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 years. The next day three different Brazilians anxiously asked me, “Did you read what Dom Hélder said? Do you think he’s right? Forty more years?”
It is in this uneasy mood that Brazil looks toward national elections on November 15. All 371 seats in the federal Chamber of Deputies and one-third of the Senate will be contested, as well as all seats in state assemblies. In practical terms the election means next to nothing, since the Congress has little power to legislate on important matters, whereas the president is virtually omnipotent. But the vote has enormous symbolic significance as a sort of referendum. Only two parties exist legally in Brazil, both artificial amalgams created by the military in 1966: the National Renovation Alliance (ARENA), the government’s party, and the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), which officially embodies the opposition.
For some years the MDB was staffed by docile, old warhorses whose job it was to provide the dictatorship with a shadowplay of democracy. But since 1974 the regime has allowed more independent candidates to run on the NDB ticket, and the party has increasingly offered the heterogeneous opposition a means to press for broad democratic goals. This year the MDB’s congressional slate is thought to be the strongest ever. It even includes such wellknown Marxists as Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the sociologist who runs a think tank in Sao Paulo. The MDB hopes that its campaign, while severely circumscribed by laws limiting political propaganda and assembly (campaign messages are banned from TV and radio, for example), will end in a vote sharply censuring the regime.
The man most responsible for this anomalous sort of dictatorship—one willing to risk elections in which it may be trounced, at least symbolically—is President Geisel, whose term of office constitutes a “liberalizing” stage of the regime. For ten years after the March 31, 1964, military uprising against the moderately leftist President Joao Goulart, Brazilian life took on an increasingly nightmarish aspect: these were years of innumerable arrests, kidnapings, and tortures; years of draconian censorship of every form of expression. The Esquadroes da Morte, the secret “death squads” of policemen and soldiers, meted out vigilante justice to thousands of common criminals, and the machinery of political repression became a practically autonomous power. But by 1974, with most left-wing organizations broken and the country terrorized, the newly appointed President Geisel judged the time right to reduce the military’s grip.
Geisel’s first move was to ease the censorship of periodicals. He then allowed the 1974 legislative elections to be the most free since the coup, and they resulted in a thumping victory for the MDB. He also tried to gain control over the military repressive apparatus, though the attempt was resisted, with some success, by local commanders who are intensely protective of their territorial prerogatives. Geisel, a tough conservative for whom state security is sacred, did not consider bestowing full civil rights on his subjects. But during his term, violations have been less common; and he seems to envision Brazil inching toward the moment when some sort of democracy could be installed. The delicacy of the operation lies in the fact that for him and his backers, the democracy must be well-behaved—that is, free of convulsive struggles for sweeping political or economic change.
And there is no doubt that abertura (“opening,” as Brazilians call the process of democratization) is coming more slowly than Geisel expected—or at least than his government led the country to expect. In 1975, according to Tad Szulc, the prevailing wisdom in Brasilia was that democracy would be restored in “the latter part of 1978.”1 One reason that the date has steadily faded into the future is the weighty group of rightwing generals who think the peril of subversion is so imminent that any liberalization amounts to pure mollycoddling of the communists. Geisel has had to mollify these generals while trying to undermine them, so that his term has been marked by an erratic dance back and forth between reform and repression.
Another blow to Geisel’s plans has been the end of the Brazilian “economic miracle.” The almost supernatural surge of the economy between 1968 and 1974, when growth rates averaged over 10 percent, has subsided to a more mundane level—4.7 percent last year—and the ebbing tide has left behind a host of problems. The basis of the miracle was a rush of private foreign investment in response to tremendously favorable conditions created by the junta—conditions that featured state-controlled wage levels and a ban on strikes. But by 1975 the flaws in the Brazilian model were obvious. The growth rate proved highly vulnerable to the worldwide economic slowdown, and at the same time Brazil’s inflation and foreign debt were soaring; they reached about 39 percent and $30 billion respectively last year, causing the government to cut back credit and impose other deflationary measures.
