The return of military governance to Brazil could be justified in certain “hypothetical” scenarios, an Army general and far-right vice presidential candidate told HuffPost Brazil.
Army Gen. Antônio Hamilton Mourão, who is running with right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s Oct. 7 elections, has suggested in earlier interviews that a military coup could be justified in a period of “anarchy.” He reiterated that view in the HuffPost Brazil interview, during which he contrasted the military to the band aboard the Titanic.
“We discussed a hypothetical situation of chaos in the country,” Mourão said, referring to a previous interview with Brazil’s Globo news outlet. “When the Titanic sank, the orchestra continued playing and did nothing. So the armed forces cannot be playing while the Titanic sinks.”
Asked to expand on whether that meant Bolsonaro could hand power to a military-led government, Mourão said: “I have nothing more to explain on this subject.”
Brazil was ruled by an oppressive military regime from 1964-85, then began a transition back to democratic governance. A National Truth Commission report later found that the dictatorship had killed or was responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of political opponents and tortured thousands of others using techniques learned from British and American allies.
Bolsonaro, a former Army parachutist and seven-term federal congressman from Rio de Janeiro, has praised the military dictatorship throughout his political career and suggested that Brazil could benefit from a return to Army rule. He has denied that the regime tortured political opponents and praised dictators like Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean general whose military junta was accused of murdering 3,000 people and torturing 40,000 others between 1973-90.
In 2016, he dedicated his vote to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff, a former anti-dictatorship guerilla, to the Army colonel who oversaw the program that tortured her.
Mourão, meanwhile, suggested last year that the military could return to power if Brazil’s democratically elected officials failed to deal with the economic and political corruption crises that have plagued the country.
Those crises have plunged Brazil’s economy into one of its deepest recessions and led to corruption allegations against hundreds of politicians, including former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and top leaders of Brazil’s traditionally centrist parties. They have also evaporated faith in the country’s democracy. Polls have shown that as many as two-thirds of Brazilians have no confidence in their political parties, legislature or president. Other surveys have shown declining faith in democracy itself and nostalgia for the era of military rule.
Bolsonaro, who was stabbed during a campaign rally last week, has capitalized on the discontent and waged a nationalistic campaign that that has earned him the nickname “Brazil’s Trump” and propelled him to the top of election polls. These surveys have not included da Silva, who led in the polls before he banned from the race due to his July 2017 conviction on corruption charges.
Brazil’s current president, Michel Temer of the center-right Democratic Movement Party, has failed to revive the economy and also faces bribery charges. With his approval ratings in the single digits, he is not seeking another term.
Bolsonaro’s past support for the dictatorship, along with his racist, sexist and homophobic remarks and calls for violence against political opponents, has turned his bid for the presidency into one of the strongest tests of Brazil’s democratic institutions since its return to democratic rule.
Mourão, in the interview with HuffPost Brazil, insisted that the prospect of a return to military rule was not imminent in the nation’s current state of “turbulence.” Bolsonaro, too, has said in recent interviews that he does not favor the outright return of military governance, and expressed a newfound commitment to democracy.
“He represents the possibility that the conservative forces of the armed forces don’t need to take power because he will act on their behalf.”
Brazilian political observers say that a traditional military takeover is unlikely. Though coups were once common across Latin America, they are rare now. Rather, erosions of democracies tend to occur at the ballot box, thanks to candidates like Bolsonaro who undermine that form of government after they win office.
“There have been very, very few military coups in Latin America over the last 35 years,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist and author of How Democracies Die. “So I think that while increased public support for a military coup is troubling, it’s much more likely Brazilian democracy will die at the hands of an elected leader.”
If elected, Bolsonaro will likely militarize Brazil’s government and society even without an outright return to military rule. He has promised to stack his cabinet with military officers. He has called for a larger role for the military in policing and public security in an attempt to appeal to voters who are demanding solutions to outbreaks of violent crime that have resulted in more than 60,000 homicides in each of the last two years.
Bolsonaro has also called for giving police and military officers greater leeway to shoot and kill criminals, even though Brazilian law enforcement was already responsible for more than 4,000 killings last year.
“He represents the possibility that the conservative forces of the armed forces don’t need to take power because he will act on their behalf,” James Green, the director of Brown University’s Brazil Initiative program, said in an interview last month.
Polls released this week ― the first since Bolsonaro was stabbed and hospitalized last Thursday ― showed a modest bump for him and his right-wing Social Liberal Party and he is now considered a favorite to reach the second round, run-off phase of the election. But polls also have shown he would lose a head-to-head match-up against nearly every possible opponent in that Oct. 28 vote.
If Bolsonaro does win, though, the emergence of a quasi-authoritarian in Latin America’s largest democratic nation could have ramifications across the region and the world, Levitsky said.
“If Brazil falls, if Brazil goes authoritarian, I would worry a lot about the rest of the region,” he said. “People in Latin America ― militaries in Latin America, demagogues and democrats in Latin America ― will be paying close attention to Brazil. It would have devastating regional consequences.”