When Jair Bolsonaro, then a congressman, voted for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, he criticized Brazil’s left wing, declaring, “they lost in 1964, they lost again in 2016." He then dedicated his vote to “the memory of Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra — the dread of Dilma Rousseff.” This quote comes to mind this week after Bolsonaro, now president of Brazil, ordered the country’s military to commemorate the anniversary of the March 31, 1964 coup that resulted in military rule and propelled Ustra’s rise.
Ustra was an army colonel who headed the Doi-Codi intelligence service in the 1970s. He became known for overseeing the use of horrifying torture techniques on political prisoners. Under his leadership, the Doi-Codi reportedly even tortured pregnant women, inserting rats into women’s vaginas and forcing their children to watch.
These are some of the stories uncovered by Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again), a report by researchers who analyzed more than 4 million military documents. This investigation was followed by the 2014 report produced by the Comissão da Verdade (the National Truth Commission), which concluded that the Brazilian dictatorship committed crimes against humanity with 434 people executed or disappeared. Beyond the atrocities committed to individuals, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has denounced the violence against collective victims, such as the genocidal violence against indigenous people.
The commission recommended that the army be investigated, but the perpetrators behind these crimes have not been brought to justice. Former Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff, who was herself tortured as a political prisoner in the past, suspended army celebrations of the coup in 2011. Now, Bolsonaro wants to return to honoring this gruesome history by commemorating the military rule.
After the press and civil society criticized his decision, Bolsonaro declared that he doesn’t want to commemorate the coup, but only remember it. Yet Bolsonaro has never been shy about professing his admiration for Ustra and other regime members. He has also historically minimized the human rights abuses that occurred. He has compared a military regime to a marriage, arguing that “every once in a while, there is a problem;" remarked that the mistake of the dictatorship was to torture rather than kill opponents; and likened the summary executions of dissidents to hitting one’s children and then repenting.
Bolsonaro’s statements on the military rule are not simply embarrassing. They also help normalize this unthinkable, ahistorical rhetoric in the public sphere.
In erasing this ugly history, Bolsonaro is likely motivated by a desire to strike back against Rousseff, as well as his long-standing obsession with the so-called communist threat and with the legacy of the rival Workers’ Party. What Bolsonaro fails to recognize is that the struggle for memory and justice is not a Workers’ Party cause, but a civil society one.
Now, Brazilian civil society is watching incredulously as the Bolsonaro government have denied the academic consensus and evoked what the scholar Jason Stanley calls a “mythic past.” It has sought to spread an idealized view of the past, in which Brazil had little corruption or urban violence and operated under a “soft” dictatorship.
These arguments, which are completely detached from evidence, have become increasingly widespread in public discourse. Celebrating the 1964 coupis just one part of a major revisionist movement that seeks to silence teachers and rewrite textbooks to align with Bolsonaro’s far-right ideology.
The social consequences are tragic. It encourages ignorance, obscures source of knowledge and promotes the mythification of a history that should not be glorified. To commemorate the coup of 1964 is to celebrate authoritarianism, censorship and above all, torture. It undermines the reality of our history as well as our sense of humanity.
Moreover, celebrating 1964 could eventually catalyze a wave of violence against progressive and left-wing activists, who have become increasingly vulnerable as Bolsonaro’s platform has gained attention. In his first presidential speech after being elected in October last year, Bolsonaro himself declared that activists in Brazil are “outlaws” who must be “banished.” Honoring the violent military crackdown on left-wing activists in the past may encourage the same behavior in the present.
Brazilian thought they were safe from the monsters of the past. We are paying the price for not having reckoned with our history, and for having granted amnesty to the military in 1979. With Bolsonaro’s comments, the monsters who went unpunished have come back to haunt the country again.
Rosana Pinheiro-Machado is an anthropologist at the Federal University of Santa Maria in Brazil.