When Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro said he wanted to commemorate the country’s former military regime with celebrations at garrisons nationwide on Sunday, an unlikely group expressed restraint: generals in the military itself.
“That time has ended,” said Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a retired army general and government minister, referring to the military regime.
“This won’t be a national celebration,” he added, dismissing the suggestion that Brazil should go big at marking the anniversary of a 1964 coup that installed a 20-year military dictatorship.
With smaller celebrations planned than the president initially hoped for, the row highlights the role played by a handful of senior military figures in the new administration. Gen Santos Cruz’s comments make clear how in recent months, the military has been seen as a voice of moderation in a government that has sought to exploit identity politics and culture wars.
The generals “handle things with a lot of pragmatism, with an adult posture. They could be seen as either the most adult, or the least childish, in the room,” said Carlos de Melo, a political analyst.
Their role is increasingly seen as crucial not only for maintaining social cohesion, but also helping to restore economic growth in a nation that is limping out of a slowdown, say analysts.
Mr Bolsonaro was elected on a conservative, law and order platform. But his shoot-from-the-hip style of governance has in recent weeks begun to alienate colleagues and undermine efforts to pass vital reforms through Congress. Last week, Paulo Guedes, his star economics minister, warned he would walk away from a vaunted pensions reform plan if Congress and Mr Bolsonaro did not stop bickering.
“The military people have an institutional responsibility that makes them reason a lot. The politicians don’t have that. That is why they are freer to quarrel,” Gen Santos Cruz told the Financial Times.
Gen Santos Cruz, a 66-year-old former officer, who led UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that to allow Brazil to become “radicalised” by identity politics is “stupidity”.
He is not the only voice of restraint.
Within the administration, vice-president and retired general Hamilton Mourão is also increasingly seen as a bulwark against the extreme outbursts of the Twitter-loving Mr Bolsonaro and his wild-talking sons, who are elected officials. When the president, himself a former army captain with a fondness for Latin America’s military dictators of yore, said this month that “democracy and freedom only exist” insofar as the armed forces wanted it, it was Gen Mourão who quelled the controversy by playing down Mr Bolsonaro’s comments.
“The president has had this style for 30 years; he’s not going to change a style that was a hit” with his fan base, Gen Mourão said in an earlier interview. “He is adapting, of course, now that he is president of Brazil as a whole. And I try to do my job, which, as I always say, is one of shield and sword — I try to defend, and attack when necessary.”
The rhetoric is a departure for Gen Mourão who, before running on the presidential ticket last year, was viewed as a controversial, outspoken figure, spurring fears of a return to military rule after three decades of democracy. He once said that Brazilians inherited the “laziness” of the local indigenous people and the “trickery” of Africans who were brought to the country as slaves and that he believed his grandson was handsome only because of the “whitening” of Brazil by waves of European migrants.
But the more restrained stance of the generals has not been met with universal acclaim. In addition to the military officers, Mr Bolsonaro’s administration encompasses two distinct tribes: economic technocrats focused on reforms and radical ideologues.
The latter camp includes the president’s three sons, and the foreign minister. They admire US president Donald Trump, dislike communist China, want to take a harder stance on socialist Venezuela, move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem and think Nazism was a leftist movement.
They are intellectually dominated by Olavo de Carvalho, a US-based writer close to former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who regularly excoriated the generals for obstructing Mr Bolsonaro’s culture wars crusade. But Gen Santos Cruz breezily dismisses the attacks from Mr de Carvalho: “Social media sparked a phenomenon in which everyone thinks himself a William Shakespeare.”
The bickering and resultant policy paralysis has raised questions about Mr Bolsonaro’s political skills and future.
In a country with a history of vice-presidents rising to the highest office, analysts wonder if Gen Mourão is not already a president-in-waiting. “These generals knew they’d have to play the role of appeasers and some, like Mourão, have political aspirations of their own,” said Monica de Bolle, director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS.