What Brazil Can’t Forget About March, Colltalers
There are a few facts both baffling and predictable about Brazil, as it marks today the 50th year anniversary of a military coup that deposed democratically elected president João Goulart and, for over two decades, controlled and terrorized every segment of its society.
One is how little public awareness exist about the dictatorship’s impact on the nation’s psyche, still jolted by irrational fears and an almost bipolar drive to earn the world’s respect, and on its institutions, which went through a forced, across the board and humiliating, overhaul, in order to survive.
Other is how surprisingly ignorant most Brazilian seem to be about the nefarious legacy left by a regime that had no constrains about persecuting its political enemies, destroying in the process the dream of building a free society that the optimism of the late 1950s in Brazil warranted.
That promise was interrupted for 21 years, and some say, remains unfulfilled, despite a number of democratic institutions having been built since the 1980s. One thing about Brazil’s recent economic boom and present turmoil is that it’s exposed the huge vulnerability of such institutions.
Lastly, another startling fact about the military rule in Brazil is the virtual impunity of those accused of having taken part in the widespread torture and murdering of regime opponents. Some of these voices are still present in the national debate and remain adamantly unapologetic.
It’s to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla and the country’s first woman in high office, the merit of facilitating the creation of the Truth Commission, dedicated to investigate the dictatorship’s crimes, and that’s been the sole organ to do so, despite almost 30 years since the last general headed back to the barracks. It remains in the open whether it’ll gather enough evidence leading to persecution of notorious torturers.
Such complacence and nonchalance towards its recent dark past has hurt Brazilians in more ways they seem willing to admit. In fact, indignation against what such past did to Brazil is the single greatest theme absent in the massive street rallies throughout the country’s biggest cities.
Issues of corruption, self-serving politics, widening income gap, police violence, education and health, are all commonly invoked, and rightly so, in large demonstrations that often turn violent. However, the Military’s public image remain unscathed, and, worse, the fallacy of its alleged benign role as neutral normalizer of society struggles, which is not even constitutionally correct, is often invoked as a solution to end the ‘anarchy.’
Thus a whole generation may have not been taught what really
happened in the early 1960s, when the country’s cultural awakening and quick urbanization were being espoused by a drive to become politically relevant to the world (yes, that old dream was already being dreamed).
Many in reality may have been told, otherwise, that fears of a communist threat, expressed by a middle class then frightened by street clamors for agrarian reforms and a more socialistic approach to political change, were more than they really were, mostly manipulation by rightwing forces.
Such segments, unhappy with Goulart’s populism, were supported by the U.S., now it’s been openly acknowledged, but not because Americans were afraid that such reforms would lead to a civil war, as militaries were preaching at the time, or that Brazilians would suffer with them.
The coup, most historians agree, marked Brazil’s insertion into the Cold War, furiously waged at the time for control and dominance of the world south of the equator. Brazil was a mere pawn, albeit a large one, in a risky geopolitics game that lasted almost as long as its own dictatorship.
To be sure, U.S. support was not nearly as strong as what would destabilize Chile’s also democratically elected President Salvador Allende only nine years later. But recently unearthed documents attest to the important role U.S. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon, for instance, played in the coup.
Still, responsibility in great part for the horrors that took place in the dungeons and ‘houses of death, kept by the militaries during their rule, where an estimated 200-plus Brazilians were tortured to death, has to revert back to the Brazilian society that enabled and supported the comfy delusion of being ruled by an uniformed elite that would make all decisions on their name but that remained absolutely unaccountable to any crime.
A final observation about some of those who’ve been studying the rightwing dictatorship in Brazil is how quickly they dismiss the number of ‘desaparecidos’ and victims of the repression, when compared to those who shared the same unfortunate fate in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and so many other nations. Almost as if they’re talking about breaking eggs and omelet, and not of human lives unjustly sacrificed.
There’s been a flurry of horrific revelations about the miserable final hours of some Brazilians, well known and anonymous, who were killed for daring to oppose the armed forces, as well as documents and books detailing episodes that may have changed Brazil forever and not for the better.
There hasn’t been an equivalent amount of admissions of guilty and voluntary testimonies of people who granted themselves a mandate to hunt and kill their fellow citizens, along with those who ordered and commanded them to do so. And that’s a double insult to the memory of their victims.
No one will ever know how many promising political leaders were either killed or intimidated into oblivion by the dictatorship’s goons and death squads, a fact that can easily be traced to the unfortunate number of unprepared representatives elected to Brazil’s legislature in the past decades.
In the weeks leading to this sober milestone, the Brazilian press has been extensively uncovering personal accounts and, at times, sensational revelations about what really happened then. The effort is laudable but limited as the median itself, as context is often sacrificed to benefit impact.
There are too few works of scholarly research about the period, still, and the issue remains elusive in academic dissertations. Which is again, baffling, considering Brazil’s history of military coups, and how they shaped and at times, hindered, any possibility of progressive change.
As Brazilians take the streets to protest the flaws and grievances of a still incipient democracy, it’s always timeless to remind everyone when protesting was simply not an option, and the heavy price many paid for challenging the establishment and demanding a fair and free society.
In the 1960s, while mass movements led to political change in the U.S. and Europe, hippies and civil rights activists left a lasting legacy of rebellion and integrity. But while the Soviet Union crushed the former Czechoslovakia with tanks, as it’d done with Hungary a few years earlier, Brazilians were crushing themselves into submission to a fascist power, helped, yes, by a grateful U.S., but still in a gesture all of their own making.
The military coup in Brazil would ignite a tragic chain reaction that destroyed democracies of so many other Latin American nations and it’d take a whole generation for some, but not all, of those nations to restore any semblance of a democratic state. Some wounds, however, remain open.
What’s missing in the tragic, even if unintended, consequences of the military adventure, supported in Brazil by a radical segment of society that in many ways, regretted their folly, is a level of contrition without which there won’t be much of a hope for redemption and moving forward.
Brazilians should be glad to be electing representatives on a regular basis now, but a great risk to democracy is to take it for granted. The country’s apparent willingness to forget its past, which is mirrored by vote restricting measures against minorities in the U.S., for example, attests to the need for constant awareness about how the power from the people and to the people and all that can be easily snatched away from everyone. Have a great showerless April you all. WC