Brazil Generals Say `Thanks, But No Thanks' to Military Takeover

(Bloomberg) -- After days of a paralyzing truckers’ strike, the atmosphere in Brazil is so febrile that the president felt obliged to state that there was no chance of an imminent military takeover of Latin America’s largest nation.

And it wasn’t just President Michel Temer. His denial was echoed by the speaker of the lower house, Rodrigo Maia, as well as by the most senior military official in the presidential palace, General Sergio Etchegoyen.

"It’s an idea from the last century, it’s a question which I personally think makes no sense," said Etchegoyen, the cabinet minister for institutional security. "But there are still some people who think this alternative is possible."

Among the pickets of striking truckers, there is a small, but vocal group demanding military intervention. Brazil was ruled by the armed forces as recently as 1985, and unlike its Latin American neighbors, human rights violations in that era largely went unpunished. What started as a fringe movement during the protests to impeach President Dilma Rousseff is now gathering steam, fueled by a political and economic crisis. Supporters of the military feel increasingly emboldened as a weak, unpopular president becomes increasingly dependent on the armed forces to tackle the country’s problems. Meanwhile former Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro, who denies Brazil’s 1964-85 military rule was a dictatorship, gained support for his presidential bid.

While trust in many of Brazil’s institutions has withered amid the sprawling, years-long corruption inquiry known as Operation Carwash, the armed forces retain a level of trust among Brazilians surpassed only by the Catholic Church, according to a 2017 Latinobarometro poll.

Temer’s decision to deploy federal troops to control violent protests in Brasilia last year shocked many, but the move has now become routine. As the security situation in Rio de Janeiro deteriorated, the armed forces were sent in to maintain order, much to their dismay.

"They are not happy. There is a feeling that they are being used by a government that they don’t like," said Mauricio Santoro, a political science professor from Rio de Janeiro State University who teaches at several military academies. "All the problems the government can’t solve they hand over to the military."

Army Politics

Military officers are playing an increasingly high-profile political role. On the eve of the Supreme Court’s decision that paved the way for the imprisonment of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the head of the army, General Eduardo Villas Boas, called on the judges to reject "impunity".

In February, the president appointed General Joaquim Silva e Luna as his defense minister, the first time in decades a member of the military has held the position.

In an interview with Bloomberg last week, Silva e Luna welcomed the candidacy of Bolsonaro as well as those of other ex-military personnel in October’s elections.

"Brazil is looking for someone with values, with certain attributes and they consider that the armed forces have these attributes," he said. "So Bolsonaro and another 70 or so military candidates can contribute to Brazil."

Days into this month’s truckers’ strike, Temer once more signed a decree granting the military powers to clear blockaded highways. But they met little resistance from the protesters -- many of whom had festooned their trucks with banners proclaiming their wish to see a military intervention.

Lower House Speaker Maia in an interview with Bloomberg News criticized the growing role of the military, including in the defense department.

"The military should always be the last resort because after that, there’s is no other tool to guarantee law and order," said Maia, whose family was exiled in Chile during the 1964-85 military rule.

Amid the swirl of rumors and half-truths circulating on social media and WhatsApp during the protests, claims that the army was taking over the running of the country featured prominently.

While the prospect remains distant, the political instability of recent years in Latin America’s largest economy means the idea won’t go away any time soon.

"The absurd has become the quotidian," Santoro said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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