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Lasting impact

Experts examine the effects of 21 years of dictatorship on contemporary Brazilian society

Military police curb protestors in Brasília in 2009: violence by agents of the State is one of the legacies of the dictatorship

Dida Sampaio/Estadão Content/AEMilitary police curb protestors in Brasília in 2009: violence by agents of the State is one of the legacies of the dictatorshipDida Sampaio/Estadão Content/AE

Five decades have gone by, another five will pass, and the coup of 1964 will still be impacting our reality. This is what we have been told from the scientific knowledge accumulated over years of articles and books published and research projects carried out at Brazil’s best educational institutions. Part of what we are, of what we could become, and of what we will never be is connected to the legacy of the military regime in Brazil. On the one hand, we are approaching our seventh democratic presidential election and can celebrate the fact that the highest office in the land has been held by an exiled professor, a union leader imprisoned during the dictatorship, and a female guerrilla who had been imprisoned and tortured. On the other hand, much of what we still lack as a nation is attributed to a State and society that have been unable to break free of the chains and escape the traps of the past. Researchers have bent to the task and are persevering in their analyses of the impacts and consequences of a period that still yields countless theses and dissertations; however they may never be able to answer a crucial question: will we ever be able to turn the page of history?

Dictatorship special issue

In 2014, Brazilians witnessed the barbarous scene of Claudia Silva Ferreira, a domestic servant, being dragged by a Military Police car in the north zone of Rio after having been caught in the crossfire between drug traffickers and the police. “Torture, assassinations, and disappearances were State policy during the dictatorship, but police violence is still practiced systematically in Brazil,” was the criticism leveled by historian Francisco Carlos Teixeira da Silva, co-author of Modernização, ditadura e democracia: 1964-2010 (Modernization, Dictatorship and Democracy: 1964-2010) (published by Objetiva in 2014). The origin of that violence is the tie that binds the police barracks of the Estado Novo (term used to refer to the Getúlio Vargas regime 1937-1945), the agents of repression kept alive during the democracy of 1946-1964, the 21 years of military regime, and the present day police, paramilitary, and militiamen, observes the historian, affiliated with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The current democracy could have said “Enough!” to that logic, but did not. In 2010, the Federal Supreme Court refused to “open old wounds,” when it opposed the revision of the Amnesty Law. “1964 keeps on happening every day,” Teixeira de Silva says.

It might be hard for a young man born under the democracy to relate the repression by the Army police to the institutionalization of violence and militarization of the police. But this is a fact, and also a field for study. The Center for the Study of Violence at the University of São Paulo (NEV-USP) was established in 1987 to investigate why a Brazil that had been redemocratized retains traces of an authoritarian legacy, and reflect on the challenges that past still poses for the consolidation of a democratic state of law. Since then, the crime rate—especially the murder rate— exploded from the 1980s to the 1990s. Now society is struggling to deal with organized crime. At least two generations ago the public stopped thinking of the police as efficient.

Sociologist Sergio Adorno, coordinator of the NEV-USP and director of the Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at USP, recalls that a fear of speaking out reigned during the dictatorship. Adorno was a university student during the 1970s and knew that his sociology professors were not allowed to mention the word “Marxism” in the classroom. Censorship hushed up the violence, which became very visible only after the military had stepped down. “The institutions in charge of enforcing law and order are still adopting authoritarian treatment to curb violence. They have a concept of “order” that was inspired by the logic of war,” he explains. “Criminals are enemies that must be extirpated.”

Since 2000, the NEV-USP has been one of FAPESP’s Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC). The Foundation has funded several research projects on the subject, such as an investigation by Adorno about the continuity of the authoritarian discourse in Brazil, focusing on a study of the so-called “death squads.” According to Adorno, a kind of pact began to be reached with public opinion, a pact that tolerates the killing of criminals by police officers of criminals—or persons suspected of having committed crimes—as if the security policy were perfectly acceptable. The Center has already done studies about impunity as it relates to criminal activity, the consequences of the immutability of the military profile among the police, and the violation of human rights.

