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Bolsonaro sparks anger with call to celebrate Brazil coup

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

Born soon after Brazil's 1964 coup, Sueli Alves is too young to recall the horrors of a military takeover that led to the murder and disappearance of hundreds.

Her generation came of age in the dictatorship that followed, however, and she knows well the stories of chaos and carnage -- dismissing plans for a 55th anniversary celebration as a "disgrace."

President Jair Bolsonaro, an unabashed admirer of Brazil's former dictators, caused a stir this week when he ordered "appropriate commemorations" marking the March 31 overthrow of President Joao Goulart.

"I think he should be ashamed to ask this country, which suffered so much, to commemorate what happened," Alves, a 53-year-old office worker in Rio de Janeiro, told AFP.

"Bolsonaro is a disgrace for this country. The people who voted for him should be full of regret."

Bolsonaro's order to the military has been widely criticized, with the attorney general's office on Wednesday calling on personnel to "abstain" from paying tribute to a regime that committed "serious human rights violations."

The far-right leader, whose approval rating plunged in March after a series of political scandals marred his first three months in office, has received little support outside his own ultraconservative Social Liberal Party (PSL) for his controversial idea.

PSL congresswoman Joice Hasselmann tweeted that celebrating the anniversary was a way "to take back the true narrative" of history.

"To me it's fantastic," fellow PSL federal lawmaker Heitor Freire told AFP.

"Brazil should celebrate March 31, the date that Brazil was on the point of turning into a communist country. We could have been like Venezuela or North Korea."

- Was it a coup? -

Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper, is the first Brazilian president since democracy was restored in 1985 to publicly exalt the military dictatorship -- though he argues its rise to power was not a "coup."

Since taking office, he has had fond words for military dictators in 1970s and 80s Latin America, such as Paraguayan Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) and Chile's Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Scholars, however, dismissed his and others attempts to legitimize the 1964 overthrow and the decades of military rule that followed.

"This always falls in the camp of folklore, the ridiculous, because the scientific evidence is indisputable," said Carlos Fico, a history professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who was human rights minister during ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso's 1995-2002 administration, agrees.

"There is no doubt that 1964 was a military coup with civilian help in the name of the fight against communism," said Pinheiro.

- 'Silence' -

At least 434 people were killed or disappeared in Brazil, far fewer than the 30,000 deaths in Argentina and more than 3,200 in Chile during their respective periods of right-wing military rule.

But unlike its South American neighbors, Brazil has not prosecuted military officials for regime-era crimes under a 1979 amnesty law, ratified in 2010.

This has contributed to Brazil's lack of a "traumatic memory" of that period -- and a distorted perception of what happened, Fico said.

"There are actually people who think that in those times there was patriotism, that the military was honest" despite historical evidence to the contrary, he said.

Opposition to the celebrations among ordinary citizens is growing, with calls on social media for street protests against the military dictatorship and to remember its victims.

"It shouldn't be celebrated in any way," security guard Victor Firmo told AFP.

Even younger members of Brazil's armed forces disapprove, according to Fico -- a view local media reports suggest is shared by several military figures in Bolsonaro's government.

"I talk a lot with senior officials -- military who are not generals," said Fico.

"They don't like the idea of this type of celebration. They feel uncomfortable with the empirical evidence, they prefer silence."

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