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Specters of the military dictatorship

Recent episodes oblige academics to rethink the role of the military

hélio de almeidaIt has been some time since the Brazilian army, in the month of March, has occupied the news with so much prominence. It was on March 31, 1964 that the movement of a coup started that was to overturn President João Goulart two days afterwards. On March 15, 1985, the military handed back power to a civilian president, José Sarney. This year, in the same month, two episodes involving the military put the Army into the media in an uncomfortable way. On the 1st, the commander of the Army, Francisco Albuquerque, resorted to the old trick of “pulling rank”, to, according to Infraero, demand that a TAM aircraft return from the runway on takeoff.  Next, the company had to convince two passengers to give up their places to the officer and his wife. Days later, the Army surprised everyone with the invasion of the Rio de Janeiro shantytowns in search of stolen weapons.

The same general was involved, last year, in a polemical episode, when the then Minister of Defense, José Viegas, resigned, after the reading, by Albuquerque, of an order of the day with praise for the military dictatorship, after the disclosure of supposed photos of the body of journalist Vladimir Herzog, tortured to death in 1975. The contents of the message had been written by people linked to Albuquerque. While the military was acting on the hills, the Public Ethics Committee of the Presidency of the Republic took care of cooling the story smothering the story of the embarkation. Although it was deduced that the commander had been given “privileged treatment”, the conclusion was that he had not been lacking in ethics. It was merely recommended that authorities take  “more care” when dealing with their private life.

For the more fearful, the two facts apparently were bringing back a recurring question: the fear of a new incursion from the barracks caused by the trauma of the military dictatorship. As if, even after 21 years had passed, the specter continued to haunt the country. A dread that almost always leads to the complacency of the civilians on the one hand and to prepotencies from some men in uniform on the other. Brazilian democracy lives on tenterhooks because of ghosts from a period that for the majority left no nostalgia. Once in a while, the publication of a book, the revelation of some detail or the public manifestation of some high-ranking soldier is sufficient to light up the red light to a return of men in uniform to power.

Questions become inevitable: is there a risk of some move towards a coup in the barracks? On another aspect, less risky, what are Brazilian military thinking today, and what are its priorities? At the same time, it is to be noted that the theme is studied more and more in the universities, and new books are illuminating moments of tension, like the version of General Sylvio Frota for one of the most turbulent episodes of the dictatorship, during the Geisel government, in a biography that has just reached the bookshops through Jorge Zahar Editora. The volume was organized by Professors Maria Celina D’Araújo and Celso Castro, from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, which for over 15 years has been recording the military memory from statements and documents of high-ranking officials.

Castro tranquilizes the fearful. Just as other specialists consulted, he believes that the recent events are isolated events, and that there are no indications of anything similar to a desire of the military to return to power. A master and doctor in anthropology, he says  that the view of the Armed Forces as to power in the last two decades has adapted to the democratic regime. On the one hand, he explains, it must be observed that, contrary to what happened in neighboring countries of the Southern Cone, the Brazilian military was not punished for acts committed during the dictatorship. On the other hand, they accepted the democratically constituted civil governments, and the country passed through events like impeachment, the functioning of the Commission on Disappeared Persons, and the election of a president from the left without any institutional turbulence in the military area.

From a longer-term historical perspective, though, Castro observes that there is nothing to prevent messianic appeals from resurging with regard to a military intervention in politics in scenarios of a grave social or institutional crisis. At least on the visible horizon, this threat does not exist, he stresses.  For him, the generation of the military regime is now “in pajamas” as they say in the barracks. “The new generation of officials keeps a much greater emotional distance in relation to this period. With this, hitherto sensitive events come to be seen more and more as historical.”

Accordingly, the greatest concerns of the military on active service, Castro adds, have been with questions like better pay and budgets, to make it possible to improve the very precarious scenario in which the Brazilian Armed Forces find themselves and to make them fit to comply minimally with their basic missions. The military is also trying to reserve its institutional and symbolic identity as an important element in the constitution of the Brazilian nationality. So much so that the Lula government was well accepted, and there was no military turbulence in this respect. “The negative impact of the military regime on the institution was hard felt by the military itself, and that worked and still works as a preventive antidote for any interventionist idea.”

