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On April 1, Brazil quietly celebrated the 60th anniversary of the beginning of one of its darkest chapters: the military coup against president João Goulart’s government, which resulted in a military dictatorship that lasted until 1985. 

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva curiously asked, presumably in a spirit of letting bygones be bygones, that Brazilians not make a big deal of this dubious milestone. I cannot agree with him. The horrors committed during the military regime must be talked about, so that they can be avoided in future and so that Brazil can heal. 

Ostensibly, the coup was to fight communism, the eternal right-wing bogeyman in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. During the ensuing years hundreds of Brazilian students, teachers, academics and artists, all supposed communists or opponents of the dictatorship, were tortured and killed. The coup and military regime were widely supported by the US and middle and upper Brazilian classes and institutions such as the Catholic Church and anti-communist forces.   

In 1968 the military regime doubled down on resistance and issued Institutional Act 5 (known as AI5), which resulted in extensive censorship, dissolution of Congress, restrictions on freedom of the press, and human rights abuses. These included arbitrary detention without trial or bail, torture — including by inserting cockroaches in bodily orifices and electric shocks — disappearances and murders.   

During the 1970s the military government embarked on an programme it dubbed the “economic miracle” to transform the Brazilian economy into a powerhouse. And it largely succeeded in creating a far more industrialised economy (at the expense of human rights — a price worth paying, apparently) but it also resulted in many years of hyperinflation and economic misery during the ’80s and early ’90s.

To achieve this “economic miracle” the dictatorship started its large-scale assault on the Amazon rainforest and the original Brazilian people living there, describing it as “the green hell” that had to be tamed. A large portion of responsibility for climate change denialism and the continuing refusal to accept the environmental impact of deforestation in Brazil can be laid at the feet of the dictatorship. Brazil’s original people continue to see their lands decimated and in extreme cases their people being killed with scant attention from the police. 


After a decade of horrors and relentless opposition, AI5 was finally revoked in 1979 and the dictatorship signed a general amnesty law providing amnesty for everyone who committed gross human rights violations. The consequence of this law was that Brazil failed to hold to account those accused of abuses, something that could have provided catharsis for the pain and grief many Brazilians suffered.   

It is useful here to compare the restoration of democracy in Brazil and SA. We had our Truth & Reconciliation Commission almost immediately after the 1994 elections, which, despite its many shortcomings, gave a voice to those who suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the apartheid regime and allowed people to at least face the perpetrators. That provided closure to many people, and I believe is one of the reasons SA could move on.

Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro. Picture; AMANDA PEROBELLI
Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro. Picture; AMANDA PEROBELLI

Brazil didn’t do that, in my view a mistake and one of the reasons Jair Bolsonaro, with his outspoken sympathies and admiration for the dictatorship, could be elected as president in 2018. This failure to hold the perpetrators to account was criticised by Amnesty International and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, though the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court sanctioned the amnesty law in a widely criticised decision in 2010. 

In 2014 then Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, herself a victim of torture by the military regime, instituted a Truth Commission that investigated human rights abuses during the dictatorship. But it was shunned by many prominent members of the Brazilian military, including some of the 377 people implicated in crimes committed during the dictatorship. It was decades too late, but still better than nothing. Dilma was later impeached on trumped up charges of “fiscal pedalling” (eventually set aside by the Brazilian Supreme Court). For many Brazilians this was just another coup, albeit without the tanks. 

Controversial president

Bolsonaro was a highly controversial president. Aside from his Covid and vaccine denialism, which contributed to more than 700,000 deaths during the Covid pandemic, he actively praised the military dictatorship and even criticised it for not having killed more people (and yet he still enjoys widespread support among Christians). He gave several key ministries and positions to army generals, giving the military a position of power that it hadn’t enjoyed since the end of the military dictatorship. One of his sons, Eduardo Bolsonaro, called publicly in 2019 for a new AI5 as a response to what he called “the radicalisation of the left”.   

Bolsonaro senior refused to accept his electoral defeat in 2022.  He was subsequently accused of trying to instigate a new coup and stripped of his political rights until 2030. The Brazilian Supreme Court is now investigating his attempts to remain in power and has discovered vast evidence of how he intended to proclaim a state of emergency to cling to power. He had the support of some generals, but to the credit of the Brazilian military many generals refused to collaborate, and democracy was graciously allowed to proceed. 

Still, on January 8 2023 thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed the Brazilian Supreme Court, parliament and Presidential House, causing millions of dollars’ damage. Many of them were subsequently imprisoned for long periods, showing that the Brazilian justice system seems to be dealing better with this attack on democracy than the US justice system after the attack on the US Congress on January 6 2021. 

Last week Brazil's foreign ministry summoned the Hungarian ambassador to explain why Bolsonaro spent two nights “hiding” at Hungary’s embassy in Brasília last month after federal police arrested two of his aides on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Brazilian government. 

Much of the renewed Brazilian sympathy for the military regime follows the worldwide rise of right-wing rhetoric, obscurantism and intolerance. But I’m convinced that had there been a franker conversation about the horrors of the dictatorship and some attempt to hold the perpetrators to account at the end of the dictatorship, this uninformed and uncritical praise of a long period of human rights atrocities in Brazil, with the resulting ongoing deep divisions in society (including in the small Brazilian community in SA), could have been avoided. 

Even a recent carnival party held in Johannesburg was boycotted with angelic fervour by the local Pentecostal Bolsonaro supporters for being “sinful” and being organised by an alleged Lula supporter. This deep-rooted division is contrary to the Brazilian culture that I got to know, and I hope it can be reversed. A national unvarnished and critical view of the military dictatorship will have to form part of that process. 

• Myburgh, an attorney, has lived, worked and travelled extensively in Brazil for 25 years. 

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