Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

“It’s Complicated”: Inside Bolsonaro’s Relationship with Brazil’s Military

Reading Time: 9 minutesBrazil’s military still plays a major role in Bolsonaro’s government. But after a wave of firings and public disputes, some say the relationship is in trouble.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Fernando Souza/AFP/Getty

Reading Time: 9 minutes

This article is adapted from AQ’s special report on Latin America’s armed forces | Ler em português 

BRASÍLIA – In a military full of accomplished generals, Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz was considered one of the very finest.  

After an illustrious career in the Brazilian Army, the United Nations asked him in 2007 to lead its peacekeeping mission in Haiti. That went well enough that the UN turned to him again in 2013 with an even tougher assignment – command of 23,000 troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the next two years, Santos Cruz led UN offensives against Congolese rebels while surviving multiple shootouts and an emergency helicopter landing. He proved such a clear-eyed strategist that the UN asked him to author a landmark report on how to better protect its troops. Its conclusion: That a “deficit of leadership” within the organization had directly resulted in higher fatalities in the field.

Given his experience and obvious backbone, many Brazilian politicians and investors sighed with relief in late 2018 when Jair Bolsonaro offered Santos Cruz a senior position in his incoming administration. The theory was that he, along with other retired officers in the government’s upper echelon including Vice President Hamilton Mourão, would offer administrative support to a president with few other allies – while also tempering Bolsonaro’s notoriously mercurial personality. “These guys are the best of the best,” a leading Brazilian investment banker told me at the time. “They’re a guarantee nothing crazy will happen in this government.”  

It didn’t last long. Just four months later, Santos Cruz was engulfed in a fusillade of friendly fire that, at least in its nastiness, rivaled anything he ever saw in Africa. Olavo de Carvalho, a Virginia-based philosopher and guru to the Bolsonaro family and their followers, called Santos Cruz a “piece of shit” and an “over-starched turd” on social media. Bolsonaro’s son Carlos also joined in the attacks, and the hashtag #foraSantosCruz (“get out Santos Cruz”) trended on Twitter. The specific cause of the fight is still disputed, but the bottom line was that a rupture had formed between the more pragmatic “military wing” of Bolsonaro’s government and “movement conservatives,” many of them evangelical Christians, who wanted more radical action on issues like gun laws and so-called gender ideology. In June 2019, Bolsonaro moved to please the second faction and fired Santos Cruz – plus two other retired generals who held government positions in the same week. 

By the time I spoke to Santos Cruz a few months later, he was in New York advising the UN again and seemed to have mostly moved on. But he did insist on one point: The notion that he or the other generals would control Bolsonaro was always “absurd.”

“You can’t even control a child after the age of 16. Good luck trying to control a 60-year-old president,” Santos Cruz told me. “This government is going to continue this way. It’s complicated.”

General Santos Cruz attends an event with President Bolsonaro before his departure from the administration.

Indeed, Santos Cruz’s story highlights the complex and ever-shifting relationship between Brazil’s armed forces and the Bolsonaro government after a year in power. On the one hand, the military remains more involved in politics than at any other point since the end of the 1964-85 dictatorship. It has recovered some of its historic role as a “moderating force” that sees itself as the enlightened guardians of Brazil’s long-term national interest, free of the self-serving needs of civilian politicians. Around a third of Bolsonaro’s Cabinet is composed of retired or active-duty military, with dozens more in key government positions elsewhere. They have exerted visible influence on policy issues including the management of recent fires in the Amazon and Brazil’s relations with China, the United States and the Middle East. 

But it’s also clear that the rift is real – and growing. Several others from the government’s “military wing” have been fired or otherwise marginalized in recent months. To report this story, I spoke to more than a dozen active-duty or retired members of the military, including six generals. Many expressed profound unease over Bolsonaro’s confrontational style and the constant sense of crisis that has characterized his government, even as Brazil’s economy starts to show signs of life. They also felt the military was in a clear Catch-22: While many of its representatives are being cast aside, the institution will still be held responsible if Bolsonaro ultimately fails. “We are always reminding the troops that this is not a military government,” one general told me. “But we also know that, if things don’t work out, it will be another 30 years before we participate in politics again.”

