The spectrum of dictatorships Part II

That bloody dictatorship of Brazil, the really bad one

Like a lot of countries that embraced democracy because it was a popular trend, but without consensus, stability and most importantly competent consensus building politicians, Brazil’s return to democracy was flawed.

The coup in Brazil in 1964 and the dictatorship that followed it are fascinating both because of Brazil’s special history (due to Vargas) and its unique variation off the trends in Latin America at the time.

Brazil’s optimistic start

There was a rather broad consensus in favour of military intervention amongst the middle class, landowners, the Church and even the media.

While the military coup was motivated by the fear of Communist takeover, and like other anti-Communist coups, supported by the US, President Goulart was neither a Communist nor a full Socialist. He was no Allende. Brazil ironically had had relatively positive experiences with Vargas’ Centrist politics, but apparently Goulart was just a bit too much too the Left. The biggest issue was probably his proposed land reforms. Private property was very much viewed as inviolable, and as such the initial coup

Brazil’s military dictatorship started off moderate (according to the standards of Latin America at the time).

The regime was consistently more of a collective oligarchic leadership, where the one who became president had dominant but not exclusive authority, unlike the autocratic rule of figures like Pinochet in Chile, Stroessner in Paraguay or Fujiwara in Peru. This helps to explain both its more moderate elements and its excesses.

Oligarchies, whether military or party based, can suffer from infighting, intrigues and corruption. Hardliners and moderates struggling for power. Moderates can suddenly pull it in a milder direction, but power struggles within groups can also bring out the worst types. This is different from a single person dictatorship.

While the moderate Castelo Branco served as the first president and optimism was initially strong, with cooperation between the Catholic Church and the Conservative regime, hardliners kept pushing and would serve as the second and third presidents. Under them the worst violence took place.

While autocrats don’t always really know the motivations of their handpicked successor, they rarely pick a successor more extreme than themselves. Franco didn’t with Juan Carlos a democratiser, Nazarbayev gave Kazakhstan the reformer Tokayev, Karimov gave Uzbekestan Mirziyoyev and Lee Kuan Yew gave Singapore Chok Tong (even when he had preferred someone else, accepting the position from up and coming members of his party.)

In the case of the reformer successors, the autocracies became milder and some constitutionalism appears to develop while democracy with all its uncertainties is avoided.

Extremist elements

Already in 1965 the Supreme Federal Court had its membership expanded from 11 to 16 members. While Vargas had respected the judiciary, the new regime did not do so nearly as much. The biggest mistake is that they didn’t justify this by making the expansion part of a new constitution, even though they ended up implementing a new constitution in 1967 anyways. They couldn’t wait for their new constitution apparently, even though they were ignoring the old. What was to fear about some unfavourable supreme court rulings? Somehow, this wasn’t enough and they ended up kicking 3 judges of the court. They appear to have lacked patience. They ended up controlling the presidency for 21 years and filling all the seats eventually. They deviated from their own constitution. It was all ad hoc.

This is especially ironic, since the regime did not completely do away with parliament, allowed a (controlled) opposition party, and elections on the local level. Yet they attacked the judiciary.

Even Pinochet who suspended the constitution, parliament and political parties, continued to respect an independent judiciary including decision by the Supreme Court. In 1980 a new constitution was enacted in Chile along with an independent constitutional court.

Fujiwara in Peru was special for carrying out a self-coup both against parliament and the judiciary.

While the hardliners did preside over an economic miracle, their attempts to permanently stamp out Leftism failed. Hardliner Garrastazu Médici, appointed moderate Geisel as his successor to the presidency.

Geisel failed to ensure a smooth democratisation, merely a gradual one. His biggest achievements were being the first Lutheran president and enabling the legalisation of divorce to spite the Catholic Church for protesting the regimes and its excesses (which he himself was watering down). Brazil suffered an economic downturn under Geisel and its final military president. An entirely new constitution needed to eventually be written anyways and Brazil’s democracy saw multiple impeachments and the rise of Marxist sympathisers and renewed economic downturn.

The ad hoc hard-line measures seem to have achieved little in the long term.

Lessons from the third world; what could have been

An independent judiciary is key to stability, key to preventing the horrors of anocracy (the powerful supreme court in the Philippines has been a positive force under Duterte, the semi-independent judiciary has been valuable in Singapore’s semi-authoritarian state and even the constitutional court in Thailand, which bizarrely enough is both royal and has legalist on demand abortion in the first 12 weeks). Preserving a core constitution and constitutional review are very important also. Judicial independence can in term be protected by preserving the senate as well, which can function as a buffer between the regime and the judiciary. The Crassus between Caesar and Pompey, or Lepidus between Octavian and Mark Antony.

Constitutionalism can lead to democracy but not really the other way around. Democracy in an unstable, polarised society, without respect for checks and balances, becomes a mob contest for absolute power.

Which is why I would advise any dictatorial regime to preserve it whenever possible even when they believe that democracy is no longer viable for their country.

Stauffenberg and Goerdeler planned a constitutional semi-dictatorship for if they had taken out Hitler, Dollfuss implemented a constitutional dictatorship in Austria and Fraga and Arias Navarro had planned to follow that tradition in Spain (if Juan Carlos had been a real Francoist).

None of this came to pass, Austria and Stauffenberg were crushed by the Nazis and Europe and the Western world provide Western democracy as the only example of a proper alternative to totalitarianism and tyranny. This seems to have resulted in all or nothing tendencies in third and second world countries with Western influence. But in the West, we had constitutions, semi-constitutional monarchies and Liberal autocracies first. Classical Liberal values, rechtsstaat, rule of law, constitutionalism and so on, all need to provide a stable society, before democracy can hope to develop peacefully.

While the Supreme Federal Court became rather leftist after many years of leftist presidents, Bolsonaro has already appointed 2 judges during his first term,

More importantly however if Bolsonaro were to successfully stay in office by the end of this year, either by actually defeating Lula in an election or by carrying out a self-coup with support from the military that fears the return of Lula, he’d get the chance to fill 2 vacancies in 2023 with 2 judges turning 75 and reaching the mandatory retirement age. If he keeps the senate around and doesn’t outright suspend the constitution, he can fill these 2 seats with new judges in accordance with the constitution.

If not out of idealism, I hope this consideration will ensure Bolsonaro and the military respect the senate and the Supreme Federal Court.

Hopefully, if Bolsonaro and the army were to suspend democracy, hopefully they’ll try to follow the Vargas route and focus on building a truly stabilising constitutional system.

Hopefully the recent reforms in Kazakhstan will be truly implemented.

And finally, I hope any coup mongering army men or revolutionaries, Left or Right, in Latin America or Spain, or even South East Asia, will head our advice.

Ramon Giralt

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