Remembering the Years of Lead under Brazil’s military rule: AI-5 never again!

Dec 23, 2019

A 1968 demonstration in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Brazilian National Archives.

Editor’s note: Imposed in 1968, Institutional Act No. 5 lifted all restraint on the military dictatorship that came to power in Brazil in the 1964 coup, opening the doors to unbridled repression, the most grotesque forms of torture, and political killings in the hands of state forces. The statement below was published on the website of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) on 16 December 2019. It was written by the PCB’s General Secretary, Edmilson Costa. Silvio Rodrigues translated the statement from Portuguese to English for Liberation School. Additional footnotes by the translator provide additional context to U.S. readers.


As the ghost of dictatorship haunts us again–through government measures that are turning the Brazilian state into an ever more repressive police state, as well as through open threats from federal representative Eduardo Bolsonaro,[1] who said a “new AI-5” was necessary if popular demonstrations such as those taking place in Chile were to happen today in Brazil, threats that were later ratified by Minister [of Economy] Paulo Guedes, and that regularly appear, veiled or not, coming from the mouth of the current president of the Republic and his followers, who are advocates of an openly autocratic and reactionary departure for Brazil–we consider it of fundamental importance to reprint, with minor adaptations, the article by Edmilson Costa, Secretary General of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), published on December 12, 2018.

— National Communication Secretariat of the PCB

AI-5 half century: dictatorship never again!

Institutional Act No. 5, issued by the military dictatorship in December 1968, celebrated its 50th anniversary on December 13 (2018). It is a dark memory of an authoritarian instrument that opened the door to an open fascist dictatorship, state terrorism, and the arrests, torture, deaths, and disappearances of political prisoners–true crimes against humanity that have not yet been punished in Brazil. It is crucial that the new generations, more than 100 million Brazilians who did not live the dictatorship, understand the barbarities, the censorship of the media, the theater, the cinema, the music, the literature, the political persecutions, the annulment of the political mandate of parliamentarians and politicians in general, and the climate of terror and fear that characterized the dictatorial period. By the calculations of various historians and the National Truth Commission, during the dictatorship, more than 50,000 Brazilians were arrested, about 7,000 were exiled, over a hundred banished, 434 were killed or disappeared, and 800 were tried by military tribunals.[2]

It is noteworthy that the dictatorship was imposed on March 31, 1964, when President João Goulart was overthrown by a military coup with business support aimed at rescuing the ruling classes that were politically defeated by the intense popular mobilization of the time. That is why they implemented a regime that curtailed democratic freedoms, tightened wages, broadened the denationalization of the economy favoring international capital, and aligned itself with the policies of the Cold War in the interest of the imperialism of the United States, which provided intelligence, torture techniques, and diplomatic support to the coup leaders. The main problems expressed today in Brazilian society take their DNA from the measures implemented during the dictatorial period, especially the perverse distribution of income, a low-wage economy whose mold persists to this day, and the expansion of the power of a truculent, undemocratic and reactionary dominant class.

It is also important to note that the military coup of 1964 contributed to a change in the correlation of forces in international geopolitics and made room for the period of military coups on several continents. As the former U.S. ambassador said, the coup in Brazil had the same impact as the Marshall Plan, the blockade of Berlin or the war in Korea.[3] After all Brazil had the largest economy, the largest population, and the largest territory in Latin America. From Brazil, a wave of military coups spread in various regions of the world, such as in 1965 in Indonesia, where more than 700,000 people were killed, including communists, democrats, and progressives in general. But the region where military coups most prospered was Latin America, where in the 1970s most countries were ruled by military forces whose power came from coups.

