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March 31: Nothing to celebrate

This is not March 31 like any other. After reaching the sad mark of more than 300,000 Brazilian victims of the Coronavirus and being immersed in the greatest health collapse in our history and in a political crisis, it is still necessary to fight for democracy in a country governed by the extreme right.

Thus, it is necessary not only to reinforce the constitutional commitment of citizens’ access to the countless rights that have been systematically violated, but also the founding constitutional commitment of the current constitutionality itself: the rupture with the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985).

The federal government and part of the Judiciary seem to understand that it is possible to commemorate the date of March 31, 1964, and call the period “revolution” and “movement”. However, there is nothing to be celebrated when this date establishes the beginning of a period of arbitrary rule and violence, marking the day of that which escapes the negationists’ semantics: coup.

For the STF: a commemorable date

The election of Jair Bolsonaro, as we have already pointed out in some texts of this blog, represented the institutionalization of his negationist narrative about the period of the Brazilian dictatorship. Thus, March 31, 1964 was commemorated during his government, which occurred in the years 2019, 2020 and also now in 2021, through notes issued by the website of the Ministry of Defense. This year, the note has already been issued on March 30, in the same sense as the previous ones, in which the exaltation and celebration of the date is defended.

It so happens that the discussion about the constitutionality of issuing these notes was taken to the Supreme Court for the court to decide on the possibility or not of celebrating the date in question.

In 2019, Justice Gilmar Mendes denied cognizance to a collective injunction filed by the Vladimir Herzog Institute and other interested parties – victims and relatives of victims of the violations perpetrated by the regime – who, through this constitutional remedy, sought to prevent the commemoration intended by the federal government to the date of March 31, 1964. In the decision, the Justice argued, among other points, that commemoration was possible, since the democratic rule of law encompasses a plurality of ideals, including a plurality of historical points of view that consider the date in question as a revolution or movement.

In 2020, Justice Dias Toffoli suspended the injunction ordering the removal of the note commemorating March 31, 1964 from the Ministry of Defense website. The arguments presented by the judge were that preventing the commemoration would represent an act of censorship, that the Ministry of Defense had competence for the manifestation, and that it would not be up to the Judiciary to make historical evaluations about the period, this being a task of historians.

Both decisions set precedents for judgments such as that of the Federal Regional Court of the 5th region which, this year, granted the appeal of the Office of the Solicitor General, understanding that the commemoration of March 31 would not be contrary to the postulates of the Democratic State of Law and that the note alluding to the day (published in 2020) could be maintained on the website of the Ministry of Defense.

However, these decisions, besides being negationist, are unconstitutional. It is not possible to have an institutional commemoration of a coup d’état within a democratic order, especially considering that this coup initiated one of the most violent periods in our history. The 1988 Constitution intended to supplant the practices of that regime. It is not a pact between those who left power and civil society. The 1988 Constitution is a break with the civil-military dictatorship.

In this sense, it is important to reiterate and to join historians committed to their craft and democratic jurists: March 31, 1964 was not a movement or a revolution, it was a coup d’état.

The day that lasted 21 years

In the early morning hours of March 31st, 1964, hours after the last speech given by then President João Goulart (1961-1964), troops commanded by General Olímpio Mourão Filho, from the 4th Military Region, at the time based in Juiz de Fora (MG), marched towards Rio de Janeiro to finally launch the coup d’état.

The declaration of the vacancy of the presidency would come later, in a session of the National Congress on April 1st, which swore in the then president of the Chamber of Deputies, Ranieri Mazzilli, as interim president. The fact is that when the vacancy of the office was declared, President João Goulart was in the country, not meeting the condition of abandonment of the office necessary for presidential succession provided for in the 1946 Constitution.

After the resistance attempts articulated with the legalistic military and civil society throughout March 31st, 1964, Jango recognized it would not be possible to oppose the military forces and, on the following date, left the Laranjeiras Palace for Brasília, and then to Porto Alegre, from where he would go into exile in Uruguay.

Responsible for establishing a regime of exception in Brazil that lasted for 21 years, the civil-military coup was the result of a conspiracy that had been brewing at least since 1961, when a “frustrated coup” failed to prevent Jango from taking office after the resignation of Jânio Quadros. The imposition of the “parliamentarian solution” that was in force until the 1963 plebiscite, however, is sometimes also considered a kind of coup, since it did not take place in accordance with the 1946 Constitution in force.

It was on March 31, therefore, that the effective coup movement took place, interrupting the democratic legality in force with the military takeover. The narrative built around a supposed need to defend national security against the “communist threat” that hovered over the country served to sustain the coup, which also counted on international support and sectors of civil society, especially the press and the Brazilian business community.

However, unlike other episodes in Brazilian political history, the military not only consolidated a coup, but also remained in power, so that from March 31, 1964 onwards, dark years of authoritarianism and repression followed in Brazil.

The system of repression, one of the main symbols of the dictatorial regime, was not concentrated in a single organization, and included the articulation of mechanisms based on the tripod of surveillance, censorship, and repression, with a preponderance of the Armed Forces, but also an important participation of the Civil and Military Police. The existing repressive structure was used, such as the Departments of Politics and Social Order (DOPS), as well as the creation of information and repression agencies linked to the government, such as the National Intelligence Service (SNI), the Army Information Center (CIE) and the Information Operations Detachments (DOI) and the Internal Defense Operations Centers (CODI), as pointed out in the Final Report of the National Truth Commission (CNV), published in 2014.

Moreover, a repressive legal apparatus was formed from the edition of Institutional Acts and laws such as the National Security Law (LSN), which is still in force today. In view of the dangerous and exponential growth of the use of the NSL to justify the launch of investigations of opponents of the Bolsonaro government, the constitutionality of this law is being challenged in court.

The institutional acts, in turn, were decreed by the Executive between 1964 and 1969 and had a constitutional nature, or perhaps even supraconstitutional force, since they could revoke or alter provisions in the Constitution without respecting the necessary formalities. Through these acts of force, which aimed to confer an aspect of supposed legality to the measures of exception, political parties were dissolved, indirect elections were determined, and Congress was convened for the promulgation of the 1967 Constitution, for example.

Other even more serious measures were taken with the publication of Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) in December 1968, which resulted in the deepening and verticalization of the dictatorship’s authoritarian and repressive system. The act suspended the guarantee of habeas corpus for political crimes, authorized the closing of the National Congress and the other Legislative Houses, as well as the federal intervention in the States and Municipalities without constitutional backing, besides having expanded the political persecutions, imprisonments, restrictions to individual rights and liberties, cassations and purges from public service, with the hardening of the brutal repression against the student and workers’ movement and all the opposition forces.

It is important to point out that, although they were intensified through the decree of AI-5, the series of serious violations perpetrated by the government has been going on since the beginning of the dictatorship, with the revocation of mandates and suspension of political rights, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and violence occurring as early as 1964 – with the outbreak of Operation Clean-up being an example of this.

According to the Final Report of the National Truth Commission, the main human rights violations committed by the State during the dictatorial period consisted of illegal or arbitrary detention (or imprisonment); torture; summary, arbitrary, or extrajudicial execution, and other deaths attributed to the State; and forced disappearance and concealment of corpses. Finally, the CNV’s Final Report pointed out that in the period investigated – between September 18, 1946 and October 5, 1988 – a total of 434 political deaths and disappearances were identified, as well as thousands of people who suffered from the cruel torture practiced methodically and systematically by agents of the State.

The number of victims of the regime, however, should not be reduced to the numbers counted, in view of the difficulty inherent in this type of investigation, demonstrated even by the discrepancy found in relation to other surveys conducted by commissions and institutions. Thus, these are not final, closed numbers. It is estimated that they are higher, especially with regard to the deaths of indigenous people and peasants. In this sense, it is imperative that efforts to reveal the truth and reconstruct the historical memory of the dictatorship continue to be undertaken, with a view to effecting and strengthening the pillars of transitional justice, the Brazilian democratic regime, and fulfilling constitutionally assumed commitments.

Was it only 21 years?

Unlike the statement contained in the commemorative note published in 2020 by the Ministry of Defense, March 31 is by no means a milestone for democracy. On the contrary, the date represents the rupture with the Brazilian democratic order, inaugurating a period of numerous human rights violations and crimes against humanity, which caused deep scars in the political and social fabric of the country.

Ditadura Nunca Mais” (“Never Again Dictatorship”) concert at Paulista Avenue with the presence of civil society unions and social movements. São Paulo 06/08/2019 – Photo: Roberto Parizotti

The institutionalization of a negationist narrative about the period commemorating a coup d’état is evidence of a country that failed in its transitional justice. By accepting the Amnesty Law in the current constitutional order, the Federal Supreme Court, through ADPF 153, set the precedent not only for not holding perpetrators of violence criminally responsible, but also for decisions that include the possibility of relativizing the coup.

Thus, the 21 years of arbitrary rule and violence still echo in Brazil, but, unfortunately, in the form of a denial of what those years were. Thus, there is fear of a return to authoritarianism similar to those years, a fear that becomes even more acute as we experience the greatest crisis in the Armed Forces since the resignation of Sylvio Frota from the Geisel Government. After the resignation of the Minister of Defense, the Chiefs of the three Armed Forces, in an unprecedented act, put their posts at his disposal. For some analysts, who had consulted military sources, this act signified that the commanders of the Armed Forces were not willing to bow to the President’s wish: the implementation of a State of Siege.

Although this desire has not yet been confirmed, this information seems to be corroborated by the presentation of a Bill, on the 29th, by the PSL leader in the House of Representatives, Major Vitor Hugo, with an urgent request to be put on the agenda and submitted to a vote in the Legislative House. The PL intends to authorize the decree of a State of National Mobilization, provided for in item XIX of art. 84 of the Federal Constitution for cases of war, also in situations of health crisis, which would expand Bolsonaro’s powers, at least, with regard to fighting the pandemic.

There is no way of knowing, for now, what the outcome of these latest events will be, which indicate, at the very least, the poignant need to remain vigilant. The only possible certainty today, March 31, 2021, is that there is nothing to celebrate.

By Júlia Guimarães [1] and Luísa Mouta Cunha [2].

For more information:

  • The João Goulart Government: Social Struggles in Brazil (1961-1964) – Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira.
  • 1964: The Conquest of the State – René Armand Dreifuss.
  • Modernization, Dictatorship and Democracy (1964-2010) – Coordinated by Daniel Aarão Reis.
  • O Dia que Durou 21 Anos (The Day that Lasted 21 Years) – Directed and written by Camilo Tavares.

[1] Master’s student in Law at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). CAPES scholar. Researcher associated with the Center for Transitional Justice Studies (CJT/UFMG).

[2] Law student at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Extension fellow at the Center for Transitional Justice Studies (CJT/UFMG)

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