The Participation of the Armed Forces in Government: A New Normal?

/ Fundação FHC auditorium

The Brazilian Armed Forces have invested in the education of its members in recent decades, which included undergraduate, graduate, master's and doctoral programs, and now have very well-educated personnel who are available to aid any democratically elected and constituted government in resuming the much needed and desired social and economic development of the country. 

The possible presence of military personnel in public office does not, however, mean engagement in party politics, as active military personnel who decide to run for office are required to leave the military and cannot return. That decision was made at the initiative of General and former President Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco in 1964, in the early days of the military regime, and remains in force.

These were the main takeaways from the panel “The Participation of the Armed Forces in Government: A New Normal?”, which was attended by Reserve General Sergio Etchegoyen, who was Chief of Staff of the Army (2015-2016), and former Brazilian Minister of Defense, Nelson Jobim (2007-2011).

“During the Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) administration (1995-2002), there were many diplomats in important positions in various ministries, which was natural, as President Fernando Henrique, present here today, had been Minister of Foreign Affairs and knew the diplomatic corps— traditionally, known as an infinite well of competence in Brazil. The Armed Forces have also heavily invested in training their staff and can offer technical and organizational support to any government,” said Etchegoyen, who was Chief Minister of the Institutional Security Department (2016-2018).

“President Jair Bolsonaro, who is a former army captain and has good contacts in the Armed Forces, said during his campaign that he would bring in good military personnel to assist in the public administration. Since his inauguration, he has been keeping his promise, and there is nothing wrong with that,” said Etchegoyen. 

 Etchegoyen: 'Cold War and the military regime are things of the past'

According to the speaker, the country needs to overcome the ideological divisions that characterized the 20th Century and were reinforced by the dispute between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War (from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s), which resonated around the world and in Brazil, too. 

“The ideological disputes of the last century have created such a dense fog that many people still cling to the passions and dogmatism that need to be overcome, including a stance against the military due to the association with the military regime, which ended in the 1980s. We lacked competence-based judgment for the longest time—if anyone was a member of the military, they could not hold public office, and that is that! However, here we are today, in the 21st Century, and the correlation of forces is changing around the world; well-educated and well-trained Armed Forces personnel can contribute to meeting the challenges that arise in this new multipolar world,” he said.

The general recalled that since re-democratization (1985) and especially after the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution and the first direct presidential elections (1989), “all political and ideological expressions had free ground in Brazil, with right and left administrations, as well as center, without any attempt to influence or involve the Armed Forces in the political-electoral process.”

 A new pact for the country to resume growth

Over the past three decades, there have been significant achievements, such as economic stabilization and the reduction of poverty and inequality, but “in recent years, investigations have revealed a degradation of political activity due to systemic corruption; the political model shows signs of exhaustion, an economic crisis has been installed, and unemployment has already reached more than 13 million Brazilians,” he added. During such period, according to the general, the Armed Forces maintained the firm decision not to deviate from institutionality and to defend democracy and the values of Brazilian society. 

With the inauguration of a new democratically elected government and parliament in early 2019, it was time for the country to make a new political and social pact to move forward. "We don't have to be in favor of the current administration, but everyone's collaboration is essential to overcome the current difficulties and build the country where we all want to live, with democracy and economic and social development," he said.

According to the former Chief of Staff of the Army, the military is not a separate social segment but a part of society and seeks to defend and preserve its values and traditions. “No institution will be as ever-lasting as the Armed Forces if it does not identify with society. Most of the military come from the middle and lower classes and want peace and security to work, and to progress and live in dignity," he said.

Still according to Etchegoyen, the mission of the Armed Forces has remained the same since Brazil's independence (1822)–defense of external sovereignty and internal order–but staff trained in colleges, schools, and military institutes are available to assist in public administration, if and when convened by government officials, and for complementary or subsidiary missions. “Brazil is built by all Brazilians; what legacy will we leave for the next generations?” he concluded.

 Jobim: 'discipline makes a difference'

“All military (active or reserve) who were called to collaborate with the current administration has high technical and organizational skills that make a difference: they are used to military discipline, and once a decision is made, there is no more arguing. The goal is to implement what has been decided,” said Nelson Jobim, who, in addition to being Minister of Defense, also served as Minister of Justice (1995-1997).

According to the speaker, who was also a Congressman (1987-1995) and Supreme Court Justice (1997-2006), having presided over the court from 2004 to 2006, there is no risk of the Armed Forces influencing politics. “Among the active military, there is no pretense of developing a political activity. The aim is only to contribute to Brazil's development process, which requires resuming growth and creating jobs," he said. 

According to Mr. Jobim, the military, when called upon, can help solve important problems in the country. “The operational and technical level of a government must be touched by the bureaucracy, of which the military is an integral part. When a professional politician gets into the operational and tactical level, it usually doesn't work out,” said the former minister.

 FHC: 'The military has changed. What about the politicians?'

According to former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, diplomats, the tax bureaucracy (including Brazil's Internal Revenue Service), and the military are the three fundamental categories of the federal public machine. "No wonder they are called to contribute," he said. For FHC, the Armed Forces have changed a lot since the military regime: not only have they proven, over the past decades, that they no longer intend to engage in politics, but they have also invested in training and the professionalization of their staff. 

“Now, it is politicians who have to change because they are still focused on their own interests, which are often far removed from the needs and desires of the population,” said the former president. 

“Despite ideological and partisan differences, what unites us? The political class is lacking a common sense of respect and love for the homeland ahead and above immediate interests. Will the politicians change in the face of the deep crisis we are experiencing? That's what is at stake right now,” he warned.

Otávio Dias is a journalist who specializes in politics and international affairs. A former correspondent of Folha de S. Paulo in London and editor of the news website, he is currently the content editor at the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Foundation. 

Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations).

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