A coup d’état 50 years on: the legacy of a military dictatorship

By Einar Braathen *

This this year (2014) marks the 50th anniversary of the military coup d’état in Brazil. Different segments of the population experience this anniversary in different ways.

On March 16th, Cláudia Ferreira left her house to buy bread for her eight children, four adopted and four of her own. She never returned. She became the victim of stray bullets from the Polícia Militar, who was in a shootout with some local drug traffickers in the favela where Cláudia lived. These kinds kind of occurrences are not uncommon in Rio de Janeiro and normally do not make newspaper headlines. However, Cláudias tragedy still was not over. The police officers threw her in the trunk of their car to drive her to the hospital. Her body proceeded to fall out of the trunk and was dragged behind the vehicle. In spite of being notified by pedestrians, the police did not stop the vehicle before they had driven several hundred meters down the highway. Their defense: “She was already dead”. The horror scene was filmed and posted online, causing public outrage. While three of the officers were arrested immediately, they were released by a military court two days later. While three of the officers were arrested immediately, they were released by a military court two days later.

March 16th was also the date when Vera Paiva, the daughter of a famous politician who disappeared 43 years ago, finally was informed of what had happened to her father. An officer who had worked in the army´s coordinating center for political persecution and torture told the newspaper O Globo that Rubens Paiva had been tortured to death. His body had been disposed in the ocean to cover up the tracks.

Both of these incidences demonstrate how Brazil is still not done with the military dictatorship that started on April 1, 1964.

According to the 1988 Constitution, military institutions still have the responsibility to maintain social and political order. In “normal” democracies it is the police, separated from the military and subsumed to civil laws and an elected government, which has this responsibility. In Brazil, the armed forces can be deployed to restore domestic order once a state governor requests it and the federal president approves it. In addition, the Polícia Militar has been responsible for the day-to-day public order all over the country since 1969.

Up until recently the military has put a lid on the military period. Military leaders have never offered their apologies to the nation for violations of the constitution and of civil rights committed during the dichtatorship. Archives from the period have never been released, and the torturers and murderers are protected by the Amnesty Law dating back to 1979. Since 1985, Brazil has been led by elected politicians who have not dared to alter this amnesty law or to start a juridical process against the military. The contrast to Argentina – who created a commission to investigate the tens of thousands of disappearances of the dictatorship shortly after the return to democracy – is stark.

The Brazilian state has tried to mend the wounds by offering, since 2001, reparations and compensations to torture victims and relatives of people who were killed or disappeared under the dictatorship. There have been 40 300 applications, and 3.5 billion BRL has been paid out (O Globo, 31/03/2014). In addition, a “social movement for truth” has started. Children and grandchildren of the victims of the military dictatorship are active in demonstrations with great support from civil society. In Rio de Janeiro, a local branch of the “occupy” movement has started a campaign to make the old center for political surveillance and torture (‘DOPS’) currently unoccupied, a memorial center. Many states and cities have started local truth commissions, and a National Truth Commission was finally established in 2012.

With the help of newly released documents in the United States, the Brazilians have been able to reconstruct how the coup in 1964 was planned. (E.g. see the documentary movie: O dia que durou 21 anos, 2012, directed by Camilo Galli Tavares). The American presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were desperate to stop the spread of “Cuban” revolutions on the continent. They did not trust president João Goulart and the Brazilian democracy, especially after the left-leaning Goulart expressed support for agrarian reform and other “communist” actions. The generals in Brazil were given the thumbs up to start their alternative “revolution”.

It had two pillars: forced reduction of salaries and foreign loans and investments. The result was high economic growth for a few years. The growth was however not sustainable, and the consequences were dramatic. The Amazon region experienced a massive “colonization”, deforestation, and extermination of indigenous populations. Brazil was on top of the world ranking of inequality. In 1980, the generals had driven the country into bankruptcy – Brazil was unable to handle its foreign debt. The hyperinflation plagued the country until the mid-1990s, and the debt to IMF was not paid off before 2008. While the minimum wages have increased drastically since 2003, with the decrees of the presidents Lula and Dilma, it has still not reached the 1964-level.

The favelas are a pressing image of the urban inequality in Rio de Janeiro
One particularly ugly legacy of the military dictatorship is the institutionalization of torture in Brazilian interrogation centers and prisons. It is illegal and the state offers special ombudsmen to help denounce cases of torture. From 2011 to 2013 there were denounces against 1162 state agents, and in 2013 alone 361 denounces were registered (O Globo, 01/04/2014). However, evidence is hard to find, and the Polícia Militar is under jurisdiction of military attorneys and judges. Only if civilians are killed and the military attorneys agree on prosecution, military police are brought to civil justice.

Hence, there are several points of departure for human rights organizations to demand a thorough demilitarization of the police and of the society.

There is no public support to reintroduce military rule in Brazil. The problem is that the political-economic elites do not want to do away with important reminiscences of the dictatorship. Instead, they are maintaining the idea of the “enemy within”- no longer represented by “communists”, but by “drug traffickers”. In addition, the politicians are concerned about popular uprisings, which have increased explosively in the favelas over the last year. As a consequence, the politicians are allying themselves with the generals. During the week of the 50th anniversary of the coup d´état, military troops together with the military police once again occupied a large favela area in Rio de Janeiro. The troops will not be withdrawn from the Maré complex before 31st of July, after the FIFA World Cup is finished. In practice, a military state of emergency has been introduced in parts of one of Latin America’s most important cities.

* Based on Einar Braathen’s article in the Norwegian daily newspaper Klassekampen, on 28 March 2014. Translated from Norwegian by Celina Sørbøe.

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