Revisionism in Brazil: What is behind the Recent “Fora Dilma” [Dilma out] Protests?

Originally published on Pacific Outlier, on September 15, 2015

The above cartoon by Iotti summarizes the situation in Brazilian politics at the moment. The angry guy holds a sign that reads: “For the return of the military government! Dictatorship now!” The concerned lady holds a sign that reads: “For more History classes for these people!” These two characters are indicative of colliding poles in the current public debate in Brazil.

Recently, protestors took the streets of Brazil with an anti-government and reactionary agenda. One of these demonstrations on August 16 attracted, according to organizers, over 2 million people. The main demand of this movement is for President Dilma Rousseff to step down. The reasons stated are diverse: economic stagnation, dissatisfaction with four consecutive presidential mandates in the hands of the Workers Party, denounces of corruption inside the government, and so on.

Although these protests were largely ideologically unfocused in their infancy, a series of ideologies have started to emerge, mostly cultivated by the recent upsurge of Brazilian right-wing thinkers and media-watchers. One of the extreme faces of these newly reborn right-wing ideologies is the one that calls for military intervention to save Brazil. In response, a counter-movement has cited Brazil’s historical experiences of military rule as a definitive answer for why military intervention is a bad idea.

What is at the core of this debate is the on-going democratisation process of the last few decades which has meshed with issues surrounding historical revisionism and its conceivable multiple perspectives.

Although in 2015 we are celebrating 30 years of the end of military rule in Brazil, its effects are still felt in our everyday lives. On the one hand, one of the problems is the difficulty in dealing with divergent opinions in the public sphere. Taking a critical distance, one thing that these anti-government movements is displaying is the inability to deal with an open, democratic debate.

Specifically in the case of the call for military intervention, the response has been somehow authoritative, almost as if history could still be perceived as the mother of truth, as Cervantes once wrote. The assumption is that you don’t have to listen to the other side of the discussion if you possess the truth. But the reality is that there are people on both sides peddling different truths. Indeed, one of the burdens of democracy is freely accepting these different opinions, even if they are, as it is the case, unwise.
On the other hand, if the old adage that history is written by the winners is correct, the end of dictatorship resulted in a series of historical revisions in order to accommodate the new arrivals into power. “Military revolution” was rebranded as a more negative coup d’état; “military government,” dictatorship; and so on.

My own experience of growing up in Brazil in the late 1980s was a lesson on the malleability of history. Re-writing history was then a necessity, and also part of the study of history, even for primary school children. We needed to create a new vocabulary that would at least attempt to restore the necessary critical balance on the perception of recent (and old) events otherwise negatively affected by years of censorship enforced by dictatorial rule.

Here is where the ineptitude to deal with free democratic debate and the evident malleability of historical discourse collide. One cannot dismiss the claims of these unsatisfied citizens who call for military intervention as plain stupidity. The paradox lies in the fact that it is an absurd demand; most of the protestors are only repeating a slogan, the end result of a process that has been taking place in the outskirts of mass media and academia. As we say in Brazil, the hole is deeper than it seems.

Responses to the growing demand for military intervention have to consider that maybe for the first time after the end of dictatorship in Brazil there is an increasing intellectually based right-wing movement. Up to this point, the prototypical right-winger in Brazil had no ideological program; their only agenda was to consolidate themselves in power, to profit out of corruption, and to support big business. Consequently, as they were also directly associated with Brazilian landowners, right-wingers were perceived as being the elites.

What is new in this current movement is the fact that this is an ideological drive that is shared by people of different backgrounds. Even though this ideology takes many shapes and forms (pro-military intervention, pro-Christianity and nationalism, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-communist, anti-Workers Party, anti-Dilma, etc.), they all come together around a common enemy: the current government.

The validity, credibility or substance of these right-wing ideologies and thinkers is beyond the point. The fact is, there are now people systematically trying to re-construct this once shattered political position in Brazil, silenced by the shadow of a violent and authoritative past in Brazil. One of their instruments is historical revisionism. As a result, it is not socially proscribed anymore to openly speak in favour of military dictatorship (something that only stigmatized dictatorship’s widows and people directly benefited from the corruption of the military government would formerly do).

Changes in the public perception around the issue of ‘military rule’ can take time, as it did in reconstructing as a monstrous dictatorship in the first place. But historical revisionism is a powerful tool that can also negatively alter the balance once again. Consequently, it is not enough to simply to peddle the official version of history, as the lady in the cartoon proposes.

What is necessary is the empowerment of people with a full set of critical abilities in order to enhance democratic society. This critical thinking can only be a product of education. I am not talking about studying recent history, but rather about acquiring the critical tools to understand how history works, and how it has been constantly re-written to attend certain societal demands. Therefore, this is a long-term commitment that I hope this current government is willing to undertake, in spite of all the pressure for short-term resolutions.

Ultimately, when people go to the streets, you better listen to their demands carefully. It does not matter how silly, misguided or empty they seem to be, they will soon amount to something far greater if summarily dismissed. Reprimanding such movements through evoking official history, which is also a construct, is not enough. Thus, while the vulnerability of the Rousseff regime may lead to short-term knee-jerk reactions, embracing educational strategies would pay off in the long term. Again, the hole is always deeper than it seems.

Dr Marcelo Mendes de Souza is a scholar at the University of Auckland in the field of comparative literature.