“We are heading for Chaos”: Professor Domingos Neto on Brazil’s Military, Moro, and Bolsonaro

In conversation about the past and the present, Manuel Domingos Neto reflects on the role of the Armed Forces in Brazil.

By Cristiane Sampaio and Pedro Stropasolas. Brasil de Fato

In these times when the military presence takes shape in varied compartments of Brazilian politics, it is from memory and history that the writer Manuel Domingos Neto takes the considerations to understand the scenario of the country and reflect on what is knocking at the door. In the week in which we recall 56 years since the 1964 military coup, which was announced on April 1 of that year, the historian talked to Brasil de Fato about the main themes that today shake up national politics in light of the advance of the Armed Forces into the sphere of command and power.

Having worked for the left-wing Popular Action organization during the dictatorship, Domingos Neto is a former political prisoner and militant of historical importance, as well as a former federal deputy for Piauí and a retired professor of Political Science at Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF). It is from these substrates that his analysis of the risk imposed by the current and ostensible presence of the military wing on the chessboard of Brazilian politics starts. “When all this is over, the Armed Forces’ debt to society will be extremely high”, exclaims the professor, when he tries to associate the lessons of the past with the projections about the dreaded future.

The relationship between Minister Sérgio Moro and the uniformed in power, as well as the radicalization of the military with the customs agenda, the political isolation of President Jair Bolsonaro (without a party), the “chaos” and the “unpredictability” of the national context, are also points of reflection for Domingos Neto.

Below are the main excerpts from the interview:

Brasil de Fato: In comparison to other Latin American countries, such as Chile and Argentina, where torturers were punished and the people are more sensitive to the lives taken by the military, in the Brazilian case, this does not happen. On the contrary, Ustra is exalted by Bolsonaro , parliamentarians, and part of the nation. In the last few days, the defense minister, Fernando Azevedo e Silva, followed the government’s interpretation of the coup, and declared that it was a “milestone for Brazilian democracy”. Does that surprise you?

Manuel Domingos Neto: As we know, the dictatorship ended with a pact. That pact included amnesty and therefore included the freedom of torturers. It was the pact which was possible and, from then on, we persistently lived an unsolved problem. The crimes against humanity, torture practiced by State agents could not just be forgotten with a cloth laid over it. This persisted all the time, this tension was one of the motivations of the military to remove the left from the scene, because I think that, at the height of the legitimacy of the Lula governments, something should have been done. It was not done.

In these circumstances, the deep friction in the military was very much alive and they already even tried to minimise the Truth Commission, under the Dilma Rousseff (PT) government. By then the discomfort was terrible because, throughout this period of democratization or democracy, the training of the military, the mindset of the military – their narratives were not changed they were not touched. At most, they had been silenced, they had been, shall we say, hibernating, and have re-emerged, with glaring reactionaryism only in recent years.

Now, I do not believe that the return of the military as political agents, as protagonists of the political scene is due only to that. I think this deserves a much more complicated analysis because other factors come in. But, undoubtedly, the fact that there was no accountability, the minimisation of torture contributed to the ferocity with which they now return, paranormalizing an infamous regime.

Today, we have the agenda of the defense minister, which is disgusting in all respects. It is deceitful, it is false, it is disrespectful to Brazilians, it is disrespectful to the intelligence of the common man. You don’t have to be a genius to understand that this order from Minister Fernando (Azevedo e Silva) is no accident. How does one sign a statement which says “we installed a dictatorship to defend democracy”? This is ridiculous, it has no foundation, it has no place.

Why do some of the Brazilian people still deny the dictatorship?

Over decades, the reactionary nature of Brazilian society has been fueled in different ways. Some of the most evident was the political activism of the neo-Pentecostals, bombarding a mass audience with media and radio stations in any corner of Brazil. You see a predominance which undermines democracy. Anyway, it is a key domain of this activism under the cover of religious preaching.

Now, from a strictly military point of view, throughout this period, military schools established, repeated, insisted on, and sophisticated the narrative of the military in defense of Brazil, obviously not treating Brazil as the Brazilian people. The narrative was of saviours of the motherland, denying everything that is written in the law, in the Constitution and what was objectively lived by the history of Brazil. I would say that, in these years of democracy, the military has experienced this profound existential dilemma, namely that for 200 years they did not know whether they wanted to be policemen or whether they would be a defense force in Brazil. I think that today the first hypothesis prevails, they are a police force in nature.

I would say that, in these years of democracy, the military has experienced this profound existential dilemma, namely that for 200 years they did not know whether they wanted to be policemen or whether they would be a defense force in Brazil. I think that today the first hypothesis prevails, they are a police force in nature.

