A specter haunts the Brazilian elites. His name is Lula – the former president and for the past nine months one of the world’s most notorious political prisoners, given his enormous popularity and the controversy over his conviction and jailing.
Brazil, until recently a leader of the Global South, BRICS member and eighth largest economy in the world, remains on edge, after President Bolsonaro’s widely panned appearance at Davos, plus dramatic details about dangerous liaisons between the Bolsonaro clan and one of the most notorious criminal gangs in Rio, not to mention Saudi Arabia’s veto of Brazilian meat imports due to the new president’s promise to transfer the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem.
For financiers and the powerful agribusiness lobby, which played a key role in his election, Bolsonaro is an embarrassment and expendable. Mourao has already said that the new Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo – a mediocre low-level diplomat subservient to one of Bolsonaro’s sons – was not capable of formulating Brazil’s complex foreign policy.
Moreover, German Ambassador Georg Witschel, on a visit to Mourao, was keen to stress that not only Berlin but European Union officials in Brussels were upset to see Brazil led by someone with little respect for human rights, right in the middle of negotiations for a free-trade pact between the South American trade bloc Mercosur and the EU.
Speculation is rife in Sao Paulo – the financial capital of Latin America – that a slow motion “soft coup” may be underway to remove the new president. An explosive documentary is ready to be broadcast by the powerful Globo network showing, with the help of American specialists, that the “stabbing” suffered by Bolsonaro last September, during his presidential campaign, was actually a stunt.
This all points towards a familiar path: drawn-out negotiation between the military and the Globo media empire, which fiercely supported the 1964 coup, alongside Washington, which led to a 21-year military dictatorship. That has led to speculation on whether Mourao may emerge as president.
In such an event, pacification of the masses might even involve freeing Lula from jail to some form of house arrest, for the benefit of national reconciliation. But all this comes amid talk of more privatization of state entities.
So how did we come to this?
Out with the ‘communists’
General Mourao’s father was an important player in the 1964 coup. And his son Hamilton Mourao has always been a strong adversary of both presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff. In 2017, he said it was about time for a new military coup. Immediately after the Bolsonaro-Mourao victory, he swore that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro would be toppled and Brazil would send a “peace” force. Bolsonaro was even forced to stress that Brasilia was not contemplating a war against Caracas.
This hatred of all strands of the Left mingles with the motto “Brazil above everything, God above all” – which happened to be Bolsonaro’s campaign mantra, appropriated from the Army’s Paratrooper Brigade. Both Bolsonaro and Mourao are former paratroopers.
Claudio Casali, a colonel, explained how the motto – resurgent in the past few years – was coined way back in 1968 by a group of nationalist paratroopers as the military dictatorship turned on the screws against the cultural sector and media.
The motto spread like wildfire in military quarters, all over again, during the first term of Dilma Rousseff, who was forced to appoint Lula’s extremely successful former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, recently interviewed by Asia Times, as Defense Minister, in a bid to try to quench the political fire.
Even before Dilma’s reelection in late 2014, Bolsonaro visited the elite Agulhas Negras Military Academy, promising to “fix” Brazil. The whole chain of military command enthusiastically supported him.
Spotlight on Amazon forest
What the Brazilian military really think is self-evident at their website, strictly connected to a powerful group of generals – Augusto Heleno, Eduardo Villas-Boas, Sergio Etchegoyen and Mourao among them. The current commander of the Brazilian land forces is Etchegoyen’s godfather. This military elite conceptualizes how the Brazilian Army will be upgraded under the Bolsonaro government and even manages to turn the Hybrid War theory on its head, analyzing how “the communists” have profited from its techniques.
What happened was the rolling “coup” of 2016-18 in Brazil revealed itself to be the most sophisticated form of Hybrid War already deployed by right-wing judiciary-police-military and their financial, business and media allies, leading to the impeachment of President Dilma on flimsy charges and Lula jailed with no hard evidence of corruption.
Intellectual debate at Brazilian military academies predictably mirrors the US, including the re-appropriation of MOUT – Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain, as devised by the Rand Corporation – and as applied by President Macron’s NATO army against the Gilet Jaunes or Yellow Vests demonstrations in France.
Now we may be entering a new, dangerous phase of Hybrid War – as the Brazilian military interpret it. I discussed it extensively with one of Brazil’s top experts, war anthropologist Piero Leirner, a professor at the federal university of Sao Carlos. Leirner told me how the military actually believe they must “weaponize” farmers to fight a guerrilla alliance of the Workers’ Party and the PCC smuggling syndicate – an absolutely spurious notion.
The key latitude to watch is a region straight out of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, around Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira, on the northern shore of the Rio Negro (“Black River”), the third largest municipality in Brazil, and the second largest in the immense Amazonas state.
Picture a mighty surveillance tower enveloped by thick tropical jungle no less than 1,100 km from the state capital, Manaus. Crucially, the high Rio Negro area is very close to both the Colombian and Venezuelan borders. There’s a lonely Army brigade on the spot; not exactly the right stuff for an “invasion” of Venezuela. Moreover, the jungle is unforgiving – only aerial deployment is feasible.
And yet, for the military, this ultimate desolate frontier could be turned into a Brazilian Balkans. Why? Because it could involve clashes over forest land likely to spur conflict with the Yanomami indigenous people.
All boots on deck
Beyond the Amazon, the Brazilian military, in their South Atlantic geopolitical sphere of influence, will keep projecting power in the Andes, Africa and the Caribbean. General Heleno was deployed in Haiti as the commander of the UN peacekeeping forces. He was also the top Amazon rainforest commander.
Top generals have key ministerial posts in the Bolsonaro government. According to Leirner, no less than 20% of the top echelon is now fully employed. This Wednesday, General Villas-Boas was named as a special adviser to Heleno, the Minister of the Cabinet of Institutional Security, known by its acronym GSI. The GSI is the intel arm of the federal government. Heleno is Bolsonaro’s chief strategist.
Bolsonaro was never shy about defending the military dictatorship’s crimes, as well as extolling known torturers in Congress. His popularity and social media savvy made a huge impression among the top generals – who identified him as the perfect man to bring them back to power.
They knew Bolsonaro was extremely flawed – and that to be back in full control would be just a matter of time. Yet problems may arise from the fact that, as Leirner stresses, Mourao is just a technician, lacking Bolsonaro’s charismatic appeal.
The Brazilian military may exhibit different strands of nationalism, but they all converge on strong corporatism. The question is whether they will be able to overcome the trademark alienation and sub-imperial mentality of a former slave-owning colony which still hasn’t achieved the hegemonic conscience of its greatness as part of an emerging multipolar world.