Even more important for politics has been the ever-deeper impoverishment of Brazil’s working and peasant classes. Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, archbishop of Sao Paulo, recently pointed out in his diocese’s newspaper that in order to buy the monthly subsistence-level “basic ration” prescribed by the government, a worker earning the minimum wage (as many do) in 1965 had to labor eighty-seven hours and twenty minutes; in 1976 the same goods required one hundred and eighty-two hours and eleven minutes of work. The figures mean simply that a large number of Brazil’s 110 million people are going even hungrier than they were in 1964. (To some extent, families have offset this loss of buying power by sending more members out to work.) And therein lies the enormous psychological impact of the “miracle’s” collapse. While the proverbial pie was growing fast, the generals and their technocrats could promise bigger slices for everybody once it reached a certain undefined size. Both Geisel and his more intransigent colleagues are aware that the workers’ faith in a well-fed future—and their patience—are harder to maintain in such unpromising times.
Nevertheless, Geisel’s capacity to resist pressure from right and left—and thus to set his own slow pace of reform—was highlighted during the last eighteen months, a time of critical conflicts both within the regime and with the opposition. In April 1977, following a successful attempt by the MDB to block a constitutional amendment in the Chamber of Deputies, Geisel clamped down hard: he closed Congress for two weeks, unilaterally enacted the reform, and took the opportunity to issue a series of decrees (now known as the “April package”). These transformed Brazil’s electoral system in such a way as to prevent the opposition party from having any real influence in Congress no matter how the 1978 elections turned out.
Having thus muzzled the MDB, Geisel could better deal with cantankerous military colleagues. Here the immediate issue was the presidential succession and its implications for the abertura process, but behind that lay an intense struggle over the centralization of power. More than any other general to rule since 1964, Geisel has built a dictatorship in which power is monopolized by the Palacio do Planalto (Brazil’s White House)—that is, by the president himself and a few intimates. Military resentment of him began to coalesce two years ago, when Figueiredo’s name was first floated as a likely successor by a group including Geisel’s closest advisers.
Most Brazilians knew nothing about Figueiredo, largely because of the unusual pattern of his army career. A cavalry officer, he was an active conspirator but not a leader in the 1964 coup. Since then he has held almost exclusively staff and intelligence positions, rather than the line commands that normally allow a Brazilian officer to gather political influence. During the government of Emilio G. Médici, between 1969 and 1974, Figueiredo was the chief of the president’s military cabinet, a strategic liaison post between the executive and the high command. Under Geisel he ran the National Information Service (SNI), the country’s intelligence organ. Unlike divisional and regimental commanders, who frequently pronounce upon political issues in their holiday speeches and orders-of-the-day to the troops, Figueiredo for the last nine years held jobs that required discretion and invisibility. Thus the public saw him as an enigmatic, colorless operative. Within the military, however, he is known as a protégé of General Golbery do Couto e Silva, the éminence grise of the “moderate” faction. Golbery created the SNI and headed it during the Médici years; he now is Chefe da Casa Civil (literally, head of the civilian “household”) in the Geisel cabinet—a post in which he acts as intermediary between powerful military and civilian groups, and one he is expected to keep in the new regime.
The prospect of another president from the Geisel-Golbery coterie widened the gulf between the linha dura (hard line) generals and the “moderates.” The split has complex political and economic origins. First—and most obvious—is the ‘rightists’ belief that any loosening of the repressive chains would bring a spasm of class struggles like those that rocked the country before 1964. Second, public office provides rich spoil that would have to be relinquished should the officers return to barracks. The thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy is heavily staffed by military men, as well as their friends and relatives—and influential generals look forward to well-paid posts in private industry after retirement.
But most important, as the American expert on Brazil Ralph Della Cava notes in a recent article,2 is the alliance between the linha dura and a group of conservative businessmen based in Sao Paulo. Early this year these industrialists—whose ad hoc leaders include Adolpho Lindenberg, a Sao Paulo construction tycoon and a power in the reactionary organization Tradition, Family, and Property—sent manifestoes to Geisel and Figueiredo cautioning against abertura. They are also horrified at the moderate generals’ enthusiasm for stateowned enterprises, which have grown astonishingly in the last decade, so that they now comprise 60 percent of Brazil’s economy—the largest state sector in the nonsocialist world. The government, in the rightists’ view, should sharply cut back its own entrepreneurial activities in order to free credit and markets for private investors.
