From Day One Military Have Been Watchdogs and Overlords of Brazil’s Republic

Brazil's first president, Marshall Manuel Deodoro da FonsecaAs this year of 2006 marks 21 years since the end of Brazil’s 21-year military regime, it might be worthwhile to observe the role that army officers have played in Brazilian politics. The armed forces in Brazil have developed over the years an unequivocal tradition of arbitrary interference in the political affairs of this nation.

They have done so by often assuming for themselves the task of salvadores da pátria (saviors of the fatherland) from ‘bad’ and ‘corrupt’ politicians.

The end of the bloody war against Paraguay’s dictator Solano Lopez during the 1870s brought about a huge politicisation of the Brazilian army. A few decades later, in November 1889, army leaders organized their first coup d’état, replacing constitutional monarchy with a republican regime. The fall of the monarchy was orchestrated by officers who dreamed of a republican dictatorship.

In a letter written in 1890 on behalf of the navy to a civilian authority in the new republican government, a military officer stated: “We hope you will use your intelligence for the installation of a type of republican government which will concentrate all the political power in the hands of one single person… To establish a felicitous, stable and prosperous republic, the government of this country needs to become dictatorial and not parliamentary”.

Brazil’s first president, Deodoro da Fonseca, was a military officer who censored the press and persecuted the opposition, especially monarchists. When civil war broke out in 1892 after Deodoro attempted to arbitrarily dissolve the parliament, he was forced to step down by another officer, Floriano Peixoto.

Peixoto, however, was as authoritarian as Deodoro, mercilessly crushing the navy’s uprising as well as civilian opposition against his government. But he at least had the saving grace of leaving the presidency to an elected civilian after the completion of his mandate.

Although the government easily suppressed a rebellion sparked by army lieutenants in 1922, in Rio de Janeiro, another coup was more successfully organized in 1930. On that occasion army officers prevented the elected president from taking office, substituting in his place the defeated candidate Getúlio Vargas, an ambitious caudillo who had received the political support of the oligarchies of Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, and Paraíba.

The collaboration between Vargas and the army leaders was primarily sustained by the belief that Brazil needed to be ruled by dictatorial means. Upon taking office, Vargas placed army leaders at the center of political decision-making.

His Estado Novo (1937-1945) can be fairly described as a personalist dictatorship where the President assumed the role of ‘father of the poor’. It was a highly dictatorial regime that enjoyed the unconditional support of the military to the extent that one may describe it as “a military regime in its essence, despite the civilian status of the president and many of his ministers”.

The military who orchestrated the ‘revolution’ of 1930 remained loyal to Vargas for fifteen years. Since fascism and communism were the ‘progressive’ ideologies during the 1930s, many of these officers were fascists or communists. For instance, both the Minister of War, General Eurico Gaspar Dutra, and the Army Minister, General Góes Monteiro, were openly sympathetic to National Socialism.

So much so, in fact, that General Dutra was even decorated in April 1940 by Hitler’s ambassador, Kurt Prueferwith, with the Order of the Great Cross of the Eagle. The ambassador revealed at the decoration ceremony that it constituted the highest honour a foreigner could receive from the Nazi government.

Dutra and Monteiro offered their resignation when they failed to dissuade Vargas from aligning Brazil with the allied nations during World War II. Vargas, however, refused their resignations, as his sympathies similarly lay more heavily with the fascist regimes in Europe. His decision to declare war against the axis powers was motivated by economic reasons, namely the numerous economic benefits promised by, and received from, the United States.

With the defeat of the Nazi-fascist forces, the ideology of fascism lost the attraction and prestige it had hitherto held amongst those army officers. As a result, Vargas’ dictatorship also fell into disgrace and he was forced to resign in 1945. In the ensuing presidential elections held at the end of that year, two of major candidates were military leaders: General Eurico Gaspar Dutra (who ended up winning that election) and Air-Brigadier Eduardo Gomes.

