The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The grim history that Brazil’s president wants to celebrate

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One of the many things President Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have in common is a supposed devotion to their countries’ militaries. For Trump — who, unlike many leading politicians of his generation, never served in U.S. wars overseas — his proclaimed love for the troops is all part of the showy jingoism that defines his nationalist politics. He’s more keen on triumphal parades at home than long wars abroad.

But for Bolsonaro, a former army captain, it’s a bit more serious. This week, it emerged that the Brazilian president had ordered the country’s Defense Ministry to “carry out appropriate commemorations related to March 31, 1964.” That’s no ordinary directive. Bolsonaro, who throughout his political career has spoken nostalgically of the era of Brazil’s military dictatorship, wants to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the coup that brought it into power.

Coming only a few months into his term, the order may mark Bolsonaro’s most nakedly ideological move yet. And it arrives a week after he was feted in the White House, where Trump hailed the “many views” he shared with his Brazilian counterpart, a fellow hard-line nationalist. Trump stressed that, because of his personal bond with Bolsonaro, ties between their two countries “have never been closer than they are right now.” Bolsonaro, in turn, neatly articulated the sweep of right-wing beliefs linking the two administrations.

“Brazil and the United States are tied by the guarantee of liberty, respect for the traditional family, the fear of God our creator, against gender identity, political correctness and fake news,” he said.

As readers of Today’s WorldView are well aware, Trump and Bolsonaro see themselves as figures of disruption. They want to smash the norms of a stale establishment and bash their perceived enemies in the mainstream media, while also pandering to a base built on the critical support of evangelical Christian voters.

But Bolsonaro’s decision to glorify the military dictatorship underscores what many critics fear about him and Trump: that their divisive politics will weaken their nations’ democracies.

For Bolsonaro, two decades of military rule was not a black mark on Brazil’s history — as is the widely held view — but a necessary intervention that spared the country from leftist domination. A spokesman for the president told reporters that Bolsonaro “believes that society as a whole, perceiving the danger that the country was experiencing,” was able in 1964 to unite “civilians and military, to recover and return ... our country onto its course.” He said that what happened five and a half decades ago was not a “coup.”

The historical record tells a different story. Under the pretext of averting a “communist revolution,” a military putsch ousted President João Goulart, a left-leaning politician who wanted to implement significant economic reforms, including land redistribution to benefit the poor and greater controls on foreign companies. Tanks rolled through the streets of major cities, cheered on by segments of the middle class and conservative groups, including movements linked to the Catholic Church.

By mid-April 1964, Goulart and some of his allies had fled to exile in Uruguay, and the coup plotters had installed a military regime. A few years later, its authoritarian cast would harden, with the National Congress dissolved and strict censorship imposed. Throughout the 1970s, the regime arrested and disappeared thousands of people suspected of being guerrillas and carried out numerous massacres and other extrajudicial killings.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the United States enabled all this. During the 1960s, the administrations of President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, fixating on vanquishing the supposed specter of communism across the world, pushed an anti-Goulart agenda. Oval Office recordings from 1962 reveal that Lincoln Gordon, Kennedy’s ambassador to Brazil, advised the president to upgrade contacts with the Brazilian military, since the United States “may very well want them to take over at the end of the year.” On the day of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Gordon had prepared contingency plans for the White House, plans that reportedly included a “heavy emphasis on armed intervention.”

The Johnson administration presided over Goulart’s demise. Notes from a top-level meeting just days before the coup showed that the White House was expecting the military to take action. We do not fully know what role the CIA or other U.S. agencies played in destabilizing the situation in Brazil in the years before the coup, but the advent of the military regime in Brasilia prefigured a succession of military takeovers in Latin America, all largely backed by Washington.

Though the scale of violence and repression in Brazil was not as bad as what transpired in nearby Argentina and Chile, it is believed that some 300 to 400 dissidents were killed in the 21 years of military rule, while thousands were tortured — including former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, then a young leftist radical.

“In Brazil’s most notorious torture chambers, political prisoners suffered terrible abuses: they were shocked in an all-metal electric chair (‘the dragon’s chair’) and hogtied and suspended from a horizontal metal bar (‘the parrot’s perch’),” historian Kenneth Serbin wrote in Foreign Affairs. “A dangerous sense of impunity prevailed in a military that so freely used torture and considered it a necessary evil to defeat the armed resistance.”

Brazil transitioned toward democracy in 1985. The military’s seizing of power has never been celebrated by the governments that followed. An amnesty law passed in 1979 allowed some political opponents to return home from exile but also shielded many of those responsible for the regime’s crimes. Only a handful of prosecutions have taken place.

The lack of full accountability has helped Bolsonaro grandstand over a bloody past. He has quipped that his only regret about the years of military rule was that more leftists weren’t killed. Last month, on a trip to Paraguay, Bolsonaro cheered the long-ruling and brutal dictator Alfredo Stroessner — who died in exile in 2006, shunned by his homeland — as a “man of vision.”

During the election campaign, Bolsonaro seemed to channel nostalgia for ruthless military rule into his vowed war on crime in the country’s favelas. His electoral victory, Serbin argued, was “the latest symptom” of a broader global “politics of forgetting.”

But many have not forgotten. Opposition parties said they would organize pro-democracy marches for March 31. On social media, a Portuguese hashtag trended globally: #DitaduraNuncaMais — “dictatorship never again.”

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