In this context, Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) was the deepening of the measures previously taken by the new regime, a kind of coup within the coup, aimed at consolidating the power of the new rulers, reorganizing society, expanding the power of the ruling classes, and preventing popular demonstrations. Between December 13, 1968 and October 13, 1978, when the discretionary act was repealed, the country lived the Years of Lead with an openly fascist military dictatorship; suppression of liberties; the imprisonment, torture and killing of opponents; stripping of political rights of those whom the dictatorship considered inconvenient to the regime; revocation of direct elections for president, governors and mayors of the capitals; widespread censorship and the building of an espionage network that spanned all sectors of public administration, schools, universities and public places. At the same time, the process of conservative modernization established by iron and fire an economic model of predatory accumulation[4] that accelerated the country’s economic growth, expanded industrialization, developed capitalism in the countryside, but resulted in true social apartheid with brutal concentration of income, which would deepen even in democratic periods.

To understand history

In order for the new generations to understand the meaning of dictatorship and AI-5, it is important to review, even if briefly, the main events that led to the coup and the main measures taken by the military. It is worth remembering that the first years of the 60s of the last century were marked by intense political activity, and labor union and popular mobilization in defense of “reformas de base” [foundational reforms], a platform of rural and urban reforms seeking to benefit the majority of the population and build economic development through income distribution. Popular sectors, organized by the General Workers Command (CGT), the Peasant Leagues, the National Students Union (UNE), and the Popular Centers of Culture (CPCs), including also nationalist military, artist, and intellectual organizations, were winning the political and ideological battle, and the President of the Republic was also a supporter of the reforms. The bourgeoisie, landlords, and U.S. imperialism were on the defensive even before growing, intense popular participation in street debates and demonstrations. Most of the population supported the reforms. Since the ruling classes did not want to lose long-held privileges, they plotted the coup along with the United States and implanted dictatorship.

The military coup of 1964, by the way of consequences that persist to this day, was the most profound and extensive defeat of the popular and democratic movement in Brazil. The political institution and economic structure starting in this period are responsible for shaping the fundamental aspects of the Brazilian society of today. The first period of the dictatorship, which runs from 1964 to 1968, was the moment of dismantling the previous order and assembling the new order, by issuing the so-called institutional acts, which gave extraordinary powers to the new agents. Between April 1964 and November 1966, the government issued 838 laws, 5,685 decrees, 3 institutional acts and 24 complementary acts.[5] To silence the opposition, the dictatorship carried out thousands of arrests in the first months following the coup, even using ships to house prisoners. It abolished the 1946 Constitution and annulled mandates from parliamentarians, governors, mayors, municipal legislators, civil servants, trade unionists, and progressive personalities. It established indirect elections for president, governors, and mayors of the capitals, declared the CGT and UNE illegal, extinguished political parties, created artificial bipartisanship (Arena and MDB), and altered the composition of the Federal Supreme Court to obtain a majority.[6]

From the economic and social point of view, the construction of the new order was made through a set of orthodox reforms in banking, finance, tax policy, foreign exchange and foreign trade, as well as legislation to stimulate foreign capital. These reforms set the stage for the so-called “economic miracle” from 1968 to 1973, when growth rates reached an annual average of more than 11 percent per year. In order to make the new order viable among workers, the government intervened in the unions and appointed as interveners the old union bureaucrats linked to the new regime. To understand the dictatorship’s offensive against the trade union movement, suffice it to say that between 1964 and 1979 there were 1,202 union interventions, 810 of them between 1964 and 1965; 78 board dismissals; 31 interventions in union electoral processes with election annulments; and 364 dissolutions of trade union entities.[7] These measures sought to dismantle the organized union struggle in order to impose the new wage policy, with readjustment mostly below inflation, a policy that was in force throughout nearly the entire the dictatorial period.

Despite all these measures and a brutal crackdown on street demonstrations, the student movement reorganized, rebuilt the UNE even while underground, and promoted mass demonstrations across the country, especially in 1968. That year, crackdowns broke into the Calabouço Restaurant, where poor students usually ate their meals, and killed student Edson Luis de Lima Souto, which caused national outrage. Protest marches were held across the country, the most famous of which was the March of the One Hundred Thousand, held in Rio de Janeiro, attended not only by students, but also by professionals, artists, and people, putting the regime in check. Also in 1968, two major workers’ strikes were held: in the Contagem region, which paralyzed the region’s main factories in Minas Gerais, and in Osasco, São Paulo. The latter paralyzed virtually all factories in this industrial city in the state of São Paulo, leading the army to intervene in the city, brutally repress workers, and arrest union leaders to stifle the movement. In the political-parliamentary field, Deputy Márcio Moreira Alves gave a speech condemning the military coup, which was considered offensive by the Armed Forces. They demanded the revocation of the deputy’s mandate, but Congress refused. Then the military found a pretext for editing AI-5, which closed Congress and consolidated the regime as a fascist dictatorship.

