The Troubling Relationships Between Bolsonaro and Dictatorships

When he was a congressman, the walls of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s office were decorated with photos of Brazilian dictators. Bolsonaro has repeatedly defended the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to1985. He even paid homage to the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. In an interview in 2015, Bolsonaro said that Pinochet “had to act violently to recover the country” and, on several occasions, stated that the dictator “did what had to be done” and that he “should have killed more people”.

It was no surprise that thousands of Chileans took to the streets to protest his visit to the country last March. Chilean politicians refused to meet him, and even President Sebastián Piñera consideredhis statements in support of the dictator “unfortunate”. Recently, Bolsonaro also expressed admiration for the dictator (also rapist and paedophile) General Stroessner of Paraguay.

Historian Murilo Cleto keeps a mental registry of Bolsonaro’s views of the past. “When Brazil erected a statue in honour of Rubens Paiva, a state representative kidnapped by the military in 1971 whose body has not yet been found, Bolsonaro went to the event to spit on it. In reference to the relatives of the guerrilla fighters killed and disappeared in the Araguaia, Bolsonaro said ‘those who look for bone are dogs’. To Matheus Leitão, son of journalist Miriam Leitão, who was placed pregnant, naked and alone with a snake in a dark room of an army battalion, Bolsonaro said he felt sorry for the snake,” Murillo Cleto recalled.

A former Army Capitan, Bolsonaro is also a confessed admirer of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the heads of torture centres during the military dictatorship. In a speech during a visit to Israel last month, Bolsonaro once again praised the torturer while also stating that Nazism would be a left-wing ideology.

Professor of Latin American literature at Tulane University and prolific political commentator, Idelber Avelar, noted “the Hispanic-American countries that had military dictatorships, all of them, carried out a work of memory and legal accountability of dictators and torturers that Brazil did not do. In this context, statements such as Bolsonaro’s are scandalous, because in Argentina and Chile they are out of the realm of what can be said.”

Avelar added that “it would never occur to Mauricio Macri or Sebastián Piñera to praise the military regimes of their respective countries. Southern Cone societies have built something very close to a consensus that torture and the murder of political opponents are unacceptable. This comes from the long and laborious process of judicial accountability of torturers and dictators, a process that Brazil has not carried out, and that leaves us with an unresolved pending past that returns to the present in the form of ghosts, idealizations and projections”.

Mauricio Santoro, professor of International Relations at the State University of Rio DE Janeiro, however, recalls that “Paraguay has a different scenario, closer to the Brazilian one. The father of the current president was an important ally and advisor to former dictator Alfredo Stroessner.”

Historic revisionism

Brazil “celebrated” the 55th anniversary of the 1964 military coup on April 1st (or March 31st by the calendar adopted by the regime’s admirers, since April 1st is Brazil’s “Fool’s Day”). Since the end of the dictatorship, the Army has celebrated the occasion and there are numerous private celebrations, such as in the one at the Military Club. In 2011 then-president Dilma Rousseff, who was part of the guerrilla movement against the regime during the so-called Lead Years and herself a victim of torture at the hands of military officers, ordered that the military avoid celebrating the date.

In his first months in office, Bolsonaro rescinded the previous order and recommended that the armed forces hold a celebration of the military coup in the barracks this year. The generals who are part of his government called for caution, considering the country’s political climate. Later, Bolsonaro walked back his public statement and said that he had not ordered a celebration, but a “remembrance“.

For Bolsonaro and many of those who still defend the military regime, the 1964 coup d’état was really a revolution aimed at averting the danger of communism in the country. Supporters of such historical revisionism posit that then President João Goulart was behind a plan to transform Brazil into a communist regime and the military had to take power to avoid this scenario. They also claim that the armed forces initially had the goal of quickly returning power to the civilians. But they ruled for long 24 years long years, during which more than 434 men and women were assassinated or disappeared by the dictatorships, according to the National Truth Commission, and 8,350 indigenous people killed in massacres.

Maurice Politi was arrested and then exiled during the dictatorship for his participation in the resistance to the dictatorship. He stated, “For those of us who have followed his political career for the past 25 years or more, Bolsonaro’s statements come as no surprise. He has often opted for historical revisionism regarding the Brazilian dictatorship and it should be obvious that he would do the same in his visits to the neighbouring countries (Chile and Paraguay) that also went through bloody and lasting dictatorial periods.”

On April 22 Bolsonaro promulgated Decree 9.759 that eliminates several councils, consultative commissions and working groups linked to key investigative and transnational justice efforts related to the military dictatorships. The decree practically shut down the Working Group of Perus, responsible for the identification of bodies of persons disappeared for political motives in the mass grave of the cemetery of Perus, in western São Paulo.

