Why do some Brazilians want military rule?

A group of right-wing protesters stormed Brazil's Congress yesterday, calling for a return to military dictatorship. Support for democracy is on the decline, but authoritarianism may not address many of protesters' issues.

Leo Correa/AP
Demonstrators gather after breaking down a fence barrier outside the state of Rio de Janeiro's legislative assembly building, where lawmakers are discussing austerity measures in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Wednesday. Brazil is suffering its worst recession in decades while the state of Rio de Janeiro is mired in a fiscal crisis, and thousands of state employees have not been paid or have been paid months late.

Groups of Brazilians expressed their ongoing dissatisfaction with the government during protests on Wednesday. Some of the participants advocated a surprising solution: a return to military rule.

In Brasília, the capital, about 60 protesters stormed the lower chamber of Congress. They took over the podium, calling for military rule as an answer to government corruption. It took more than three hours for police to disband and arrest them. 

Financial instability, the corruption of the democratic government, and a sense that Brazil was safer during its military dictatorship – which lasted from 1964 to 1985 – have spurred some Brazilians to support a return to military rule. That’s a concern for some in government, though observers say authoritarianism does not currently enjoy mass support.

“The calls for a return to military rule are frightening, but I don’t think they yet represent a large cross-section of the population,” writes Matthew Taylor, associate professor at American University in Washington, DC, and adjunct senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

The Brazilian government has faced repeated protests in recent years. In June 2013, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in more than 20 cities across the country expressed their dissatisfaction with poor public services, government spending on high-profile sporting events, and corruption. Criticism intensified in 2014, when dozens of politicians were implicated in a political kickback scheme at state-run oil company, Petrobras, leading to the impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in August.

Corruption in the democratically-elected government has been a particular driver of support for far-right movements, and even military dictatorship, according to Brazilian author and journalist Vanessa Barbara.

“At family dinners and in taxicabs, you can hear talk of how things were better when the generals were in charge,” she wrote in The New York Times.

The advocates of military dictatorship come from “a very specific segment of the population whose economic interests are historically opposed to those of the majority,” according to Bryan Pitts, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Georgia. He wrote an article about the protesters for the North American Congress on Latin America, which looks at trends in Latin America, while a visiting assistant professor at Duke University. 

The protesters are largely middle and upper class. They tend to be college-educated – in a 2015 survey of one Porto Alegre protest, nearly 70 percent of participants had attended college, compared with just 11 percent of Brazilians as a whole. For them, military dictatorship represents a path back to a golden age of decency and order.

In a startling shift, given the torture experienced by thousands of people, including former president Dilma Rousseff, under Brazil’s two-decade military dictatorship, these wealthy Brazilians may not be the only ones nostalgic for authoritarian rule. More than half of Brazilians now believe that the streets were safer during the military regime, according to a 2014 poll. And many think corruption did not exist then.

Support for democracy is also down across the population as a whole, Professor Taylor notes, pointing to a 2016 Latinobarómetro poll, which looks at public opinion in 18 Latin American countries. Just 32 percent of the population expressed support for democratic government, compared with 54 percent a year ago.

“It’s worrying and serves as a warning. We are returning to an era of extremes,” one congressional deputy, Betinho Gomes, told Reuters.

At the same time, a return to military rule is not the goal of most protests – and it might not help most protesters achieve their aims.

“There are a lot of things tied up in these protests: the fringe right, anger with corruption, anger with fiscal realities, and the individual interests of civil servants who are suffering late wages and now wage cuts,” explains Taylor. 

In Rio de Janeiro, for example, civil servants also protested Wednesday, focusing on their working situation. State legislators were debating budget cuts, while public sector workers have often gone unpaid for months. The state declared a financial emergency before the Rio Olympics.

It remains unclear how the government, whether democratic or authoritarian, could address the financial issues facing the country, which have been at the heart of similar protests.

“It may be hard to see anything more than palliative relief that pushes off the crisis in the short-term, without resolving the long-term structural problems,” Taylor concludes.

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