Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro likes to associate himself with the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985. By doing this, he is consciously invoking dark memories of death squads and torture.
In the early 1960s Brazil was in crisis. The government, led by Joao Goulart, was embattled from all sides.
Goulart criticised both the US and the “socialist” regime in Cuba, and pleased neither, which left Brazil isolated internationally.
The Brazilian working class was emboldened by the lifting of previous restrictions on organising and asserted itself through a series of strikes targeting key sectors of the economy.
Goulart’s government was gradually worn down.
During this period of instability the armed forces launched a coup. US president John F Kennedy had developed secret plans to “prevent Brazil from becoming another China or Cuba”, despite there being little danger of any such thing.
On the day of the coup, 31 October 1964, the military could not agree on a course of action. This was a taste of the infighting to come.
General Olimpio Mourao Filho marched on Rio de Janeiro while others thought it was too early.
Brazilian academic Alfredo Saad-Filho described the forces behind the coup as “an emerging alliance between internal manufacturing capital, foreign capital, traditional landed interests and the urban middle class.”
Similar, though not identical, forces are arrayed behind Bolsonaro today.
Back then, different groups had their own sets of interests and fought over the direction the regime would move in. For instance, would it look to the US for support or try to remain non-aligned?
Rigged elections ensured the president changed every five years, which meant even more jockeying for position at these times.
Immediately after the coup came a crackdown. Politicians, trade unionists and others opposed to it were stripped of their political rights. Strikes were banned.
Despite the attack on rights, the regime did not go so far as wholesale torture and assassination in the early stages. But that would change.
The regime aimed to smash workers’ rights. Between 1964 and 1967 real wages fell by about 25 percent. By 1967 it had removed job security for all workers.
In 1968 the regime faced an upsurge in working class militancy in response to falling wages. Initially the generals did not know how to deal with the strikes.
A large strike on the outskirts of the city of Belo Horizonte saw 15,000 metalworkers from 19 different firms walk out to demand the return of job security and a wage increase of 25 percent. After negotiations the military accepted some of the strikers’ demands.
The generals learned their lesson quickly, though. The next big strike, three months later in an industrial district outside Sao Paulo, saw 3,000 workers occupy their factories.
Troops went in and the strike was brutally crushed.
For the next ten years the workers’ movement was suffocated and bosses could really go on the offensive. The regime ploughed money into the energy sector, infrastructure projects—partly aided by the influx of labour from the countryside to the cities—and the consumer goods industry. Economic growth followed.
But this “Brazilian economic miracle” was in part based on an oil price boom.
The main beneficiaries were the urban middle classes, new layers of which were created through salary increases and subsidies for the better off.
As it shored up its social base, the regime cracked down on dissent. In December 1968 president Artur da Costa e Silva shut down parliament and signed Institutional Act No 5, suspending the right to not be detained without trial.
This also removed human rights and granted the president the authority to remove any elected official from office.
The state still maintained two formal political organisations, although “parties” were banned, and staged elections continued to be held.
This turn unleashed forces in Brazilian society in 1968 that haunt it today.
As with police the world over, Brazil’s cops have used violence and torture all through their history. But during the dictatorship they stepped it up. So did the secret services of the different wings of the armed forces.
In response to being forced underground, elements of the left began a guerrilla campaign. This failed to gain widespread support and was left isolated, fighting for survival in the face of a brutal campaign by the military.
As part of the fight against the guerrillas, paramilitary death squads were set up. They also targeted working class areas on the outskirts of the cities and killed with impunity.
Today, President Bolsonaro’s favourite slogan is, “The only good thug is a dead thug.” It is a direct reference to this period, borrowed from Jose Guilherme Godinho Ferreira, known as Sivuca, himself a member of one of the most infamous death squads—Scuderie Detetive Le Cocq.
This was set up by a mixture of military figures, journalists and other “professionals” after the assassination of Detetive Le Cocq, a colleague of Sivuca’s.
In 2012 a report from the newspaper Estadao estimated that such death squads killed some 900 in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro alone between 1963 and 1975.
That’s compared to 434 deaths attributed to the military dictatorship nationally by the 2014 Truth Commission.
There was an easy relationship between these death squads and the editors of corrupt newspapers—which were allowed to continue publishing despite censorship. Between them they tried their best to popularise extra-judicial killings as a means of solving Brazil’s problems.
When Bolsonaro talks about “a cleansing never before seen in the history of Brazil” he is giving the green light to these same forces to begin the killing again—forces that did not vanish with the dictatorship.
The legacy of the Brazilian state’s savage escalation of violence during the dictatorship is one of the key reasons for the high levels of violence in Brazilian society today.
In 2017 60,000 people were killed, and more than 5,000 of these by the police.
But even under the strictest regimes there is resistance. A series of political crises combined with an upsurge in struggle from below to challenge the dictatorship. Sections of the ruling class also began to demand the liberalisation of the economy. The regime was under pressure from all sides.
In 1974 a political party of the regime, Arena, suffered a bruising electoral defeat. It lost in 16 of the 22 Senate seats up for election, signalling the beginning of the end of the dictatorship. The factions within it argued for different ways out, but there were none.
By 1978 social movements were mounting increasingly direct challenges, partly coordinated with elements within the Catholic Church, which had pledged to resist the regime.
The Cost of Living Movement was mobilising thousands in state capitals across the country. Meanwhile, workers were fighting back with increasing ferocity. Throughout 1978 strikes grew on a massive scale.
At the heart of the strikes was an industrial working class that had rapidly expanded and was increasingly concentrated in the industrial areas surrounding Sao Paulo.
Huge swathes of people had been sacked by agricultural bosses who wanted to restructure their businesses and grow low-labour, intensive crops.
Workers were pushed towards the cities and became the heart of the resistance.
The strikes started with 2,500 workers walking out at Sao Bernardo do Campo on 12 May. They reached a high point when half a million workers walked out at 400 factories in 18 towns in the state of Sao Paulo.
In 1979 metalworkers in and around Sao Paulo joined the fight and won their demand for pay increases. At the head of the metalworkers union at the time was Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who would become known as Lula—a future leader of the Workers’ Party, and later the country’s president.
Every injustice acted as an ignition spark. On 30 October 1979 a military officer assassinated Santo Dias Silva on a picket line in Sao Paulo. His funeral turned into a mass protest march through the city.
Strikes continued throughout 1979 and into the 1980s, making the regime’s position increasingly untenable. By 1985 it could hold on no longer.
Workers and the poor got rid of the regime. Now they will have to mobilise again to get rid of a new government with the military at its core.