Likes Brazil Chile

Autocracy on the rise : Return of the generals in South America

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro likes the military. The ex-army captain often visits barracks and salutes whenever he can.

It is therefore not surprising that he also filled many government posts with uniformed men. Ten of its 23 ministers and Brazil’s vice-president come from the armed forces.

The health department, which is important in the corona crisis, is led by a general, as are the ministries for infrastructure and science.

It is also noticeable how many soldiers were appointed to the second rank of government. Almost 3,000 military personnel are distributed among ministries and authorities, and they often sit at control points. And they take on new tasks.

For example, Bolsonaro has withdrawn the monitoring of environmental laws in the Amazon basin from the environmental agency Ibama and transferred it to an army task force led by Vice President Hamilton Mourão.

An Ibama official told Tagesspiegel, assuring anonymity, that the army had neither the competence nor the will to track down and punish illegal loggers. The army deployment is a show staged abroad.

Many observers are concerned about the growing influence of the military. Bolsonaro's approval rates fell during the corona crisis, and he was targeted by the judiciary due to irregularities in the 2018 election campaign.

Is Brazil facing a military coup?

Some generals have already threatened "serious measures" should the judiciary attack him. Bolsonaro himself took part in demonstrations calling for a military coup. Thereupon the generals felt compelled to assert that they had no coup intentions.

Although Brazil suffered from a dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, the armed forces in the country are held in high regard. It has to do with the fact that their crimes were never dealt with legally and that the myth of the clean military still prevails today, who, in contrast to politics and the police, are not corrupt.

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The growing importance of the military in Brazil also follows a trend that can be observed in many Latin American countries. Around three decades after the beginning of re-democratization, the armed forces have once again become a factor of power. This of course applies first of all to the socialist dictatorship in Cuba and the left-wing authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua, the mainstay of which is the military.

In Venezuela, the military controls the economy and drug trafficking

This development began in Venezuela under ex-President Hugo Chávez, who increased the defense budget considerably thanks to high oil revenues. The country began to stock up on arms in China and Russia. Under Chavéz ’successor Nicolás Maduro, many generals then became ministers and governors.

In addition, the military control strategically important companies, such as the oil company PDVSA. This has not only led to mismanagement, but also to rampant corruption. Venezuela's military is also said to be involved in drug trafficking.

“Paramilitaries” or “Socialist Angels”?

Equally serious: the militarization of Venezuelan society. So-called colectivos terrorize the population in many places. They are civilians armed by the regime who also act as death squads. Often they are led by police officers or officers in civilian clothes. The UN Human Rights Commission describes the colectivos as "paramilitaries", for Head of State Maduro they are "socialist angels".

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But even in more democratically stable states, the generals have become protagonists again. When mass protests broke out against the right-wing liberal governments in Chile and Ecuador at the end of 2019, the respective presidents sent military officers on the streets who were extremely brutal. The image of the Chilean head of state Sebastián Piñera, surrounded by generals, brought back ghastly memories in many.

In Chile, memories of the Pinochet dictatorship are awakened

From 1973 to 1990 General Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile dictatorially. Around 3,100 people were killed under him, and more than 40,000 were imprisoned and tortured for political reasons. For the Chilean sociologist Raúl Sohr, the fact that Piñera now, with the consent of the generals, declared compatriots to be enemies, is a clear sign that the old totalitarian spirit still prevails among the uniformed men.

35 people were killed in the protests and thousands were injured, some seriously. "I don't think the mentality of Latin America's armed forces has changed in general," says Sohr.

In Bolivia, the military pushed the president out of office

In Bolivia, the military even intervened directly in the political process. It pushed Socialist President Evo Morales to resign in November after the Organization of American States (OEA) discovered irregularities in his re-election.

The first indigenous to head Bolivia fled to Mexico, which, like Argentina, spoke of a coup. Since then, the conservative Jeanine Áñez has ruled the country. She postponed the planned new elections to September due to the corona pandemic.

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However, it was little El Salvador in the drug war-destabilized Central America that produced the most disconcerting images. The newly elected President Nayib Bukele entered Congress in February with heavily armed soldiers.

He threatened the MPs that he would call the people to rebellion if they did not approve more money for military equipment. Bukele had soldiers pick up parliamentarians who had not turned up. It was the young head of state's clear threat to abolish democracy with the help of the army.

José Miguel Vivanco, head of the human rights organization Human Rights Watch in America, then criticized the "mild reactions" from the EU, USA and OEA.

In a poll by polling institute Barómetro in 2019, nearly 40 percent of Latin Americans said they would support a military coup in response to high crime rates. This also describes why the military is currently pushing back into the foreground in Latin America, despite its historical crimes.

For many people, democracy does not provide an answer to fundamental problems such as insecurity, corruption and poverty. These will now worsen further due to the corona crisis. Autocratic rulers like Jair Bolsonaro and Nayib Bukele could use this for their own purposes.

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