On September 7th, 2022, Brazil celebrated 200 years of an unfinished independence. Although the break with the Portuguese metropolis was the subject of negotiations between the elites of both the colony and its metropole — and not of popular wars — the date has historically been marked by large military parades. Since the beginning of Bolsonaro’s government, this day has also become an excuse for heavily militarized rhetoric and speeches that threaten Brazil's democracy, a trademark of this government.
Bolsonaro comes from the military and knows the security forces were a decisive sector for his victory and for remaining in power. Before the elections, the commander of the Army, general Eduardo Villas Bôas, published a note on Twitter urging the Supreme Court to rule against Lula, the leader of the election polls at the time. On his inauguration day, Bolsonaro publicly thanked the general. Since the end of the dictatorship years, the military had kept themselves out of the spotlight, while maintaining a certain degree of control over politics and high levels of institutional autonomy. This can be seen in their contribution to their role in the deterioration of relations with former president Dilma Rousseff; the creation of the National Truth Commission; the large Brazilian participation in MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) between 2004-2017; the expansion of the military presence in the Amazon; the Ensuring Law and Order operations; and their role in the mega sporting events in Brazil, such as the World Cup and the Olympics.
In Bolsonaro's government, the military, which has occupied half of the ministries, including the Health Ministry in the middle of the pandemic, is presented as a technical and non-ideological group, capable of moderating the president's outbursts. Brazil does not have a military government, because the military does not occupy the State as individuals, but as part of a body separate from the rest of society. However, unlike the 1964 dictatorship, it is not the Armed Forces (FFAA) who choose their representatives according to hierarchy and discipline. Rather, a hybrid occurs, a militarized government, in which a Military Party, in which Jair Bolsonaro was forged over decades, coordinates the current power bloc. The Military Party has a long-term project of power, and is expected to continue in the Brazilian political scene.
This advance of military forces on the political scene is a process of the militarization of the state and of Brazilian society. Militarization in Brazil occurs in multiple dimensions.1 The first dimension of militarization is the growing presence of the military in the political system, whether elected or appointed. This presence creates a conveyor belt in which military interests are transmitted to the entire political system. In this way, the Armed Forces have been included as internal observers of the integrity of the electronic ballot box — an electoral tool that Bolsonaro has pointed out as fraudulent. A second dimension of the militarization of the state is to transfer doctrines formulated by the military — therefore, designed for war — to other environments through government policies. This is what historically occurs in the area of public security, where the internal enemy doctrine guides the military police — responsible for overt and preventive policing — and expands to civilian public security institutions. This expands punitive measures against the poor and the prison population, electronic surveillance, summary executions, arbitrary imprisonment, and other serious human rights violations. These are extensions of war by other means, inside the city. A third mode is the transfer of military values to public administration. This includes the proposed militarization of schools, with values of order, valorization of exact subjects to the detriment of human subjects, behavioural conservatism, and exclusion of those considered "less capable". A fourth aspect is the militarization of any and all problems, including those that concern other spheres of the state, such as the preservation of the environment, or confronting the Covid-19 pandemic, which does not involve war, but public health. A fifth dimension is the militarization of the state budget and the control of state-owned companies. During the pandemic, the Armed Forces received salary increases while other public servants had their salaries frozen.2
It is worth clarifying that militarization does not occur only in the executive branch, but also in the legislative and judicial branches. Just between 2010 and 2020, more than 25,000 military and police officers ran for elective positions, 87% by right-wing parties, and 1,860 were elected.3 One of its effects is the introduction of a Counterterrorist Bill that criminalizes the popular struggle.4 And militarization does not exist solely within the structure of the state. In the combination of external peace and internal war, Brazil is an odd example: externally peaceful, the country concentrates 17 of the 50 most violent cities in the world (34%).5 Not to mention the already historic violence in the countryside and against traditional populations, or the actions of militias in urban peripheries, notably in Rio de Janeiro, the political cradle of the Bolsonaro family. Added to this is violence as a determinant of Brazilian social formation, characterized by slavery. Besides these, according to official data, the government policy of encouraging the population to arm themselves doubled the number of registered weapons in circulation — from 637,000 in 2017, to 1.2 million in 2021, according to records of the Federal Police, the regulatory body. In this sense, it is essential to point out that Bolsonaro’s base contains segments armed and motivated for a coup d'état, although without sufficient conditions to do so.
