HomeStatesBrazil on Fire Episode 5: Ghosts of the Past
Brazil on Fire Episode 5: Ghosts of the Past
September 20, 2022
Brazil’s military dictatorship was a dark time in the country’s history. Hundreds were killed. Thousands jailed and tortured. And it is an era that President Jair Bolsonaro remembers with nostalgia—It’s where he got his start, and a thing he has long championed as being worthy of returning to.
As president, Bolsonaro has called for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court, marched with supporters to demand military intervention, and appointed more military officials to his government than any leader since the end of the dictatorship.
In this episode, we will dive head-first into Brazil’s military regime, which ran the country from 1964 through to 1985. We’ll look at the country’s failure to reckon with the past, and Bolsonaro’s steps to push Brazil back in that direction.
This is Brazil on Fire, a podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. Over these six episodes we look at Bolsonaro’s far-right government that has set the country ablaze, and how the United States helped him do it. We’ll visit the birthplace of Brazilian Nazism, evangelical churches, and Indigenous villages in the Amazon.
Michael Fox: Before we get started, I want to let you know that some portions of today’s episode deal with some pretty harsh themes from Brazil’s military dictatorship, including torture. If you want to avoid this content, you can skip the intro, roughly the first five minutes.
It’s November 23rd, 1970. Spring in Salvador, Bahia. Northeastern Brazil. Late morning. Pedro Luiz Vian is a young man, 24 years old. Pretty average looking, except for a few gray hairs that stick up through his short dark hair. He’s with a couple of friends at the beach. It’s a gorgeous, sunny day. Warm sand beneath their feet. They talk as they stare out at the water.
They decide to leave and walk separate ways. Pedro goes into the street to grab a bus. He has his foot on the first step when he’s jerked back from behind. He knows immediately what’s happening.
See, a dictatorship has been in power for six years. But all hell broke loose more recently, 1968, when the military launched an all-out war on the country’s democratic institutions and anyone it deemed an enemy of the state. The regime closed congress and suspended habeas corpus and the rule of law. Pedro knows people who have gone missing and never returned.
And Pedro, that’s also not his real name. That’s an alias. See, he’s a militant in an underground organization known as Ação Popular that’s fighting the brutal military regime. And right now, as he feels the hands grabbing him, that’s what he does – he fights.
Fists swing at him. Blood flies. His shirt rips. He wriggles free, sliding out of the shirt, and runs down the street before others pounce. This time, he can’t get away. They beat him and shove him into a car. He knows what’s coming.
He arrives at the federal police station, near the city’s downtown market, shirtless and bloody.
“Why am I being taken to prison?” he asks.
The head officer looks at him over dark sunglasses and says, “You’ll find out soon enough.”
He tries to prepare himself for the pain he knows is coming.
Four hours later, he’s taken to a nearby military barracks, where he is blindfolded. They beat him. They open a tank of water and throw him in numerous times. They ask over and over again: What’s your name? Who are your friends? What is your address?
He repeats only one thing: “I don’t know.” He won’t turn in his comrades, though he does not know how he will hold on.
They strip him of his clothes and strap his legs to a horizontal pole – It’s called the Pau de arara or the Parrot’s Perch, you know, like the wooden swing that birds sit on in a cage. Here, he hangs upside down for hours. They beat him and then administer electric shocks. Again, they barrage him with questions. Questions he will not answer.
“There are situations at the limit of human experience,” he would write later, “for which words are insufficient. It’s like that with torture. Almost impossible to reproduce the suffering that it provokes and the storm it causes in your mind.”
The torture continues. Days grow into weeks. He will be imprisoned for almost 4 years.
He’s one of thousands who would be detained under the dictatorship. One of twenty thousand who would be tortured, including former president Dilma Rousseff. It is a devastating and dark time in the country’s history, particularly for human rights and the rule of law. And it is a time that current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro would like to return to.