Unfortunately, the democratic period that started after the fall of Vargas’ Estado Novo lasted not longer than twenty years. On 31 March 1964, another coup deposed populist president João Goulart. The military who organized this intervention were divided between linha dura (hard-line) and moderada (soft-line) factions. While soft-liners wished to quickly restore democracy and the rule of law, hard-liners were instead planning a more permanent, authoritarian military regime.

The hard-line faction ended up prevailing over the moderate one particularly after left-wing radicals began in 1968 their rural and urban guerrilla warfare. Their many radical actions, which included kidnappings and bank robberies, ended up by strengthening the position of the hardliners, who used them as an excellent pretext for a ‘stronger’ government, powerful enough to re-establish ‘order’ to the nation.

While it is also true that military repression in Brazil was not as severe as in neighbouring Argentina, Brazilian army rulers were no different in dealing with their ‘subversives’ by extra-legal means of torture and political assassination.

This was particularly true during the administration of General Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969-1974). During his ‘war’ against the extreme left, agents of the Second Army’s OBAN (Operation Bandeirantes) and São Paulo’s DOI/CODI (Internal Operations Department) conducted acts of torture in which some victims died or were permanently impaired. These agents could decide whether a ‘subversive’ should be dealt with according to the judicial process or solely by means of torture and assassination.

In addition to bodies such as OBAN and the DOI/CODI, the military also established heavily armed, quick-response assault teams to fight subversives. The most notorious was the ROTA, a special squad consisting of a few hundred policemen from São Paulo state.

According to law professor Paul Chavigny: “In the first nine months of 1981, near the end of the dictatorship, the ROTA shot 136 people and killed 129 of them. Civil policemen were recruited to torture political suspects; under the impunity of the dictatorship, they formed a death squad to eliminate suspects, criminal as well as political. It proved to be so murderous and corrupt that it was gradually eliminated, at least in its original form, before the dictatorship ended”.

In the early 1970s, the military regime launched a strident nationalist campaign which, broadly speaking, urged the civilian population to remain absolutely loyal to their authoritarian government. Under the slogan ‘Brazil: Love it or Leave it’ their nationalist campaign informed citizens that their rights as individuals were entirely subject to certain matters of ‘national interest’.

A 1970 booklet from this campaign, provided by the army rulers to school children, informed its readers that the subjection of civil rights to the military understanding of ‘national interest’ was “the maximum norm of the exercise of liberty in the social order”. As a central feature of the country’s military training and indoctrination, the idea of ‘national interest’ rests on the undemocratic premise that the armed forces better know what is best for Brazilians than their elected politicians.

However, an economic crisis that begun in the late 1970s served to engender widespread social discontent with the military regime. This economic crisis came to force especially during the economically disastrous administration of General Ernesto Geisel (1974-1978), which then forced this government to initiate a very gradual process of abertura democrática (democratic opening).

In fact, Geisel accepted such ‘opening’ as long as it was he who conducted the whole democratization process. It is curiously suggested that he concentrated more personal powers to ‘open’ the regime than did Médici before as he sought to keep it ‘closed’.

Despite this, this process of democratization was not reversed and the last military president, João Batista de Oliveira Figueiredo (1979-1985), a general chosen by President Geisel to replace him, would make the final step toward the end of military government.

Believe it or not, Figueiredo vowed when taking office to ‘prender e arrebentar‘ (arrest and torture) anyone who obstructed the democratization process. His government witnessed hardliners desperately trying to save the moribund military regime.

Since the end of the military regime, on 15 March 1985, the press has subsequently revealed numerous cases of human-rights violations that were carried out during that time. This seems a positive development, as the armed forces during their reign seemed sometimes to have behaved very much like an occupying force rather than the putative protectors of the country’s sovereignty.

We shall say however that at this time the climate allowing for the armed forces to interfere arbitrarily in the political process does not exist. The army left power utterly demoralized as a result of disastrous economic policies as well as widespread corruption not only in the public agencies but also in the more than 600 companies that were directly owned by the state, some of which notoriously managed by retired army generals.

In short, it may take some time for the military to repair their image in the eyes of Brazilian society.

Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitucional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is:


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