A new ghostwritten book by Michel Temer reveals that the then Vice President held a series of previously undisclosed meetings with Brazilian Military chiefs during the year or more leading up to Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment.
Temer recounts that Armed Forces top brass, worried about the direction of the country, sought behind closed doors discussions with the former Vice President, both to seek assurances, and to discuss President Rousseff’s removal. They were granted increased powers and government positions by Temer following her eventual ouster in 2016.
This was the beginning of the military’s return to politics, which was consolidated with the election of Jair Bolsonaro.
“The coup that deprived me of the the presidency in 2016 was not only parliamentary, mediatic and judicial, but also of a military nature.” – Dilma Rousseff
In 2016, post-coup President Michel Temer made a decision to begin recording interviews with close friend and philosophy professor Denis Lerrer Rosenfield. Dilma Rousseff’s decorative vice-turned-usurper believed that through giving his own account of events he would be able to set the record straight, having been held responsible for Brazil’s democratic rupture.
Rosenfield’s interviews have now been fashioned into a book called ‘The Choice’, whose net effect may not be what Temer envisaged.
It is not the first time he has been candid about the events of 2014-16 which brought him the Presidency.
Immediately after her removal, speaking to a group of investors and US Foreign Policy elites at the Council of the Americas in New York, Temer stated unambiguously that it had been decided that Rousseff had to be removed on account of her failure to implement his party’s ‘Bridge to the Future’ neoliberal economic programme.
Bridge to the future was a document very similar in content to the opposition PSDB’s own policy platform, and is thought by some experts to have been drafted by foreign hands, on account of its unusual Portuguese phrasing, and similarities to the “Government Economic Action Plan“, drawn up in cooperation with the US Government following the Coup of 1964. Bolsonaro has continued and intensified the economic policies introduced by Temer, which is why he was the foreign investor favourite at the time of his election, in disregard of any human rights and environmental concerns.
Many supporters of the coup were furious at the very accusation it was one, yet in September 2019, 3 years later, Michel Temer, openly called it such during a live TV interview.
As the 2016 coup progressed, an extraordinary effort a home and abroad went into refuting perception that 1964 was being repeated, despite the same actors, local and foreign, using many of the same tactics to mobilise the same sectors of society, in order to deliver it.
Visible military involvement would’ve caused alarm and made the passage of the process far more difficult.
Yet at Rousseff’s impeachment vote, congressman Jair Bolsonaro was unapologetic in comparing it with what had happened 52 years before. “You lost in 1964, you have lost in 2016.” he boasted before eulogising Army Colonel Brilhante Ustra, the man responsible for the President’s own torture. He effectively used the impeachment speech to launch his own military-backed presidential bid for 2018.
As in 1964, as João Goulart faced an impeachment encouraged by the United States as a means “to avoid any public terror“, Temer and coup supporters placed emphasis on constitutionality, using near identical language to that used by the conservative vice president of Paraguay four years earlier, when Fernando Lugo was removed in similarly farcical circumstances. Temer still laments that he was called a coup monger, or golpista, arguing that his inauguration meant only “respect for the Constitution”.
Rousseff responded to the new revelations, calling Temer’s admission a “new act of sincerity from a man who will always be plagued by history as a coup-monger who betrayed the government to which he belonged.”
“Temer not only benefited from a coup d’état but participated directly in the creation of a military scheme to support the break with democratic normality.”
Following her re-election in October 2014, the writing was already on the wall for Dilma Rousseff. As a synthesised protest movement against her grew, both Temer and PMDB head of Congress Eduardo Cunha spoke publicly about there being no case for her impeachment. Yet behind the scenes there was a very different conversation taking place.
The joint US-Brazil anti-corruption operation Lava Jato, which had begun in March 2014, was now ramping up and Sergio Moro’s mandated freeze of Brazil’s energy and civil engineering sectors had a massive economic effect on an already slowing economy, knocking an estimated 2.5% off GDP in 2015. This economic damage was placed squarely on Rousseff’s shoulders and used as a secondary motivation for her removal, along with the corruption that Lava Jato was supposed to eradicate.
In tandem, Cunha effectively paralysed Congress with spurious legislation, making it impossible for the Rousseff government to set a budget for the first quarter, further exacerbating economic distress.
As the year went on PMDB looked to distance itself from the PT nucleus of Rousseff government altogether and finally, Cunha would accept a request for Dilma’s impeachment in early December 2015. Temer wrote an open letter to the President complaining that Rousseff had never showed faith in him. Six months later she was gone.
The Military maintained a low public profile throughout this period, beyond vague guarantees to maintain order.