In and Out of Politics

The truth is that things between Bolsonaro and the military were always complicated – especially when he was a soldier himself.

An Army paratrooper from 1977-88, Bolsonaro did not rise beyond the rank of captain. In 1985, he gave an interview to Veja magazine denouncing low salaries for the military’s lower ranks; his commanders disliked the article enough that Bolsonaro spent 15 days in a penitentiary for insubordination. The following year, Veja published details of what it said were Bolsonaro’s plans to disrupt the water supply in Rio de Janeiro with explosives, again to protest low military wages. Bolsonaro was court-martialed but ultimately acquitted for lack of evidence. Soon thereafter General Ernesto Geisel, who led the dictatorship in the 1970s, publicly referred to Bolsonaro as a “bad soldier” and an “abnormal case” amid the military’s broader withdrawal from politics.   

Foreshadowing a pattern that would repeat itself 30 years later when he ran for president, all this negative attention garnered Bolsonaro quite a few fans. He was elected to Rio’s city council and then the national Congress in 1991, where he became an advocate for better military salaries and a lonely voice of nostalgia for the dictatorship itself. This made him popular with the rank and file, but the generals were moving in the opposite direction. Society as a whole was still angry about the human rights abuses and economic mismanagement of the dictatorship years, leaving the military leadership feeling like “scalded cats,” retired General Alberto Mendes Cardoso told me. “The shine of the military was lessened. There was a feeling that politics wasn’t worth it, that we should stay where we are under the Constitution.”  

But over time, three events would lure the military back to the political arena. 

The first was the massive corruption and disarray of the final years of the Workers’ Party, or PT, which ran Brazil from 2003-16. PT rule culminated in the worst recession in Brazil’s history, but it was the scandals that seemed to anger the military’s law-and-order-minded leadership the most. In April 2018, the then-commander of the Army, General Eduardo Dias da Costa Villas Boas, tweeted that the military was “attentive to its institutional mission” and “repudiates impunity.” The meaning was lost on no one: The next day, the Supreme Court was to make a ruling that could have prevented former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from going to prison on graft charges. While it’s doubtful Villas Boas’ words influenced the Court’s decision, Lula ultimately spent more than a year in jail. The tweet “was the moment that announced the military’s return to politics,” one mid-level officer told me. “It was unfortunate, but necessary.”

The second major factor was the military’s anger over the National Truth Commission, which Dilma Rousseff, another PT president, created in 2012 to investigate rights abuses during the dictatorship. This surprised me – I covered the commission extensively as a reporter, and the military was mostly silent in those years. Unlike in Argentina and Chile, there was no intent to jail its leaders for past crimes. But in interviews for this article, I repeatedly heard outrage over the commission – and the belief that the “insult to our honor,” as one general put it, would have contributed to the further deterioration of the military’s reputation, and possibly its budget, unless its leaders became more politically active again.

The final straw was a truckers’ strike in May 2018 that paralyzed delivery of food, fuel and medicine nationwide – and left commanders concerned the civilian leadership was losing control of power. In protests and outside several Army facilities, many Brazilians gathered to ask for the military to “save” the country; one poll showed 40% would have supported a coup. During the Cold War, the generals might have obliged. But polls were already showing a familiar face – Bolsonaro – leading the race for the presidential election that October. Bolsonaro emphasized his past in the military – the good parts, anyway – to shore up his credibility with voters. A deeper partnership began to take root, thanks in large part to General Augusto Heleno, another retired four-star general who had commanded the UN mission in Haiti. “There is an awareness among the public that the military can put this house in order,” Heleno said at the time. “We are fully aware a coup is not the way forward. The path will be the next election.”

There was not, and still is not, any formal role for the military in Bolsonaro’s government outside that specified by the democratic 1988 Constitution. But he did turn to numerous current and former members of the armed forces to fill key areas including education, infrastructure and more.