Even though Lula has won the election, the demilitarization of a state is not a simple task. There is an anti-Lula majority in the military, although this does not mean automatic adherence to a Bolsonarist coup attempt.
In this new scenario, the popular camp faces many challenges. In this context, it is necessary to discuss what type of defense policy is capable of sustaining a popular project for Brazil, and which portions of the Armed Forces are necessary to achieve this. Below, we offer some ideas for the defense policy of the Brazil we want, where the loudest voice is that of the people.
Our first question always has to be: What do we want to defend? There are different understandings about which national interests should be the object of protection. Popular movements work with a perception that is closer to human security, thinking of food, energy, and information sovereignty, in short, a good life for all as the main issue to be defended by the country. The movements are also protagonists in the concern with strategic resources, especially the environment, one of Brazil's main functions for the accumulation of global surplus value. Taking into account the way in which present unconventional wars are fought, the main object of defense should be the sources of perception/interpretation of the world that forge the popular will (not only during the decision-making process). Without the freedom to think, formulate and decide, including on how to ecologically manage strategic resources (not only natural, but also cultural), there is no autonomy.
Any small domestic action that changes Brazil's position in the international hierarchical order generates a reaction. It is an illusion to consider the national liberation of peoples in peripheral states without thinking about how to break the exploitative relations of the center with the periphery. The domestic and international environments are intimately connected. The ruling class, even in peripheral countries, has global connections. For Latin Americans, one has to carefully watch the moves of the U.S. The essence of maintaining US hegemony is not in its enormous military apparatus, far superior to the other countries of the globe put together. It lies in its capacity to inspire desires, to emulate, and control wills.
Therefore, the first capability that we need to pursue to become a sovereign country is that of autonomy in thinking. We must be (VERY!) suspicious about what is presented to us as threats to Brazil. For example, we are a people formed by migrants who came voluntarily or enslaved. To understand migration as a threat is to ignore the social formation of the Brazilian people. Security and insecurity are, thus, relational feelings. Whoever holds the hegemony in the formulation of ideas also holds the ability to choose what should be understood as a threat. This prevents the peripheral countries from identifying what really threatens the well-being of their peoples, and not only their states. In Latin America, drug trafficking (and other transnational crimes) is presented as the greatest threat to people's well-being. In the world in general, terrorism holds this place. In addition, traditional but unrealistic threats such as territorial fragmentation, which justifies the maintenance of military bodies in border regions, remain in the imagination.
We need to work with the people to identify what they perceive as a threat. We will find that many issues, such as lack of health, food, or even public safety, are not solved with weapons.
Peoples’ self-determination. Building a world of peace doesn't mean the absence of conflicts, but that these conflicts should no longer be mediated through the use (or threat) of force. Even knowing that a peaceful world is impossible as long as imperialism, understood as the current form of capitalism, persists, peace among peoples must be built right away. The self-determination of peoples is a crucial point, since this is what gives peoples the right to self-government and to decide freely about their political situation in a world of hierarchies. For countries with a colonial past, it is particularly relevant, because in the name of an abstract nation nurtured by the dependent domestic elite, popular will is pushed into the background. Self-determination cannot be negotiated even in situations that hypothetically threaten human rights, as is alleged in the case of Venezuela. High humanitarian risk situations are caused by capitalism, and cannot be solved by military means, which, on the contrary, aggravates them. This becomes clear in times of war, as we see in the differentiated and racist treatment that refugees from Ukraine receive compared to various African or Muslim peoples in Europe.
