General's 'intervention' comment raises eyebrows in Brazil

Jorge SVARTZMAN
Army Commander General Eduardo Villas Boas, right, has warned that the military could be forced to intervene in Brazil's corruption crisis

A general's comment that the military could be forced to intervene in Brazil's corruption crisis has rattled a country that only exited a two-decades long dictatorship in 1985.

The top Brazilian army commander, Eduardo Villas Boas, repeated earlier assurances Friday that the military "is committed to the consolidation of democracy."

But the lack of any public disciplinary action against his subordinate, General Antonio Hamilton Mourao, has raised eyebrows.

Mourao, a popular general, said in a talk to freemasons last week that "either the institutions resolve the political problem, through the judiciary and removing all those involved in illicit acts from public life, or we will have to impose this."

"They will have to look for a solution. If they don't succeed, the time will come when we will have to impose a solution," he said in comments that were published online.

Mourao said he was expressing "the army way of thinking."

Villas Boas rejected the idea, saying that he alone could speak for the military.

But he was vague on what consequences there had been for the general, saying only that he had informed Defense Minister Raul Jungmann on "the circumstances and measures adopted regarding the episode involving General Mourao."

A spokesman for the army told AFP that measures were taken "internally" and that Villas Boas "considers the matter closed."

Jungmann also gave the same assurances Friday.

The state human rights body, however, appeared less convinced.

"There is nothing in the Brazilian constitution allowing an autonomous intervention by the armed forces in an internal or external situation, regardless of the seriousness," a statement read earlier this week.

- Untouchable -

It's not the first time that Mourao, 64, has ruffled feathers.

In 2015, he was removed from the command of the southern region after speaking out against the political class, which has been snared in the giant "Car Wash" corruption scandal.

That same year, subordinates of his paid homage to the notorious dictatorship-era colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who headed internal repression and torture.

But although Mourao was transferred to a desk job, he continues to enjoy high prestige and is considered almost untouchable.

"Mourao is a great soldier, a fantastic figure," Villa Boas himself said this week.

Nelson During, editor of the website DefesaNet, said that "if Mourao is punished, it would probably lead to mutiny, especially among young officers, from major on down. He represents the way the troops think."

A columnist in Globo newspaper warned that with corruption scandals now rising all the way up to President Michel Temer, the government finds itself increasingly helpless.

"The impossibility of punishing the general shows that... the government is losing its legitimacy," the columnist, Merval Pereira, said.

As the crises mount, polls show that the military remains the most trusted of all institutions.

The phenomenon has helped boost the career of rightwing legislator Jair Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper who has gone from a largely fringe politician to one of the leading contenders for October 2018 presidential elections.

Among Bolsonaro's favorite provocative statements? Outspoken praise for "the hero" colonel Ustra.