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On This Date in Latin America – September 16, 1976: Argentina’s “Night of the Pencils”

September 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Given the recent discussion of memory and military dictatorships, it seems worthwhile to recall one of the many horrific events of Argentina’s military dictatorship: La Noche de los Lápices, or “Night of the Pencils.”

The Night of the Pencils had its roots in the military junta that had taken power six months earlier. Citing political instability, the new regime launched the “Process for National Reorganization,” commonly referred to simply as El Processo. Asserting a centralization of power in the hands of the (military-led) executive branch, through El Proceso the junta (led by Gen. Jorge Videla) gave the military executive, judicial, and legislative powers, launching widespread censorship, undermining habeas corpus, and setting up the mechanisms through which the regime would use torture and “disappear” anybody who it deemed a “subversive.” However, such a term was intentionally loose, and the result ended up being the military arbitrarily arresting, torturing, and usually murdering anybody who deviated in the slightest from the military’s own political, economic, social, cultural, or ideological vision of the nation. In the subsequent months, the military forces arrested and disappeared anybody who was associated with diverse movements ranging from labor unions to student groups, from liberation theologians to peasant activists, to those who professed even mild sympathies with leftist (or left-ish) worldviews.

It was in this context that the Night of the Pencils happened. Dissatisfied with mounting educational and living expenses, a number of high school students began to mobilize for lower bus fares, part of the quotidian struggles that were part of broader social issues for the Unión de Estudiantes Secundarios (Union of High School Students; UES). On September 16, 1976, military forces moved, committing the first of what would ultimately be sixteen kidnappings of high school students between the ages of 16 and 18, as the first salvo in trying to dismantle the UES. However, some of those kidnapped had had no affiliation with the UES; yet the mere suspicion, on the part of the military, led to their arrest and  Across the next several nights, the military brutally tortured and disappeared many of those kidnapped; only a few would survive to confirm the fate of their colleagues.

The military did not act alone in the Night of the Pencils (named because the targets were high school students), however. Military authorities acted after receiving a tip from Catholic priest Christian von Wernich. The students had admitted to their involvement with UES to the priest in Confession; Wernich, violating the secrecy of the confessional, revealed to the military the students’ political activism. His participation was not surprising; many in the Catholic hierarchy agreed with the military over the perceived “threat” of “subversion” to the Argentine nation, and were more than happy to collaborate with the regime. Wernich also was present in the prison where the students were tortured to death, according to the few survivors.

Though some of those survivors remained imprisoned until 1978, ultimately it was through them, and their memories of torture, that the fate of their colleagues became known. Likewise, their accounts played a vital role in the eventual arrest, indictment, and conviction in 2007 of Wernich, who was found guilty of complicity in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the students from the Night of the Pencils, along with dozens of other cases of torture and disappearance; a court sentenced Wernich to life imprisonment.  Meanwhile, the tortured and murdered students stand out as one of the early cases of state repression under the military’s (problematically-named) “Dirty War,” and their names have become a part of the broader historical record of torture and repression that is remembered annually on March 24, Argentina’s Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.

The Night of the Pencils was not exceptional, but that fact alone makes it worth remembering. From the targeting of unarmed citizens, to the use of torture, to the disappearance of the regime’s victims in order to “silence” the historical record, to members of the Church actively collaborating with the repressive regime, the Night of the Pencils is all too representative of the actions and legacies of Argentina’s authoritarian regime. But it is this representativeness that makes the Night of the Pencils all the more important to remember: not only does it undo the regime’s efforts to silence and erase from the historical record those who disagreed with or merely challenged it by bringing those victims and their stories back into the broader historical narrative of life under military rule in Argentina; it also reminds us that, far from unique, thousands upon thousands of Argentines suffered similar experiences, and that those experiences, and the memories of them, are vital to understanding broader historical narratives and processes not just of Argentine history, but of Latin American history more generally.

Around Latin America

December 4, 2013 Comments off

-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.

-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.

-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote)  and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.

-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.

-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.

-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.

-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.

-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.

-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.

The Brazilian Truth Commission after One Year

December 3, 2013 Comments off

The truth commission investigating repression and state-sponsored violence during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985 has recently completed a full year of work, and issued a report of some of its major findings after one year:

Part 1. Hiding of Documentation from the Brazilian State. The Brazilian Navy deliberately concealed information from President Itamar Franco in 1993, when he requested information from the Brazilian Navy, Army and Air Force regarding political disappearances during the dictatorship. By cross-checking a 1972 report of deaths from the CENIMAR with its 1993 response to President Itamar Franco, Truth Commission analysts concluded that in 1972, the CENIMAR already recorded the deaths of many political prisoners, whereas in 1993 they reported that these same individuals were variously exiled, disappeared or imprisoned. The released documents on the 11 individuals presented by Heloísa Starling was the only disclosed information  from the CENIMAR, whereas 12,071 pages of similar documentation remained undisclosed to President Itamar Franco.

