RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil's Congress was going about its business of writing a new constitution when a familiar noise brought everyone to attention. It sounded like the thump of jackboots and the rattle of sabers.
The armed forces wanted to make their preferences known with regard to a certain constitutional clause.
There were pointed pronouncements by high commanders and whispers of a coup plot. Then the Congress took a vote.
Its own preference just happened to coincide with that of the generals.
No coup was needed to remind Brazilians who is in charge. Everyone understood that even though the armed forces officially gave up power three years ago, there still is no greater power in Brazil than theirs.
And Brazil is not alone. Many of Latin America's civilian governments are inhibited, limited or intimidated by varying degrees of military pressure. The most extreme example is Panama, where civilian authority is but a cellophane wrapper for Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Noriega's dictatorship. In other countries, from Argentina to Guatemala, elected governments often feel constrained to tiptoe around areas of military concern, shying away from confrontation. Sabers may be obsolete, but their rattle still echoes through Latin American halls of power.
That is the hard reality encountered by democracy as it sprouts tentatively from the region's crusty political soil, parched by long traditions of authoritarian rule. The Brazilian case is of special interest because this is the largest Latin American nation, with 140 million people, and one that wields tremendous influence over many of its smaller neighbors. For democracy to predominate in Latin America, it must take root in Brazil.
Brazilian democratic progress has been notably slow and tentative. The authoritarian constitution left over from the military government remains in force after three years. The new constitution being drafted by congress includes, so far, limitations on a few but not all military powers.
For example, the current draft says the armed forces may intervene in national affairs to guarantee law and order, although not on their own initiative. Military courts no longer will be responsible for trying violations of national security but will try both military personnel and civilians charged with military crimes.
The military-dominated National Security Council will be replaced by a similar body with a different name. The intelligence service will remain under military control, headed by a general with the status of a Cabinet minister. And the Cabinet will continue to include six military officers, including one for each branch of service and one for the joint chiefs of staff.
A proposal to put the armed forces under a single minister for defense was defeated after vigorous military lobbying against it.
"There is a kind of peaceful acceptance of the tutelage of the armed forces, and the Congress today seems to be legislating with fear of the ghost of military intervention," wrote sociologist Jose de Carvalho in a recent article. "This Congress is losing a rare opportunity to reassert civilian control over the military and promote a true return to democracy."
In their lobbying, the armed forces have expressed strong resistance to presidential elections in 1988, even though a majority of Brazilians polled in opinion surveys have expressed a desire for elections this year. A March vote was scheduled in the Congress to decide whether future presidential terms would be set at four years, opening the door for elections this year. The issue loomed as a test of congressional sovereignty in the face of military pressure.
As the vote approached, the pressure increased.
"I personally view an election in 1988 as highly improper," said Gen. Leonidas Pires Goncalves, the army minister.
"Presidential elections this year could bring the country great disturbances in the political field," said Brig. Paulo Roberto Camarinha, armed forces chief of staff.
Coup rumors spread.
"It's five years or four stars," said one congressman, referring to four-star generals.
On March 22, the congress voted for five years. Two days later, in the newspaper Jornal do Brasil, separately researched articles by two veteran political reporters gave details of what they said was a military coup plot prepared in case the Congress decided for elections this year.
According to the reports, the coup would begin with President Jose Sarney's resignation; the Cabinet's military ministers would issue a statement declaring their opposition to elections in 1988; a military junta would take over the government for 120 days and national elections would be held at the end of that period.