In Brazilian streets, the military dictatorship lives on

. Oct 15, 2017
Brazil authoritarianism dictatorship streets Photo: Memórias da Ditadura

A street of fewer than 200 meters in the heart of São Paulo bears the name of Vladimir Herzog. It is an homage to a journalist arrested and killed by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. It is also an exception: most streets named after people from that period render homage instead to dictators and their collaborators.

Such is the case of Avenue Presidente Castelo Branco, part of Marginal Tietê, a busy highway complex across São Paulo. Less than 500 meters away from Vladimir Herzog Street, the avenue was named after the Field Marshal that seized power after the 1964 coup d’état and initiated an authoritarian process that would kill Herzog and at least 433 other people. Many victims remain “disappeared” to this day, as their bodies were never found.

</p> <p>Across Brazil, several streets bear the names of dark characters from our history – including some of the 377 state agents identified as torturers by the National Truth Commission, a committee that investigated crimes committed by the state during the military regime.</p> <p>Although the victims outnumber the perpetrators, the number of kilometers of public roads with victims’ names is far smaller. Throughout Brazil, roughly 160km of streets, avenues, and roads celebrate people that succumbed to the dictatorship’s crimes. Meanwhile, over 2,000km celebrate their slayers.</p> <p>To map that, we used data public by <em>OpenStreetMap</em>, a collaborative platform on which users can add and update information about addresses and sites. The database is not perfect: there are some inconsistencies in the standardization of names and, above all, some roads are represented more than once, which makes it difficult for an accurate count of streets. Click here for a detailed description of our methods [in Portuguese].</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><a href=""><img loading="lazy" width="300" height="254" src="" alt="Brazil military dictatorship" class="wp-image-418" srcset=" 300w, 768w, 1024w, 1644w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" /></a></figure></div> <p>In the map, the streets bearing names of state criminals are marked in purple, while streets with victims’ names are in orange. Clicking on them will reveal short biographies of the individuals named [in Portuguese].</p> <h3>Narrow alleys and large roads</h3> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img loading="lazy" width="293" height="300" src="" alt="Streets Brazil dictatorship urbanism" class="wp-image-423" srcset=" 293w, 768w, 32w, 50w, 860w" sizes="(max-width: 293px) 100vw, 293px" /></figure></div> <p>It is not only the number of streets that testifies to the different treatment of torturers and victims. There are also geographic and symbolic discrepancies.</p> <p>While important avenues, like Av. Castelo Branco, or bridges like Rio’s Bridge Costa e Silva (the second military president, the official name of the bridge connecting Rio de Janeiro to Niteroi) celebrate the dictatorship, reminders of the political resistance are concentrated in impoverished and more isolated places. In São Paulo, for instance, most streets bearing victims’ names are in the lower-income northern and southern sectors.</p> <p>The same happens in Rio.</p> <p>Most sites remembering military leaders were named before the democratization. Meanwhile, victims were only celebrated after many efforts made by different sectors of civil society.</p> <h3>Name changes</h3> <p>In São Paulo’s city center, a highway is spread over roughly 3.5km, crossing four different boroughs. Popularly known as <em>“Minhocão”</em> (the big worm) for its length and appearance, this controversial piece of urban engineering was officially called Elevado Costa e Silva, a reference to the military president, from its inauguration in 1970 until just last year.</p> <p>Midway through 2016, however, it was renamed after President João Goulart, an homage to the last civilian leader to rule the country before the 1964 coup.</p> <p>The change is part of a broader movement taking place, as Brazilian institutions look to the past and consider how it should reflect upon the present and future. Although he was impeached and lost his political rights, Goulart isn’t officially considered to be a victim of human rights violations. Paulo Stuart Wright, on the other hand, is.</p> <p>A former Santa Catarina state lawmaker and the son of two American missionaries, Wright had been hunted by the military since the beginning of the regime. Impeached in 1964, he sought exile in Mexico. The following year, he secretly returned to Brazil to join the military resistance against the dictatorship. Although Wright disappeared in 1973 his death wasn’t confirmed until eleven years later, when confidential files were opened during the regime’s waning years.</p> <p>In 2015, a road in his home state was renamed after him.</p> <h3>Full-blown confrontation</h3> <p>One of the most dramatic moments in Brazil’s recent political life was the impeachment process against former President Dilma Rousseff. Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain and a leader of the extreme-right, voted against Rousseff – and did so in the most controversial fashion possible.</p> <p>“They lost in 1964 and lost again in 2016,” said Bolsonaro, comparing the military coup to the impeachment. “In the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, Dilma’s nemesis […] I vote yea [to the impeachment].”</p> <p>Bolsonaro was honoring the former head of the Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations (DOI-CODI), otherwise known as the political police. Operating between 1970 and 1974, these police committed hundreds of human rights violations. Ustra, who died two years ago as a free and unapologetic man, is considered to have been one of the most violent agents of the dictatorship.</p> <p>His victims have described his different tactics of torture, which range from electric shocks to the gruesome insertion of live rats into the vaginas of female prisoners. In some of the most brutal cases, torture sessions were witnessed by the victims’ children and spouses. Dilma Rousseff herself was held for months by the DOI-CODI in the 1970s for having joined the armed resistance.</p> <p>During the impeachment crisis, groups that support Bolsonaro asked the military “to save Brazil from communism again” – remembering the excuses given by the army 43 years ago. Today, presidential hopeful Bolsonaro is polling in second place, behind only former President Lula, himself a former political prisoner. This is yet more evidence that our <a href="">challenging past is not simply confined</a> to street names – it insists on resurfacing from time to time.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h6 class="has-text-align-center">This article was originally published in Portuguese on <a href=""><em>A Pública</em></a></h6> <p>

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Rodrigo Menegat

Journalist with a degree from the State University of Ponta Grossa. Menegat works with data journalism and is a member of the BRIO Lab journalism initiative.

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