By 1977 the rightists had their own presidential candidate: General Sylvio Frota, Minister of the Army and an implacable hard-liner. The campaign in his favor was carried out so openly that ninety-two ARENA deputies, about one-third of the party’s delegation, came out for the army minister. Frota himself sniped at Geisel all year, until in October the president would take it no more. Frota was fired, and although he issued a manifesto that was almost an incitement to rebel, no one took up the offer. Geisel then imposed Figueiredo without even the formal consultations he had promised other officers. This provoked another influential general, the head of Geisel’s military cabinet, to quit in January. Again there were no serious repercussions. As one magazine editor told me a few weeks later: “Until now, every one of the military presidents was chosen by consensus. The agreements may have been uneasy, but at least there were agreements. But Figueiredo is the product of one man. Do you realize what it means for a Brazilian president to fire his own army minister and let his military cabinet chief quit?” The editor shook his head, amazed at Geisel’s temerity—and nervous about the rocky road that Figueiredo may face, given his weak power base among the generals.
But what of the opposition’s political force—not just the MDB’s but that of the patchwork alliance of groups and individuals who favor abertura?
Last February 14, before an overflowing and emotional crowd in the Rio headquarters of the Brazilian Press Association, General Pery Constant Bevilacqua formally founded the Brazilian Committee for Amnesty. His speech made headlines partly because Pery Bevilacqua is an intriguing figure—a general of rigid moral convictions, he joined in the coup but five years later was fired from the Supreme Military Court and banned from public office for being too soft on political prisoners. But it is also true that the call for amnesty has become a rallying point in Brazil. A visitor finds a broad agreement among Brazilians that the time has come to let exiles return, to release political prisoners and restore civil rights to the thousands stripped of them. This has given rise to a great debate over adjectives: should the amnesty be “broad,” “general,” “unrestrictive,” “definitive,” “gradual,” “limited”…? (Pery Bevilacqua added “reciprocal” to the list, meaning the torturers should be pardoned, too.) But the uproar about amnesty is only one reflection of the stirrings of an opposition “movement,” different wings of which are demanding repeal of all repressive legislation, an end to censorship of the media and performing arts, greater influence for students and professors in the universities, and even “a more equitable distribution of income.”
At the moment, the most powerful tool in the opposition’s grasp is the press. Since the standard image of a military dictatorship hardly includes a free press, visitors to Brazil today are often surprised to find most newspapers not only free from direct censorship but quite outspoken. In June, prior censorship was lifted from the last three political journals that were subject to it: Tribuna da Imprensa, a Rio daily; O Sao Paulo, the weekly organ of the Catholic Church in that city; and Movimento, a leftist newsweekly. (Movimento, which makes no bones about its politics and has a wide readership, had come under the most severe attack from censors. Staff members told me in April that in order to publish one issue, they usually had to submit enough copy to make up three.) The best of the large dailies, such as the Jornal do Brasil and O Estado de Sao Paulo, clearly favor a return to democracy as soon as possible—though they often caution the opposition to moderate itself, for fear its rambunctiousness will provoke a backlash. And during the last year the prensa nanica, or alternative press, has suddenly flowered. New periodicals appear every month, so that virtually every state capital in Brazil now has at least one provocatively named tabloid published on a shoestring by a group of young leftists. However, television, radio, and film remain under tight government control.
Of the social groups most observers include in the opposition, the Catholic Church is the most influential, not only because of such figures as Dom Hélder and Cardinal Arns, whom the government has never been able to silence, but because it remains the only institution relatively free to organize among the poor. Though the Brazilian clergy is split over the activist principles laid down at the Medellín conference of Latin American Bishops in 1968, the progressive wing during recent years has organized thousands of grass-roots “communities” whose members are as concerned with social justice as they are with evangelizing.
The communities meet in churches or private homes, and are organized by lay “monitors” who have undergone training courses given by the local clergy. Strictly nonpartisan, they nevertheless carry out a variety of political tasks—circulating protest petitions, publishing newsletters (one, in a working-class neighborhood of Sao Paulo, has a reported circulation of 60,000), and organizing “popular parliaments” to rule on neighborhood issues. Significantly, the communities seem to be as strong in the slums ringing the cities—where the primary issues involve the cost of living and the lack of social services—as they are in rural areas of the Northeast and the Amazon, where peasant homesteaders are battling large ranchers for land.
Other opposition groups can only dream of such a following. Trade unions, for example, are still closely supervised by the government; many are run by military-appointed officials who have constructed foolproof re-election machines over the years. Recently, however, opposition slates have been vigorously contesting union elections—and winning a few. A growing number of union leaders publicly advocate reforms that include what they delicately call “direct wage negotiations between employers and employees.” And in May, a wildcat strike at the Saab-Scania auto plant outside Sao Paulo spread to involve some 50,000 workers in various industries. Though the strike, the first in Brazil since 1968, was illegal, the government did not send in the army to occupy the plants and arrest the strikers, as it had done ten years ago. Instead, the Minister of Labor merely scolded the workers, and the surprised employers were forced to negotiate. Eventually some 200,000 workers won pay increases of up to 15 percent—the first breach of the regime’s hitherto unchallenged control over wage levels.