The group, created in 2014, is institutionally part of the Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights and technically cannot be terminated by presidential decree. However, it is now prevented from carrying out any work for lack of personnel.

The suspension of the coup’s celebration ordered by Rousseff in 2011 was accompanied by the creation of the National Truth Commission, a working group that brought together various experts on enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions. The formation of the commission was a direct result of intense pressure from the Organization of American States (OAS), which convicted the Brazilian state in 2010 for the disappearance of guerrilla fighters in the Araguaia region, in the central-west portion of the country, and the Brazilian Federal Court, which demanded that the remains of guerrillas be given to their families.

The OAS also demanded that Brazil try and sentence the abuses committed at that time – something that the Amnesty Law, approved by the dictatorial regime in 1979 to ensure the impunity of perpetrators of crimes against humanity, expressly vetoes. In 2011, the Supreme Federal Court confirmed that the Amnesty Law prevents cases against torturers of that period. The Brazilian justice system has never condemned anyone for abuses committed during the dictatorship.

The National Truth Commission had two years to investigate human rights violations that occurred in the period between 1946 and 1988, which includes the military dictatorship (1964-1985). In March, Damares Alves, Minister of Human Rights, named lawyer João Henrique Nascimento de Freitas as head of the Truth Commission. The Commission was created by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, himself a political exile, in August 2001 with the aim of financially compensating families and preserving the memory of the victims of the regime. Freitas is one of the authors of the ruling that suspended the payment of compensation to 44 peasants who were victims of torture during the Araguaia guerrilla war and also promoted action to prevent reparations to the family of former guerrilla Carlos Lamarca. Military personnel have also been appointed to posts in the Commission.

Orlando Calheiros, Doctor of Anthropology and former adviser to the National Truth Commission, said that rigging the Commission with the appointment of the military officers “has immediate consequences, since the work of the Commission is, or at least was, fundamental to the establishment so-called ‘memory, truth and justice’ in this country.”

Denial of the Past

Calheiros believes that Bolsonaro is seeking the “consolidation of an ‘operation clean-up’, where the consequences of the military dictatorship are hidden. In the past the bodies were hidden, now everything is hidden. The suffering of the victims, which has always been something that could not be denied, is now being reconfigured as a kind of collective hysteria or lie promulgated by the leftists”.

Santoro agrees, adding that “Bolsonaro’s constant defence of Latin American dictators is not accidental– it is an essential part of his worldview, which disqualifies the left as intrinsically perverse and illegitimate and advocates a doctrine that the ends of excluding them from power justify the means. The denial of past and present atrocities is often the initial stage to justify them. Such declarations are not only contrary to the rhetoric of Brazilian politics since re-democratization, but also violate the 1988 Constitution itself, which establishes respect for human rights as one of its pillars, including in Brazil’s foreign relations.”

This year, following the controversy, the armed forces held a ceremony in the presidential palace to commemorate the date of the coup. There were protests in dozens of cities across the country and in São Paulo, coup supporters clashed  with protestors against the celebration and human rights defenders leading to violence.

“Many are the agents who, after the re-democratization, followed a political career, including settling scores with the past. The majority, as the upper echelons of the army have done now, resort to the Amnesty law to move on. But none of them are so petty. Bolsonaro is arguably the worst thing left of the dictatorship,” Cleto affirmed.

Bolsonaro’s close relationship with the memory of past dictators calls into question his commitment to democracy today. Elected on an authoritarian platform, with the support of groups that openly call for the end of the democratic rule of law – such as neo-Nazis, monarchists and groups of military and civilian defenders of the return of the military dictatorship who recently marched to support Bolsonaro while demanding the end of the National Congress – Bolsonaro has shown himself to be poorly able to deal with the congress, resorting to the force of the streets to advance his agenda.

On May 26, thousands of people took to the streets in various cities around the country with many carrying banners calling to close down congress and the Supreme Federal Court (STF). Bolsonaro publicly and actively supported the demonstrations, but in response to pressure from members of his own party, he criticized those who advocated the closure of the congress. The demonstrations produced cracks in his base of supporters – some groups, such as the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), refused to participate because of their authoritarian tone

Brazil has been a democratic society for a mere 34 years. Bolsonaro’s efforts to keep alive the memory of the dictatorship, while he governs with the support of those who preach the return of an anti-democratic period is (or should be) more than a cause for concern.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia writes for America’s Program, where this essay first appeared.