Brazil’s Military Dictatorship: 21 Years of Interrupted Democracy

General Castelo BrancoThe period of the military dictatorship in Brazil often referred to as “Brazil’s years of lead,” which lasted from 1964 to 1985, was a somber time when Brazilian politicians lost their mandates for political reasons (the generals decreed forfeiture of office), the media was censured and public demonstrations of opposition were repressed violently.

There was also an ugly underground where opponents of the military were tortured and killed.

Professor Octaviano Nogueira, who teaches history and political science at the University of Brasília, says the roughest period of military intervention was between 1964 and the beginning of the 1970s. “The repression was harsh at that time,” he says.

Nogueira points out that the problems that led to the 1964 coup actually began in 1961 when a right-wing president, Jânio Quadros, suddenly resigned after only six months in office and was succeeded by a left-wing vice president, João Goulart, who was distrusted by the military.

The distrust was so deep that he only took office after an institutional crisis was averted by a populist movement led by his firebrand brother-in-law, Leonel Brizola, the governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

“The truth is that Goulart was a stopgap president. Besides, in reality, he was a big landowner and a conservative politician who found himself in a political party (PTB) with a leftist inheritance from Getúlio Vargas.

“The contradiction made him an ineffectual president, under pressure from all sides and unable to implement policy,” explains professor Nogueira.

The Goulart administration faced constant worker strikes, fierce opposition in the press and had little support in most of the population.

The Army marched on Rio de Janeiro on March 31, 1964. Goulart and Brizola fled the country and the military ruled for the next 21 years.

Under the second military “president,” marshal Artur da Costa e Silva, the regime undertook a radical crackdown on any opposition. So-called “institutional acts,” were issued.

The most infamous was Ato Institutional #5 – AI-5, which gave the executive (the general-president) the power to close Congress, decree forfeiture of office for politicians and legalized the harsh repression of any social movements or public demonstrations contrary to the dictatorship.

By the late 1970s, the fourth general-president, Ernest Geisel, began what came to be known as the “slow and gradual political opening” process.

On October 13, 1978, Congress approved a constitutional amendment (#11), which revoked all the institutional acts and reinstated parliamentary immunity. Members of congress were once again protected from having forfeiture of office decreed arbitrarily by the general-president.

In 1979, the last of the general-presidents, João Figueiredo, sanctioned the Amnesty Law that restored the political rights of those who opposed the military, but also exempted military agents who arrested, killed and/or tortured during the dictatorship from prosecution.

Right-wing hardliners in the military were not happy with the Figueiredo administration “opening,” or the Amnesty Law. There were bomb attacks on newsstands and the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB). There was also an attempt to explode a bomb at a show in Rio de Janeiro commemorating Labor Day in 1981.

By 1984, even the military was weary of military rule. Massive demonstrations were taking place all over the country in favor of direct elections for president. But Congress refused to bow to the popular will and instead obeyed the military and voted for an indirect election.

Tancredo Neves was elected in an indirect election in 1985, but died of natural causes before taking office. His vice president, José Sarney, served for five years and was succeeded, in 1989, by the first really popularly elected president since 1964, Fernando Collar.

Ironically, Collor was impeached for corruption. He was succeeded by his vice president, Itamar Franco. In 1994, Fernando Henrique was elected and then reelected. In 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva began his two-term presidency.

Professor Nogueira says that with the election of a person like Lula – a worker from a low-income family with little formal education – democracy has really been consolidated in Brazil.

ABr

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