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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
Wikileaks recently released another wave of documents, many of them coming from the Kissinger years. While much of these items are available to scholars in archives, their broader dissemination is still useful. Among the released documents are cables revealing the Vatican’s defense of the Pinochet dictatorship [English story available here] even while the Chilean government was executing hundreds of opponents in the aftermath of the September 11 coup in 1973. In spite of being the second-highest-ranking member of the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Giovanni Benelli effectively ran the department when his superior was unable to perform his duties, made clear the Vatican’s support of the Pinochet regime, and his fierce anti-communist stance has led some to refer to him as the “Vatican Kissinger.” Among other things, the cables reveal that Benelli expressed concerns over what it portrayed as the “international left’s efforts to completely falsify the reality of the Chilean situation” with claims that the new regime was using torture and extrajudicial murders. However, in spite of Benelli’s insistence such accounts were part of some global communist plot to exaggerate the Pinochet regime’s crimes and drum up support for Allende, the Pinochet regime was indeed committing torture and murdering and disappearing anybody deemed a “subversive.” Indeed, according to the documents, Benelli himself admitted that “there has been some bloodshed in the cleanup operations in Chile,” but that Catholic officials in Chile had “assured Pope Paul [VI] that the junta is doing everything possible so that the situation return to normalcy and the stories in international media that speak of brutal repression have no foundation.”
Of course, that wasn’t the case at all – nearly all of the roughly 3,000 murders that the Pinochet regime’s security forces committed between 1973 and 1978 with the general’s approval, both tacit and explicit. And that’s not mentioning the tens of thousands who suffered torture at the hands of the state in that period. To its credit, eventually the Chilean Church began to criticize the regime for its human rights violations. Nonetheless, the fact remains that, early in the regime, the Vatican tacitly supported Pinochet and his government’s actions by siding with him over the “communist” accounts of torture and murder, accounts that were, in the end, all too tragically accurate.
As most are aware by now, Catholic cardinals selected Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope, the first time a Pope is from Latin America. (In addition to being the first Latin American pope, he’s also the first Jesuit pope.) There had been much hope for a non-European pope, and Bergoglio fits that bill.
However, his election is more than a little surprising, given his past. Bergoglio was the head of the Jesuits in Argentina during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, during which the military murdered upwards of 30,000 people (as well as kidnapping hundreds of children whose parents the regime had tortured and murdered). Unlike Catholic officials in neighboring Chile and Brazil, where priests, bishops, and even cardinals spoke out against human rights abuses and defended victims of abuses, in Argentina, the Catholic Church was openly complicit in the military regime’s repression. Bergoglio was not exempt from this involvement: military officers have testified that Bergoglio helped the Argentine military regime hide political prisoners when human rights activists visited the country. And Bergoglio himself had to testify regarding the kidnapping of two priests who he stripped of their religious licenses shortly before they were kidnapped and tortured. This isn’t just a case of Bergoglio being a member of an institution that supported a brutal regime; it’s a case of Bergoglio himself having ties, direct and indirect, to that very regime. For those who hoped for a Pope who might represent a more welcoming and open path for the Catholic Church, the selection of Bergoglio has to be a let-down.
This is why the selection of Bergoglio over Scherer is disappointing. Thirteen years younger than Bergoglio, Scherer’s path was notably different. To be clear, the Catholic Church supported Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) in its early years; however, as Ken Serbin has demonstrated, already by the late-1960s and early-1970s, high-ranking officials in the church hierarchy were secretly meeting with representatives from the dictatorship in order to try to pressure military rulers to respect human rights, even for alleged “subversives.” By the latter half of the 1970s, the Brazilian Catholic church had become one of the more vocal opponents of human rights violations under the regime, and the Archdiocese of São Paulo ultimately played a central role in secretly accessing, collecting, and publishing files on torture, murder, and repression under the dictatorship, eventually published in 1985 as Brasil: Nunca Mais (literally Brazil: Never Again; in English, Torture in Brazil). Where Bergoglio was active in a context where the Argentine Church openly supported military regimes and human rights violations, Scherer was active in a context where members of the Brazilian Church openly took a stand against such abuses and against the regime that committed them.
A few weeks ago, a student asked me if I thought the cardinals would finally pick a Latin America pope. I commented that if they were smart, they’d diversify by picking a Brazilian and democratizing a bit, but I feared they’d pick an Italian and show a refusal to reform and democratize the church. With the selection of Bergoglio, it appears they’ve chosen to split the difference, diversifying beyond Europe while continuing the conservatism that defined recent popes.
We’ll see how it turns out – perhaps Francisco I works out well, and perhaps he uses his past and his new position to try not only to transform the Church but to provide a platform that advocates human rights and the punishment of human rights violators. However, it is disappointing that the cardinals selected somebody tied to one of the most violent and brutal of Latin American dictatorships. The cardinals could have made an implicit statement about supporting human rights under authoritarian regimes, and they failed to do so. It’s not the end of the Church, but it’s another misstep they didn’t have to make.
While Hugo Chávez’s death has perhaps understandably been the main focus of news from the region this week, it’s far from the only event of note. Here are some of the other stories coming out of Latin America this week.
