On the Quality of Brazilian Democracy

April 20, 2018

Every democracy can be expected to produce antidemocratic sentiment. In supposedly ordinary times, which we do not usually recognize as such until the exception is all there is, these kinds of opinions do not get far, sparing the body politic a self-destructive infection. Nobody looking at the Brazilian situation today would classify what is going on as normal, as a logical permutation of the democratic order that took shape following the end of the dictatorship in 1985. 

My article, "'De onde? Para onde?' The Continuity Question and the Debate over Brazil's 'Civil'-Military Dictatorship," published in LARR in December 2017, considered the fraught state of Brazilian society in the wake of President Dilma Rousseff's reelection in 2014. The "clamorous yet substantively thin calls for her ouster" that I referred to were enough to prompt her removal from office, a move that most progressives and leftists saw as a modern iteration of the coup d'états that marred the Latin American political landscape in the last century. The fact that there were no tanks in the street or soldiers shuttering Congress did not diminish the clear disregard for the results of a free and fair election demonstrated by so many legislators who voted to oust Rousseff on the flimsiest of bases. The institutions had functioned as designed, supporters of the impeachment claimed. Democracy was secure. 

My article argued that the question of Brazilian democracy today is, in key respects, bound up with popular understandings of how the country's political culture has evolved (or not) since the end of the dictatorship that began in 1964. More specifically, I focused on the question of: whether the regime that installed itself in 1964 is more accurately described as civil- military in nature or, in more traditional terms, simply military. The former, which emphasizes the role of civilians in creating and sustaining the dictatorship, has seemingly become the dominant scholarly nomenclature in Brazil in recent years, whereas the latter, stressing the political primacy of military men between 1964 and 1985, is still pervasive among nonspecialists. The discrepancy over terminology has been driven by myriad considerations, including, as I argue, the quality of Brazilian democracy today. 

I approached this debate over historical and historiographical nomenclature by analyzing the publications and public acts of a number of collectives and co-ops, particularly an alternative São Paulo-based art group called Coletivo Zagaia, who jointly maintain not only that the period from 1964 to 1985 constituted a civil-military dictatorship but also that the same civil-military dictatorship complex remains largely intact today. A widely circulated essay published online in 2012 entitled "Um modismo equivocado" ("A wrong-headed fad") by activist and journalist Pedro Estevam da Rocha Pomar strongly criticized the usage of the civil-military terminology by Zagaia and others. 

Why does this question matter? Who cares what we call the dictatorship as long as we understand it as an avatar of anti-democracy in Brazil? I suggest in the article that the terms matter because they reflect divergent understandings of the quality of Brazilian democracy today. If anything, this is a more urgent question today than it was in the aftermath of Dilma Rousseff's impeachment. 

On February 16, 2018, President Michel Temer, Rousseff's double-crossing running mate in 2010 and 2014, ordered the armed forces to assume control of public security in the state of Rio de Janeiro. As the New York Times explained, "it is the first federal intervention in a state since Brazil's return to democracy in the 1980s, and it is seen by some as a bid by the president, Michel Temer, to improve his favorability ratings rather than as a measure to tackle crime." Even supporters of the federal intervention deem it a palliative measure at best, one unlikely to resolve the festering issues of violence in one of Brazil's most visible cities. 

On the other side of the issues, human rights activists and progressive politicians have made the case that the intervention is making the situation worse by militarizing the favelas and ensnaring its residents in onerous peacekeeping measures that are doomed to fail. One such critic was Marielle Franco, a city councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro who, as a black, homosexual, militantly leftist resident of a favela, represented so many traditionally marginalized groups as well as the potential to overcome social exclusion. On March 14, 2018, Franco was killed in what is widely seen as a politically-motivated act, likely due to her ardent criticisms of the federal intervention in the communities from which she came. 

Franco's death is anomalous because she was a politician, not because she was a woman of color from a poor community. One of the groups I discuss in my article planned a demonstration in September 2012 entitled, "Quando vai acabar o genocídio popular?" ("When will the popular genocide end?"), designed to underscore and characterize ongoing state violence against poor communities of color as genocide. The march deliberately intended to "point to a continuity of the structures of the civil-military dictatorship and its civilian accomplices in the present." As I argue in the piece: certain continuities from that authoritarian period exist, as Zagaia and others have rightly noted, but to say that conservative civilian elites continue to enjoy inordinate political and economic influence, ignore electoral outcomes they find unfavorable, or demonstrate only partial concern for the rights of nonwhite Brazilians, does not describe a historical phenomenon that can be traced specifically to the dictatorship. Oligarchic rule, though dynamic and adaptive, has been a constant throughout Brazilian history. Any analysis of the dictatorship or the Brazilian political scene today must bear that in mind. 

The quality of Brazilian democracy remains a hotly disputed issue. My article looks at a small example of how this debate plays out in the terminology historians and activists use to describe the past and its impact on the present.


How to Cite: Pagliarini, A. (2017). “De onde? Para onde?” The Continuity Question and the Debate over Brazil’s “Civil”-Military Dictatorship. Latin American Research Review52(5), 760–774. DOI: http://doi.org/10.25222/larr.216

About Author(s)

PagliriniLARR's picture
Andre Pagliarini
Andre is a sixth-year PhD candidate in modern Latin American history at Brown University, Andre Pagliarini has recently completed his dissertation entitled “The Theater of Formidable Battles” The Struggle for Nationalism in Modern Brazil, 1955-1985.” His research interests include the Cold War in Latin America, the politics of economic development, radical ideologies, and social movements. He has received research support from the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Global Mobility Program (Brown Graduate School), The Cogut Center for the Humanities, and the Brazil Initiative. At Brown, he has served as leader of Opening the Archives, an ambitious project to digitize and index thousands of U.S. government records related to Brazil from the 1960s through the 1980s. He has also served as a lead researcher for the Liberated Africans Project, an undertaking sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that brings together data on over 200,000 Africans rescued from the illicit transatlantic slave trade between 1808 and 1868. His first scholarly article, entitled “‘De onde? Para onde?’ New Social Movements and the Debate over Brazil’s ‘Civil’-Military Dictatorship,” was published in Latin American Research Review in 2017.