The responsibilities of the Armed Forces in the coup

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By JEAN MARC VON DER WEID*

The spearhead of the coup's maneuvering mass was its militia arm, the shooting clubs, where hundreds of thousands of supposed CACs, heavily armed and equipped, organized themselves to act as an auxiliary force for the coup, prepared to create chaos in the country.

I wrote seven or eight articles about coup threats during the Bolsonazi years, I lost count. I debated with several comrades who even accused me of being an alarmist. According to these brave companions, a military coup would be impossible because, according to them, American imperialism was against it, as was the ruling class, or the mainstream press. After a year of investigations into the assault on the palaces in Praça dos Três Poderes on January 8, the day of infamy, it is time to take stock of the events and their consequences for the future.

The argument of the material impossibility of a coup without the consent of American imperialism has a historical staleness based on real facts that have occurred since the beginning of the last century, with the affirmation of the so-called “Monroe doctrine”. Enunciated by the president of the United States at the time, it defended the “right” of the empire, then in formation, to intervene in any country in its “sphere of influence”.

This definition, initially formulated for neighboring countries south of the Rio Grande in Central America and the Caribbean, was the basis of numerous direct military actions by the US AFAF. Without having been formally reformulated, the doctrine was extended to the rest of the world, since the First World War caused the decline of European colonial empires and spread even further after the Second World War, with the emergence of the Cold War.

The USA began to assume the role of sheriff of the world, in a strategy to contain the expansion of communism. The omnipresence of the American empire, whether through direct military actions as in Indochina, or indirectly, through CIA actions, was a concrete reality with which all progressive forces (and not just communists) had to deal. However, imperial omnipotence was defeated at various times during the Cold War, the most blatant being the victory of the Cuban revolution and the American military defeat in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

In more recent times, the empire got into other troubles, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nicaragua, Iran, without chronological order and without assessing the degree of disaster in each case and without exhausting the examples. The notorious fact is that the empire no longer has the power it had in the post-war period and in the fifties/sixties. But the most interesting example for us is perhaps the military coup by General Velasco Alvarado at the end of 1968, at the height of the empire's power. A nationalist and populist coup that expropriated American mining and oil companies and promoted advanced agrarian reform.

In the present case, we have a situation in which the American government and armed forces have signaled publicly and privately that they would not support military intervention. The mainstream press gave the same message and part of the GDP expressed itself in the same direction. The exception was agribusiness, a sector that openly supported Bolsonaro's coup initiative. And some other businesspeople from different sectors of the economy, but without an endorsement from their professional associations.

The political sector was also left out of the venture, except for the important Bolsonarist minority in Congress and some governors elected in the fascist wave of 2018, with emphasis on Ibaneis from DF. On the other hand, coupism prevailed among the officers of the three forces, from lieutenants to generals, not to mention the vociferous coup militancy of the military clubs. The adhesion of parts of the Federal Police and the majority of federal highway police officers, in addition to the state civil and military police, completes the picture.

It is said that a coup needs popular support to triumph and this was true in 1964. Then, as now, the churches (Catholic in the past and evangelical in the present) widely mobilized their bases to “stop anti-Christian communism”. But the most powerful instrument of opinion and mobilization did not exist in 1964, the internet's social networks. The so-called Bolsonarist bubble had (and still has) enormous influence on public opinion, more than traditional information channels.

And the machine of the so-called “hate office” acted from the beginning of the energúmeno government to call for a military coup that would give full powers to the president. The spearhead of this mass of maneuver was its militia arm, the shooting clubs, where hundreds of thousands of supposed CACs, heavily armed and equipped, were organized to act as an auxiliary force for the coup, prepared to interrupt highways, destroy lines of power transmission and other targets for creating chaos in the country.

Jair Bolsonaro orchestrated this process, encouraging different actors, with the aim of putting pressure on the Armed Forces to intervene in the institutional order. As many people are saying now, it took very little for there not to be a coup.

Why wasn't there a coup? I think the coup could have been carried out without the support of imperialism or the majority of PIB (because this majority never had any solid identity with democratic principles) or the majority of the mainstream media. As Mao Tse Tung said, power lies in the mouth of the gun and the vast majority of armed people in the country were in favor of the coup. To top it off, Bolsonarism's coup had more capacity for mass mobilization than the Democrats and the left.