Part. 2: Chain of command within the DOI-Codi. “Ultra-secret” documents detailing the structure of the DOI-Codi (Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations), the organ of political repression responsible for the disappearances, tortures and deaths of individuals arrested for opposition to the military regime, reveal that its chain of command reached and included the Brazilian Ministers of Defense, thus implicating the Brazilian State in crimes against humanity. The documents included a chart illustrating how local Secretaries of Defense, the Federal Police and other arms of government intel had three direct lines of communication to the Ministers of Defense—revealing two more in addition to the one of which was known. According to other documents, the DOI-Codi of Rio de Janeiro perpetrated 735 cases of torture between 1970 and 1973.

Part. 3 CENIMAR recognizes violence against its own agents Documents reveal that soldiers were trained by the CENIMAR to become infiltrators of leftist and revolutionary groups, notably to participate in the Student Movement. In a letter to the Minister of the Marines, the Commander of the CENIMAR recognizes that violence was done to one such double agent and that his actions were “full of merit.” This document shows that violence done to double agents was perpetrated to the same degree as normal revolutionaries, and it did not deter further violence, but rather it was seen as an occupational hazard.

Part. 4 The Use of Torture: 1964-1968

The Truth Commission’s research shows that torture had been used as a means of interrogation as early as 1964. It had been originally accepted that the use of torture had began with the Institutional Act Number 5 (“AI-5″), whose suspension of habeas corpus made torture de jure legal. Whereas torture as a means of repression did skyrocket after the imposition of the AI-5, the Truth Commission found that torture has always formed the base of  repression since the installment of the military regime in 1964. Moreover, in 1964, all of the forms of torture which would be used throughout the entire period of the dictatorship had already been taught, used and established as early as 1964.

These are important findings, but not for their newness. Indeed, almost all of these matters have been well-known, and even documented, among historians, activists, human rights workers, political scientists, sociologists, and others. Indeed, taking the issue of the military hiding documents (points #1 above) as an example, this has long been a source of frustration to human rights activists and historians alike: the former because it has prevented the full knowledge of the experiences of the tortured and disappeared and those who perpetrated these acts, the latter because it has made archival work on the period more difficult. However, it has not made such work impossible. Indeed, the numerous branches of secret police and state security apparatuses that operated during the dictatorship resulted in an alphabet soup of organizations like DOI-CODI, DOPS, SNI, DSI, CENIMAR, etc. that were a part of the state’s broad repressive apparatus. Thus, while documents like CENIMAR reports are harder to come by, one can find them annexed or cited in the DOPS archives in the State Archive of Rio de Janeiro or the DSI archives at the National Archive. Indeed, documents that military officials insisted never existed are cited with regularity in other security apparatus reports, suggesting that they not only existed, but have been concealed for decades.

So if we’ve known all of this before, why does any of it matter? Well, in no small part, because it is finally the state doing the investigating. For example, regarding the state’s use of torture from 1964 to 1968, this was no secret – numerous victims have provided oral accounts of torture in that period, and sometimes it was publicly visible. Likewise, the military government itself had to issue a decree against torture in the first months of its regime, particularly after journalist Márcio Moreira Alves published thorough accounts of military torture. So the fact that the military tortured between 1964 and 1968 was not new to anybody who has studied the dictatorship. However, the state itself had never taken responsibility for it; rather, the more general officialist narrative insisted torture only came after AI-5. Again, there were numerous historical, activist, and sociological accounts that revealed how false that narrative is, but it had persisted nonetheless. With the Truth Commission’s official recognition of the state’s use of torture from the very first days of the military regime, the Brazilian state is finally acknowledging the systematic use of torture from its inception, rather than just in the “years of lead” from 1969 to 1974 (and beyond). Indeed, the point stands for all four of the conclusions mentioned above. Even if they were known, the fact that the state is acknowledging these facts at long last is more than symbolic, as it provides any number of psychological, historical, and legal points of closure and helps to build for future understanding the military regime in Brazil (and hopefully preventing future repressive regimes).

