The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Brazil still needs to get its military out of politics

Brazilians take part in a protest over President Jair Bolsonaro's election defeat in front of the Army Headquarters in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 6. (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

In a cellphone video making the rounds on Twitter, a lonely protester wrapped in the Brazilian flag pounds on the gate of a remote military garrison, pleading for armed intervention. Another shows a stocky man marching in red sneakers and shouldering Brazil’s national flag like a carbine. My favorite captures a cluster of protesters in a southern capital flashing SOS signals to the armed forces.

Such is the vibe on Brazil’s radical fringe, where a fevered minority of discontents refuses to accept that far-right President Jair Bolsonaro lost the recent election to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Better a coup d’etat than to allow a lefty back in office, they argue.

That such theatrics have produced memes rather than mayhem or insurrection is a reassuring sign for Brazil’s fraught democracy. More disconcerting is the complicity of ranking national authorities — especially former senior armed forces officials — who have winked at the would-be mutineers if not encouraged them outright.

Nothing could be more troubling for Latin America’s biggest democracy where, 37 years after cashiering the ruling junta, voters still look over their shoulders. The challenge for Lula, and Brazil, is not just to keep the military out of politics; swapping out generals for civilian ministers is the easy part. The larger question is how to keep politics out of the military, even as desolate partisans beseech soldiers for rescue.

Bolsonaro was always a risky bet for the military brand. After a turbulent career as a soldier, he left the armed forces under a cloud (“bad military man,” former ruling Gen. Ernesto Geisel called him) and launched a political career. He spent 27 years in the cheap seats of Congress, mostly ingratiating himself with the rank and file by flogging their pecuniary grievances and wish lists. Catapulted to the presidency in 2019, he promptly packed his cabinet with top brass, both active duty and reserve. In a gesture that felt more Freudian than Praetorian, he turned several fellow cadet school alumni who had gone on to become top generals into subordinates.

The Panglossian take had it that the generals would be the adults in the room, keeping Bolsonaro from populist adventures and within the red lines of the constitution. Who better than the armed forces, traditionally one of Brazil’s most respected institutions, to referee?

Fueling that conceit was a decade of crony politics, graft and turmoil, capped by the landmark “Car wash” corruption case, which shattered faith in Brazil’s still tender democratic institutions. “Distrust of all branches of government had spiked,” Carlos Frederico Coelho, a professor at Brazil’s Army Command and General Staff College, told me. “That created a void that I think people looked to the armed forces to fill.”

Instead, they mostly rolled over. Bolsonaro repeatedly invoked the loyal brass — “my army,” he called them — to do his bidding, and sacked those who wouldn’t play along. Yet for all his Caesarist ambitions, Bolsonaro was merely an overwrought exemplar of an enduring national bad habit. Former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Michel Temer and Lula himself all cultivated close relations with the military, taking care to keep their budgets flush and arsenal stocked. The $4.7 billion deal for 36 Gripen fighter jets that Lula helped broker in 2014 after leaving office earned him charges of influence peddling (later dropped) but also lasting goodwill within the Brazilian Air Force.

This was straight up realpolitik. While the armed forces mostly confined themselves to soldiers’ business after the 1988 constitution, they always cast a longer shadow. After all, constitutional Article 142 tasks the military not only with national defense but also with guaranteeing “law and order” at the behest of any branch of government. While jurists quibble over its meaning, militarists wave that five-line passage as if it were a hall pass for martial meddling in domestic affairs.

The result is military mission creep, with civilian complicity. Whether policing the outlaw favelas of Rio de Janeiro, repairing air strips or delivering water to drought-stricken backlands, successive Brazilian governments have repeatedly turned to the armed forces as the fixers of last resort. Bolsonaro took the habit a toxic step further, deploying the defense ministry to second-guess the electoral courts and hype quixotic suspicions against Brazil’s proven electronic voting machines.

This was bad for the armed forces, which had no business kibitzing on civic affairs, and worse for democratic institutions. “There’s clearly a negative relation between the political relevance of the military and the quality of democracy,” said Octavio Amorim Neto, a political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

To rescue both, Brazil needs an urgent reset. Prohibiting active-duty military from serving in government is crucial. So is ensuring civilian command over the defense ministry, which too often has served willful or stumbling leaders as a weapon to bully through an authoritarian agenda.

Brazil could take a cue from its neighbor. After a brutal dictatorship (1976-1983), Argentina’s emerging democratic forces put the junta on trial and many top generals in jail. Today, the military has no say in politics. Uruguay and Chile glossed over their own dirty wars, but also brought the armed forces under civilian tether. Brazil’s generals played it differently. They finessed their exit by keeping a lid on the past, immunity for past transgressions and a seat at the head table of national politics. Now that’s cause for sending an SOS.