Students too have begun to recover from the brutal purges of years past. In 1977 they carried out a number of important demonstrations, and more are expected this year. Finally, there are the underground parties—Moscow- and Peking-influenced communists and those further left—whose strength is hard to gauge.
Perhaps the most startling sign of discontent came last November, when 2,000 businessmen gathered in Rio and issued a report calling for democratic liberties. Since then, statements by businessmen who favor some sort of abertura have appeared almost daily in the press. The most significant came on July 26, with the publication of a manifesto that was dubbed “The Document of the Eight.” It was signed by eight wealthy industrialists—including Claudió Bardella, owner of the largest Brazilian capital goods company—who had been voted the most representative spokesmen for Brazilian business in a poll conducted by the newspaper Gazeta Mercantil. The manifesto argued that full democracy, with participation of all social groups, was the only political system compatible with further economic development. To everyone’s amazement, the eight also took note of the “profound social inequalities” that the Brazilian model has produced. They called for a more “just” wage policy, a more progressive tax code, and attacked “glaring deficiencies” in public transport, health, basic sanitation, housing, and defense of the environment.
Such pronouncements have led other Brazilians to wonder why a class that wholeheartedly supported the coup, and has reaped every benefit from it, should now be turning against the regime. The answer, I think, is that the class is no longer united. In 1964, Brazilian landowners, capitalists of every stripe, and multinational corporations could agree on the common danger from the left. They helped to prepare and execute the coup, and ever since have formed the economic bedrock upon which the military regimes have rested. But in the course of fourteen years, the interests of different groups within the upper class have diverged. In the first place, many middle-level Brazilian capitalists have been wrecked by competition from multinational corporations since 1964, and blame the government (correctly, in many cases) for allowing it to happen. Larger industrialists, too, complain of the military’s favoritism toward foreign capital and state-owned enterprises, while multinational banks and corporations are worried about protecting their investments now that the boom has ended.
And businessmen generally are alarmed by the extreme centralization of power under the military. As crucial economic decisions fall to an ever smaller group of officials, it becomes impossible for even the largest and most powerful enterprises—Brazilian or multinational—to be sure what the government will do next. The right-wing solution, as noted above, would be to weaken the government’s active control over the economy, thus more closely approaching laissez-faire conditions, but with the military remaining in power for repressive purposes—that is, to keep a tight limit on wages. However, businessmen like “the eight,” who in the Brazilian setting might be called liberal, are thought to believe the state should retain its enormous power to direct and stimulate investment, but that it must become a more flexible and sophisticated instrument than it can be under military domination. For them, the present ruling group is too small, too closed, too unpredictable. Some form of democracy, with an effective parliament in place of today’s handful of technocrats, would be better able to accommodate the interplay of pressures from competing interests.
There is also a purely political judgment involved here. The liberal industrialists apparently sense that popular discontent is an explosive threat, and that a time has come for concessions rather than crackdowns. This gives rise to what one economic reporter calls “the cynical view” of their statements. “A lot of the big businessmen who are demanding abertura are the same ones who were financing political repression and the Esquadrao da Morte in Sao Paulo a few years ago,” he told me. “They know which way the wind is blowing, and they’re trying to clean up their images before it’s too late.”
Contradiction upon contradiction: the United States, too, must be mentioned in any account of Brazilian resistance to the military regime, even though there is now abundant proof of American aid in planning the 1964 coup, and of American involvement in the most grisly aspects of the generals’ rule.3 Given Brazil’s strategic and economic importance, President Carter’s disapproval of its human rights practices will take no more than symbolic form. But even small gestures—like last year’s cutback in military aid, Carter’s public references to human rights during his March visit to Brazil, and his meetings with opposition figures there—have their effect. At the very least, it becomes more difficult to label opposition leaders “communists” when they are echoing the president of the United States. And certainly political relations between the two governments have cooled since Carter took over, at a delicate moment for the generals.
