Relative dictatorship and denialism

Rubens Gerchman, Casal nas Folhas, s/d.


Commentary on the recently released book by Marcos Silva, a critique of the work of Elio Gaspari

Relative dictatorship and denialism, by Marcos Silva, is a fundamental work and an excellent model of interpretation and historical criticism about one of the biggest problems to be faced by historians: history written by non-historians.

Currently, historiography has been produced more and more by journalists, lawyers, when not treated in cinema and television by people without commitment to the methodologically oriented study of the past, treating problems of knowledge as a rule in a superficial, biased, laden with ideological elements that correspond more to particular interests than to the truth.

It is clear that non-historians can write about history: but for that they need to have a methodology, a critical sense, a distance that allows a greater understanding of the subject to be studied. In other words, they need to write history itself.

It is in this sense that Marcos Silva sets out a very lucid and important critique of the five volumes written by Elio Gaspari regarding the period of the Brazilian dictatorship from 1964-1985. A journalist by profession, Gaspari writes very well, in stylistic terms, and even in detail about the events that characterized the period under his vision, trying to make the cuts within a particular context, to justify the moment of dictatorship that the country was going through.

It is true that Gaspari's work is part of a problem caused by professional historians themselves: few of them write books approaching the dictatorship in a more synthetic way, more accessible to the general public, producing a panel with a broader view of the period. It was the absence of this approach that gave rise to such writing by non-historians.

In the broad analysis drawn by Marcos Silva, several problems are perceived in Gaspari's books. The first one, perhaps, is simply because it is a book written as if it were a newspaper report, creating the subdivisions according to the author's narrative conveniences and not presenting the division of the regime according to more consolidated analytical criteria.

Another point that deserves to be explored is the absence of a broader context in Gaspari. In 1964, the world was experiencing the height of the Cold War – the Cuban missile crisis was still fresh in memory, accompanied by revolutions and colonial liberation wars in different countries. The events that caused 1964 in Brazil were also replicated in other continents. This entire universe of whirlpools appears very little or in the background in Gaspari's approach.

Likewise, it is worth criticizing the lack of contextualization of the Brazilian political situation that led to the 1964 coup, citing events that, arising from the Estado Novo dictatorship, made the period 1945/1964 deeply marked by political instability, whether with repressive practices originated by the Gaspar Dutra government, the induced suicide of Getúlio Vargas, the coup attempts against the inauguration of Juscelino Kubitschek, the resignation of Jânio Quadros and the problems linked to the inauguration of João Goulart, which led to the implementation of the parliamentary system.

It is worth mentioning that Gaspari recognizes his limitations: “It never crossed my mind to write a history of the dictatorship. The work lacks the scope that the subject demands, and there is a preponderance of two characters (Geisel and Golbery), which does not correspond to the historical weight they had in the 21 years of military rule. What I wanted to tell was the story of the stratagem that marked their lives. They created the dictatorship and ended it” (GASPARI, 2002, p. 20).

Elio Gaspari describes his story from the perspective of these two men: Golbery de Couto e Silva, called by him a “sorcerer”, and Ernesto Geisel, designated a “priest”, who would have articulated the dictatorship, lost control over it and then , upon regaining power, acted to destroy it. That is, the work of the two men can be summarized as guaranteeing the political and institutional structure of the dictatorship – or rather, a “soft” version of it – in order to avoid a supposed collapse of “communism” and return Brazil to democracy. "democracy".

This thesis is reinforced by two important factors: the division of the structure of the volumes and the handing over of Golbery and Geisela's files to the author himself – who was, therefore, a figure close to both. Regarding the proposed division, this trend can be seen, segregating the period from 1964/1985 into five parts, each one representing a “stage” of the dictatorship: “embarrassed”, “wide open”, “defeated”, “cornered” and finally , "finished".

