On March 29 this year, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, no stranger to controversy, dropped all pretenses of modern democratic norms when he called for a memorializing of the country’s military coup of 1964, in which the armed forces overthrew the constitutionally-legitimate president João Goulart and seized power for themselves.
For 21 years, a ruthless, right-wing military and a sycophant congress held the country in an iron grip. With the suspension of democracy came torture, secret police, state censorship and the supposed disappearance of hundreds of dissidents.
His desire to memorialize the tragedy may in part stem from his seeing something of himself in the takeover. Like the first president of the dictatorship, Castelo Branco, Bolsonaro is in large part only in office because of the politically-motivated imprisonment of Brazil’s previous – and incredibly popular – president, Lula da Silva.
In both instances, social democratic politicians whose political programs were in favor of the poor and oppressed were replaced, whether by the barrel of the gun or by bureaucracy, with an empowered right-wing motivated by little more than base contempt and greed.
Bolsonaro, for his part, has made his position on the dictatorship quite clear, in 2008 stating that “the only mistake of the dictatorship was torturing and not killing.”
If this is not enough to arouse concern in Americans, then perhaps this addition may help: the blood spilled in that coup is, like so much misery in Latin America, in part the responsibility of the United States. The coup of 1964 was just one of many instances in the 20th century wherein the U.S.’s commitment to fighting a cold war “for democracy” – read: American business dominance – led our nation to prop up a brutal, anti-democratic and fascist governments in Latin America. Brazil shares this history with Chile, Guatemala, Argentina and unfortunately numerous other Latin American nations in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Bolsonaro’s decision to memorialize the coup was not met without criticism, but whether the move is a popular one or not, unfortunately, does little to change the fact that the president of a major country will be celebrating a period of terror that the Brazilian people, for decades now, have tried to put behind them.
By even gesturing towards a sense of nostalgia for this dark part of his country’s history, Bolsonaro is solidifying his place among a class of international leaders today who are – let’s be frank here – fascists, or at the very least capture the support of such ilk. Call it Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Duterte, Orban, Erdogan or Trump if you like, the stench remains the same.
What is to be done when our governments memorialize brutality in the name of patriotism? The concepts are not unacquainted with our own country – the increasingly out of fashion Columbus Day immediately comes to mind. In that case, rather than continue to give the genociders who “discovered” the Americas further glory, today we recognize that particular world-historic event with more nuance – memorializing and giving credit to the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere who suffered, died and survived to keep their history alive in the face of ethnic and cultural extermination.
It’s no use to say “Columbus never should have come here,” he did and we live with the consequences of that. But a refusal to dwell on the tragedy of the past does not mean we need to accept the genociders’ terms in perpetuum.
A similar path will have to be taken here as well. Bolsonaro may declare today, tomorrow or the whole calendar year in memoriam of 1964 if he so likes. There is nothing in that arrangement which compels the Brazilian people, or their allies worldwide, to think even a positive thought towards the dictatorship of the past, or of his brand of “democracy” today.
The past is not something which we may sweep aside easily, to ignore the brutality of the past would be just as ahistoric and desecrating to the memory of all those who perished as it would be to take Bolsonaro’s position on the matter.
The nationalists and the bigots around the world are having a moment right now, but for Bolsonaro – who at this time holds an approval rating of about 30 percent – things aren’t looking so rosy. From here, it’s the job of the Brazilian people and their allies internationally to oppose this clown.
In closing, free Lula, get rid of Bolsonaro.