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Geopolitics

Lessons From Brazil's Dictatorship, 50 Years After The Coup

A view of the Mangueira favela, one of Rio's oldest slums.
A view of the Mangueira favela, one of Rio's oldest slums.

-Op-Ed-

SAO PAULO — Brazil's military rule, which began 50 years ago with the coup on April 1, 1964, and lasted until 1985, has since been the target of well-deserved and widely-shared aversion.

The solid establishment of a modern democracy over the last three decades helped shine a light on all that was wrong with this dark and violent period in the country's history.

All Brazilians were victims of this violence, which took away the fundamental right to have a say in the country's decisions. Opponents were at best persecuted for expressing their opinions, when they were not illegally jailed and tortured, especially during the fight against the guerrilla, between 1969 and 1974.

It was also an era during which two models of society opposed each other: revolutionary socialism and the market economy. The two forces, which stood on polar opposite sides, destroyed the center ground and even undermined the basic belief, essential in a representative democracy, that a pacific solution to the two sides' differences could ever be found.

The political right and part of the economic liberals violated the constitutional order in 1964 and imposed an illegitimate government. They claimed their actions to be a counter-revolution to prevent their foes from imposing an even worse dictatorship. And yet, we know that by doing so they trampled over the most human impulse for change and social participation.

A spiral of violence

The left, after having pushed the limits of legality in its rush to pass reforms that were largely demagogic in the early 1960s, saw some of its members form armed groups after the coup, engaging in a fight to establish, just as their opponents were denouncing, a communist dictatorship.

The responsibilities in the spiral of violence were thus distributed among the two extremes, but not equally. The largest share of the blame lies with the side that imposed the survival of the fittest and the biggest crime was committed by those who turned torture into a secret state policy. Still, that does not mean that the all criticism of the dictatorship is justified.


The Brazilian economy, for example, grew more than three-fold during those 20 years and the GDP per capita more than doubled. Transport and communication infrastructures were widely developed and modernized. Inflation, for the most part, was low. All social categories prospered, although unevenly, which increased the gap between rich and poor.

Despite this, social indicators improved. For instance, the infant mortality rate fell from 116 per 1,000 live births in 1965 to 63 in 1985 (and kept falling to reach 15.3 in 2011).

On one important aspect even, 1964 did not represent a break from the past but instead the continuation of a process that had already been started. The military government indeed reinforced its industrialization policy of import substitution by imposing tariff protection. This is what enabled the country's industry to develop dramatically in 1970s.

The economy became more diversified and society became more urbanized: Half of Brazil's population lived in cities in 1964, but two decades later, the number was above 70%. This turned Brazilian society into a more dynamic, but also a more complex one. Cities grew more disorderly and overcrowding led to grave problems in transport circulation and security.

The regime went through different stages, from the violent repression of the first year and the more moderate interregnum that preceded the brutal and unbridled dictatorship at the turn of the decade, until finally the beginning of an awaited political opening, initiated 10 years before the regime's extinction, in 1985.

With hindsight, these 20 years look like a long and painful process for all those in the public sphere, until they reached the level of maturity necessary to embrace common sense and abandon violence as a way of fighting for their ideas. May our peaceful, democratic battles continue.

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