Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro said Thursday the country's armed forces, which led the country under a military dictatorship for over two decades, are the ultimate arbiters of democracy.
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Speaking at a naval event in Rio de Janeiro alongside some of the former generals who sit in his cabinet, Jair Bolsonaro praised Brazil's military.
"Democracy and liberty only exist when your armed forces want them to," said Bolsonaro, himself a former army captain.
Bolsonaro added, in his typical nationalistic rhetoric, that he had decided to govern "with good Brazilians, who love their homeland, who respect the family, who want to align with countries that share our ideology, those who love democracy and freedom."
Critics of Bolsonaro, a longtime advocate of Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, have expressed concern over the growing role of high-ranking former soldiers in his government.
Vice President Hamilton Mourao, a retired Army General, defended Bolsonaro's comments, which he said were not meant as a threat, criticizing the Venezuelan military for supporting President Maduro as an example of what he his government is democracy gone awry as the armed forces in Venezuela reject calls for a coup to oust Maduro's elected government in favor of U.S.-backed opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido.
"The president said that if the armed forces are not committed to democracy and freedom, those values die," Mourao said.
Bolsonaro ’s national security adviser, former General Augusto Heleno, and his Defense Minister, former General Fernando Azevedo Silva joined him at the event. Other former generals in his cabinet include Infrastructure Minister Tarcisio Freitas and Government Minister Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, a retired general.
It is the largest military presence in the country’s government since the dictatorship which ended 34 years ago.
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One of Bolsonaro's immediate legislative priorities is to gain approval for a pension reform to prop up the country's public finances. The former generals have been advocating for the military, which enjoys sizeable benefits under the current system, to be excluded or protected from the new measures.
However, Bolsonaro remarked in his speech that the military will not escape the reforms. "What I want from you is a sacrifice," he said, noting that the new system "will affect the military," giving no further details.
Bolsonaro's proposal to address a widening pension deficit by raising taxes, delaying retirements and creating individual savings accounts is the cornerstone of his economic agenda.
Last month, he delivered his proposal to Congress, aiming to save over 1 trillion reais (US$266 billion) in the next decade.