Squadron of ex-military men behind Bolsonaro's rise in Brazil

23 October 2018 - 17:52 By Reuters
Augusto Heleno Pereira, a retired general of the Brazilian army, leaves the hotel where retired generals meet to support presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia.
Augusto Heleno Pereira, a retired general of the Brazilian army, leaves the hotel where retired generals meet to support presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia.
Image: Adriano Machado/Reuters

The man who will likely be Brazil's next defense minister greeted two reporters waiting outside the door, then politely sent them packing.

"I do apologise," he said, before slipping back into a cramped hotel conference room in the capital of Brasilia. "On orders from Bolsonaro, it is radio silence until the election is over."

The patrician, gray-haired fellow was Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira (70), a retired four-star army general. The world may soon be hearing a lot more from him and a cadre of high-ranking ex-military brass now poised to help lead the world's fourth-largest democracy. Their ascension has many here worried about a return to the days when the armed forces called the shots in Brazil.

Heleno is the dean of a small group of former generals behind the rise of presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro, who is predicted to win easily in this Sunday's election over his leftist opponent Fernando Haddad. A combative far-right former army captain, Bolsonaro has vowed to crack down on crime, end corruption and steamroll anything in his path.

Most of Bolsonaro's inner circle have retained close ties to Brazil's current military leadership. For example, Antonio Hamilton Mourão, a four-star general who is serving as Bolsonaro's vice-presidential running mate, just retired from active duty in February.

High-ranking service members have largely steered clear of politics since Brazil's 21-year dictatorship ended in 1985. But appalling levels of street crime and entrenched government graft have emboldened former military leaders to get involved in the electoral process. While some Brazilians are wary about what they see as encroachment by the military on sacred civilian space, others welcome the change.

"There is an awareness among the public that the military can put this house in order," Heleno said earlier this year. "We are fully aware a coup is not the way forward. The path will be the next election."

For more than a year, Heleno and about a dozen other retired generals and conservative academics, known as the Brasilia Group, have gathered weekly, hashing out strategy and tried to hone the rough edges off Bolsonaro, a candidate best known for his homophobic, misogynist and racist outbursts.

Many Brazilians are thrilled at the prospect of Bolsonaro taking a firm hand. He won over 49m votes in October 7's first-round election, close to the majority that would have avoided the head-to-head runoff with Haddad.

But plenty of others are alarmed at possible backsliding toward authoritarian rule, even if it comes through the ballot box instead of tanks in the streets.

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