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Political science

Who will guard the guardians?

Crisis at the airports puts into the air the fragilities of the Ministry of Defense

MARCELO CIPISThe aeroplane, in the air, is the world’s safest means of transport. On land, that is not always true. Airplanes hitting the two towers led the USA to war. In Brazil, another conflict, more veiled, but not for that reason less bellicose, is being waged in the airports. There are still no shots, just the casualties of Gol’s Boeing, the fall of which, strangely, revealed that the antagonism between civilians and the military remains in post-democratization Brazil. It was after the accident with flight 1907 that the flight controllers adopted a work to rule, which, by law, is restricted to civilians, since the military is prohibited from striking (and only one fourth of these professionals do not come from the barracks). The commander of the Air Force accused the Ministry of Defense of “encouraging anarchy and prompting a grave precedent” by negotiating with the “strikers” to put an end to the chaos in the airports.

The civilian minister Waldir Pires did not accept defeat and went so far as to propose the demilitarization of the controllers, causing more wrath amongst the military. Their fear is lest the breach of hierarchy in the control of flights ends up placing the whole military organization in checkmate, because of the intervention of the Defense Ministry. “The existence of this Ministry is an important basic indicator of the civilian-military relations in a country. This structure, according to some, is the solution to the classic dilemma of who will guard the guardians?. If the correct reply is that it is the democratically elected civilians that guard the guardians, then a Ministry of Defense is the fundamental vehicle for this control”, observes Luís Alexandre Fucille, the author of Democracy and the military question: the creation of the Ministry of Defense in Brazil, a doctoral thesis defended at Unicamp in February, under the supervision of Eliézer Rizzo de Oliveira. “Democracy can only work when those who have arms obey those who do not have them”, in his analysis.

For the researcher, there is still a lack of content in this government body, created in 1999 during the FHC government, and those who think that the “threat” to military autonomy is a thing of the past are mistaken. “Full civilian control is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for the consolidation and deepening of the Brazilian democratic regime”, the researcher reckons. The biggest disaster of Brazilian aviation may be exposing one of the greatest mistakes of post-dictatorship Brazil: that the Armed Forces were miraculously “brought into line”. “Such a deep-rooted and conservative mentality as the military mentality is not transmuted by a simple “changing of the guard”.”

The brigadier’s annoyance is not an exception, but proves to be almost a rule. Since the birth of the ministry, there has been no holder of the post of president of the Republic unscathed by military disrespect, from FHC, execrated by the Armed Forces, to Lula, whose minister, the diplomat José Viegas, fell after being affronted by the commander of the Army. The soldier, in an official note, after the publication in the press of photos that supposed showed journalist Vladimir Herzog submitted to tortures, reaffirmed the military convictions about the years of lead. “Instead of dismissing the general, Lula dealt with him with kid gloves and considered the incident as the fruit of the political ineptness of Viegas”, recalls political scientist Jorge Zaverucha, from the Federal University of Pernambuco, in his article The Fragility of the Brazilian Ministry of Defense.

“Afraid of exercising his authority, Lula left himself fragile himself. The Armed Forces continue to act autonomously and frequently pass over the authority of the Minister of Defense, denting the authority of the President of the Republic and in clear insubordination to the chain of political and military command”, in his analysis. For Zaverucha, the ministry, with its limited prerogatives, reflects the unstable equilibrium in the country’s civilian-military relations. “The institutional arrangement that created the ministry makes its occupant much more a sort of institutional go-between of the Armed Forces before the President than a representative of the government for the barracks. Viegas’s departure left that crystal-clear. “The temporary appointment of Vice-President José Alencar, replacing Viegas, gave some breathing space to the military, which felt itself gaining prestige with the new “patron”. The love affair was not to last long: the appointment of Waldir Pires, exiled during the dictatorship, has been difficult to swallow by the Armed Forces.

The reasons go back to the Paraguayan War, when the Forces observed the need for having new techniques available, in order to achieve greater efficiency in their performance. “It was then that the relationship existing between the military organization and the degree of economic development of a country with such incipient industrial foundations was perceived. The corporation came to take on a progressive political influence, to the extent that it had a more critical notion of its role, as the most “national” of the institutions, without the same consideration and concern occurring on the part of the civilians”, Fucille reasons. The military prominence throughout our independent history strikes the eye, but, the researcher observes, that did not generate an analytical consideration of the phenomenon. “There was an acceptance of the idea of the military question as a problem that would not call for greater considerations by society in the post-authoritarian context.” The researcher also observes that the end of the military/authoritarian cycle occurred less from the pressures of the civil society than from a distensive policy drawn up by the Forces.

