Brazil’s Military Takeover in Rio Sparks Authoritarian Fears

Deeply unpopular Brazilian President Michel Temer issued a decree to put the military in charge of security in Rio de Janeiro instead of police, dubiously claiming the purpose is to crack down on crime. But many Brazilians worry that it’s the first stage in a return to military rule, explains journalist Brian Mier

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The State of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is currently under what amounts to a military occupation. In mid-February, President Michel Temer issued a decree to put the military in charge of security instead of police. The express purpose of the military security operation is to fight a rise in crime levels in Rio. However, there is a lot of speculation as to why Temer, who is at 3.4% favorability in the country, took these measures now considering that previous military involvement in fighting crime in Brazil has been a dismal failure. Joining me now to analyze these developments is Brian Mier. Brian is the editor of the website Brasil Wire, and he’s also editor of the book Voices of the Brazilian Left. Thanks for joining me, Brian.

BRIAN MIER: Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Brian, you recently wrote about the military’s security operation in Rio. You expressed skepticism about the official explanation for the military’s involvement there. Indeed, the military itself has been accused of committing atrocities and extrajudicial executions during these operations, so why do you think that crime-fighting is not the believable explanation for the military’s intervention in Rio?

BRIAN MIER: Well, first of all, because in all of the city-level or neighborhood-level operations by the military since the organized crime problem really kicked off in Brazil in 1980s, none of them have ever stopped a drug trafficking gang from operating inside of a favela in Rio de Janeiro, none. In fact, during the military occupation of Mare Favela at the time of the Olympics, I was in there doing research, and I saw that every night the military would just leave and the drug dealers would come out with their machine guns and set up their tables and start selling drugs on the street as if there was an agreement between the sides.

We know that the military, for the past 30 years, has been one of the primary supplier of weapons to the organized crime gangs in Rio de Janeiro. You can go and look at YouTube videos and see gangs making their own music videos bragging about their military hand grenades and anti-aircraft guns and things like that. So it seems like there’s been a long history of almost … not like collaboration officially but there’s some levels of infiltration between organized crime and the military. So the idea that they’re going to come in now, after all of these failed attempts in the last 30 years, and solve the drug trafficking problem is frankly ludicrous. That’s why there’s people speculating that there are other reasons for it.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, some people attribute the military’s presence in Rio to Temer’s governance problems, for example, his inability to push through the pension reform. What is the connection here?

BRIAN MIER: Okay. Well, when Temer illegally took office after the coup in 2016, he announced his two main objectives were labor reform and pension reform. Now, he managed to push through draconian labor reform measures, which basically put workers’ rights back by around 80 years unfortunately. But for the last year, the unions have been organizing, pressuring congressmen, meeting with people in churches and neighborhood associations across the country talking about the dangers of these reforms for the average working-class Brazilian citizen, which would push retirement up as high as 72, 73 years for some people while sparing the most egregious abusers of the system, which are the judiciary and the government and the military.

There’s a clause in the Constitution that says when any state is under martial law, you can’t pass a constitutional amendment. This means that it’s impossible for them to push through the amendment. What the CUT Labor Union Federation said the day of the military occupation is that Temer did this for two reasons. One, to hide a corruption scandal he’s involved in in Santos from the media, and the second was to have an out, to not be pressured to have to pass this constitutional amendment until after the 2018 elections because he simply doesn’t have enough votes to pass it through Congress at this point. The fact that they announced that they weren’t going to try to pass the amendment until after the October 2018 elections, during the day of a massive nationwide general strike, seems to show that maybe the labor unions have a point with this.

However, there are other people saying that “No, this is actually the first step towards a return to a military dictatorship in Brazil.” Some of the things that General Braga Netto, who’s in charge of the operation, have said to the media, and some of the things that he’s done, has gotten a lot of people worried. First of all, he announced that this time around, when the military comes in, they don’t want to have to worry about having a Truth Commission afterwards. The Truth Commission was set up by Dilma Rousseff when she was president to investigate allegations of torture and summary executions against political activists and labor union members during the military dictatorship. So the General’s already kind of suggested that they’re planning on doing human rights abuses.

