The Ghosts of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship

Kenneth P. Serbin
Foreign Affairs

Today Brazil swears in a new president: Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman and former military officer. Bolsonaro is as much an apparition from Brazil’s past as a harbinger of its future. He has expressed nostalgia for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985—years whose memory is a source of pain for many Brazilians. Like similar regimes in neighboring states, Brazil’s military dictatorship stifled freedom of speech and violently suppressed opposition, killing or disappearing some 475 critics, including members of the armed resistance, and torturing thousands more.

Brutal military dictatorships governed many Latin American countries during the 1970s and 1980s. But most of those countries—including Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay—established truth commissions in the aftermath of the repression. Such reconciliation processes allowed successor governments to prosecute at least some human rights abusers, as well as to forge a national narrative that could begin to set the period’s demons to rest.

The Brazilian government took a different path. It waited until 2012 to establish its commission, never charged anyone with a crime in connection with the dictatorship, and did not seriously encourage a national dialogue about the country’s authoritarian past. Rather than develop a politics of memory, as other Latin American countries have done, Brazil has chosen to pursue a politics of forgetting. This response may help explain how an apologist for torture and dictatorship was able to rise to power in Brazil in 2018.


Authoritarian governments came to power across Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s with the support of the United States, which saw them as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Among these regimes, Argentina’s dictatorship was particularly notorious.

Between 1976 and 1983, that government killed at least 15,000 people, with many of the bodies vanishing into secret graves or tossed from airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean. In Chile, the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet killed or disappeared at least 3,000 people between 1973 and 1990 and tortured an estimated 35,000. Uruguay, too, suffered more than a decade of disappearances, censorship, and torture under its civic-military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985.

When these dictatorships fell, their successor governments moved swiftly to heal the wounds the repression had opened. Argentina’s new government publicly tried the former leaders and sentenced many to prison. A violent backlash from the military led the government to pass amnesty laws and pardon some perpetrators at the end of the 1980s.

But in 2005, the Argentine Supreme Court overturned the amnesty laws, declaring them unconstitutional. In Chile, post-Pinochet governments established two investigative truth commissions: one right away, in 1990, to provide compensation to the families of the dead; and a second in 2003, to calculate the number of victims of torture and other abuses and compensate them.

Chile has prosecuted human rights violators. Uruguay, too, established two truth commissions, with one coming right on the heels of the dictatorship in 1985 and the other much later, in 2001.

Truth commissions and the prosecution of human rights crimes could not undo the past, but they helped establish an expectation of justice and accountability in societies that had just endured decades in which democracy and the rule of law had become a sham. They also helped bring closure to the relatives of the victims who had died or suffered indelible traumas.

Brazil, by contrast, did not establish a truth commission until 2012, nearly three decades after the end of military rule. Before that, only one of the military regime’s abuses had ever resulted in a trial and conviction, and that was when the military’s use of torture had turned on itself: in 1973, at the height of the dictatorship’s power, eight soldiers and two police officers tortured and killed four 19-year-old privates who had witnessed military wrongdoing.

The killers reportedly punched their victims with gloved hands, whipped them with belts and wires, pierced their fingernails, beat them with an iron pipe, applied electric shocks to their bodies, and crushed their heads and feet with a vise. The perpetrators were found guilty of both the crime and an attempted cover-up.

That the regime was forced to publicly admit wrongdoing in this case owed to the behind-the-scenes efforts of a leading progressive Catholic bishop who denounced the crimes. The bishop’s intervention was representative of a movement within parts of the Catholic Church in Brazil and throughout Latin America to vigorously defend human rights, social justice, and a return to democracy.

But the killings in the 1973 case had happened in the same barracks where the regime’s henchmen tortured political prisoners—and these crimes went unpunished. In Brazil’s most notorious torture chambers, political prisoners suffered terrible abuses: they were shocked in an all-metal electric chair (“the dragon’s chair”) and hogtied and suspended from a horizontal metal bar (“the parrot’s perch”). A dangerous sense of impunity prevailed in a military that so freely used torture and considered it a necessary evil to defeat the armed resistance.

But when the relatively moderate General Ernesto Geisel became the fourth military president in 1974, he feared a challenge from the torturers and their hard-line commanders within the military. He started to liberalize the regime by relaxing censorship and reducing repression.

As part of that process, the government declared an Amnesty Law in 1979. It allowed for the release of political prisoners and the return of political opponents from exile—but, in a political compromise, it also shielded those responsible for acts of torture under the dictatorship from prosecution. That amnesty holds to this day and has prevented Brazil from excavating its past the way Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have confronted theirs.


Brazil’s dictatorship sputtered to an end in March 1985, having discredited itself both economically and politically. And what the new government would not do, human rights activists attempted: four months after the civilian politician José Sarney was sworn in as president, a book titled Brasil: Nunca mais (Brazil: Never again) began to appear on store shelves around the country.

It had been published and distributed through a secret, nongovernmental human rights campaign coordinated by the Catholic Church. Using information from military archives, the book revealed for the first time the severity and extent of the dictatorship’s repression. The Archdiocese of São Paulo publicly released a list of 444 torturers identified by the book’s researchers. Many of these people continued to work for the police or military, but they were occasionally outed by human rights activists.