[Jair Bolsonaro speaking]
That’s him in an interview in 1999 when he was a congressman. He says the country should reinstate torture and the Pau de arara. The newscaster asks him if he would close Congress given the chance. Bolsonaro says, “There is not the slightest doubt. I would close it on the first day.” Of course, things have changed over the last twenty years. But that’s where his heart is.
Bolsonaro has celebrated known torturers and praised brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He has appointed more military officials to his government than any leader since the end of the dictatorship; A third of his cabinet members, including his vice president and chief of staff are from the military. He’s also tripled the number of military officers occupying what used to be civilian jobs throughout the federal government – More than 6,000 people.
As president, he’s called for the closure of congress and the Supreme Court, marched with supporters to demand military intervention, and lifted militaristic language and issues to the fore like never before. He’s pushed legislation to help protect police from prosecution and freed up gun sales, which have skyrocketed across the country. In the first three years of his government alone, the number of new weapon sales in Brazil tripled. He’s called for commemorations of the 1964 coup and transformed over two hundred schools into civilian-military academies. Each week, Bolsonaro presides over a seemingly endless string of military events and ceremonies. The armed forces are his ace in the hole.
It’s the most important sector in his government, the institution that gives him the most credibility and strength. And there is no other time period that Bolsonaro looks to with greater nostalgia than the dictatorship. The fear of what the military is capable of hangs over the country like a dark shadow, a constant reminder of the lingering and unpunished abuses of a not so distant past. A past that Bolsonaro is intent on dragging into the present.
This is Brazil on Fire, a podcast about Brazil’s descent toward fascism under President Jair Bolsonaro. This podcast is produced in collaboration with The Real News and NACLA. I’m your host, Michael Fox. I’m a long-time radio reporter and multimedia journalist. I’ve lived in Brazil for years, and I’ve covered Bolsonaro and his government closely. Over these 6 episodes, I’m taking you on a journey to understand the story of Bolsonaro’s rise and his far-right government that’s set the country ablaze.
Last episode, we looked at Bolsonaro’s relationship with fascism and fascists. Today, we look at the military and the legacy of the country’s 21-year dictatorship, And what it means for Bolsonaro and for the country as it steers toward October’s elections.
Now, before we get into this, let me just say that, as opposed to the previous 4 episodes, much of today’s show is not necessarily about what Bolsonaro and the military have done during his presidency. It’s about what they could do and how far they could go. Of course, the great metaphor for this was the impromptu parade of military vehicles that rolled through the streets of Niteroi, just across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, the night Bolsonaro won the 2018 presidential election.
This is Episode 5: “Ghosts of the Past”
It’s late 2019. I’m in Salvador Bahia. Northeastern Brazil. This is Lula country. The Workers’ Party overwhelmingly defeated Bolsonaro here in 2018.
Demographically, it’s kind of the polar opposite of the states we visited in the first couple of episodes. Here, the population is majority Black, and proud of it. It’s the heart of Black culture in Brazil, the capital of Capoeira. You might remember, this is where Michael Jackson filmed his 1995 video with all the drummers for his song “They Don’t Care About Us”.
It’s also the home of Emilio Jose da Silva Filho. That’s the real name of Pedro Luiz Vian, the young man who was detained and tortured in the 1970s. And I’ve just arrived at his house.
Like me, he’s short. No longer young; It’s been over 50 years. Gray beard. Friendly smile. Piercing eyes. He steers me into his office at the far end of his apartment. The long windows look out over the ocean. The books that line the room are a sign of his years working as a journalist for numerous outlets, then as a professor of communication at the University of Bahia. He served in local office and then as a congressman for three terms with the Workers’ Party; Lula’s party. He’s retired now. He’s written 17 books, many focused on the dictatorship. Many about his experiences and those of his comrades in the prison block where they were held: Gallery F.
Prison. Detention. Torture. He says that it took him almost thirty years to start to write about those things. And then, he couldn’t stop. He had to tell the stories.
I’ve come to Professor Emiliano Jose because, like the thousands of others who were tortured, he felt the full weight of the dictatorship, and I want to see how concerned he is about what’s happening now, about the huge number of military officials in top government positions. About Bolsonaro’s penchant for violent rhetoric. About fears of a potential return to those dark times.
