On Brazil’s Air Force

David Axe recently published a really interesting long-form piece on the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). The basic focus is on how the FAB operates on a relatively low-budget, even while maintaining sustained campaigns relevant to defined national security interests (namely, combating smuggling in the country’s interior and regional defense). Frum’s contextualization and discussion of the FAB is thorough, but I’d like to make a few additional points.

Regarding the use of the FAB to try to monitor and maintain control over the Amazonian basin, this is part of a number of historical trends. First, there’s the issue of integrating the Amazon into the nation more generally, and efforts to address this issue go back much further than 1990 (which Axe points to). Until the 1930s, much of the Amazon remained “outside” the nation of the federalist First Republic (1889-1930). From the government of Getúlio Vargas onward, Brazilian governments of any number of political stripes have attempted to incorporate the Amazon into the country, be it just through discourse (usually as the Amazon as “our” national treasure, in Brazilian rhetoric) or through practice (as with the military regime’s ultimately-limited efforts to build the Transamazonian highway). That these efforts continue under the government of Dilma Rousseff, herself once subjected to torture under the military rule and now president of the country, reveals the ways in which “securing” the Amazon and making sure it falls under the more direct aegis of the federal government’s power continues to be a major part of political and military agendas of governments from across the ideological spectrum.

Secondly, and somewhat related to this, is the issue of the Amazon as an area needing “securing.” Given the historically weak presence of the state in the region, fears of foreign involvement/infiltration into the region have long existed. These fears aren’t necessarily unfounded – after all, the majority of the Amazonian basin is only Brazilian because in the colonial period, the Spanish presence was so weak in the area that the Portuguese could disregard the Treaty of Tordesillas and effectively make the Amazon “Portuguese,” papal bulls notwithstanding.  Even today, there is very much a strong nationalistic tendency even among leftists that the Amazon is “theirs,” and those who are not from Brazil but are interested in the Amazon are viewed with skepticism if not outright suspicion. Certainly, cases like Raytheon’s alleged corruption do not help this image, but it’s not just limited to corporations trying to abuse the system to their economic favor (certainly nothing new in the world of transnational resource exploitation). Rather, these attitudes even extend to foreign environmentalists who are often seen as either taking what belongs to Brazil (a more nationalist stance) or extracting wealth from the Amazon for foreign corporations while pretending to be conservationists (a charge I heard not-irregularly during my time in Brazil). This isn’t to say the air force’s presence in the Amazon is equivalent to these concerns; however, it is fair to say it makes up part of a broader intellectual and political discourse that views the Amazon as particularly “Brazilian” but susceptible to intervention/invasion from (often poorly-defined) “outsiders.” Sort of the inverse of the need to make the Amazon part of the Brazilian nation-state, this rhetorical fear of invasion, like its nationalist counterpart, is not limited to a particular political ideology. Put another way: the use of the air force to make sure the Amazon remains under the power of “acceptable” (read: nation-state) actors is part of a longer history of fear over the region’s weakness.

The result of these two factors has been that a long-term context of efforts to bring a difficult environmental region under the control of the nation-state, combined with (sometimes not-so) latent fears of the region’s historical weakness have led to the militarization of combating deforestation, as well as how efforts to fight deforestation and illegal crime are not mutually-exclusive terms. Indeed, while there is much handwringing among some in the US over that country’s use of drones (an issue not really under the scope of this blog), in Latin America, drones are being used for purposes like this, so that, rather than targeting “enemies” overseas, drones are put to use to try to strengthen the nation-state’s power domestically.

As thorough as Axe’s piece is, however, he rather superficially glides over another major function of the Brazilian air force: regional power. As the US’s gaze turned elsewhere in the first decade of the 2000, Latin American countries operated with an unprecedented degree of (relative) non-interference (though the US remained active in the region in often-pernicious ways, as the failed Venezuelan coup against Chávez demonstrated). In that new-ish context, regional politics shifted, as countries (often under new left-ish leaders) demonstrated a greater autonomy and role in international politics. Far from a unified bloc, there were competitions, both explicit and implicit, between the countries; even while professing to be friends and allies, countries like Brazil and Venezuela still jostled to be the leader of the region. That Brazil is the continent’s largest country, and has one of its largest militaries, is thus not an accident; rather, it’s an example of how it could take the lead for the region should a military need ever arise, with the not-so-subtle implication that it could probably overwhelm neighboring militaries as well, should that particular “need” ever arise. Indeed, it’s made no secret of its effort to train others, which always brings the implied message of one country’s particular military strength. To be clear, this isn’t to say that the air force is so strong because of some militaristic plans on Brazil’s part; however, having a strong and modern military that is effective still carries a veiled threat, even if that is not the intent. Axe seems to give this sense of (still-friendly) regional competition in the twenty-first century short shrift. Admittedly, there is not much in terms of the public record to suggest any sense of militarized competition, but that does not mean such messages aren’t still tacitly present when one country or another conducts military exercises, as Brazil itself recently did.

Finally a point regarding the implications of Brazil’s ability to maintain what are by most global standards a strong air force without a massive budget. The implications are not meaningless for the US. It’s no secret that the US has a massive (and even bloated) defense budget that far outstrips social programs; meanwhile, Brazil manages to launch massive social programs like Bolsa Familia that have played no small role in addressing (though far from resolving) the socioeconomic inequalities that have historically defined the country. Put another way: Brazil suggests that a country can simultaneously adequately address “safety” even while maintaining social programs designed to help its citizens; it’s not the either/or proposition that all too often defines budgetary discussions in the US.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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