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Brazil: the spirit of dictatorship is alive and well


Recent demonstrations show that Brazilian far right is growing in strength and confidence

They accuse the governing Workers’ Party (PT) of installing a communist regime in Brazil, with a view to establishing a continental socialist bloc stretching from Cuba to Chile and Argentina. They advocate the imprisonment of President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. They demand the abolition of ‘corrupt’ political parties, and urge the army to intervene, in order to ‘clean up’ Brazil’s political system. They oppose any demilitarization of the police, and defend the use of torture. Likewise, they oppose the opening of military archives relating to Brazil’s long dictatorship (1964–1985), and are against the prosecution of any agents of the state for crimes committed during this period. They are the Brazilian far right, and after an extended period of relative silence, they are growing in confidence and making their voices heard with increasing force.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the coup which ousted the legitimate president João Goulart in 1964, and an attempt to defend the military intervention is already underway. On the 22nd of March, people marched in cities across Brazil in a restaging of the ‘March of the Family with God’, a series of demonstrations in 1964 in response to Goulart’s proposed social reforms, and the supposed communist threat to the nation. The original marches drew over a million people in total and lent a veneer of popular support to the coup. This time around the demonstrations were far smaller: the largest, in São Paulo, drew less than a thousand people, fewer than expected. Around 150 people turned out in Rio, while just a handful of demonstrators attended events held in Belo Horizonte, Brasília, Recife, Fortaleza and Belém. However, despite the low turnouts, the reappearance of the March of the Family movement has wider significance.

Marcha de Familia. São Paulo, March 22 2014In recent years, several Latin American nations have been prosecuting members of state security forces responsible for human rights abuses committed during the Cold War dictatorships. Brazil has also been moving in this direction, albeit belatedly. While there is an amnesty law still firmly in place preventing the prosecution of state agents, a National Truth Commission has been established, though it is non-punitive and cannot oblige anyone to testify. In addition, the military, which has never admitted any responsibility for tortures and disappearances during the dictatorship, and which had up until now refused to cooperate with any investigation, on the 1st of April agreed to investigate the torture and execution of prisoners at seven military installations. The announcement was met with scepticism by some, but the official acknowledgement that there is even a case to answer shows a marked shift in attitude.

Brazil’s recent political history would also suggest a widespread repudiation of the dictatorship period. Since re-democratization, three of the four presidents elected by direct vote opposed the dictatorship in one way or another: Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a prominent academic forced into exile; Lula, an ex-union leader jailed for organizing strikes, and Dilma, an ex-militant with an armed Marxist-Leninist group, who was jailed and tortured by the military. Furthermore, however severe discontent with politics may be, Brazil’s young democracy has arguably never been stronger or more stable. Both FHC and Lula were elected for a second term, and despite falling poll ratings, Dilma is the firm favourite to win the presidential elections later this year. In such a climate, the emergence of a pro-dictatorship movement seems improbable.

However, thanks to a very carefully managed transition to democracy, the Brazilian military has never been completely brought to heel, and recent events suggest that there are still those within the armed forces who not only defend the coup of 1964, but who advocate doing the same today. On the 1st of April, a pro-dictatorship group held an event in Congress to commemorate the military coup, led by the ex-soldier, now Congressman, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro unfurled a banner that read ‘Congratulations to the military 31st / March / 1964: Thanks to you Brazil is not Cuba.’ As well as members of the military that attended the event on Bolsonaro’s invitation, there were also militants and members of Congress present who fought against the dictatorship, all of whom turned their backs to Bolsonaro in protest when he tried to speak to the chamber. Unsurprisingly, the event was characterised by shouting and scuffles between the two sides.

 Jair Bolsonaro's banner in CongressOf more concern may be the proposal, by a General Paulo Chagas, of ‘an eventual military intervention,’ published on a blog entitled Sociedade Militar. In the same post Chagas complains that civil society does not offer the military sufficient support, but he concludes by praising the March of the Family movement: ‘The marches are a good start for this gathering of forces, and to re-affirm something, which, fifty years ago, made Brazil admired as “the nation which saved itself!”’ Chagas also spoke at a commemorative mass held in Brasília on the 31st of March, at which he characterized the military period as being defined by ‘progress, growth, social welfare, security, full employment and the Brazilian Miracle.’

And it’s not just the military who have been engaged in this process of historical revisionism. Eduardo Gualazzi, a law professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) – Brazil’s largest and most prestigious public university – attempted to give a speech commemorating the dictatorship during a lecture on the 31st of March, arguing that the coup occurred at a time when ‘leftist totalitarian socialism was seeking to take total control of Brazil.’ In February, meanwhile, Itaú, Brazil’s largest private bank, was forced to apologise after it issued a year planner to its clients with the 31st of March marked as ‘the anniversary of the 1964 revolution’ – ‘revolution’ being the preferred term of members of the military and those sympathetic to the dictatorship. Even the library in the presidential palace in Brasília still refers to the coup as ‘the victory of the revolutionary movement.’

While those who advocate the return of the military to power are a minority, popular attitudes towards democracy are often ambivalent. According to Latinobarómetro, an annual public opinion survey conducted in 18 Latin American countries, the proportion of Brazilians who agreed with the statement ‘Democracy is preferable to any other form of government’ averaged just 44% between 1995 and 2013. In neighbouring Uruguay the figure was 78%, and the only country with a lower rating for the period surveyed was Guatemala (38%). Arguably, this is a reflection of frustration with how democracy works in Brazil, rather than a rejection of democracy as such. Indeed, last June, during what were Brazil’s largest popular protests in a generation, most of those on the streets were there to demand improvements to Brazilian democracy, rather than its cessation or replacement.

However, frustration with the democratic system can sometimes blur into a kind of authoritarianism. For Francisco Carlos Teixeira, a history professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, ‘Part of the population […] is convinced that all politicians are corrupt and that voting is useless.’ Indeed, a recent Datafolha survey suggested that 68% of Brazilians believe that corruption is actually worse now than under the military. This point is debateable: the military was also involved in a string of corruption scandals, but the statistic is telling, reflecting a latent belief that Brazil is not sufficiently prepared for democracy. As Teixeira puts it, ‘Many people complain, and seek, outside the electoral process […] ambitious solutions to purify Brazilian democracy. Deep down, there is a belief that affirms the necessity of guiding the popular vote, since the people can’t be trusted by themselves.’

While the notion that the military could seize power again today is farfetched, the resurgence of debate around the coup has highlighted how much Brazilian democracy is still compromised by the dictatorship. Figures with links to the regime have remained close to power, such as Jorge Bornhausen, Paulo Maluf and the Sarney family, while much of Brazil’s legal and institutional framework is inherited from the dictatorship period. But beyond that, the 50th anniversary of the coup has shown how many of the same beliefs and attitudes behind it persist today. As General Chagas said at the commemorative mass, ‘the ideas that led the families with God to the streets, and the armed forces to put an end to the rioting and disorder, live on in the hearts and minds of the men and women of this land.’ He may have a point.


Tom Gatehouse is a writer currently based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He has written a number of articles for LAB. His blog, StrayTom or Para Inglês Ver, can be read here.

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