Emiliano Jose da Silva Filho: It’s concerning, really concerning. Because you have this type of continual threat hanging over the heads of the people. The Brazilian military, they’re in the government, in key positions of power, and, as they themselves say, they are always ready for action. So you live in this permanent state of siege. Not from a legal standpoint, but they are always looking at the current moment from a militaristic point of view.
Michael Fox: He says it’s the most complicated political situation since the dictatorship.
Emiliano Jose da Silva Filho: In some ways it’s absolutely similar to some aspects of the dictatorship, at least during the first period, when it was less severe. And in some ways, it’s even worse.
Michael Fox: Emiliano points to the censorship and gutting of funding for arts and culture. The violent attacks on public universities. The military presence, the praising of the milicias or paramilitary armed groups that are long-time allies of president Bolsonaro.
Emiliano Jose da Silva Filho: It’s not a dictatorship, but it’s also not a purely democratic regime either.It’s almost like a hybrid state… Where the guiding light is Trump, or Orbán in Hungary, and others in that same line of looking to revive fascism.
Donald Trump: America’s enemies are on the run…
Michael Fox: One of Bolsonaro’s guiding lights is most definitely Trump, but I’d say he has two. And the other is the dictatorship. And that combination makes him potentially even more dangerous.
That’s him, in a short, low-budget video posted online a few years before his presidential victory. He’s out in front of congress, celebrating the 1964 military coup. He’d do this every year. In the video, he fires off a number of large fireworks in front of a long yellow banner that reads “Congratulations Military. Thanks to you, we are not Cuba.”
Jair Bolsonaro: March 31s, 1964 – The date of the 2nd independence of Brazil. Congratulations to the military. In 1964, you stopped Brazil from becoming a satellite of the Soviet Union. We owe our freedom and democracy to this.
Michael Fox: As president, Bolsonaro has authorized 1964 commemorations at military barracks around the country, and called for his supporters to celebrate. This is important, because Bolsonaro and the military claim the 1964 coup was not actually a coup. They say it was a revolution, or, like Bolsonaro just said earlier, an independence that saved the country from communism. And those behind the coup had plenty of help from the United States.
Now, I want to take a step back for a second. Because to understand what’s happening today, we’re gonna have to take a short trip into the past.
March 1964. President Joao Goulart is in power. He’s been pushing redistributive policies; tax reform; a moderate agrarian reform; nationalizing the operations of some foreign companies; infrastructure and development projects; widespread literacy campaigns, some of them led by the now iconic educator Paulo Freire. On the foreign stage, Goulart reopened relations with Cuba just a couple of years after the revolution, and refused to back the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Goulart’s policies are impacting the Brazilian elites and landowners, and his rhetoric and actions are leading many on the right, especially in the United States, to worry that he is edging the country toward socialism. And in both Brazil and the United States, they begin to organize.
Carlos Martins is an associate professor at Rio de Janeiro Federal University.
Carlos Martins: We know that the US government financed institutes in order to influence public opinion and even bought congressmen in order to block popular policies. Institutes received funding from the US government to carry out actions to destabilize and block the government initiatives.
Michael Fox: They were laying the groundwork for a potential coup, possibly even supported by the US military.
There’s a great Brazilian documentary called The Day that Lasted 21 Years that looks at the US’s role in Goulart’s overthrow and the installation of the military regime. Today, through declassified US documents, you can basically chart the communications within the US government over the days leading up to the coup.
Peter Kornbluh: Brazil was a regional superpower, a huge country. Vast economic potential, vast leadership potential. The United States could not afford to lose it. This concept of US policy makers that they somehow own or possess countries in Latin America and therefore, if they go their own way and elect their own officials, we lose them.
Michael Fox: That’s Peter Kornbluh, from a clip in the documentary. He’s a long-time senior analyst at the National Security Archive, which houses a treasure trove of declassified documents from the US government. Among them is this powerful recording of President Lyndon B. Johnson instructing his aides on a telephone call just hours before the coup.
