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Lula inherited a state booby-trapped by Bolsonaro. Can he reassert civilian control?

The attempted coup against the left-wing Brazilian president was only the beginning: Bolsonaro left behind a state apparatus riddled with military men. Lula's future depends on whether he accommodates them - or brings them to heel. 

January 20 2023, 15.53pm

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva assumed office earlier this month with grand ambitions - ambitions befitting the man who, in his previous term, took Brazil off the UN’s hunger map and lifted 20 million of his compatriots out of poverty. This time around, he vowed to bring deforestation of the Amazon to zero; to build on his previous work and resolve the hunger still plaguing 33 million Brazilians; to rescue from poverty many millions more; and to reposition Brazil on the global stage. 

Instead, it quickly transpired that before Lula’s government embarks on this challenges, it’ll need to ensure it can govern at all - without being obstructed, sabotaged, or toppled by Brazil’s resurgent security apparatus, whose presence up and down the government structure had dramatically increased under Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro. 

The Brazilian army stayed away from executive power in the country since 1985, when 21 years of military dictatorship came to a close. But Bolsonaro came to power signalling that he would bring an important segment of the military back into government. And his promise was kept. Under the previous president, conservative Michel Temer, 2,700 military personnel held positions in the federal administration. In 2019, Bolsonaro's first year, this number rose to 3,500 In 2021, there were just over 6,000. 

Himself a former captain in the army, Bolsonaro took a general - Hamilton Mourão - as his Vice President. The president's spokesman was also a military man, as well as the ministers of Energy, Infrastructure, Health, and many others.

Petrobras, the national oil giant, also passed into the hands of a general, as did the chief budget office at the Ministry of Environment, several secretariats in the Ministry of Justice, the country's Postal Services, the National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI) and even the state-owned company that was in charge of hospital services.

This portfolio bonanza was accompanied by a whitewashing of history. Throughout his term, Bolsonaro made a point of denying the very existence of the coup d'état of 1964- the coup that ushered in 21 years of f torture and censorship. In his presidential palace, Bolsonaro received torturers and dismantled mechanisms of reparations for the victims. In the wider Latin American context, his comments supporting dictators like Augusto Pinochet (Chile) or Alfredo Stroessner (Paraguay) caused earthquakes.

Internally, Bolsonaro knew that he would have serious difficulties to win reelection after the collapse of his administration during pandemic and the resulting 700,000 deaths. His strategy, therefore, was to delegitimise the polls and open up a chaos in which the Army would intervene to restore order. 

In the process, he demanded that the military be part of the Electoral Justice to inspect the transparency of the election, something unheard of in the more than 30 years of Brazilian democracy. The Bolsonaristas’ hope was that the military would claim fraud, and help Bolsonaro reject the election results.

But in a laconic report, the Armed Forces were obliged to conclude that there was no way to prove election fraud.

Outside pressure might have played a role. 

The U.S. Congress sent a strong signal against any threat of a coup. In an initiative by Bernie Sanders, a resolution was passed establishing that any democratic breakdown in Brazil would mean an immediate end to military aid to the South American country.

At the same time , representatives from the top echelon of the CIA landed in Brazil to give the same message to Bolsonaro personally : there would not be a tolerance to even the intention of a coup. 

Fearing international isolation and internal political chaos, some of the main generals of the Armed Forces refused to follow Bolsonaro in his authoritarian adventure.

But the adventure was attempted nonetheless. On January 8 - in close proximity to the anniversary of the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, a symbolism lost on no-one - thousands of people attacked the headquarters of all three branches of power in Brasilia, calling for military intervention and the annulment of the elections that transparently and fairly gave victory to Lula. 

Within hours, the buildings of the presidency, the National Congress and the Supreme Court were reoccupied by police forces, and more than 1,500 people were arrested. In the hours that followed, leaders from around the world came out in unison to condemn the attacks and confirm their support for President Lula. Only Steve Bannon and other voices of the world's extreme right broke the consensus to applaud the attacks and, with misinformation, justify what was happening in Brazil.

On the face of it, the immediate threat of a coup was averted. But the crisis is hardly at an end. Two aspects still cause uncertainty today in Brasilia about the fate of democracy.

The first is the silence the Army maintained for months in the face of protests by Bolsonaro's allies calling for a coup d'état, in front of their own headquarters. No condemnation of these calls has been put forward. 

The second is the uncertainty about the extent of support that the extreme right could have in the middle strata of various police forces in Brazil.

Both uncertainties only deepened after the attempted coup on January 8. When police were ordered by Lula’s Justice Minister to arrest those who were camped outside the military headquarters in Brasilia, military tanks formed a line of defence, and prevented people from being taken by the police. 

The police didn’t force the line, and a later report by the Washington Post revealed the military advised the Justice Minister to abandon the arrest operation. 

Even if few dared imagine that the military and police would challenge Lula’s authority a mere 8 days into his tenure, some sort of friction with the armed forces was likely anticipated by members of the new government. would become a real, palpable obstacle for Lula after a mere eight days in office. 

In fact, the transition team even suggested to the president-elect that he establish criteria for the choice of the new defence minister - with loyalty to the Constitution over loyalty to the armed forces at the very top of the list. 

Nevertheless, and despite public pressure from progressive segments of society, Lula opted to play along with the military and choose a Defence Minister who could maintain dialogue with the high ranks of the Armed Forces: José Múcio. For the first time in five years, a civilian would again lead the forces- but a civilian with an excellent relationship with the generals, so dialogue could be established and tensions could be placed under control. But would that mean amnesty for those committing crimes against democracy?

The awkward silence by the Army was answered by Lula’s decision to spell out his suspicions about the role of internal actors in the invasion of the presidential palac,e and to denounce the intelligence failure by the Armed Forces.

The next step was to initiate a process of demilitarisation of the Executive Branch, with the ousting of 140 military who were lodged in the government. But sources from Lula’s inner circle questioned if that would ever be enough.

Less than a month after the attacks in Brasília, the reality is that the impact of the earthquake is still being felt. The attempted coup, the legacy left by Bolsonaro inside the barracks, and the deepening of the extreme right puts Brazil at a crossroads.

Lula could repeat Brazil's sad history, turn a blind eye on the threats and criminals, and hope that a generous amnesty will make room for a backroom power-sharing deal disguised as democracy.

The other option is to inaugurate a new phase in Brazilian democracy that has never been seen before: to punish any sign of a coup d’etat with the rigour of the law and to definitively block the military from any role in political decisions. 

The path Lula chooses - and his success on that path - will determine his legacy as much, if not more than, any of the ambitious plans he campaigned on in 2022.