This type of division was arbitrarily taken by the author, thus leading to interpretations that did not correspond to the truth supported by evidence. It is a fact that the 1964/1968 stage – described by Gaspari as “embarrassed”, was a period of dismantling of all democratic institutions, including the promulgation of the 1967 Constitution, the cancellation of direct elections and a political persecution against opponents who it grew in size – since the enactment of the first institutional acts, already in 1964. That dictatorship had nothing to be ashamed of. It was the construction of the conditions for the subsequent hardening of the regime. It was events, since 1964, that led to the authoritarian rise of the regime, giving rise to repression, the enactment of AI-5, censorship, indiscriminate torture and the murder and disappearance of bodies. The “open” dictatorship was nothing more than the natural “evolution” of an authoritarian regime that hardened as it saw society increasingly as a threat to its power project.

Another example is seeing the dictatorship as “defeated” with Geisel taking office. What did this defeat mean? The end of the Medici government? Why define it as defeated? Was it Medici's vision? Torture, assassinations, repression and censorship continued systematically. Even the resignation of Sylvio Frota, which was very important for the breakup of the regime as it happened, did not represent that the dictatorship was “cornered” but rather an internal struggle for power and for the segment that Geisel called “distension, slow, gradual and secure” to “political openness”.

And the dictatorship continued to exist, until it was “finished” with the end of the AI-5, the direct elections (except for President), the government of Figueiredo, which represented the end of the regime. That is, the military regime, according to Gaspari, meant a cycle started and ended by the “priest” and the “sorcerer”.

And here lies an important point to be discussed: the files delivered by Heitor Ferreira and Geisel to the author. The delivery of this documentation suggests some important points, such as a relationship of trust that existed between the author and the protagonists and, later, the maintenance of this collection in the author’s possession, making it impossible for other researchers to analyze the material, making Gaspari “exclusive” in possession of the information. The use of these sources would serve for a journalistic scoop, but it is not history...

In summary, the History of the Dictatorship described by Gaspari proved to be an exclusive work by Golbery and Geisel.

Marcos Silva rightly points out that “it is not abusive to identify the sacralization of the dictatorship, by Gaspari, in the persons of the priest Geisel and the sorcerer Golbery”. (p. 64). Marcos Silva's irony is quite peculiar: by praising the roles of the priest and the sorcerer, Gaspari ends up praising the military regime, the way Geisel and Golbery created it and later decided to end it.

Even with all the criticisms, it is true that Gaspari's work can be interpreted as a journalistic work about the military regime and not a work of history in itself. Its reading must be done with great care, as pointed out by the analysis by Marcos Silva and others discussed in this review. Likewise, it is clear that important details left aside by Gaspari, starting with the illegality of the military regime, were taken into the background. It is worth mentioning that the regime was implemented by a coup with the appearance of legality, with a trick used to justify its absence – which did not exist! – by João Goulart from the country. Tearing up the 1946 Constitution, to later implement its own in 1967, the dictatorship put Brazil in one of its darkest periods and, as Marcos Silva remembers very well, generated ramifications in politics and society until today.

The reading of Gaspari's work must be based on these restrictions. It is true that the work has merits: it is well written and makes an interesting panel (except for the silences) about the military regime, exploring important details, helping the reader to have an overview of the events of the period. However, as highlighted before, it is a work where not only interpretative problems are revealed, but also problems of a methodological and ideological nature.

And finally, it is important to report that the success of Gaspari's books on the dictatorship is also due to being, as highlighted at the beginning of this review, a general analysis produced by a well-known writer in the vacuum of historians in not producing works that approach in a overview of what the lead years represented. If Gaspari's work is read as an obligatory reference in many schools and institutions on the history of the dictatorship, this is due more to the absence of serious dissemination studies on the civil-military regime than necessarily to its qualities.

It is important to point out that Marcos Silva's criticisms of the problems of Gaspari's work bring us back to this point: a general history, produced by historians, about the 1964/1985 regime is yet to be written, seeking a comprehensive, lucid approach , well-structured and grounded, which allows students, researchers and other interested parties to have a clearer view of one of the most disastrous periods in Brazilian history.

*Ricardo Sequeira Bechelli He holds a PhD in Social History from the University of São Paulo (USP).



Mark Silva. Relative dictatorship and denialism: Brazil, 1964 (2016, 2018…) 
Sao Paulo, Ed. Maria Antonia, 2021, 160 pages.


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