Political scientist Maria Helena Moreira Alves is also devoted to studying the vestiges of the 1964 coup on the national security doctrine that, in her opinion, is still in full force and effect. She believes that Brazil’s institutions are still unable to respond to democracy. This stems from the fact that they have not opened their ranks to other social classes, but instead have become utilitarian tools for preserving power in the hands of the elites. The researcher cites the Judiciary, the political parties, and the press as some of the institutions that fail to represent the interests of the majority of the population. “In contrast with the period of the resistance, which focused on the armed struggle by the middle class, today it is the poor, the rural dwellers, and the residents of urban peripheries who are the victims of the violence, who are disappearing or silenced,” argues the author of Vivendo no fogo cruzado (Living in the Crossfire) (published by Editora Unesp, 2013), referring to the Rio government’s policy of re-taking the hillsides and slum communities. The youngest sister of Deputy Márcio Moreira Alves, whose provocative speech in Congress lit the fuse for issuance of Institutional Act No. 5 in 1968, Maria Helena Moreira Alves, a retired professor from the State University of Rio de Janeiro, has also published Estado e oposições no Brasil: 1964-1984 (The State and Opposition Forces in Brazil: 1964-1984), (Vozes, 1984).

Assembly of metalworkers in the ABC, hotbed of strikes in the late 1970s: attempt to depoliticize unions ended up politicizing wage negotiations

Alfredo Rizzutti/ Estadão Content/AEAssembly of metalworkers in the ABC, hotbed of strikes in the late 1970s: attempt to depoliticize unions ended up politicizing wage negotiationsAlfredo Rizzutti/ Estadão Content/AE

Imprisoned in 1970, tortured in the cellars of the DOI-CODI (Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations) in Rio de Janeiro, historian and psychologist Cecília Maria Bouças Coimbra defended her doctoral dissertation that was published in a book, now out of print, entitled Guardiães da ordem: uma viagem pelas práticas “psi” no Brasil do “milagre” (Guardians of order: a tour of the “psych” practices in the Brazil of the “Miracle”). In her paper, the researcher shows how tests were employed by psychologists in order to develop profiles of the so-called “terrorist” prisoners. The objective was to use the constructed profile to intimize (focus on a certain essence said to be present in each individual), emphasize the private sphere (everything connected to one’s private life) and justify a family-focused approach (political opponents were believed to be emotionally disturbed and having difficulties with relationships because of dysfunctional families). “They ignored the social reality, as if the subjects were not the products of their historical context,” Bouças Coimbra says. During her post-doctoral work at USP, her study Operação Rio: o mito das classes perigosas (Operation Rio: the Myth of the Dangerous Classes), the researcher, founder, and now vice president of the group Torture Never Again-RJ, speaks of how the dominant communications media created an “enemy” that had to be pursued. She points out that ever since the end of the 19th century, poverty has been indissolubly associated with criminality.

But public safety, perhaps the most visible legacy of the dictatorship, is not the only poorly-resolved issue, according to scholars. It is not unusual to hear, in certain strata of public opinion, expressions of a lack of faith in the current political regime expressed sometimes as mistrust of the institutions, and at other times as a perception that the officials are corrupt. To political scientist Fernando Limongi, of USP, that view is based on a great deal of prejudice and an ignorance of the role and activities of the institutions. FAPESP’s thematic project entitled Instituições políticas, padrões de interação Executivo-Legislativo e capacidade governativa (Political Institutions, Patterns of Executive-Legislative Interaction, and Governing Capability), begun in 1997, disproves the construct that the pre-1964 political regime was functioning poorly and that this is what generated a conflict that resulted in the coup.

“That diagnosis, which in my view was mistaken, influenced the Constituent Assembly of 1987, which re-drew the institutional relationships by strengthening the Executive Branch, while still attempting to make the Legislative Branch more efficient, thereby increasing presidential ability to get a political agenda implemented,” says Limongi. But the studies that were done under the thematic project that compared the 1945-1964 period with the current one, show that prior to the coup, the system operated in a different way. The Executive Branch did not dominate the legislative process as forcefully as now, but this is not the same as saying that the system was on the verge of a collapse. It functioned, just differently. The thematic project, coordinated by Limongi and political scientist Argelina Cheibub Figueiredo, has already sparked a series of articles and books, as well as master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. Limongi also participates in another FAPESP RIDC, the Center for Metropolitan Studies, where he studies election-related issues.

The Cold War, characterized by disputes of strategy and indirect conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union, was a factor of greater importance in the political calculations that the Brazilian political parties were making at that time, Figueiredo explains. The three parties around which political life gravitated (the PSD (Social Democratic Party), near the center of the national political system, João Goulart’s PTB (Brazilian Labor Party), and the oppositionist conservatives of the UDN (National Democratic Union)) possessed many internal factions that took radical positions, depending on the topic in dispute. The “program of basic reforms” proposed by Goulart, for example, was defended tooth and nail by leftist groups within the labor-related parties. At the time, they saw their representation in Congress grow in the 1962 elections, but did not have a majority. Despite this, they would not accept any kind of negotiation—in sharp contrast with the present scenario. In her studies of the Legislative Branch, the political scientist recalls that Congress has enjoyed 70 years of practically uninterrupted legislative activity, except for a few months in 1966 and 1969. “The deputies, mayors outside the state capitals, and city councilmen continued to stand for election, which meant that local politics never ceased to have an influence that persists even today,” she explains.