The Years of Lead and the fascist terror

The AI-5 meant the radicalization of the dictatorship and consolidated the power of the so-called military hardline, opening a clearly fascist period in the country’s history. The Act was issued at the end of the dictatorship of Costa e Silva, who was soon to die and be briefly replaced by a military junta, and later by dictator Emílio Garrastazu Médici, who ruled from 1969 to March 1974. To have an idea of ​​institutional barbarism, it is sufficient to recall the main measures contained in this exception legislation. Among other points, the following can be highlighted: closing of the National Congress; passing the powers to the President of the Republic; suspension of habeas corpus; prior censorship of the media, theater, cinema, music, and arts in general; suspension of constitutional guarantees and of political rights; the revocation of congressional mandates; prohibition of popular demonstrations; the authorization of summary dismissals in the public administration, and the transfer to military courts of trials of political actions that they deemed crimes against national security. The legal and illegal bases were thus constituted for what was popularly known as the Years of Lead. It should be noted that the day before, the regime had already carried out hundreds of arrests of opposition figures, which became widespread after the promulgation of AI-5.

The regime, contested in the streets and battered by the urban guerrilla, structured a powerful spy and killing apparatus coupled with an alienating machine. Part of the repressive apparatus was already structured in the National Information Service (SNI), created shortly after the coup and in the former Departments of Political and Social Order (DOPS), which existed in several states, especially in São Paulo, where Operation Bandeirantes–an operational organ of the repression financed by large corporations–was also created by the military. Subsequently, the dictatorship reorganized and centralized all repressive organs starting from two basic instruments: the Internal Defense Operations Centers (CODI) and the Internal Operations Detachments (DOI), two organizations that specialized in prisons, institutionalized torture, intelligence gathering, dismantling of guerrilla groups, and the persecution of all who opposed the dictatorship. Many of these agents of repression were trained by the CIA, especially the officers, at the School of the Americas, as well as by intelligence forces from the English and French armies. A well-known CIA agent, Dan Mitrione, taught practical torture classes in Brazil, using political prisoners as guinea pigs, and boasted of teaching scientific torture: “apply pain at the right dose, with the exact intensity, in the most appropriate place, to extract the most information.” He was captured in Uruguay by the Tupamaros guerrillas and executed in August 1970.

Not satisfied with these paralegal instruments of repression, the regime also created clandestine centers for torture and death of militants, such as House of Death in Petrópolis, the Kerosene Nightclub in São Paulo, those two being the most infamous, and other places. To these places were taken prisoners considered most dangerous, who had little choice but to betray or die. They were tortured for 10, 15, 20 uninterrupted days in the most barbaric way possible. The goal was to “turn” the prisoners, that is, turn them into agents of repression to then infiltrate their former organizations and denounce their comrades. Of all those who went through the House of Death, for example, only one prisoner survived, Inês Etienne Romeu. One of the chief torturers, Colonel Paulo Malhães, told the Truth Commission that she survived because his colleagues did not know how to do the job properly. At Kerosene Nightclub practically all died, except those who betrayed their comrades, such as agent Vinicius (Severino Teodoro Melo, member of the Central Committee and militant since 1935), a PCB traitor and responsible for the denunciation and death of more than two thirds of the Central Committee members murdered by torture, and Agent Camilo, whose real name was Natanael de Moura Girardi (a Cuban-trained guerrilla), responsible for the killing and disruption of virtually the entire Molipo (Popular Liberation Movement), a splinter group from the ALN [National Liberation Action],[8] organized in Cuba. Almost all were killed when they returned and were arrested in Brazil.[9] One of the very few survivors of this organization Lula’s former Chief of Staff José Dirceu.