Such strains, however, must not be overestimated. Commercial ties with the US remain very strong. And human rights questions probably have little to do with Brazil’s noticeable tilt toward Europe—particularly Germany. That should rather be understood as a third-world country’s classic attempt to get the best deal it can by playing off major powers against one another. It seems unlikely that any European country will offer political support for repressive policies sufficient to fill the vacuum left by Carter’s misgivings.
The most tantalizing unknown in Brazil at present is the strength of reformist sentiment within the military. Last March a lieutenant colonel named Tarcisio Nunes Ferreira publicly called for democracy in a speech to a Lion’s Club in the southern state of Parana. He was immediately stripped of his command and placed under house arrest for two days, during which time a reporter for the Jornal do Brasil recorded an interview that set off excited speculation throughout the country.
In the interview Nunes Ferreira claimed that the democratic ideals of the 1964 “revolution” had been betrayed, and complained bitterly about Geisel’s accretion of power. “I can guarantee that in my conversations with colleagues, and even with superiors, I’ve found that the great majority share my ideas,” he said. “The military must break its silence one way or another…. I think it would be valid for even the generals to speak out. But there’s a limit to how long we can wait for them. If they don’t speak, the colonels should. If not the colonels, then the majors.” This dangerous notion, coming from an officer with impeccable “revolutionary” credentials, earned the brave lieutenant colonel a month in jail, and only a few retired officers publicly supported him. But the incident left many Brazilians convinced that Nunes Ferreira was correct in his estimate of military opinion.
Oddly enough, Geisel’s “April package” crackdown in 1977, which an outraged public took as confirmation that long-promised reforms still were not in sight, caused the opposition’s strength to leap. Its real force, nevertheless, does not yet approach that of the government. “Be careful not to be fooled by the opposition,” one MDB politician told me. “The press makes us look stronger than we are. We make a lot of noise, but the word is almost our only weapon. Hardly anyone is mobilized. On the whole, people either feel helpless, or indifferent—or scared to death.”
The latter feeling is easily understandable. During the months I was in Brazil, several journalists were arrested and severely beaten; one of them, Milton Soares, suffered permanent brain damage. At least two trials of people charged with attempts to reorganize the Communist Party were in progress. In February, a professor who went to the police to obtain a document was seized and tortured for six days. In March, eleven people associated with two experimental schools in Curitiba were arrested and accused of indoctrinating three-to-six-year-olds with Marxist principles. In each case (and this list is far from complete) extensive press coverage forced the government to pay a high political price for the repression—and the release of the “Curitiba 11” after a week during which they were not tortured was regarded as evidence of a new era. But even with repression less frequent, its random quality makes political resistance in Brazil like taking a swim in waters infested by barracuda: normally they just watch you closely, but on occasion, without warning, they strike.
Many of the Brazilians I spoke with are convinced that the upsurge of democratic sentiment this year marks a new epoch in the country’s political history. The problem is that no one can be sure just how new is new. The clues, particularly in recent months, have been so contradictory as to leave one in a quandary: is the dictatorship on the way out, or is it just a case of plus ça change….?
This year, for example, the country witnessed the astonishing spectacle of a civilian, Senator Magalhaes Pinto, and a retired general, Euler Bentes Monteiro, campaigning seriously for the presidency on a platform demanding immediate return to democracy. Both men have great prestige in military and business circles, having played major parts in the 1964 coup and the regimes that followed; Euler in particular is thought to have the sympathies of many younger, democratically minded officers. Magalhaes, who contested the ARENA presidential nomination, saw his campaign fizzle after the party convention docilely and overwhelmingly backed Figueiredo. But Euler’s effort has gained momentum through the summer. On August 23, the MDB nominated him as its candidate to oppose Figueiredo. He has virtually no chance of victory when the Brazilian electoral college—composed of the Federal Congress and delegates from state legislatures, and dominated by ARENA—meets on October 15 to name the next president. But Euler’s nomination gives the opposition at least a façade of unity, and another means of agitating for change.
Equally intriguing—but tricky and disappointing—were the constitutional reforms announced by President Geisel in late June, to take effect January 1, 1979. The reforms abolish the notorious Institutional Act Number Five (AI-5), the legal soul of the regime, which gives the president unlimited powers to close Congress and rule by decree. The death penalty and life imprisonment will be scrapped, while habeas corpus is to be reintroduced, even for political prisoners. These and other improvements, however, are offset by “safeguards” that leave the president with nearly the same powers to declare drastic states of emergency and suspend civil rights that he held under AI-5.
