Brazil Protests Tie Present Grievances to Legacies of Dictatorship

As up to two million people took to the streets of Brazil’s cities last week, protesting a range of issues, I was struck by a comment at the end of one of the news reports.  The reporter quoted a protester as saying that “we never dealt with the end of the dictatorship and the legacy of authoritarianism, that’s why it’s so important that we’re waking up and taking to the streets.”

Indeed, Brazil is only now starting to deal with the legacy of its military dictatorship, which lasted until 1985.  Compared to other Latin American countries, there were few deaths, but large numbers of people were imprisoned, forced into exile, or lost their jobs as a result of their political activism.  Moreover, patterns of lack of accountability of police and military forces date from that era, and have never been changed.   The military, in particular, closed ranks to ensure that no officials were ever brought to justice.  In part as a result, police brutality is rampant, and the automatic response of security forces to social unrest is repression.  This is the connection between present and past that a new generation of Brazilians has recognized.

I was in Brazil last month for a discussion of measures to deal with the authoritarian past 25 years after the approval of a new, democratic constitution.  What was striking was the number of young people who have taken up the issue, even though they weren’t born at the time the military left power.  They see the connection to current corruption and abuse of power clearly.

Last year, after the Inter-American Court told Brazil to change its amnesty law to allow prosecutions for crimes against humanity (case is here) , but the Supreme Court declined to do so, President Dilma Roussef created a Truth Commission to look into what had happened.  The Commission, with part-time commissioners and a range of viewpoints, has taken a long time to get itself organized, and will probably need an extension to complete its work.  However, it spawned an interesting process of fragmentation:  impatient with the slow pace of hearings, states, cities and even universities have created their own Truth Commissions to look into what happened in their area.  They are holding hearings, commemorating victims, celebrating resistance to the military, and compiling information that they will both use locally and feed into the national process.   Their efforts combine with those of two other bodies:  a Commission on Amnesty, described here, that continues to hold sessions around the country where those who suffered economic harm as a result of the dictatorships’ policies can receive recognition and some compensation, and a Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances.  In addition, some prosecutors are looking into cases of forced disappearance, which, as continuing crimes, extend beyond the dates of the amnesty law.

It’s not possible to draw a straight causal line between the increased attention to the period of authoritarianism, and resistance to it, and what is happening in the streets  today.  But the renewed discussion of how people resisted the dictatorship, and what happened to them because of it, is no doubt one factor among many leading to today’s “wake-up.”

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