“There was a willingness to help because – modesty apart – we have good administrative ability,” retired General Marius Teixeira Neto, a former military commander of Brazil’s northeast region who is close to officers in Bolsonaro’s government, told me. “Our people don’t get corrupted, and we want what’s good for the country. We’re serious. And as everybody knows, you can’t govern alone.”

Allies – And Then a Rupture?

In the opening months of Bolsonaro’s government, the influence of the “military wing” was extremely clear. Its leaders did not act as a unified bloc, nor did they communicate regularly among themselves – “That’s a myth,” Santos Cruz said. But there was a convergence around key points, borne from teachings and ideological currents that have coursed through the institution for decades, namely an emphasis on Brazil’s national sovereignty and long-term interests over what they see as passing ideological fads. Meanwhile, some observers perceived an old dynamic: Even though Bolsonaro was president, some of the generals continued to treat him like a captain, unafraid of challenging him – even in public. 

During his first week as president, Bolsonaro floated the possibility of giving the U.S. military a base in Brazilian territory – but backpedaled following negative feedback from military leaders. Military officials also helped convince Bolsonaro not to withdraw from the Paris climate accord or immediately move Brazil’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for fear both moves could alienate consumers of Brazil’s agribusiness exports. Vice President Mourão, another retired four-star general, openly contradicted the president on a number of issues – dismissing Bolsonaro’s tough talk on China as “campaign rhetoric” and insisting Brazil should leave anti-communist ideology aside when dealing with its biggest trading partner. 

In some cases – particularly on China – the military wing’s ideas seem to have endured. But as 2019 wore on, and Bolsonaro became more confident in power, he began to lash out more against those who sought to control him. This stance was encouraged by his three sons, who are closer to the base’s evangelical wing and feared Mourão in particular was not loyal. (In a strange twist, some close to the family encouraged Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, to criticize Mourão in the Brazilian press.) The military wing’s preference for gradual change also put it in increasing conflict with the other major power center in Bolsonaro’s government – the pro-market reformers led by Finance Minister Paulo Guedes.

In recent months military criticism has become increasingly strong – and public. After a reform cut retirement benefits for Brazilian soldiers, with particularly onerous terms for lower ranks, protests broke out in Congress and memes calling Bolsonaro a “traitor” and “liar” swept military circles. “The president is only in politics because, when he was a captain, he defended better salaries for (lower ranks). Now he’s given us a fatal stab in the back,” the head of an association representing the military rank and file said, calling the relationship permanently “broken.” Maynard Santa Rosa, a retired general who resigned from a top government position in November, said the top brass was “losing hope” in Brazil’s recovery. “I’m rooting for this government to go well,” he told an interviewer, “but if that happens it will be by accident.”

However, talk of a deeper split with Bolsonaro – or some kind of move against him – also seems premature for now. Mourão was dispatched to the inauguration of Argentina’s new president in December, an important and diplomatically sensitive mission. Heleno remains one of Bolsonaro’s most loyal aides – and even joined Twitter in August, where his attacks on the press and “radical left” often rival the president’s in tone. Bolsonaro gave the military a critical role in subduing the fires in the Amazon that generated international attention in mid-2019, and also recently announced that acquisitions of key military hardware would be exempt from budget cuts in 2020. Meanwhile, the incipient economic recovery, a sharp decline in nationwide homicide rates, and a reduced number of corruption scandals have allowed Bolsonaro’s approval rating to stabilize in the low 40s. Brazil has so far been spared from the mass protests and unrest hitting other South American nations such as Colombia and Chile. 

Several officers told me that, for all of Bolsonaro’s faults, and the pervasive sense they are losing power as his government progresses, they were still relieved Brazil escaped an even deeper crisis. “We were repeatedly put to the test (as a nation), and we passed,” Villas Boas, the former Army commander who sent the infamous 2018 tweet, recently told O Globo newspaper. Even Santos Cruz expressed hope, in our conversation, of a somewhat happy ending. “The best way to get rid of corruption is (for Bolsonaro) to have a good government,” he said. “Yes, I still think there’s a chance.”    


Reading Time: 9 minutes

Winter is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and a seasoned analyst of Latin American politics, with more than 20 years following the region’s ups and downs.

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Tags: Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, Latin America's armed forces
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