There is no way to predict how a nation will deal with past collective actions that don’t match the image its citizens now have of themselves. They may confront the regretted event right after it ended or generations later. They may accuse or mourn. They may seek revenge or remembrance. They may want to profit from the examination or simply learn from it. A nation may decide to forget or indefinitely postpone looking at its painful past.
I once met a Hungarian scholar who told me his research topic was the destiny of the statues of communist leaders after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I looked at him intrigued, wondering why on Earth someone would spend time examining such irrelevance. The man didn’t bother to explain: he simply described, country by country, what was done with the statues. Some were destroyed, others left in place. In one country, all ended up in a theme park. He told the stories laughing, and looking at that big man I slowly started to see the fun of it. “In certain countries, the statues were neither destroyed nor left in the city. They were removed to an adjacent park where people could go and see them, a testimony of the past but not part of daily life.” I finally grasped the importance of his research.
But it is not an easy task to bring all these statues, unbroken, to a place where we can safely visit. Look at the Portuguese, for example, who in 1989 decided it was time to officially apologize for the Inquisition, two centuries after it lost its grip on Portugal and Brazil. Why they did so at that time is an interesting question. Does it have to do with a break from the Salazarist culture? A full entry into the European Community? Other local issues we are unaware of? Who is apologizing to whom is a truly fascinating question. Isn’t the present Portuguese government an amalgam of descendents of Christians, Jews, Conversos and Muslims? What is the meaning of the apology from a democratically elected government for something done centuries ago by a religiously inspired branch of government? And to whom specifically is the apology directed?
The answer lies in the specificity of the challenge that each nation faces when dealing with its past. It makes sense for the Portuguese to issue an apology for the Inquisition simply because that is the way they found to deal with that terrible institution; that is the way they found to remove the heavy statues from their cities, using the Hungarian’s metaphor. The statues – echoes of the practices of the Inquisition – have been there for so long that they could be ignored by generations; but their presence, some felt, was hindering a path the nation wanted to take. Those who study memory and collective trauma might know more about the diversity and the politics of memory, be it related to the Vietnam war or the genocide in Cambodia, the Argentine dirty war or the Nazi regime, Apartheid or Slavery.
Here, I want to talk about the memory of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-85) and the changes this memory underwent from the 1980s, right after the transition towards democracy, to the present time, right before the 7th free presidential election. It’s been almost 30 years since the last military president left Brasília. A small percentage of the Brazilian population alive now was old enough in 1964 to remember the military coup. Fifty years, in a fully literate country, wouldn’t be a terribly long time. But Brazilian society in the 1960s was predominantly rural, on the verge of a huge transition to the urban, industrial society which it is today. For Brazilian migrants, leaving oppressive conditions in the country’s northeast and arriving in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro brought new challenges: finding work and adequate housing, as well as forging a new identity in the anonymous metropolis. The political effect of the dictatorship was harshly felt by students, journalists and political leaders of the period; for the struggling working class, the economic effects of both displacement and opportunity was at the forefront of their concerns.
That is the social background of our memory of the dictatorship years: most of us have neither personal memories of the period nor parents and grandparents who were directly affected by the political repression. Our connection to the political period is done mostly indirectly through school, traditionally divorced from real life, and the media. In the years subsequent to the transition, a period then called “Nova República,” the transition was explained to the new generation as a collective agreement headed by moderate opposition leaders and moderate military who engaged in a process where minor concessions and guarantees from each side reinforced the process and alienated radicals from each camp. Progressive organization of civil society was seen by all involved as a way to increase pressure on the transition and dilute radicalism.
But this was 30 years ago. Now, a new narrative is taking shape. Academically, the idea of an “incomplete” transition is being put forward, echoing the developmentalist ideals of the 1950s: according to some abstract standard, Brazilian democracy is not “there” yet. The Truth Commission, established in 2012, is doing an extremely important job in bringing information about the fate of the “desaparecidos” and the precise circumstances of the deaths caused by the State, amounting to almost 400 victims, through archival research and depositions by members of the repression machine. But the necessary focus on the serious attacks on human rights puts the spotlight on the most gruesome aspect of a long and complex period. For the new generation, the dictatorship was combated by the guerrillas and sustained in the “porões da ditadura,” the semi-clandestine repressive apparatus of kidnapping, torturing and disappearing.
The heroes today are no longer the brave, bald men like the one who dared to run for president in 1973, or young journalists who kept doing their job in the newsroom, and whose only physical weapon was the exit door. In academic conferences and exhibitions, the names of those who fought for the 1979 Amnesty Law and for the return of the rule of law are being erased. The new teaching of individual martyrdom and unflinching belief in one’s own ideas (and not patient collective dialogue) is the first lesson about dictatorship and democracy to young Brazilians.
There is something true, unfortunately, although not factually, about the depiction of the dictatorship as exclusively a violent clash between the armed struggle and the repressive state apparatus. The (metaphoric) truth of this narrative lies in the challenge to bring our conflicts to the symbolic and legal arena. In Brazil, it’s impolite to refuse to pretend conflicts don’t exist until someone sets a bus on fire. And even then, we take pleasure in discussing the bus on fire rather than our own hidden angers revealed by it. The truth of the new narrative also lies in the little discussed matter of the enormous statization of Brazilian life that took place in the hands of the generals, and was not stopped with the transition. Our civil leaders pay tribute everyday to the barracks mentality: a blind faith in the ability to rule everything – and to obey whoever is in power, even if you might charge more for your compliance than you did under General Costa e Silva or Medici. Liberal movements in Brazil are fringe parties or co-opted initiatives. The general and the soldier inside each of us are still plotting schemes to determine how other people conduct their lives.
Eventually, I believe, the old and new narratives and the myriad small human stories that are still to be told publicly will combine into a civic narrative that all Brazilians can recognize as theirs, regardless of political position or ancestry. We will learn why certain institutions were more prone to resist or acquiesce, protect their kind or throw them to the wolves, and what led people to radicalize discourses or try to find common ground, stick to principles or ideology. Most of all, we will be able to collectively regret a sad period of our political life.
I believe we should investigate our past fiercely as the Truth Commission is, and request all state documents hidden and secured in public institutions and private safes. But we should use the timeframe of the Portuguese, our ancestors, for a profound evaluation of the period. Let’s wait until all the statues are so covered with dust that they are barely recognizable. Or, adapting the metaphor, let’s wait until all the expressways named after the generals collapse in urban revitalization plans or simply by decay. When I see from my window the ashes from the Elevado Presidente Costa e Silva going up in the sky, I will be able to apologize and receive a deserved apology for having been born in a country where it was – and still might be – a crime to speak.