UCLA International Institute, May 22, 2023 — “How [could] the Brazilian political elite support [former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva]’s vision in the early 2000s to reduce class- and race-based inequalities, and then only a few years later support Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right agenda?” asked historian Bryan Pitts, Ph.D., assistant director of the Latin American Institute (LAI), at a recent campus event.
Pitts spoke at a book talk for his newly published monograph, “Until the Storm Passes: Politicians, Democracy, and the Demise of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship” (UC Press, 2023) hosted by the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies, LAI and the UCLA Department of History on May 8.
“This book argues that the answer lies in understanding the dispositions of Brazil’s political class, especially the way they approached democracy during the military dictatorship.” That is, the malleability of the political class — rooted in its own self-interest — prompts the political elite to shit from left to right to left again.
Pitts’ remarks were preceded by an introduction by UCLA alumnus (Ph.D., History, 2010) Ben Cowan, professor of history at UC San Diego. Cowan emphasized that “Until the Storm Passes” brings a crucial new perspective to the historiography of Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship (1964–1985) by focusing on the role of the political elite. He lauded Pitts’ central argument that the impact of military rule on the Brazilian political class led the latter to become the lynchpin in the regime’s demise after a decade of a military-led re-democratization.
“[E]lites, who were still bristling at their decades-long exclusion from customary privileges [were] willing to make alliances… in order to retain their legal and political standing, which is a really brilliant insight,” noted Cowan.
Thesis, terms and sources
“[T]he trauma of military tutelage led politicians to embrace new possibilities for popular mobilization,” said Pitts. “It was a time when a national political elite — always defined by its fear, or even hatred, of the working class — began to accept that ordinary people had some role to play in setting the course of the nation.
“This acceptance of popular mobilization by the political elite under dictatorship was not simply due to a commitment [to] democracy … but also because they needed the collaboration of the popular classes to escape military rule.”
By the end of the dictatorship, pointed out Pitts, Brazilian politicians accepted a much larger degree of political mobilization and representation than they had found acceptable prior to 1964, including support for the rights of Brazilian workers who, unlike the white political elite, are majority black and brown.
The historian noted that the term “political class” is widely used in Brazil. He defined the term in the tradition of the work of pre-World War II German theorists Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and contemporary political scientist Frances Hagopian.
The book relies on research conducted in 19 archives located in Brazil, the U.S., UK, Portugal and Spain, including diplomatic archives, archives of the Brazilian intelligence services and the digitized audio archive of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies (which begin in 1970). In addition, Pitts interviewed a number of surviving politicians of the dictatorship years, spanning governors, congresspeople, ministers and even congressional employees.
Brazilian politicians align with mass movements to oppose military rule: Two cases
When it was established in 1964, said Pitts, the military dictatorship had three aims: eliminate perceived leftist subversion, promote economic development and institute reforms to curb corrupt, self-interested politicians.
“For their part, politicians… were shocked to discover that the military saw them as one of the as one of Brazil’s problems to be solved,” commented the historian. “[T]hey were ambivalent at best [about] a centralization of power that would necessarily impinge on their own and call into question their presumed rights to rule Brazil.
“It became clear only gradually that the military had miscalculated, and badly. Time and again, politicians pushed back,” continued Pitts, citing incidents in which they refused military demands to prosecute legislators, named their own candidates at party nominating conventions and supported mass mobilization.
Pitts focused on two important cases (covered in separate chapters in the book) in which the political class supported mass movements: the nationwide student protests of 1968 and a series of metalworker strikes in suburban São Paulo in the late 1970s. He characterized the latter as “part of an upsurge of working class mobilization that challenged centuries-old social hierarchies that place the political class at the top.”
Hopes that the military would remain in power only briefly were shattered by the military’s reaction to widespread university student protests in 1968, which morphed into a call for regime change. The year ended with a regime “hardening” reflected in the promulgation of the highly repressive Institutional Act No. 5 in December.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, politicians chafing under military rule were willing to support protesting students, as in many cases, the police were beating up their own children. “Keep in mind that at this time, Brazil was a country where less than 1% of the population went to college, so it goes without saying that politicians came from the same social class as the students,” commented Pitts.
Deputies to the national parliament were astounded that, in repeated incidents, they and their children were treated like common criminals. As a result, they began to more forcefully denounce the regime. And although legislators believed they were acting in solidarity with the students, Pitts noted that the predominantly leftist students viewed the politicians as puppets of the regime.
In the second case, roughly a decade later, politicians supported the demands of metalworkers in a string of strikes between 1978 and 1980, publicly protesting both their brutal repression at the hands of the police and the 1980 arrest of future president Lula (then a union leader).
In the São Paulo industrial suburb of São Bernardo, they attended union assemblies and attempted to mediate between police and the workers, “participating in the sort of social unrest that has traditionally horrified Brazilian elites,” said Pitts. Even such high-level regime supporters such as Senator Teotônio Vilela had by then joined the opposition, and went on to play an instrumental role in supporting workers’ rights and the democratization that followed.
End of military rule leaves military and elite power diminished
“When [the dictatorship] finally fell, it was because there had been an unprecedented upsurge in civil society and because the political class had finally gotten fed up,” reflected Pitts.
“Nearly four decades have passed since the regime fell in 1985, but we have not witnessed anything like an unqualified acceptance of a more participatory social democracy by Brazil’s political elites.
“Indeed, even amid democratization, politicians combined their openness to increase popular participation with a determination to salvage what they could have the wealth and the power — the wealth and impunity — that people like them have enjoyed [in Brazil] since time immemorial.”
“[As to] the question of whether Brazilian democracy is held captive by the military, I would answer yes, but the range for military action gets narrower and narrower.
“And I would argue that the range of options for the white wealthy Brazilian elite to hold back the tide of popular mobilization has gotten narrower and narrower with each of these successive interventions in politics.”
Looking at the last six years alone, the historian noted that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was overthrown in 2016 in a “parliamentary coup,” Lula was unjustly imprisoned in 2018 and Bolsonaro was elected that same year. But by late 2022, Lula was re-elected.
“Six years later [and] the left is back in power via democratic elections. That didn’t happen after 1964; it took 21 years,” reflected Pitts. “One could say, ‘Look, the Brazilian elite have done it again.’ But we can also say it only took them six years to figure out that they miscalculated, and ultimately that’s improvement.”
From left: Kevin Terraciano and Ruben Hernandez-Leon, former and current directors of the
Latin American Institute, respectively; Bryan Pitts, LAI assistant director; and Susanna Hecht,
director, UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies.
All photos by Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.