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When Brazil's soldiers go back to the barracks

Following the inauguration in mid-March of 22 of the 23 governors of Brazil's states, the Navy minister drew reporters' attention to the conspicuous absence of ranking military and naval officers at the ceremonies. That, he claimed, was clear proof that Brazil's soldiers had returned to the barracks, after 19 years of administering the country.

Such an assertion, however, needs interpretation. It does not mean, as it would in, say, North America, that soldiers will henceforth be passive, obedient servants of the government. Nor does it signal an end to the presence of soldiers in both elected and appointed government office. It does not mean, further, that soldiers - individually or in groups - will no longer attempt to sway political decisionmaking, either by force or less direct persuasion, at all levels of government.

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What it does mean is something rather subtle: No longer will the Brazilian Army (which controls the other services) run the country without having to defer - however minimally - to the electorate. By 1985, when a new president is elected, the military will have reverted to its pre-1964 position as one of the more powerful pressure groups within politics.

That position is the historical one for Brazil's armed forces, and rather sets them apart from their peers elsewhere in Latin America. The military castes in Spanish-speaking countries tend to act on politics from outside the process; even when they appear to be part of politics they are exerting their influence as an entity somehow apart, or even aloof, from government.

The Brazilian military has always seemed much more a part of the process, from the time of the republic's foundation (1889), if not even earlier. Indeed, only when a crisis affecting the military as a whole arose has it acted as a bloc upon politics. The founding of the republic is a case in point, as is the 1964 coup. The authoritative monographs by Alfred Stepan (''The Military in Politics: Changing Patterns in Brazil'') and Thomas Skidmore (''Politics in Brazil, 1930-1964; An Experiment in Democracy'') argue that Brazilian officers have traditionally seen themselves as within politics until they feel threatened as a class, at which time they group together and force political change.

Examples of the Brazilian military's participation in politics abound. On of the best-known is the debates surrounding the formation of a national petroleum policy: civilians and offices hotly debated the issues in civilian and military fora as well as the media. Each group was deeply involved in the formulation of the policy. The result was a company that reflected public opinion at the time, the state-monopoly corporation, Petrobras.

When the military overthrew the elected civilian Goulart government in 1964, it did not, in contrast with later similar incidents elsewhere in South America, shut down the representative assemblies and ban civilian politics. Rather, it took control of deci-sionmaking by replacing most elected administrators - state governors, mayors, and the like - with federally appointed ones. Congress continued to function, but because the President - who has been an army general since the coup - assumed extraordinary legislative power, it served as little more than a forum to legitimize executive edicts.

The executive kept control of the Congress by threat of closure and manipulation. It based its power on a coalition of traditional political blocs now known as the Social Democratic Party (PDS), who have held a waning majority in the legislature to date. As the PDS began to slip in popularity, the executive resorted to political manipulation - gerrymandering, bribery, corruption, coercion - to retain a majority, very much in the manner of civilian presidents in the past.

The ''abertura'' (opening) now unfolding in politics is thus very much a device whereby the military and government hope to retain control of politics, but by pressure rather than control. The military is yielding power at a propitious time, to civilian politicians used to exercising at least a measure of it.

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The Brazilian retreat to the barracks is thus sui generis, and far more likely to succeed than similar pullouts projected in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. Brazilian politics is thus in remarkably robust health.

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