Secondly, he announced that they’re treating Rio as a kind of pilot project for the rest of Brazil. [inaudible 00:06:18] there was a press conference the other day, in which all of the journalists invited were required to submit their questions in writing before the conference so that they could be approved or rejected by the military. This is an identical practice to what they did during dictatorship times, and this has some people worried. It’s not lost on a lot of Brazilians, that when the original military dictatorship in 1964 took place, it started with a military occupation of Rio de Janeiro.

SHARMINI PERIES: Brian, give us a history lesson here. Please give us more context to the military dictatorship and its history in Brazil.

BRIAN MIER: Okay. In 1964, it was the height of the Cold War. There was a center-left president who was talking about doing things such as agrarian reform, which is a historic problem in Brazil where the land is concentrated in the hands of a small number of families and there are millions of peasants on the land. He was trying to push through agrarian reform. He rose the minimum wage. He was doing these kind of social democratic measures that are common in Europe, for example. But this was considered too left-wing in the Cold War period, so the United States Government supported Brazil to enact a military dictatorship. They took over in 1964 and ruled until 1985.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Brian. Now, one of the things you mention in the article that you wrote is that the intervention is related to the broader military involvement in Brazilian society, especially in the context of the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in mid-2016. This type of militarization of Brazilian society is a serious concern, not only among the left but in the general public. Are those discussions reemerging now?

BRIAN MIER: Yeah. It is a concern. For people who are old enough to remember the military dictatorship, a lot of people are very concerned. Unfortunately, just as you see in the rise of the far right in Europe right now and in the United States, there’s this kind of fabricated nostalgia for a past that never existed, which has a lot of young people mistakenly pining for the days of the military dictatorship because they believe these memes they see on the internet and they believe the xenophobic rhetoric from people like Jair Bolsonaro, who’s a former army captain from the dictatorship days who’s running for president on an anti-gay, anti-black, and anti-immigrant platform.

So you see the same kinds of confusions that you have in Europe with respect to misinformation spread by the far right. But that being said, a lot of people are very worried right now and even sectors of the middle class who have supported the group are backpedaling now and wondering what’s going on.

SHARMINI PERIES: Brian, one example of this is that federal police raided the offices of Dr. Rafael Valim. Tell us about Dr. Valim and why would the police raid his offices?

BRIAN MIER: Okay. Rafael Valim is one of Brazil’s most prominent legal scholars and author of over 20 books. He’s also a very vocal critic of what he calls “lawfare tactics” being employed by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Lava Jato prosecution team led by Sergio Moro, in targeting PT party politicians, especially President Lula in what seems to be an attempt at prevent him from running for president later on this year.

Now, a couple days after Lula lost his appeal process last month, Valim sponsored a seminar in Sao Paulo about lawfare, which had prominent speakers like UN Human Rights Commission Lawyer Geoffrey Robertson and some of the top legal scholars in Brazil. The fact that Sergio Moro ordered his offices to be raided a couple days later is a clear sign, in my mind, that he’s using legal harassment techniques against his critics. And this is something that we see increasing across Brazil right now. A couple weeks ago, the Federal Minister of Education tried to prevent Brazilian National University from offering a course about the 2016 coup. There’s other cases of people who’ve been critical of the government being harassed legally and by the police. This leads a lot of people, including former president Dilma Rousseff, to say that Brazil is currently operating in a state of exception where the rule of law’s no longer valid, and the events in Rio de Janeiro seem to point to this as well.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Finally, Brian, give us a sense of where PT is at at this moment while the candidacy of Lula in terms of running in the next election is becoming more and more unlikely or likely?

BRIAN MIER: Well, look it. PT is still saying that Lula’s going to run. Lula’s still saying he’s going to run, and he’s still leading the polls far ahead of any close competitors. The next competitor back is Jair Bolsonaro. If he’s not allowed to run, they’re thinking about maybe Fernando Haddad. There’s another candidate named Jacques Wagner who they were thinking of running in Lula’s place. His house was just raided by Sergio Moro’s federal police. So it looks like the US-backed Lava Jato investigation team is just trying to arrest anybody they can or harass anybody they can from the PT party at this moment in an attempt to manipulate the upcoming elections.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Brian. We’ll leave it there for now. It seems like there’s a lot more to discuss as far as Brazil is concerned and these military incursions into ordinary lives. I thank you so much for joining us, and we hope to have you back very soon.

BRIAN MIER: Thanks a lot, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.