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Brazil: Light on the dark dictatorship days

Several South American countries were ruled by military dictatorships in the 20th century, such as Paraguay (1954-1989), Uruguay (1973-1985), Chile (1973-1990) and Argentina (1966-1973 and 1976-83), but unlike the others, Brazil (1964-1985) has never prosecuted those responsible for the crimes of these years. An amnesty law was passed in 1979 pardoning all Brazilians, civilian activists and Army officials, for crimes committed under the flag of the dictatorship.

The country has, for the first time, published an official account detailing the atrocities committed during the era: kidnaps, rapes, tortures, executions and the concealing of bodies in clandestine cemeteries, to name but a few. “The Right to Memory and Truth” is a long report on the outcome of an 11-year investigation conducted by the national Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances. The 500-page book has been praised by Human Rights Watch as an important step forward in addressing impunity.

Although no documents have been provided by the Army, the Brazilian secret service documents on the 1964-1985 dictatorship are going to be made available online by 2008 in the National Archives. “The Right to Memory and Truth” is already available for download in Portuguese, free of charge.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was imprisoned for a month under the military dictatorship, and the new Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim attended the launch. In an apparent message to military officers that boycotted the event, Minister Jobim made a comment that has been echoed by bloggers everywhere: “There is not a single individual who can challenge [the book], and if there are, they will be answered”.

Lula, leading a strike in 1980. Photo by Estevam Cesar, used with permission.

Lula, leading a strike in 1980. Photo by Estevam Cesar, used with permission.

The reaction came a few days later. On September 1st, the Brazilian Army made a public statement reminding the nation that an investigation into political killings during the military dictatorship would violate the amnesty law and be a “step backward” for the country. Other reactions followed suite. obomcombate [pt] published a letter by an Army official challenging Jobim:

“Estou, segundo faculta-me a Constituição da República Federativa do Brasil, reagindo contra o conteúdo de tal publicação, porque entendo que ele se contrapõe aos fundamentos que levaram o governo a promulgar a Lei da Anistia, importando “em retrocesso à paz e à harmonia nacionais”

“I am, in the right to me guaranteed by the Brazilian Constitution, reacting against the contents of such publication, because I understand that it is against the fundamentals that led the government to proclaim the amnesty law, thus a “step backward to the national peace and harmony”

The Brazilian blogosphere was torn between supporters and critics of both sides, showing that the 20-year dictatorship is a wound that still needs thorough healing. Celso Lungaretti [pt], who personally met more than 20 people mentioned by the book as dead or “disappeared”, says that the official Army's notification is not acceptable:

“Foi o pretexto de que o Alto Comando carecia para manifestar seu inconformismo com a revelação da verdade histórica. (…) A nota oficial que lançou representa uma quebra de autoridade, já que desautoriza o ministro da Defesa, e coloca em dúvida (“até porque os fatos históricos têm diferentes interpretações, dependendo da ótica dos seus protagonistas”) o acerto das iniciativas do estado brasileiro para reparar as atrocidades cometidas durante os anos de chumbo”

“This was the excuse that the High Command needed to show its lack of conformity with the revelation of a historic truth. (…) The official notification released by them is meant to be a breach of authority, as it discredits the Minister of Defense and casts doubt (“even because historic facts have different interpretations depending on their protagonist’s point of view”) on the success of the Brazilian government’s initiative to repair atrocities committed during those bullet ruled years”

Journalist Carlos Motta [pt] points out that the Minister Jobim is now in a difficult situation. Will he show who is in charge?

“Só que desta vez terá de mostrar qualidades bastante raras nos homens públicos. Coragem, por exemplo.
Se ficar calado a respeito da insubordinação dos chefes militares, que repudiaram o conteúdo e o lançamento do livro “Direito à Memória e à Verdade”, patrocinado pelo governo federal e que expõe os horrores promovidos pela ditadura militar, Jobim será mais um ministro da Defesa de fachada, sem comando nem autoridade”

“However, this time he will have to show rare qualities for someone in public life. Courage, for example.
If he does not answer the insubordination by the Army chiefs, who repudiated the The Right to Memory and Truth’s government sponsored content and launch, and which exposes the horror promoted by the military dictatorship, Jobim will be another puppet Minister of Defense, with no command or authority”

Strikers V Police 1980. Photo by Estevam Cesar, used with permission.

Strikers V Police 1980. Photo by Estevam Cesar, used with permission.

Alexandre Lucas [pt] wonders if anything has changed at all in more than 20 years of democracy:

“Uma pena constatar que a mentalidade do Exército Brasileiro não mudou desde o golpe de 1° de abril de 1964. Consideram-se o mesmo exército que derrubou um presidente legitimamente eleito, fechou o Congresso Nacional, exonerou ministros do STF, matou e torturou dissidentes, ocultou cadáveres”

“It is a pity to realize that the Brazilian Amy's mentality has not changed since the Coup d'état on April 1st 1964. They think themselves the same Army that overthrew a legitimate, elected president, closed down a National Parliament, dismissed federal ministers, killed and tortured dissidents, hid cadavers”

And the comment below by a Lieutenant Commander identified as Antonio and published as a reaction to a post at Alerta Total blog [pt] makes one think that Alexandre Lucas might be right:

