KGOU

Historian James Green Explains Brazil’s Journey From Dictatorship To Democracy

Oct 16, 2015

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, U.S. policy makers worried other left-leaning governments in Latin American could turn into a revolutionary movement. In early 1964, the U.S. did little to stand in the way of a military coup in Brazil that overthrew the democratically elected President Joao Goulart – leading to a 21-year authoritarian dictatorship.

Over time, the U.S. gradually reconsidered it support of the junta, according to James Green, a historian at Brown University. His book We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Military Dictatorship in the United States investigates how grassroots efforts helped end military violence in Brazil.

Green says clerics, academics and other Brazilians living in the United States started a public relations movement to educate the public about U.S. support for the military regime, and the torture of political prisoners.

“This campaign managed to change public opinion in the United States,” Green said. Newspapers - such as The Washington Post, The New York Times - started writing editorials criticizing U.S. government support of the Brazilian regime, and later changing public opinion more broadly by rebranding Brazil, not as a country of tropical delights and Carnival and bossa nova but as a country that violate the human rights of its citizens.”

Brazil’s dictatorship especially singled out homosexuals during the 1960s and 70s. As the rest of the world saw gradual recognition and support for the gay and lesbian community, Brazil experienced some of its worst human rights violations. Green addresses the obstacles homosexuals in Brazil faced in the 1970s in his book Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil.

“When an accumulation of forces in Brazil in the late 70s pushes for political opening and new social movements emerge, one of those social movements are gays and lesbians who are demanding an end to police violence and different treatment in the media and full rights,” Green said.

The fear created by the early 1980s AIDS crisis set the movement back, but it was short-lived.

“The Brazilian government by the 90s, in large part because of these activists, will change its AIDS policy and become very, very progressive in offering free medication to anyone investing in AIDS treatment and really insisting that people with HIV and AIDS have the same citizens’ rights as anyone else in the country,” Green said.

Brazil now has vibrant social movements, and many current elected officials were former guerilla fighters during the dictatorship. It also has a vibrant gay community, with one of the largest gay pride parades in the world held every year in São Paulo. Green is optimistic, but there are still marginalized groups – namely slum dwellers in Brazil’s favelas.

“Because of the Olympics in Rio in 2016, some parts of the city will be remodeled and people will be forcibly removed and movements to protect people's rights to the residences that they have as humble as they may be,” Green said. “So Brazil has become a country of social movements and of activism and has had governments that have carried out social programs to try to address the long term inequalities that have been marked by Brazilian history since 1500.”

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Jim Green, welcome to World Views.

JIM GREEN: It's my pleasure to be here. 

GRILLOT: Well Jim, you've written a book about Brazilian military dictatorship. For those of us who don't know a lot about Brazil and its history, as a historian, can you just give us kind of the ninety second version of history in Brazil regarding its military dictatorship?

GREEN: Sure. So in the early 60s the Cuban Revolution happened and U.S. policy makers were very fearful that there would be other revolutions around the continent of Latin America. And so they saw kind of a left liberal government in power as possibly turning into a revolutionary movement and supported people in that country and overthrowing the democratically elected government of a president named Joao Goulart and installing a 1964 dictatorship that lasted for 21 years. Brazil, next year, will be celebrating 30 years of democracy, so after 21 years of authoritarian rule which included torture of oppositionists and political exile of opponents. The country is going through a process of consolidation of democracy and part of that consolidation comes from the fact that, during the second half of the 21 years of the military being in power, new social movements emerged to challenge the rule of the military and, from that, began pushing for a more democratic country. And so Brazil experiences an unusual phenomena of having very vibrant social movements today that are fighting for human rights, for equal rights against state violence, against poor people and has elected a series of people who were former guerrilla fighters - the current president Dilma Rousseff was actually involved in guerrilla activities against the military regime or union leaders such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who was the president before Dilma or Fernando Henrique Cardoso who was an academic who lost  his right to teach at the university because of the military regime. So, today the country is living with leaders who suffered under and fought against the military regime 30 years ago.