What stopped the coup was, initially, a matter of political assessment or political indecision on the part of the coup leadership. After the provocations of September 7, 2021 and the harsh reaction of the Supreme Court, Bolsonaro did not see the conditions to provoke military intervention at that time. Despite the support of the “bubble”, expressed in large demonstrations, these were far from what he expected. According to some informants, he predicted a million in Brasília and another in Rio de Janeiro and was applauded in his delusions by only 10 and 5% of the expected protesters. Maybe it was his support ceiling mobilized or he didn't appreciate how much his behavior during the pandemic had worn him down.

The fact is that Jair Bolsonaro backed down and made an agreement with Arthur Lira and Centrão, aiming to buy time to recover. The energúmeno entered 2022 betting more and more on victory in the elections or (in what I called a ball or bully strategy) on denouncing supposed electoral fraud, in case of defeat. He spent more than half a trillion on benefits trying to buy the vote of the poorest and was relatively successful, against all expectations. He came in behind Lula in the first round, after the latter put on a show of mobilization taking millions to the streets in his campaign, but he still had a chance of taking the second round.

The now famous video of the coup meeting at the palace shows the differences at the top, with some calling for the coup before the second round and others believing in electoral victory. Meanwhile, efforts to demoralize electronic voting machines continued, with the collaboration of the army. The defeat in the second round was in the photo chart, and Lula has to thank the current planning minister, Simone Tebet, for the two million votes that made a difference. Anti-Bolsonarism won more than Lulism, although Lula and, above all, the PT, have not assimilated this lesson.

With Jair Bolsonaro not recognizing defeat, his support base was on a war footing, with the most fanatical camped in front of the barracks, with evident sympathy from the military, who even released manifestos of support signed by the commanders of the three forces. What was needed for the coup to be carried out? According to information recently released to the public by the Federal Police, the commanders of the three forces were divided, with the navy commander supporting the coup, the air force commander pretending to be dead and the army commander, after prolonged hanging on the wall, opposing it. “The coup represents 20 days of euphoria and 20 years of problems,” General Freire was quoted as saying.

I don't remember if the word was “problems” or “anguish”, but it doesn't matter. It is clearly not a statement in defense of democracy. It's just the fear that the coup wouldn't work after the initial euphoria. But the fact is that the commander-in-chief of the army was not willing to support the coup, but he was also not willing to denounce it.

And what happened to the troop commanders? The high command generals had held a meeting, I believe between the two shifts, and the news filtered out that three of the troop commanders had opposed the coup and began to be harassed by the hate cabinet machine. “Watermelon”, green on the outside and red on the inside, was the campaign’s motto. The current army commander, Tomás Paiva, was one of those targeted. But what about the others? One gets the impression that the rest of the generals (8 or 9) were in favor of the coup and at least one of them commanded a key unit for a coup, the Planalto Military Command.

Another key character did not command troops, but coordinated them, in the army's confusing hierarchy. This is General Theóphilo, who coordinated the elite operational units, including the battalion to which Colonel Mauro Cid was appointed and about to take over when the chaos on January 8th occurred. These operational troops are known as the “black kids” and represent the combat elite, the equivalent of the American SEALs. If it is a fact that they were not officially mobilized, it is also a fact that General Theóphilo gathered an indeterminate number of officers from these units in Brasília. Many commentators suspected an intervention by trained people, wearing hoods (balaclavas or balaclavas), both in the action against the STE and the federal police on the day of Lula's diplomacy, and in the acts on January 8th. Could it have been the black kids?

With the division in the army's high command and between the commanders of the three forces, a meeting of senior army officers committed an act of explicit indiscipline, publishing a letter signed and addressed to their commander, General Freire Gomes, urging him to “intervene ”, password for the scam. It did not produce results, but it shows that the officers who commanded the troops destined to carry out the coup operation were willing to “turn the tables”. And the commanding general under whom the most important units were subordinated, General Arruda, from the Planalto Military Command, was on the same line.

Apparently, the conditions for the coup, from an operational point of view, were in place, even without the support of General Freire Gomes, but counting on his neutralization, as he remained silent in these tense days. Once the order to march was given, Brasília and all institutions of the Republic would be under control, including the arrest of the president of the TSE, Lula and his ministers. Congress would be faced with a fait accompli and asked to vote on the State of Siege. Does anyone think the vote would be contrary? But there was no marching order, Jair Bolsonaro did not sign the decree prepared by his advisors and “improved” by him.

