Brazil’s President Tells Armed Forces to Commemorate Military Coup
BRASÍLIA — President Jair Bolsonaro this week called on the armed forces to “commemorate” the 55th anniversary of a coup that installed a brutal military dictatorship in Brazil, sparking fierce debate over the legacy of that repressive era.
Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who ran on a far-right platform, has long been an apologist of Brazil’s military rulers, and has called the coup that ousted a leftist president on March 31, 1964, a triumphant strike against Communism.
Until recently, his was a fringe voice. The military regime that followed the coup used censorship and a repressive security apparatus to maintain control for 21 years, torturing and killing hundreds of suspected dissidents. Three of Brazil’s presidents since the country returned to democracy in the mid-1980s had opposed the military, and were themselves either exiled, jailed or tortured for it.
But the presidency has given Mr. Bolsonaro a powerful platform to thrust a revisionist version of that era into the mainstream.
Some in his government said the president’s stance was a refreshing break with a dogmatic view of the past. “I see this as a healthy debate,” said Ernesto Araújo, Mr. Bolsonaro’s foreign minister, in an interview on Friday. “It’s healthy for a society to debate its past and its future in a frank way.”
But for many other Brazilians, this reopened a painful and unresolved chapter in the country’s history. Politicians, human rights activists and historians issued blistering criticism. The attorney general’s office released a rare, and scathing, rebuke in writing.
“The coup of 1964, without any possibility of doubt or revisionism of history, was a violent and antidemocratic rupture of the constitutional order,” the attorney general’s statement said.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s announcement and its timing has strained his already-tense relationship with Congress, and several lawmakers spoke out against it this week.
Others legislators were dumbfounded that a president whose poll numbers have plummeted in his first three months — and who has yet to deliver on key promises like cracking down on crime and jump-starting the economy — would spend his political capital on this instead of on pushing forward bills to overhaul the penal code and the pension system.
Brazil has done far less than neighboring countries, including Argentina and Chile, to investigate the abuses committed by the military during its time in power.
Although a National Truth Commission reported that an estimated eight thousand indigenous people and at least 434 political dissidents were killed during the period of military rule, no one was held accountable. An amnesty law passed in 1979, while the country was still ruled by the military, has shielded abusers from judicial accountability to this day. Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld the law in April 2010.
The view that the coup was necessary is shared by many members of the armed forces, who over the years have celebrated its anniversary with muted ceremonies.
Four years ago, when Mr. Bolsonaro was a lawmaker better known for his offensive speech than for his ability to pass bills, he marked the 50th anniversary of the coup by installing a large yellow banner in front of the defense ministry that said, “Thanks to you Brazil is not Cuba.” He also shot firecrackers and said Brazilians owe “our freedom and democracy” to the military.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, one of the president’s sons who is a federal lawmaker, said in an interview this week that the left has long tried to “rewrite history depicting terrorists as victims or people who fought for democracy.”
That view has gained new traction in the Bolsonaro era. Mr. Araújo, Mr. Bolsonaro’s foreign minister, said in Congress this week that he did not regard the 1964 military intervention as a “necessary movement to prevent Brazil from turning into a dictatorship.”
Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, a retired general who serves in Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet as the government’s top security official, said the president feels strongly that the “historic record must be corrected” to debunk what he characterized as “the untruthful version of the left.”
Sergio Moro, Mr. Bolsonaro’s justice minister, in 2017 called the “military dictatorship” a “big mistake.” This week, however, the former federal judge declined to say whether the terms “coup” and “dictatorship” were historically accurate.
While military leaders governed in an “authoritarian” way, he said, “what really matters is that we recovered our democracy.”
Senior military leaders appeared eager to downplay the controversy, and the defense ministry did not say how military units across the country would mark the date.
With little to no accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses in Brazil, some victims sought justice abroad.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in November 2010 on the detention, torture and disappearance of 70 people linked to the rural Araguaia guerrilla movement between 1972 and 1975 and rebuked Brazil for failing to prosecute gross human rights violations.
Roughly a year ago, the court, which is part of the Organization of American States, faulted Brazil for its failure to prosecute the intelligence agents who tortured and killed the journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1975, then staged a hanging and declared that Mr. Herzog committed suicide.
Mr. Herzog’s relatives were able to correct the official record in Brazil — a rare victory after years of fighting in the courts. In 2013, a judge ordered that the family be issued an official death certificate reflecting that Mr. Herzog died from abuse endured while he was interrogated.
In both rulings, the Inter-American Court recognized the crimes committed by the Brazilian dictatorship as crimes against humanity.
Eduardo Reina, a Brazilian journalist, spent years investigating allegations that officials in Brazil kidnapped babies from suspected dissidents during the dictatorship. He presents 19 such cases in “Endless Imprisonment,” a book that will be published next week.
Brazil has a tradition of not confronting the past — particularly its grimmer aspects, said Mr. Reina.
“There is this culture, this collective conscience that it wasn’t a harsh dictatorship, it was a soft dictatorship, that children weren’t kidnapped, only criminals were captured and tortured,” Mr. Reina said. “That’s just not true.”
The recent debate has been upsetting for victims of the dictatorship.
Ivan Valente, a leftist federal lawmaker who was detained and tortured by the military government in 1968, called Mr. Bolsonaro’s decision “a big setback for Brazil.”
Revising history would be harder if Brazil had followed the example of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, who put the worst abusers of the era on trial.
“Generals there landed in prison, torturers were detained and sentenced,” Mr. Valente said in an interview. “Here in Brazil, torturers were promoted.”
Iracema de Carvalho Araújo was 11 years old when police in the northeastern city of Recife detained her, along with her mother, a political activist. They were tortured in the same room, she said; she suffered electric shocks while her mother screamed nearby.
Later, a commanding officer realized she was just a girl and ordered police to drive her to the city center and leave her there. Her mother was killed.
“I demand respect for everything we’ve been through,” she said in response to Mr. Bolsonaro’s decision to celebrate the start of military rule. “We’ve achieved so much since then, we can’t go back to those days.”