At the beginning of June, when the national total for COVID victims rose above 30,000, many Brazilians recalled an interview that a former army captain, at the time a rather obscure, little-known politician, gave in 1999. Following a question asking what he would do if he was President, the interviewee proclaimed:
“I'm sorry, but through the vote, you won't change anything in this country. It will only change, unfortunately, when we go to civil war here. And doing a job that the military regime hasn't done. By killing about 30,000. Starting with FHC [former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso]. Killing! If some innocent people are going to die? Fine!”
The obscure politician was called Jair Bolsonaro and today he is President of Brazil. Rather than fighting the pandemic, he seems to thrive on it. In echoing the President’s words two decades ago, the gruesome milestone of 30,000 coronavirus deaths reminded Brazilians that Jair Bolsonaro has always displayed a pathological disregard for human suffering.
Bolsonaro, and his onslaught on democratic institutions – with continual attacks on the judiciary and calls to close down congress - represents the greatest setback for social progress in Brazil since the military coup of 1964. Although increasingly politically isolated, the President and his three eldest sons – all politicians - continue to enjoy solid support from 30% of the Brazilian population. Alarmingly, they also appear to be arming their followers and co-opting the country’s security forces.
Under relaxed new laws, gun ownership rocketed by 98% during 2019, Bolsonaro’s first year as President, confirmation of his declared intent and ability to arm his supporters. Weapons newly obtainable to the public include the Brazilian-made T4 semi-automatic rifle, previously only available to the army. In April this year, Bolsonaro revoked decrees that existed to facilitate the tracing and identification of weapons and ammunition.
One week later, he tripled the quantity of ammunition available for purchase by civilians, saying on record in a ministerial meeting, that he wanted “everyone” to carry guns, in his own perverse logic, in order to “guarantee that you won't have a son of a bitch show up to impose a dictatorship here!”
With more guns and ammunition than ever before available to the general public, and strong, vociferous support from the rank and file of the police and armed forces, Jair Bolsonaro is holding Brazilian society to ransom. How has he achieved this?
Since coming to office, Bolsonaro has appointed nearly 3,000 members of the military to government positions. 10 members of the armed forces presently occupy ministerial posts. In 2019, he made economic overtures to the category by introducing pay rises and saving them from the worst of national pension reforms. And while more moderate generals had been initially expected to act as a calming influence on their candidate, it is now evident that Mr Bolsonaro has succeeded in muzzling them.
With the higher echelons of the military in his pocket, Bolsonaro also commands loyalty from the rank and file as well as from members of Brazil’s police forces across the vast nation. Although state police forces are technically subordinate to local state governments, Bolsonaro has strong influence over them. In February this year, when striking police rebelled against the state governor of Ceará in Brazil’s northeast - a political rival - he stayed silent, refusing to condemn the action.
When you consider that he is also arming private civilians, it is clear that Mr Bolsonaro is now using the threat of violence to shield himself from rivals and the possibility of impeachment.
State police in São Paulo also lately demonstrated bias towards the President, declining to disperse quarantine breaking pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations, while bombarding a recent anti-fascist gathering with tear gas.
In 2015, there were an estimated 425,000 of these front-line police – called military police - in Brazil. Under the Brazilian constitution, military police are counted as ancillary army reserves. They have responsibility for patrolling streets, maintaining public order, responding to crimes in progress and arresting suspects caught committing crimes. They are prosecuted for infractions in military courts, and therefore generally not accountable to civil institutions.
Brazil’s inability to prosecute past atrocities committed by the junta denied the country its much-needed reckoning with the past. Unlike neighbouring Chile and Argentina, a 1979 Amnesty Law shielded the military hierarchy from prosecution.
This fiasco, and the failure of successive civilian governments to reshape the role of the armed forces for a democratic society, permitted Bolsonaro’s fascist ideology, so clearly expressed in his 1999 interview, to flourish.
Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso - the “FHC” Bolsonaro talked of killing in 1999 - recently said another military coup wasn’t necessary for Brazilian democracy to die; all that would require is for Bolsonaro to give himself extraordinary powers.
When you consider that he is also arming private civilians, it is clear that Mr Bolsonaro is now using the threat of violence to shield himself from rivals and the possibility of impeachment. He recently flew over a crowd of his supporters by helicopter. After landing, he rode on horseback in the company of military police, past his fans. Such grandstanding suggests Bolsonaro believes he might be edging ever closer to absolute power.