Brazilian army soldiers during security preparations for Bolsonaro's inauguration in Brasilia, December 2018
Adriano Machado / REUTERS

Today Brazil swears in a new president: Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman and former military officer. Bolsonaro is as much an apparition from Brazil’s past as a harbinger of its future. He has expressed nostalgia for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985—years whose memory is a source of pain for many Brazilians. Like similar regimes in neighboring states, Brazil’s military dictatorship stifled freedom of speech and violently suppressed opposition, killing or disappearing some 475 critics, including members of the armed resistance, and torturing thousands more.

Brutal military dictatorships governed many Latin American countries during the 1970s and 1980s. But most of those countries—including Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay—established truth commissions in the aftermath of the repression. Such reconciliation processes allowed successor governments to prosecute at least some human rights abusers, as well as to forge a national narrative that could begin to set the period’

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  • KENNETH P. SERBIN is Professor of History at the University of San Diego and the author of From Revolution to Power in Brazil: How Radical Leftists Embraced Capitalism and Struggled with Leadership (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming 2019).
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