That is the biggest benefit of the truth commission’s findings thus far, but it’s far from the only reward. Particularly regarding the chain of command in DOI-CODI and in the military’s use of repression against its own agents, the commission has shed new light on processes scholars only previously had incomplete understandings of. Certainly, works like Ken Serbin’s have revealed the use of military repression against its own members, but the fact that it committed “acts of violence” even against its own double agents, and justified such violence. Likewise, while scholars long had a general sense of the chain of command in DOI-CODI, an infamously violent security apparatus, the truth commission’s findings have brought that sense into sharper focus, more concretely demonstrating a direct correspondence between the security apparatuses and the highest levels of government during military rule, a correspondence that was long suspected through the fragmentary archival records available but never in such detail.

Overall, the truth commission’s report after one year has to be considered a success, albeit a qualified one. After all, the truth commission still lacks the authority for any prosecutorial actions against those members of the regime who conducted torture, murder, and other forms of state violence. Additionally, the fact that the commission is operating more than 25 years after military rule actually came to an end means that many of the highest-ranking officials who ordered, oversaw, or were aware of such state-sponsored violence have long since passed away, meaning they could never face either prosecution or the public scorn that such findings might create. And some have even complained that its investigation only into the state violence, and not oppositional violence, is problematic (an assessment I understand but do not fully agree with). Nonetheless, the fact remains that the truth commission has finally provided state acknowledgement of repressive actions it had long ignored or denied, even while shedding new light on processes scholars often had glimpses of but lacked the archival resources and materials available to the commission itself. It will definitely be worth watching what paths the commission takes in the coming months, what its final report says, and how those findings are received by the public writ large.

Around Latin America

September 11, 2013 Comments off

-Yesterday, Chile marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year military dictatorship that killed over 3000 people and tortured tens of thousands. Even while the date was commemorated, the search for justice for some continues. Family members of murdered folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands the military cut off before killing him in 1973, have sued an officer tied to the murder who now lives in Florida, while former friends and colleagues of US journalist Charles Horman demand an investigation into his own death in Chile shortly after the coup (a story that was portrayed in Costa Gavras’s 1982 film Missing).

-Of course, Chile is not the only country continuing to pursue justice decades after the rise of right-wing military regimes. It recently extradited judge Otilio Romano to Argentina, where Romano is wanted for his role in cases of torture, disappearances, and other crimes.

-In the wake of wire-tapping scandals that revealed the US spied on Mexico and Brazil, the Obama administration has begun trying to patch up its relationship with Brazil in the wake of the revelations (and as President Dilma Rousseff weighs whether or not to cancel a planned state visit to the US in October).

-Thousands of teachers in Mexico continue to take to the streets in protest of a new educational law that would create mandatory evaluations, reforms they say erode labor rights.

-As Cuban doctors continue to travel to Brazil to help with medical care in the country (one of the many issues raised in massive protests throughout Brazil in June this year) and even enjoy the support of a majority of Brazilians, that has not stopped them from facing racism from some Brazilians, including Brazilian doctors who oppose the Cuban doctors’ presence, a powerful reminder of the ways racism operates within and in between Latin American countries.

-Another former Guatemalan guerrilla is set to face trial for his role in killings during the civil war that left 250,000 Guatemalans dead or missing, providing another reminder that the court system in Guatemala has gone after more than just military human rights violators.

-Brazilian prosecutors have launched an effort to prevent Canadian mining company Belo Sun mining from creating an open-pit mine in the Amazonian basin, arguing such a project will devastate indigenous communities and the environment.

Around Latin America

May 30, 2013 Comments off

-Two former executives from Ford in Argentina have been charged (among other things) with having ties to the abduction of 24 workers for Ford during the military regime of 1976-1983.

-El Salvador’s presidential election is shaping up to be a close three-way race, according to new polls.

-Mexico’s government says it will release a report that finds the number of disappeared in Mexico is “much lower” than an initial report that claimed that tens of thousands have been disappeared as part of the violence that has defined part of the drug trade in Mexico. Nonetheless, Mexico’s government has created a special unit to investigate and try to track down the fates of the tens of thousands of “disappeared” caught up in the drug trade and violence in Mexico.

-In what is perhaps curious timing, even while Efraín Ríos Montt’s conviction for genocide has been annulled, former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo was extradited to the US, where he will face charges of corruption and money laundering. As Mike Allison points out, the trial in the US provides another reminder that, although Guatemala’s courts are not as corrupt as they once were, they still have a long way to go, a fact that the recent decision on Ríos Montt all too tragically demonstrated.

-Speaking of institutional failures and undoing justice, a Brazilian court has overturned the 2010 conviction of landowner Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura for his role in the murder of land activist Dorothy Stang in 2005. It is the second time a conviction of Bastos de Moura has been overturned, though he will remain in jail while a third trial takes place. Meanwhile, three other, poorer men hired to murder Stang remain in prison without having access to multiple trials and a court system favorable to their cause the way it is to the wealthier and more powerful Bastos de Moura.

-Chile has fined Canadian mining company Barrick Gold and suspended all operations at the Pascua-Lama mine after environmental degradation, water contamination, and other environmental issues. Though seemingly large, the fine represents only %0.1 of the cost of operating the mine.

-Rio de Janeiro mayor Eduardo Paes is facing criticism for his inability to deal with criticisms after he punched a man in the face while out to dinner last Saturday.

-Following the footsteps of gangs in El Salvador, the MS-13 and Calle 18 gangs in Honduras have agreed to a truce that may reduce (but won’t eliminate) all gang violence and rivalries.

-Ten years since the rise of “Kirchnerism” in Argentina, poverty has declined, though to what degree and by what metrics are apparently up for debate.

-Efforts to reforest and aid the environment in Latin America have slowed to a crawl, caught in bureaucratic red tape, political fear of social movements, and a slowness (or unwillingness) of governments to help environmental causes in the region.

-Digital currency business owner Arthur Budovsky, whose company, Liberty Reserve, operates in Costa Rica, was arrested in Spain this week on charges of money laundering.

South American Dictatorships in Images

May 17, 2013 1 comment

Greg Weeks points to this incredible, if harrowing, collection of photos from Operation Condor. The photos were found in Paraguay’s “Archives of Terror,” which documented the deaths of tens of thousands of South Americans at the hands of military regimes and the collaboration between dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru. We can and do talk about the horrors of human rights violations, the injustices of regimes that extrajudicially murdered their own citizens, and the sheer numbers of those who died under such regimes, but there is something about the photographs like those from Operation Condor that convey in a unique way exactly what that violence looked like on a daily basis for many.

Get to Know a Brazilian – Zuzu Angel

April 21, 2013 1 comment

While the past two weeks have looked at student activists who challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, this week we turn to a more unlikely activist and opponent to the military regime: fashion designer Zuzu Angel.

Zuleika "Zuzu" Angel Jones, a fashion designer who became a high-profile critic of Brazil's military regime.

Zuleika “Zuzu” Angel Jones, a fashion designer who became a high-profile critic of Brazil’s military regime.

Zuleika “Zuzu” Angel was born in the large interior state of Minas Gerais in the early 1920s (some source list her birth date as 1921, others as 1923). As a child, her family moved to the state capital of Belo Horizonte, where she attended school. Already as a young woman, she began making clothes for family members. In 1947, she relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where by the 1950s she was working as a seamstress. She married US citizen Norman Jones and had two children, Stuart, born in 1945, and Hildegard, born in 1949.

By the 1960s, Zuzu Angel was gaining an international audience in a fashion world dominated by European men like Yves Saint Laurent. Her style was unique, as she incorporated Brazilian materials, colors, and themes like tropical birds and flowers into her outfits. Her individual angel trademark signified something was a Zuzu Angel design. The bright colors and Brazilian-influenced patterns caught the eye of many in the international community; she even had a show featuring her work in the US. By 1970, she had opened her own store in the upscale Ipanema neighborhood, reflecting both her local success and international renown.

Examples of Zuzu Angel's aesthetic, drawing on the Bahiana tradition of the Northeast and incorporating the bright colors and

Examples of Zuzu Angel’s aesthetic, drawing on the Bahiana tradition of the Northeast and incorporating the bright colors and tropical flora and fauna that defined her work and distinguished her from her European and North American counterparts.

