Brazil Military Contains Rightwing Extremism in Historic Twist

(Bloomberg) -- When Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro was elected, the prospect of the armed forces holding senior posts in his cabinet alarmed those who feared a return to military rule. But to date, the former officers are the ones curbing extremism in government.

Civilians in his administration have threatened Venezuela, demanded school children be filmed singing the national anthem and lamented the teaching of the theory of evolution. In the wake of each of these incidents, it’s been the former military commanders who’ve sought to cool the furore, particularly Vice President General Hamilton Mourao.

Brazil Military Contains Rightwing Extremism in Historic Twist

As a result, public resistance to the military returning to government en masse for the first time since 1985 has largely subsided. Lawmakers, investors and a chunk of the Brazilian media have praised the statesmanship of the cabinet generals over their civilian colleagues. Amid a turbulent start to the Bolsonaro government, with scandals and crises both internal and external, the military have kept out of the headlines and won plaudits for their capacity to solve problems, rather than create them.

"The military are the heads of the government: they bring stability and they are prepared," Fernando Monteiro, a pro-Bolsonaro legislator in Congress, said. "I thought it would be a bad experience, given the image I have of the dictatorship."

Public Approval

An opinion poll published Feb. 26 showed that over 53 percent of Brazilians considered the presence of the military in government good for the country, while just over 14 percent described their role as bad. That same survey showed the armed forces as the third-most respected institution in the country, after the Catholic Church and the fire service.

Even some government critics recognize the moderating force the military has been on Bolsonaro and some of his more ideological allies.

"There’s no doubt that the military has better judgement than the president of the Republic," said Alessandro Molon, opposition whip of the Brazilian Socialist Party in the lower house.

Take Mourao, who has emerged as the leader of the officers in charge of more than a third of cabinet posts today. Prior to his election he was famous for musing on the possibility of military intervention to resolve Brazil’s political crisis.

But in power, he has insisted on a diplomatic solution in Venezuela and criticized the plan to film children singing the national anthem. While Bolsonaro and his sons celebrated the decision of a gay, leftwing lawmaker to flee the country, Mourao said the death threats he received were "a crime against democracy."

Bolsonaro has shown few signs of rhetorical restraint in office. In comments that perplexed much of mainstream Brazil, earlier this week the president praised the former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, during whose 35 year rein thousands of dissidents were murdered.

While Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo described the Venezuelan regime as worse than the government of North Korea, former soldiers in the cabinet worked to downplay tensions along the border. General Fernando Azevedo e Silva, the defense minister, ordered Brazilian troops to reach an understanding with their Venezuelan counterparts, preventing an outbreak of violence on the border during a tense stand-off over the delivery of humanitarian aid.

In January when videotape emerged of Damares Alves, the human rights minister, lamenting the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools, science and technology minister Marcos Pontes, a lieutenant-colonel in Brazil’s airforce, told reporters that religion and science should be kept separate.

Military Schooling

For Chico Alencar, an opposition lawmaker who’s overseen the lower chamber’s human rights committee for years, the cabinet’s army generals have been tutoring the rest of the government. "But let’s not kid ourselves," he added, "They’re after military rule."
No fewer than eight of Bolsonaro’s 22 cabinet ministers are from the armed forces, acting in roles as diverse as defense, mines and energy, and the government’s privatization program. The vice president, who has no formal role in Brazil, has gained prominence and handled various sensitive topics, including the crisis in Venezuela, as well as relations with Russia, China and the Arab world.

While Bolsonaro promised to transfer Brazil’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem in an attempt to please his Evangelical followers, Mourao and his ex-military allies sought to downplay the prospect, aware it could be detrimental to business ties with the Arab world.

"There’s this perception that Mourao has a good understanding of key economic issues and that’s what we need," Flavio Serrano, senior economist at Haitong Bank, said. "We don’t see the presence of the military as a concern."

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