Brazil: Democracy at Risk

By Frei Betto on February 1, 2023

President João Goulart, at the Automóvel Clube, on March 30, 1964, the eve of his overthrow.

Let’s not fool ourselves again; our fragile democracy is still at risk. I remember the government of João (Jango) Goulart in the early 1960s and his declarations that he would carry out grassroots reforms. The Ligas Campesinas were lifting up the northeasterners. The unions were ardently defending the rights acquired during the Vargas presidency. The National Union of Students was feared for its power to mobilize the youth.

The restlessness of the Brazilian elite was obvious. It began to conspire in the Brazilian Institute of Democratic Action, the Institute of Research and Social Studies and other organizations until the Family Marches with God for Freedom. However, the Brazilian Communist Party reassured those who smelled a whiff of a coup because it was believed that Jango was supported by a nationalist military platform.

But in March 1964 came the military coup and Jango was deposed; the Constitution was destroyed; democratic institutions were silenced; and Castelo Branco assumed power without the coup perpetrators firing a shot. Where were the “masses” committed to the defense of democracy?

I know the military establishment well. I come from a military family on my father’s side. Great-grandfather admiral, grandfather colonel, two uncles generals and father military court judge (fortunately, he retired after the coup).

The military live in a world apart. They leave their homes, but not the barracks. They frequent the same (military) clubs, the same restaurants, the same churches. Many consider themselves superior to civilians, although they produce nothing. Their paradigm is the armed forces of the United States, and their ideology, a fierce anti-communism. That is why they do not respect the limit imposed on them by the Constitution, which assigns them the responsibility of defending the homeland from external enemies. They are more concerned about “internal enemies”, the communists.

Although the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Berlin Wall fell to the ground, China embraced capitalism, but nevertheless everything that sounds like critical thinking is suspected of being communism. Because in the military ranks the most despotic discipline reigns, the critical sense is not admitted and authority embodies the truth.

Brazil made the mistake of not purging the crimes of the military dictatorship and rigorously punishing those guilty of torture, kidnappings, disappearances, assassinations and terrorist attacks, unlike what our neighbors Uruguay, Argentina and Chile did. Go see the film Argentina, 1985, starring Ricardo Darín and directed by Santiago Mitre. That is what we should have done. The result of that serious omission, which was stamped with the name “reciprocal amnesty” is the impunity and immunity that led to the deleterious Bolsonaro government.

I do not agree with the opinion that the Brazilian right wing only “came out of the closet” in recent years. Without going back to the colonial period, with more than three centuries of slavery and the massacres of indigenous people and the Paraguayan population in an unjust war, we need only remember the Vargas dictatorship, the New State, Integralism, TFP (Tradition, Family and Property) and the coup of 1964.

The high-flown silence of the military in the face of the terrorist acts perpetrated by coup perpetrators on January 8 should lead us to reflect. Complicity is not only consummated by action; it is also consummated by omission. But there was no lack of actions, such as the encampments around the barracks under the protection of military commanders and the attitude of the colonel of the presidential guard, who opened the doors of the Planalto to the vandals and even reproached the military police who tried to contain them.

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, says an aphorism I have heard since childhood. We, the defenders of democracy, cannot let our guard down. Bolsonarismo has propagated a necrophiliac culture brimming with hatred that will not give truce to democracy and the Lula government.

Our reaction should not be to respond with the same coin or to take refuge in fear. It is up to us to strengthen democracy, especially the popular and trade union movements and identity patterns, as well as to defend the Constitution and the institutions, to prevent the widows of the dictatorship from trying to resurrect it.

The past has not yet passed. Memory will never bury it. The only one that can do it is Justice.

Source: Cubadebate, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – US