Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Amazon, Indigenous Rights, and A Brazilian General's Complete Failure to Understand the Constitution

Randy points us to this story about Brazil's Amazon policy and brewing tensions. To summarize: a little-known (to the rest of the world) part of the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 states that ancestral indigenous lands, including in the Amazon, were to be returned to the indigenous groups within 5 years. While that hasn't happened, Brazil has been making efforts, slowly but surely, to see this happen. However, in the Amazonian region in particular, there has been escalating violence as the government tries to evict people living on lands that are owed, as the constitution declared, to indigenous groups. In order to complete these efforts, the military has been brought in, but apparently, at least one member of the Army in the region is less than pleased with the government's efforts:

"At a raucous seminar on national sovereignty at Rio de Janeiro's Military Club, the head of Army's Amazon command, Gen. Augusto Heleno Pereira, attacked the federal government's indigenous policy as ''regretful and chaotic.'' He even suggested that the army would refuse to remove the settlers."

''The Brazilian army does not serve the government but rather the Brazilian state,'' Pereira said.

Um, no.

Randy is exactly right in explaining how flawed this logic is:
Brazil's constitution calls for all ancestral indigenous lands to be demarcated and turned over to their respective tribes. Pereira serves the Brazilian state and the state is defined by the constitution. A military man who doesn't understand that has no business being in the military.
And it doesn't stop there: when democratically-elected Brazilian jurists wrote a new constitution in 1988 (3 years after the end of the dictatorship), they were especially careful to be explicit and detailed in outlining the military's role within the state, and how the military's role is to defend the functioning of all branches of the state, especially the presidency, regardless of political party. In short: constitutionally speaking, in Brazil, the military can never again (as long as this Constitution survives) overthrow a "government" to save the "state"; any time the office of the presidency, regardless of what party represents it, is threatened, the military's job is to protect the functioning of the executive branch and the state, and not to overthrow it the president and assume control itself.

It's disturbing enough that a high-ranking officer doesn't seem to get the constitutional role of the Brazilian military. But really, this is only one reason Pereira's statements are so disturbing. Back in 1964, when the military overthrew Joao Goulart, they used a similar logic. At the time, as Brazil's economy was struggle and the cold-war ideologies led right-wing forces to believe that anything from the left was "communist," the military decided to overthrow the leftist Goulart and take control of the country. Their logic at the time was that Goulart was leading the country to a civil war (the same phrase that the author uses at the beginning of this Amazonian article, I'd poinit out), and that the only way to "save" Brazil was for the military to "overthrow the government to save the state." Of course, the military then went on to entrench itself in power through 5 presidencies, authorizing torture and the murder of "subversives" and rewriting the constitution not once but twice, all in the name of "defending the state."

Of course, it's unclear if Pereira's opinions and comments reflect any broader military brass beliefs he could be a lone voice within the higher ranks of the armed forces. And I'm certainly not saying that Brazil is on the cusp of another military overthrow of the elected leader and/or a dictatorship simply because the military used similar reasoning to justify its 1964 coup of Joao Goulart and its 21-year-long dictatorship. Any time a military official anywhere in the world says the things Pereira said is disturbing, but given the history of this line of thinking and Brazil's recent history (the dictatorship only ended 23 years ago), Pereira's "logic" is really, really disturbing. I'm fully with Randy on this - Pereira should be kicked out. This won't happen, and he very well may have been privately censured already within the armed forces, simply because many do not want to ever see the military involved in politics again.