Even while her professional career was reaching new heights, her personal life suffered catastrophic loss. Stuart, her first-born child, had become an activist against Brazil’s military dictatorship, and by the end of the 1960s, he’d joined the MR-8 (the group responsible for the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969). However, by 1969, the military regime had escalated its use of repression, relying on torture, state-sponsored murders, and “disappearing” bodies in the hopes of stamping out all forms of resistance to military rule. Stuart Angel became a victim of such repression. The air force’s security apparatus arrested him in June of 1971, and shortly after his arrest, he was “missing.” A few days later, Zuzu Angel received a letter from Alex Polari de Alvegra, a political prisoner at the prison where Stuart had been taken. In the letter, he described Stuart’s fate, which he witnessed from his cell. Stuart had been brutally tortured, but had not provided the information the military was seeking; in the face of his silence, Polari reported, they bound Stuart and tied him to the back of a military jeep, attaching his mouth to the exhaust pipe. The jeep then proceeded to drive around the grounds of the prison, dragging Stuart behind the jeep while he was forced to inhale the exhaust coming from the jeep, which killed him. After that, the military disposed of his body; its whereabouts are still unknown, making Stuart one of the “disappeared” of the military regime. (Stuart’s wife, Sonia Maria de Moraes Angel Jones, would be arrested and killed after torture two years later, in 1973. Like her husband, her body was also “disappeared,” though her remains were ultimately found and identified decades later.) In a pattern typical of bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, the military denied they had even arrested Stuart. Ironically, by 1973, a secret session of the Military Supreme Court absolved Stuart of the alleged charge of violating the National Security Act, the original “cause” of his arrest.

Stuart Angel Jones, 1945-1971.

Stuart Angel Jones, 1945-1971.

With the horrific death of her son, Zuzu Angel became an activist and critic of the military regime. Using her international contacts, she denounced the torture, murder, and disappearance of her son both in Brazil and in the international community. At fashion shows in Europe and the US, Zuzu Angel, now dressed in all black to reflect her mourning, took every chance to tell the media what had happened to her son, in the hopes of drawing attention to the military regime’s brutal practices. Since Stuart’s father was a US citizen, Stuart was a dual-citizen of Brazil and the US, and Zuzu used this fact to try to pressure the US to act, lobbying politicians like Frank Church and Ted Kennedy. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had supported such regimes throughout South America, traveled to Rio in 1976, Zuzu Angel managed to give the dossier on her son to one of Kissinger’s aides. Nor did she rely simply on politicians to try to publicize her cause; her status as an internationally-renowned fashion designer gave her plenty of Hollywood contacts, and celebrities like Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, and Liza Minelli all came to Zuzu Angel’s and Stuart Angel’s defense. She even took her message to her medium, putting on “the first collection of political fashion in history,” replacing her traditional tropical images with military silhouettes, caged birds, and guns shooting at angels. Such efforts led the military to monitor her actions overseas, always aware of and bristling at her criticisms of torture and brutality under the dictatorship.

Zuzu Angel (left) in all black after her son's death. To her right, a model wearing a dress from Zuzu's "Helpless Angel" collection, a collection whose very name bore political connotations about her son's death and her inability to find out about the fate of his remains.

Zuzu Angel (left) in all black after her son’s death. To her right, a model wearing a dress from Zuzu’s “Helpless Angel” collection, a collection whose very name bore political connotations about her son’s death and her inability to find out about the fate of his remains.

Zuzu Angel never learned the whereabouts of her son’s remains. While driving in Rio de Janeiro in March of 1976 (less than a month after passing her documents to Kissinger’s aides), she died in a car crash while exiting a tunnel. However, the crash appeared to perhaps be more than an accident. Eyewitnesses to the crash described a military jeep present briefly before and after the crash. The mystery surrounding the crash retroactively became more suspicious when in August of 1976, former president Juscelino Kubitschek, another outspoken critic of the regime, also died in a similar car crash under similarly mysterious circumstances, prompting some to argue that the military had found new ways to silence its critics (and leading to the Truth Commission re-investigating his death this year). However, even before the car crash, Angel knew she was a target of the military, prophetically declaring that, “If I appear dead, by accident or by other means, it will have been the work of the assassins of my beloved son.”

Zuzu Angel’s struggles serve as a powerful reminder that it was not just women students who fought against the military regime and who suffered at its hands. Her remarkable professional triumphs were met only with personal loss, and yet she persevered, and in 2006, her story was re-told and her message and suffering re-broadcast in the 2006 film Zuzu Angel.  With the death of her son, she, like hundreds of other mothers, suffered the anguish of the loss of a child and of not knowing of the fate of his remains. She remained a tireless defender of human rights and critic of the regime, even while insisting that “I do not have courage, my son had courage. I have legitimacy.” In spite of her claims otherwise, Zuzu Angel was courageous, speaking out against the regime and becoming one of the more important voices in bringing international awareness to the brutality of its repression, even while suffering a mother’s loss.

This is part of a series. Other entries have looked at political and human rights activist Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro and musician/tropicalista Rogerio Duprat.

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