Brazil’s leader strives to keep military out of its governing

SAO PAULO — Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has strived since rioters stormed Brazil’s top government buildings in January to dispute the outcome of the presidential election to ensure that military leaders defend South America’s largest democracy and stay out of politics.

Lula’s task is fraught as the military is filled with supporters of ex-President Jair Bolsonaro and its role in the new government is being diminished by the day.

Lula has already tapped more than 100 civilians to replace military officers Bolsonaro appointed to key positions and moved oversight of the country’s intelligence agency to his chief of staff’s office, among other changes.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, appointed more than 6,000 military officers to jobs across his government and revived an annual commemoration of the 1964 coup to stoke nostalgia for the days of military rule.

Although that era was marked by human rights abuses and the loss of civil liberties, Bolsonaro and many of his supporters remember it fondly as a time of strong nationalism, economic growth and conservative values. They view Lula’s efforts to tame the military as heavy-handed and misguided.

“Stop looking through the rearview mirror and govern for all Brazilians,” Bolsonaro’s former vice president, Gen. Hamilton Mourao, who is now a senator, said in an interview.

The most significant move Lula has made so far has been to elevate Gen. Tomas Paiva to be the army’s top commander.

Paiva, 62, has pledged to keep soldiers out of politics and respect the results of October’s election, in which Lula beat Bolsonaro by a razor-thin margin.

Yet Paiva has also acknowledged that most the military’s leaders voted for Bolsonaro and he lamented Lula’s victory to subordinates just three days before the new president called to offer him the promotion — comments he later said were misinterpreted.

Lula has taken various other steps aimed inoculating Brazil from the risk of another violent uprising with at least tacit support from some in the military.

He blocked the appointment of a Bolsonaro loyalist to command the Goiania battalion, based 124 miles from the capital. The president placed the country’s intelligence agency — formerly overseen by members of the military — under the office of his chief of staff, which is led by civilians.

Lula took a trip to the U.S., which before the election had warned Brazilian military leaders to steer clear of politics if they wanted access to arms purchases and cooperation from American armed forces.

For now, there is no evidence of another uprising being planned or of military leaders questioning Lula’s orders, according to a high-ranking official in the army and a person who works closely with the defense minister, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

Lula enlisted the military’s cooperation twice in February: as part of a massive operation to expel some 20,000 illegal miners from the Yanomami Indigenous area in Brazil’s Amazon, and help rescue people after mudslides near Sao Paulo.

These represented early tests of the relationship between Lula and the military, and the results were very positive, said political consultant Thomas Traumann. Still, there’s no guarantee of long-term stability, he said.

It remains to be seen whether military retirees and active duty service members who either took part in the Jan. 8 riots or turned a blind eye to them will receive punishment.

Hundreds of civilians who participated in the riots have been jailed and dozens indicted. But service members have so far been spared.

The military prosecutors’ office and the top military court have opened 17 investigations, although neither has been transparent about the process.

The incoming Chief Justice of Brazil’s Superior Military Court, Joseli Camelo, said he was encouraged recently when the army canceled a plan to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the 1964 military coup.

“This is just another demonstration that the commander is aligned with all the powers towards our common challenge, which is to pacify Brazil and definitively reinforce democracy in our country,” Camelo said.

Mourao said the military should not spare any of its members who are proven guilty of taking part in the riots.

“The armed forces are shaped to be rigorous in the investigation of disciplinary errors and military crimes,” he said.

    FILE – Rescue workers including military and volunteers carry the body of a victim near Barra do Sahi beach after a mudslide triggered by heavy rains in the coastal city of Sao Sebastiao, Brazil, Feb. 22, 2023. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva enlisted the military’s cooperation twice in February: for a massive operation to expel some 20,000 illegal miners from the Yanomami Indigenous area in Brazil’s Amazon, and for rescue efforts after mudslides on the Sao Paulo coast. (AP Photo/Andre Penner, File)

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