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Why Brazilians Can’t Trust The Military to Save Democracy


After electoral authorities declared the far-left candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the winner of Brazil’s presidential elections, millions of concerned citizens gathered outside the Army headquarters in Brasília and military barracks in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Curitiba to protest.

Unfortunately, however, those concerned citizens might have sought the assistance of a historically unreliable political ally. After all, the military in Brazil has developed over the years an unequivocal tradition of authoritarian interference in the nation’s political affairs.

They have done so by often assuming for themselves the task of salvadores da pátria (saviours of the fatherland) from “bad” and “corrupt” politicians.

One of the primary reasons proffered by military leaders for ousting President João Goulart on March 31, 1964, was the necessity to end corruption. However, two decades after their military coup, corruption seemed to have even increased during their watch.

Those army officers had taken power, promising to eliminate corruption but were forced 20 years later to leave it due to, among other things, increased levels of corruption and the erosion of the Armed Forces’ institutional prestige.

The military interference in political affairs in Brazil dates back to the 1870s when the end of the bloody war against Paraguay’s dictator Solano Lopez brought about a huge politicization of the Brazilian Army.

A few decades later, in November 1889, Army leaders organized their first coup by replacing the constitutional monarchy with a republican dictatorship.

Accordingly, an official letter written in 1890 on behalf of the Navy to a civilian authority in the new republican government stated (pdf):

“We hope you will use your intelligence for the installation of a type of republican government which will concentrate all the power in the hands of one single person … To establish a felicitous, stable and prosperous republic, the government of this country needs to become dictatorial and not parliamentary.”

How the Army Helped Establish Past Authoritarian Regimes

The first president of Brazil, Field Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, harshly persecuted constitutional monarchists and nominated Army generals for the administration of all the old provinces.

However, a civil war broke out in 1892 after he attempted to dissolve the Parliament. Deodoro was then forced to step down by another Army officer, Floriano Peixoto, who, unfortunately, was as authoritarian as him, mercilessly crushing the Navy’s uprising as well as civilian opposition.

But Floriano, at the very least, left office to an elected civilian after the completion of his controversial mandate.

Other military uprisings took place in 1922 and 1924, when ultra-nationalist officers carried out unsuccessful rebellions in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, respectively.

The 1922 uprising pitched 5,000 Army rebels under the leadership of General Isidro Diaz Lopez against a federal force of over 20,000 men.

Daniel Zirker, a political-science professor commenting on the military uprising of 1924, said it had “deeply influenced” a generation of soldiers and their perceptions of the role of the military as a political proponent.

Although these military rebellions in the 1920s were effectively suppressed, another such coup in 1930 was far more successful, thus preventing an elected president from taking office.

It substituted in his place the defeated candidate Getúlio Vargas who, with the support of several oligarchies, received the presidency from a military junta that had only a few days earlier deposed President Washington Luís.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Getulio Vargas (1883-1954), President of Brazil, delivers a broadcast speech to announce the dissolution of congress and to proclaim the fascist “Estado Novo” (“New State”) dictatorship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Nov. 10, 1937. (OFF/AFP via Getty Images)

The collaboration between Vargas and the Brazilian Army was sustained by the belief that the country needed to be ruled by authoritarian means.

Upon taking office, Vargas placed military leaders at the centre of political decision-making. His government was a military regime, in essence, despite the civilian status of the president and many of his ministers.

The Military After WWII

With the defeat of Nazism-Fascism in World War II, it was a contradiction to be governed by a regime bearing so many similarities to those the Brazilians also helped defeat in Europe.

Consequently, in 1945, Vargas was forced to resign by the military leadership. Although the dictator attributed his demise to the liberal constitutionalists hoping for the restoration of the “old liberal democracy,” in reality, the dictator was sent from office by the decision of the Army Command.

The end of Vargas’s dictatorship promised a new era of democratic government. In having no direct links with him, the 1960 election of Jânio Quadros was seen as signalling a possible rupture within his authoritarian legacy.

On Aug. 25, 1961, however, Quadros stunned the nation by offering his letter of resignation. Apparently, he did so to provoke a political crisis which he calculated would cause people to demand his return to the office, this time as a dictator. His artifice proved a total failure, and he never returned to power.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Members of the Special Police Unit (BOPE) patrol during an operation in the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Jan. 25, 2018. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images)

When Quadros offered his resignation, his vice-president, João Goulart, was serving on a diplomatic mission in China. Goulart had been Vargas’ labour minister in 1953, and was a close friend of Argentina’s leader Juan Domingo Perón, whose regime relied on trade-union support.

Elected as vice president with no more than 34 percent of votes, he sought to create close ties with China, Cuba, and Soviet Russia. Relying on the advice of his Army staff, especially the head of the Military Household, General Assis Brazil, Goulart started to promise communist-style policies that could not be put into practice without a constitutional amendment.

He also encouraged the political aspirations of low-ranking military officers, even though they were barred by law from elected public office.

On March 26, 1964, Goulart refused to punish a Navy mutiny carried out by left-wing marines who refused to cease illegal political activities and return to their duties. The mutiny brought about an agreement between the otherwise politically divided military leadership that now Goulart, indeed, had gone too far.

Therefore, it was the president’s sanctioning of military indiscipline, and not the opposition to his communist policies, that eventually forced the military leadership to do something.

The End of the Military’s Time in Power

The military coup that deposed Goulart began on March 31, 1964, with a radio proclamation by General Olimpio Mourão, the commander of the Fourth Military Region in Minas Gerais.

The military leaders of this coup were divided between hard-line and soft-line factions. While soft-liners wished for a quick restoration of democracy, hard-liners were instead planning a more permanent, authoritarian regime. The hard-line faction eventually prevailed over the moderates, particularly after terrorist groups of the Far Left initiated their rural and urban guerrilla warfare in 1968.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
Brazilian soldiers participate in the graduation ceremony and commemorate the 1964 military coup, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 28, 2019.(Nelson Almeida/AFP via Getty Images)

In the late 1970s, a severe economic crisis stroke Brazil that served at least to engender widespread discontentment with the military regime. Consequently, a slow process of re-democratization was initiated, and General João Batista de Oliveira Figueiredo, the last military president, successfully made the step towards finally ending it.

During their 20-year reign in power, the military leaders in Brazil seemed to have sometimes behaved in a similar way as an occupying force rather than the putative protectors of law and order.

They left power demoralized, not only as a result of their disastrous economic policies but also because of widespread corruption in the public agencies and the approximately 600 state-owned companies directly owned by the military regime.

For the reasons above explained, the Brazilian protesters have looked towards the wrong authorities in the hopes of restoring their democratic rights and freedoms.

On the contrary, there is a real chance that, due to their authoritarian tradition of intervention in the nation’s political affairs, one should not even be surprised if the military leadership eventually assist in the implementation of policies by the new Lula administration.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Augusto Zimmermann

Augusto Zimmermann was born in Brazil and emigrated to Australia in 2002. He is professor and head of law at Sheridan Institute of Higher Education in Perth. He is also president of the Western Australian (WA) Legal Theory Association and served as a member of WA’s law reform commission from 2012 to 2017. Zimmermann has authored numerous books, including “Direito Constitucional Brasileiro,” “Western Legal Theory,” and “Christian Foundations of the Common Law.”

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