1964 coup: new defense minister talks about celebrating his birthday ‘in the historical context’ – but what is this context?

  • Matheus Magenta
  • BBC News Brasil in London

8 hours ago

Credit, National Archive Collection

Photo caption, The years after AI-5 were the most violent in the military dictatorship; photo shows September 7, 1972 parade

“Events that took place 57 years ago, as well as any historical event, can only be understood from the context of the time.” Thus begins the message alluding to March 31, 1964, signed by the new Minister of Defense, Walter Souza Braga Netto, who took office this week after disagreements between his predecessor and President Jair Bolsonaro about the political role of the Armed Forces.

Over a little over 2 thousand words, Braga Netto cites the polarized geopolitical scenario in the Cold War, which in his words represented a “real threat to peace and democracy” in the country. He states that the 1964 military movement that overthrew the elected government of João Goulart “is part of the historical trajectory of Brazil” and “thus the events of that March 31 should be understood and celebrated”.

In 2019, Bolsonaro generated a strong reaction when determining the celebration of the coup that established a dictatorship in the country, and the case turned into a judicial dispute. Two years later, the resignation of the Minister of Defense, Fernando Azevedo, and the heads of the Army, Air Force and Navy, and the note by Braga Netto give new contours to the active participation of the military in national politics.

Guarantors of Bolsonaro’s candidacy in the 2018 presidential elections, the military gave strength to the anti-petty and anti-political sentiment in that election, analysts point out. Victorious, they held the vice presidency, strategic ministries (including active generals) and thousands of commissioned positions in the federal government.

In 2021, the growing public pressure on Bolsonaro because of the worsening of the coronavirus pandemic, which kills almost 4,000 people a day in Brazil and has a severe impact on the economy, increased the president’s demand for a more ostentatious and more aligned political positioning of the Forces. Armed.

A symbolic episode of the divergence occurred in May 2020, when Bolsonaro tried to shake hands with Edson Pujol, then commander of the Army, and he offered his elbow, following international guidelines to prevent the transmission of the virus.

The gesture would have irritated the president. While Bolsonaro minimized the coronavirus as a “cold sore”, Pujol stated that the pandemic “is perhaps the most important mission of our generation”.

One of the main points of this clash that culminated in the dismissal of Pujol and three other colleagues is between complying with government policies or state policies. But what usually attracts more spotlight in the press is the defense of the military dictatorship by bolsonaristas, with quotes to AI-5 (act of December 1968 that closed the Congress and revoked individual freedoms), denial of murders and tortures and exaltations to the military coup of March 31, 1964, called revolution or movement by the military.

What was the 1964 coup?

The “communist threat” and the supposed imminence of a coup d’état on the left are often pointed out as justification for both the overthrow of Jango and the institution of AI-5.

In 2019, BBC News Brasil revealed that the Bolsonaro government sent a telegram to the United Nations (UN) stating that the 21 years of military governments were necessary “to ward off the growing threat of a communist takeover of Brazil and ensure the preservation of national institutions in the context of the Cold War “.

He added: “The main national news agencies of the time called for military intervention to face the growing threat of communist unrest in the country.”


Credit, Getty Images

Photo caption,

Then Army Commander Pujol said that the pandemic ‘is perhaps the most important mission of our generation’

Braga Netto, in his message on March 31, 1964, states that “Brazilians realized the emergency and moved on the streets, with broad support from the press, from political leaders, from churches, from the business segment, from various sectors of society organization and the Armed Forces, interrupting the conflict escalation, resulting in the so-called movement of March 31, 1964 “.

According to the Center for Research and Documentation of Contemporary History of Brazil (CPDOC) of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, the Brazilian military saw that the threat to the current order came from “internal enemies” who supposedly could implant “communism in the country through the revolutionary route, through the ‘subversion’ of the existing order – hence the military calls them ‘subversives’. ”

The closest example that reinforced this thesis was Cuba.

In 2004, ex-senator and ex-minister of the dictatorship, Jarbas Passarinho, said in an interview with BBC News Brasil that the military coup of 1964 became imperative, in his assessment, due to the presence at the time of alleged guerrillas operating in Brazilian territory, encouraged by the success of the Communists in China, the Soviet Union and Cuba, and by the military insubordination with the mutiny of the sergeants in 1963 in Brasilia and of the sailors in 1964 in Rio de Janeiro.

“Everyone was afraid of the communist threat.”

The restoration of discipline and hierarchy of the Armed Forces is pointed out by CPDOC as another justification for the military coup.

But experts point out that this risk was practically nonexistent at the time, both because of the fact that João Goulart was not a communist and because of the fragmentation of leftist movements and the lack of massive popular support at the time.

The very lack of massive reaction against the beginning of the military regime reinforces this diagnosis.

