57 Years Later

At about 9 am, I got on my Bianchi and started pedaling to Belo Horizonte. From the house in Lagoa Santa to downtown Praca 7, the distance was just over 25 miles. After navigating the 4 blocks of dirt road, I reached the 2-lane asphalt road, turned right with the lake to my left. The morning was sunny with a few clouds on the horizon. Nothing threatening, although the month of March closed out the summer and there could still be thunderstorms. Passing the Igreja do Rosario, the road slopes gradually down to the lake level and the Lagoinha neighborhood and then rises to Vila Asas and the Lagoa Santa Air Force base. Riding up the hill, I saw the uniformed cadets and officers, a common occurrence. However, on this day, the airman had set up a roadblock and were stopping some vehicles but not all. I rode through and I think the MPs saw me as harmless enough on my bike. Cresting the hill, there is a 2.5 mile downhill into Vespasiano. It is nice cruise and on my bike I could easily hit 30mph on the descent. Once down, the hills roll and then flatten. Just past Vespasiano, there is a small highway patrol building and here brown uniformed soldiers of the military police had set another roadblock. Although they waved for me to stop, I nonchalantly rode through with a wave. I thought I was too intense in my training ride to be bothered by the military. Nothing eventful happened the rest of the way and when I arrived at my friend’s cycling shop near the train station on Rua da Bahia, I was surprised to learn that a coup was taking place and that President Goulart was fleeing the country in the face of the military insurrection. Thus began 21 years of military rule, first in the name of “preservation of democracy” from the supposed communist threat. General Humberto Castelo Branco would seize the presidency and formal democratic processes largely came to an end as the military government evolved into a dictatorship that was seen as necessary for maintaining order and stability. The press was censored, many were arrested, many were killed, many were tortured and grey days of the AI-5 led into the “anos de chumbo” or years of lead, heavy with suppression and suspicion. The successive military governments were punished over the years by the mismanagement and corruption due to their own lack of legitimacy even under a certain facade of technocratic authority.

Now, a lifetime later, Brazil still struggles. It has elections, it has a dynamic press, and a vibrant, if worn, civil society. President Jair Bolsonaro, in office for just over two years admires the dictatorship even though he has little understanding of its origins and consequences. As he harks back to authoritarian rule, he becomes weaker and weaker in his failings to address the country worse case pandemic and the paucity of economic growth. Although legitimately elected, Bolsonaro has only weakened the institutions and the economy. His promises of ending corruption, promoting morality and ending criminality have come to nothing. Brazil continues to regress. As the President flounders with his latest cabinet rearrangements, he seeks to place loyalists in key positions of support, but all of these erratic moves will at most buy time perhaps to next year’s election. As his support wanes, Bolsonaro’s moves only reveal his desperate striving to maintain power. However, he has no control over the virus and his self-proclaimed support of economic activity has only led to near record levels of unemployment, resurgent inflation, a breakdown of the health system and thousands and thousands of daily unnecessary deaths.

Given the 57 years since March 31, 1964, it is not clear that Brazilian society can escape secular decline. It is a tragedy and one can only hope that it might somehow be reversed in another lifetime. One can only resist and hope.