GRILLOT: Well you mentioned the activists and the social movements in Brazil, the very vibrant organizations that have helped fight this over the years and how they still exist today. And I want to get back to that on some specific issues in Brazil that are relevant then and now, but you're book also touches on U.S. grassroots movements and how activists in the United States actually played a significant role in bringing down military dictatorship in Brazil. So, can you tell us about how that happened and the impact or implications of that for U.S. foreign policy, particularly elsewhere in Latin America?

GREEN: So, in 1964 when the military came to power, the United States, under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, supported the new dictatorship and in Congress people went along with the argument that this was a dangerous regime that had been overthrown in order to restore democracy. But by 1968 - 69 it was clear that the military was not going to leave power. In fact, they were deepening their authoritarian rule. And so, one of the main problems that was going on in Brazil was that opponents of the regime were being arrested and tortured, brutally tortured. So some of these political prisoners and others sent denunciations abroad. Some of those denunciations went to the national council of churches in New York. Others went to human rights groups in Europe such as Amnesty International. And a small group of Clerics, academics, a few Brazilians who were living in the United States and others decided they needed to respond to the situation. This was really the first systematic denunciation of torture being carried out by authoritarian regimes in Latin America. So they started a campaign to educate the public about U.S. support for the military and also the need to end the torture of political prisoners. And this campaign managed to change public opinion in the United States, first by influencing newspapers such as Washington Post, The New York Times that started writing editorials criticizing U.S. government support of the Brazilian regime, and later changing public opinion more broadly by rebranding Brazil, not as a country of tropical delights and Carnival and Bossa Nova but as a country that violate the human rights of its citizens. And the campaigns that were developed in and around Brazil in the early 70s were then broadened after 1973 when there was a wave of authoritarian governments coming to power, first in Chile and Uruguay in 1973 and then in Argentina in 1976 where the repression far out surpassed that of Brazil and in which the human rights violations were so shocking that major political figures in this country, Ted Kennedy and others, really were at the forefront of criticizing any U.S. support and supporting efforts to end these regimes. 

GRILLOT: So in terms of how the United States then changed its foreign policy in general, I mean you make an argument in your book that these types of organizations actually changed and challenged U.S. foreign policy more generally. I mean, as you mentioned re-branding in Brazil, did this happen elsewhere as well? 

GREEN:  So in 1976 Jimmy Carter, in the aftermath of the Watergate Crisis and the disillusionment with the Nixon Administration and the weakness of the Ford Administration runs on a campaign for changing foreign policy objectives of the United States around the world by using human rights as a yardstick for whether or not we would give economic military and political aid to countries. And he is elected and he will really offer a new voice and a new vision for U.S. Foreign Policy that will inspire activism in Latin America in their own efforts to organize popular mobilizations against the military regime.  For once, Brazilian activists don't have an enemy in the White House, but someone who is really supporting their demands for Human rights. And so Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn Carter who goes to Brazil and receives denunciations of human rights violations really become international advocates for change in foreign policy and this will inspire activists in other countries, such as Chile and Argentina to realize that they can appeal Internationally for support against their regimes in power and will kind of strengthen the willingness and the courage to fight against very brutal regimes that are squashing opposition in horrible ways.  

GRILLOT:  Well you're pointing out this really important connection between activists in multiple countries in order to really push an issue forward, and so I wanted to change to another subject, one that you've focused on in a previous book and that is gay and lesbian rights in Brazil. So moving from that American context and looking at human rights issues, let's look at that human rights issue from the gay and lesbian right area in terms of what that history is there in Brazil of that type of activism and how much progress they've been able to make.  

