Why the threat of military intervention in Brazil is overblown

Yesterday’s leaked wire-tap of Brazilian Planning Minister Romero Jucá, apparently scheming to kill the “Lava Jato” investigation into corruption after ousting currently suspended president Dilma Rousseff, has justifiably cost him his job. Particularly worrisome was one specific phrase: “I have spoken to the military leaders.”

Amid Brazil’s current political and economic crisis, the threat of military intervention looms large in the collective imagination. This is because, not that long ago, in 1964, the Brazilian military did indeed depose a democratically elected leftist leader, subsequently installing a military dictatorship that remained in power for 20 years.

Now, after the controversial suspension of leftist Rousseff, pending impeachment, the specter of the right-wing coup once again looms over Brazilian society. Rousseff herself has repeatedly stated this, calling her ouster a coup by the elitist opposition. Many have blindly repeated this rhetoric, despite all indications to the contrary (there is evidence that she did, after all, break the Fiscal Responsibility Law, an impeachable offense according to the Brazilian constitution; further, the impeachment proceedings have been voted on by Congress four times already and there is still a trial in the Senate pending, plus the process is being supervised by the Supreme Court, which has declined to intervene on several occasions).

When we take a step back and evaluate the differences between what happened in the 1960s and what is happening now, it becomes all too evident that the threat of military intervention is currently an extremely remote possibility.

The 1960s were the time of the Cold War, when disproportional reactions to perceived threats of Communism were commonplace. It was the era of McCarthyism in the US, and Latin America lived in the shadow of the Cuban Revolution. The Soviet Union was a real super-power, one that was widely and hysterically feared.

Another important difference in the Brazilian context at the time was that the military was, back then, a highly prestigious institution. Higher ups were consistently members of the Brazilian elite, educated abroad at places like West Point Military Academy, in the US. The influence of McCarthyism and American military thinking stuck, no doubt.

As a result of all of these factors, the military was primed for intervention back then. Today, the situation is totally different.

After the re-democratization of Brazil in the 1980s, the military, understandably, lost a lot of its prestige. Brazilians no longer aspired to military careers and sought employment opportunities elsewhere, and the profile of military men changed considerably. With new recruits coming, to a large extent, from a limited draft, one which wealthier Brazilians were often able to dodge, the military started to look much more like a cross-section of the Brazilian population: more socioeconomically and ethnically diverse, no longer the bastion of the elites, and no longer necessarily supportive of the political establishment that abandoned it.

As Brazil sought to move forward, it put the military directly in its past. Neglected by the political establishment, the military was overlooked for years. Things only started to change in 2002, when Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former labor union leader and founder of the Workers’ Party (PT), became president.

Lula sought to reestablish the prominence of the Brazilian military, working to bring back some of the prestige it had lost in the previous two decades. He built up their profile both at home and abroad, volunteering Brazilian troops for UN peacekeeping missions around the world. Both he and his successor, Rousseff, worked hard on this rehabilitation project and even began receiving military support (and purchasing military technology) from Russia.

Although Lula’s stated aim was to use the military to raise the profile of Brazil internationally, with the explicit goal of getting a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, it seems that his outreach to the military also had a secondary purpose: it was an insurance policy, and one that is paying off now.

The Brazilian military had intervened against the left before, and Lula knew that if things were to go south for his government, the idea of another military intervention would be raised. So he proactively sought to get the military on his side from day one, thereby nipping this potential threat in the bud.

If we consider the current local context, in which Brazil has robust if flawed democratic institutions; the international context, in which terrorism has replaced communism as the global threat du jour; and the regional context, in which leftist regimes all over Latin America are collapsing on their own, it becomes clear that the Brazilian military is not primed to intervene on this occasion. Add to that the past decade of support from the PT government, and the chances of the military now backing the PT’s enemies start to look even slimmer.

Jucá, a self-important, unethical, corrupt politician, who is, like so many of his kind, prone to telling self-aggrandizing lies, claimed to have spoken to the military leaders while on the phone with a desperate-sounding colleague, a colleague who was egging him on while secretly recording him to gather evidence for a plea deal. We should take any bombastic claims made in this context with a grain of salt. Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t claim to have spoken to the Pope too.

I’m not worried about the military in Brazil, and neither should you. What Jucá’s phone call showed is that he, like the corrupt political class in general, is out of his depth. He was saying had the power to stop the Lava Jato probe, even as his words were being recorded to use as evidence in that very investigation. The only thing this call proves is that Jucá and his cronies are terrified of the investigation, and that they are desperate to stop it, yet seemingly powerless. They are scared of falling into the hands of Sergio Moro, the judge behind the investigation, who has repeatedly executed preemptive arrests. They are even more scared of the results of these arrests: the plea bargain testimonies used by their corrupt “frenemies” to win themselves lighter prison sentences. Indeed, the most promising detail of the call is the seeming inability of the politicians to touch the Supreme Court justice who is in charge of Lava Jato cases at the court, Teori Zavascki.

Meanwhile, Brazilians are polarized and in a protesting state of mind. The only thing that seems to unite those on the right and left these days is their shared commitment to ridding the country of corruption. If Lava Jato stops, Brazilians will take to the streets again. Those who were against the impeachment and who thought that Temer was plotting a coup to stop the corruption investigations into himself and his cronies will be as vocal as ever. And those who were in favor of the impeachment, believing that Dilma was the one who was trying to stop the investigation (she has been cited in testimony as trying to interfere and her appointment of Lula to a government ministry was widely perceived as an attempt to obstruct justice), will now turn against Temer for the same reasons.

Brazil is a country in chaos. The only thing that is holding the pieces together is the glimmer of hope provided by Lava Jato, an investigation that has been hunting politicians on the both right and left and is committed to ending a long-standing culture of impunity. In this context, there is absolutely no upside for the military to get involved (especially if the investigation’s scrutiny shifts towards the military’s business dealings with Russia). They will likely sit this fight out, waiting on the sidelines to see how it will end and then adjusting their allegiances accordingly.

There’s only one place in Latin America where we should be worried about military intervention, and that is Venezuela. The biggest difference is that its military is strongly allied with the person in power, Maduro (his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, was a general, after all). By scheduling the greatest military exercises in the country’s history right now, as Venezuela devolves into chaos, he is brazenly threatening to use the military to quash unrest and calls for his removal.

The PT’s ideology has always been a markedly less extreme version of Bolivarian Venezuela’s. If the military is allied with the leftists there, you can bet it is allied with the leftists in Brazil as well. They are unlikely to fight on the side of their enemies, and we should all be thankful for that. Brazilian democracy, ugly and messy as it is, will sort this out eventually, in its own convoluted way. No need to panic, at least not yet.