Is Brazil on the Brink of Democracy?

We sat, a painter friend and I, at a corner table in a cafe in Leblon, the most fashionable of Rio’s beachfront neighborhoods. Since we were talking politics, we whispered when the waiter came around; after three months in Brazil it had become second nature for me. The painter, a small, stocky man in his fifties, was apologizing for the cafe and its clientele, mostly pretty young people with dark tans. He would have liked to take me to the cafes that flourished in Leblon and Ipanema during the good years, the years before the 1964 coup. Back then, he said, artists and writers and students would begin to gather at midnight to argue politics until dawn. But those cafes were closed now. Many of the people who had frequented them were dead, or in exile, or no longer interested in politics.

The painter stopped talking and looked at me. Then he asked—and the question, though it came from a Brazilian to a North American visitor half his age, was in earnest: “How much longer do you think it can last?”

How long can it last? “It,” of course, is the dictatorship, and except in Spain during the last decade of Franco’s rule I have never heard the same question on so many lips. It is posed so often, debated so bitterly, picked at so obsessively, demanded so openly every day in the papers, that the newcomer to Brazil—or someone like me, who had not been in the country since 1972—may conclude soon after arriving that the regime cannot last another month. The entire nation seems to be riveted on one word: democracy. The church wants democracy; students want it; scientists, lawyers, and professors issue manifestoes calling for it; the more independent union leaders want it; many industrialists favor it; even sectors of the military apparently long for it. The clamor is tremendous—but it produces little democracy. In fact, Brazil enjoys less democracy now than it did eighteen months ago. And there is questionable prospect of any more in the near future: General Joao Baptista de Figueiredo, the hand-picked successor to General Ernesto Geisel who will take office next year as Brazil’s fifth military president since 1964, has pledged ritual allegiance to democratic reforms; but he seems in no hurry to bring them about.

The government’s ability to proceed along its chosen path, self-assured and icy firm, displaying nothing but stiff contempt for agitation from below, makes Brazilian politics appear to be weirdly out of kilter, as though the top and bottom of the political pyramid were on two separate planets. Among educated Brazilians this causes bafflement and exasperation; the word they most often use to describe their society is “surreal.” It also produces pessimists like Dom Hélder Cámara, the archbishop of Recife and one of the regime’s most famous opponents. Just before I left Rio in April, Dom Hélder remarked that the generals would probably hold power for forty more …

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