Why you should care

Because although military dictators always fail in the end, they leave behind a trail of destruction.

“Are you prepared to kill?” the retired general had asked Jean Marc, a young student who had arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Palace 50 years ago to support a military takeover. Marc believed that he was fighting for democracy and just wanted to help out.

Members of the military had barricaded themselves into the grandiose headquarters of Rio’s state government. But killing was not what Marc had in mind, and he was swiftly sent packing. “This is a place for killing and dying,” said the general.

Brazil’s dictatorship became a blueprint for fascist regime change. Think: Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Uruguay.

His words were prophetic, and helped usher in 21 years of military rule.

Democracy was finally fully restored in 1989. But as Brazil marks five decades since the coup, many say that the brutal legacy of human rights abuse remains disturbingly in place.

Brazil’s military takeover also became a template in Latin America over subsequent decades: A left-wing leader or guerrilla groups sparked fears of a communist revolution, prompting a coup led by hard-line military officials supported by right-leaning social groups and covertly backed by the United States.

While Brazil’s rulers were less murderous than those in other countries, their dictatorship became a blueprint for fascist regime change. Think: Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Uruguay.

Brazil fell that day into “one long night of darkness,” said a recent Facebook status of the country’s president Dilma Rousseff.

Troops marched into Rio on March 31, 1964, and seized power from the country´s democratically elected president, João Goulart.

President Goulart, nicknamed “Jango,” had introduced leftist reforms after taking office, taking steps to control the profits of multinational companies and expropriate disused land and properties.

Soldiers by a tank in the night in black and white

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Troops manning medium tanks guarded the War Ministry throughout the night as rumblings began against the leftist-leaning regime of President João Goulart.

Source Globo/Getty

A speech on March 13, 1964, in which he promised to nationalize Brazil’s oil reserves, proved to be his undoing.

Thousands of opponents filled the streets in a “March of Families for God and Freedom,” giving dissident military leaders confidence that they had enough popular support to instigate a successful coup. They marched on Rio de Janeiro, and Jango fled the country.

The day after the coup, Jean Marc walked with friends to the historic center of the city. They watched navy officers open fire on a group of unarmed protesters demonstrating outside a military club. The shooting, like others he heard about, never appeared in the press.

“Shocking, cowardly attacks,” said Jean Marc, today bearded, with white hair combed straight back, and working for an NGO advocating for organic farmers. Such acts became commonplace under a regime that outlawed dissent.

Current President Rousseff was one of the thousands of people detained and tortured during the military´s rule, under which they might jail any perceived supporter of left-wing ideals. Hundreds of “sympathizers” were killed.

The impunity enjoyed by Brazil’s human rights abusers of the past contributes to impunity of security forces in the country today.

The economy soared under the dictatorship, at least for a while. Economic growth averaged 10 percent from 1968 to 1972, based in part on high levels of investment made with borrowed money. The rich prospered, but not the poor. Brazil struggled through the oil shocks of the 1970s and ended up with another classic Latin American story: debt crisis and hyperinflation.

More moderate military leadership in the late 1970s and early 1980s opened the door to mass protests that ultimately brought an end to dictatorship.

But the road to democracy was rough, and much of Brazil’s dark history remained hidden.

A Truth Commission was established only in 2011, long after other Latin American countries. Unlike its neighbors, Brazil’s probing of the past has no legal consequences, since a 1979 amnesty law continues to protect all perpetrators of abuses. No one has been tried for the torture and killings.

BW image of man speaking into microphones with many people around him

Joao Goulart talks during a meeting at Automóvel Clube View on March 30, 1964 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Source Globo/Getty

Amnesty International (AI) says the law is a serious breach of international human rights treaties, and is campaigning to repeal it.

Moreover, AI argues, the impunity enjoyed by human rights abusers of the past contributes to impunity of security forces in Brazil today. Extra-judicial killings and abuses are common within the country’s Military Police, which is run like an army unit, but officers are rarely prosecuted.

Police kill around 2,000 people a year, typically young men living in poor neighborhoods, leading to comparisons of the “social cleansing” that took place during the dictatorship.

Protesting also remains a dangerous business, with tear gas and rubber bullets a common response to even small outbreaks of violence during demonstrations.

“There is still fear — fear to discuss politics, fear to challenge the state,” said Mauricio Santoro from AI Brazil. ”We are now a democracy, but we still have a very long way to go.”

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