Lyndon B. Johnson: I think we ought to take every step that we can, be prepared to do everything that we need to do, just as we would in Panama, if that is at all feasible… I’d put everybody that had any imagination or ingenuity… We just can’t take this one. I’d get right on top of it and stick my neck out a little.
Michael Fox: In other words, the US was willing and ready to help. Turns out the Brazilians didn’t need them.
In the early hours of April 1st, 1964, tanks roll. President Goulart flees. The military takes power in a matter of hours. The dictatorship would last until 1985 – 21 years.
“It could happen again” Bolsonaro declared just this month – September – During Brazil’s bicentennial commemorations.It could happen again. It’s like part threat and part hope, rooted in a deep-seated nostalgia for the dictatorship. Not just for Bolsonaro, but from many of his supporters.
[Man speaking in crowd]
“We want military intervention, with Bolsonaro in charge,” said one man at a rally commemorating the military coup last year. A substantial portion of Bolsonaro’s base shares this opinion. At marches, many carry signs calling for the closure of the Supreme Court and Congress.For Bolsonaro, and them, the dictatorship was a golden era.
To understand why, I reached out to Bryan Pitts.
Bryan Pitts: I am a historian and also assistant director of the Latin American Institute at UCLA.
Michael Fox: His new book Until the Storm Passes comes out in January, and it looks at the process that led to the end of the military dictatorship.
Bryan Pitts: Bolsonaro got his start in his military career near the end of the military dictatorship… He is someone who has idolized the dictatorship for a long time, as many on the Brazilian right do. Idolize might be too strong a word for others on the Brazilian right, not for Bolsonaro, but certainly there’s a nostalgia there. The principles the dictatorship was built upon was not just stabilizing the economy or eliminating what they called left, you know, leftist subversion, or even or reforming the political elite. A big part of it, at least the rhetoric they use, was also related to morality. You know, the idea that communists and leftists threaten traditional morals and the traditional family.
Michael Fox: There’s this fascinating cross-over here with the religious discourse of fundamentalist Christians – One of the other pillars of Bolsonaro’s base, as we’ve talked about in previous episodes.
Historian Cristina Wolff says that, under the military regime, this moral rhetoric was hammered into people’s heads from a very young age.
Cristina Wolff: I lived through the period of the dictatorship. I was born in ‘68, so my youth and adolescence was during that time.We had classes on moral and civic education, and in those classes, they drilled into us that the family was the basic cell of society. And this patriarchal family was the same order that should prevail in society.
Michael Fox: In other words, you had a nuclear patriarchal family with a father in charge, a mother who’s subordinate, and kids who obey. Well, that’s what they said society should look like. And, in Brazil, under the military regime, the father figure was the president or the generals.
This is another reason why gender diversity and basic rights for women and LGBTQ people are so concerning, not just to religious Evangelicals and the Christian right, but to many Bolsonaro supporters who grew up under the dictatorship.
Bryan Pitts says it’s kind of like the nostalgia that Trump supporters have for the 1950s.
Bryan Pitts: There’s a certain nostalgia among people on the right in Brazil, you know, this was a time… The dictatorship was a time before there are all [these] modern changes in the way we think about gender roles, or before homosexuality was something that was more accepted publicly. It was a time when “traditional morality” reigned supreme.
Michael Fox: A time also when law and order was enforced with an iron fist and the left was put in its place. A time when there were clear and brutally enforced delineations between right and wrong. Good and bad. A time when the military led and everyone else followed, and the critics of the regime weren’t debated; they were squashed.
But Bolsonaro’s alliances don’t stop at the military. They stretch across Brazil’s state security apparatus, from the military police and even to milicias, or paramilitaries. These illegal groups are often composed of current and former police officers. In Rio de Janeiro, they’re long-time allies of Bolsonaro. Close family friends. Colleagues. The milicias were likely behind the killing of the outspoken queer Black activist and city councilwoman Marielle Franco. And Bolsonaro has fought to empower these militarized forces.
