Bolsonaro and the coup: memory and democratic decay

April 1, 2019

At the beginning of the week (March 25, 2019), the Presidency of the Republic announced the order for “due commemorations” to be held on March 31, which marks the 55th anniversary of the 1964 civil-military coup, which initiated a dictatorship that lasted 21 years in Brazil. From the redemocratization until Bolsonaro’s election, celebrations of the coup by the Armed Forces took place discreetly. Manifestations that went beyond the borders of the barracks were received with punishments and political crises.

With Bolsonaro’s election, the circumstances changed radically: unlike his predecessors, the president opposes the historical version of the coup and openly celebrates the date. He also contests testimonies and the violence committed by the military, when he does not try to justify the use of torture and extrajudicial executions in the period.

Possible celebrations are still surrounded by uncertainties. However, Government support for the celebration of the date marking the beginning of the civil-military dictatorship represents not only a controversial act of historical negation, but also a further sign of democracy decay in Brazil, as discussed below.

The signs of democratic decay

Authoritarianism is back to political tendencies, even if coups are no longer so common. Stephan Haggard and Robert R. Kaufman have developed the theory of the “Weak Democracy Syndrome,” according to which three institutional components, together with political factors, enabling scenarios of democratic reversion: pretorianism, weak institutionalization and unsatisfactory economic performance. Out of these, “pretorianism” stands out: the difficulty of democratic governments to establish effective control over the military.

Some of the indicators of this component are (1) the presence of military personnel in key decision-making bodies, such as ministries, and (2) control of budgetary and appointment processes by military personnel, keeping them outside civilian control. These aspects are accompanied by narratives that portray the Armed Forces as having a nation building or development role, or which present them as neutral arbitrators of the political process.

Pretorianism increases the vulnerability of democracy in three ways:

  1. generating instability through resistance to democratic attempts to establish civilian oversight over military privileges and prerogatives;
  2. altering the structure of the political game, making appeals to the Armed Forces as allies in political conflicts more frequent;
  3. favoring military interventions in politics, in the face of crises – real or manufactured – and at ever lower levels of risk.

The massive presence of representatives of the Armed Forces in the Bolsonaro government – a presence that has increased since the inauguration – makes clear the growing political centrality of an institution that has never acknowledged the mistakes and the responsibilities for the violations committed during the military dictatorship.

Thus, the president’s position of officially celebrating a coup that overthrew a democratic government must be seen as a warning signal for observers of Brazilian democracy. Attention is required not only for the fact itself, but also for the context of flagrant violation of the right to truth and to memory and the  continuous political crises in Brazil.

This type of statement, which challenges the construction of a completely public, factual truth about the violations perpetrated by a dictatorship, leads us to understand the permanent challenge of the exercise of collective memory, even in a democratic environment.

Truth and memory in dispute

Given the turmoil caused by the announcement of the Presidency, various institutions and civil society organizations have acted to contain possible celebrations and reinforce the suffering of the victims of the dictatorship and their families. The Ministério Público Federal (Public Attorney’s Office, MPF) has recommended that the Armed Forces and its related units refrain from commemorating the dictatorial regime inaugurated 55 years ago.

The Defensoria Pública da União (Public Defender’s Office, DPU) filed a public civil suit questioning the president’s order, arguing it violated constitutional principles and constituted administrative misconduct; two class actions (ação popular) highlighted the violation of human rights in the period; and victims of the dictatorship have asked the Brazilian Supreme Court, through a Writ of Mandamus (mandado de segurança), to suspend the determination to celebrate the date, which violates the right to memory and truth.

It is worth mentioning that the National Truth Commission (CNV), established to investigate human rights violations committed between 1946 and 1988 in Brazil, identified several methods of physical and psychological torture used by state agents against political opponents, as well as arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, concealment of corpses and falsification of necropsy reports. The CNV also identified 434 people who died or disappeared because of the State policy im posed against all those considered their opponents.

Such crimes constitute crimes against humanity, which are violations committed systematically and massively as part of a State policy against a civilian population and are therefore expressly prohibited in international law. The seriousness of these crimes means no statute of limitation is applicable, that is, their perpetrators must be investigated and punished at any time. They are incompatible with the application of amnesty, statues of limitation or other limitations on prosecution. Brazil’s failure to comply with this duty led to two international convictions.

It is important to distinguish between narratives and the formulation of interpretations or opinions, especially in the case of official bodies. The exercise of collective memory is more than ever a challenge for Brazilian society, which must assimilate investigated and proven violations and learn from its past.

Faced with the lack of investigation and punishment of those responsible for human rights violations, it is extremely important to prevent “celebrations” of the 1964 coup from happening. It is a moment of fighting to expose the truth regarding such violations, keeping alive the memory of those who fought for democracy and learning, so that it does not repeat itself.

For this reason, it is particularly worrying when a president of the republic recommends the commemoration of what was officially recognized as a coup d’état, responsible for hundreds of human rights violations. This type of statement provokes echoes in society that reverberate in ambivalence or doubts about proven and fully established facts.

It is fundamental for post-authoritarian societies to remember, recognize, redress and make justice about human rights violations perpetrated by the State. Such processes are essential for guaranteeing not only the non-repetition of violations, but a sound democratic environment for future generations.

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