Nassif: How the Generals took out the Captain
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Nassif: How the Generals took out the Captain

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Veteran journalist Luis Nassif explains the Military’s silent and gradual seizure of power from President Bolsonaro in five acts.

By Luis Nassif

Act 1 – Setting up the move against Bolsonaro

On Friday, when Bolsonaro threatened to end quarantines, Supreme Court Minister Gilmar Mendes informed the President’s advisors that the measure be rejected. They asked him to speak directly with their boss.

The conversation took place on Saturday, along with General Luiz Eduardo Ramos, and Bolsonaro’s Chief of Staff, General Braga Netto.

Bolsonaro insisted that he was going to overturn the quarantines. Gilmar Mendes argued back, warning of a political crisis and insists that the Supreme Court would reject it. This was the first confrontation with Bolsonaro. The second, with Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, would take place the next day.

During the meeting, Justice Mendes reminded  Bolsonaro of the period of rolling electrical blackouts during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration and how the crisis was handled by setting up a task force inside the Presidential Palace coordinated by Pedro Parente. This organization, and Parente’s skills, were fundamental in overcoming the crisis.

Gilmar then suggested that a coronavirus task force be set up in the presidential palace, with Supreme Court President Dias Toffoli, Congressional leader Rodrigo Maia and Senate leader Davi Alcolumbre.

This showed the importance of the Supreme Court, which would act through establishing orientations for the judiciary, based on the example of the National Justice Council when it created recommendations for judges to reduce incarcerations for light crimes. It it probable that, building on this, the idea arose to have General Braga Netto lead a task force.

Sometimes, however, the political game  takes on an inexplicably life of its own. At this point, the X-factor of military strategy came in. When an important suggestion collides current military strategy there are reasons to be worried.

Act 2 – The other military interventions

The Armed Forces stopped directly intervening in politics after re-democratization in 1985, but it continued to act passively behind the scenes. Although, theoretically, the President of the Republic is the  general commander of the military there are two post dictatorship moments when the presidency was attacked when it refused to lift a finger in its defense.

The first was during the Fernando Collor administration. Collor had had angered the military by closing the National Information Service and halting the nuclear program.

The second was during the Dilma Rousseff administration. Rousseff angered the military when she created the Truth Commission to investigate torture and other human rights abuses during the dictatorship (1964-1985).

The case of Jair Bolsonaro is a different matter altogether. There is resistance to him in the military high command, he has majority support among young officers, sergeants, non-commissioned officers, and Military Police.

In addition to his base level support within the Armed Forces, Bolsonaro has successfully mobilized an aggressive segment of the Brazilian far right. If he were deposed now there would be a kind of civil unrest on the streets that was not seen after the fall of Collor or Rousseff.

In other words, although getting rid of Bolsonaro is a priority, he is being kept in office as part of a political calculation.

Act 3 – The role of General Mourão

If Bolsonaro fell, Vice President General Hamilton Mourão would take over. He would have problems negotiating with Congress because he has no political support base. He would have to rely on a broad coalition of political forces that would probably have to be coordinated by Congressional President Rodrigo Maia, and would be prevented from running for office in the next election.

Without the candidacies of either Bolsonaro or Mourão the military believed there would be a risk that the PT and the left could return to power.

Therefore, they decided to put a delicate strategy in place. Bolsonaro would continue in power, playing the role of a mad Queen of England, while steps are made to minimize risks of his public appearances damaging the image of the presidency.

At this point Army Commander, Edson Leal Pujol and Vice President Hamilton Mourão came up with a plan that incorporated Gilmar Mendes’ suggestion about a task force.

Act 4 – how to set up a military intervention

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso ratified Complementary Law 97 in 1999 and Presidential Decree 3897, regulating “Law and Order Operations”, in 2001. These two changes granted police powers to the military to use in cases of civil unrest, under the orders of the Presidency of the Republic.

During the Temer government, due to security crises in several states, Law and Order Operations were deployed continuously, under the supervision of then Justice Minister (now Supreme Court Minister) Alexandre de Moraes.

On May 7, 2016, I warned about the Temer-Moraes strategy of  bringing the military back onto the scene, when General Sérgio Etchgoyen was appointed Chief of the powerful Institutional Security Cabinet. “The fastest way for the military to return to politics,” I said, “would be to rebuild a military control structure inside the federal government […] General Sérgio Etchegoyen, Brazilian Army Chief of Staff, and member of a historical family of army leaders, is now in charge of setting it up. ”

This was not the only issue. During the period that this was happening, Alexandre de Moraes did everything he could to recreate the [dictatorship era] concept of the internal enemy, in order to justify an eventual military intervention in case the Temer government came under attack. These actions culminated in the spectacle of an alleged terrorist cell in Brazil that had organized over the internet.

Act 5 – The challenges ahead

There are two obstacles to this strategy of isolating Bolsonaro without removing him from power.

The first obstacle is the Bolsonaro himself, with his sons, who are uncontrollable and in a phase of total rebellion. The second obstacle is the mystery as to how General Braga Netto will behave. Will he accept the suggestions of a task force composed of the three branches of government, the Ministers and civil society representatives, or will act entirely according to military hierarchy?

There is another urgent problem to to face which is that, for obvious reasons, the entire federal bureaucracy is boycotting Bolsonaro’s Finance Minister Paulo Guedes.

Before taking over the Ministry of Planning, Budget and Public Management during the blackout crisis,  Pedro Parente visited all of the key actors, starting at Banco do Brasil, through the Central Bank Secretariat and the National Treasury, and coordinated his strategy within the Integrated Financial Administration System. He knew how the machine worked and was trusted by the technocrats.

Guedes, on the other hand, came in like a monkey in a china shop. The entire state machine has revolted against the plan to issue R$600 stipends to informal sector workers during the pandemic, with bureaucrats making legal excuses out of fear of being targeted for future persecution by the Federal Auditing Courts – a justifiable fear giving the recent history of this agency’s omnipotence.

How General Braga Netto will face this challenge is unknown. Will he  coordinate actions through different sectors, or will he centralize and protect himself behind military power?  This will be further complicated by the impossible task of keeping Bolsonaro in the presidency – first because Bolsonaro and his children are uncontrollable and second because there is a concrete possibility that Donald Trump could be defeated by Joe Bidden in the next U.S. elections, which would make Bolsonaro’s position unsustainable anyway.

In any event, these events represent the first chapter of the post-Bolsonaro era.


This article originally appeared at GGN. Translated by Brian Mier.


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