On the Tenuous Transition to Democracy in Brazil in the 1990s

Although Brazil’s military regime officially ended in 1985, the transition to democracy was not instantaneous. The first presidential election was an indirect election, with the Brazilian Congress (rather than the population) choosing  Tancredo Neves, a member of the opposition who was moderate enough that the military would not oppose his inauguration. However, Neves died before taking office, leaving the vice-president José Sarney, a bridge-building pick who had previously been a member of the pro-military party during the dictatorship, to assume the presidency; thus it was that, from 1985 to 1990, Brazil did have a civilian president, but one that Brazilians had not chosen and who had been an advocate for the military regime for much of the dictatorship era. It was only in 1989 that Brazilians were able to elect their president for the first time since 1960.

Even with these civilian elections, however, the influence of the military did not disappear. As the work of Jorge Zaverucha has shown, the military continued to exercise a considerable amount of influence on democratically-elected presidents, particularly under the administrations of Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-1992) and especially under Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002). Thus it was that, although Brazil had officially returned to democracy by the 1990s, the degree to which it was free of military pressure on politics was murky at best well into the twenty-first century.

A new report out of Brazil reinforces the murkiness of that democratic transition. Intelligence agencies apparently followed and regularly reported on the activities of former opponents of the military regime, including Dilma Rousseff, the current President of Brazil, who was just a state-level official at the time and who had been involved with a leftist opposition group during the military dictatorship. According to the report:

Nos anos 1990, na vigência da democracia e com presidente eleito por voto direto, os órgãos de informação do governo continuaram monitorando pessoas, partidos e movimentos sociais, entre outros alvos. Funcionária da Prefeitura de Porto Alegre e depois do governo do Rio Grande do Sul, Dilma Rousseff não escapou. Seu nome aparece em alguns registros produzidos pela Secretaria de Assuntos Estratégicos da Presidência da República.

In the 1990s, in the midst of democracy and with a directly-elected president, the security establishments of the government continued monitoring people, political parties, and social movements, among other targets. Dilma Rousseff, a Functionary of the Porto Alegre Prefecture and later governor of Rio Grande do Sul state, did not escape [such monitoring]. Her name appears in some registers that the Secretary of Strategic Topics of the Presidency of the Republic produced. [Translation mine.]

The report goes on to say that other members of anti-dictatorship opposition movements also fell under the security and information networks’ gaze well into the 1990s, during both the administrations of Fernando Collor and of his successor, Itamar Franco. Most of the targets were former leftists who worked for the government in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southern-most state. There doesn’t seem to have been a response from Rousseff’s administration yet, and the military and security apparatuses in Brazil are notoriously protective of security documents even today. Still, the new report shows how, even in the midst of a “full democracy,” Brazil’s military and security apparatuses continued to employ tactics that monitored past perceived “threats, tactics that civilian presidents appear not to have discouraged. This latest report reveals yet another way that the military continued to influence politicians behind the scenes long after the military regime officially ended and reminds us that transitions from military dictatorships to democracy are rarely cut-and-dry.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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