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Brazil: reaction vs progress

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Jan Rocha, Nossa correspondente informa: Notícias da ditadura brasileira na BBC de Londres: 1973-1985. São Paulo: Alameda, 2021.

Reactionary regimes invariably like to bolster their cause by swearing allegiance to the tyrannies that preceded and inspired them, and by posing as their staunchest defenders. The Bolsonaro presidency is no exception, having invested considerable effort in attempting to rewrite the narrative of Brazil’s contemporary history, in particular its 1964-85 Dictatorship, as a heroic era of national glory that should ideally be emulated and reinstated.

Not only has the Dictatorship repeatedly been invoked as a symbolic rallying point for those wanting to incite a new military coup. The Bolsonaro administration has also enlisted it as a weapon in its ideological ‘culture wars’ against progressive, liberal values, by turns denying and justifying the regime’s atrocities, its abuses of human rights, and its trampling on basic democratic freedoms.

The Publisher’s launch of Jan Rocha’s book, 8 & 13 October 2021, São Paulo

As part of this campaign to rehabilitate its reputation, in 2021 Bolsonaro even pressured ENEM, the national high-school examination board, to replace references to the 1964 Coup with the term ‘Revolution’. Such campaigns are, of course, never just about rewriting the past, and it is really the present and future of the country that are at stake.

History and memory

Yet for any Brazilian under the age of 40, the 1964-85 Dictatorship is history. You have to be now in your 50s, at least, to have lived through even some of that period with any awareness of its ongoing significance. Otherwise, for any knowledge or understanding of that experience, the vast majority of Brazilians today are entirely dependent on memory—the memory carried by living, individual witnesses, reconstructed in documentary historical accounts, or recorded by those who reported on Brazil’s social, political and cultural life as it unfolded.

That’s to say, the work of journalists like Jan Rocha, the BBC World Service’s first correspondent in Brazil and, from 1984, also the correspondent of the The Guardian newspaper. It’s hard to over-estimate the value of such reporting in a pre-digital, pre-social media age, when Brazilians’ access to proper, truthful local news reporting was constrained by the regime’s control and censorship of the media.

Jan’s regular English-language 1)Although the reports were originally written in English for the World Service, they were nearly all translated into Portuguese and broadcast by the Brazilian Service, so they reached a much wider audience than if they had only been broadcast in English. dispatches (listened to avidly by many Brazilians on shortwave radio) were a rare and vital source of information, reporting internationally what Brazil’s own journalists were forbidden from saying. Nossa correspondente informa: Notícias da ditadura brasileira na BBC de Londres: 1973-1985 has made available to today’s young generation of Brazilian readers an edited selection of Jan’s reports, carefully and painstakingly compiled and translated into Portuguese with the aid of Ali Rocha.

Reading them now brings that tumultuous, painful and extraordinary period in Brazil’s contemporary history back to life again with remarkable intensity. Two things stand out to this reader, who was just beginning to become acquainted with the country towards the end of the period covered by the book.

First, there is the compellingly vivid sense it conveys of the day-by-day unfolding of events and the dense, often astonishing fabric of Brazil’s political and social reality. This was the second half of the country’s Dictatorship (arguably its most repressive phase), in the context of the 1973 oil crisis and post-Miracle era of economic turmoil, which embraced the Médici, Geisel and Figueiredo administrations and the unbearably long transition towards the eventual restoration of democracy.

Transition – with added repression

So we read of the crisis of the official, ruling ARENA party, with the massive vote for the opposition MDB in November 1974, the transfer of power to Ernesto Geisel and his announcement of an extended democratic transition; at the same time, the continued stifling of most expressions of opposition, whether in the form of the ruthless war against the clandestine guerrilla movements, the arrest, imprisonment and torture of journalists and activists, censorship and the suspension of political rights of outspoken political critics.

Far from heroic, the regime’s dirty work was often carried out unofficially by the infamous ‘death squads’, and corruption scandals, rather than being a novelty of the 2000s or even 1990s, were frequently exposed at the heart of state companies during those years.

