Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – No, the Curmudgeon was not in Brazil on April Fools Day, 1964, but he’s here now and has been observing the peculiar form of remembering that day, the first in power of the Brazilian military after the coup d’état carried out March 31st. Many have remarked on the strangeness of having no date on which to celebrate the end of the dictatorship.
The end of Portuguese rule is celebrated on September 7th; the end of the imperial monarchy is celebrated on November 15th; but people can’t agree on when to celebrate democracy succeeding the military dictatorship. Many people like to consider early 1985, when Tancredo Neves was elected President, and his Vice President José Sarney took office.
But that election was indirect, done by a docile Congress stacked with military appointed members. Back in 1983 and 1984, the “diretas já” election campaign had brought millions of demonstrators out on the streets, but the campaign was, in the end, unsuccessful.
Even before that, in late 1979, the Congress passed an amnesty law, covering all “political” or “electoral” crimes committed between 1961 and August 1979. Some, if not most, of these crimes had been committed by the military. That amnesty statute, which under different circumstances might have been celebrated, is now under fierce attack from those wishing to uncover what happened in the dungeons of Brazil.
The new Federal Constitution, a civilian constitution prepared by a civilian constituent assembly, was proclaimed on October 5, 1988—why not use that date to commemorate? We may as well ask why it is that almost no one in the US remembers on what date the U.S. Constitution was proclaimed (September 17, 1787).
Or, perhaps, you could choose November 15, 1989, the first time since 1960 that Brazilians could go to the polls to elect a President. In the event, however, no candidate received a majority of votes, so there was a runoff election where the people voted in Fernando Collor de Mello — who was subsequently impeached. Not a good role model.
Pretty much everyone is in agreement that, after General Figueiredo succeeded to the presidency in 1979, political life began to improve in Brazil. But he was never very popular, perhaps because of his generally pugnacious attitude. He is widely quoted as having said, in 1979, “I’m going to turn this country into a democracy and anyone who opposes me will be arrested and crushed.” Not a good role model.
So, Brazilians now use the date of March 31st to remember when life became unhappy for almost everyone on the left side of the political spectrum. For some few, it’s reminiscent of “Schadenfreude”, feeling happy over someone else’s troubles: “Boy, am I glad we don’t have that any more!” For some few others, it’s almost the equally untranslatable “saudades”, fond remembrances: “Ah, those were the days!”
But of course it’s neither of those. Rather, it’s morphed into a way for Brazilians to remind themselves that yes, there really was a military dictatorship, which did both good and evil, and which petered out over time, never (we fervently hope) to return.
The Curmudgeon salutes, in this context, President Dilma. She was tortured, but she has never tried to dine out on that politically. Her words and her attitude as President, on this year’s historic occasion, as in prior years, are those of a stateswoman, not a partisan.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, fetched up on these shores exactly 36 years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)