‘I don’t see any of the military cabinet members as competent”

. Apr 19, 2020
'I don't see any of the military cabinet members as competent" Rubens Ricupero

Last week, casual Brazil observers may have been shocked by the news that President Jair Bolsonaro had temporarily backed off from firing his Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, due to a veto from members of the Armed Forces. However, close attention to politics in Brazil — and Latin America as a whole — teaches us that the military has always been a highly influential force in the comings and goings of history, regardless of its relative lack of martial involvement.

From the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889, led by Field Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, until the end of the dictatorship in 1985, Brazil has had scores of presidents from the Armed Forces. This constant participation in daily politics, revolutions, and coups gave the military cadre an aura of efficient management coupled with unprecedented brutality.

The Armed Forces had retreated to the barracks since 1989, wielding a far less influential yet highly symbolic role in Brazilian political life. In 2018, however, that changed with the election of former Army Captain Jair Bolsonaro, who brought with him a host of military generals to serve in his cabinet. The Armed Forces had returned to the presidency, this time through the ballot boxes.

Interestingly, the image of the military being heavy-handed yet capable and disciplined technicians returned in force. With Jair Bolsonaro’s characteristic rudeness as head of state, the Armed Forces standing in the background were given the role of “adults in the room,” a skewed hope for moderation in an already far-right government.

Diplomat Rubens Ricupero, a former Brazilian ambassador to the U.S. and ex-Environment and Finance Minister, disagrees with this perception. In his view, the problems currently faced by Brazil are also the fault of the military who work alongside President Bolsonaro. “This military personnel is very limited. I don’t see any of them as capable. I never had this common illusion in Brazil that the military is well prepared,” he tells The Brazilian Report.

Honorary President of the think tank Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economics and director of the Faculty of Economics of Fundação Armando Álvares Penteado, both in São Paulo, Mr. Ricupero spoke to The Brazilian Report for an exclusive interview this week, the highlights of which you may read below:

</p> <p><strong>How do you evaluate the federal government&#8217;s response to the pandemic?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>The response was inadequate. A crisis such as this is so strong that it requires effective and competent coordination. But we didn&#8217;t see that, as there was a different view of the seriousness of the problem. The Health Ministry realized how serious the matter was, but the president never managed to reach that level of understanding.</p><p>For example, during the <a href="">Blackout Crisis in 2001</a>, Pedro Parente [former chief executive officer at Banco do Brasil and Petrobras] was chosen to manage a committee that coordinated all activities related to the crisis. The same should have happened now. Instead of the president or a cabinet minister, a person with exceptional administrative qualities should have been chosen.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>What about the Army general and Chief of Staff Walter Souza Braga Netto, could he be that figure?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>It has to be a good coordinator, a technician. The Armed Forces are all very limited. I don&#8217;t see anyone there who is capable. I&#8217;ve never had this common illusion in Brazil that the military is well prepared. All of them, in one way or another, are committed to this government, supporting and bringing it to power. As the government sinks, so do they.</p><p>It is an illusion to think that the military are much better figures than the president. They have the same faults and prejudices. They are people with an outdated mentality, without updating their thinking about the modern world. I see no solution outside the civil and democratic field. Democratic institutions have stood out in the crisis.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>What about the Health Ministry, how did you see their response to the pandemic?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>The Health Ministry showed <a href="">awareness of the problem</a>, but took too much time to take actions.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Did the political dispute get in the way?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>There are attitudes of trying to take political advantage of the situation we are experiencing. The result of this is rivalry: who appears more on television or who gains more popularity. It&#8217;s quite depressing.</p><p>This same situation can be seen in the United States. President Donald Trump is very similar to Jair Bolsonaro in that sense. He only thinks about the election, he is jealous of the role of state governors, and has threatened to fire technical advisers.</p><p>What is happening in Brazil is a case of every man for himself. Each state follows its policy. The governments of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, for example, have implemented measures that are contrary to those of the federal government. There is no single answer. And that has an effect on obtaining equipment and creates confusion about social isolation.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Is anyone setting a good example?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>São Paulo is a good example, because the mayor and the governor have the same position. But even in São Paulo, there are flaws. No one knows exactly how big the problem is. There is a widespread belief among infectious disease specialists that the number of cases and deaths is understated.</p><p>Some studies show that the real total may be ten times higher than what we are hearing from official figures. From what is seen in other countries, the number of deaths registered in Brazil must correspond to a much larger number of cases than those identified so far.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>On the economic side of things, have the measures adopted so far been sufficient?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>The economic response was slow. Few people have received emergency aid from the government so far, which is the impact of a pro-market economic team that is forced to go against its beliefs, and act through the state.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Before the pandemic, the government&#8217;s number one priority was approving profound reforms to public service and the tax system. What will happen to these reforms now?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>We will come out the other end of this crisis with a different economic and social reality, and the policy applied until now will also change. I do not see a realistic prospect of going back to what was done before. This year will be consumed by the pandemic, and the last two years of the government will be dedicated to rebuilding the country. The reforms are no longer urgent and some will have to be abandoned.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>Does this thinking also apply to infrastructure concessions?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>It will take years for international capital to return to pre-pandemic levels. Even if these infrastructure concession plans are ready, there is no chance to ask for investment. From now on, Brazil is another country, with different priorities. The government will have to rebuild itself and I don&#8217;t know if it will be able to, with the resources it has.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>What is your assessment of the government&#8217;s position vis-à-vis China?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>It is an absolute disaster. Brazil has no foreign policy. The Foreign Affairs Ministry was handed over to an unstable fanatic who follows the ideas of [right-wing anti-globalist writer] Olavo de Carvalho. A blind alignment to the U.S. was adopted, even through the country is a direct competitor of Brazil in the global market. If before we depended on China, now that dependence is even greater, because we have no market alternative. If we forget about China and start selling to the U.S., what are we going to export? They produce the same things we do.</p><p>And since China will be one of the first countries to emerge from the crisis, it will be one of the first to heat up demand. In addition to the economic aspect, China is the only major source of capital to invest in infrastructure.</p><p>The Brazilian government&#8217;s antagonism towards China has not reached its limit, but the relationship is already very bad. China will not lift another finger to help Brazil. I doubt that the Chinese will buy Brazilian oil again, as they did last year to help the government. The Brazilian situation is made difficult because of the government itself.</p></blockquote> <p><strong>And how would we get around this situation?</strong></p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>We need to change Brazil&#8217;s foreign policy, and that starts with the Foreign Minister. But there is no way to propose an alternative now because the government has no way out. With this current administration, Brazil will reach 2022 in a best-case scenario with these existing problems getting worse and worse. I am not naive to think that this government will change. I do not think that the people, ideas, or political groups that support this administration are up to the current challenges.

Brenno Grillo

The Brazilian Report's correspondent in Brasília, Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

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