GREEN:  So in the United States in the late 60s there emerges a series of groups that are symbolized by what is called the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 which kind of politicizes discrimination against gays and lesbians, and this phenomenon takes place not only in the United States, but also in Europe and in parts of Latin America. Argentina has a gay rights group that emerges in 1968-69 and is trying to kind of question homophobia and discrimination in that country. Brazil has the potential for doing the same thing but '68, '69 is the worst years of political repression where it's impossible to organize. It's impossible to meet their censorship of the press and fear that if you do something you could really pay the consequences. So, essentially, while through other parts of the world there is the emergence of new groups asking for equal rights for gays and lesbians, in Brazil they are seeing the worst years of repression. So when an accumulation of forces in Brazil in the late 70s pushes for political opening and new social movements emerge, one of those social movements are gays and lesbians who are demanding an end to police violence and different treatment in the media and full rights, and the movement will start very slow and very small, but will by the 1980s grown and begin pushing for a change in age old prejudices against gay men and lesbians and transsexual people.  AIDS in the 1980s will be a setback in the sense this will cause a series of panics, but the Brazilian government by the 90s, in large part because of these activists, will change its AIDS policy and become very, very progressive in offering free medication to anyone investing in AIDS treatment and really insisting that people with HIV and AIDS have the same citizens’ rights as anyone else in the country and then in the 90's into the 2000's there will be a blossoming movement which will today see the gay pride parade in Sao Paulo parade being the largest in the world with three million people in the streets every year demanding equal rights pushing the government against discriminatory laws and politicians who still use this question as a wedge issue either evangelical Christians or conservative Catholics who are still uncomfortable with equal rights for gays and lesbians so the process of fighting against the dictatorship engendered other movements especially the LGBTQ movement in Brazil which are very vibrant and very forceful today with many battles to win, but many successes along the way.

GRILLOT: Well so you mentioned the connection between the anti-dictatorship movements and how that influenced the gay and lesbian movement but what about other movements in Brazil. I mean it seems to be a very activist oriented country, a very activist oriented people so are there issues of prominence, the environment or others?

GREEN: So there was in the same moment of kind of effervescence of political activism in the late 70s and 80s - a new feminist movement that emerged that really questioned violence against women, demanded police stations where women could be attended by female officers to place domestic violence complaints, an environmental movement which really questioned the developmentalist policies of the state and questioned the uncontrolled industrialization of the country, land reform movements calling on the distribution of lands to subsistence farmers and small farmers so they could continue to live on the land and produce food for the population, a strong movement of Afro Descendants questioning long held rhetorical ideas that Brazil was a racial democracy while pointing out that the poorest are always black and they remain poor and one of the forms of racism that keep Afro descendants in the lowest rungs of Brazilian society. And this has led to new forms of affirmative action programs in universities to kind of increase the diversity at levels of higher education in the country, so many, many movements of slum dwellers for equal citizenship rights against forcible removal. This is a question today because of the Olympics in Rio in 2016, that some parts of the city will be remodeled and people will be forcibly removed and movements to protect people's rights to the residences that they have as humble as they may be. So Brazil has become a country of social movements and of activism and has had governments that have carried out social programs to try to address the long term inequalities that have been marked by Brazilian history since 1500.  

GRILLOT:  So that being the case then let's bring this all back to this notion of democracy in Brazil.  There seems to be a very solid, civil society in Brazil, lots of social movements as you're pointing out, so how would you say this is? How should we feel about democracy in Brazil today?  Do you feel really confident and really optimistic?  Is Democracy strong and growing in Brazil today? 

GREEN: It's strong and it's growing, but the country is polarizing between a central left and a central right and it's reflected in the recent elections where the current administration of Dilma Rousseff is under a series of attacks and criticisms partially related to the fact that there's been a large scale incidence of denunciation of corruption especially in the petrochemical industry and the state owned oil conglomerate called Petrobras. And so the arguments are that the President knew about this corruption and therefore should be impeached. There is a call for a mobilization to impeach the President and this is really reflecting in my mind a deeper issue that the current administration and the previous one carried out a series of social programs which radically redistributed parts of wealth to poor people through a government aid program, and many people in the middle and upper classes feel very uncomfortable about this in part because many people who used to have no other options than to be maids or low paid workers are looking for better jobs and are moving out of the sector so the complaint is, you can't get a good maid nowadays or too many poor people are traveling on planes. It's really not like it used to be. They don't really know how to travel properly. And so there's a tension between the lower classes and people who support them and people who feel very uncomfortable about that, and that's being manifested in this political polarization that exists today. Nevertheless I think that Brazil is a strong democracy. It's had three sets of Presidents who were elected and left office so the third one is currently in office and I think that there will be a smooth transition in 2018 for another election and democracy will be consolidated in the country. I'm very confident.

GRILLOT: Alright, well Jim thank you so much for being here. Brazil is such a fascinating place and you've really shed some light for us, and I appreciate you sharing your perspective.

GREEN:  It was a delight to be with you today. Thank you

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