Threat of Military Action Rattles Brazil as Virus Deaths Surge

The threats are swirling around the president: Deaths from the virus in Brazil each day are now the highest in the world. Investors are fleeing the country. The president, his sons and his allies are under investigation. His election could even be overturned.

The crisis has grown so intense that some of the most powerful military figures in Brazil are warning of instability — sending shudders that they could take over and dismantle Latin America’s largest democracy.

But far from denouncing the idea, President Jair Bolsonaro’s inner circle seems to be clamoring for the military to step into the fray. In fact, one of the president’s sons, a congressman who has praised the country’s former military dictatorship, said a similar institutional break was inevitable.

“It’s no longer an opinion about if, but when this will happen,” the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, recently told a prominent Brazilian blogger, warning of what he called a looming “rupture” in Brazil’s democratic system.

The standoff traces an ominous arc for Brazil, a country that shook off military rule in the 1980s and built a thriving democracy in its wake. Within two decades, Brazil had come to represent the energy and promise of the developing world, with a booming economy and the right to host the World Cup and the Olympics.

Since then, its economy has faltered, corruption scandals have toppled or ensnared many of its leaders and an impeachment battle ousted its powerful leftist government.

Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, stepped into this tumult, celebrating the country’s military past and promising to restore order. But he has come under blistering criticism for downplaying the virus, sabotaging isolation measures and cavalierly presiding over one of the highest death tolls in the world, saying, “We are sorry for all the dead, but that’s everyone’s destiny.”

He, his family and his supporters are also being pursued on allegations like abuse of power, corruption and illegally spreading misinformation. Yet nearly half of his cabinet is made up of military figures, and now, critics contend, he is relying on the threat of military intervention to ward off challenges to his presidency.

A retired general in Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet, Augusto Heleno, the national security adviser, shook the nation in May when he warned of “unpredictable consequences for national stability” after the Supreme Court let an inquiry into Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters move forward.

Another general, the defense minister, swiftly endorsed the provocation, while Mr. Bolsonaro lashed out as well, suggesting that the police ignore the “absurd orders” of the court.

“This is destabilizing the country, right during a pandemic,” said Sergio Moro, the former justice minister who broke with Mr. Bolsonaro in April, of the threats of military intervention. “It is reprehensible. The country does not need to be living with this type of threat.”

Political leaders and analysts say that a military intervention remains unlikely. Even so, the possibility is hanging over the nation’s democratic institutions, which are scrutinizing Mr. Bolsonaro and his family on multiple fronts.

Two of the president’s sons are under investigation for the kind of disinformation and defamation campaigns that helped get their father elected in 2018, and late last month the federal police raided several properties tied to influential allies of Mr. Bolsonaro. The Superior Electoral Court, which oversees elections, has the authority to use evidence from the inquiry to annul the election and remove Mr. Bolsonaro from office.

Two of his sons are also under investigation for corruption, and the Supreme Court recently authorized an inquiry into allegations that Mr. Bolsonaro tried to replace the federal police chief in order to protect his family and friends.

Even the president’s handling of the pandemic is under legal threat: On Monday, a Supreme Court justice ordered the government to stop suppressing data on Brazil’s surging death toll.

The threats of military intervention have incited a broad backlash, even from some senior members of the armed forces. And General Heleno, the national security adviser, later said that he did not support a coup, contending he was misunderstood.

Still, military and civilian officials in Mr. Bolsonaro’s own administration — as well as allies of the president in Congress, evangelical megachurches and military associations — say the maneuvering is aimed at heading off any attempts by Brazil’s legislative and judicial institutions to oust the president.

Silas Malafaia, a right-wing televangelist close to Mr. Bolsonaro, insisted that the president had not told him of any plan for military intervention. Still, he argued that the armed forces had the right to prevent courts from overstepping or even ousting the president.

“That’s not a coup,” Mr. Malafaia said. “It’s instilling order where there is disorder.”

The pro-Bolsonaro officials issuing such threats are generally not referring to the way coups have often been carried out in Latin America, with the armed forces toppling a civilian leader to install one of their own.

Instead, they seem to be urging something similar to what happened in Peru in 1992, when Alberto Fujimori, the right-wing leader, used the armed forces to dissolve Congress, reorganize the judiciary and hunt down political opponents.

