Jair Bolsonaro is the first president of Brazil to praise the military dictatorship since the country’s democratic transition, in 1985. He constantly calls the most infamous torturer of the military regime, colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a national hero. Ustra was the head of a Brazilian investigation division in the 1970s, where hundreds of people were tortured and dozens were killed under his administration.
The far-right president underscored his admiration for the convicted torturer during a lunch meeting with Ustra’s widow, Maria Joseíta Silva Brilhante Ustra, last Thursday, only days after he attacked the president of the Brazilian Bar Association, Felipe Santa Cruz, by mocking his father’s death during the military rule.
At age 80, José Carlos Dias, a lawyer specializing in criminal law and former Justice minister during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration, spoke with Brasil de Fato about how the country’s current situation has made it impossible for him to “take a break” and rest.
The violent atmosphere that has been taking over the country – stirred up by the Brazilian head of State himself – has led Dias to pick up a fight for human rights he started more than 50 years ago.
The former minister was elected this month as the new president of the Arns Commission for Human Rights Defense, an initiative launched in February to monitor human rights violations in the country. Organizations that are part of it include the Brazilian Bar Association, the Brazilian Press Association, and the NGOs Instituto Sou da Paz and Conectas.
Dias, a lawyer who defended more than 500 victims of political persecution during the 1964-1985 dictatorship, feels concerned about the authoritarian offensive Brazil is facing and fears a new “dictatorship through the ballot box.”
Read the highlights of the interview below.
Brasil de Fato: How difficult is it to have human rights respected in the Bolsonaro administration, comparing it with previous administrations?
José Carlos Dias: Things are really bad right now. We notice that human, individual, and social rights are being vilified, whether it’s about education, the environment, or about respecting people. Having the president have lunch with the widow of Ustra, a dictatorship torturer, is disparaging. And that happened only days after he said those things about the president of the Bar.
I remember when I was the president of the Justice and Peace Commission, we had a meeting with general Golbery do Couto e Silva, who was the strongman during the Geisel administration [1974-1979] and the ideologist of the regime’s national security policy. One of the people who attended the meeting was the grandmother of the Bar president, Felipe Santa Cruz, and I was the lawyer of the family. His father, Fernando Santa Cruz, had already disappeared. So people started to share what they knew about their missing relatives. By the end of the meeting, that harsh man, who was a general, was weeping. And he was a minister during the dictatorship!
Now, the president addressed the president of the Bar in a completely different way. So from this perspective, we’re worse than we were under Golbery.
Is this atmosphere of violence coming from the president?
Yes, he is the conductor of this war of hatred. He is the one promoting intolerance and hate. He removed the members of the country’s special committee to investigate political victims and appointed pro-dictatorship people to the positions.
A dictatorship is a terrible thing, and today at least we have the freedom to be here talking and doing this interview. What I mean is that people are not being respected. There is violence in what is being said, in the way Brazil is being ruled.
For the first time since the democratic transition, Brazil has a president that praises the dictatorship. What is the historical weight of this?
All previous presidents [after the democratic transition in 1985] were hit by the dictatorship. That is a terrible thing to see. We cannot allow this to prosper.
Is it possible to give an analysis of how we got to this point?
The presidential campaign happened through social media. He [Bolsonaro] ran away from debates claiming health issues, because he was stabbed. That helped to get him elected. Now we are paying the price.
I said that I would vote for [Fernando] Haddad after the first round, and that only Bolsonaro could make me vote for the PT [Workers’ Party]. I don’t relate at all to the PT, but I voted for Haddad and made a public statement with a large number of people. We handed over a manifesto to Haddad. I told him that he had to reach out to Fernando Henrique [Cardoso, former Brazilian president], Ciro [Gomes, a presidential candidate in last year’s elections]. Anyway, to try to join all these forces against Bolsonaro, but they decided to remain isolated and ended up losing the runoff.
Is democracy at risk in the country?
I think so. We are struggling a lot, but we will resist. And I think it is up to civil society to organize. This is why the Commission was created, to try to bring together entities and institutions. We must exert pressure.
The goal of the National Truth Commission was to wake Brazil up so that what happened in the past doesn’t happen again. The idea was to give a message, especially to the generation that didn’t live and experience the dictatorship, showing what really happened and cannot happen again. So it really frightens me that, in what we are witnessing today, we are facing the risk of having a “dictatorship through the ballot box.” This is what we are waking up against, and that is why, at age 80, I myself – who wanted to rest and take a break from practicing law – I am back and fighting with other comrades to defend this country that is unfortunately being ruled by this captain.
Edition: Daniel Giovanaz