Press release

Coup in Brazil?

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Published on: 14.04.2020

By Marco Consolo *

The news spread like lightning in social networks last week. The Brazilian military was said to have just carried out a kind of “white coup” against President Jair Bolsonaro, an increasingly embarrassing character even for them and completely unable to tackle the coronavirus emergency.
First, let’s take a step back.

It all started from a television program in Argentina, where a well-known investigative journalist, Horacio Verbisky, claimed that one of his sources in the argentine Armed Force. had received a phone call from a high Brazilian commander. On the phone, the latter allegedly informed the Argentine that high ranking officers of the Brazilian Armed Forces had placed General Walter Braga Netto at the head of the Casa Civil [i] and had entrusted him with full powers (a concept that has become very fashionable again). His task would be to take daily operational decisions and in particular the management of the Covid-19 virus pandemic, given Bolsonaro’s criminal denialism. In other words, having a president for politics and a general as operational president.

Unfortunately, however, the timing does not fit, given that Bolsonaro announced the appointment of Braga Netto last February 13, that is, more than a month ago. But the world is inattentive, even about what is happening in the Brazilian giant.

Let’s look at the events in order.

A government full of soldiers
First of all, military personnel have played a huge role in the Bolsonaro government from the beginning. Perhaps not even in the times of the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985) there were so many men in uniform with government posts. Bolsonaro himself was a military man, the vice president is a general, the minister of the Casa Civil is another general, 9 Secretaries of State are in the armed forces and there is also a police as Secretary of State. In addition to the front line positions, quite a few of the second and third rows wear uniforms, with a total of about 2500.

Formally it is not yet a military dictatorship, but it is certainly a “highly militarized” government with an elected president (thanks to the imprisonment of Lula, but that is another issue). In short, it is not identical to the civil-military dictatorships of the past, and while it looks a lot like them, it has a more modern image.

Second. There are contradictions and conflicts within the Armed Forces, and especially within the military police of the different states. The Bolsonaro line is strongly supported by many senior officers, but also by lower levels of the military hierarchies. In addition, Bolsonaro enjoys great support in the military police of the various states, which in Brazil are made up of more than 420,000 men [ii]. It is a combat force with far more military experience than the army troops.

This means that the active soldiers and reservists, who oppose Bolsonaro’s “excesses”, even if they agree with the general line of behavior, are very cautious. Of course, some may consider him a “useful idiot”, but he is not a “banana president” who can be treated as a puppet.

In other words, trying to put Bolsonaro under complete control is not easy. It would be is easier to depose him or put him to one side through legal impeachment or for medical reasons. These choices are not to be discarded. Yet in the past few weeks there have been many rumors about “protection” or tutelage. The new minister of the Casa Civil, General Braga Netto is very close to the commander-in-chief of the army, General Edson Leal Pujol. And certainly Braga Netto was sent to Casa Civil to try to have more control by those sectors of the Armed Forces who are not entirely Bolsonarists or who are less and less. But, as we said, this happened several weeks ago, after the mutiny of the Cearà State military police in late February, the demonstrations against the Parliament and the Supreme Court of the Bolsonarists ultras and the onset of the coronavirus crisis on the horizon. This does not mean that “direct and complete tutelage” cannot be achieved, but if this were to happen it would be the forerunner of an even more confused situation.

What has occurred in the last few days does not appear to be either the placing of the president under tutelage, nor a coup by the military.

In fact, it looks like a ballon d’essai to psychologically prepare the ground for the possibility that, if necessary, Vice President Hamilton Mourão would take over the presidency. Paradoxically, there would not be strong reactions, because it would not be read as a push by the military, given that Mourão is the elected vice president. Even though it may be hard to believe, Mourão is much further to the right of both Gen. Braga Netto and Gen. Pujol and as brute as, or perhaps even worse than Bolsonaro.

However, apart from how we want to call it, the main question is what will really happen from here on. Bolsonaro is increasingly isolated and is desperately seeking a way out of the institutional crisis, the economic crisis and the growing unemployment caused by the partial quarantine and the interruption of some important productive activities.
Hunger and misery are increasing day by day in Brazil, especially in the favelas where millions of people live.

