It is 1978 in beautiful sunny coastal city of Praia da Costa, southeastern Brazil, and President Geisel is in town. This is my very first memory as a child of Brazilian politics and dictatorship.
My mother grabs my hand, in the same way other mothers grabbed the hands of their children, and we all were rushed to the main city road. One hand in our mother’s hand, the other waving a Brazilian flag frantically as Geisel passes by in his uniform followed by his entourage.
Unknown to us at the time, we were not only waving flags at Geisel, we were waving away our rights and accepting the unacceptable. Many unaware of the conditions we were forced to live in. The 70’s was a turbulent time in the country, a time of restricted public liberties and violation of human rights, a culture of fear and repression, enforced on the population by a military junta.
Little did we know that Brazil would continue to be governed by the armed forces for seven more years.
Ernesto Geisel, an army general, President during the dictatorship, from 1974 to 1978, has been accused of authorising the torture, murder and disappearance of political prisoners. This information was included in a memo written in 1974 and released in 2018 by the director of the CIA, William Colby, addressed to Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state.
In 1975, the death of journalist Vladimir Herzog, director-in-charge of the department at TV Cultura in São Paulo and culture editor for Visão magazine, marked a period of revolt in the country. Herzog was found dead by hanging in one of the cells of the Operations Centre for Internal Defense, known as DOI-CODI. Additionally, there were reports by the press about the disappearance and execution of countless members of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), and whoever opposed the regime.
In 2014, a final report was presented holding 377 people responsible for the crimes committed during the military regime, including 5 presidents.
According to a recent report published by Human Rights Watch, in May 2020, a federal court dismissed charges against people involved in the torture and killing of journalist Vladimir Herzog.
The criminals of human rights abuses from 1964 to 1985 dictatorship have been protected from justice by a 1979 amnesty law that the Supreme Court upheld in 2010, violating Brazil’s obligation under international law. Since 2010, federal prosecutors have charged about 60 former agents of the dictatorship with killings, kidnappings, among other crimes. Lower courts have dismissed most cases.
Memories of the dictatorship are still fresh and have not been forgotten by most Brazilians who lived during these unnerving, distressing and turbulent years. At the same time, Brazilians now have as a leader President Jair Bolsonaro, former military, who has repeatedly praised the dictatorship.
Bolsonaro has sought to minimise human rights violations during the years of dictatorship and has spread “misinformation” about the military regime, according to 5 United Nations rapporteurs.
Human rights have been violated in many areas during Bolsonaro’s administration. Since taking office, Bolsonaro, his allies, and government officials have been accused of lashing out at reporters over 400 times. In one instance, the federal police was asked by the government to investigate presumed defamation by two journalists and a cartoonist who criticised the president.
It is no secret the fact that Bolsonaro’s government has weakened environmental laws in Brazil, having transferred the responsibility for leading anti-deforestation efforts in the Amazon from environmental agencies to the armed forces. He also accused indigenous people and NGO’s of being responsible for the destruction of the rainforest, without any proof. Furthermore, the government also gave green light to criminal organisations engaging in illegal deforestation in the Amazon, who used intimidation and violence against forest defenders.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Bolsonaro administration has sabotaged environmental law enforcement agencies, falsely accused civil society organizations of environmental crimes, and undermined Indigenous rights. These policies have contributed to soaring deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon, an ecosystem vital for containing climate change.
Another point of concern is the recently sharp increase of violence in Brazil. In 2019, police killed a staggering 6,357 people, 80% of them were Black, one of the highest rates of police killings in the world. Police killings rose 6% in the first half of 2020 and homicides rose 7% during the same period.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, Bolsonaro’s government has also been accused of violating women’s and girl’s rights, environmental rights, sexual orientation and gender identity rights, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers rights, disability and children’s rights, amongst many others.
It is grim when one looks back in history and realises that Brazil remains a society of masters and slaves, continuously failing to invest in health, education, and tackle systemic corruption. Many other important issues, such as civil rights, discrimination, inequality, social justice, socioeconomic exclusion, political participation and environmental degradation continue to be deprioritised.
Examples from today and recent history should be a constant reminder that, unless the rotten trees are removed from their roots, the disease will continue to resurface and spread freely every four years for a very long time to come.