The energúmeno did not dare pay to see if the three “watermelon” generals would swallow the maneuver or declare themselves in a state of rebellion against an anti-constitutional order. According to the logic of high Bolsonarist contamination among mid-level officers, brigadiers, colonels and majors and inferiors, captains and lieutenants, the four-star generals who did not join the coup would be paralyzed or even dismissed by their subordinates.

It is curious that Jair Bolsonaro did not attempt his coup when he was still in government and was, formally, commander in chief of the Armed Forces. The drafts of the coup decree only made sense while he was in power, but the surprised conversations on cell phones show an impotent fury from the coup leadership, Augusto Heleno, Braga Neto and others. These conversations also point to a very important fact: “from the division general down, everyone is in favor (of the coup)”. A high command general (Theóphilo), at least, was caught demanding that Bolsonaro take over the order for the coup. In the political ferment in front of the barracks, the madmen asked for the intervention of the colonels with whom they had been dealing for weeks or months. But the order didn't come. Jair Bolsonaro put his guitar in his bag and went to chat with Goofy at Disney.

Did they chicken out? Some say it was just a tactic while the violent takeover of public buildings in Praça dos Três Poderes was being prepared. That may be so, but we must admit that things became much more difficult for the coup plotters after Lula took office, despite the entire apparatus of the Armed Forces having remained untouched, with all its Bolsonarism and coupism. The act of the 8th is a second blow, or a rearticulation of the first under new conditions. The goal became to cause chaos to demand a GLO in Brasília, placing the executive under uncomfortable hostile armed surveillance. All of this will have to be clarified by the PF, because the possible outcome of this coup plot is not at all clear. There are those who say that the generals went from a position of removing Lula to one of negotiating with him from a position of strength.

During the attempt on the 8th, the military commands showed more boldness than during the articulation of the coup plot in November. They protested the Minister of Justice and the voluble military police of the DF, who in the morning and afternoon watched the riots with good grace and at night were ready to arrest the protesters. The military commander of Planalto, one of those who would be willing to support a coup gesture by Jair Bolsonaro, placed his tanks defending the camped protesters. Apparently it was an extreme option to save relatives of soldiers who were among those being arrested. It was negotiated to postpone the arrests until the following day, allowing the protected individuals to be removed, leaving the mass of maneuver to be detained and prosecuted.

Lula's refusal of the GLO, the anti-coup front of representatives of all three powers (including the ubiquitous Lira), the national and international outcry against the attempt and the firmness of the STF were decisive in putting the coup on the defensive. But there is a big doubt in this outcome. Who are responsible? How will they be punished? The answer to these questions will define the future of democracy in Brazil.

The PF and STF investigations are doing their part in investigating the coup. It was feared that they would end up among the small crowd, among the crazy cattle that were a mass of maneuver on January 8th, but the last operation carried out began to reach the big ones, including military personnel. And indications are already emerging that the mega-financiers of this subversive process will reach out, notably businesspeople and agribusiness entities. Politicians who mixed with the coup plotters are also beginning to appear in investigations. All of this indicates a desire to go deep into eradicating the evil, but there remains apprehension, among Democrats and Republicans, about the extent of this surgery.

The key to the problem lies in the depth of investigations in the Armed Forces. In the Brasília Military Police, the top command in January 2023 is being processed and could be sentenced soon. But there are doubts about how far the accountability of offenders in the three forces will go.

The Army's position, in the words of its commander, General Tomás Paiva, seeks to “separate the institution from the criminals”. In other words, it is possible to prosecute and eventually condemn officers at various levels, including four-star generals, both retired and active, but a narrative is being created that separates the “active” from the “passive” . Active are Braga Netos, Garniers, Helenos, among others well identified in the last operation and Bolsonaro himself, of course. Passives are General Freire Gomes and Brigadier Batista Júnior, “who resisted the coup proposal”. According to General Tomás, even General Theóphilo would be in this category, despite having called a conspiratorial meeting of officers from the now famous “black kids”.

There are no details of this meeting or its consequences, but the argument that the general in question does not have operational control over the troops is quite false. Mauro Cid also had no operational command over troops and no one doubts his responsibility. The Army's position seems to be that the “passives”, erected almost as heroic defenders of democracy for not having joined the coup, are not guilty in the registry office.

