Ever since Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidency, speculation has swirled around what makes the choleric retired army captain run. No longer: It’s mothballs.
This week, Bolsonaro instructed the nation’s armed forces — to whom he still swoons, though he left their ranks for politics 30 years ago — to commemorate March 31. That’s the date, in 1964, when the military deposed an elected president, seized power and held on for the next 21 years.
That adventure turned out as well as did most dictatorships of its time: Illegal detentions, torture, murder and exile of those who objected, plus white elephants, record foreign debt, deficit spending and a fast track to hyperinflation.
Thirty-four years after going back to the barracks, the military oeuvre has been mainly ignored by Brazilians who have gotten on with the business of rebuilding democracy. And so it might have stayed, if not for the deep political divide that has split the country into platoons of “them versus us,” and the rise of a right-wing provocateur eager to disinter national memory for partisan advantage.
Bolsonaro’s valentines to the military are heartfelt. “He’s an authentic representative of Brazilian ultraconservatism, and in Brazil, ultraconservatives hold the armed forces in high esteem,” political scientist Octavio Amorim, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, told me. “They are the nostalgists of dictatorship.” Bolsonaro calls the coup Brazil’s second Independence Day.
Nostalgia is only part of the picture. By encouraging his compatriots to salute martial rule, Bolsonaro also cocks his snook at the supposed cabal of leftists and fellow travelers and their indulgent doctrine of multiculturalism and identity politics. As he sees it, that liberal orthodoxy brought Brazilian decency and Christian decorum to its knees. The only hope for redemption therefore rests in the forces of discipline and rectitude, preferably Brazil’s men and women in uniform.
That’s a bet on the place that the armed forces have always commanded in Brazilian politics, a presence re-enacted in pompous Independence Day parades. It’s telling that Bolsonaro’s odes to the coup d’etat followed his public attacks on carnival, the far more lavish popular celebration whose irreverent revelers represent everything the new conservative orthodoxy abhors.
Yet Bolsonaro may have had a more pedestrian political target in mind. In early 2014, then-president Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla whom the military had jailed and tortured, ordered the armed forces to refrain from commemorating the coup on the eve of its golden anniversary.
Many Brazilians claimed Rousseff’s decision as a win for civilian authority. They’d also cheered the truth commission launched under her watch to belatedly probe torture and disappearances during the dictatorship. Although the commission had no prosecutorial authority, the naming and shaming of suspect officials stirred the brios of the brass.
While morally defensible, Rousseff’s initiatives proved counterproductive and, ultimately, politically poisonous. By then, most senior military officers were content to remember 1964 in discreet celebrations for the rank and file. “March 31 became a date with little national significance, celebrated by the extreme right wing of the military,” said Amorim. Enter Bolsonaro, who in 2016, as a federal congressman, dedicated his impeachment vote against Rousseff to the dictatorship’s torturer-in-chief.
Bolsonaro’s continued encomiums to the coup may well be “red meat to his constituents,” as American University political scientist Matthew Taylor put it. Yet they catch Brazil’s armed forces in transition. Most of the officials who took part in the authoritarian takeover are dead or long retired. The armed forces have since become guarantors of constitutional democracy, not its enemy. “The central question for the military today is the legitimacy of the armed forces as an institution,” said Taylor. “They’re important players in Brazilian democracy and are protective of their role.”
It’s no small irony that the retired generals Bolsonaro picked to add clout to his cabinet are now the voices of moderation in Brasilia, refereeing squabbles among ministers and the presidential family, and walking back incendiary proposals….
Will the softer voices prevail in a government that came to power flogging disruption? Optimists think so and argue that Brazil’s democracy is a salutary temporizing machine: In order to govern, Bolsonaro eventually will have to submit to its civilizing effects.
That’s what happened to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who ran unsuccessfully for president as a leftist firebrand three times, winning on his fourth try and only when he tacked to the center and reached out to investors and big business. (Maybe he overreached, given the graft that triggered his fall from grace.) Amorim isn’t so sure. “For Lula, the moderating process took over a decade. Bolsonaro won on his first try, and as an unreconstructed radical, with little incentive to moderate,” he said. Whatever is in store for Brazil, the whiff of mothballs is likely to linger.
Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek.