The Ghosts of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship

How a Politics of Forgetting Led to Bolsonaro’s Rise

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’s demons to rest.

The Brazilian government took a different path. It waited until 2012 to establish its commission, never charged anyone with a crime in connection with the dictatorship, and did not seriously encourage a national dialogue about the country’s authoritarian past. Rather than develop a politics of memory, as other Latin American countries have done, Brazil has chosen to pursue a politics of forgetting. This response may help explain how an apologist for torture and dictatorship was able to rise to power in Brazil in 2018.


Authoritarian governments came to power across Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s with the support of the United States, which saw them as a bulwark against the spread of communism. Among these regimes, Argentina’s dictatorship was particularly notorious. Between 1976 and 1983, that government killed at least 15,000 people, with many of the bodies vanishing into secret graves or tossed from airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean. In Chile, the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet killed or disappeared at least 3,000 people between 1973 and 1990 and tortured an estimated 35,000. Uruguay, too, suffered more than a decade of disappearances,

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