Brazil marks 50 years of military coup

Folha newspaper, 1 April 1964.

Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, 1 April 1964: “Congress declares presidency vacant” and “João Goulart (JG) in Rio Grande do Sul (RGS) says he’ll resist”

Brazil has marked 50 years since the 1964 coup d’état which ushered in 21 years of military dictatorship and the disappearance or death of almost 500 people during that time.

Thousands of others were arrested, exiled, tortured and deprived of their political rights.

President Dilma Rousseff, who fought against the dictatorship before being jailed and tortured by the military, said at a special event at the Presidential Palace on Monday that the coup, known as the Golpe, had to be remembered as part of the process which led to Brazil clawing back democracy.

“We learned the value of freedom, the value of an independent, active parliament and judiciary,” Rousseff said in an emotional speech. “We learned the value of a free press, the value of voting.”

“What is required of us today is that we remember and tell the story of what happened: we owe this to all those who died and disappeared, to those who were tortured and persecuted, to their families, and to all Brazilians,” Rousseff concluded.

Tanks in Rio de Janeiro. Golpe 1964. Photo: Arquivo Nacional

Tanks in Rio de Janeiro. Golpe 1964. Photo: Arquivo Nacional

On March 31, 1964, troops led by General Olímpio Mourão headed for Rio de Janeiro from neighbouring Minas Gerais state to execute the coup which had been years in the planning.

Battling a spluttering economy and dwindling support President João Goulart, known as “Jango”, was ousted from power and eventually fled with his family to the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo.

Investigations ongoing

Pedro Simon, who is still a senator at the age of 84 and was a personal friend of President Goulart, told UOL news website that the coup “took everyone by surprise” and that “no one thought things would erupt the way they did”.

Goulart died 12 years later in exile in Argentina, in what was reported at the time as a heart attack.

However, suspicions that he had been killed, possibly poisoned as part of Operation Condor to rid South America of left-wing politicians and their supporters, have never faded.

In March 2013, a National Truth Commission in Brazil, sanctioned by President Rousseff to investigate human rights violations for a period which includes the military dictatorship, announced that it would look into Goulart’s death at his family’s behest.  His body was exhumed in November and taken to Brasília for formal analysis.

There has been mixed reaction to the Commission, whose mandate includes attempting to establish what happened during the years of military rule through witnesses and re-examining available evidence.

Critics of the investigation from the military say they believe the inquiry is an attempt by the political left to exact revenge.

As recently as last week Colonel Paulo Malhães gave testimony to the Commission in which he admitted killing political prisoners and disfiguring and hiding their bodies.

Golpe anniversary protest. São Paulo. Photo: Estadão

Victims of the repressions mark the 50th anniversary of the Golpe at a protest in São Paulo. Photo: Estadão Conteúdo

Opening old wounds

But a 1979 amnesty law, according to which no one can be tried for any human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, means that Malhães will not stand trial.

That’s one reason why the NTC has come under fire from relatives of those who were lost, some of whom believe it has done little more than open up old wounds with minimal gain.

And although there have been a small number of ceremonies and protests, including from the victims of the military era and others, unthinkably, urging today’s military to topple President Rousseff’s centre-left government by force, Brazilians appear by and large to have chosen to consign this chapter of recent history to the past.

Written for Anadolu Agency  |  SÃO PAULO  |  31 March 2014

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