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.
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
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
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 yearor 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.
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
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.
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,"
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 participatea 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 serviceor 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
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 appealinglike
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
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
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