Jean Marc von der Weid: The Threat of A New Coup

Bolsonaro prays every day for a major crisis, be it Covid-related or out of growing hunger. He hopes the desperation of the people will lead to riots, mayhem, and violence.

By Jean Marc von der Weid*

I don’t believe a coup will happen now, but I do believe we are rehearsing for one.  I have been writing about the threat of a coup by Bolsonaro since mid-2019. At first I was seen as a staunch alarmist, someone out of touch with reality. Time has shown that I was right to be concerned.

What has Bolsonaro done since taking the presidency? He has not paid attention to his popularity as measured by opinion polls and has governed only to his close supporters, pushing decrees and laws that only benefit them. Policy, military and militia groups have all benefited by his actions, gestures and speeches. Not by chance, this bellicose minority is the one that plans to intervene. It clear that Bolsonaro’s logic is the Maoist: “power is at the barrel of the gun”. Since Bolsonaro has lost support from many of his original voters, he has radicalized by moving even closer to his most loyal base. His image, initially presented as the honesty of an outsider fighting a corrupt system quickly revealed to be false, due to the multiple corruption scandals involving his famiglia. But erosion of popular support does not matter to this despot in the making. He is arming his core followers in gun clubs around the country. Those who believed in his liberal economic agenda have now realized that Guedes was nothing more than a puppet used to distract the electorate. Those who believed the anti-establishment rhetoric have now seen their new leader make concessions to the old political center-right. But none of this matters. He is gaining ground where it matters – with his radical base – and as he does, his plot advances.

Bolsonaro is betting on the rupture of the democratic institutions and has succeeded in discrediting them. The country is left in disarray, with the pandemic out of control, hunger on the rise, reaching almost half of the population, unemployment or underemployment affecting half of the labor force, the environment being literally burned down, educations in ruins, science underfunded, rising inflation and a ridiculous GDP growth rate of 1.5% forecast for next year. The list of problems is vast and always incomplete because the mismanagement reaches all sectors of the economy, society, culture, science, health, education, etc. But none of this matters to Bolsonaro as long as big miners, loggers, farmers, the police, the military and militia groups are pleased and demanding more.

What matters to Bolsonaro is not passing laws, but saying to his followers that the system does not let him govern. It does matter that 600,000 people have died from Covid, but his only narrative is that the responsibility lies with the Supreme Court, for preventing unproven treatment with Cloroquine from being made available to the people. This narrative also place the blame on the governors, for “ruining” the economy with their decision to implement lockdowns and to make people wear masks and not be able to attend gathering in stadiums.

Bolsonaro prays every for a major crisis every day, be it Covid-related or out of growing hunger. He hopes the desperation of the people will lead to riots, mayhem, and violence. All he needs is such a state of social convulsion to implement his exceptional measures for “the sake of public safety” and “the defense of property”. Those who still think he can’t reach his goal because he will be stopped by the Supreme Court or Congress do not see that he does not plan to follow the rules. If he asks Congress to approve his special measure and they deny his request, Bolsonaro will use that fact as an excuse to shut down Congress. Many believe Congress, even members of his own coalition would indeed not grant such a request because it would make them irrelevant with a super powerful president. But the point is not about Congress. The point is whether those with guns are willing to support such an illegal course of action.

I have heard claims that the 1964 coup happened because Jango Goulart was opposed by the the church, the media, business elites, the middle classes and the armed forces and that it won’t happen this time around because Bolsonaro also has these actors, with the key exception of the armed forces, mobilizing against him. Some also said that the generals would restrain his actions. But what happened is that Bolsonaro purged the moderates from military leadership and replaced them with officers who are either as extremist as he is or at least sympathetic to his views. Some people believe that the lower ranking generals are democratic, but it is not clear whether this is true or not. I believe these generals don’t want to rock the boat. However, even they must realize how much more they can gain from Bolsonaro’s radical moves. Moreover, the Cold War ideological views of the the dictatorship are very much alive in their ranks, particularly among junior officers, most of them who are said to be staunch bolsonaristas. But even with such high support in the military, Bolsonaro continues to engage in political organization in their ranks, seeking to subvert the chain of command so that reticent leaders will go along with a radical move for the sake of preventing internal ruptures from below. It is even possible that Bolsonaro will try to dismantle the existing command structure and replace it with a parallel structure directly under his control. Hitler did this as soon as he achieved power.

But will this happen on the September 7th, Independence Day holiday? It is unlikely. The recent rehearsal for a general truck-drivers’ strike proved to be a fiasco. Had it gone well, Bolsonaro would have had the ingredients he needed: food shortage, lack of vaccines, deepening pandemic numbers, lack of supplies in hospitals, hunger, revolts, riots and mayhem. All of this would take place with the police apparatus acting either as a bystander or violently repressing the population, furthering the crisis. There won’t such a strike, but Bolsonaro is counting on massive mobilizations trying to invade the Supreme Court and Congress. I am not exaggerating – this is what is being called for all over the internet. Whether they will succeed is unclear – the big question is how many core bolsonaristas would it take for these symbolic buildings to be taken over.

What is clear is that those being called to act are being asked to bring their guns. Who would prevent thousands of bolso-minions, hundreds with guns, from invading the Supreme Court and Congress? The Congress police and a few poorly armed soldiers? If the occupation succeeds the question will be whether the police are unable or unwilling to remove the invaders, whether the armed forces will do the job. This would be an opportune moment to see who is really in charge. Will the generals obey Bolsonaro? Will the colonels obey the generals?

Another possibility is a rise of violent repression of popular demonstrations. An attack like this, with high levels of violence, panic and bloodshed is easy to organize. In this case, the police, upon previous coordination with the armed forces, would act to escalate the course of events. What would be the day after such an event be like? Would Bolsonaro order a State of Siege? Would he directly called the armed forces to shut down Congress and the Supreme Court?

Everything is possible, including that nothing will actually take place and that this was all a big bluff, with Bolsonaro believing his own fake news. In any case, this is the logic at play and Bolsonaro will continue to look for opportunities to further it. He has no other alternative. If he stays in power to the end of his term, it is possible that he won’t even make it to second round of next year’s presidential elections, should a third-party candidate become electorally viable. Therefore, until then, he will continue to provoke crisis after crisis, seeking his chance to further destroy the country.

What can the opposition do? Continuing mobilization is key. But it this mobilization will be needed to move beyond the bubble of the left. It won’t be possible to put millions on the streets unless the front calling for mobilization expands into other groups. The model used during the Diretas Já movement in the mid 1980s needs to the revived, under the coordination of largely accepted organizations such as the Bar Association (OAB), the National Bishops Confederation (CNBB), and the National Press Association (ABI). We need a large civic movement of national salvation, moving beyond the left to include the center-left, the center and even the center-right. Without this, be it either via the continued intimidation of the democratic institutions of the Republic or their direct destruction, Bolsonaro will extend his term in power. Will it work? Probably not, but he will fulfill his promise to kill the 30 thousand people the dictatorship was supposed have killed, and many of us won’t live to see the return of freedom in Brazil.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is an agro-ecologist and former president of the Brazilian National Students Union from 69-71, during a period in which it was outlawed by the military dictatorship. In 1969, he was arrested and tortured. On December 7, 1970, he and another 69 political prisoners where released in exchange for  Swiss Ambassador Giovanni  Bucher, who had been kidnapped by the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (People’s Revolutionary Vanguard/VPR).

This article was translated from its original Portuguese by Rafael Ioris