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Brazil 1964: Never again!


31st March 2014. Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Brazilian coup of 1964 which started the wave of repression that cast a dark and cruel shadow over Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile during the following decades. It was experienced by many of my generation in our contact with refugees who came to Europe and represented a new and very attractive way of thinking, a sensibility, a way of doing politics which combined their idealism with lifestyle, music, art, dance, and also deep sadness and much cruel loss – losses which have recently been recounted in the sessions of Brazil’s recently formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in retrospect seem almost incomprehensible. Their experience informed the Paris uprisings of 1968 not only through the massive portraits of Che which went up on the walls of the Sorbonne but also in the intertwining of politics with the pleasures and the pain and emotional attachments of everyday life. “Father, take this cup away from me” (Luke22.42) –the words of a famous Chico Buarque protest song from 1973 with the play on words of cálice (chalice) and cale-se (shut-up! silence!). The song was banned by the dictatorship. It was this Brazilian regime, especially after it hardened its line in 1968, which established the system of institutionalized torture that was the bloody hallmark of these regimes.  The US government had helped the coup plotters in Brazil to compile lists of people to arrest and later was involved in the notorious ‘Plan Condor’ whereby the governments of these four countries, plus Paraguay and Bolivia, assisted one another in capture and torture and worse. This close alliance was cemented by an elaborate system of officer training in counter-insurgency orchestrated by the Pentagon, and the concomitant build-up of a paranoid mentality among the region’s armed forces. It was a time when no officer could reach a senior position without having been through the training establishments in Panama. During that period it seemed that there were only two possible ways for the region – fascism or socialist revolution. Any reformist attempt to change the structures was threatened by military overthrow: this is what happened in Brazil in 1964, and in Chile after the reformist Frei government was elected that same year. It seemed that, in the time-honoured formula, these countries had no ‘national bourgeoisie’ able or willing to stand up to imperialism outside and to the forces of reaction within – especially the landed oligarchies. The Brazilian coup was above all a response to peasant mobilization in the Northeast, and the Chilean reformist coalition built by Frei was broken by his Land Reform. No wonder then that some people opted for the armed revolution – the urban and rural guerrillas in Brazil,  the ERP and Montoneros in Argentina, the MIR in its own rather rhetorical way in Chile, Che’s ELP and other armed groups in Bolivia. Cuba during this period was a standard bearer of resistance, but even though many guerrilleros trained in Cuba, few really wanted to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat in their countries even though the road to reform seemed completely blocked. The people who went to Cuba found a culture quite foreign to them and also could not abide the lack of freedom.  On my first visit to Cuba in 1970 I met some Brazilians who had been freed in exchange for a kidnapped American Ambassador in the days when such things could still happen, and one of them complained that the censorship meant that he could not get hold of the works of Stalin, of all things. (Cuba had by then given up its Tricontinental revolutionary ambitions and fallen into line with the Soviet regime, which had formally denounced Stalin long before.)  The only Latin American leftists I met who ever seemed at home in Cuba were Argentine Communists – they would travel to and fro with no worries even at the height of the dirty war, and the Argentine Communist Party never associated with any revolutionary activity, peaceful or violent, and co-existed peacefully with the sanguinary generals of the 1976-83 period. Street theatre for the coup anniversary. Photo: UpsideDownWorldLater, after the transition, the Brazilian guerrillero who wanted to read Stalin resurfaced as a respectable member of the Brazilian Congress, a well-trodden path among graduates of the University of Marxism-Leninism. Latin America has three presidents in Dilma Rousseff, José Mujica and Michelle Bachelet who suffered physical torture under the military yet whose politics seem unaffected by any spirit of revenge or even victimhood. Dilma has, finally, followed Argentina three decades late in instituting a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mujica, who was the leader of one of the most ruthless guerrillas, the Tupamaros, and spent nine years in jail, is today the second most popular Latin American in the world after the Pope, revelling in his title of the ‘world’s poorest President’. With his rumpled look and aversion to sloganizing or cheap rhetoric, he is now an exemplary market-friendly social democrat, with the one big, commonsense difference – that he has legalized marijuana. Argentina remains the most extreme case, the country where torturers would kill their pregnant victims after stealing and passing on their babies.  But in these matters gradations are not the point. The violence perpetrated in the torture chambers remains a puzzle as it has and as it always will. How could an individual do such things to a defenceless human being? Who are these people? They did not even have the machinery of gas chambers to distance themselves from the immediacy of the pain they were inflicting.  Can they really have believed that their young victims were about to impose a dictatorship of the proletariat? And some still today defend their actions: ‘I did nothing wrong’; ‘I did my duty’. Listen to the recent documentary on the BBC World Service website which goes back over the outrages committed in Brazil. The fall of these dictatorships and their replacement by elected civilian regimes happened without violence (unless you count the ‘Falkinas’ War, which maybe one should). These were managed transitions  and their relatively peaceful character had no doubt something to do with the early signs of the end of the Cold War as the US stopped believing that the Soviet Union was a threat in the Western hemisphere and even Ronald Reagan supported the transitions. But there is a cost in this absence of rupture, in the absence of soul-searching and in the smugness of the choirmasters of democracy which we see in the repression of Mapuche activists in Chile, in the deep corruption of Argentina’s police, in the persistence, indeed renewal, of police violence in Brazil’s major cities, and in the inevitable impunity which accompanies this process. For Brazil, the World Cup represents a big test for democracy. If there are big political demonstrations – as surely there will be – Brazil’s political elite and the trustworthiness of their institutions will be put to a severe test. Let us hope they will keep to the rules, keep cool heads and not spoil the party.

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David Lehmann's Blog

David Lehmann is a senior editor at LAB. A social scientist who has worked all his life on and in Latin America, he writes on subjects including agricultural development, religion and multiculturalism. He has worked in Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Brazil and has accumulated a wide-ranging knowledge of peoples, histories and ideas over several decades. He is a former director of the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.

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