Under article 42 of Brazil’s constitution, the armed forces "based on hierarchy and discipline" come under the "supreme authority of the President of the Republic" and servicemen are banned from joining a labor union or going on strike.
On Friday March 30 a group of around 120 air traffic controllers in Brasilia, most of whom were air force sergeants, announced that they were going on a hunger strike and starting a sit-in as part of a campaign for better working conditions. The men’s superior officer warned them that they could be arrested for mutiny. Within hours controllers all over the country stopped work.
They allowed planes which were in the air to land but prevented any other planes from taking off. The action affected over 60 airports and over 1,000 flights. Passengers were treated with contempt by the controllers and the authorities and once again Brazil’s image in the world was tarnished.
Any move to arrest the sergeants was vetoed by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who was on route to the United States at the time. He ordered a negotiated settlement and, after the government agreed to hold talks with the controllers on April 3, the flights started again. By acting more like the trade union organizer he used to be than the commander-in-chief he now is Lula took the easy way out.
We should not be surprised since this lackadaisical approach was the hallmark of his first mandate and will continue in this one. In fact, Lula could easily have used his trade union credentials to crack down in this case since they give him a credibility that no other president would have.
Flying has become a nightmare in Brazil since a mid-air collision last September between a passenger jet and a private plane which led to over 150 deaths. The accident highlighted the failings of the air traffic control system. Since then the air controllers have reduced the number of flights they handle for safety reasons and carried out a number of actions including working to rule.
Brazil has around 2,400 air controllers, the overwhelmingly majority of whom are air force personnel. This is because the monitoring equipment is used for civil and defense purposes. All controllers are subject to military discipline and one of their demands is for the system to be handed over to the civil power.
The government has already called for the system to be changed but, as this would need a change in the law, any alteration is more likely to be made through a provisional decree signed by Lula.
At the same time, many senior air force officers are against any change saying that the monitoring equipment is essential for defense purposes. The Aeronautic Club in Rio de Janeiro, which represents reserve officers, has threatened to take legal action against Lula for not disciplining the "mutineers" and for trying to demilitarize control of Brazil’s air space.
This mixing of civil and military matters complicates the issue and, considering that the armed forces handed back power to civilians just over 20 years ago, raises unpleasant memories. While the armed forces have behaved in exemplary fashion since the return to democracy there are still remnants of the old mentality around, particularly among reactionary groups like the Aeronautic Club. This mistrust led to the ousting of the civilian defense minister, Jose Viegas, in November 2004 when he became involved in a public disagreement with senior officers.
By failing to punish those who committed these latest acts of insubordination Lula has let the military down and weakened his institutional position. The air force now says it wants the "mutineers" out of their quarters within 45 days. How this will be done is a mystery but we are now entering a stage in which we can expect more confusion and chaos in the air rather than less.
John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© John Fitzpatrick 2007