In his book “Em Guarda contra Perigo Vermelho: anticommunismo no Brasil (1917-1964)”, the historian Rodrigo Patto Sá Motta, professor at UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais) and one of the main scholars of the theme in Brazil, shows that anti-communism “was nothing more than deceit to justify intervention”, and that the coup rhetoric was more about anti-populism and anti-reformism.

Like the basic reforms proposed by João Goulart, which were undergoing profound changes in areas such as banking and universities and mainly by a broad agrarian reform via land expropriation with public debt.

But the proposals faced strong resistance from the most conservative sectors of society and did not advance in Congress, despite the support of several categories.

The same threat of “red danger” was used four years later as a justification for the hardening of the dictatorship’s repressive apparatus, through the AI-5. This still reverberates in Bolsonarism today.

In October 2019, one of the president’s sons, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro (PSL-SP), said that if the left “becomes radicalized”, “we will need to have an answer”, which, according to him, “can be via a new AI-5 “.

But the main “enemy” of the regime was already another.

Documents and testimonies of the time show, say scholars, that the authoritarian act of 1968 was a way for the military dictatorship to control not only the leftist opposition or the communists, but the sectors of civil society that had supported the 1964 coup and that, four years later, they were becoming unhappy with the government, such as the Catholic Church, the press, the judiciary and political leaders.

marching military

Credit, Getty Images

Photo caption,

Military occupy thousands of administrative posts in the Bolsonaro government

“A lot of people had supported the coup, imagining it would be a short-term thing. But then the political parties were dissolved, the election for president was indirect, the mainstream press, which had supported the coup, started to be censored … You had a very broad picture of dissatisfaction “, said historian Daniel Aarão Reis, professor and researcher of Contemporary History at UFF (Universidade Federal Fluminense), to BBC News Brasil in 2019.

According to Aarão Reis, the armed struggle groups against the dictatorship were few, small, had no popular support and did not present a real threat to the regime.

For Sá Motta, from UFMG, the dictatorship already had sufficient means to suppress the resistance of the left, and would not need to expand its powers with the AI-5. But she still did not have “they were sufficient means to frame and discipline rebel segments of the elite itself located in strategic places, such as the Legislative Power, the Judiciary Power and the press”.

The military regime in Brazil lasted from 1964 to 1985 and the hardest period of the regime, during the government of general Emílio Garrastazu Médici, was from 1969 to 1974.

According to a report by the Truth Commission, during the 20 years of the dictatorship in Brazil, 424 people died or disappeared. It was also identified, for example, that the regime harassed, arrested or tortured 6,591 soldiers.

Violent practices against Brazilian dissidents are also included in documents delivered by the United States to Brazil in 2014, with reports detailing information from 1967 to 1977 about censorship, torture and murders committed by Brazil’s military regime.


Braga Netto, the new defense minister, cites in his text on March 31, 1964 the Amnesty Law, which was approved by the National Congress in 1979 and, according to him, “consolidated a broad pacification pact from the convergences proper to democracy. It was a solid transition, enriched with the maturity of collective learning “.

The Amnesty Law, which forgave political crimes committed by militants and state agents during the dictatorship, has been a key point in clashes between the military and some sectors of civil society since the redemocratization in 1985.

In 2010, the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) filed a lawsuit to try to overturn the law, but the Federal Supreme Court (STF) decided to keep it.

Brazil’s stance in relation to the Amnesty Law has already been condemned by the UN and other international organizations and contrasts with that of neighbors such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. In these countries, the courts have condemned state agents on charges of homicide, torture and kidnapping during military regimes.

The burial of student Edson Luís, murdered in March 1968 in Rio by agents of repression at the Calabouço restaurant; his death sparked a series of demonstrations against the military regime

Credit, National Archive Collection

Photo caption,

The burial of student Edson Luís, murdered in March 1968 in Rio by agents of repression at the Calabouço restaurant; his death sparked a series of demonstrations against the military regime

In 2014, the National Truth Commission rekindled the debate over the Amnesty Law, but the legislation was not changed either. For torturers to be able to go to the dock, it is necessary for the STF to modify its interpretation of the 2010 law or for Congress to change the wording.

In its final report, the National Truth Commission appointed 377 public officials responsible for political repression during the dictatorship, and even without the force for punishment it managed to generate a strong reaction among the military.

The commission’s work is seen as one of several elements that led the segment to act politically en masse against the PT and, by extension, to be part of the candidacy and the Bolsonaro government.

Since the 2018 election, part of the Armed Forces command has publicly repeated that it follows the Constitution, removes any risk of democratic retreat, criticizes the politicization of barracks and reiterates that it acts as an institution of the Brazilian State, and not of a government.

“The Navy, the Army and the Air Force are following the changes, aware of their constitutional mission of defending the Fatherland, guaranteeing the constitutional Powers, and confident that the harmony and balance between these Powers will preserve the peace and stability in our Country “, concludes Braga Netto.


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