The perpetrators of the Brazilian repression had a macabre law: all those who did guerrilla training in Cuba, the East, or China, and the banned (those exchanged in the abduction of ambassadors), and those accused of death crimes were marked to die. Virtually all those arrested in this category were murdered. The methods used by torturers to obtain information were on par with the Nazis: pau de arara [“macaw’s perch”],[10] electric shocks in the mouth, testicles, and ears; drowning with water and urine; sleep deprivation; exposure to high and low temperatures; beatings of various types; spanking of the soles of the feet, hands, and back; “telephones” (two-handed clapping of the ears that caused the eardrums to rupture); serum of truth; prolonged isolation with shrill sounds in the dark cells; deprivation of water and food; rapes; among other atrocities. To cover up the barbarities, the perpetrators invented a series of dissimulations, “theatrics,” including fake news such as “died in confrontation with the police,” “was run over while trying to escape,” or “was never in police premises,” among other false claims.

To complete the horrors, and since the dead were many, the repression decided to disappear the bodies of those tortured and killed. To this end, many were thrown into rivers or into the sea after the removal of their teeth and parts of their fingers to leave them without fingerprints, and with cement or stones put in their stomachs so they wouldn’t float, as Colonel Malhães, one of the torturers of the House of Death cynically declared in his testimony. Many bodies were also cut up in pieces buried in different places to make identification difficult. Others were buried in mass graves for indigents, such as the well known Turkeys Clandestine Ditch in the Don Bosco cemetery in the north of São Paulo, where several bones of dead prisoners were found (the last set recently found was that of Aluísio Palhano, a leader from the bank workers trade union and the VPR [Revolutionary Popular Vanguard]). It must not be forgotten that there were doctors who signed death certificates with false causes of death, according to the needs of the torturers. One of the best known coroners in these practices was doctor Harry Shibata, a true Brazilian Dr. Mengele.

When the urban guerrilla was already defeated, the military regime turned against the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), the only organization that had not joined the armed struggle and that had elaborated, in 1967, its strategy of a democratic front to defeat the dictatorship and that had strong organic links with the labor movement and youth. For the new dictator and his strategists, the so-called slow and gradual opening could not be accomplished with the emergence of the PCB as a strong organization linked to the masses. For this reason, they authorized the PCB massacre through Operation Radar, which sought to eliminate the main leaders of the Central Committee and wreck the organization. A document from the military intelligence command titled “Neutralizing the PCB” pointed out which individuals should be eliminated, since in practice neutralizing meant killing. In this offensive, in the years of 1974, 1975, and early 1976, 10 members of the Central Committee and three comrades with national tasks were murdered, many with horse-killing injections, such as the political secretary of the Communist Youth, José Montenegro de Lima, and others through savage torture. Their disfigured bodies, toothless and fingerless, with stones tied to their stomachs, lie in some river in the Greater São Paulo region. Virtually all members of the regional leaderships were arrested, as well as about 2,000 militants, the vast majority of them tortured.

Geisel and the permit to kill

To understand this savagery, it is important to cite two symbolic cases: On his return from abroad, PCB leader David Capistrano was arrested on the border of Rio Grande do Sul and taken to the House of Death. Tortured for several days, Capistrano gave no information to his captors and was murdered. His body was butchered and hung on hooks like cattle, according to notes taken posthumously from a repression agent and turned into a book by journalist Tais Moraes.[11] Capistrano’s remains were then taken and thrown into the ovens of the Cambahyba sugar mill in Campos in the countryside of Rio de Janeiro, where repression also burned the bodies of several militants from other organizations killed in that macabre house. Another symbolic case is that of PCB leader Elson Costa. Brutally tortured for more than 20 days, in tatters and disfigured, the torturers poured alcohol over his body and gave him two options: to become a police officer or to die. As he remained firm in his willingness to keep the Party’s secrets and to not betray his organization, the criminals set fire to his body, slowly killing him.

