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How the Captain Defeated the Army: Bolsonaro Subordinates the Military in Brazil

Ulisses Levy Silvério dos Reis & Rafael Lamera Giesta Cabral, The Federal University of the Semi-Arid Region

Jair Bolsonaro’s victory for the Presidency of Republic in 2018 brought numerous challenges to the Brazilian democratic experience. Since the re-democratization in 1985, the military has never been so close to power as it is now. On the other hand, there is a clear contradiction in this movement for two reasons: while Bolsonaro represents the main political victory of the military since the enactment of the 1988 Constitution, the President is a former Army Captain who was involved in acts of indiscipline and disloyalty in the 1980s and was considered a bad soldier. For more than 30 years, Bolsonaro was a representative member of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies without relevant political expression and performed several acts in defense of the military dictatorship, torture, and other human rights violations. Once President of the Republic, he assigned strategic positions to members of the Armed Forces at the highest levels of the federal administration, becoming the most militarized government since the military dictatorship.

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bolsonaro adopted a negationist stance, with frequent attacks on science and ignoring the recommendations of the first Brazilian Ministry of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, and international organizations, especially the World Health Organization. The government, led by Bolsonaro, encouraged a campaign of “herd immunity” through the mass contamination of the population (refusing numerous proposals for buying vaccines) and, for that, he had to appoint four Ministers of Health until he found one able to carry out its project: Eduardo Pazuello, an Army general and specialist in logistics, who held the office between May 2020 and March 2021.

The spread of contamination and death in Brazil during Pazuello’s tenure was disastrous. While Brazil approached 470,000 deaths due to Covid-19, government negligence involved: A) early treatment with chloroquine and its derivatives (a drug with no recognized medical efficacy); B) refusal to adopt social distancing measures; C) absence of mass testing; D) refusal to purchase vaccines; and E) deaths due to lack of oxygen in the state of Amazonas. The sum of these events led the Federal Senate to create a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission to investigate the government’s negligence. The testimonies and documents already collected clearly demonstrate that Bolsonaro’s omission reflects a project based on the attempt to achieve herd immunity of the Brazilian population through mass infection, which could lead to the death of millions of people. The testimony of Pazuello, who left the Ministry of Health in March 2021, was one of the most anticipated by the Commission. His testimony, though, was counterproductive, permeated by evasive answers and false statements.

As civil society pressure against the government grew and the second wave of contamination caused more than 200,000 deaths in two months, Bolsonaro demanded the heads of the Armed Forces to expand their support for the government. The resistance of these officers caused a new crisis: the Minister of Defense, General Fernando Azevedo, and the Commanders of the Army, Navy, and Air Force were dismissed. The new Commander of the Army, General Paulo Sérgio Nogueira de Oliveira, was appointed through the seniority criterion, but he was not Bolsonaro’s preference because the General gave an interview stating that troops followed social distancing rules.

The Commission’s interrogation of Pazuello made him an important political asset for Bolsonaro’s project. By showing himself as an ally willing to sacrifice himself for his leader, he proved to the President’s followers that he could also hold a political office in the upcoming elections. This fact is essential to understand the importance of the former Health’s Minister participation in the demonstration promoted by motorcyclists supporting Bolsonaro, in Rio de Janeiro, on May 23, 2021. In the final moments of the rally, a few days after testifying at the Parliamentary Commission, Pazuello climbed into the truck where Bolsonaro was to speak in his support. Both were unmasked.

The episode ignited another spark in the constant crisis that pervades Brazil. The Army’s regulations expressly forbid Pazuello’s behavior. As an active General, Pazuello should not have participated in a political demonstration without the authorization of his superiors. The Army High Command was immediately asked to punish him for his act of insubordination, since this insubordination (if it goes unpunished) has the potential to generate instability throughout the troops and military police. The situation is particularly delicate because Bolsonaro has a strong resonance among the military police. The members of the Parliamentary Commission, in reaction to what happened, approved a summon for new testimony by General Pazuello. The line of defense adopted by Pazuello before the Army’s High Command also drew attention: he could not be punished because, since the President is not affiliated to any political party, the manifestation could not have a political-party connotation.

The situation was galvanized when Bolsonaro expressly declared that he did not wish to see Pazuello punished by the Army Command. The President informed the current Commander of his desire and threatened to nullify any contrary decision. This succession of events occurred concurrently with the organization of a political demonstration on May 29, 2021, when social movements and left-wing parties took to the streets of the country’s big cities to protest against the Bolsonaro government, having as their main demands requests for more vaccines, more economic-emergency aid, and more aid for fighting against hunger. The message from the protesters was that Bolsonaro does not have a monopoly on popular mobilization, which seems to have lit a warning signal in the government.

Finally, on the afternoon of June 3, 2021, the Army High Command launched a note stating that Pazuello was absolved from punishment. For several analysts of the Brazilian political scenario, this may have been a point of no return in the capitulation of the Armed Forces to the Bolsonaro government (here, here, and here). Pazuello’s lack of punishment adds more complexity to the process of militarization of Brazilian politics. Until then, the signs were that the military participated in the government to preserve the benefits – especially economic and administrative – resulting from it. Notwithstanding, Bolsonaro, a former soldier whose behavior was considered inappropriate by a former military President, imposed his will over the High Command and paid back the humiliations suffered in the past. The initial prediction that the Generals in the government would manage to restrain Bolsonaro is not supported by the facts.

In a broad perspective, all these events should be contextualized with the lack of a transitional justice process in Brazil, which undermines civilian control over the military, as Juliano Benvindo commented on this Blog and one of the authors of this post has demonstrated in recent research. However, in trying to make a projection for the political future of Brazil from the facts analyzed, it is important to understand how the lower ranks of the military and the military police will receive the message of the absence of punishment of an active General who participated in a political rally. At the event held by the opposition on May 29, 2021, military police fired rubber bullets and hit the eyes of two people who were walking near the demonstrations. This behavior contrasts with that seen in the acts supporting the President, in which the police guarantee the safety of those present.

What if, after a hypothetical electoral defeat in the 2022 elections, Bolsonaro decides to emulate Trump’s behavior before and during the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021? Will the military and police stand with the rule of law or will they back the “Captain”? In the Brazilian political environment, the following are no longer rhetorical questions: do we now have a submissive Army, and a military police force serving as the President’s watchdog?

Suggested citation: Ulisses Levy Silvério dos Reis & Rafael Lamera Giesta Cabral, How the Captain Defeated the Army: Bolsonaro Subordinates the Military in Brazil, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Jun. 6, 2021, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/06/how-the-captain-defeated-the-army-bolsonaro-subordinates-the-military-in-brazil/

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Published on June 6, 2021
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