Relatives of the victims of Brazil’s brutal two-decade dictatorship have voiced anger and dismay over President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s reported decision to block official remembrance events marking the 60th anniversary of the 1964 military coup d’état.

Activists had hoped the leftist’s government would mark the 31 March 2024 anniversary of that power-grab with a series of memorials honouring the thousands who were killed, disappeared or tortured by the 1964-85 regime.

The human rights minister, Silvio Almeida, had planned a ceremony and an awareness campaign with the slogan: “Without remembrance there is no future.”

But Lula reportedly scuppered those plans by giving explicit orders against such commemorations. The decision was seemingly intended to avoid irking military chiefs at a time when several senior military figures are facing jail for allegedly conspiring to stop Lula taking power after his 2022 election. That alleged plot culminated in the failed 8 January 2023 uprising, when Bolsonaro backers stormed the presidential palace, congress and supreme court in Brasília.

In early March, Lula reportedly told his cabinet he wanted to avoid “inflaming” the political atmosphere. Defense chiefs were also told the armed forces should not celebrate an event some in the military consider a “revolution” that saved Brazil from communist rule.

In a recent interview, Lula said: “I’m more worried about the January 2023 coup than the 1964 one, when I was 17. This belongs to history now. It’s already caused the suffering it caused. The people won the right to democratize the country, and the generals in power today were children back then.

“I’m not going to keep dwelling on this,” Lula added, vowing to “move this country forward”.

Lula’s decision and that declaration have horrified those whose loved ones died at the hands of the US-backed dictatorship.

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How did it begin?

Brazil’s leftist president, João Goulart, was toppled in a coup in April 1964. General Humberto Castelo Branco became leader, political parties were banned, and the country was plunged into 21 years of military rule.

The repression intensified under Castelo Branco’s hardline successor, Artur da Costa e Silva, who took power in 1967. He was responsible for a notorious decree called AI-5 that gave him wide ranging dictatorial powers and kicked off the so-called “anos de chumbo” (years of lead), a bleak period of tyranny and violence which would last until 1974.

What happened during the dictatorship?

Supporters of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime – including Jair Bolsonaro – credit it with bringing security and stability to the South American country and masterminding a decade-long economic “miracle”.

It also pushed ahead with several pharaonic infrastructure projects including the still unfinished Trans-Amazonian highway and the eight-mile bridge across Rio’s Guanabara bay.

But the regime, while less notoriously violent than those in Argentina and Chile, was also responsible for murdering or killing hundreds of its opponents and imprisoning thousands more. Among those jailed and tortured were Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, then a leftwing rebel.

It was also a period of severe censorship. Some of Brazil’s best-loved musicians – including Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso – went into exile in Europe, writing songs about their enforced departures.

How did it end?

Political exiles began returning to Brazil in 1979 after an amnesty law was passed that began to pave the way for the return of democracy.

But the pro-democracy “Diretas Já” (Direct elections now!) movement only hit its stride in 1984 with a series of vast and historic street rallies in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.

Civilian rule returned the following year and a new constitution was introduced in 1988. The following year Brazil held its first direct presidential election in nearly three decades.

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Brazil’s dictatorship 1964-1985

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How did it begin?

Brazil’s leftist president, João Goulart, was toppled in a coup in April 1964. General Humberto Castelo Branco became leader, political parties were banned, and the country was plunged into 21 years of military rule.

The repression intensified under Castelo Branco’s hardline successor, Artur da Costa e Silva, who took power in 1967. He was responsible for a notorious decree called AI-5 that gave him wide ranging dictatorial powers and kicked off the so-called “anos de chumbo” (years of lead), a bleak period of tyranny and violence which would last until 1974.

What happened during the dictatorship?

Supporters of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime – including Jair Bolsonaro – credit it with bringing security and stability to the South American country and masterminding a decade-long economic “miracle”.

It also pushed ahead with several pharaonic infrastructure projects including the still unfinished Trans-Amazonian highway and the eight-mile bridge across Rio’s Guanabara bay.

But the regime, while less notoriously violent than those in Argentina and Chile, was also responsible for murdering or killing hundreds of its opponents and imprisoning thousands more. Among those jailed and tortured were Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, then a leftwing rebel.

It was also a period of severe censorship. Some of Brazil’s best-loved musicians – including Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso – went into exile in Europe, writing songs about their enforced departures.

How did it end?

Political exiles began returning to Brazil in 1979 after an amnesty law was passed that began to pave the way for the return of democracy.

