Brazil has been in the throes of a corruption scandal that ostensibly dates back to 2014, but in reality was in the making far earlier. The nation is systematically plagued by a system where public service in the highest offices has meant pay for play, shady quid pro quo, cronyistic contract assignations, and hollow promises that each newly elected leader will be the one to put these practices to an end. One can’t blame Brazilians for being at wit’s end, and the recent trucker strike has brought the country to the brink of chaos, with many openly calling for a military coup as elections approach.
In 2014, an investigation into corruption involving the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, embroiled 80 politicians and put statistics and faces to practices many in Brazil knew were going on behind the scenes. Dubbed Operation Car Wash, it was just the beginning of a series of scandals that decimated whatever faith Brazilians had in their political system.
Popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known affectionately by many Brazilians as “Lula”, was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison when it was determined engineering firm OAS gifted him a beachfront apartment in exchange for Petrobras contracts. Then, in August 2016, Dilma Rousseff, who followed Lula as president of Brazil, was impeached after illegally moving funds between government budgets.
Brazilian-based construction titan Odebrecht then admitted to bribing government officials to secure contracts. Its former CEO Marcelo Odebrecht is serving a 19-year prison sentence related to corruption charges.
It was one thing for Brazilians to know deep down that the country had wink-wink politics built into its DNA. But the onslaught of very public corruption scandals in the past four years, paired with the general social unrest which always seems to lie beneath the surface in a country where few reside between the well-to-do and the extremely poor, has seemingly brought the nation to a drastically split fork in the road.
Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly magazine, is intimately familiar with Brazil, having visited several times in his life with an eye toward the state of society, government, and the nation’s overall development respective to the region and the world. His most recent trip amid what was, at the time, a weeklong trucker strike over rising fuel prices left him with the impression that the nation was in the throes of a “zombie apocalypse”. Roads typically packed with cars and motorbikes were virtually deserted, and Winter’s normally two-plus hour drive from the São Paulo airport took only 23 minutes. With trucker’s not delivering oil or food, the shortages have forced Brazilians to preserve what little gas and energy they have.
Then, on May 30th, the oil workers began to strike, demanding lower fuel prices and the boss of Petrobras, Pedro Parente’s resignation. It put the nation in even greater turmoil, and while lower fuel prices are unlikely, Parente did eventually resign his position.
Winter’s account reflected the situation on May 27th. As of June 2nd, the strike continues, though signs of its end have emerged. Brazilians hope that Parente’s removal from power will be enough to get the truckers back behind the wheel. After all, expensive fuel is a better option than no fuel.
Still, a resignation and truckers back on the road aren’t going to be enough to heal the deep fractures which have, for the first time in a long, long time, many Brazilians believing that a military coup is the best solution for this entire mess that is their nation’s current state.
Soldiers being deployed to assist in organizing the chaos that came along with the trucker’s strike isn’t atypical in a country where the police force often seems to be militarized, and the difference between the two authorities can be difficult to quantify. But the calls from the public for those soldiers to take action and assume the role of governing the nation was surprising.
‘But far from being angry at the arrival of troops, a number of strikers greeted them with banners reading: "Intervention now!"
"Intervencao ja!" as it goes in Portuguese, is shorthand for a return to the military dictatorship that ruled here between 1964-1985, or at least a coup, followed by new elections.
The slogan appears periodically on the fringes of mainstream anti-government rallies.
Now, though, it took center stage during national media coverage, with drivers unafraid to voice support for a takeover.
"We want military intervention, if possible, to sort out this country," said Alexandre Bastos, 43, who was taking part in a truckers' blockade of a refinery outside Rio de Janeiro, told AFP.’ (Yahoo)
Winter was taken aback when he witnessed similar calls for military intervention as he ventured around São Paulo.
‘Then I saw it. A huge banner, spanning the entire avenue, carried by a group of protesters:
“SUPPORT FOR THE TRUCK DRIVERS. MILITARY INTERVENTION! ARMED FORCES, URGENT!”
And that was the start of a week where I saw and heard things I never believed I would in Brazil.’ (Americas Quarterly)
It’s not as if the military holding – even temporarily – the highest office in the nation would be a massive change in terms of how the nation looks. The army has been deployed with regularity as the nation has become increasingly fragmented and chaotic in recent years, especially considering that politicians have felt the heat of a nation in a state of rising fury.
‘Residents of Rio de Janeiro no longer bat an eyelid at the sight of soldiers in full battle dress. During the 2016 Rio Olympics and again, starting last year, soldiers regularly deployed everywhere from Copacabana beach to the chaotic, violent favelas where drug gangs rule.’ (Yahoo)
All of this is quite the stark contrast from a nation thought to be an emerging economy not too long ago. The image of a military coup brings to mind nations like Argentina and, more recently, Venezuela. It still seems like something that is far from imminent as October’s elections approach, but the leader of those elections – retired Army captain Jair Bolsonaro – reflects just how serious a significant segment of Brazilians are about a hard break from politics as usual.
It would be surreal to witness a Brazil – fun-loving, samba-ing, beautiful Brazil – in the hands of a military regime. It would be a shame, but based on the view of many Brazilians and the state of the current political system, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the alternatives are much more attractive.
The downsides are obvious. Foreign investment would be scared off, and many Brazilians living decent lives have to be shuddering at the notion that Brazil could become the next Venezuela, victim to the vision of the desperate have-nots whose sheer numbers might be enough to unwittingly instill a tyrannical regime. After all, the last military rule in Brazil ended disastrously.
‘The last dictatorship, which ran from 1964-85, left behind a legacy of debt, hyperinflation, falling wages and human rights abuses.’ (Americas Quarterly)
The armed forces are the institution which garners the most respect in Brazil, and a Pew poll showed that 38% of Brazilians said that military rule would “be good for the country”. But, military leaders have expressed no desire to take over, and it’s likely that the former army captain, Bolsonaro, is the closest to a military coup that the nation will get.
But, the spread of pro-coup factions in the country is an indictment of just how corrupt the politics in the nation are, and how polarized the nation is when it comes to deciding what to do to rectify the situation.
Brazil is at a crossroads, and it right now the strong-armed, military candidate is the front-runner to take over. Such an outcome would be a decided change of course from politicians past.
But will a strong leader solve the nation’s gamut of problems? And, more importantly, can a president with a military background refrain from corruption once the power is in his grasp, as so few Brazilian presidents have proven able to do?