Contrary to what people might imagine, these deaths were not the result of accidents or the sadism of one or another torturer (which also existed), but from a selective crackdown on the PCB’s top leaders. A document released by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States (CIA) reports on a meeting of the CIE (Army Information Center) chiefs with Ernesto Geisel, who was taking over the command of the dictatorship at the time. At the meeting, the intelligence commanders gave an account of the work and methods used by the repression agencies to date (when executions already added up to 104) and wanted to know if they could continue killing and acting in the same way. Geisel asked for some time to think and days later authorized the political assassinations on two conditions: only the so-called most dangerous elements would be killed, and all executions should be screened by SNI [National Information Service] chief João Batista Figueiredo. This document is crystal-clear proof that the barbarism carried out in the cellars of repression was not the initiative of the unbalanced or sadistic individuals present there, but a process that was endorsed by the main commanders and the dictator of the Republic.

The killing machine was also combined with the alienating machine in order to produce a climate of normality and stability in the country. As was said at the time, Brazil was an “island of tranquility in an international conjuncture of conflicts.” The aim was to create a kind of forced national unanimity, in which all those who did not support the regime were considered suspect or enemy. As the successes of the “economic miracle” were celebrated and militants were ground up in the basements and street signs were put up depicting wanted revolutionaries, the Special Public Relations Agency (AERP) produced mass patriotic propaganda in the media with typical fascist slogans such as, “Brazil, Love It or Leave It” and “Brazil, a land blessed by God,” aiming to create a climate of artificial nationalism, including taking advantage of the fact that Brazil was the world soccer champion in 1970. “Chapa branca”[12] singers, such as Dom and Ravel, also started to appear with the hits, “I love you my Brazil,” “Nobody holds back Brazil’s youth,” and “Forward Brasil,” among others. In the universities, moral and civic education classes were implemented, the MEC-USAID agreement was implemented,[13] and with decree 477, deans were free to expel any students who were engaged in subversive activities per the dictatorship’s perspective.

The censorship of culture and the arts, and the persecution of science

Censorship of culture in general; cinema; music; theater; literature; the fine arts; the media, such as the press, television, radio; as well as the persecution of science, increased the dictatorship’s control over practically all social life. The dictatorship wanted to control everything, hinder the circulation of anti-regime ideas, censor creativity, and arrest artists who did not fit the new order. According to a survey by journalist Zuenir Ventura, during the AI-5 period, more than 500 song lyrics, 500 films, 450 plays, and 200 books were vetoed or cut in part by the famous Public Amusement Censorship Division, the organ from which the operations to strangle culture and democratic freedoms were carried out. The rigor and bizarreness of the censors, who did not have the same intellectual conditions as the creative artists, often led to certain restrictions and minor revenge on the artists, leading to laughable situations such as banning the dissemination of Mário de Andrade’s poem, “Ode to the bourgeois,” just because it contained that magic little word.

With regard to the written press, with the imposition of AI-5 censors began to settle in the newsrooms, where they had a table from which to censor all articles they considered contrary to the government. Newspapers such as O Estado de São Paulo and Jornal do Brasil, faced with the impossibility of publishing new pieces in place of the censored ones, had to resort to strategies such as publishing cake recipes, weather conditions, or poems by Camões, which were also an indirect form of protest against censorship. Progressive newspapers like O Pasquim and Opinião were censored with special rigor and often had to produce stories in a volume corresponding to two or three issues so that they could publish only one. Even comic books were censored, such as Fradim by Henfil. Television and radio were special targets for censors because of the popularity of these two media. Newscasts were censored and even soap operas were banned, such as Dias Gomes’s “Bem Amado,” which was only broadcast 10 years after it was censored. Authors such as Cassandra Rios, Rubens Fonseca and even Eça de Queiroz (“The crime of Father Amaro”) did not escape the sieve of the censors. The theater was also heavily censored, and Chico Buarque’s play, “Roda Viva,” was attacked by the Communist Hunt Command, having its set vandalized and actors beaten. Cinema, particularly the authors of Cinema Novo,[14] had dozens of films censored, many of which were screened only following the political opening and amnesty. Science was equally badly attacked by the dictatorship: 471 scientists were persecuted, lost their jobs, or went into exile; entire sectors of the Fiocruz Manguinhos Institute were dismantled, and mass layoffs took place at the University of Brasilia.

