Brazil: Marking 50 years since US-backed coup

Tanks on Brazil's streets during the 1964 coup.

April marks the 50th anniversary of the US-backed military coup d’etat in Brazil. The coup kicked off a brutal 20 military dictatorship.

Military coups followed in Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. With the support of the US government and Paraguay, under dictator General Alfredo Stroessner, the region's regimes organised Operation Condor, a political repression and terror campaign to suppress opposition.

Below is an excerpt from the Brazil chapter Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of 21st Century Socialism. By Roger Burbach, Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes, it was published by Zed books last year. You can order the book here.


In 1964, the Brazilian military dictatorship rolled in like a bad dream. President Joao Goulart fled to Uruguay, and with him went the hopes of progressive reforms. The first of 17 military decrees, or Institutional Acts, were issued.

Institutional Act 5, decreed by military president Artur da Costa e Silva on December 13, 1968, suspended habeas corpus and disbanded congress.

Inspired by the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and insurgent guerrilla movements in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, Communist Party militants went underground and formed armed movements against the dictatorship, including the National Liberation Alliance and the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard, which would later become the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares (VAR-Palmares).

Dissidents were tracked down, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or worse. According to the 2007 report from the Brazilian government’s Special Commission on Murders and Political Disappeared entitled “The Right to Memory and the Truth”, 475 people were disappeared during the twenty-year-long military dictatorship.

Thousands were imprisoned and roughly thirty thousand were tortured. More than 280 different types of torture were inflicted on “subversives” at 242 clandestine torture centers, by hundreds of individual torturers.

Current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was a student activist at the time who became active in the VAR-Palmares (among other guerrilla groups). She was captured by the Brazilian military on January 16, 1970, tortured, and imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, for participating with the guerrilla.

Within a few years the armed resistance to the Brazilian dictatorship had been largely eliminated. Meanwhile, US-Brazilian relations became tighter than ever, as the United States worked to turn Brazil into a “success story” in the fight against communism.

According to a five-and-a-half-year 5000-page investigation into the human rights violations of the dictatorship, entitled Brasil Nunca Mais (“Brazil Never Again”), CIA agents, such as US officer Dan Mitrione, actively trained hundreds of Brazilian military and police officers in torture techniques, or what they called the “Scientific Methods to Extract Confessions and Obtain the Truth”.

Several documented accounts reveal that Mitrione tested his techniques on street kids and homeless beggars from the streets of Belo Horizonte. Many of these techniques would be replicated across the region through the US-sponsored Plan Condor, as Brazil’s neighbors also fell to military dictatorships.

This was the direction that the US hoped the region would turn. Internationally, the military dictatorship broke off relations with Cuba and the Soviet bloc, and steered the country back into the US sphere of influence. Cuba-Brazilian relations would not be resumed until 1986.

“Never had there been such ideological convergence with the United States,” wrote the former Brazilian ambassador to the US (1991–93) Ruben Ricupero, “not just in the perceived continuity and Cold War dangers, but in the acceptance of North American leadership and the feeling among Brazilian leaders that this was an inseparable and defining element in the internal struggle against communist subversion.”

Domestically, encouraged by the US, Brazil liberalised its economy, pushed to increase exports, and opened up for foreign investment, but the economic model didn’t stick. Military president Costa e Silva steered the country back towards the import substitution model that would carry through the rest of the dictatorship.

Meanwhile, ideologically, Brazilian military leaders continued their fight against the communist threat that would often place them even further to the right than US officials.

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