That in a minute.
It’s May 6th, 2021. Police helicopters hover over the poor Rio de Janeiro favela of Jacarezinho. “That’s a problem,” says a man off camera in a video posted on Twitter by a local media group. “Those guys are shooting down on the neighborhood from up above,” he says. 200 police are carrying out a raid targeting criminal gangs, accused of narcotrafficking.
Gunshots ring out across the neighborhood. “We are stuck inside, suffocating from the tear gas, and we can’t get out,” one resident posts on Twitter. As hours pass, the body count rises. When the bullets stop, 28 people are dead, including 1 police officer. Residents pour from their homes to protest. They’re chanting “murderers” and “justice”.
Bolsonaro praises the raid on Twitter, dismissing the public outcry over the killings. “The people have been held hostage to criminality,” he writes. “Congratulations to the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police.”
The raid is in step with the hardline tough-on-crime policies that Bolsonaro promised on the campaign trail in 2018. One of his slogans was: The only good criminal is a dead criminal. During his first year in office, the president successfully passed an anti-crime bill that, among other things, gave officers further protection from criminal prosecution for using excessive force.
Deadly police raids have been happening in Rio for decades. In fact, since 1998, police have killed one person every 10 hours in the state of Rio de Janeiro. But Jacarezinho was Rio’s bloodiest raid ever. Experts say officers feel emboldened by Bolsonaro’s unconditional support.
That is what Joel Luiz Costa saw. He’s a lawyer who grew up in Jacarezinho. On the day of the raid, he visited five or six homes, collecting testimonies and surveying the aftermath.
“They all looked the same,” he said in a video posted over social media. “Turned upside down. Execution-style shots. There were no signs of crossfire. A boy was killed sitting in a chair. Sitting in a chair. You don’t fire back when you’re sitting in a chair. This was an execution.”
Execution. Extra-judicial killings. State sponsored violence. These are shadows of a dark past. And in a country that has never prosecuted the military regime’s crimes and abuses, the ghosts live on.
Bryan Pitts: Brazil never did the reckoning with the dictatorship that countries like Argentina and Chile did. So the violence that did exist under the dictatorship has never really been faced in Brazil, and it’s never really been punished in Brazil in a way that it was in Brazil’s Southern Cone neighbors
Michael Fox: This is really important. In the mid 2000s, Argentina and Chile began trying their torturers for the crimes of the past. Dozens of former military officers in Argentina have been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In just one ruling in 2017, more than 100 former Chilean officers and secret service agents were sent to jail for kidnappings and killings under the country’s dictatorship. Even Chilean dictator Pinochet himself was indicted and arrested. He spent the last years of his life battling in the courts. But in Brazil, no one has ever been held responsible for the atrocities of the dictatorship.
Historian Cristina Wolff says this failure to confront Brazil’s history is key to understanding why many still feel empowered to demand its return.
Cristina Wolff: I do believe that this issue of never holding anyone accountable for the crimes of the dictatorship makes a big difference. Because in Argentina, where torturers were brought to justice, people could watch the trials on TV. The press covered it. So the people had to remember.
Michael Fox: In Brazil, an Amnesty law was passed during the final period of the dictatorship. The law pardoned people involved in fighting the regime – And also anyone who committed a crime on the part of the state. A national truth commission was finally launched in 2012. It revealed the horrors that happened decades ago, but couldn’t pass judgment. Cristina Wolff says it was largely ignored by most of the press.
And here’s the thing, the Brazilian dictatorship was brutal. I mean tens of thousands were detained and tortured. Hundreds killed or disappeared. But that pales in comparison with Argentina, where as many as 30,000 were killed or disappeared during a span of just seven years.
Plus, Brazil is a bigger country, with roughly five times Argentina’s population today. That means that many families in Brazil, well, they just weren’t impacted in the same way as families in Argentina, Uruguay, or Chile were by the brutality of those military regimes. And so, for some, the dictatorship would become a beacon.