But Brazilian Popular Music (MPB) and its main authors earned special attention from censorship. Authors like Milton Nascimento, Raul Seixas, and Taiguara had dozens of songs censored. Other authors such as Rita Lee, Belchior, Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes were also censored, and even some cheesy singer-songwriters such as Odair José were victims of censorship. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil not only had several of their songs censored, but were also arrested and forced into exile in London. But the main enemies of the dictatorship in the musical arena were singer-songwriters Geraldo Vandré and Chico Buarque de Holanda. The former, with his song, “So they don’t say I didn’t speak of flowers,” which became a kind of anthem against the dictatorship, had to go into exile in Europe. Chico Buarque de Holanda, who also went into self-exile in Italy for a period, was probably the most persecuted by censorship. At such a point, Chico had to use the pseudonym Julinho de Adelaide in order to have the songs released and circumvent censorship, since he was at the head of a list of composers persecuted by the regime. Taiguara too used the same artifice to get his musical compositions released. When the government realized what was happening, it began to demand identification and social security numbers from musical composers.

AI-5 was repealed in December 1978, when the social movement, after the ABC strikes,[15] took its first steps in reorganization and later became the main pole of resistance to dictatorship. Then came amnesty, an instrument that allowed the release of political prisoners and the return of exiles, but which also gave amnesty to torturers, which has been the main pretext of conservative forces not to punish crimes against humanity committed by the torturers and their commanders. In the early 1980s, the democratic movement advanced, while the dictatorship lost strength and political initiative, until it was replaced by a civilian government in a negotiated arrangement between military, democratic sectors, and the ruling classes, generating compromises that prevented a just reckoning in society with this dark period.

New generations need to know the truth about those dark times in order not to be fooled or embark in authoritarian adventures. Nothing like knowing the past so as not to repeat tragedies in the future!

[1] The son of extreme-right president Jair Bolsonaro. – Translator.

[2] Report of the National Truth Commission, created to investigate the crimes of dictatorship.

[3] Son, L. V. The Castelo Branco government. Rio de Janeiro: Jose Olympio, 1974.

[4] Coast. E. The Salary Policy in Brazil. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 1977.

[5] Revista Desenvolvimento e Conjuntura, cited in Araújo, N. A Crisis and Lucha de Clases in Brazil 1974-1979. PhD final thesis. UNAM, Mexico.

[6] Arena, or National Renewal Alliance, was a party created to provide political support for the dictatorship; MDB, or Brazilian Democratic Movement, brought together political forces opposed to the military rule. – Translator.

[7] Moreira Alves, M. H. State and Opposition in Brazil – 1964-1984. Voices, 1984.

[8] The ALN was founded by Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella. – Translator.

[9] Godoy, Marcelo. Grandma’s House – A biography of DOI-CODI (1969-1991), the center of kidnapping, torture and death of the military dictatorship. Sao Paulo: Alameda, 2014.

[10]  The macaw’s perch” involved inserting a wooden pole between the knees and the forearms with wrists bound in front of the shins. – Translator

[11] Morals, T. No Traces. Sao Paulo: Generation.

[12] “White plate” is an expression indicating support for or coziness with the military dictatorship. – Translator

[13] This was an agreement between the Brazilian Ministry of Education and USAID — the United States Agency for International Development, an arm of the US foreign intervention machine. – Translator

[14] New Cinema was a progressive movement among Brazilian filmmakers in the 60s and 70s tackling the themes of social inequality and racism in Brazil.

[15] The ABC region of the state of São Paulo, a major industrial pole where a revival of Brazil’s trade union movement originated in the late 70s. – Translator

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