But the pro-democracy “Diretas Já” (Direct elections now!) movement only hit its stride in 1984 with a series of vast and historic street rallies in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte.

Civilian rule returned the following year and a new constitution was introduced in 1988. The following year Brazil held its first direct presidential election in nearly three decades.

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“Much more than disappointment, I feel outrage,” said Suzana Lisboa, whose partner, Luiz Eurico Tejera Lisboa, was disappeared in 1972 aged 24 and is believed to have been tortured to death. His remains were found seven years later, buried in a São Paulo graveyard under another name.

“As head of state it is [Lula’s] duty to assume the responsibility for investigating crimes committed by the state. You cannot just rub everything out as if nothing ever happened … The state tortured, murdered and disappeared people – this cannot go unanswered,” added Lisboa, a former member of the special commission on political deaths and disappearances, which Bolsonaro shut down shortly before leaving power.

Lula’s failure to reactivate that investigatory commission has further angered the families of victims.

“We feel somewhat betrayed,” said Marcelo Rubens Paiva, a celebrated author whose politician father, Rubens Paiva, was snatched off the streets of Rio in 1971 never to be seen again. His murder was only confirmed in 2014.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva poses with relatives of those who died or disappeared during the 1964-85 military dictatorship in Brasília in 2007. Photograph: Carlos Humberto/EPA

Paiva said he had been surprised by Lula’s decision since the former unionist had always been “a great ally” of the dictatorship’s victims and had been a victim himself. Lula’s brother, Frei Chico, suffered horrific torture sessions during the 1970s.

Even Lula allies have voiced anger. Rui Falcão, the former president of Lula’s Worker’s party (PT), recently challenged the defense minister over the “absurd” scrapping of official memorial events. “People have the right to remember their dead,” Falcão told the minister according to the news website Metrópoles.

Historian João Roberto Martins Filho suspected Lula’s stance was connected to the possibility that senior military figures who were part of Bolsonaro’s administration would soon face arrest for their suspected role in plotting to overturn Lula’s 2022 election.

Those figures include Gen Augusto Heleno, who was Bolsonaro’s institutional security chief; Adm Almir Garnier, the former commander of the navy; and Gen Walter Braga Netto, Bolsonaro’s former defense minister and chief of staff. Last week Reuters reported that federal police believed Gen Braga Netto had secretly plotted to bring special forces troops trained in counter-insurgency techniques to Brasília to provoke chaos that would justify a military intervention keeping Bolsonaro in power. All three men have denied wrongdoing, as has Bolsonaro.

“[Lula’s] calculation appears to be that this isn’t the time to create more areas of friction [with the military],” Martins Filho said.

The historian said the decision had caused “unanimous dissatisfaction” in academic circles. “There’s nobody who agrees with Lula’s claim that the 1964 coup and the military regime belong to the past and should stay there.”

Brazilian army soldiers stand guard as they dismantle camps installed by supporters of former president Jair Messias Bolsonaro, outside the Eastern Military Command in Rio de Janeiro on 9 January 2023. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Paiva believed Lula’s order was the result of misplaced fears that another coup might be attempted if the military was provoked. But the alleged plot to topple Lula’s government failed precisely because it had received insufficient backing from the top brass, Paiva argued.

Sixty years after army tanks rolled into Rio and forced the leftist president João Goulart from power, much remains a mystery about the dictatorship’s crimes. Rubens Valente, the author of a book about the dictatorship’s impact on Indigenous communities, said that was particularly true when it came to the descendants of Brazil’s original inhabitants.

A 2014 Truth Commission report found that at least 8,350 Indigenous people lost their lives after the regime launched a huge campaign to develop the Amazon by bulldozing highways through its jungles. Those roads devastated uncontacted Indigenous groups, bringing violence and disease. “The direct consequence of the military dictatorship’s policy towards the Amazon was the near extermination of numerous ethnic groups,” said Valente.

But censorship and the dearth of journalists in the backlands of the Amazon meant there was little written record of such crimes, Valente said. Research and remembrance were essential if similar tragedies were to be avoided in the future.

Despite the government’s decision not to mark Sunday’s anniversary, activists will hold memorials all across Brazil.

Lisboa, who will attend one in Porto Alegre, said she was perplexed that Lula recently travelled to Argentina to support the mothers and grandmothers of victims of its 1976-83 dictatorship, but had not done the same in Brazil.

“We’ve done our bit [for democracy] … and unfortunately I’ve never seen us receive this kind of recognition from him,” Lisboa said.

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