Anger after Bolsonaro calls for Brazil army to mark 1964 coup

Bolsonaro’s call to commemorate the anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 military coup causes anger, unease.

    Brazil's new President Jair Bolsonaro gestures after receiving the presidential sash during his inauguration ceremony [File: Evaristo SA/AFP]
    Brazil's new President Jair Bolsonaro gestures after receiving the presidential sash during his inauguration ceremony [File: Evaristo SA/AFP]

    Brazil's federal prosecutor's office on Tuesday said it was opposed to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's plan to allow the armed forces to officially commemorate the 55th anniversary of Brazil's military coup this weekend.

    Bolsonaro, a former army captain who waxes nostalgic for the 1964-1985 dictatorship, on Monday asked Brazil's Ministry of Defence to organise "due commemorations" on March 31, the day historians say marks the coup that began the dictatorship, which supporters call a "military government".

    Some Brazilian conservatives and members of Brazil's military view March 31 as the day they liberated the country from the threat of communist usurpation, but many other Brazilians view it as a dark period that resulted in human rights abuses, disappearances and the murder of political activists.

    "The coup d'etat of 1964 ... was a violent and undemocratic rupture of the constitutional order," the citizens' rights defender's office, which is part of the federal prosecutor's office, said in a statement.

    "If repeated in the present times, the conduct of the military and civilian forces that promoted the coup would be characterised as a ... crime against the constitutional order and the democratic state."

    Speaking with reporters on Monday, Bolsonaro's spokesman confirmed the president planned to allow the military to commemorate on Sunday the beginning of the country's 1964-1985 dictatorship. Sunday will be the first time since 2011 that the military will officially commemorate the date.

    Despite Bolsonaro's move, no public displays by the military are expected, although events may take place behind closed doors in Brazil's barracks. Still, several civil groups announced that they were organising protests throughout the country in response. 

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    Former President Dilma Rousseff, a one-time leftist guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured during the regime, ordered the military to halt commemorations when she took office.

    Arrests and torture

    "This means that [Bolsonaro] thinks the dictatorship against opponents, against political dissidents, is not a dictatorship," Rosa Cardoso, a lawyer who coordinated Brazil's national truth commission, told the Associated Press. "That the illegitimate use of force is not violence when imposed on those who have different beliefs, that torture is not torture but a fair and justified treatment."

    In 2014, the truth commission concluded that at least 434 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. Among indigenous communities, the death toll rose sharply, according to the report. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 people were illegally arrested and tortured, the prosecutors' office said.

    Bolsonaro's discourse "shows a deep ignorance and lack of acknowledgement of a doctrine that is internationally accepted," Cardoso said.

    During Bolsonaro's 28 years in Congress, he repeatedly expressed support and admiration for the dictatorship. 

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    During last year's election, that position angered and shocked many Brazilians while seducing others who think of the dictatorship as a time of low crime and general order.

    Bolsonaro's promise to crack down on crime, one of the biggest challenges in Latin America's largest nation, appealed to many voters and helped propel him to victory.

    'I feel as if the torture has returned'

    The far-right leader has said the dictatorship should have gone farther in killing communists who threatened Brazil. On Monday, government spokesman Otavio Rego Barros said during a press conference that "the president does not believe March 31, 1964, was a coup".

    "I never thought I would hear this," Alvaro Caldas, a former guerrilla fighter who was jailed, kidnapped and tortured under military rule, told The Associated Press from his Rio de Janeiro apartment in Copacabana.

    "I feel as if the torture has returned, and can return," Caldas, now a 78-year-old retired journalist, said while looking at an old photo of himself with two puffy, black eyes. 

    The photo, he said, was taken in 1983, when he said the military kidnapped him and interrogated him for about a week before releasing him.

    "This is what Bolsonaro wants to celebrate, the humiliation of the human being," he said.

    Another fighter and torture victim, Crimeia Alice Schmidt de Almeida, deplored the lack of military convictions for human rights abuses. 

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    "We have no one in custody, or at least condemned," de Almeida, who was sent to a torture centre in Sao Paulo in 1972 when she was eight months pregnant, told the AP.

    A few retired members of the military have been charged with crimes, but an amnesty law has prevented most prosecutions linked to abuses under the dictatorship from leading to convictions.

    Barros, the government spokesman, did not give any details about the kind of events that might be held for the March 31 commemorations.

    The Defence Ministry said the presidential decision consisted mostly in including the March 31 date on the military's agenda, along with a text that could be read in military facilities. But it is up to each facility to decide what to do.

    The Southeast military command in Sao Paulo, for instance, has said it will form ranks on March 28 in relation to the 1964 "the democratic revolution".

    SOURCE: News agencies