“Muito me revolta, e a vários militares que conheço, quando um Presidente da República, lança um livro, com caráter político, de forma a atacar instituições das quais ele é o chefe. Que moral tem ele com a tropa? Não podia esperar sua saída (se é que vai sair) para fazê-lo? Me revolta mais ainda, ver o ministro de Defesa, literalmente, ameaçar a nós militares, se expressarmos alguma insatisfação quanto ao livro de “nosso chefe”. Por que não podemos expressar nossa insatisfação? Quem é o ministro da defesa para dedicir o que podemos pensar ou não? Não estamos num estado democrático? (…) Quem nos ataca se esquece que somos homens, e acima de tudo, homens de valor (e armados!). Esperamos que o governo mude sua postura. Os oficiais da reversa já estão se mobilizando. Temo pelo pior…”

“It makes me very angry, and many Army people I know are angry too, when a President launches a book, with political character, in order to attack the institutions of which he is the head. What credibility has he in front of the troops? Couldn’t he wait for his leave (if he is leaving at all) to do so? What makes me even angrier is to see the Minister of Defense, literary, threating us, the Army, if we express any dissatisfaction about the book by “our leader”. Why can’t we express our dissatisfaction? Who is the Minister of Defense to decide what we can think and what we can’t? Aren’t we in a democracy? (…) Those who attack us forget that we are men, and nevertheless, valuable men (and armed ones!). We hope that the government changes its posture. The reserve officials are already getting mobilized. I fear the worst…”

Serjão [pt] is among the civilian bloggers that criticized the book and the government initiative, which he has classified as revengeful:

“O inoportuno livro “Direito à Memória e à Verdade” da Comissão Especial de Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos rompe com esta situação, bajulando os radicais e constrangendo os militares. Resta saber por quê”

“The unfortunate book “The Right to Memory and Truth” from the Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances breaks the balance [of the amnesty] flattering the radical groups and constraining the Army. We now need to know why”

Strikers V Police 1980. Photo by Estevam Cesar, used with permission.

Strikers V Police 1980. Photo by Estevam Cesar, used with permission.

But for Pavarini [pt] the book should not be taken as a revenge, but as an act of justice:

“Nenhuma vítima da ditadura, por questão de bom senso humanitário, encara esta iniciativa do governo Lula pela ótica da vingança. Não se trata de vingança, e sim de justiça. Aprendi no cárcere que o ódio destrói primeiro quem odeia e não quem é odiado”

“No victim of the dictatorship, due to humanitarian common sense, would see this initiative by Lula’s government as vengeance. This is not about vengeance, this is about justice. I learnt while in jail that hatred first destroys those who hate and not who is hated”

Marcos Rocha [pt] balances both sides and wraps up the debate:

“O que nós todos queremos — e o Brasil precisa disso para fazer as pazes com esse passado incômodo — é, apenas, ter o direito à memória”

“What all of us want — and Brazil needs this to make up with its uncomfortable past — is just to have the right to a memory”

Strikers V Police 1980. Photo by Estevam Cesar, used with permission.

Strikers V Police 1980. Photo by Estevam Cesar, used with permission.

The pictures in this feature have been kindly provided by Estevam Cesar, an active photo journalist in the days of the dictatorship, who has a fantastic photo gallery of São Paulo's metal-workers’ strike in the 80's which led to the imprisonment of then union leader Lula.

5 comments

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  • mel

    Digging into past events is never an easy task for a country, particularly when you are unsure what you may discover. On the one hand, I agree that it is important to allow the collective memory to acknowledge the atrocities of these years under dictatorship rule, however, on the other hand, living in the past inhibits a country from moving forward (as many believe is currently an issue in Argentina). I guess it all depends on what people expect to gain from this investigation into the past and if the country will benefit and grow because of it. Either way, I hope the outcome will be a peaceful one (although judging from earlier comments from army personnel I fear emotions are already taking a turn for the worse.)

  • O está ocorrendo no Brasil é um processo dialético. O Exército é acusado de ter matado e torturado dissidentes políticos e vítimas inocentes. Acontece que estas supostas vítimas inocentes eram bem treinados guerrilheiros, armados e financiados por paises comunistas, verdadeiros terroristas, que comprovadamente assaltaram vários bancos, realizaram atentados à bomba, assassinaram pessoas inocentes e sequestraram autoridades diplomáticas de diversos países. Uma ditadura de esquerda ou direita não é uma solução política para nenhum lugar do planeta, mas o que os guerilheiros-terroristas defendiam é um dos mais crueis e autoritários sistemas que o mundo já produziu, e se eles tivessem conseguido seu intento, hoje teríamos inumeros paredões de fuzilamento, campos de concentração, trabalhos forçados, lavagem cerebral ideológica desde a infãncia, fome e um atraso muito maior do que estamos vivenciando em nossa atual mediocridade. Muitos dos que defendem a “honra” destes guerrilheiros, hoje estariem implorando por suas próprias vidas. Porem, existe a possibilidade de o comunismo ter evoluído, e ao invés de uma truculência visível, pode estar se utilizando da manipulação das leis (somente contra os que convém), dos marginais para silenciarem suas vítimas sem levantar suspeita, dos acidentes automobilisticos inexplicáveis,dos envenenamentos, dos suícidios, das balas perdidas, dos erros médicos, e de muitas outras formas “mais civilizadas” de silenciar seus opositores, sem chamar a atenção de curiosos inoportunos. Seria um exagero?

  • […] On Global Voices: Brazil: Light on the dark dictatorship days […]

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