The undeniable fact is that many senior officers were aware of and discussed the coup proposal, including the entire High Command of the army and, probably, the High Commands of the other forces, as it would be highly unlikely that the commanders would take a stand (pro or against the blow) without knowing the position of his immediate rearguard.

Knowing about the coup, discussing it and, if not, remaining silent is also a crime, although less serious than that of those who joined the attempt. I am not even discussing here the motivations of the so-called “passives”, and what was leaked does not show a defense of the constitutional order, but a pessimistic assessment of the results of the coup.

Another level of delinquency is found in the attitude of the barracks commanders who sheltered and supported the civilians camped for months on end. Some of them gave speeches to the insurrectionists who gathered at their doors. How will these colonels be treated? Will they be investigated and prosecuted?

And here it is necessary to note that, while the army commander seeks to save as many delinquent officers as possible, the bodies that investigate and judge soldiers who do not fulfill their constitutional and disciplinary duty, the Military Prosecutor's Offices and Audits and the Superior Military Court are silent, as if all this commotion did not involve a large number of officers at various levels.

And what is Lula's behavior in this process? Let us always remember that the President of the Republic is the commander in chief of the Armed Forces. Jair Bolsonaro used this power without hesitation, clearing commands of the three forces and the Minister of Defense when he thought they were not sufficiently obedient to his coup attempts. Lula has swallowed one frog after another since his inauguration, appointing a member of the military as Minister of Defense, not touching the GSI and ABIN, full of Bolsonaro agents who participated in the 8/1 events and only removed General Arruda from the command of the army after he supported the government in the case of the appointment of Colonel Mauro Cid, despite his obvious connection with subversive acts.

Even this “confrontation” was quite smooth and the appointment of the new commander followed the path of least friction, which was the choice of the most senior general officer, General Tomás. Perhaps it was Lula's luck that this general adopted a stance called legalist by the press, but General Tomás's record is far from generating confidence and security in his position. Let us remember that he was the first senior officer to promote Bolsonaro's candidacy for president, by allowing, in a clear disregard for military precepts, the energúmeno to take part in an officer graduation ceremony at AMAN, back in 2014.

I admit that Lula had few alternatives when opting for General Tomás. After all, Bolsonarism dominated almost all of the officialdom, not only due to ideology (many signed up for Olavo de Carvalho's courses), but also due to interest, since Bolsonaro opened the tap of benefits for those on active duty and those in reserve.

Lula swallowed one of the toughest cane toads with the confrontation between his Minister of Justice and the security intervener in Brasília with the commanding officer of the Army HQ in Brasília on 8/1, with the right to mobilize tanks in defense of the criminals who they were returning from the depredation in Praça dos Três Poderes. His Minister of Defense took the defense…of the insurgents. And the cloth became frayed from being ironed so much.

In this episode, the signal given by the government to the Armed Forces, caught in the act of conspiracy, was one of cornering. When General Arruda forced his hand, defending the appointment of Colonel Cid against Lula's wishes, all hell broke loose and the general lost, without any reaction from the barracks. This fact showed that the coup scheme was even more cornered than Lula, and without the strength to react. Even so, there was no clearing of the area in the high commands, despite the obvious complicity of the majority.

I understand Lula's care very well. After all, there is no guarantee that the division generals who can be elevated to the highest level will represent any advance in terms of institutional security. The only thing in defense of a more drastic cleaning is the essential fact of the exercise of the power of command. A cleanup would send a message to the entire officialdom: do not attempt another adventure because the consequences will be severe. This gesture would not make friends among the officers, but it would point to the principle of due obedience and the path of professionalism. Something like a message like: hate me, but obey me.

And a fundamental question remains open: what is the desirable role for the Brazilian Armed Forces in the modern world? Our current position is heir to the Cold War and subordinate to the interests of the United States. Military doctrine was not discussed and updated, neither by the armed forces nor by society. We have an Armed Forces that are very expensive for the country's economic conditions, but they are unprepared either for the classic mission of defending the borders or for facing the new internal enemies, the militia forces and those involved in drug trafficking. Each time the military has intervened in GLOs, such as in Rio de Janeiro in 2018 or later in the Amazon, the action has been an explicit disaster or complete failure. It is time to re-discuss this role of the military, taking advantage of the fact that they are still on the defensive.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).


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