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Politics and Civil-Military Relations: Where next for Brazil under Bolsonaro?

Dr Joe Devanny & Dr Vinicius de Carvalho

War Studies Department

01 April 2021

This has been a tumultuous week in Brazil, a country already under a serious crisis. Already battling the coronavirus pandemic, Brazil’s national politics and civil-military relations have become the subject of global attention. As the Washington Post reported: ‘Six cabinet members are out. The military’s top leaders are also gone. And it’s only Tuesday.’

President Bolsonaro’s dismissal of Defence Minister (and retired General) Fernando Azevedo e Silva, and the subsequent resignations in protest by the three military Service Chiefs, has drawn the spotlight to long-running political tensions. This raises sharp questions about Bolsonaro’s political strategy ahead of the 2022 presidential election – questions that involve the strength of Brazil’s institutions and invoke memories of a not so far period of dictatorship.

The resignation on Monday of the controversial and embattled Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araujo had been expected. Araujo had long incurred criticism of his intemperate, undiplomatic and ineffective performance. But Araujo’s exit was followed by less expected changes in the Cabinet, like the sacking of the Justice Minister and Defence Minister. Such a series of high-level departures would be remarkable in normal times. But these are not normal times. The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected Brazil, reaching 3700 people dead on Tuesday alone. The Bolsonaro administration’s handling of the pandemic is increasing doubt about the president’s prospects for re-election – or even completing his term of office. Bolsonaro’s Cabinet changes and the resignations of the military chiefs are also worrying because they happen in the days leading up to the tragic memory of the coup d’etat on 31 March 1964, which sank the country into a military regime.

Bolsonaro’s penchant for appointing senior military officers to political and parastatal positions has belied the existence of tension between him and the senior ranks of the armed forces. After his sacking, the now former Defence Minister, Azevedo e Silva, released a statement defending his record in preserving Brazil’s Armed Forces as ‘institutions of state’. This was in emphatic contrast to Bolsonaro’s more personalist statements – he has spoken of ‘my Army’.

Looming large over this issue is the fact that Brazil lived under a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. Since then, the consolidation of Brazil’s democracy has involved incremental progress in re-habilitating the armed forces as a democratic institution, however civil-military relations have not been an easy process. For example, it was not until 1999 that a civilian defence ministry was created. Its first incumbent lasted less than a year in office. Some of his successors didn’t last long either, normally due to confrontations or controversies with Commanders of the Armed Forces.

What Brazil arguably saw was a gradual militarization of the post of Defence Minister. This culminated in then-President Michel Temer’s February 2018 nomination as Defence Minister of a retired 4-star general, Joaquim Silva e Luna. Despite that, one could say that, to a large extent, the armed forces have adapted to their new role in democratic Brazil.

With the arrival of Bolsonaro’s administration in 2019, however, this rehabilitation was tested. Bolsonaro chose a retired General as his Vice President and has filled his Cabinet, as well as many other senior political and parastatal positions with both retired and active duty officers. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is Bolsonaro’s focused appeal for the loyalty of the more junior, rank-and-file members of the armed forces, particularly in his old service, the Army. It is like the president perceives the Army as his personal Praetorian Guard.

Experienced commentators, such as Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly, have explicitly drawn a parallel between Bolsonaro’s actions and the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters. If Bolsonaro was preparing to resist impeachment proceedings or electoral defeat, then surrounding himself with political allies in key defence and justice positions would be expected. But, at this stage, speculation about lessons Bolsonaro may or may not have learned from the failed effort to derail the US presidential transition are just that – speculation.

The spectacle in Washington, D.C., in January was extraordinary and disturbing, but it highlighted the vital importance of democratic institutions and the fact that the constitutional duties of a republic’s institutions, including its law enforcement, security, intelligence and armed forces, are to uphold the republic and not to follow the whim of a personalist president. Whether Bolsonaro would precipitate a similar crisis in Brazil is uncertain. It would undoubtedly be the biggest test of Brazil’s democracy since 1985. There are reasons for confidence that Brazil’s institutions and civil society are sufficiently robust to meet such a challenge. But with the spectre of Trump a recent memory, the shadows of the longer-past military regime call for urgency and resolve to deter and pre-emptively dissipate any momentum behind such a scenario.


Author bios

Dr Vinicius de Carvalho is Senior Lecturer in the Department of War Studies and Director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London. Follow him on Twitter.

Dr Joe Devanny is Lecturer in the Department of War Studies and an Associate of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London. Follow him on Twitter.



In this story

Vinicius  de Carvalho

Vinicius de Carvalho

Reader in Brazilian and Latin American Studies

Joseph Devanny

Joseph Devanny

Lecturer in the Department of War Studies

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