(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Jair Bolsonaro left the army under a cloud some 30 years ago, he staked his subsequent political career on his image as a former soldier who promised to restore order to Order and Progress, the slogan that military-minded Positivists emblazoned in 1889 on the national banner. Yet since he has ascended to the presidency, perhaps the most enduring paradox of the new Brazil is how the senior military men Bolsonaro has tapped for his cabinet as symbols of respectability and political tensile strength are now in jeopardy of forfeiting both.
National polls rank the armed forces as Brazil’s most trustworthy institution, trumping the judiciary, the media, private companies and political parties. Their aura only brightened during the recent serial corruption scandals that have sent dozens of crooked executives and politicians to jail. Bolsonaro parlayed the military’s cachet into votes and then recruited its members for his cabinet.
True, he picked mostly retired officers, but no one missed the message when he handed the keys to three- and four-star generals. Besides Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired four-star general, and the presidential spokesman, former or active military officers hold eight of 22 ministries, “more than in any other civilian government,” said Getulio Vargas Foundation political scientist Octavio Amorim Neto. And that’s not counting the environment ministry, where military officers hold 15 top jobs.
So omnipresent were the military, many analysts fretted for the country’s tender democracy, which was rehabilitated just three decades ago. Brazil has had seven constitutions since the monarchy, and all but two of them reserved a specific role in national politics for the armed forces, says historian Jose Murilo de Caravalho, a scholar of the role of the military in Brazilian politics.
Happily, the fears proved overblown. “After 100 days of the new government, it’s clear that the Armed Forces are not a threat to democracy,” said Amorim. Paradoxically, the military has been a steadying influence on government, counterbalancing Bolsonaro’s ideologues and ruling out armed adventures. Consider that Mourao and fellow cabinet generals quashed talk vented by the United States of joining an invasion of Venezuela, and nixed transferring the Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, so reassuring Brazil’s clients and allies in the Arab world. They also overruled government climate skeptics to ensure that Brazil remains in the Paris Agreement on climate change. The more credible menace, however, is to the military’s own reputation.
When Bolsonaro took office in January, 62 percent of Brazilians surveyed favored the idea of a government marbled with career military officers. “Brazilians like the idea of a militarized government. It’s the fantasy of law and order,” said Amorim. “Besides, after leading peacekeeping missions in Haiti, the armed forces returned as national heroes.” By last month, however, such public enthusiasm had fallen to 49 percent.
That tumble mirrors the 16 percent drop in overall approval for Bolsonaro’s government. Overblown expectations are partly to blame, but so is the government’s conspicuous underperformance. Despite talk of pivotal reforms and a free-market renaissance, Latin America’s biggest economic engine is still running on fumes, with 13.5 million people jobless and industry at a standstill. The proposed overhaul of the money-gobbling pension system, the cornerstone of any recovery, is creeping along in congress.What prosper instead are partisan hype, political intrigue and palace clashes. Together, they have corroded government authority and lit up social media. Key military ministers haven’t helped by stooping to the occasion, dueling on Twitter with the president’s three outspoken sons and Olavo de Carvalho, a scatological online philosophy teacher with a habit of trolling men in uniform. Their choice targets to date: Mourao and fellow retired general Carlos Alberto Santa Cruz, whose ministry coordinates government affairs. “Sack Santa Cruz” (#foraSantaCruz) was a Brazilian trend-beater on Twitter last weekend. Even former army commander Eduardo da Costa Villas Boas weighed in, saying Carvalho didn’t deserve the attention, but then dedicating an entire interview to dressing him down as a “Trotsky of the right.” Carvalho parried by calling Villas Boas, who suffers from a degenerative disease, a “sick man stuck in a wheelchair.”
Some analysts see method in the penchant of Bolsonaro and his closest confederates for rhetorical mayhem. He won the presidency by energizing Brazil’s closet conservatives fed up with talk of gender equality, racism, rights for gay and human rights. “If he suddenly turns into a moderate and pushes pension system or tax reform, he loses traction,” Political scientist Fernando Schuler, of the Sao Paulo business school Insper, told me.
Far better, Schuler says, to distract the rightwing voter base with the culture wars—tweeting about golden showers during Carnival or supposed leftist ideology in the classroom—while the technocrats push the wonk’s agenda and the military ministers play the adults in the room. “Theatrics and diversionary tactics are a specialty of populist leaders and Bolsonaro is no different,” Schuler said.
Perhaps so, yet guerrilla politics make for dicey government, and can provoke reputational backlash. Last week, Bolsonaro decided to cancel his trip to New York after several institutions, citing his objectionable politics, withdrew their offer to host a Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce soiree, where he would have been guest of honor.
The fallout could be especially onerous for the Brazilian military. “Since the return of democracy, the military returned to the barracks, concentrated on becoming a professional fighting force, and until very recently steered clear of political debate,” said the historian Carvalho. “I thought we’d settled all that.” And yet as Brazil lurches from controversy to controversy, the pull of the political arena only grows.
There’s a precedent for leaning in. In the 19th century, when Brazil was a constitutional monarchy, the ruling emperors assumed the mantle of the nation’s “moderating power,” who had ascendancy over and settled disputes among the judiciary, legislators and governors. The armed forces fancied themselves ever since as moderators in uniform, definitively stepping back only after the 1988 constitution restored electoral democracy.
It took a massive corruption scandal which peaked under back-to-back leftist governments—the last of which sponsored a truth commission into unspoken military misdeeds—to draw the brass back over the political red line. When Bolsonaro emerged, they were primed to reclaim a place in power, where they remain vigilant.
“We stand with you, win or lose, but not to sink,” one former general recently told Bolsonaro in a private meeting of senior military advisers, the political newsletter Tag Report wrote. The warning was hard to miss. “The armed forces are aware of the risk of a failed government,” said Amorim. “That could have consequences, including that of taking a more central role in politics.”
No one is predicting a return to martial rule. Yet as the Bolsonaro government struggles, the military’s presence in government—“mission creep,” as Amorim puts it—is already growing. For now, constitutional democracy is likely to emerge unsmirched. The Brazilian men and women in olive green should be so lucky.
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Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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