And Bolsonaro, he knows his audience. On September 7 this year, Bolsonaro oversaw the country’s bicentennial day celebrations in Brasilia. The military marched in formation before him as he stood stoically wearing the presidential sash. Calling supporters into the streets, he transformed the country’s Independence Day into a nationalistic campaign rally.
This is the same spot where Bolsonaro’s inauguration took place. And the crowd looks really similar. A sea of supporters, clad in the country’s colors, yellow and green, wash over Brasilia’s grassy esplanade, kind of like Washington’s Capital Mall. Bolsonaro looks out over them and intertwines both the religious and militaristic rhetoric that has become his calling card.
[Jair Bolsonaro speaking]
Jair Bolsonaro: It is with the grace of God that I have had my rebirth, and he has granted me this mission to command this country. And together, we will achieve our objectives. Today, you have a president who believes in God, who respects the police and the military. A government that defends family, and a president that owes his loyalty to the people.And we know that we have before us a battle of good versus evil.
Michael Fox: For most of this episode I’ve talked about the legacy of the dictatorship and how Bolsonaro has used the military’s image to his advantage. But I want to shift now and talk about the actual role of the military in Bolsonaro’s government – You know, the huge number of military appointments. What has it meant for the country and Bolsonaro?
Antonio Jorge Ramalho: So for him, it was a very smart move that produced very positive results for his government. He was able to operate.
Michael Fox: That’s Antonio Jorge Ramalho. He’s an International Relations professor at the University of Brasilia, and he’s worked with the military and civilian-military relations since the late ‘90s.
Antonio Jorge Ramalho: For the military it was terrible. He took advantage of the respect and the admiration and the good image that their Armed Forces have created through the last three decades before the Brazilian Society. So, the prestige that the military had built was dilapidated by Bolsonaro.
Michael Fox: Antonio points to the dismal management of the Ministry of Health by General Eduardo Pazuello during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Antonio Jarge Ramalho: Every angle that you look at Pazuello’s administration in the Ministry of Health, it was a disaster. So the military showed that they are just as corruptible and as inefficient as any other segment of Brazilian society. Which is not surprising. They do not come from abroad. They do not come from Mars.
Michael Fox: From within the government or outside of it, top current and former members of the military have not been shy about flexing their muscles.Some have made threatening statements in recent years in clear attempts to influence courts or policy makers. We saw this around Lula’s imprisonment and in the leadup to the 2018 vote. In only the most recent example, Bolsonaro’s running mate, the former minister of defense General Walter Braga Netto, told businessmen in June that without an audit of this year’s vote, there’d be no election.
But military officials inside Bolsonaro’s government have also, at times, played a neutralizing role to the president’s more far-right tendencies. They’ve also stood up to him. Last year, the heads of the Brazilian navy, army, and air force jointly resigned in protest against Bolsonaro’s removal of the minister of defense.
See, Brazil’s armed forces aren’t one united entity. There are different factions, at times with very different political visions. Professor Carlos Martins says that at the end of the dictatorship, one branch of the military was willing to accept a return to democracy with limits. That group led the way. They included most of the country’s top brass. They were more liberal, and in the majority. But there was a smaller group, composed of officers in the middle to lower ranks, that never accepted redemocratization and that has always sought to restore the country to dictatorship. That’s the group that Bolsonaro belongs to. Bolsonaro’s group is a minority. But he’s been able to appoint into key positions many officials who are aligned with his authoritarian vision.
But that still begs the question: Would the military back Bolsonaro if he lost this October’s election and tried to carry out some sort of January 6-style coup?
According to a recent internal Defense Ministry study, the heads of the Navy and Air Force are the most aligned with Bolsonaro and would be the most likely to back a coup, while the other branches of the military are not.
Professor Antonio Jorge Ramalho says they don’t have enough popular support to pull it off.
Antonio Jorge Ramalho: No. Now, I don’t think so, because of the reaction that civil society has shown in the last months. But that part of them were engaged in contemplating this hypothesis, this scenario, I have no doubt.Now they realize that they would not have the support of the economic elites, just part of them. They would not have the support of the society as a whole
Michael Fox: Bolsonaro’s supporters are often very vocal in their calls for military intervention. But less than 10% of the Brazilian population defended the dictatorship in a recent poll. More than three quarters of those surveyed said democracy was always the way to go.
