March 15, 2018 at 5:00 AM
SAO PAULO, Brazil — The military dictatorship that ruled Brazil four decades ago maintained law and order through systematic brutality. Nearly 500 people were killed or simply disappeared. But at a political rally outside Sao Paulo last week, the air was thick with nostalgia for that era of terror.
Several hundred people in army camouflage and police T-shirts shouted their admiration for the soldiers who carried out the kidnappings and murders authorized by the regime.
“Thanks to you, Brazil did not become Cuba!” they chanted, some snapping salutes. “Brazil first, God above all.”
The dictatorship-era generals were also accused of deploying electric shocks, beatings and psychological torture in their two-decade-long effort to cement power and ward off communism. But as a crime wave rocks some of the country’s largest cities and a corruption scandal engulfs its political elite, some Brazilians see them as the last champions of public order.
“During the dictatorship, there was safety. That doesn’t exist today,” said Marcelo Freitas, a 42-year-old former army officer at the rally who said he was shot in the eye 10 years ago during a mugging. “If we want to clean up the country, we need the military.”
On average, seven people are violently killed every hour in Brazil, according to government figures. In 2016, the country registered a record rate of 29.9 homicides for every 100,000 people, nearly six times that of the United States.
Freitas, who wore a leather patch over his blinded eye and a camouflage T-shirt, said he dreams of safer streets for his 5-year-old son and would support a return to a military regime.
He is not alone. Nostalgia for the dictatorship is growing. An estimated 43 percent of the population supports a temporary revival of military control, according to a 2017 poll, up from 35 percent in 2016. The figure is especially high among young people, many of whom say they are disillusioned with democracy and with Brazil’s scandal-tainted politicians.
Brazil isn’t the only country where democracy is losing its glow. In the United States, just 30 percent of people born in the 1980s say they believe it is “essential” to live in a democracy, as opposed to 72 percent of people born before World War II, according to a study published in the Journal of Democracy in 2016.
Fear of violence, whether it be terrorism or street crime, has fueled support for authoritarian parties and bolstered populist leaders with tough-on-crime, anti-immigrant platforms around the world, from President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in Austria.
But the flirtation with authoritarianism may be especially ominous in Brazil, where wobbly democratic institutions are still recovering from the dictatorship that held the country in its grip from 1964 to 1985.
Last month, President Michel Temer ordered the military to take over security in Rio de Janeiro after a spike in crime soured Carnival celebrations. The move was widely denounced as a dangerous precedent — although it was also seen as a smart response to the growing base of voters calling for law and order.
“This sentiment is in the air and is being exploited. The intervention in Rio is an attempt by the president to explore that feeling — the nostalgia, the feeling that the military is an anti-political, tough, external body,” said Pablo Ortellado, a public policy professor at the University of Sao Paulo. “Depending on how the intervention goes, if it succeeds in even appearing to reduce crime, it could generate a dangerous wave of militarism.”
For many of Brazil’s millennials, disillusionment with democracy has resulted in a rejection of the leftist groups that governed Latin America for the past two decades, according to Renato Sérgio de Lima, president of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security.
“The left is the only reference that [millennials] have for political power, because it has ruled for most of their politically conscious life. That government is being destroyed by corruption, so what is the alternative?” Lima said.
Four years into a corruption investigation that has traced a local carwash kickback scheme up to the highest echelons of government, Brazilian democracy is facing its worst legitimacy crisis since the dictatorship. The scandal has tarnished more than 100 of the country’s top politicians, including the current president and two former ones, and left few viable candidates for the presidential elections in six months.
Jair Bolsonaro, an outspoken senator from a fringe party, has emerged as one of the only aspiring contenders with both charisma and a clean record. A former soldier, he became famous for challenging his rivals and the media to find proof that he has been involved in corruption.
Bolsonaro has paired his unblemished record with a tough-on-crime platform and public statements of admiration for the dictatorship era. He is not calling for a return to military dictatorship, but he has done so in the past and talks up its law-and-order values. In 2016, he eulogized the late Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a convicted torturer, as he cast his vote to impeach then-President Dilma Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured during the dictatorship.
According to the latest polls, he has the backing of 18 percent of prospective voters, trailing only former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is at 37 percent but may be barred from running because of a corruption conviction.
Bolsonaro has since made headlines for other brash statements, including calling a fellow senator not worthy of being raped and saying he could not love a gay son.
The similarities to the style of the U.S. president are not lost on Bolsonaro, a self-proclaimed Trump supporter, or his fans.
“They fought a crooked media in the United States and got Trump elected. We can do the same here!” Douglas Garcia, a 24 year-old international relations student, yelled into a megaphone at the rally. The crowd cheered.
In February, Garcia planned a Carnival parade in honor of Sergio Fleury, a police officer accused of torturing and murdering prisoners during the dictatorship era. More than 1,600 people responded with interest on Facebook before a local judge shut the event down.
For Garcia, the parade did not represent a call for a new military dictatorship but a celebration of standards of behavior that have been lost. “I recognize that under the military regime there was less impunity, more security,” he said.
Some supporters of Bolsonaro cite that same distinction, saying they see in him an opportunity to elect a military-style leader without an actual military intervention.
“These kids hear their parents talking about the dictatorship and claim to support it, but they don’t know what they are saying,” said Maria Aparecida Carvalho, 67, who remembers the era well. “We’ve already been through that. I don’t miss it.”
The retired mechanical engineer woke up at 5 a.m. to go and see Bolsonaro at last week’s rally.
“He supports Brazil’s traditional values,” she said. “The Judeo-Christian values of our people.”