A letter signed by almost 100 military personnel of the Army’s reserve forces (the vast majority colonels who graduated from the military academy in the early 1970’s) was sent to the head of the Office of Institutional Security (GSI – responsible for the national intelligence agency), General Augusto Heleno, in which they warned of the imminent risk of ‘civil war’ in Brazil and expressed their absolute support for and loyalty to their former commander. According to a report published by Resumen Latinoamericano on 24 May, the letter was first reported at the UOL portal, a Brazilian news agency
This has occurred as legal and political pressure continue to build on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is facing calls for his impeachment by the Congress or indictment by the courts. Although the president can still count on the active support of his core constituency (accounting for around 30% of Brazilians), and most of the larger political parties in the Congress remain reluctant to commit themselves one way or the other over impeachment proceedings, the proportion of Brazilians who disapprove of his presidency has risen steadily and is now over 50% and the formal requests for his impeachment are multiplying.
The resignation of Justice Minister Sergio Moro last month, in part at least on the basis that the president intervened in the management of the Federal Police in order to protect his children from legal and judicial investigations, has been a particularly damaging development for the president. After dismissing the director-general of the Federal Police, Bolsonaro then attempted to appoint a close family friend as director-general, a measure which the Supreme Federal Tribunal has provisionally suspended. Moro’s allegations resulted in the opening of a judicial investigation against the president. The magistrate with primary responsibility for the case, Celso de Mello, must also determine the validity of a request that the Chamber of Deputies begin an impeachment proceeding against the president.
The magistrate also ordered the release of a video of a Cabinet meeting in which Bolsonaro describes his reasons for intervening in the management of the Federal Police. The release of the video has sent shockwaves throughout the State and Brazilian society more generally, and was probably the trigger event for the letter sent by the military officers to Heleno.
While most analysts agree that Bolsonaro has been ‘quarantined’ from decision-making, his capacity for insulting rivals and opponents, making inflammatory statements and reckless actions remain undiminished. As one example, the Folha news agency reports:
“The president once again participated in an anti-democratic protest in Brasília on Sunday. The demonstration called for the closure of the Supreme Court and Congress. The president flew over in a helicopter and later walked amongst the crowd, without a mask, embracing protesters…” (LINK)
The letter’s publication followed Augusto Heleno’s public declarations about ‘unpredictable consequences’ in the country if the STF (Supreme Federal Tribunal) attempts to confiscate the computer and cell phone of President Jair Bolsonaro (the court may seek access to the items in relation to an investigation into alleged political interference in the management of the Federal Police).
In the letter to Heleno, the military officers express “their most complete, total and unconditional solidarity” with Augusto Heleno, not just in relation to his comments made on 22 May (about the unpredictable consequences of the STF’s actions), “but also with respect to his leadership, and his impeccable conduct as a military officer, as a citizen and as a Minister of State”.
The text accuses the magistrates of the Supreme Court of “persistent arbitrariness, on the verge of illegality and dishonesty”.
The officials also claim that there was “unreasonable, illegal, unfair and arbitrary interference” against Bolsonaro – the ‘Honourable President of the Republic’ – “without any legal basis”.
The letter also says that the STF “forgives, supports, releases, and defends criminals… For this reason, we now see a thief, corrupt and convicted, travelling around Europe speaking ill of Brazil,” implicitly referring to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (of the Workers’ Party – PT), who was honoured in France and received by Pope Francis in the Vatican after being released from prison.
Finally, the document claims that in the worst case, the Judiciary’s acts could provoke civil war: “The magistrates, though not all of them, lack nobility, decency, dignity, honour, patriotism and a sense of justice. Therefore, they bring insecurity and instability to the country, with a serious risk of institutional crisis with an unpredictable result, perhaps, in the worst case, civil war.”
Amid constant speculation over who is ruling the government as Bolsonaro is increasingly sidelined from exercising major functions and powers, the letter appears to reveal who is the real power behind the throne. Although Vice President Hamilton Mourã, also a former general (until very recently), is formally the second in command in the government and occupies a crucial position in the presidential palace along with several other former generals that make up the inner Cabinet, it seems that in the event of severe political breakdown and conflict between the constitutional branches of the State the bulk of the Armed Forces will follow the orders issued by Heleno. (For more details – LINK)
The document may simply be a ploy to put maximum psychological pressure on the judiciary to avoid decisions that could have major political ramifications (and in particular to make impossible a return to power by the PT), or it may be intended to put the magistrates investigating the president on notice that the military is prepared to intervene if political developments are not to their liking.
Such a strategy was used by the military several years ago, when the leadership was concerned that the Workers’ Party might return to power following the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. Given the possibility that the Federal Supreme Court would grant a habeas corpus order in favour of former president Lula, at the time presidential candidate for the PT who was however under arrest for alleged corruption, the commander of the Armed Forces, Eduardo Villas Bôas, wrote a tweet in ‘repudiation of impunity’ and remarked that the Army was ‘attentive to its institutional missions’.
Some time later Villas Bôas himself told Folha de São Paulo:
“We worked diligently at this time, knowing that we were on the edge. We felt that things could get out of control if I did not make a statement”, and further stated that “it was better to prevent than to cure.” The result is that the judiciary finally sent Lula to prison and made it impossible for him to participate in the election, and retired captain Jair Bolsonaro won. And with him, the military also won…”
Defence Minister Fernando Azevedo e Silva (who also served under Heleno’s command in the Armed Forces) was quoted by Folha news agency on Monday declaring:
“The Armed Forces are fulfilling their Constitutional mission. The Navy, Army, and Air Force are State bodies, which consider independence and harmony between the Powers essential to the country’s governance.”
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- Recent Developments In Brazil: Part I – Regional Politics And International Relations
- Recent Developments In Brazil: Part II – Political Crisis And Uncertainty, Military Consolidates Its Position In Presidential Palace