So Brazil is left with the unpredictable November vote and the equally unfathomable Figueiredo. Between his designation by Geisel last December and his annointment by the ARENA convention, Figueiredo maintained an aggressive silence for months, responding to interview requests with such witticisms as “A candidate for the candidacy does not speak.” Brazilans therefore knew nothing about their next president until in April he granted a series of long interviews—and then, those who hoped for a change did not like what they heard. Scorning liberalism as outmoded, he said that Brazilians weren’t ready for democracy because they still lacked the wisdom to resist demagogic blandishments. He blamed the slow pace of reform on the irresponsible “radicals,” particularly those within the MDB. He allowed that certain changes might come during his term, including a partial amnesty and an end to the two-party system; “four or five” parties, he said, would be ideal. But he repeatedly threatened that if the MDB won a major victory in November—in other words, if the vote was for reform—then reform would be much less likely.
However, response to the interviews, and to his first campaign appearances, was so negative that an urgent revision of his image was undertaken. David Vidal reports in the August 12 International Herald Tribune:
The general’s campaign is being directed by a Sao Paulo advertising agency, which is an innovation at this level in Brazilian politics…. He has replaced his dark glasses with a lighter pair. A stern expression has given way to frequent smiles.
And his more recent promises have been effusive. In late July, he said,
If there is one thing that saddens me, it is to feel that some sectors still persist in not believing our good intentions when we affirm that we are going to make a democracy out of this country. I am going to make a democracy out of this country no matter what resistance may come around…
But no one can tell what he intends by such a self-congratulatory remark. How soon will he “make a democracy”? And what kind? After all, every military president since 1964 has promised democracy, and Geisel has always insisted that Brazil already has one—a “relative” democracy, to be exact. This notion was lampooned by a writer for the satirical magazine Pasquim, who imagined Jimmy Carter studying the briefing book before his visit to Brazil. “There’s one thing I just can’t understand,” he says to Terence Todman, then Under-Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. “What the hell is this about relative democracy? I can’t find it in any of the manuals.” Todman answers, “It’s a new concept invented by the Brazilians. It’s a bit hard to explain, but it works more or less like this: A cat has four feet, two eyes and a tail; so does a dog. Therefore a cat is a relative dog.”
Such black humor has become second nature to Brazilians, who remain a very funny people. Last year, during a debate in the Chamber of Deputies, an ARENA leader demanded, “Que país éeste?” (What country is this?) No one I asked could remember the context of the remark, but it was seized upon as the perfect expression of the madcap state of affairs in Brazil, and it crops up daily in the newspapers. Outwardly, in fact, Brazilians still exhibit the kind of extroverted warmth and pleasant craziness that so enchants tourists. But there is an undercurrent often kept hidden until mistrust of strangers is laid to rest. Among the strongest images I carried from Brazil were of faces creased by sadness at the loss of the effervescent political and cultural life the country once possessed—or haunted by the memories of jail—or simply worn out by overwork and undernourishment.
I also carried away a glimpse of more explosive emotions. During Carnival in Rio, when the Brazilians’ joy in life is at its most extravagant, I attended the parade of the escolas da samba (samba schools), the groups from the city’s slums who compete by dancing in opulent costume down a major avenue to the rhythm of percussion bands. The parade began at 9 PM and lasted fourteen hours. At about midnight, near the grandstand where I was sitting, a group of military police grabbed a young man who apparently was on the parade course without a permit. As they hustled him off, they whacked him with their nightsticks, and a few kicked him. Instantly hundreds of people were on their feet, screaming, “Filhos da puta! Filhos da puta!” (Sons of bitches!) This was no light-hearted joshing of the police; it was blistering hatred that swept the crowd and literally shook the grandstand.
As Geisel and Figueiredo well know, such hatred—the harvest of fourteen grim years during which the chasms dividing Brazilian society have steadily deepened—poses a threat to any plans for cautious reform. Some observers, in fact, suspect the uneasy coexistence between the fast-growing opposition—reflecting an angry populace—and a stubborn government cannot last much longer. If so, Figueiredo would seem to face two choices when he takes over next March. He might respond to popular pressure and bring about rapid “decompression,” a process that could easily spin out of control. Or, banking on the opposition’s fragility, he might deal a swift repressive blow, if only to gain time. Some opposition members are already braced for the shock. One woman’s remark to me sums up their state of mind, and the country’s: “I’m afraid,” she said, smiling thinly, “of what may happen next year.”
September 28, 1978