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Brazil’s president just swept 20 years of human rights abuses under the rug – here’s what you need to know

What would the President say to the three little boys who lost their lives? What would he say to their mothers?

From far away, the protest can’t be distinguished from an autumn concert at the park. Samba and chorinho float through the mid-afternoon air and mothers beckon their running children back to picnic blankets. Many of the attendants, with their silver hair and striped polo shirts, look like they could have retired in Florida decades ago.

But we are thousands of miles from Tampa in São Paulo’s famous Ibirapuera Park. The multitude grows, yet, to the casual onlooker, there are few hints that this is a manifestation against dictatorship. Within the outer layer of people, only one woman sits holding a yellow poster board.

“Mini-terrorists,” the sign reads, “Is this what Bolsonaro wants?”

Under the bolded words are black and white pictures of three children. These kids are three of hundreds of people, labeled terrorists and insurgents, who were tortured and killed during Brazil’s 21-year-long military dictatorship. Jair Bolsonaro, nicknamed “Tropical Trump”, condoned the commemoration of the anniversary of the rise of the authoritarian regime.

March 31st marked 55 years since President João Goulart was forced out of office by a coup d’etat. President Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured during the dictatorship, had banned the military from commemorating the anniversary for the previous 8 years. This year, Bolsonaro repealed this order. This is one of many instances in which Bolsonaro has used the supposed lewdness and danger of left-wing ideologies to uphold populist right-wing ideas.

Nearing the stage, more and more signs appear. Most are simply blown up passport photos of young adults that went missing during the dictatorship. Printed neatly on every picture is the name of the deceased. All the way at the front, past the dense layers of the crowd, the protest is in full bloom. Dozens of photographs lay on the ground, surrounded by roses. Signs saying, “Never forgotten” and “Dictatorship never more” are scattered around the pictures. Mothers and widows wear all black to signify their mourning.

Many of them hold photos of their loved ones.

“If they are alive, where are they?” The music stops to allow one such mother to speak. “If they are dead, where are their bodies?”

The dictatorship ended over 34 years ago, yet families are still looking for answers. The political tortures, killings, and kidnappings that occurred during the dictatorship are historical fact. However, for decades, a 1979 amnesty law protected those that committed the crimes from facing prosecution. It took until 1995 for a law to be passed allowing families and friends of victims to create the Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances. Even so, the law only permitted truth-seeking and reparations, meaning the crimes of the dictatorship continue to go unpunished.

Bolsonaro’s attitude toward the dictatorship strikes a particular nerve in light of the suspected assassination of Marielle Franco in 2018. Formerly a councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro, Franco and her driver were shot and killed last March. Her death signified an enormous loss for many underrepresented communities in Brazil. She was a black, gay and leftist activist who grew up in one of Rio’s poorest neighborhoods, a favela called Maré. Given all of the barriers she faced and the lack of politicians in Brazil who are poor, POC or gay, her rise in politics represented the potential for monumental shifts towards equality. Her murder is still under investigation. The parallels between Franco’s death and the assassinations during the dictatorship are not lost on the crowd. Her picture floats on banners, amongst those of who were lost.

“Marielle vive.” Marielle lives is written in red letters.

Franco is gone, but many like her continue to live and work. An administration that does not condemn and, worse yet, condones an era when hundreds of leftist Brazilians were targeted simply for voicing their beliefs, causes deep concern. Emotions run high after the relatives of the deceased are done telling their stories. The crowd begins to chant, breaking the illusion that this is just another pleasant day in the park. Later on, there will be a silent walk, but right now, everyone releases personal and political pain openly and loudly. Amongst cries of “Out Bolsonaro!” and “No more dictatorship!” begins the chant “Lula livre!” Free Lula.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, served as president of Brazil for seven years, before Dilma Rousseff took office in 2010. Per Brazilian law, a president can serve only two consecutive terms; however, there is no limit for non-consecutive terms and Lula was free to run again in 2018. Or at least he would have been, had the Supreme Court not ruled that he face 12 years in jail for charges of corruption and money-laundering.

“No proof, no crime,” Shouts the crowd.

While Lula’s innocence is not clear, the proceedings against him happened with extremely rare swiftness. Many politicians are implicated in the same crime, called Lava Jato, including the president before Bolsonaro, Michel Temer, who took office after Dilma was impeached. Some of these politicians have undergone half-hearted investigations, but Lula was accused, convicted and arrested in a little over two years. The Supreme Court ruled that Lula was ineligible to run for president in September of 2018, only one month before the elections that resulted in Bolsonaro’s presidency.

If the posters and vigil-like atmosphere weren’t enough to indicate the nature of the concert, paying close attention to the music would give it away. Although it is openly played during Carnival and other festivities today, samba was heavily controlled during the first dictatorship in the 1930s. During the second dictatorship, that lasted from 1964-1985, Brazilian artists used their lyrics as a discrete method of evading censorship. Even so, many samba artists were imprisoned and exiled during the regime for espousing left-wing ideology. Throughout the years, artists have preserved the nature of resistance inherent in many classic samba tunes. Here in Ibirapuera, the audience proudly joins the musicians in singing.

“If I were God, better would be everything/If I were God, I would give to those who don’t have anything” Choosing to play samba during a protest is more than an aesthetic choice. The guitar strings and upbeat drum rhythm mesmerize audiences, but in the case of this concert, it also reflects the mourning and fears of the crowd. Everyone repeats the chorus of the last song over and over like a prayer, “Far, far, far away/I hear a voice/that time won’t take away.”

After the music and the chanting ends, everyone grabs their posters and lights candles to prepare for the silent walk. While everything gets organized, groups trade stories about the dictatorship.

“My brother was killed on the spot, but my aunt was really tortured…”

“In my family, it was my cousin. She was so young.”

The whole field murmurs with the memories of those who were lost to unpunished crimes. This gathering is clearly about much more than musical appreciation. But, it is also about much more than simply reacting to current events. It is a practice in collective political memory; generations are coming together not only to postulate what might happen but to remember what already did. In a climate full of political amnesia, simply recording and remembering history is a feat within itself.

According to Globo, over 45% of people aged 16-24 voted for Bolsonaro and 51% of those 25-34. It’s unclear whether young people understand the implications of voting for a president who glorifies the dictatorship.

What would they say to the three little boys who lost their lives? What would they say to their mothers?