MARCELO CIPISThe Brazilian military left power with reasonable autonomy and a high degree of institutional cohesion, besides having maintained prerogatives that make a relevant political role possible, albeit on different lines. “There has been a reduced but ascendant autonomy, nevertheless no less significant in relation to civilian power. The Forces still keep complete independence in defining how to employee their budget”, reckons Suzeley Mathias, a researcher from Unesp’s Defense Studies Group and the author of the book Militarization of Bureaucracy (Unesp/FAPESP). Continuity was the main hallmark of the passing from the military government to the first civilian government. With an aggravating factor: the employment of the military in guaranteeing “law and order” was maintained. “Employing the Forces to defend the law means that it can be used for police duties, like repressing trafficking. In guaranteeing order, on the other hand, space is opened up for the military to be able to be called to repress strikes or social movements”, Fucille notes. That was a dangerous precedent, in particular with the end of the Cold War, during the Collor government, which led the military institutions to an “identity crisis”. What do the Forces serve for? It was an uncomfortable question, but frequently posed in Brazil.

After Operation Rio, a series of actions to fight Rio de Janeiro drug traffic carried out between 1994 and 1995, this crisis was overcome. “It was a turning point. With FHC, the military circles resolved the impasse through the dangerous expedient of resorting to the Armed Forces to resolve conflicts, above all the social ones, in overcoming the obstacles on the way to the structural reforms set forth by the neoliberal agenda”, the researcher observes. According to Fucille, the creation of the ministry took place in the wake of globalization. “What was being sought was more a modernization and a rationalization of the defense system along the lines of a program for reforming the State that wanted to implode the fundamental pillars that were still left of the Vargas era, which was the direct contact of the military apparatus with the decision-taking levels of power, tolerated within the style of the bureaucratic State, but inadequate in the institution of a managerial State.”

You just have to remember that FHC designated the minister-chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces to outline the new brief, making it clear, Zaverucha notes, that “it would have a military perception, although it was created as a level of civilian power”. During the first presidential mandate, the project did not advance, and, finally, Cardoso saw himself obliged to create the ministry by hook or by crook, in the wake of the government campaign to guarantee a permanent seat for Brazil on the Security Council of the UN. “Throughout the whole process of creating the ministry, the participation of civilians in general (both from the political class and from the civil society) was trifling, a neglect, incidentally, that unfortunately remains to this date”, he says. “The Legislative Branch, in particular, has characterized itself in Brazil for not acting very prominently as far as defense issues are concerned, merely saying yes or no to the budgetary demands of the Forces, instead of asking why and what for, as befitted it, which only reinforces the chronic Brazilian military autonomy, pointing to future (and present) problems on the political plane, to the extent that it points to a hypertrophy of the Executive Branch.” The creation of the Ministry of Defense is symptomatic of this, since it was born of a Provisional Measure and with a timid participation of Congress.

Or, in the words of Walter Bräuer, then Minister of the Air Force: “The Ministry of Defense did not come from us, nor from the people. It came from a government determination”. In spite of the criticisms, the government accepted the plea of the military for the American defense model, in which the position of the occupant is strengthened, to be left aside, under the allegation of “our having peculiarities”. The president of the Air Force Club, in 1999, Ércio Braga, made then clear: “One cannot talk about the legality of a government which, by its actions, becomes illegitimate, given that the commitment of the military is to the nation, and not to the government”. There were those at the same meeting who declared, like Deputy Jair Bolsonaro, that: “He (FHC), for me, should have been shot”. All this, notwithstanding the fact that Cardoso, from a military family, had done the whole process with absolute zeal, without being concerned about time.

“Each individual Force carries out its activities without being linked to the others. One cannot perceive an integrated project tying up the desired or possible bellicose capacity with the pertinent budgetary resources. We lack a ‘white paper for defense’, indicating what the country’s defense policy is, what the missions of the Forces are”, Zaverucha believes. “It is imperative for the Ministry of Defense to fulfill the function of interlocutor between the Forces and society, for society to be able to take an interest and have an influence on a decisive theme for the destiny of the country, which is the definition of the role of the military”, says Eliézer Rizzo de Oliveira, a researcher from the Strategic Studies Nucleus at Unicamp. “The ministry is adequate for the country. What it lacks is content”, he notes. For the researcher, the universities have to be stimulated to an interchange with the Forces for the production of knowledge about national defense. A big step was taken by Unicamp, which implanted the Development of Technology for the Ministry of Defense Laboratory, during the term of office of Rector Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz. These studies may help to prevent dangerous muddles, such as the one made by deputies and senators, who, Rizzo observes, mix up the concepts of national security with national defense. “President Lula has to resist the pressures for the transformation of the Forces into police auxiliaries or for using them to recover highways instead of the contractors, ignoring the outdated state of the military machinery.” Nor is the answer to exchange the uniform for the suit. “The Ministry of Defense, with limited duties, reflects the unstable equilibrium in civilian-military relations”, warns Zaverucha. The 154 victims of Gol flight 1907 are enough. Democracy cannot be one more casualty in this quarrel, as recent as it is old.