The dictatorship was determined to institutionalize the government by the military, enacting its reforms and creating a strong Executive Branch in which the decree-law was one of the principal mechanisms for approving legislation. Figueiredo explains that the 1988 Constitution ultimately maintained the powers attributed to the chief of the Executive Branch by the military governments in order to prevent a weak president from becoming unable to govern in the presence of a conservative Congress. But that did not make the Legislative Branch a hostage of the presidency; presidents must now engage in intense negotiations with the leaders of the parties in order to define their agendas, whether by means of proposed bills or provisional measures. “Today the president is stronger from the institutional standpoint but must govern as part of a coalition, since Congress has the ability to impose its will when it wants to.”

Another object of study, still insufficiently explored, refers to the world of work and of workers during that period. Essential to an understanding of the 1964 coup and its consequences, the role of workers and the world of work deserves more research. This is the assessment by sociologist Marco Aurélio Santana, director of the Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences of the UFRJ. “Since the coup we have seen a very critical view of labor’s participation in the years prior to 1964, as if they had ‘made mistakes’ in the pre-1964 period, been ‘defeated’ in 1964, and rendered ‘immobile’ and/or ‘absent’ in the post-1964 period,” he explains. The exception can be credited to two important movements: the worker strikes of 1968 in Osasco (São Paulo) and Contagem (Minas Gerais); and, starting in 1978, the strikes in the industrial ABC region of São Paulo State, Santana recalls. The sociologist warns that soon after they seized power, the Armed Forces attempted to arrest and strip the leaders of the communist-worker movements, groups that had dominated the labor union movement of the era, of their political rights. And, seeking to re-orient that movement, the military favored an approximation with factions associated with the conservative unions, which were more open to reconciliation and negotiation, besides having a constituent-oriented hue.

The dictatorship’s economic plans established conditions for the “Brazilian miracle” with incentives for domestic industries such as the auto industry

Files / Estadão Content/AEThe dictatorship’s economic plans established conditions for the “Brazilian miracle” with incentives for domestic industries such as the auto industryFiles / Estadão Content/AE

“The dictatorship tried to de-politicize the unions, but ended up politicizing wage negotiations by adopting, as its central economic policy, the fight against inflation, which was to be achieved by controlling wages and salaries through the so-called ‘wage squeeze,’” says Santana, who currently coordinates a research project entitled Trabalho, trabalhadores e regime ditatorial: a experiência brasileira (1964-1985) (Labor, Workers, and the Dictatorial Regime: the Brazilian Experience (1964-1985). “The unions began to fight the wage squeeze, which led to great tension between capital and labor that has now been transplanted to a position within the State.” Although the 1968 strikes were quickly repressed, a new working class that was more politicized and better educated was by then taking shape in Brazil and this resulted in the emergence of new union leaders in the larger cities. The best example is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who in the very midst of the military regime was able to attract 50,000 or 60,000 to mass meetings in São Paulo’s ABC region. The specific battle of the workers became politicized and they even tried to achieve party status, because they realized that their demand for higher wages was not enough; they also needed to oppose the policies of the regime that led to a growing concentration of income and a deterioration in the quality of life. From that perspective, it was not mere coincidence that the Workers Party (PT) emerged in 1980.

Researcher Armando Boito Jr., full professor of political science at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), recalls that Brazil during the military cycle maintained a development-oriented policy, contrary to the decision made by its neighbors Chile and Argentina, who adopted the neoliberal capitalist model during their respective dictatorships. During the Brazilian dictatorship, the State, in many different ways, preserved its function of inducing growth. “The military maintained industrialization as its policy but got rid of populism, which was at the grass roots of developmentalism. Therefore, they were trying to move ahead on only one leg,” he suggests. During redemocratization, Fernando Collor, the first elected president, opened Brazil’s doors to international capital, which proved to be a setback for Brazilian industrialization.

When Lula ascended to power he adopted a policy described as neo-developmentalism by Boito Jr., author of books such as Política neoliberal e sindicalismo no Brasil (Neoliberal Policy and the Labor Union Movement in Brazil) (Editora Xamã, 2002). “Neodevelopmentalism is the kind of developmentalism that is possible within the neoliberal capitalist model that is still in effect. This policy primarily favors the huge Brazilian internal bourgeoisie, but it also has the support of broad popular sectors.” Boito Jr. believes that under the PT governments, a broad and heterogeneous political front has been formed that favors the struggles of the unions more than the approaches that prevailed during the 1990s and under the military dictatorship.