The impact of the Virus
In Brazil, the impact of the Corona virus is already extremely violent and unfortunately it will be dramatic in the coming weeks. Despite big announcements, the government’s inability to articulate concrete measures is catastrophic. Delays and bureaucracy pervade the huge Brazilian territory, together with pressure and blackmail to keep the large factories open by the industrial economic elite, regardless of the health of the workers. After the institutional coup against Dilma Roussef in 2016, there has been a progressive dismantling of social policies, also thanks to a constitutional “reform” that has prohibited any increase in social, health and education spending for the next 20 years. The operational capacity to deal with the health emergency and the treatment of diseases (for example AIDS) was gradually dismantled. And the open clash between Bolsonaro and his minister of health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, fills the pages of the national and international newspapers.

On the economic side, two initiatives approved by parliament and proposed by the ultra-liberal “czar of the economy”, Paolo Guede have been at the centre of attention. On the one hand, the authorization to cut wages by up to 70% (with subsidies for companies to keep jobs). On the other, the “basic citizenship income”, not yet operational: 104 euros for 3 months, for the army of informal workers who go to the streets every day to have something to eat in the evening.

The political framework
On the political side, the picture is changing rapidly and the most diverse alliances have been formed. The most significant, at the “center”, is represented by the President of the Federal Parliament, Rodrigo Maia who tries to articulate the right with the governors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, João Doria and Wilson Witzel. These two, who in the past unconditionally supported Bolsonaro, today are his opponents. With an eye on the presidential elections and grappling with the real government of their cities, they have been forced to prioritize health problems, and leave the economy aside for later. Maia has also tried to weaken an extreme right which, thanks to support for Bolsonaro, counted on 40% (now 28-30%) and which mobilizes on the streets, encouraging the population to go back to work and criticize the two governors. At the same time, the “center” initiative seeks to displace Lula’s PT, the PCdoB and other forces of the political left by moving it away from a possible alliance with the center. In a document signed by many opposition figures, Bolsonaro was asked to resign, despite hesitations and internal debate in some political forces, including those of the left, concerned about opening the way for the military. In addition, we must report the never dormant attempts to eliminate the PT from the electoral register, on the accusation of being a “criminal organization”.

For their part, the social movements (Frente Brasil Popular and Frente Povo Sem Medo) presented their platform of demands with 60 urgent measures. At the center of the platform are the strengthening of public health, the guarantee of income and employment, social protection and the right to food for all, the right to housing, the conversion of the economy and the use of public resources. Bolsonaro is seen as the main threat to the security and well-being of the population and they demand his immediate resignation. Of course, the ability of popular sectors to react with street mobilizations at this time is severely limited by quarantine, but initiatives in social networks that try to maintain organization are multiplying. And, above all in the big cities, massive panelaços (the beatings of pots …) continue against Bolsonaro, also by middle class sectors who had voted for him.

In a scenario difficult to predict, the prospect of articulation between social and trade union movements from below, sectors of the economic world (in particular SMEs) and a parliamentary and institutional opposition, fighting for a different government, is still far away.
In the short term, the scenario is a period of growing instability. Despite the many contradictions within it, however the ruling elite needs order and could hypothetically bet on Bolsonaro’s removal and a replacement with Vice President Mourão. The king would be naked, with the military in government for the second part of Bolsonaro’s mandate and with unknown prospects, but too similar to the history of Latin America in the recent past.

Last but not least, is the unknown position of the United States, which remains behind the scenes at this stage.

I end with a phrase borrowed from a well-known Brazilian humorist, known as Barão de Itararé: “Anything can happen, even nothing”.

*member of the EL Executive Board

[i] The head of the Casa Civil is the President’s right hand man and in the presidential systems he is considered the most important minister, a sort of coordinating minister of the government. It can be compared to the head of government of the parliamentary systems, although formally this corresponds to the President of the Republic who, at the same time, performs the two functions.
[ii] In 2013 they were 425,248 (Source IBGE 2013)

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