Lost Samba – Chapter 17/01 – The end of the dictatorship in Brazil
I was heading home from a rock concert at one of the main venues in Rio at the time, the Teatro Tereza Rachel in Copacabana. It was around midnight and I heard someone in the crowd say that John Lennon had been shot dead. No one knew whether to take him seriously, although everyone went home thinking about that disturbing possibility. The following morning, the newspapers confirmed what we had heard. Everyone was in a state of shock. Television reporters interviewed ordinary members of the public in the streets and famous artists, all of whom had tears in their eyes. For me, this final breakup of the Beatles seemed to interconnect with the extreme situation that I had experienced at the Noites Cariocas and another news that had also shocked us – the imprisonment of a couple of school friends for cannabis possession. On top of this there was Sarah’s dramatic split with her long-time fiancé. It didn’t make much sense, but the ripples from a wave of changes seemed to be affecting everything.
In the wider context, the Brazilian middle class had started to wake up to the fact that the lack of an alternative to the military-led government was a problem. The imprisonment, torture and then murder under the guise of “suicide” in 1975 of the distinguished journalist Wladmir Herzog in São Paulo triggered an unprecedented wave of indignation and numerous well-known political, cultural and religious figures expressed their dismay in newspapers across the country. On the other hand, now that no one could reasonably fear there was a risk of Latin America’s largest country becoming a Soviet satellite, the status of the Brazilian generals abroad was changing. Political movers and shakers in Washington as well as key figures of multinational corporations with economic interests in the country began to see Brazil’s brutal and corrupt military dictatorship as an unnecessary embarrassment.
Sensing the changing mood of their former supporters both inside and outside the country, the military took measures for appeasement. The most significant gesture was to grant amnesty to most political prisoners and to permit exiles to return home. Even if this move helped the military to remain in power, the policy of abertura politica – or political opening – was a victory for the opposition.
Overnight, the political dissidents went from being a virtually taboo subject to being courted as celebrities and hailed as heroes. They were in the press, on chat shows and their memoirs became best-sellers. Reading them we found out that they were regular upper middle class guys like us who had got carried away by the political turmoil of the times. In their books, we learned that some of them had spent periods training as guerrillas in Cuba and elsewhere abroad, before discretely infiltrating Brazil, where they took up arms, robbed banks and kidnapped important people. After the successful clamp down of their organizations, the ones who survived and went into exile were obliged to re-think their positions and to consider their next moves.
In a similar way to the artists, after the festivities for their return died off, they settled back in Brazil with more practical agendas. Many of the former exiles, as well as militants who had managed to survive in Brazil, used their popularity to progress within mainstream politics. José Genoíno, Fernando Gabeira and Carlos Minc, for example, became senators or ministers, while eventually Dilma Rousseff would be elected as president. Other non-guerrilla exiles also returned to Brazil, taking centre-stage in the re-democratization process. These included the veteran politicians Leonel Brizola who would become the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the architect Oscar Niemeyer and the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro as well as other more centrist politicians such as the sociologist president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the future leader of the PSDB, José Serra.
Although we admired most of these people, for my generation their presence opened up issues of identity. If we had not been active in the organised resistance but shared similar views on the dictatoraship, recognised the social unfairness around us and also wanted a better and fairer world, should we conclude that we were useless ? Had everything already been done? It was clear, that for them the fight was over. However, it was disappointing to see the people who we considered as legends using their past unashamedly to reach career advancements. Without understanding how a democracy works, to us, it seemed that, as ambitious political figures, they were keen to join something that, at least ideologically, we were resisting. The big unanswered question was how could we make a difference, and how should we position ourselves?
Because the dictatorship had simplified attitudes, the abertura politica brought new challenges. Until that moment, being for or against the regime placed everyone within an uncomplicated framework: depending on which side of the fence you stood, you could blame all the evils of the world either on the generals or on the communists. With the end of the military government now on the horizon, people were no longer confident as to where they stood politically and it would take some time for the country to achieve a state of political maturity.
It seemed obvious that the military would cling to power for as long as they realistically could. Everybody knew that by the time they handed back the power to the civilians, the economy would be on the ropes. For Brazilians at large, there were two pressing questions: in what state would the military return the country to the civilians, and what would our lives be like once the mounting economic crisis kicked in?