Small Wars Journal

Bolsonaro Gets Boost from Military Allies

Sat, 11/03/2018 - 2:21pm

Bolsonaro Gets Boost from Military Allies


Malcolm Beith


Brazilian President-elect Jai Bolsonaro’s reverence for the military is well-known, but he’s unlikely to bring Brazil back to a military dictatorship after taking office on Jan. 1. How he tackles the country’s crime and corruption problems is another question. There were more than 63,000 homicides in Brazil in 2017, and the military has become the primary force against the gang problem.


Lt. Gen. Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, a former UN mission commander whose friendship with Bolsonaro dates back to the 1970s when they trained at the country’s military academy together, has high hopes for the new president. “He’s honest. He will respect the law 100 percent,” he said by phone from Brasilia.


There’s good reason to be skeptical of Dos Santos Cruz’s outlook. Bolsonaro has become known as a booster of military might, of torturing political prisoners, and has displayed his homophobia publicly. He has said that criminals are “not normal human beings,” and have no rights. At a time when activists and investors are wary of the rise of right-wing governments all over the world, Bolsonaro is another big question mark.


“Bolsonaro said he is going to ‘clean’ — that's the way he said it — homosexuals, poor people and black people," said Anielle Franco, an activist and sister of murdered Rio councilor Marielle Franco, at the Human Rights World Summit, according to AFP. “I’m scared of him,” she said.


Dos Santos Cruz, who led UN missions in Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti during his career before becoming Brazil’s National Secretary for Public Security until his resignation in July, dismissed fears of an authoritarian crackdown. “Why do you call [Bolsonaro] right-wing?” he said of the foreign media. “[He is] a socialist. It’s one thing to be a socialist in Europe, another to be a socialist in Latin America.”


Dos Santos Cruz has no doubt that Bolsonaro will respect human rights concerns while cracking down on gangs and organized crime, which have plagued Latin America’s largest nation — and strongest economy — in recent years. President Michel Temer deployed 30,000 troops to Rio de Janeiro’s favelas in early 2018, after admitting that organized crime had “taken over Rio de Janeiro.” According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official in the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak on the matter, Brazil’s gangs, mainly in Rio and Sao Paolo, are increasingly linking up to international organized crime syndicates in the region and even in Europe. In Rio and Sao Paulo, prison gangs have wreaked havoc on business, while local militias—paramilitary forces consisting largely of former policemen—have formed in a vigilante effort to combat gangs. Rio City Councilor Franco, an outspoken critic of the militias, was killed in a shooting in March, which was attributed to the militias, shortly before the military took over police operations in the city.


U.S. Adm. Jim Stavridis, who headed US Southern Command between 2006 and 2009 and visited Brazil often, wrote a column for Bloomberg arguing that “while I was with Southcom, Brazil leaned as far away as possible from the U.S. military… there were real barriers separating us.”


Under Bolsonaro, he wrote, “look for Brazil’s military to spend more on U.S. defense systems; operate with us in training exercises, especially at sea and in the air; participate more fully in counter-narcotic efforts with Drug Enforcement Agency and Pentagon teams [and] take part in counterterrorism drills with the U.S.”


“Bolsonaro will not slow down at all for human rights concerns, but rather will accelerate the hard fist approach he has promised during the campaign,” he said in an email, adding that Bolsonaro is unlikely to receive “serious pushback from the military…He will be empowering them after all.”


Dos Santos Cruz was adamant that Bolsonaro would not rock the boat too much. “I’m 100 percent sure human rights will be respected more [under Bolsonaro],” he said. One reason for that is that Brazil will be under more scrutiny than ever from foreign investors and lenders, he explained. “We will have much more respect for human rights.”


Stavridis noted in his email that “the situation in Venezuela gives [Bolsonaro] leverage with the international community because he can be part of the solution.” In Bloomberg, he made the claim that Bolsonaro “completes a U.S. Sweep of South America…. Other than Venezuela… the continent is now U.S.-friendly,” he wrote.


Bolsonaro’s real test, of course, will be to tackle corruption. Operation Car Wash, launched by Judge Sergio Moro in 2014 against Petrobras and high-ranking officials including then-President Ignacio Lula da Silva, who is serving a 12-year prison term, proved that corruption could be reined in. But Bolsonaro’s appointment of Moro as his justice minister on Nov. 1 has raised eyebrows and given critics early ammunition.


Moro, a vocal proponent of Act 12,850, a Brazilian law approved in 2013 which has helped law enforcement and prosecutors go after criminal organizations through wire taps and plea deals, has said in past interviews that he not political. But as soon as he was appointed, Gleisi Hoffman, president of Lula’s Workers’ Party, tweeted to denounce him for the “fraud of the century.” 


“Judge Sergio Moro will be Minister of Justice in Jair Bolsonaro's Government, who has only got elected because Lula was unfairly convicted and prevented from participating in the elections ... by judge Sergio Moro,” she tweeted. “Helped to elect, helping to govern…”


Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum called the appointment an “obscenity,” while the Economist’s Michael Reid, a Latin America expert, wrote that “Moro’s jailing of Lula now looks like a political act.”


Dos Santos Cruz defended Bolsonaro with regards to corruption, saying he knows it’s in his best interest to go after it hard. “Corruption is Brazil’s worst bad thing,” he said. “By fighting corruption, [Bolsonaro] can change the budget. The public money will go where it’s supposed to go. This change makes Brazil much more serious to receive [foreign] investment.”


Categories: Brazil - El Centro

About the Author(s)

Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, focusing on conflict. He is the author of The Last Narco (Grove Press, 2010) and “Hasta El Ultimo Dia,” (Ediciones B, Mexico, 2012) He has a Master’s Degree in War Studies from the University of Glasgow, and maintains contact with official sources in Mexico, the U.S. and elsewhere. A former Newsweek general editor, he has written for Janes Intelligence Weekly, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Sunday Times, National Catholic Reporter and World Politics Review.