In August, more than a million Brazilians signed a pair of manifestos in defense of democracy.
The initiative was unique in that it brought together people across the political spectrum, from former presidents and ex-Supreme Court justices, to bankers, lawyers, artists, and businessmen. Thousands rallied in nearly 50 cities. “Dictatorship never again” was the trending hashtag and the theme of the widespread protests.
At one protest at the University of São Paulo, law professor Ana Elisa Bechara read one of the letter’s closing words accompanied by a classical guitar.
Ana Elisa Bechara: In the Brazil of today, there is no more room for authoritarian setbacks. Dictatorship and torture belong to the past. The solution to the immense challenges facing Brazilian society has to be tied to respect for the results of the elections.
Michael Fox: Here’s professor Antonio Ramalho again.
Antonio Jorge Ramalho: It’s a very different country from ‘64. It’s a very different international environment when we compare with that period. I think that they are intelligent enough to understand that this would fail and they will not take this train. They’re sufficiently smart not to do that.
Michael Fox: But that doesn’t mean Bolsonaro is not going to try. Antonio is concerned about the role that the other state forces might play.
Antonio Jorge Ramalho: How loyal the local military police will be to this movement? No one knows. How violently those militias that are supporting Bolsonaro are going to behave? We don’t know. But it’s a process of deconstructing state institutions which threatens democracy, of course, and threatens the security situation of the country in every major city in Brazil.
Michael Fox: I want to pause here just for a second, because there’s something very important that we haven’t talked about yet in this chapter – fascism. Now, the Brazilian dictatorship was bad. It was brutal. Violent. Deadly. It participated in the US-backed Operation Condor, the state terror campaign that hunted down, tortured, and killed activists across the continent, together with the region’s other dictatorships. But, the Brazilian dictatorship was not fascist.
Here’s Argentine Historian Federico Finchelstein.
Federico Finchelstein: I think it is important to provide this kind of distinction between what fascism was, which is a popular and popular-base movement, and what the dictatorships were, which were not necessarily into that kind of game.
Michael Fox: Remember, like we talked about in the introduction to the podcast series, for fascism you need four key elements: dictatorship, fake news or misinformation, violence, and a rhetoric of hate to mobilize people in support of a charismatic leader. But the Latin American dictatorships, and the Brazilian military regime in particular, well, they were interested in the opposite. If anything, they wanted to demobilize people. They wanted structure. Order and progress, the words written on the Brazilian flag.
Federico Funchelstein: In that sense, although Bolsonaro is into all his militarism and his love for dictatorship, in a way he connects more to the fascists than what these dictators did. And yet, Bolsonaro is not yet at the situation of being a dictator himself. He would like to. It’s clear that he would like to, and it’s unclear that Brazilian society, voters, and even institutions will allow him to.
Michael Fox: Finchelstein says it’s paradoxical that dictatorship is the key fascist element that Bolsonaro does not have yet. But he embodies most of the other elements of fascism, like lies and a rhetoric of hate, better than the dictatorships did.
There is one place in particular that both the military regime and Bolsonaro have eyed with dreams of development, looking to take advantage of bountiful resources. It’s a place where Bolsonaro’s deconstruction of state institutions is wreaking havoc, where illegal and armed actors are pushing into formerly pristine areas and plundering the land to make a quick profit. Where Indigenous people are constantly under threat, whether staring down the barrel of a gun, fires, or COVID. Where their territories and their way of life are under attack, the invaders slowly eating away at the forests that have given them life for generations.And where Bolsonaro has been empowering those behind the devastation: The Amazon.
That is where we’ll go next, for our sixth and final episode on Brazil on Fire.
This podcast is produced in collaboration with The Real News and NACLA. The theme music is by my band Monte Perdido. I’m your host, Michael Fox. See you next time.