My colleagues who studied the Armed Forces established another dilemma, also legitimate, which is whether the Armed Forces wanted to be political or military. I respect this interpretation, I think this analysis is important, but in my work, I emphasize much more the dilemma between being police or military, that is, being conditioned to face Brazilian citizens, or an external threat. The Armed Forces are prepared to face the Brazilian people and are not prepared to face external enemies.

How was military behavior in the PT period? And what did Michel Temer’s authorization to use the Armed Forces in Rio de Janeiro represent in 2017?

I, like so many colleagues who study the military, were stunned. We made mistakes, we created illusions, we had intense interaction and debate with the military itself over the years. We formulated and discussed major strategic programs that were transformed into national defense strategies and plans, strategic programs. And we, for my part, believed that this would happen … Villas Boas himself repeated many times ‘the experience of government was very bad for the Armed Forces’. He didn’t call it a military dictatorship. The Armed Forces suffered from the regime as a corporation. And, in this conversation, we believe that the military had deeply assimilated the need to leave politics to politicians, and not to get involved in politics, not least because the armed politician establishes an absolutely dishonest and cowardly relationship. How am I going to act politically if I’m armed with the weapon you bought me? How do you pay me to graduate, maintain me, give me the weapons…and I will argue with you in politics? This is irrelevant, it is the most profound corruption that can exist of the idea of ​​democracy.

How am I going to act politically if I’m armed with the weapon you bought me? How do you pay me to graduate, maintain me, give me the weapons…and I will argue with you in politics? This is irrelevant, it is the most profound corruption of the idea of ​​democracy that can exist.

So, frankly speaking, there was a lot of illusion … I had no illusion about the military’s conservative thinking. That was clear. It is very difficult to identify, in recent years, a more advanced nucleus. From the point of view of supporting social progress, this was not the case. Now, we could not imagine that they would go so far as to endorse a government of flat-earthers, to endorse a savage element like this President of the Republic. We did not imagine that the military would support someone who would turn Brazil into a strange, exotic and abominable entity in the world. Who that actually likes Brazil could support such a thing? I imagined that the military liked Brazil more and wouldn’t go that far, but they did. That surprise began in 2016, with the impeachment and, later, with the elections. When I saw active and reservist soldiers actively engaging in Bolsonaro’s election, I was stunned.

Finally, the internal repression in the Armed Forces, the posture, the thinking, the ultraconservative mentality, raged during the democratic period. It is what we call the autonomy permission. The State granted the Armed Forces an exaggerated autonomy. The Armed Forces do not conceive that their paymaster, that is, Brazilian society, has any insight about their internal affairs. And what happened: we are here in this catastrophic situation.

I don’t think the military really wanted Bolsonaro. It seems to me that they entered into this as a possible alternative,  the only alternative to defeat, and to dismantle the left. Today they are absolutely agreed that Bolsonaro is no good, it is inconvenient. Bolsonaro is difficult, obstinate, but the worst of all worlds (for them) is the return of the left. This is, in my view, the reason why they continue to sink more and more into this extraordinary crisis. If the military has many accounts to settle in the history of Brazil, if many Brazilians have been killed since Canudos or before that, if they have a list of abominable things about which they remain silennt, or deny, or lie and build a story just to enhance the institution, now this thing has reached an extreme state of exaggeration. We are plunged into a crisis with no idea how we are going to get out of it. And I am convinced of one thing: when all of this is done, the debt owed by the Armed Forces to Brazilian society will be extremely high.

What was Bolsonaro’s ascent to power, with the formation of a military party, the return of the discourse of defense of the country, the destruction of the state apparatus and its reconfiguration as an authoritarian state? What does this represent? What are the differences to the 1964 military regime?

Obviously, the world today is completely different from the 60s and 70s. Today we still have a functioning Congress. We have a Supreme Court. I would say ‘functioning’ in quotation marks because both Congress and the Supreme Court have already accumulated reasons for an impeachment, for the summary removal of the president, because he has done very serious things, he disrespects the law, commits crimes of responsibility. Therefore, when we say that Justice and institutions are working, they are working in a way that does not matter so much to society. But today we have a radicalized society in the sense that there is a small percentage that supports Bolsonaro, who want military intervention, the closure of the regime. It is small, but it is very active and, in today’s media, this minority has a much greater capacity to influence than it would have in the past.

