They were cruel, brutish years. Dissidents languished in torture chambers. Rebels were shot in cold blood. Artists fled abroad.
“It was a time of constant sorrow and fear,” the Brazilian lawyer and former justice minister José Carlos Dias said of the military dictatorship that hijacked his country in 1964 and would rule for more than two decades. “Violence wasn’t just something the torturers enjoyed. It was government policy.”
In 1977, Dias and a group of like-minded legal experts decided they could no longer tolerate the repression and spoke out with a historic pro-democracy manifesto called the “Letter to the Brazilians”.
The document – an extraordinary rebuke to Brazil’s military rulers and watershed moment in the fight for freedom – was read at a packed assembly at São Paulo’s top law school one evening in August that year.
“We denounce as illegitimate all governments that are based on force … A dictatorship is a regime that governs for us, yet without us,” the group’s spokesman, the conservative professor Goffredo da Silva Telles Júnior, proclaimed.
Exactly 45 years later Dias, who defended hundreds of political prisoners during the dictatorship and was arrested three times, will this week return to the same venue to make a similar appeal.
On Thursday morning, intellectuals, impresarios and artists will crowd into one of the university’s courtyards to champion another manifesto inspired by the 1977 rallying cry, called the “Letter to Brazilian Women and Men in Defense of the Democratic Rule of Law”.
“We are living through a moment of immense danger for democratic normality,” warns the 2022 proclamation, which has been signed by more than 800,000 people from across the political spectrum. “There is no room for authoritarian backsliding in today’s Brazil. Dictatorship and torture belong to the past.”
The document – whose signatories include wealthy bankers and tycoons, prominent members of the judiciary and three former presidents – makes no direct mention of the man whose actions inspired its authors. But his identity is crystal clear: Brazil’s dictatorship-admiring far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who some fear is on the verge of trying to plunge the country back into another era of tyranny.
“I lived under one dictatorship and I do not want to live under another,” said Dias, who helped write both manifestos and is convinced Bolsonaro is plotting to cling to power ahead of a presidential election he looks set to lose.
“The polls show he will be defeated. But there’s no doubt that he’s laying the groundwork for a coup. It’s my belief that he wants to repeat what happened in the Capitol in the United States,” Dias claimed in reference to the 6 January assault on Congress by supporters of Donald Trump.
Bolsonaro – a pro-Trump populist whose politician son was in Washington during that failed insurrection and met with Trump’s supporters and relatives – has never been shy about his disdain for democracy or his admiration for autocrats such as Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet.
Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has repeatedly encouraged anti-democratic protests and attacked Brazil’s institutions. He once invited the wife of the dictatorship’s most notorious torturer to visit him at the presidential palace, calling him a “national hero”.
Visiting Hungary earlier this year, Bolsonaro hailed its far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán – who has governed since 2010 and been accused of eroding his country’s democracy – as “a brother”.
But fears for the future of Brazil’s young democracy have intensified in the lead-up to October’s crunch election, which polls suggest will be won by Bolsonaro’s leftist rival, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Facing electoral wipeout and possible jail for his calamitous Covid response and other alleged crimes, Bolsonaro has radicalized, urging supporters to “take to the streets for the last time”.
“We are the majority, we are upstanding folk, and we are prepared to fight for our freedom,” the Brazilian president declared ominously last month as he launched his re-election campaign.
Those threats, and Bolsonaro’s outlandish decision to summon foreign ambassadors to trash Brazil’s internationally respected electronic voting system, have convinced some he is cooking up some kind of pre-election political rupture.
Dias and others fear that upheaval could come on 7 September, when Brazil celebrates 200 years of independence from Portugal and Bolsonaro has instructed supporters to march down Rio’s Copacabana beach with members of the armed forces.
“It’s just madness and I fear there could be scenes of violence,” warned Dias, the president of a human rights group called the Arns Commission.
Intelligence chiefs are reportedly investigating whether radical rightwing extremists are conspiring to attack Bolsonaro supporters at the rally and blame the crime on leftists in an attempt to change the course of the election.
Even conservative media outlets such as the magazine Veja have expressed alarm, with one recent front page picturing an imaginary timebomb set to detonate on 7 September 2022.
Many dismiss Bolsonaro’s declarations as the empty bluster of a politician in decline, or an attempt to fire up his base and intimidate opponents before the 2 October vote.
But in a message to the Guardian, the former supreme court judge Celso de Mello said Bolsonaro’s coup-mongering rhetoric and “contemptible autocratic spirit” meant it was essential that democracy-loving Brazilians take a stance before the election.
“Bolsonaro’s conduct has shown itself to be intolerable,” said De Mello, who has signed the pro-democracy manifesto and said the president’s rhetoric veered “dangerously into the marshland of seditious talk”.
Another signatory, the singer-songwriter Nando Reis, said he felt apprehension over possible disturbances in the coming weeks.
“There is a real threat to democracy here … We cannot just ignore someone who is crazy and urges civilians to arm themselves and then incites them to ‘defend their freedom’,” Reis said.
“People didn’t take him seriously before and he became the president of Brazil,” the musician added. “I expect everything from Bolsonaro, except for reasonableness.”
Dias said he felt encouraged by the unexpectedly large and diverse response to the pro-democracy campaign, whose backers Bolsonaro has called “despicable brass necks”. The manifesto will be read at universities around the country on Thursday, while street protests are planned.
A second pro-democracy declaration, which Dias will read at the São Paulo event, was signed by capitalist associations including the Brazilian Federation of Banks as well as Brazil’s largest trade union. “It is capital and labour coming together to defend our democracy and freedom,” said Dias, who thought the unlikely collaboration came in the nick of time.
“Brazil is in intensive care. We have an utterly deranged president who … pays homage to torturers and dictators. We face the risk of having to live through a dictatorship once again – and this is inconceivable,” the 83-year-old lawyer said.
Speaking out was hazardous given the venomous political atmosphere and hundreds of thousands of firearms that have gone into circulation under Brazil’s pro-gun president.
“We are exposing ourselves. I have no doubt that all of us are facing the risk of violence,” Dias admitted.
“But we must fight this while there is still the chance of us surviving in democracy … We must fight until the very end – and as long as I’m alive I will continue to fight.”
Source: The Guardian