What to make of Temer’s Rio de Janeiro army intervention

. Feb 19, 2018
michel temer declares army intervention in rio de janeiro Rio de Janeiro in under federal intervention. Photo: Fernando Frazão/ABr)
michel temer declares army intervention in rio de janeiro

Rio de Janeiro in under federal intervention. Photo: Fernando Frazão/ABr)

When President Michel Temer signed the decree declaring a federal intervention in Rio de Janeiro’s security system, he completely altered Brazil’s political debate. Up until Friday, we were discussing how the 2018 presidential election would unfold, or that TV presenter Luciano Huck dropped out of the race (again), or even the government’s inability to approve the pension system reform. These subjects are now minor issues – and the pension reform is officially not going to happen this year. For the record, the project was already dead, despite the government’s attempt to suggest otherwise.

It is paramount to be accurate when talking about the intervention: this is a federal intervention, not a military one. Even if the decree puts an Army General in charge of Rio’s security apparatus, he reports to the Minister of Justice (a civilian) and has the President (another civilian) as his commander-in-chief.  This case is not about relations between the military and civilians, but rather a matter related to our federacy.

The military aspect of the intervention exists because the government usually uses the Armed Forces whenever called upon to act on issues of public safety. Now, for ten straight months, army soldiers will work as law enforcement in Rio de Janeiro. Which raises the risk of corruption in the relations between the military, police forces, and organized crime.

</p> <h3>Why only Rio de Janeiro?</h3> <p>Even though the government has the right to propose complete intervention in a state, Temer’s decree is limited to the security sector. And that has a clear financial implication: it allows the federal administration to allocate more money to public safety initiatives – and possibly to the detriment of other states. While Rio is a federative entity with very peculiar issues, it is by no means the only one with safety problems. States like Ceará and Maranhão have faced similar challenges.</p> <p>However, Rio is more populous and has far more national and international visibility. The state capital is a picture-perfect city, which hosted the <a href="">Olympics</a> one and a half years ago. Rio is home to famous universities, the headquarters of media companies, and big business. Although Brasília took the position of state capital away from Rio back in 1960, the latter still has more civil servants (102,600 against 70,300). And, last but not least, it is a state governed by Michel Temer’s own party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB). Meanwhile, Ceará and Maranhão are in the hands of Temer’s opposition.</p> <h3>Why only public safety?</h3> <p>For those more familiar with how the U.S. handles its federation – that is, giving states autonomy in safety matters – it might seem <a href="">strange</a> to observe this “partial” intervention, even if the sector chosen is so paramount. But in Brazil’s federation, states’ security attributions are limited to law enforcement and the first stages of the legal system.</p> <p>The entire penal legislation is federally imposed, which means that the state acts according to norms decided by the central government. With the intervention, the federal administration takes over two of the three state government’s branches: executive and legislative (when dealing with security issues).</p> <h3>Rising conservatism</h3> <p>Analysts have alerted that the move could help Michel Temer claim the spot of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, as the champion of order. That is possible, indeed, but the end result could very well be the opposite, since the intervention fuels social panic about violence. And that <a href="">feeds Bolsonaro</a>, who promises to solve complex security problems with a ‘tough-guy’ approach.</p> <p>Indicating that the winds might be blowing Bolsonaro’s way is the fact that conservative members of Congress who are part of the gun lobby – also called the “Bullet Caucus” – have seized the opportunity to push for harder penal laws. While the federal intervention blocks any attempt to amend the Constitution, ordinary bills can still be approved. And of course, punitive measures against criminals are far more appealing than the pension reform.</p> <p>Obviously, the electoral impact of the federal intervention also depends on whether it will bring about palpable effects in the short term – that is, until the October election. Popular initiatives can generate <em>feel-good factors</em>, and change electoral momentum. However, if these positive effects do not withstand the test of time, the backlash will be brutal. Some believe that the initiative in Rio de Janeiro could make Michel Temer’s administration more popular, to the point of making the President’s ambition for reelection a viable dream.</p> <p>However, there is a blind spot to that line of reasoning: voters from other states riddled by violence might start asking why Rio, and not they, were the recipients of much-needed federal help. And that possible side effect could be even more important in the case of a success with Rio. It could create resentment from states that were left to their own devices. As soon as the intervention was announced, such questions were raised. And they will likely resurface again during the upcoming campaign.

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Claudio Couto

Political scientist, head of Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Master’s program in Public Policy and Administration.

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