Mr. Bolsonaro, who still draws support from about 30 percent of Brazilians, already casts himself as the embodiment of Brazilian military culture, and portrays the armed forces as ethical and efficient managers.

Brazil’s armed forces already exercise exceptional influence in his government. Military figures, including retired four-star generals, account for 10 of 22 ministers in the cabinet. The government has named nearly 2,900 other active-duty members of the military to administration posts.

The clout of Brazil’s armed forces was on display when congressional leaders mostly exempted them from a 2019 pensions overhaul, allowing members of the military to avoid the deeper benefits cuts endured by other parts of society.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s pandemic response showcased the military’s rising profile in his government — as well the risks for leaders of the armed forces when Brazilians start ascribing blame as things go badly awry.

Building on Brazil’s public health successes in fighting previous epidemics, the Health Ministry pushed early on in the crisis for social distancing measures to slow the virus’s spread.

Even Mr. Bolsonaro seemed on board with the approach, dissuading followers from attending street rallies. Then he abruptly changed his stance, fist-bumping supporters outside his palace.

Mr. Bolsonaro also shifted leadership of the pandemic response to another general, Walter Souza Braga Netto, his chief of staff.

Sidelined and balking at expanding the use of hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug promoted by Mr. Bolsonaro that has not been proven effective against the virus, the health minister was replaced. His successor lasted only a few weeks until he resigned, replaced by an army general, Eduardo Pazuello.

One former official in the health ministry said the abrupt changes created a sense of chaos within the agency, resulting in weeks of dysfunction and paralysis at the most crucial time — when the country should have been fighting the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

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Separately, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the health minister at the start of the pandemic, said that Mr. Bolsonaro prized economic stability over health priorities, preferring a military figure at the ministry’s helm.

“He needed someone like a general or a colonel who saw the ministry as a steppingstone, a way to get a promotion for bravery,” Mr. Mandetta said.

Brazil now has more than 700,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, second only to the United States. At least 37,000 people have died from the virus in Brazil as of Tuesday, with the death count often climbing by more than 1,000 a day.

The upheaval in Brazil is leading investors to rush for the exits. Capital flight is reaching levels unseen since the 1990s. The World Bank expects the economy to contract 8 percent this year. Car production, a once-thriving pillar of the economy, has plummeted to its lowest level since the 1950s.

Carlos Fico, a historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who studies the Brazilian military, said the growing power of the armed forces carried the risk of revealing their incompetence in crucial areas.

“They think that bombastic declarations will make things happen as in the military realm, where an order is given and those of lower rank obey,” Mr. Fico said.

But with the military now guiding the pandemic response, Mr. Fico added, “They’re running the risk of being blamed by society for what happens next.”

Top allies of Mr. Bolsonaro insist that the armed forces have no plans for a coup. “Not one four-star general is in favor of military intervention,” said Sostenes Cavalcante, a right-wing congressman.

But in the same breath, Mr. Cavalcante argued that something must be done to curb the power of the Supreme Court. He contended that the talk of a coup by Mr. Bolsonaro’s son was merely a way of pressuring the judiciary.

“You could interpret that as the Supreme Court having overstepped its authority,” Mr. Cavalcante said.

At the same time, some officials within Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration are actively examining scenarios in which the military might intervene. One military official in the government who was not authorized to speak publicly said an intervention remained off the radar for now, but that certain moves by the judiciary, such as ordering a search of Mr. Bolsonaro’s palace as part of an investigation, could change that.

Similarly, the official added, any potential annulment of the 2018 election by a judge would also be considered unacceptable, because it would remove not only Mr. Bolsonaro, but also his running mate and vice president, Hamilton Mourão, a retired general.

Mr. Mourão has repeatedly asserted that no kind of military takeover is under consideration. But even the debate over military intervention is raising concern about the resilience of Brazil’s democratic institutions and a return to chronic political instability, with constant military meddling.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former civilian president who was exiled during the military dictatorship, said he didn’t think a coup was imminent. But he worried that Mr. Bolsonaro’s intimidation tactics could intensify.

“How do democracies die? You don’t need a military coup,” Mr. Cardoso, 88, who has already urged Mr. Bolsonaro to resign, told reporters. “The president himself can seek extraordinary powers, and he can take them.”

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