Brasil: Nunca mais became one of the most popular nonfiction books in Brazilian history. In the words of the anonymous writer of the introduction, the book had revealed “a dark reality kept secret in the dungeons of the prolonged political repression.” But a book was not a truth commission: its political impact was limited, and its authors seemed to accept the compromise undergirding the Amnesty Law when they wrote, “It is not the intention of this Project to collect evidence to be used in a Brazilian Nuremberg. . . . In the search for justice, the Brazilian people have never been motivated by feelings of revenge.”

To the extent that the country moved on, its choice of elected presidents expressed this. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, elected in 1994, was an opponent of the military whose think tank had been bombed by right-wing, pro-dictatorship terrorists in 1976. As president, he established a commission that officially recognized the dictatorship’s responsibility for the deaths and disappearances of its opponents and that compensated their families.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president from 2003 to 2011, had a similar background, having been jailed for a month under the dictatorship because of his outspoken opposition. His administration approved the publication of the first official report on atrocities against regime opponents.

But in eight years, Lula’s administration did not locate a single body of the disappeared—and more important, neither Cardoso nor Lula would consider rescinding the amnesty that shielded human rights abusers from prosecution. Lula, especially, was a pragmatist and did not want to raise hackles in the military.

Beyond a small group of human rights nongovernmental organizations and relatives of the dead and disappeared, there has been little public pressure to overturn the Amnesty Law. Meanwhile, defenders of the dictatorship have opposed revocation in public and in the courts. Without any public outcry, Brazil’s National Congress has had no incentive to consider the matter. In 2010, the Brazilian Bar Association requested that the Supreme Court revoke torturers’ protection under the Amnesty Law, but the Court rejected the request.

Brazil finally got its National Truth Commission in 2012 under President Dilma Rousseff, who as a young revolutionary in 1970 had endured 22 days of torture in an interrogation unit, followed by two years as a political prisoner. The truth commission was charged with investigating the deaths and disappearances carried out by the armed forces. But it lacked punitive powers and could not compel the military to hand over documentation regarding the locations of the disappeared. Like her predecessors, Rousseff opposed review of the Amnesty Law because she did not want to confront the military. And like the authors of Brasil: Nunca mais, she expressed disapproval of any impulse toward “revenge.”


For 40 years, Brazil has upheld an Amnesty Law adopted by a military regime that used its power to declare itself immune from accountability. Indeed, in Brazil some observers refer to the 1979 law as “self-amnesty” for the military. Because of it, the country has avoided engaging in a national conversation about its history and foreclosed the possibility of justice for victims and their families. In the words of Paulo de Tarso Vannuchi, the former head of the Special Secretariat for Human Rights in Brazil, “We no longer have any large movements within society discussing the military regime.”

Brazil’s armed forces never came to terms with the fact that the dictatorship broke with democracy and the rule of law. As a result, the military accepts no responsibility for human rights violations. The concept of human rights is in any case a loaded one in Brazilian society. Torture in Brazil’s prisons and police stations predated the dictatorship and is still a major problem. Many Brazilians accept such practices as normal and view human rights complaints as special pleading for the protection of criminals.

The election of Bolsonaro is the latest symptom of Brazil’s politics of forgetting. During the 2016 congressional proceedings leading to President Rousseff’s impeachment for financial wrongdoing, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote against the president to her torturer: Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who commanded the interrogation center where Rousseff was held in 1970. Bolsonaro has expressed disdain for the Special Secretariat for Human Rights and called for a purge of Brazil’s leftists. His election threatens Brazil’s modest, painstaking progress toward promoting human rights and democracy.

Bolsonaro will take office amid a violent drug war and on the heels of another record year for murders (63,880 in 2017). He supports ending the prohibition on gun ownership (which currently applies to everyone except the police, judges, and prosecutors) and has said that police officers who kill citizens should be exempt from prosecution.

Some observers fear that Bolsonaro might follow the lead of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has condoned the extrajudicial killing of alleged drug traffickers and users.

Bolsonaro has already begun repopulating the government with current or retired military officers, reversing a postdictatorship trend away from involving the armed forces in the cabinet. Of the 22 cabinet posts he has filled thus far, five have gone to current or retired military officers.

Vice-President-elect Hamilton Mourão is also a retired general. A government filled with members of the military does not bode well for human rights accountability.  

There is one exception to these worrying trends. In a politically astute move, Bolsonaro has chosen former Federal Judge Sérgio Moro to run an expanded, more powerful Ministry of Justice. Moro was the highly respected and popular judicial head of “Operation Car Wash,” the investigation into corruption and money laundering that began in 2014 and resulted in the jailing of Lula and prominent business leaders.

The corruption probe suggested that it might be possible to put real pressure on Brazil’s tradition of impunity for the rich and powerful. Now Moro may become the legal, political, and even moral linchpin for a country lurching backward. He might be the last line of defense for democracy and human rights in a Brazil led by a president who recalls, and even longs for, one of the country’s darkest, least democratic times.


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