SÃO PAULO – I arrived here on Sunday in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. Or so it seemed. A nationwide truckers’ strike was in its seventh day and 99 percent of São Paulo’s service stations had run out of gasoline. The roads of South America’s biggest city were deserted of cars and people, and the skies were a murky gray. The normally hellish drive from the airport, which often lasts two hours or more, took a disconcerting 23 minutes.
Up on Avenida Paulista, the city’s closest thing to a public square, things seemed more normal – at first. Huge crowds milled about, vendors were grilling beef and sausage, and girls in hot pink roller skates clomped by. A quadruple amputee was belting out the falsetto ending of Pearl Jam’s “Black” to an enthralled crowd. The sun was out now, and families sat at wooden tables with sweaty buckets of beer, laughing. Of course, I mused, Brazilians are going to make a party out of a bad situation. I bought a can of Skol and decided to join the fun.
Then I saw it. A huge banner, spanning the entire avenue, carried by a group of protesters:
“SUPPORT FOR THE TRUCK DRIVERS. MILITARY INTERVENTION! ARMED FORCES, URGENT!”
And that was the start of a week where I saw and heard things I never believed I would in Brazil.
The Brazil of mid-2018 is a frightened, leaderless, shockingly pessimistic country. It is a country where four years of scandal, violence and economic destruction have obliterated faith in not just President Michel Temer, not just the political class, but in democracy itself. It is a country where there will be elections in October, but most voters profess little faith in any of the candidates. Given that vacuum, many Brazilians – perhaps 40 percent of them, according to a new private poll circulating among worried politicians – believe the military should somehow act to restore order. Amid this week’s strike, the clamor became so loud that both Temer and a senior military official had to publicly deny the possibility of an imminent coup.
This was all unquestionably good news for the presidential candidate most identified with the armed forces, retired Army captain Jair Bolsonaro, who was already running first in polls. Many analysts expect him to rise further after this week’s events. It’s a red alert for anyone else – foreign investors and ordinary Brazilians alike – with the old-fashioned belief that healthy civilian institutions are the key to long-term prosperity, or who still hold out hope that Brazil’s economy and political outlook might finally stabilize this year.
When I lived in Brazil as a reporter from 2010 to 2015, I heard hardly anyone defend military rule – at least out loud. The last dictatorship, which ran from 1964-85, left behind a legacy of debt, hyperinflation, falling wages and human rights abuses. Yet unlike Chile and Argentina, Brazilian soldiers were never judged for their crimes – and never fell into abject disgrace. So today, with Brazil at the forefront of a global backlash against “elites” and institutions, the military is increasingly perceived as the only credible vehicle for change. Polls show the armed forces are by far the country’s most respected institution (the press is a distant second). A year ago, 38 percent of Brazilians told the Pew Research Center that military rule would be “good for the country.” That number is surely higher now.
The truckers’ strike started on May 21 after a government-sanctioned hike in diesel prices, but quickly grew into something much bigger. On WhatsApp groups and elsewhere, striking truckers shared videos and other messages calling for an end to Temer’s government. One cited by Estado de S.Paulo read: “Victory is near! Truckers + the people x legality x legitimacy = the fall of the Brazilian Bastille! Let’s not weaken. Come on, National Security Forces!” On Wednesday, the phrase intervenção militar was being mentioned on Twitter at a pace of 515 times per minute, according to one study. Smelling blood, many truckers continued to block roads even after a deal was truck with Temer to bring diesel prices back down. By this point, supermarkets around the country were running out of basic goods, and half of Brazilians had to change their daily routines because of lack of fuel, according to a Datafolha poll. Yet that same poll showed the strikers had the support of a whopping 87 percent of the population.
Why? I spoke to many protesters on Avenida Paulista, and others over the course of the week. Many drew a direct link between the diesel price hike and corruption at Petrobras, the state-owned oil company at the heart of Brazil’s “Car Wash” corruption scandal. “Of course the politicians raise prices so they can steal more money!” one middle-aged woman told me. Virtually everyone thought that anything bad for Temer – the first Brazilian president ever to be charged with a crime while in office, and who has an approval rating of 5 percent – must be good for the country. Still others insisted democracy had proven an ineffective tool to fight street crime, corruption and general disorder. I found myself arguing about this with a salesman in his sixties who had lived through the last military regime. “I didn’t like the dictatorship,” he replied, “but right now, come on, não é muita democracia? Don’t we have too much democracy?”
Polite society, especially in the big cities, continues to insist such voices are a minority. But I also spent part of the week among politicians, and just beneath their sunny bravado was a dark sentiment I could only describe as “end of days.” One group was discussing how the military commanders weren’t interested in taking power, but the rank-and-file was obviously restless. I heard of one recent instance in which a general approached a well-known politician to urge him to run for president and “save the country.” “I don’t think a majority of Brazilians want a coup,” a prominent political analyst told me, “but if it did happen, the people would probably support it.”
In truth, a traditional coup with tanks in the streets is almost unthinkable – a “relic of the 20th century,” as one military leader put it this week. In the 21st century, when democracy erodes, it almost always happens via the ballot box. Bolsonaro has vowed if elected to appoint military officials to key cabinet positions, roll back human rights provisions and give security forces “carte blanche” to kill suspected criminals, among other measures. Gen. Joaquim Silva e Luna, whom Temer appointed as Brazil’s first non-civilian defense minister in February, told Bloomberg News last week that he welcomed Bolsonaro’s candidacy. “Brazil is looking for someone with values … and they consider that the armed forces have these attributes,” he said. Why bother with a coup, when there are easier ways to gain power?
This week also brought a counterreaction of sorts from elsewhere in Brazilian society: There were signs of the left and some interesting pro-business bedfellows coalescing around Ciro Gomes, a former finance minister and governor. Elsewhere, leaders from the beleaguered center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) were looking carefully at polls to decide whether to abandon Geraldo Alckmin as their presidential candidate and go with an “outsider” figure like João Doria instead. But overall, there was little sign of any political consensus that could bring the difficult reforms and bold investments that Brazil needs to recapture the promise it showed last decade. Instead, society seems entirely focused on tearing down existing structures, without much thought to what comes next. Perhaps surprisingly, the most lucid comment to that effect came from President Temer, at a press conference for foreign journalists. “Every 20 or 30 years in Brazil, there’s an attempt to reinvent things … to destroy what is there and build a new order,” he said. He’s right. And for that, Brazilian politicians can largely blame themselves.