Friday, December 19, 2008

Lula's Plan for Brazil's Military to Upgrade, Improve, Diversify

This has been in the works for awhile, but yesterday, Lula finally announced his restructuring plan for the Brazilian military. Among other things, the plan reorganizes the entire military into brigades for faster mobilization abilities; seeks to decrease Brazil's dependence on other nations for arms and weapons and increase its own military technology production (including satellites and nuclear-powered submarines); and, in what is perhaps the most novel part of the plan, to actually enforce mandatory conscription on people from all classes.

The technological and tactical parts of this plan are interesting, and could have a profound impact on Brazil's economy, it's role in the region and the world, and its military and international relations. I admit that, upon first learning of this, I was a bit uneasy - after all, Brazil's military was frequently involved in politics in the 20th century. (In addition to the 1964-1985 dictatorship, the military also intervened in politics in 1930, 1937, 1945, 1955, 1961, and finally, 1964; these interventions were not always direct, and could often take the form of "the military is providing vague threats if we politicians don't do X," as was the case in 1961; nor were these interventions always successful, as in 1955; still, one can easily identify at least those 6 cases of military involvement to one degree or another in Brazilian politics, and you can argue that there were other instances, too). Up until the announcement of the plan, there were just vague mentions of "increasing the military's power" in Brazil. Still, it seems that this is directed mostly at improving the ability of the military to mobilize, improve its standing in the region, protect Brazil's territory (no doubt, the discovery of a major oil field off Sao Paulo's coast providing some additional motivation for this latter issue), and other measures. Certainly, increased firepower and greater mobility could lead to a greater role of Brazil's military in politics down the road, and I'm still a bit uncertain about this, but it is at least not openly increasing the military's presence in the political sphere, which is a small victory I guess. And the fact that Brazilian progressive Roberto Mangabeira Unger (who, tangentially, was one of Obama's law professors at Harvard) is the author of this project is also encouraging if for no other reason than it wasn't drawn up by some conservative or a hawk.

However, I find Lula's efforts to actually enforce military conscription for everybody to be quite a fascinating aspect. Although the military is technically and legally supposed to conscript from all Brazilian sectors regardless of class, race, etc., the reality is Brazil's military ranks are composed overwhelmingly of the poor and marginalized who do not have recourse to get out of such service and who often accept it because they need the money. For decades and even generations (dating back to at least the Paraguayan War) there has been an unspoken understanding that elites and (more recently) the middle classes were "above" military service. So in one sense, any effort to break through this mold to prove that "mandatory conscription" applies to all Brazilian citizens, and not just those who don't have an economic/cultural/political way to avoide it.

While I like the idea of forcing the middle class and elite youths into the military, in practice I don't think is this automatically a great thing. Taking the most recent case, when Brazil's military led the coup in 1964, it did so with the support of the middle and upper classes. Many of the working class men who were actually in the military at the time were strong supporters of Joao Goulart, the deposed president, and the military really had to crack down on its own troops in order to "keep the ranks in line." Even today, a majority of the Brazilian middle class and elites are social and political conservatives with little tolerance for the poor or the racially marginalized (a marginalization made greater by the fact that Brazilians by and large culturally deny the existence of racism by claiming extreme miscegenation makes racism "impossible," which is, of course, bunk). Filling the ranks with conservatives who believe the poor are poor because they are "lazy" and "criminals" seems to make it more likely that, if the military were to launch another coup because somebody was too "progressive" in the future, the military would have much more support from the ranks than it did in 1964. What is more, it's not like conscription of all classes will lead to some amazing social levelling. It still seems highly likely that, even if the ranks were levelled out socially, the children of middle-class and elite families probably stand a much greater chance of promotion into the officer corps, due to factors such as better education as children, economic power, political connections, etc. Thus, while the face of the ranks might become more diverse, I really don't think the officer corps would, and given that it's the officers who are responsible for strategy, the power structure in the military would continue to be lopsided.

In spite of all this, though, I just don't see this enforcement of mandatory conscription for all happening anytime soon; rather, I think that part of the plan is simply the first step in trying to force the issue in Brazil. And I think that Lula's administration recognizes this, too - after all, Unger himself said this should start a "novel debate" on the issue of conscription and exactly what role sectors like the middle-class and the elties play in the Brazilian nation. Generally, if you're really trying to enforce a strong program, you don't comment that y our plan will spark an "novel" debate. Still, the fact that any presidential administration is even going so far to admit that there's definitely a social inequality when it comes to who has to serve in teh military and who does not is a decent step. I don't honestly know if this will go any further, and wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't (Lula has plenty on his plate between now and 2010, and there's no reason to believe his successor would strongly push this issue). But it is an interesting if subtle shift in the way the governments since 1985 have dealt with the issue of military service and nation. This fact, together with the significant changes in more technical and technological aspects of the plan, make it a fascinating and potentially game-changing plan not just in terms of military composition, but of Brazil's internatinoal relations, regional politics, and militarization throughout the continent in the near future.