Under the Lula and Rousseff administrations, the number of strikes has soared (according to the Dieese – Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socio-Economic Studies, there were 873 strikes in 2012 compared with 312 in 2004) and workers achieved an increase in wages in real terms. (18% of the 2003 agreements and conventions called for a real increase, and that percentage kept rising until it reached 96% in 2012). “On the one hand, the unions became recognized actors in the political game, but, because of their subordinate position on the neodevelopmentalist political front, they ultimately had to put aside some of their pet causes such as the 40-hour work week and regulations to restrict out-sourcing,” Boito Jr. concludes.

Economist Edmar Bacha, founding member of the Casa das Garças Institute of Economic Policy Studies, disagrees that Lula and Rousseff have instituted a government that has a developmentalist bias. He argues that comparisons with the military regime are like comparing apples and oranges. The Geisel government invested between 5% and 7% of Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At present, and excluding the My House, My Life program, that rate ranges between 1% and 2%. Moreover, instead of industrialization, what is happening is a retrocession, says Bacha, who was one of the architects of the Real Plan and member of the international consultative council at Yale University. “The current administration lacks an understanding of what industrialization means in an era of globalization. It’s one thing for a poor and agricultural country, during a period when the world economy was not integrated, to adopt an import substitution policy. You can’t do that today because it would mean protecting domestic industry by raising the costs of production,” he argues.

With respect to the economy during the years of the dictatorship, and despite the different phases that it went through during that period, one of the images that most often recurs during debates is that of the “Brazilian miracle.” Economist José Pedro Macarini, of Unicamp, attempted to demystify that subject. “The miracle did not pursue industrialization—only growth. The only reason that the government gained legitimacy in the eyes of the general public was that the economy was growing at high rates,” he explains. But the focus on industrialization is said to have occurred only during the Geisel administration, with the 2nd National Development Program (PND).

Minister of Finance Delfim Netto (with colleagues Reis Velloso and Pratini de Moraes) enabled Brazilian companies to take out international loans, which contributed to expanding the external debt

Files / Estadão Content/AEMinister of Finance Delfim Netto (with colleagues Reis Velloso and Pratini de Moraes) enabled Brazilian companies to take out international loans, which contributed to expanding the external debtFiles / Estadão Content/AE

Prior to the 1964 coup, Brazil was experiencing a phase of deceleration, trending toward an open economic crisis. Although during the Juscelino Kubitschek (JK) decade GDP had risen at 7.5% a year, in 1963 it rose by only 1.6%. Inflation as measured by the General Price Index published by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) was about 30% under JK, but reached 81% in the year before the coup, during the Goulart administration. “The public sector deficit and Brazil’s indebtedness were worrisome. Under Kubitschek’s successor Jânio Quadros, a successful re-negotiation of the external debt was conducted by ambassadors Roberto Campos and Walther Moreira Salles. The political crisis of 1962-63 forced a new attempt at renegotiation, but it failed,” Macarini says. To get through the period of turbulence, which lasted from 1964 to 1967, Marshall Castello Branco, the first military president, formulated the Government Economic Action Plan (PAEG). In order to combat inflation, the plan called for severe restrictions on credit, coupled with a deterioration of wage purchasing power and a cut in public spending (including investment).

The PAEG proposed by Ministers Roberto Campos and Otávio Gouveia de Bulhões succeeded in bringing about reforms in taxes, monetary/financial matters, housing, and the foreign sector. Legacies from that period, such as establishment of the Central Bank, the National Monetary Council, financial services companies, the stock market, the Housing Financial System, and the Guarantee Fund for Time of Service (FGTS), in addition to the conversion of cascade taxes to value-added taxes (the IPI – Tax on Manufactured Products and the ICM – the state value-added tax) are still in place today. “But the public did not feel the effect of these reforms until 1968, when the global economy improved and there was plenty of international liquidity,” he adds.

From 1968 to early 1974, Brazil experienced the so-called “economic miracle” during which it recorded growth rates higher than 10% per annum, while inflation was held below 20%. “The “Great Brazil” plunged into the construction of major public works, such as the Trans-Amazon highway, the Rio-Niterói Bridge, the Itaípu Hydroelectric Power Plant, and the Steel Railroad. “But it was because of Finance Minister Delfim Netto that Brazil saw an expansion of huge loans by foreign financial institutions that kept growing until they resulted in the foreign debt crisis of the final years of military governments,” Macarini observes.