A Very Difficult Choice
In the new book Temer explains with whom he consulted, and how he decided to go ahead with Rousseff’s removal, and it is the story of Military top brass involvement in that decision making process that will resonate most.
Dilma Rousseff remarked that “little by little, the truth comes out and the story is being told.” about Military involvement in the coup to remove her.
Temer reveals a series of meetings with the then commander of the Army, General Eduardo Villas Bôas, and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Sérgio Etchegoyen, between 2015 and 2016, a year or more before the impeachment of President Rousseff.
Temer tries to depict these meetings as normal contact between a Vice President and the Armed Forces.
The Military’s suspicion and enmity for the Workers Party and the wider Brazilian left was, as to be expected, firmly rooted.
For the former, it dates back to its formation during the dictatorship and its role in the campaign to end it. At the 1989 election, the first since redemocratisation, the Military feared a Lula victory, or that of Leonel Brizola, regarding whom they discussed a potential coup d’état with the US Bush administration, should he have gone on to win.
The Army’s discomfort with the PT only grew with the election of former anti-dictatorship resistance fighter Dilma Rousseff to the presidency in 2010, and the PT’s relationship with the military was damaged fatally just weeks before Rousseff began her doomed second mandate.
The December 2014 National Truth Commission into the abuses of the 1964-85 dictatorship, during which Rousseff herself was imprisoned and tortured, worried and angered top brass, who feared that she would impede military privileges attempt reform. In particular they saw threat in proposed changes to the 1979 Amnesty Law, which protected powerful military figures from being brought to justice. These moves were already in motion, a bill had already passed Senate in April 2014 to modify the Amnesty law so that it excluded human rights violations committed by state agents.
This was also deeply personal. General Etchegoyen and his family fought to have the name of their father, former General Leo Guedes Etchegoyen, who had died in 2003, removed from the list of 377 state agents considered responsible for crimes against humanity during the dictatorship. A tribunal voted to maintain Etchegoyen’s name on the list, further enraging his son.
Eighteen months later after Dilma’s impeachment, Etchegoyen would be appointed head of the newly recreated Institutional Security Office (GSI), and Villas Bôas would be retained in his position.
Rousseff: “After the coup, in the form of an impeachment without a crime of responsibility, the military with whom Temer met repeatedly while plotting to overthrow the government stood by the new president – one maintaining command of the army, the other being named chief. of the Institutional Security Office.”
As the head of the GSI, Etchegoyen would be in control of security around Dilma Rousseff, limiting her movements as she faced impeachment proceedings, making her a virtual prisoner in the Planalto palace.
The GSI had only been dissolved seven months earlier following the dismissal of its head General José Elito Siqueira. Siqueira, the only military member of Rousseff’s cabinet, had been in conflict with Dilma for years over the National Truth commission, and was eventually fired on 2nd December 2015, when the GSI was folded into the Government Secretariat.
On the very same day, the impeachment request against Rousseff was accepted by Eduardo Cunha, and the process leading to her removal officially began; with judiciary, parliament, media and the military unified in what Senator Romero Jucá, in a leaked phone conversation, called a “grand national agreement” to remove the Workers Party from government.
Jucá was recorded telling former president of Transpetro Sérgio Machado that the Military not only supported the impeachment, but would guarantee it i.e. protect it from possible organised resistance from social movements such as the MST Landless Workers Movement.
Rousseff referenced the call in her statement that Temer “holding several closed meetings with the army commander and another general are new pieces of information that, combined with Romero Jucá’s involuntary revelations, at exactly the same time, add up to show that the coup that deprived me of the the presidency in 2016 was not only parliamentary, media and judicial, but also of a military nature.”
Etchegoyen angrily denied Temer’s account, calling it a “vain effort to find a narrative to hide that they isolated the military, disrespected them, staged a clearly vindictive Truth Commission, defied the law to usurp clear commanders’ powers…”. Villas Bôas, now gravely ill, shared Etchegoyen’s response.
Mention of the Truth Commission in this fashion is telling, given his personal interest, but Etchegoyen also inadvertently added to the intrigue by going on to reference meetings with other political figures outside the government during that period.
“…and, mind you, the government never approached us, unlike many other leaders at the time, not just the then vice president, including parliamentarians from the government’s support base. In addition, the meetings are on the agenda of the then vice-president, just consult them. He was just one of the authorities with whom we talked, exchanged impressions and got advice. I never heard Michel Temer stimulating illegitimate actions or inviting conspiracies.”
“The charge is ridiculous. What power would the military have to impose on Congress the result of an impeachment process in which Parliament and the Supreme Court were the main protagonists, as mandated by the Constitution?”, he ended his statement.
