Brazil: Will Officers’ Role in Government Taint the Military Institution?

By Christoph Harig*

President and Vice President of Brazil

Vice-President General Hamilton Mourão and President Jair Bolsonaro / Pedro França / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

More military officers have joined Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s government than during most periods of the country’s last military regime (1964-1985), which raises the question how much the military – as an institution – will avoid compromising its supposed non-partisan nature.  The President, Vice-President, as well as eight government ministers, are retired or reserve military officers.  Bolsonaro furthermore nominated an active-duty army general as the government spokesperson.  In total, more than 100 reserve and active-duty military personnel serve in various ministries and subordinate government agencies.  Some officers have joined out of true allegiance, others, out of a sense of duty or because they want to prevent worse things from happening.  The government is drawing heavily on individual (mostly reserve) military officers, but the military as an institution is not running the government.  This is not a return to the military’s previous political interventionism: instead, a democratically elected government is (re)militarizing politics.

  • The military’s official discourse is keen on maintaining its image as a non-partisan state institution. However, officers are aware that this will be a challenge.  The presence of dozens of reserve officers in government agencies irrevocably connects the armed forces to the administration.  Although many officers do have reservations about Bolsonaro, others have proudly displayed their satisfaction with the victory of the former paratrooper.  Many citizens and international observers will thus perceive the government’s actions as being at least implicitly backed by the military.
  • For the armed forces, this involvement comes with opportunities as well as risks. On the one hand, there is a considerable increase in the military’s veto power.  They can expect privileged treatment and an effective representation of their interests.  The military might for instance be able to draw some red lines when it comes to being included in the government’s planned pension reform.  On the other hand, the prominent role in Bolsonaro’s administration attracts unwanted public scrutiny.  Discontent with an eventual preferential treatment of the armed forces in the pensions reform might grow louder than if the military had stayed below the radar.

So far, military officers’ involvement in government appears to have boosted the military’s standing.  The generals are widely being seen as a moderating force.  They have blocked some controversial foreign policy proposals of Bolsonaro and the radical wing of the government, such as the move of the Brazilian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or the establishment of a U.S. military base on Brazilian soil.  Some observers even suggest that the generals have established a tutelary role in foreign policy after the Minister of Foreign Affairs ended military cooperation with Venezuela without consulting the armed forces.

  • Particularly Vice-President General Mourão – once known for threatening military intervention in politics and even considered a liability during the election campaign due to several ill-considered statements – excels in his newly found role as “adult in the room.” As President Bolsonaro is stuck in polarizing campaign mode (for instance, he keeps on attacking Brazil’s press and recently lauded late Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner as great statesman), it is fairly easy for Mourão to present himself as pragmatic and reliable statesman.  In this role, he led Brazil’s delegation to the Lima Group meeting in Bogotá, where he clarified that Brazil would not support a military intervention in Venezuela.

In the long run, the impact of officers’ enhanced policymaking role on the military’s prestige will depend on whether they stay clear of blunders, failures, and scandals.  While the military officers in government might succeed in playing a moderating role for the time being, this development entails considerable risks.  Within and outside of the barracks, there already is a widespread perception of the military as savior that is supposed to rescue Brazil in times of extreme crisis.  This historically grown paternalistic role of high levels of political interventionism – in which allegedly competent armed forces save the nation from incompetent civilian politicians – will only become further entrenched.

March 6, 2019

*Christoph Harig is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Political Science at the Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg, Germany.

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