On September 15, Brazilian General Antonio Hamilton Mourão publicly announced the possibility of military intervention to solve Brazil’s political situation. At a public Q&A session before the Brasilia freemason society, Mourão responded to an audience member’s question, stating that if the executive, legislative, and judicial powers were unable to find a way, “the time will come in which we will have to impose a solution.”
Even worse, Mourão went unpunished for his statement. Army Commander Eduardo Villas Bôas later announced that the incident had been dealt with internally, and Defense Minister Raul Jungmann issued a note clarifying that Brazil’s armed forces remained “completely subordinate to constitutional and democratic principles, and in respect to the constituted Powers.”
Too little, too late. The damage was done.
In a storm of Op-Eds, tweets, and podcasts, Brazilian media rushed to defend an only recently (or partially, depending on who you talk to) consolidated democracy. A poll by Paraná Pesquisas found that 43% of Brazilians favored a provisionary military coup. An Estadão Op-Ed wrote that the armed forces seemed to be trending all over the Brazilian internet, reminding us that much of today’s generation is too young to remember the dictatorship. Millennials, as usual, are ruining everything.
Now, this warrants calamity and concern. The Armed Forces have a long history of intervention in Brazilian politics, and any hint at a military junta should be taken seriously.
But if we’re going to draw parallels to the coup of 1964, as many are, we need to be honest. The current scenario is nothing like 1964. Here are six reasons why:
1. The Economy
Then: 1964’s coup occurred in a context of steep drops in GDP growth (from 8.8% in ‘61 and 6.6% in ‘62 to .6% in ‘63) and huge jumps in inflation (47.8% in ‘61, 51.6% in ‘62, and 79.9% in ‘63). Prior administrations’ focus on a policy of debt-financed Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) proved unsustainable as foreign debt ballooned. Though industry boomed, years of neglect towards the agricultural sector drove up food prices, especially in newly crowded city centers.
Now: Brazil just emerged from its worst recession ever. GDP contractions of 3.8% and 3.6% in 2015 and 2016, with a forecasted .7% growth for 2017 make the early 60s look downright opulent. The recovery may be dragging, and a whopping 13 million Brazilians are still out of work, but the reality is that the recession is over. Economists still wring their hands over Brazilian fiscal debt levels, but markets don’t care. Inflation, the Temer administration’s single claim to fame, is under control at around 3% for 2017. As this seizure-inducing propaganda clip suggests, food prices are down.
2. The Reforms
Then: Despite initial coddling from the US, President João Goulart made a hard swing left soon after taking office. With 1959’s Cuban revolution on everyone’s mind, this was exactly the right way to kick up anti-communist sentiment among hard-liners in the Brazilian military and among foreign investors. Goulart may not have been as staunch of a leftist as his opponents alleged, but moves to secure rural worker labor rights, to legalize the communist party, and to embark on agrarian reform (possibly the most provocative two-word phrase in Latin American politics) became easy fodder for those warning of a “communist spectre.”
Now: Temer’s reforms look like something straight out of The Economist. Constitutional amendments and bills to cap public spending, cut labor rights, and reduce pension spending, and privatize infrastructure may be overwhelmingly panned by the Brazilian public, but Temer has foreign investors drooling, and Brazilian stocks are at an all time high. Social inclusion and wealth redistribution are nowhere on the docket. This is the neo-liberal agenda so decried by the Latin American left.
Then: 1960s Brazil was ideologically polarized and well-organized. Politicians and civil-society groups on both sides were tuned in, and Goulart seemed to piss off every one of them. Governors Miguel Arraes (PB) and Leonel Brizola (RS) took him to task for not tracking reforms fast enough, while Carlos Lacerda (RJ) and José de Magalhães Pinto (MG) from the Southeast openly conspired against him.
As Congress repeatedly impeded Goulart’s reform agenda, he turned to the people. In early March of 1964, some 200,000 supporters gathered at Goulart’s “Reform Rally” in Rio de Janeiro. Then, less than a week later, near 500,000 marched through the streets of São Paulo in opposition as part of the “Family with God for Liberty” rally.
Now: Despite a record low 3% approval rating for Temer and widespread disillusion with the entire political class, Brazilians are anything but mobilized. Save for a few inflatables on Brasilia’s esplanade, the streets are empty. 2013’s marches in opposition to rising public transportation costs and more recent rallies in defense or support of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment have since quieted down. Chalk it up to political fatigue or to faith in Brazilian courts, but the air is calm. Governors are more concerned with state finances than anything else, and political parties in congress spend their time shielding themselves from court-ordered investigation. No one is stepping up.
4. Messing with the Military
Then: In the final days of his administration, Goulart pushed hard to grant voting rights to enlisted members of the armed forces, granting amnesty to a group of rebellious sailors on March 24 and giving a speech to an assembly of sergeants on March 30. For the Brazilian military’s values of internal order and vertical hierarchy, this was too much. By the morning of March 31, the coup was already underway.
Now: Temer’s government actively leans on the armed forces. The economic crisis and the Olympics have left Rio de Janeiro state finances in such shambles that the military is now responsible for issues of domestic security. Temer’s silence in response to General Mourão’s comments and Rio de Janeiro Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão’s reluctance to address reports of human rights’ abuses in last week’s military operations into Rocinha send a clear message.
5. A Detached United States
Then: USAID support for capitalist elements in Brazil’s Northeast, CIA funding for opposition politicians, and regular State Department correspondence over the possibility of a coup were all real parts of US foreign policy towards Brazil at the time. As the contingency plan known as Operation Brother Sam would later show, the US did not send troops, but Lyndon Johnson had serious munitions and supplies ready to support Brazilian military intervention.
Now: Aside from the occasional sanction of Venezuelan officials or jab at Mexican immigrants, the rest of Latin America bears little importance to the Trump administration. The Obama administration’s practice of relying on regional partners in lieu of unilateral pressure (for better or worse) made it clear that the US was no longer willing to invest serious time and resources in regime change. For better… or for better, the US is in no position to interfere this time.
6. But what if?
This isn’t all to say that military intervention couldn’t happen. If Venezuela has proven anything it is that we have taken for granted democracy’s durability in the Western Hemisphere. But if we’re attempting to anticipate or pre-empt military intervention, we need to give deeper weight to the history surrounding the ‘64 coup.
In the unlikely scenario that former President Lula da Silva is allowed to run for office in 2018, things could escalate quickly. In what would be a close and contentious race, either he or his opponent would likely contest the 2nd round vote outcome. Such a case would inflame the economy, bring Brazilians back to the streets, tempt international actors, and likely lead to several years of unstable presidency. Then things start to look at lot like ‘64.