Etchegoyen was responding to an accusation that Michel Temer had not actually made.
Militarisation of Government
The post-coup governing coalition was made up of Temer’s clientelist PMDB with the defeated conservative opposition parties. It was no interim government, in effect the 2014 election result had been reversed.
The Military drew immediate advantage. From next to no military members in Dilma’s final pre-impeachment administrations, Etchegoyen was installed at the GSI, General Joaquim Silva e Luna, was made Minister of Defence and General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz was made Public Security Secretary.
National Indian foundation FUNAI, which is charged with preventing invasions of indigenous territories by outsiders, such as loggers and miners, was put under the control of another General, Franklimberg Ribeiro Freitas. One of Temer’s first moves was to attempt to open up the vast RENCA reserve to mining activity.
Temer’s was also the first elected government to place a state, Rio de Janeiro, under federal military intervention in January 2018, an operation designed by Etchegoyen and lauded by him as ‘a laboratory’ for solving Brazil’s problems.
Temer also placed intelligence agency ABIN under Etchegoyen’s control, which was used to spy on social movements opposed to the coup. Rousseff explained that Temer “was looking for support in the barracks for the coup”, pointing out that fearing mass demonstrations, that they were spying the MST Landless Workers Movement. Brazil’s, like other Latin American militaries, has long been geared as a glorified police force, designed to deal with internal enemies, not external defence.
The shadow of the Military hung over the 2018 election, and the arrest and jailing of former President Lula da Silva by Operation Lava Jato which enabled Bolsonaro’s victory. And thus it was with military support that Lula was kept from running for President, and likely winning. Operation Lava Jato effectively acted as an appendage of military interest within the judiciary, and accordingly its Judge Sérgio Moro was awarded with multiple military honours as stages of the coup successfully unfolded.
Miltary influence over the Supreme Court was already demonstrated when General Villas Novas chilling message, read out on TV Globo’s Jornal Nacional appeared to succeed in flipping the court’s judgement on Lula’s habeas corpus, via the single vote of Minister Rosa Weber, who stated that she was voting against her own opinion. Villas Bôas practically admitted the threat in an interview with Folha in November 2018.
Days before the runoff at the 2018 election, a meeting was held in the Superior Electoral Court (TSE) between court judges and Sergio Etchegoyen. TSE President Rosa Weber was being threatened on social networks by a Pro-Bolsonaro colonel, Antonio Carlos Alves Correia, and when the meeting was over, Supreme Federal Court (STF) President Dias Toffoli described “a dark scenario,” wrote journalists Felipe Recondo and Luiz Weber in book The Eleven. Toffoli warned those in attendance that General Villas Bôas “had 300,000 armed men who mostly supported Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy.”
Advisor to Dias Toffoli at this point was General Fernando Azevedo e Silva. Journalist Jeferson Miola has since called it an “institutional aberration” that the Military should advising the President of the Supreme Court at all. Azevedo e Silva had been selected for the position by Villas Bôas, and was then named as Bolsonaro’s minister of defence, immediately after the election. Azevedo e Silva in turn selected Bolsonaro supporter General Ajax Porto Pinheiro to take over as Dias Toffoli’s advisor.
Upon Bolsonaro’s inauguration, flanked by his own Vice President, General Mourão, he credited Villas Bôas specifically: “Thank you, Commander Villas Bôas. What we have talked about will die between us. You are responsible for me being here.” Bolsonaro said. Villas Bôas, already now confined to a wheelchair, told him: “You bring the necessary renewal and release of the ideological bonds that hijacked free thinking.” in a show of public support for Brazil’s new far right President.
A Democratic Revolution
Just as Lava Jato has been proven to be a central component, the Military was a principal actor in the 2016 coup right through to the election of Bolsonaro and it will only become clearer with time.
One of the most facile arguments used by the liberal right to justify the 2016 coup to remove Dilma Rousseff was that it could not constitute one, because of the absence of overt military involvement. Military involvement has been ever more evident since, and many will be forced to think again by Temer’s own admissions.
The Military and aligned interests behind the dictatorship effectively took control of Brazilian politics in 2016, dressed in the same language of democracy and constitutionality which accompanied every stage of military rule since the coup of 1964, which was called a “Democratic Revolution” by supporters, as far afield as the New York Times.
History will remember that, following the end of Military rule and the establishment of a new constitution in 1988, Brazil enjoyed a democratic period. The moment to finally admit that this era ended with the removal of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 is long overdue.
Until that is clear, the process of recuperation for Brazilian democracy can not begin.