We also witness the return of the student movement, the rise of the new independent trade unionism of São Paulo’s engineering and auto-industry centres, and the regime’s efforts to suppress the campaign for direct elections, Diretas Já!;and finally, the appointment of a civilian president, Tancredo Neves, by an electoral college—Neves’s premature death prevented him from taking office, which was occupied instead by his vice-President José Sarney, a veteran of the old order and of the ARENA party.

Extraction and the pillage of the Amazon

On the social, economic and environmental fronts, the array of topics is strikingly, and depressingly, ominous to anyone familiar with today’s developments, especially in Amazônia. For this was the first phase in the predatory exploitation of the region, which the military viewed as both a security threat and an opportunity for untrammeled construction, energy and extractivist projects fueled by foreign investment, so beginning a cycle of road-building (e.g. the Transamazônica highway), hydro-electric development (Tucuruí) and mining (Carajás, Serra Pelada), with their devastating impacts on indigenous land rights and environmental security.

In São Paulo State, meanwhile, the industrial city of Cubatão, one of the most polluted cities in the world, became infamous as an ecological hell nicknamed the ‘Valley of Death’, due to the high incidence of respiratory, hepatic and blood illnesses and births of brainless children.

In 1978 the Government dismissed a cost-of-living petition signed by one million people, and the economic crisis that followed in the 1980s, the ‘lost decade’, ushered in the nightmare of hyperinflation, leading to mass immiseration and the spectacle of Rio de Janeiro’s favela residents driven to invade the city’s downtown districts and loot their supermarkets.

Progress bitterly contested

While Jan’s reports thus detail all the stark reality of the horrors endured by Brazilians under the Dictatorship, they also reveal, in their totality, something deeply important about the historical contours of this period, and the nature of the long transition to democracy. This, for me, is the second really striking aspect of the volume, the way in which it charts the sweep of history as complex and anything but straightforward. In right-wing narratives the democratic transition tends to be presented as a smooth, controlled strategy of ‘abertura’ and ‘distensão’ (‘opening’ and ‘relaxation’), planned and successfully executed from above by the supreme power of the military state.

On the liberal left, on the other hand, it is easy to imagine in hindsight that the return to democracy was inevitable, an inexorable process that was bound eventually to come about as a matter of natural justice.

In fact, as Jan’s reporting shows, it was in reality the outcome of bitterly competing and clashing forces of reaction and progress, pitting a repressive state and its hardline defenders against the courageous struggles of people committed to a free and democratic society. It was a long, drawn-out battle involving both victories and setbacks, whose result was by no means predictable or certain.

Indeed, in her dispatch of 25 March 1978, on the occasion of US President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Brazil, Jan wrote: ‘The political future of the largest country in Latin America appears ever more confused, with advances and retreats on the path to democracy’.

Nossa correspondente informa therefore depicts the fascinating and compelling drama of that ongoing battle for the future of the country, in its narrative of the tensions between the reformist interests inside the regime and the hardline conservatives, the continuing abuses of censorship, torture and the repression of opposition voices, but at the same time the insistent, unstoppable activism of trade unionists, students, journalists, scientists, indigenous people, democrats within the armed forces, and the emergent leadership provided by veteran left-wingers such as Leonel Brizola, younger figures such as Lula da Silva, and the founders of a new, broad-based organisation of the Left, the Workers Party.

Jan’s last dispatch of 1984 voices the guarded optimism of many Brazilians, after twenty years of military rule, authoritarianism and corruption, and the hopes they invested in the election of a new, civilian President, for all the challenges posed by two decades of social injustice and four years of deep recession: ‘. . . for now the sense of optimism is widespread and at the turn of the year hundreds of thousands of Brazilians will go to the beaches to cast offerings into the sea to [the Goddess] Iemanjá, confident that, this time, their prayers for better days will be answered.’

Jan’s writing stands as testament to the fact that, then as now, the answers to such prayers were really to be found in the day-to-day actions of those Brazilians fighting to make the dream of democracy a reality.

As the writer of the volume’s afterword, Natália Viana, argues, Nossa correspondente informa should be compulsory reading in schools across Brazil. And for those who do not read Portuguese, it would be wonderful if this living historical record could be made available beyond Brazil, in an English edition.

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References
1 Although the reports were originally written in English for the World Service, they were nearly all translated into Portuguese and broadcast by the Brazilian Service, so they reached a much wider audience than if they had only been broadcast in English.

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