The Brazilian dictatorship between history and memory

The military dictatorship has given rise to important work of memory and research, between the National Truth Commission and the advances in the history of the present time. This reflection is all the more necessary since Bolsonaro has weakened Brazilian democracy.

Professor of Brazilian History at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) from Rio de Janeiro and associate researcher at the Center for Social History of Contemporary Worlds, Anglica Muller coordinates the Observatory of Present Time, which she co-founded with Francine Iegelski. She was a senior researcher at the National Truth Commission, responsible for the chapter Serious human rights violations in universitieswhich appears in the volume II of the final report. She published Student movement and military resistance, 1969-1979 (Garamond, 2016) and, with Camille Goirand, directed Document the violence. Public uses of the pass in transitional justice (Iheal, 2020).

Shooting & editing: Ariel Suhamy.

The Life of Ideas: Brazil experienced two episodes of dictatorship in XXe century. Can you tell us about it??

Anglica Muller: The dictatorship which began in 1964 was above all military, and not simply because the army was in power. In the 1930s there was a personal dictator, Getlio Vargas. What brings the 1964 dictatorship closer to other dictatorships of the Southern Cone is the doctrine of national security, which is the basis of the regime in place in Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The country lived in dictatorship longer than Argentina under Videla (1976 -1983) and Chile under Pinochet (1973-1988).

This national security dictatorship has a French base, resulting from the experience of the Algerian war. This experience was translated for the United States by the military school of the Americas, which operated in the midst of the Cold War, especially from the Cuban revolution in 1959. It then found its battlefield in the South American countries placed under surveillance. This ideological and political project, sometimes also economic, differs from the corporatism of Vargas (some speak of populism), more anchored on social aspects.

The Life of Ideas: Precisely, can we compare the military dictatorship established in 1964 by Castelo Branco that of Videla in Argentina or that of Pinochet in Chile?

Anglica Muller: Yes and no. Yes, because there is a doctrine common to all these dictatorships. On the other hand, as that of Brazil is comparatively longer, it includes five military presidents. Furthermore, with the Institutional Acts, the Brazilian government has retained a legal and democratic even if this was not the case in fact. Videla and Pinochet did it too, but to a lesser extent. Another instrument used by Brazil has been the surveillance of society, to control enemies from within.

This democratic appearance, with a legal basis, explains another very interesting difference: Brazil is the country that has produced the most archives. Today, we have more than 9 million pages of documents! It's pretty incredible. The National Truth Commission (CNV) was able to have access to it and researchers are working on these sources. The other dictatorships produced fewer archives.

Another point of difference concerns the repression and its results. Dictatorial regimes caused 3,000 deaths in Chile and 8,000 in Argentina, while Brazil officially has only 450 deaths. Some mention the appearance liberal of the Brazilian dictatorship, supposedly no longer flexible or more gentleas if we could compare the number of deaths to assess the horror

The Life of Ideas: Installed 26 years after the end of the dictatorship, the National Truth Commission (CNV) did it fulfill its mission?

Anglica Muller: The CNV was installed by President Dilma Rousseff in 2011, following a federal law, to repair the memory of the military dictatorship. Initially, it was composed mainly of lawyers, then it welcomed researchers from several disciplines, notably anthropologists and historians. More than 150 of them worked to develop a report exposing crimes against humanity perpetrated under the dictatorship.

The Life of Ideas: What are the great pillars of Brazilian democracy today?

Anglica Muller: The Brazilian democracy is one of the largest in the world, but it is also a fragile democracy. Its main pillar is the constitutional process of 1986-1988. From a social and political point of view, the constitution is very committed, with positive aspects such as secret and direct voting, which was suppressed during the dictatorship. It also guarantees the universality of health and education.

On the other hand, it is a constitution by the top, written with the participation of the military who initiated and managed the process. It retained the bases of the previous regime, such as the functioning of the state, administrative law, the right of veto of the Senate, an undemocratic judicial power. Above all, the military are very protected. They have military justice. Already, in 1979, they had passed a law which amnestied those responsible for crimes against humanity.

The Life of Ideas: Has the Bolsonaro government further weakened Brazilian democracy??

Anglica Muller: Without doubt. Bolsonaro damaged Brazilian democracy for several reasons. The best known is his management of the covid pandemic, which amounts to pure and simple negationism. But we can also come back to the question of dictatorship. It is no coincidence that, the rest of the CNVthe military returned to the political scene, providing Bolsonaro with the strength necessary to win the presidency.

Subsequently, the latter systematically minimized Brazil's dictatorial past. He began to officially commemorate March 31, the date of the 1964 coup d'état. His education minister introduced into textbooks a version of the history of the dictatorship that history teachers reject. In a word, it weakened the idea of ​​citizenship and democracy in the country.

The Life of Ideas: Lanne 2024 marks the 60the anniversary of the dictatorship and the 10e anniversary of the National Truth Commission. Will there be commemorations, ceremonies, conferences?

Anglica Muller: Seminars and symposia are planned, as well as federal government commemorations and meetings with groups committed to human rights. It’s a real challenge, because we realized that the far right was still dynamic and threatening. Hence the need to never forget the past and to keep this reflection on the agenda. For Lula's government itself, this is a legacy with complicated issues, because it prefers to have a peaceful relationship with the military.

It is therefore up to us, civil society, to engage in movements so as not to forget the episode of the dictatorship. We must also recognize the failure of our transitional justice. After the CNV, we thought we had reached a milestone. We still have an excellent report of 3,000 pages, with a list of names, convictions, places, etc. The next step was to do justice; this was not done. This is still a point of difference with Argentina and Chile, but it is part of Brazilian political culture

The Life of Ideas: You are part of a particular research stream: the history of the present time. What is this approach??

Anglica Muller: I am carrying out a theoretical reflection based on the work of François Bdarida (1926-2001) on the subject of the methodological, ethical and civic responsibility of the historian, to which I add a social dimension.

The important thing is to think about the responsibility that we, historians, have with regard to our history and our memory. With the passage of time and the change of era, this becomes absolutely necessary for the Brazilian dictatorship.

I started studying a pass that does not pass, and here we are today in the presence of a past with multiple stories, even negationism. Our place, as historians of the present time, is to think of our responsibility to tell this story as an ethical, social and moral responsibility, linked to the truth and the basic principles of our discipline.

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