troops mingling with the police forces, due to the concern that criminals would embed themselves in the Armed Forces. Their concern stems from the corruption of this nature that exists in the police force; and the Armed Forces have even better weaponry and more resources than the local police. In exceptional conditions, they can act. But that will happen only if a governor recognizes he can’t control violence in the state. Rio’s Sergio Cabral has signed that deal and many others want to follow. Not for now.
President Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured and unlawfully arrested by military forces during the dictatorship, has not been active in the use of the Armed Forces. She rejected putting the military on the streets during the June protests and left everything up to the police. This week, her administration demanded the military chiefs look into human rights abuses in their facilities during the dictatorship. It’s unclear if, or how, Rousseff wants to use her soldiers.
The stalemate is likely to last as long as the political establishment reduces the military to the dictatorship and the military rejects having a more active role in the country’s security issues with security.
This is unlikely to be resolved soon. But the 50th anniversary of the coup has re-started the debate.