Antonio Delfim Netto, an USP-educated economist, held positions in the governments of Generals Costa e Silva (1967-1969), Médici (1969-1973), and João Figueiredo (1979-1985). Brazilian foreign debt, which stood at US$3.5 billion between 1963 and 1968, reached US$12.5 billion in 1974. New loans, interest charges, and amortizations, took it to US$100 billion by 1980. It is important to remember that there was a contraction in the world economy in 1975. The 2nd PND, under the Geisel government, was said also to be a response to the oil shock and was intended to encourage the production of basic inputs, capital goods, food, and energy. “Manufacturing didn’t diversify very much; it did not free Brazil from heavy dependence on imported machinery and equipment, and the economy was not structurally transformed during the miracle years,” is the criticism levied by Macarini. Although the 2nd PND fell short of its original ambitious goals under a very extended and uneven timetable, it still managed to bring about structural transformations in the economy that constituted a positive legacy for the period that began in 1985.

Part of the story of external indebtedness was the controversial cooperation agreement that Brazil signed with Germany for construction of the Angra 1 nuclear power plant. That European country was the only one willing to transfer the technology for the ultracentrifugation of uranium, says researcher Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, author of O “milagre alemão” e o desenvolvimento no Brasil (The “German Miracle” and Development in Brazil) (Editora Unesp, 2011) and O governo João Goulart: as lutas sociais no Brasil – 1961-1964 (The João Goulart Government: Social Conflicts in Brazil – 1961-1964) (Editora Unesp, 2010). “The transfer was done covertly by technical personnel and scientists who came from Germany, according to the industry protocol and was not subject to safeguards.” Germany agreed to transfer the technology because it needed enriched uranium in order to produce electricity and did not want to remain dependent on the United States. A retired full professor from the University of Brasília, Moniz Bandeira reiterates that the military saw the Brazil’s mastery of nuclear energy as essential, including for purposes of establishing its place as a world power.

Physicist José Goldemberg, former president of USP, recalls that leading representatives of the scientific community, especially the Brazilian Physics Society and the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, publicly opposed the military’s plan, since the nuclear agreement with Germany called for the purchase of a sealed package, which meant that even Brazilian scientists would not have access to the nuclear technology. The agreement was a boon to German coffers though. In 1967, the government announced the purchase of the Angra 1 plant. But, in 1975, scientists were surprised by Geisel’s intention to expand the agreement with Germany by purchasing eight large nuclear reactors. “Today we know that our opposition was essential in preventing the nuclearization of Brazil,” Goldemberg recalls. Of the eight reactors, only Angra 2 was finished, while Angra 3 is expected to be ready in 2018.

Labor unions that were persecuted, parties that were stripped of their political rights, worsening violence, criminalization of the country’s youth, growth coupled with an increase in social inequality—all of this was part of the reality of the military regime. How and why a substantial portion of society agreed to take part in that game remains unanswered. New generations of researchers, such as historian Janaina Cordeiro, of Universidade Federal Fluminense, have tried to untangle that skein of yarn. In 2012, she defended a thesis about the 1972 commemorations of the Sesquicentennial of Brazil’s Independence. The paper will be published this year under the title: A ditadura em tempos de milagre: orgulho, comemorações e consenso (The Dictatorship in the Time of the Miracle: Pride, Commemorations, and Consensus) published by the FGV with support from FAPERJ. In it, the author writes that the military governments resorted to strategies to achieve certain degrees of social consensus. They did not invent the idea of constructing something new, but that image was meticulously picked up and re-elaborated by them. Citing the formulation by historian Robert Gellatelly, who studied the social pact under Nazi Germany, Cordeiro states that mechanisms of coercion and consent helped win the support of Brazilians. “The dictatorship knew how to establish dialogues with important national traditions, and how to activate patriotic and nationalistic sentiments that are important components of a given national collective folklore,” she concludes.

1. Center for the Study of Violence – NEV/USP (No. 13/07923-7); Grant mechanism Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center (RIDC); Principal investigator Paulo Sergio de Moraes Sarmento Pinheiro (USP); Investment R$10,712,071.92 (FAPESP).
2. Political Institutions, Patterns of Executive-Legislative Interaction, and Governing Capability (No. 2011/08536-1); Grant mechanism Regular Line of Research Project Award – Thematic Project; Principal investigator Fernando de Magalhães Papaterra Limongi (USP); Investment R$516,178.52 (FAPESP).
3. Center for Metropolitan Studies – CEM (No. 2013/07616-7); Grant mechanism Research, Innovation and Dissemination Center (RIDC); Principal investigator Marta Arretche (USP); Investment R$7,110,948.20 (FAPESP).