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Brazzil - Military - March 2004

The Brazilian Army Wants Me

In the great scheme of things, getting my military exemption
done is not an excessive millstone around my neck. But it does
seem rather pointless. As friends keep saying to me, who on
earth are the Brazilians going to fight? It's not as if the country's
surrounded by belligerent and land-hungry dictators.

Guy Burton

Sometime this month I'm going to have to make my annual visit to the Brazilian Consulate here in London. Every year I have to report to the authorities with my Brazilian passport and a document which enables me to defer my military service.

Yes, it may seem surprising, but Brazil requires its citizens to join its armed forces for a period of time. Even those of us, like my brothers and I, who left Brazil when we were small children, are eligible for it. And while I would struggle to understand what the sergeant-major was barking on the parade ground, I think my middle brother would all but give up: he speaks no Portuguese at all.

Ever since I turned 18, I've had to find space to make my way down to Piccadilly to get my military exemption document stamped. It's in a small red-brick office building behind the Lillywhites department store. The Brazilians there share with the Chileans and a Japanese company.

The only visitors are those like me, wanting to avoid the draft and other Brazilians seeking to register their children's births, marriages and other bureaucratic matters. The occasional non-Brazilians turn up, looking for a visa. Last year there were two Americans preachers at the next window, trying to get permission to evangelise in the country.

For some years a family friend used to work in the consulate. She was very helpful. Not like the middle-aged Japanese-Brazilian woman who dealt with me for several years. Never had I met a more miserable diplomat. She never smiled and always gave you a look as if she was doing you a favour.

By contrast the gay men sitting at the reception desk always seemed cheery, no matter that it was a different person each time. I am coming to the conclusion that position at the consulate belongs exclusively to the London-based gay Brazilian community.

The process is always the same, year after year. I get asked by the surly Japanese diplomat if I live in London. Yes, I do. Where do I live? The same place as they have on their files from last year. Can I write that down? Again? Yes, please. And can you give us your passport, another item of identification, and the military exemption document.

Then she goes away into the back with these pieces of paper for several minutes. It always seems to take forever. Then finally she comes back; there's a new stamp on the back of my document. Done for another year—or at least until I'm 30 when finally I will be free from the procedure.

In the great scheme of things, getting my military exemption done is not an excessive millstone around my neck. But it does seem rather pointless. As friends keep saying to me, who on earth are the Brazilians going to fight? It's not as if the country's surrounded by belligerent and land-hungry dictators.

Brazilian Wars

And given its regional dominance across the South American continent, a leader would have to be half-crazed to declare war on Brazil. Indeed, the last time a country engaged in conflict with Brazil (not forgetting Argentina and Uruguay as their coalition partners), Paraguay lost more than 20% of its male population in the 1860s.

And there is no internal conflict in Brazil anymore. During the 1830s and 1840s that did happen, with various separatist movements all trying to break away from the central authorities in Rio. But they were never strong or powerful enough and national unity was maintained. Like the United States today, it is hard to imagine any part wanting to go it alone.

No, where there is a role for Brazil's military forces is in patrolling its porous borders and engaging in international intervention. Following the announcement of Plan Colombia in 2000 and the then Clinton administration's promise of funding to the Colombian government to combat the drugs trade, Brazilian forces can be found along the border.

They are trying to contain the cartels, by preventing them from finding refuge from the Colombians and obstructing drug manufacturing. And outside of the continent, Brazil wants to engage in peace-keeping. Following the fall of President Aristide in Haiti, Brazilian troops were sent to the island to maintain law and order alongside Chileans, French and Americans.

But these jobs require trained professional soldiers. They don't need someone like me, who quails at the sight of a gun. What use would I be in the Amazon, patrolling the tributaries which spill over into Colombia? How helpful would I be in trying to stop a rioting crowd in Port-au-Prince? No, far better to leave it to the professionals.

So what exactly am I supposed to do if I did military service? Well, if the truth be told, I don't really know. I don't know any Brazilians who have done military service. The sad fact is that those who know how to avoid it can; it's usually only those, with few life choices and opportunities, who end up doing it. Avoiding military service means going down the bureaucratic route, but it has to be done, not least because if I don't I risk losing my Brazilian passport.

