Jair Bolsonaro’s apparent endorsement of protests designed to cow Brazil’s democratic institutions has sparked outrage across the political spectrum with one lawmaker warning of a return to the dark days of dictatorship if the demonstrations are not opposed.
Hardcore supporters of Brazil’s far-right president are planning nationwide protests on 15 March and have been flooding social media with propaganda videos and fliers attacking members of Congress – and even proposing a return to military rule under Bolsonaro.
How did it began?
Brazil’s leftist president, João Goulart, was toppled in a coup in April 1964. General Humberto Castelo Branco became leader, political parties were banned, and the country was plunged into 21 years of military rule.
The repression intensified under Castelo Branco’s hardline successor, Artur da Costa e Silva, who took power in 1967. He was responsible for a notorious decree called AI-5 that gave him wide ranging dictatorial powers and kicked off the so-called “anos de chumbo” (years of lead), a bleak period of tyranny and violence which would last until 1974.
What happened during the dictatorship?
Supporters of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime - including Jair Bolsonaro - credit it with bringing security and stability to the South American country and masterminding a decade-long economic “miracle”.
It also pushed ahead with several pharaonic infrastructure projects including the still unfinished Trans-Amazonian highway and the eight-mile bridge across Rio’s Guanabara bay.
But the regime, while less notoriously violent than those in Argentina and Chile, was also responsible for murdering or killing hundreds of its opponents and imprisoning thousands more. Among those jailed and tortured were Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, then a leftwing rebel.
It was also a period of severe censorship. Some of Brazil’s best-loved musicians - including Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso - went into exile in Europe, writing songs about their enforced departures.
How did it end?
Political exiles began returning to Brazil in 1979 after an amnesty law was passed that began to pave the way for the return of democracy.
But the pro-democracy “Diretas Já” (Direct elections now!) movement only hit its stride in 1984 with a series of vast and historic street rallies in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.
Civilian rule returned the following year and a new constitution was introduced in 1988. The following year Brazil held its first direct presidential election in nearly three decades.
One advert for the #SomosTodosBolsonaro (We’re all Bolsonaro) rallies urges Bolsonaristas to pile pressure on lawmakers by attending what it calls “Fuck You Day”.
Bolsonaro, a notorious admirer of authoritarian rulers such as the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, appeared to sanction the protests this week, sharing one such video with friends and associates on his personal WhatsApp account.
In the video Bolsonaro followers are told: “He is fighting the corrupt and murderous left for us. He endures smears and lies because he’s doing his best for us … Let’s show that we support BOLSONARO and reject the enemies of Brazil.”
Bolsonaro’s promotion of the anti-democratic mobilization – which some suspect is designed to undermine or intimidate Congress ahead of a potential attempt to impeach him – sparked fury in a country that only emerged from two decades of dictatorship in 1985.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil’s president from 1995 to 2002, said that if Bolsonaro was promoting protests against Brazilian democracy the country faced “an extremely serious institutional crisis”.
“To remain silent would be to concur,” Cardoso tweeted. “We must shout while we still have a voice.”
Another former president, Bolsonaro’s leftwing nemesis Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, urged citizens and politicians to take an urgent stance against the “authoritarian act”.
“Bolsonaro has never gotten on with democracy. He’s a false patriot who is surrendering our sovereignty to the US and condemning the people to poverty,” Lula tweeted.
São Paulo’s rightwing governor, João Doria, denounced Bolsonaro’s “deplorable” move: “Brazil fought so hard to rescue its democracy. We must vehemently reject any act that disrespects this country’s democratic institutions and pillars.”
Marcelo Freixo, a leftist politician from Rio de Janeiro, warned: “The last time they closed Congress we got 21 years of torture, rape, murder, squeezed wages, debt and a regime that broke the country. We will not allow a repeat of this tragedy.”
On Wednesday Bolsonaro – who is currently battling fresh revelations about his family’s ties to a recently slain hitman – dismissed the criticism as an attempt to “disrupt the republic”.
His politician son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, further fanned the flames, tweeting: “If an H-bomb landed on congress do you really think the people would shed any tears?”
Vera Magalhães, the journalist who first reported Bolsonaro’s sharing of the video, said his latest attack on democracy was of “unheard-of severity”.
Writing in the conservative Estado de São Paulo newspaper, Magalhães said it was time for Brazilian institutions to put the brakes “not just on the president’s tongue and his WhatsApp, but on his actions”.