Multilateralism. The principles enshrined in the 1945 UN Charter remain important. However, the organization itself is increasingly weaker in fulfilling the functions initially assigned to it and becoming more functional for hegemonic interests. In Ukraine, the UN has shown itself to be favorable to NATO and has become unviable as an instance of dialogue for the resolution of this conflict. For this reason, Brazil's historical demand for the reorganization of international mechanisms remains relevant. Multilateralism must seek to break the monopolies in five areas, as Professor Samir Amin has shown: science and technology, finances, control over natural resources, weapons and communications. That is why it is good for Brazil to join those alliances that offer good prospects for global change, such as the BRICS; and it is essential to engage in the construction of mechanisms in South America, such as UNASUR. But these initiatives will encounter a more difficult scenario after the war in Ukraine and the pandemic, which strengthen chauvinistic feelings within states, and a continued search for self-sufficiency in all fields. The emergence of new variants of the virus around the world serves as a lesson: global problems need global solutions. Among multilateral mechanisms, priority should be given to the free movement of people or possibilities for improving people's lives, and not to the movement of commodities. More than reformulating what already exists, we must forge institutions that express the interests of the peripheral peoples (and states).
Demilitarizing defense and public security policies. Internally and externally, we must demilitarize! Space and Antarctica must be kept free of weapons. It is essential to limit weapons expenditures (Even more so in times of war!) and to build or strengthen mechanisms for the eradication of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; encouraging actions such as de-mining. Having a nuclear bomb will not make Brazil a safer country; on the contrary, it would make the whole of Latin America a more insecure continent. The security dilemma is that when a country buys weapons, its neighbors also buy weapons, because they feel insecure about the former's intentions. The end result is many countries that are more armed in general, and also much more insecure. Breaking the security dilemma implies that, faced with the choice of investing resources in weapons or in measures that improve the lives of the people, such as water and education, choose the latter, including strategically. Demilitarizing post-Bolsonaro implies much more than removing the 8,000 members of the military from the executive branch. It does not mean abandoning national defense, or disarming the country. It entails thinking about defense policy as a peripheral country focused on peacebuilding, and with a strong civilian component.
Building popular control over the instruments of violence. Brazil is not an active party in any international conflict and has drawn its borders with few wars. However, this peace at the international level coexists with a country with a record of internal violence. For the central target of the bullet — the young black male body, living on the outskirts of the big cities — it doesn't make much difference who fired the shot. For this reason, it is not enough to talk about civilian control over the Armed Forces. Having a civil minister at the head of the Ministry of Defense is the minimum, as well as a civil administration educated for the democratization of defense policy. Popular control refers to the construction of mechanisms for popular participation in public policy, which is fundamental for democracies. And control should occur over the instruments of violence: weapons (production, circulation, and sale) and institutions (Armed Forces, police forces, etc.).
Strictly separating defense and security. If at the point of the bullet the institutional perception is the same, the formulation and management of the two areas need to be strictly distinct. Public security, which, at least in theory, should protect life before property, deals at worst with citizens in conflict with the law. National defense deals with the potential external enemy, who ultimately faces elimination. Turning the Armed Forces into the police and militarizing the police is the US proposal for Latin America and the current practice in Brazil since the beginning, when the main enemy was (and still is) identified within the national borders. Thus, it is necessary to separate and differentiate citizen security from national defense, including in national guiding documents, starting with the Constitution, which allows domestic deployment, a loophole used for the establishment of Ensuring Law and Order operations, and other types of domestic political threats.
Revising the Brazilian strategic conception. To have the Armed Forces focused on confronting an external enemy usually leads immediately to two reflections: 1) Brazil is militarily fragile; 2) we need to spend more money on weapons and men. We must question this reasoning. Brazil is dependent in terms of strategic formulation, because it copied the American answer to the question "How do we defend ourselves?": through having many weapons, and ultimately, winning wars. This recipe is not useful for peripheral countries, with so many urgent needs demanding public spending. We must invest in a defense strategy whose main focus is the population itself, and not the intensive investment of capital (state-of-the-art military technology). The people are the ones who defend a country. Only later the Armed Forces. The people only defend that which they understand as their own, that which they believe is good for them. Therefore, to build a more just Brazil, to educate the people, to implement agrarian and urban reform, these are measures that strengthen national defense, because they increase social cohesion, belonging and the engagement of the Brazilian people in the defense of their own territory.