It also seems to me that what we are experiencing is a reflection of an international situation. There is an ongoing change of order today, and there is no example in the history of changing world order that is not bloody. In the last one,World War II, tens of millions were killed, and it inaugurated American hegemony, but there is little doubt that the United States will come to an end. Not long ago, George Bush was advocating unipolarity, wanting to organize the world according to the unique will of the United States. This did not last long because it was challenging from a military point of view, above all. There was Russia, which knew how to defend itself by breaking the blockade of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization], and there was above all Chinese ascension. Chinese capitalism, classify it however you like, is the most important phenomenon. There is no denying the fact that the USA is a declining power and China is a rising power. And, also, with an increasingly sophisticated technological domain, it is winning, and they had to stop the possibility of Chinese ascension to ensure dominance in Latin America. It was unthinkable for the US to lose that hold.

Progressive governments have created the unbearable for the United States. Celso Amorim [ex-Minister of Defense and Foreign Affairs], a star in international politics, created encouraging things – obviously, alongside others, like Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães, Marco Aurélio, under Lula’s direction. They took effective steps towards South American integration and a presence in Africa. Brazil started playing for real on the international stage… Now, what we see now is a change. Brazil played a major role and it was necessary to destroy that role. This is what Bolsonaro represents.

How do you perceive the alignment of the military forces with members of Operation Lava Jato, in particular Minister Sérgio Moro?

Obviously, there was strategic planning. We are experiencing a new type of dispute, which some call hybrid war, and in which the judicial apparatus has a very relevant function. And he was the big piece. The military love Sérgio Moro because he’s the face of moralism. It doesn’t matter if he destroyed Brazilian engineering, if he was a judge who always acted against the law, a guy who will be accountable to history, who has a heavy debt. I don’t think his fate will be pretty, but he is a figure deified by the military. In the speech with which General Villas Boas handed over command of the Army [in January 2019], he extolled Moro. With all his manipulation of the law, with all its arbitrariness, spurious games, with all his collaboration with the Pentagon and the CIA, he continues to be considered a great man, and is still highly rated among politicians. He is even better off than the president himself. Sergio Moro is a key player, even for an eventual closed regime. His image could serve a future repressive regime very well.

Would Bolsonaro’s connection with the militias be known to the Armed Forces? Is there a denial by the military regarding this issue?

The military knows more than anyone about Bolsonaro’s ties to the militias, which are not new. It is a very old thing, very consolidated from its electoral base in Rio de Janeiro. It is very strange that the Armed Forces do not take this as a threat to the monopoly of force because, by law, they should take care. By law and logic. They are outlaw organizations, they are paramilitaries, deeply involved with everything bad, and they are intact.

There is a radicalized group that still believes in so-called “cultural Marxism”. In your opinion, could a return of the left to power be prevented by interference from the Armed Forces?

Look, I think that neoconservatism is dominant along with all these theories. The military are rational, they are at the cutting edge of many areas of scientific knowledge, but as far as social perception is concerned, they are lowly. They did not study the history of Brazil and built their own history worthy of itself. It is easy to verify the interpretations they give to events, to processes over the last 200 years or even more, since they date back to the Battle of Guararapes, in the 17th century.

They are deeply reactionary, and this reactionism needs to be expressed in a recognizable way, that is where this great clownery of “cultural Marxism” comes in. There being no other plausible interpretation, they absorb this. The military are also sensitized by the moral agenda. They are radicalized on these matters, they think that social-inclusion policy based on racial discrimination is betrayal to Brazil; a Brazil like they wanted to preserve, what was left of colonial society – exclusion of blacks, the poor, the landless, the Indians.

Today, with the novel coronavirus pandemic, we see an even greater alignment between Brazil and the United States, even in the sense of denying the severity of covid-19. It is said that President Bolsonaro would be isolated, by Congress, by the Supreme Court, with strength only in business and his radicalized base. This is a perfect environment for the militarization of politics. Do you agree? Would Bolsonaro today have the power for a new military coup?

Look, I don’t know how to speak with confidence about that. I read a lot about the military, but they surprise me a lot. I don’t know how it will be. A man like Villa Bôas, for example, was a complete surprise to me. I don’t know what they are going to do. I can give my feeling, which is that they used Bolsonaro because there was no other option, it was just what was available, and soon afterwards they realised that Bolsonaro was obstinate, but they’d bet on him anyway. Some more experienced officers, like Admiral Flores, months before the elections, after meetings with the admiralty, concluded “this one is not going to be kept in check, he is not reasonable”. But others continued to play the game.

Right at the beginning of the government, I began to think that the attack on the honour of the military was so profound that it would be unbearable, and that there would be a dismissal of Bolsonaro, but they held on.

Today I don’t know, I couldn’t say and I don’t think anyone would know, at what point the Armed Forces would take control of Brazil’s immense security apparatus in the face of a predictable situation of chaos.

We are heading for chaos, and it will not be controlled by a few hundred members of the Armed Forces. And moreover, if there is disobedience by military police, the situation will be unpredictable.

Translated by Brasil Wire.