This month marks 50 years since the beginning of Brazil's military dictatorship. On March 31, 1964, a coup began that resulted in the overthrow of President João Goulart the following day. The military then ruled the country until 1985. Brazil didn't have the same type of experience that countries like Argentina or Chile had, but it did suffer the effects of authoritarianism: over 400 people were killed or disappeared, thousands were tortured, and censorship was the rule of the day.
So now, 50 years later, what has changed? The answer is complicated.
Investigating Dictatorship-Era Crimes
Unlike some of its neighbors, Brazil hasn't had a great reckoning about the dictatorship. There have been efforts to investigate crimes, though no one has been convicted for dictatorship-era abuses.
Efforts have been made to document human rights abuses, and in 2001, a commission was established to provide reparation to victims. Over 12,000 victims received compensation. In 2011, President Dilma Rousseff signed a law to create a truth commission to investigate dictatorship-era abuses, but the commission has yet to produce a final report. (It released preliminary findings in February.) The commission has also begun efforts to investigate Goulart's death, to determine if he was murdered. But the commission lacks prosecutorial power, and a 1979 amnesty law has protected those who inflicted abuses. In fact, no one has been tried or convicted of human rights abuses during the dictatorship, and it was only in December 2013 that the first trial of dictatorship-era security agents began; they stand accused of being responsible for a disappearance in 1971.
The Transition to Democracy and the Revindication of Guerrillas
Perhaps the greatest victory came with democracy. Brazil has held democratic elections for nearly the past three decades, and is considered a stable bastion of democracy. Most notably, the elections of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff brought two people who struggled against the regime to the presidency. These two leaders also promoted other former guerrillas and political activists to the highest echelons of power. This reversal of fortunes isn't only testament to the shift to democracy, but served as a reinvidication of those who fought against the dictatorship.
Support for Democracy vs. Support for Authoritarianism
Fifty years later, Brazilians are split on the concept of democracy. Support for democracy has grown, to be sure. According to the Latinobarómetro poll, in 2003 only 35 percent of Brazilians said democracy was the most preferable type of government. In 2013, that number had risen to 49 percent. At the same time, a minority still believe in dictatorship. In 2003, 19 percent of Brazilians said in certain circumstances, an authoritarian government can be preferable to democracy, and that percentage remained unchanged in 2013. Plus, according to the survey, only 26 percent of Brazilians are satisfied with how democracy works in their country--one of the lowest percentages in Latin America.
This minority of those who believe in authoritarianism came into the spotlight this week. Folha de São Paulo published a video of people explaining why they support military intervention in Brazil, as well as the new March of the Family, inspired by eponymous demonstrations in 1964 calling for the armed forces to intervene and prevent an alleged communist takeover.
The Military's Evolving Role
During the upcoming October presidential elections, there could be an unusual candidate: a member of the military. General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira has the support of nearly 6 million voters, even though it's unclear if he's submitted the necessary paperwork to run. He's right-leaning and anti-PT, which is reflective of the military establishment. Though he's not openly sympathetic to the dictatorship, he's been known to quote the phrase: "Democracy is when I tell you what to do. Dictatorship is when you tell me what to do."
But that doesn't mean that the military's role in the country isn't under scrutiny. Corruption and abuse by military police as well as police violence during the June 2013 protests have helped garner support to demilitarize the country's law enforcement. A proposed constitutional amendment introduced last year seeks to restructure the country's security forces and to demilitarize police, and a public hearing will soon be held about the legislation.
Human Rights in Concept and in Practice
After experiencing over two decades of a regime that trampled human rights, this concept remains complicated in Brazil, which continues to contend with high levels of violence. On one hand, the idea of human rights as an abstract idea is generally accepted. A 2013 youth survey found that 90 percent of young Brazilians think increasing respect for human rights is very important for society. But when it comes to applying this concept in specific circumstances, it's sometimes a different story. For example, a 2010 survey found that nearly 48 percent of Brazilians approve of torture to elicit confessions--and that number actually rose from 29 percent in 1999. The two wildly popular Elite Squad films released in recent years produced a colorful discussion on human rights, as the film's special ops protagonists saw human rights as something for liberal hippies. And when the story broke in February of a young man accused of theft being beaten, stripped, and chained to a pole in Rio, the national debate it sparked revealed that some people actually supported the vigilantes responsible.
- Folha's interactive guide about the 50-year anniversary of the coup
- A historical breakdown of the Marches of the Family with God for Freedom
- Profile of Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira
Image: Photos of the disappeared during the military regime. Photo by Rafael Tsavkko, Flickr.