My father, though, managed to escape the bureaucratic nightmare. After living more than a decade in England, in 1970 he decided he wanted to return to Brazil to work. But there was one slight snag: Brazil was then under the control of a military dictatorship; exactly the sort of rulers who would expect him to complete his service.

Military Bureaucracy

Although he had a job lined up, my father still had to run the gauntlet of immigration when his airplane landed in Rio. The man behind the desk looked through his passport, but couldn't find any evidence that the 27-year old in front of him had completed his service. But my father's company had prepared for this moment. A man was standing nearby and he whispered a few words into the immigration officer's ears. He thought for awhile and then stamped my father's passport. "But you will have to present yourself at the relevant military barracks tomorrow," he said.

The following day my father arrived. He was not only the oldest one there, he was also the whitest. He had come out from England in winter, at the height of Brazil's summer. All around him stood sun-tanned men, all nearly a decade younger than him.

They lined up and marched into a hall and towards a row of desks. As my father approached, he noticed that standing behind the officer at the desk was another man from the company. My father presented himself, at which point the man stepped in. "He won't be doing military service," he said.

The officer looked around. This was news to him. They conferred and despite his unwillingness, he eventually gave ground. But he wanted to save face. He turned to my father and raised his hand and jabbed the air as he spoke. "It is considered that in the interest of the nation you would be doing Brazil a better service working in the economic field."

More than slightly pompous, my father thought.

Twenty years later with the return of democracy, there was an easier way to avoid the draft. A Brazilian friend of mine lived not with her mother, but her grandparents. Her grandfather was a former general. For several years my friend became extremely popular with the local men, as they came to visit her and her grandfather.

A letter from him would help exempt from doing their service. "But eventually he said he would do no more," she told me. "He was getting fed up with them coming in and going out all the time. So he stopped." Unfortunately for me, this was before we met each other.

According to the ministry of defence, military service has been in existence in Brazil for almost as long as it has been a colony. A system was needed to protect the new Portuguese acquisitions from European encroachers and the native population. In September 1542, the São Vicente town hall established the first militia, made up of colonists and enslaved Indians for this purpose. Thirty-two years later this measure was formalised by the authorities, with all citizens aged between 14 and 60 years being obliged to participate—a requirement which was carried over in the 1824 constitution after Brazil became independent. And in 1880 a law was passed which made sure that anyone who wanted to join the civil service had already completed their military service. This law has remained in effect until today.

During the First World War the poet Olavo Bilac emphasised the importance of military service as a form of civic education. To the military Bilac was a godsend since he justified their personal prejudices. Consequently he was chosen as the patron of military service and the date of his birth, 16 December, designated as the Day of the Reservist. But given Brazilians' penchant for celebrating something every day, how relevant and meaningful this date is, I don't really know. All I know is that I certainly won't be celebrating it!

In 1989, the relatively young, judo-playing governor of Alagoas state, Fernando Collor, was elected President. His own notable achievement was not really his; when he was impeached three years later, the fact the country didn't descend into a political crisis made front-page news. It seemed to indicate Brazil's recent democratisation could sustain the shock and pressure of replacing a president without the army rolling its tanks in.

But I remember Collor for another reason. Although he was a shameless populist, he did propose doing away with military service—or at least offering an alternative, civil form of service to the nation's young people. If I am correct, I think it would have included replanting trees in the Amazon and doing social work in deprived communities.

I quite liked this idea, although it could have just been a way of getting young cheap labour to do the work the government didn't want to do or invest in itself. But by getting himself impeached, that possibility of reform disappeared.

Of course, it may be just as well. A German friend of mine told me Germans also have to do military service. But they do get to choose between that and a form of civil service; but civil service usually involved activity less than appealing—like emptying the bedpans of hospital patients.

As it is, I've only got two more years of visits to the Brazilian consulate after this. And then I go onto the reserve list. I just hope there isn't going to be more paperwork involved. Or if there is, I hope the next diplomat I face will be more cheerful. It's bad enough that I have to present myself each year; let's not make it any worse.

Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London. He wants to avoid doing his military service for as long as he can. He can be contacted at gjsburton@hotmail.com

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