In the evaluation of the president of the Armed Forces and Politics Resaech Group, from the Social Sciences Department of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), João Roberto Martins Filho, the Armed Forces know that there is no climate for interventions and are aware that the exercise of political power has a high cost for the military corporation. Martins Filho points out, though, that the main problem today is the lack of willingness of society and of the political class to discuss the military theme in the country. The core issue, in his evaluation, is to answer what the country wants of its Armed Forces. “What resources do they need to perform their missions? What are the country’s defense priorities?” he asks. As there are no substantive discussions on the theme, the isolated incidents take the place of the main problem.

hélio de almeidaHistorian Roberto Baptista Junior considers the episode with the general a theme for reflection. In other times, even in the democratic period (1945-64), the head of the Army would never have his authority questioned. Nor would he be denounced. “The fact that the Infraero employee made a statement contradicting the general’s information, added to the boos he was given when he boarded the plane, shows that the citizens are exercising in full their rights and that the military are no longer terrifying folks.” The researcher has just defended his doctoral thesis Anti-Sovietism: reflections and shared repressive practices in the inter-American system at Unicamp, with a scholarship from Fapesp.

His research discusses the formulation of shared and dissociated policies amongst the governments of Latin America – in particular, Brazil’s – and of the United States, as from the influence of the Soviet Union before the coup in 1964. This makes it possible for him to make a differentiated interpretation of the period that preceded the armed movement against Goulart and the paranoia that has always haunted those in power since 1985 as to the return of the dictatorship. In practice, he says, the failure to solve the problems of corruption that dominate the news today may bring about, in the short, medium and long term, the strengthening of an authoritarian moralizing discourse – or one in the name of morals. “Authoritarian discourse, in the name of morals, which may come from the left or from the right, or from both under the nationalist banner. Even so, I think it would be very difficult for the military to venture out again.”

Besides this, he says, the Armed Forces are nowadays duly subordinated to the civilian powers and are trying to construct a profile based on professionalism. The military leaders circulate very little in national politics. In his opinion, different to before 1964, the country is more politically mature. The only worry is that a period classified as decadent always paves the return of moralizing authoritarian discourses. “Previously, for the Americans, Goulart ought to be removed from power because of his lack of commitment, and not because he was from the left. In the present-day regime, foreign investments in the country are doing very well and are duly protected by the government.”

Professor Durbens Martins Nascimento does not think any differently. He is one of those coordinating the creation, shortly, of the Amazonian Defense Studies Laboratory (Laed), an academic-institutional space for supporting UFPA’s undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, research and extension activities in the area of Concentration on National Defense. With a master’s degree (Araguaia guerilla movement) and a doctorate (Northern Corridor program) under the military regime, Martins Nascimento believes that the political conditions that emerged with the end of the Cold War, the strengthening of the institutions and a scenario of relative political stability in South America does not encourage initiatives to intervene.

However, the tendencies that show themselves as to the uncertainties of a disturbed scenario in some regions of the globe and the appearance of new threats, such as contraband, terrorism, narcotrafficking and biopiracy, pose, in concrete terms, the hypothesis of a permanent accompaniment of the Brazilian Armed Forces in relation to their objectives and function in society. Strictly speaking, this valuing of constitutional principles is no different in the other countries that form the international community. The opening for this, he observes, lies in the Brazilian Constitution itself, when it establishes the possibility of the defense of the institutions. “But that would be independent of who took the initiative, whether military from the reserve or those on active service.”

The researcher advocates the carrying out of studies to get to know how this movement is faring nowadays, in the sense of gauging to what extent this political influence is taking place. “Above all, as far as the political dimensionality is concerned, both of the military on active service and those from the reserve.” From the talk of these players, he goes on, it will be possible to sketch a tableau about the weight of the various military segments in the development of the current political crisis. “Obviously, there are special circumstances in which there is a radicalization of the political process when the Armed Forces offer themselves as an alternative for resolving institutional impasses. However, for the aspirations of these sectors to become effective, several motivations have to occur that need to be connected with economic, financial and political interests of civilian segments desirous of the military way out, which I think is wide of the mark.”

The discussion on the role of the Armed Forces sends us to a polemical point: the defense of the Brazilian frontiers in  the Amazon. In Amazônia e defesa nacional [The Amazon and National Defense], which has just been issued by Editora FGV, Celso Castro shows a picture of what has been produced in relation to the subject in the area of social sciences and history. He writes that, for the Army in particular, the Amazon has more and more occupied a central position in strategic and symbolic terms. Brazilian sovereignty over the region is seen by the military as the central element of their role.

In another aspect, in general, they view with suspicion the activities of the environmentalist movements in the area. “The lack of good quality information and of a greater interaction with civilian academic institutions tend to give the problem a distorted dimension. Once again, the question has to cease to be a military one, to become effectively national.” Martins Filho adds that the “immense” concern of the Armed Forces with the defense of the Amazon expresses itself in the importance of the Sivam project and in the creation of a doctrine of terrestrial resistance to a possible invasion of that area of the country. “The problem is that the military views about the region have not been discussed by Brazilian society.”