This Wednesday 57 years ago, the military took power in Brazil. What began with a coup to get rid of an unpleasant left-wing president turned into one of the longest and darkest eras in Brazilian history. The soldiers did not return to the barracks until the mid-1980s.
Since then, March 31 has been celebrated as the day of the “revolution” in officers’ clubs and barracks. The incumbent right-wing extremist President Jair Bolsonaro would like to declare the date a national holiday.
It is therefore no coincidence that the former parachutist captain tried, of all times, in these historically charged March days to get the soldiers to revolt against democracy again – this time not to overthrow a left-wing president, but rather to overthrow him, a declared despiser of democracy Preserve decline. But he encounters unexpected resistance.
The generals got loud and hit the table
Yesterday, Bolsonaro dismissed the commanders of the three branches of the armed forces in one fell swoop – thus anticipating their resignation. Defense Minister-designate, General Walter Braga Netto, brought the news to the officers.
At the meeting there were loud arguments and generals hit the table with their fists, reports the Estado de São Paulo newspaper. It was the culmination of a conflict that, within a few hours, turned into the greatest crisis facing the armed forces in decades – and a test for Brazil’s young democracy.
The day before, Bolsonaro had replaced six ministers in one fell swoop, including Foreign Minister Eduardo Araújo, who had isolated Brazil internationally with his neo-fascist conspiracy theories. He was the sacrifice Bolsonaro had to make to please his allies in Congress. Araújo had alienated China and India, who supply Brazil with corona vaccine, with his radical slogans, he had become untenable for many.
Bolsonaro wanted to declare a state of emergency
The biggest surprise was therefore not the departure of Araújo, but a different personnel: The dismissal of Defense Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva, a reserve general who had so far held back with martial slogans.
The motive, according to the newspaper “Folha de São Paulo”: Bolsonaro wanted to declare a state of emergency and therefore asked Azevedo e Silva to support him. Bolsonaro has been preparing the ground for this for weeks: he repeatedly raved about the threat of looting in supermarkets and social uprisings because of the corona restrictions imposed by the governors.
Bolsonaro has long been trying to capture the soldiers; he is talking more and more about “my army”. The military is its mainstay in government. Since taking office, he has filled thousands of government positions with soldiers.
Azevedo e Silva was against the politicization of the armed forces. During his tenure, he kept it “as an institution of the state,” he said after his dismissal – and not as the president’s personal armed forces. The commanders of the army, navy and air force supported him.
Especially army chief Edson Leal Pujol stood in the way of Bolsonaro. The general was always careful to keep politics out of the barracks. When Bolsonaro recently held out his hand to greet him, Pujol showed him his elbow – a clear signal that, unlike the president, he is not negating the pandemic and is insisting on observing the rules of distance.
But is that also the attitude of the majority among the soldiers or just the understanding of a small elite of officers? Who will follow the commanders killed?
Bolsonaro’s supporters call on the police to resist
A dangerous rift runs right through the armed forces. Support for Bolsonaro is crumbling among officers, but he is still very popular in the middle and lower ranks of the army. His following in the police force, which is militarily organized in Brazil and subordinate to the governors – Bolsonaro’s favorite enemies – is even larger.
An incident in Salvador da Bahía last weekend throws a spotlight on the situation in the police barracks: an apparently mentally disturbed military policeman fired his rifle into the air at one of the most visited viewpoints in the city and threatened colleagues. He was then gunned down by other police officers and died in the hospital.
Before his act, the man had painted his face in the national colors green and yellow – this suggests that it was a Bolsonaro supporter. A government representative in Congress then called on the military police to rebel against the state government via social media.
The policeman “died because he refused to arrest workers,” she tweeted. He had not followed “the illegal instructions” of the left-wing governor of Bahia: “This soldier is a hero!” She later deleted the tweet. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, who is also a member of Congress, seconded: “This dictatorial system will change!”
The harder Bolsonaro is harassed, the more aggressively he reacts
Are Bolsonaro and his sons now seeking refuge on their radical base because they have politically sidelined? The harder Bolsonaro is harassed, the more aggressively he reacts.
In the past few weeks, the president has suffered numerous setbacks: almost 3,000 Brazilians die of or with Covid-19 every day, and even die-hard Bolsonaro supporters are now doubting their idol’s politics of negation. The comeback of ex-President Lula has shaken the political panorama and given Bolsonaro an opponent of stature. The country’s economic and financial elite, which had long supported him, are beginning to turn their backs on him.
Parliamentary President Arthur Lira, whom he actually counted as one of Bolsonaro’s allies, threatened him indirectly with impeachment: “The funds that Parliament administers are all bitter, some even fatal.” Bolsonaro is now a hostage of the political class, which he allegedly always fought: he cannot govern without the help of the “Centrão,” the central parties in Congress that are hungry for posts and beneficiaries.
That makes him all the more dangerous: it cannot be ruled out that he tries to incite his radical supporters to acts of desperation in a liberation blow.
The anniversary of the military coup would be an opportunity to do so. Bolsonaro’s new defense minister has already given any militiamen an ideological justification: the intervention of the armed forces “pacified” and “reorganized” the country, he wrote in an official communiqué on the anniversary of the coup. The aim was to “guarantee the democratic freedoms we enjoy today.”