As a congressman, Jair Bolsonaro took the stand to celebrate the dictatorship

During his 28 years as a congressman, Jair Bolsonaro had a ritual: every March 31, he would take the stand in the House and celebrate what he once called “Brazil’s second independence.” He was, however, celebrating the 1964 military coup, which ushered in a 21-year dictatorship. The regime arrested, tortured, and killed hundreds of Brazilian citizens, censored the press, and left the country’s economy in a state of near-bankruptcy in 1985.

For the first time since the return to democracy, Brazil will experience the coup’s anniversary having a president who contests testimonies and evidence about the regime’s most sordid face. President Jair Bolsonaro not only denies it was a coup (he says the military were defending democratic values threatened by communists), but he also glorifies the man who is the very symbol of the tortures carried out in political prisons, Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The effort to rewrite history is flagrant at every turn. Even the date of the coup is apparently up for debate. While troops began mobilizing on March 31, 1964, it was only on the following day, April 1, that the coup mongers took the Copacabana Fort, forcing then-president João Goulart out of Rio de Janeiro—and essentially, out of power. But the Armed Forces don&#8217;t want their day to be confused with April Fool&#8217;s Day, which in Brazil is called &#8220;The Day of the Lie.&#8221;</span></p> <div id="attachment_15283" style="width: 970px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-15283" class="size-full wp-image-15283" src="" alt="eduardo bolsonaro celebrates known torturer brilhante ustra" width="960" height="537" srcset=" 960w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 960px) 100vw, 960px" /><p id="caption-attachment-15283" class="wp-caption-text">Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro celebrates known torturer Brilhante Ustra</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This past week, the hashtag #NãoFoiGolpe (&#8220;it wasn&#8217;t a coup&#8221;) gained traction on social media. Many &#8220;intellectuals&#8221; on the military&#8217;s side have pointed out that the Armed Forces were moving against an unpopular leader who was driving the country into chaos. That wasn&#8217;t remotely the case, however. Polls at the time, which were archived for over 40 years, show that Mr. Goulart&#8217;s moves as head of state were backed by 70 percent of Brazilians. If the 1965 election had taken place, he would certainly have won another term.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;What happened then, especially after 1963, is a period of growing political radicalization. We had the Catholic Church, the business class, the Armed Forces, and the press, taking the side against the reforms proposed by the president. They were considered too leftist for the time,&#8221; says Antonio Barbosa, a historian of the University of Brasília. Placed under the umbrella term of &#8220;basic reforms,&#8221; Mr. Goulart&#8217;s agenda defended reforming the banking system, promoting an overhaul to the tax and administrative framework of the country—as well as promoting land distribution policies.</span></p> <p><iframe src=";color=%23ff5500&amp;auto_play=false&amp;hide_related=false&amp;show_comments=true&amp;show_user=true&amp;show_reposts=false&amp;show_teaser=true&amp;visual=true" width="100%" height="300" frameborder="no" scrolling="no"></iframe></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Ultra-right groups have prepared themselves for the date. Video producer Brasil Paralelo scheduled the premiere of a documentary called </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">&#8220;1964, o Brasil entre armas e livros&#8221;</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (in free translation: 1964, Brazil between guns and books). &#8220;Dictatorship, Military Regime, or Revolution? We are producing a documentary to revive the most distorted time in our history,&#8221; says the film&#8217;s press release. Among its contributors, the company has the self-proclaimed philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, an astrologist who became the intellectual guru of Brazil&#8217;s new ultra-right.</span></p> <h2>1964 has always been celebrated by the Armed Forces</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While Mr. Bolsonaro is the only democratically elected president in Brazilian history to celebrate the military dictatorship, the truth is that, in the barracks, the date has always been celebrated. March 31, a date usually called as &#8220;the revolution,&#8221; only left the official calendar of Army celebrations in 2011 when Dilma Rousseff took office as president. Ms. Rousseff, of course, was fighting on the opposite side, having joined paramilitary groups in her youth—when she was arrested and tortured as a political prisoner.</span></p> <div id="attachment_15284" style="width: 1034px" class="wp-caption alignnone"><img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-15284" class="size-large wp-image-15284" src="" alt="1964 coup" width="1024" height="615" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1086w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><p id="caption-attachment-15284" class="wp-caption-text">Celebrations of the 1964 coup during the 1970s</p></div> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Their educational material—military schools are completely autonomous from the national education system—still portrays 1964 as a democratic revolution. It takes a trip to the military museum in the Copacabana Fort to see how unapologetic the Armed Forces have always been about the 1964 coup.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">During the 1960s and 1970s, the military threw public parades to celebrate their usurpation of power. In 1972, when Brazil celebrated the 150th anniversary of its independence, military officers used pins celebrating their 8 years in power. &#8220;From the mobilization around the Brazilian identity, the government glorified the 1964 coup—or revolution, for those who cheered it,&#8221; wrote historian Janaína Cordeiro in an article. Two years later, the government launched the slogan &#8220;Ten years building Brazil.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">From the 1980s until now, though, celebrations started to become more and more reserved to the barracks. It was around this time that the fight for the memory of the victims of the authoritarian government began to emerge. By the end of that decade, the criticism of the military was huge. In 1987, celebrations of the 23rd anniversary of the &#8220;revolution&#8221; were met with revolt. Two years later, military clubs ordered a mass in honor of the 25 years of &#8220;Brazilian Democratic Revolution.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">As recently as last year, Rio&#8217;s Military Club celebrated the date, calling it a &#8220;counter-revolution.&#8221; &#8220;The [club] was filled with old comrades who are aware of the importance of that historical event for maintaining Brazil&#8217;s democracy,&#8221; says the club&#8217;s </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">web page</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.</span></p> <h2>Revisionism at the heart of the government</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In a government dominated by military officers—who hold the keys to this administration—it is remarkable that civilians have now proven to be the most vocal supporters of revisionist ideas. Human Rights Minister Damares Alves has defended the dictatorship—which tortured and killed over 400 people—as did Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo and the embattled Education Minister Ricardo Velez.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Ms. Alves has said she will gut the government&#8217;s amnesty commisssion—created in 2001 by then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to compensate the victims of political repression from state agents.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Mr. Araújo wrote in his blog that, &#8220;seeing that Brazil walking towards the abyss of a Cuban-like dictatorship, [my father] supported the 1964 Revolution. He believed that the path to democracy and freedom came through fighting communist subversion.&#8221;</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In such an administration, Vice President (and retired General) Hamilton Mourão emerged as a sort of moderate figure. He called for caution from military institutions—but said that it is normal that the Armed Forces want to celebrate their important dates. Calling Mr. Mourão a moderate says a lot about this administration. After all, just two years ago, while still an active officer, he called for a &#8220;military intervention&#8221;—maybe something he might call a &#8220;revolution.&#8221;

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BY Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist with experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. His work has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets.