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A political comedy

Fourth volume about the military regime recounts crisis that led to the dismissal of Frota

This fourth volume A ditadura encurralada [The dictatorship cornered], now published by Companhia das Letras, Elio Gaspari tells the history of one more stage of the dictatorship installed in 1964, accompanying the happenings that range from the crisis in 1975 to the dismissal of Minister General Sylvio Frota, in October 1977. As in the previous books, the text is of the highest quality, mounting a labyrinth of reconstructed facts with every care and elegance. Sometimes we get the impression of riffling through an archive, so many are the details narrated, but the repetition begins to make sense when we note that the last two volumes design a circle. They both tell the lives of Geisel and Golbery, as well as the vicissitudes that make the first a president of the Republic, and the second, a shadow of a government. In the two volumes, the titles are reduced to subtitles, to highlight the importance of the main theme: “The priest and the sorcerer”. But the circle continues, since the fourth volumes ends up byretaking and reconstructing, obviously from a new point of view, the dismissal of General Frota, already narrated in the introduction of the third.

I do not believe that Elio Gaspari was converted to the circular time of the Greeks or adhered to the idea of the eternal return proclaimed by Nietzsche’s Zarathusa. It seems to me that the reconstruction in a filigree of the Geisel period, today regarded as the most fruitful of the military government, has as its backcloth the monotony of the dictatorship, of a normative system that exhausts itself when exercised. More than the declining continuity of the economic miracle, what is important is the forced return of the same mechanisms that ended up cornered between the unquestionable beliefs of an authoritarian priest and an also authoritarian sorcerer, whose witchcraft, however, are similar to the intrigues of a Jesuit.

More than a human comedy, the four volumes make me think of a political comedy. A period as rich as the Geisel government is cast to the quicksands, in which the game of the adversaries had as its limit the radical instrument of the AI-5. It is worth reflecting on the sense of politics in a dictatorship that keeps losing the support of the population, as it ceases to fulfil its promises of a great Brazil and sustainable development, so that it only last while it maintains its mechanisms of repression. It is not because war is a continuation of politics that the latter is turned into the latter. On occupying the terrain of politics, the military start taking their adversaries as enemies to be liquidated, or at least to be definitively expelled from the game.

In view of this, a mechanism like the AI-5 (decree that “installed” full-fledged dictatorship in Brazil) ends up producing opposite effects to those aimed at when it was installed. If at the outset, it serves to send the “frock coats” back home and to violently repress the leftwing movements, little by little it comes to be the weapon for the internal struggle amongst the military, amongst those believe or do not believe in the perennity of the dictatorship. Not that they use it against each other, but the act of exception becomes a political weapon, to the extent that one group accuses the other of not applying it will due violence. And, in this struggle, the subversive communist enemy is resuscitated, even when on the verge of exhaustion.

Geisel and Golbery nurtured the dream of – in the long term, when the population actually knew how to vote – leading the country to a democracy. To do so, more than facing up to the maneuvers of the opposition stitched up in the MDB, they needed to deal with the radical “tigers”, whose survival depends on direct, sometimes murderous repression. They were not thinking of giving up the AI-5 while not being sure of the maintenance of power, above all of the control over the succession, but they could not use it beyond a limit from which they themselves would be mistaken for their own military adversaries. Closed within this dome, which the popular vote could only corrode by the edges, politics was resolved in the struggle for the control of the legitimate repression, that is, of the strategic positions occupied by the Armed Forces. Each general, each admiral, each brigadier was carrying within himself the seed of a political party, capable of agglutinating military men and civilians.

During 1977, this conflict became more acute, in the light of the danger that the scheduled general elections might result in a greater disaster than the one of 1974. There was no longer the possibility of accepting it without trauma, without returning to the dilemmas of 1964. Either Congress would be closed down, the elections postponed etc., which would imply the defeat of Geisel’s project, the dictatorship restarting its vicious circle, or it would be necessary to remove the adversaries from the repressive mechanisms of the State. After all the spots of resistance had been isolated, General Sylvio Frota was summarily dismissed, having refused he himself to tender his resignation. With this, Elio Gaspari concludes, “Ernesto Geisel had reestablished the constitutional authority of the president of the Republic over the Armed Forces”. It now remains to be explained how the dictatorship was able to survive in the hands of the boorish Figueiredo.

José Arthur Giannotti , philosopher, emeritus professor of the Faculty of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences at USP and coordinator of the area of philosophy of the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap)

A ditadura Encurralada [The dictatorship cornered]
Elio Gaspari
Cia. das Letras
560 pages / R$ 56.00