Renegotiating the budget and redirecting defense spending. War has been occurring on two terms: the economy (sanctions) and communications. In both, civilians are hit the hardest. By redirecting the budget it’s possible to redirect military spending to address other national vulnerabilities. It also helps to relocate money to areas such as social assistance or sports, which are currently executed by the military, from their original portfolios. In turn, this strategic review enables the redirection of actual defense spending. For example, the reduction of the permanent manpower frees a larger portion for investment in equipment. Since the main object to be defended in Brazil is the will of the people, this is what should determine the priorities for the defense industrial base: aerospace and cybernetic areas, both focused on communications. In general, the discussions revolve around how to produce weaponry, and are centred on decisions over purchasing with technology transfer and produce dual-use materials — both civil and military. It is necessary to discuss what to produce in the first place. In parallel, we must halt equipment purchases which, instead of increasing our autonomy, transfer resources from the people to potential adversaries, notably the US, besides increasing our dependence and foreign debt. The hegemonic countries’ transfer of technology only happens in their speeches. In practice, they transfer scrap to peripheral countries and sell technical assistance to keep their scrap running. Finally, we must confront the arms companies’ lobby, where retired military personnel benefited from the relationship between the military, these companies, and the government.
Debating the objective of the Armed Forces. In Brazil, military personnel are engaged basically in activities regarding internal security (which in itself is unjust) and in border defense against transnational crimes. They live in an opportunistic situation guided by the strategy of achieving greater gains for themselves and their own interests, and oscillate between positions of power such as politicians, police officers, military personnel, managers, welfare workers, etc. The Brazilian people’s positive perception of them is not related to defense activities, but to the subsidiary attributions they fulfill using resources diverted from other civilian agencies. The Armed Forces should be employed in national defense activities, and occasionally in others, such as disasters. They need to be professionalized and modernized, and their contingent, personnel distribution, universal recruitment, and interoperability must be seen according to what is defended and how it is defended.
Breaking with the military’s autonomy. Military tutelage is a general component of Brazilian politics, and Bolsonaro’s mandate reflects its most acute expression. To truly break with it, we must put an end to the three domains maintained by this institution even after the 1988 Constitution: education, justice, and intelligence. This legacy is more damaging than the individual punishment of torturers of the military dictatorship.
The number one task for all those fighting for the people was to elect Lula, and then take advantage of the victory in the election process to discuss the military and defense issues within the left and contribute to putting an end to the fear or the idealism that surrounds the issue.
To achieve this, we must break with elitism and build social power. The Armed Forces enjoy high prestige and will not seek any of the changes suggested here; on the contrary, they will oppose any form of strong resistance, and, therefore, changes need to be built from the outside in. The discussions about international relations are elitist, both on the conduct of foreign policy and on defense policy. It is common to hear comments like ‘people don't know’, ‘don't have a long-term vision’, ‘have no interest’. Thus the left feeds two types of expectations: firstly, that we have to put and end to the Armed Forces, because it is an institution that handles violence far from popular control; or the opposite, in the absence of a sustaining social power, we must seek military insurance, looking for "a general to call your own". It is necessary to use the principles of democracy and popular participation when managing the State's international relations, so that the "strong arm and the helping hand" (motto of the Brazilian army) do not follow parallel paths, but are subordinated to a popular project for the country. The task right now is to organize hope.
Ultimately, we must also question the idea that preparation for war is necessary for peacebuilding. On the contrary: peacebuilding involves prioritizing a program that focuses on the well-being of humanity and the planet, eliminates hunger, guarantees safe housing and quality health care for all and defends the right to a dignified quality of life. If you want peace, be prepared for war, they say. In fact, if you want peace, you must prepare, build, educate and dedicate yourself to its construction.
For further information, we suggest reading this dossier published by the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research.
Ana Penido has a PhD in International Relations and is a researcher at the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the Study Group on Defense and Security (GEDES-UNESP)
Illustrations: Gabriel Silveira