-With Chávez’s death, Vice President Nicolás Maduro is set to be sworn in at 7PM local time tonight. And Margaret Myers’ always-excellent blog on China-Latin American relations has a post up on Chinese bloggers’ responses to Chávez’s death.
-Of course, Chávez’s death has overshadowed another important and more violent death in Venezuela. Somebody shot and killed indigenous leader and rights activist Sabino Romero, who had recently asked for government protection. The government announced an investigation into the murder before Chavez’s death; hopefully the investigation will continue and Romero’s killers can be brought to justice.
-In Argentine justice, a court convicted ex-president (and current Senator) Carlos Menem for illegal arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia while Menem served as president between 1989 and 1999.
-In Haiti, former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier is under investigation for human rights violations during his regime 1971 and 1986. Several victims of his regime testified to torture and other abuses this week. Meanwhile, Duvalier entered into a hospital after providing his own testimony. Given how many former dictators, from Pinochet to Argentine generals, have tried to hide behind [often-fabricated] “medical issues” to avoid facing justice, at least for now it is difficult to take Duvalier’s own admission to the hospital as much other than a ploy to try to avoid justice and/or drum up sympathy.
-New documents reveal that Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) provided $115 million in aid to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime during the latter half of the dictatorship [English version of story available here]. The document reinforces and adds to our understanding of the ways in which South American dictatorships collaborated and serves as yet another reminder that the portrayal of one group of Brazilian military presidents as “moderate” is a misnomer for regimes that still supported the violation of human rights, be it in their own countries or in other countries.
-Speaking of regional collaboration in violating human rights, in Argentina, military officers from the dictatorship era there (1976-1983) are on trial for their involvement in Operation Condor, the international collaborative efforts between Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru to arrest, torture, and “disappear” so-called “subversives” in each other’s countries.
-In Brazil, an indigenous community disillusioned with the lack of governmental action is taking over efforts to combat deforestation, recently seizing trucks used in illegal logging.
-Lawyers for those imprisoned in Guantanamo filed a claim that the conditions and rights of prisoners were deteriorating, and this was before troops fired “non-lethal bullets” at inmates who agitated at the prison, the first time in 11 years bullets had been fired at prisoners.
-In an overlooked part of Central American history, Panama’s indigenous Guna peoples celebrated the 1925 Guna Revolution last week.
-Finally, in a step towards greater equal rights, Haiti is set to improve women’s rights by aiding rape victims who seek justice against their attackers, allow abortion in the case of rape, and make marital rape illegal.
There has been a recent wave of stories regarding human rights in Latin America in both the past and present worth covering.
-With the ongoing issue of the disappeared in Mexico in the 21st century, and, after a tortuous path that saw initial rejection before Enrique Peña Nieto signed it into law, there is now a Victims’ Law that seeks to provide compensation and closure for families whose loved ones have gone missing. While the law has some issues to work out, and while it’s not clear how it will be institutionalized, it’s an important step in dealing with the issue of violence and memory in Mexico.
-In Uruguay, hundreds gathered to protest a Supreme Court ruling that effectively restores an amnesty that exempts military members who committed human rights violations during the Uruguayan dictatorship of 1973-1985. Congress had initially overturned the amnesty in 2011.
-The recent death of former New York mayor and congressman Ed Koch brought a reminder of his human rights efforts. In the 1970s, Koch sponsored legislation to cut off funding to Uruguay after reports of human rights violations under its dictatorship. The legislation was ultimately successful, and, as detailed in John Dinges’ excellent The Condor Years, two Uruguayan officials threatened to assassinate Koch. Although the CIA discovered the death threat in July 1976, it was only in October that CIA Director George H.W. Bush told Koch of the threat.
-Families of victims of the Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989) used the 24th anniversary of his downfall to demand justice for the more than 400 people murdered and disappeared and the 20,000 detained and often tortured during his regime.
-In a disturbing trend, the number of attacks on and murders of human rights defenders and activists has increased, with a murder every five days on average, and an attack once every 20 hours on average. Suffice to say, the attacks undermine efforts to ensure human rights in Colombia are respected.
-Mike Allison recently put the degree of human rights violations during Guatemala’s Civil War in succinct but devastating terms that shows the common flaw of the “both sides committed atrocities” arguments in Guatemala: “Of the 1,112 massacres (more than four people but usually much more than four), government forces were responsible for 1,046 (94.06%). Government forces include the army, military commissions, PACs, death squads, and police. [...] The guerrillas were responsible for 46 (4.14%).” It’s hard to imagine a more disproportionate use of state force and terror than that.
-While former human rights violators in Argentina have been sentenced to house arrest, it turns out that the “punishment” is in many ways nominal, as rights violators continue to move freely about in public, pointing to real loopholes and problems in enforcing more lenient “punishments” for older rights violators.
-Authorities in Brazil arrested 61-year-old Gonzalo Sánchez, a fugitive Argentine officer charged with participating in the torture, murder, and disappearance of dozens during the military dictatorship.
-With Dutch monarch Queen Beatrix recently stepping down, her son Prince Willem-Alexander is set to assume the (symbolic) throne, creating the first ever “Argentine Princess.” For Prince Willem-Alexander’s wife is Argentine Máxima Zorreguieta. However, while Argentina has celebrated at the rise of one of its own citizens, it turns out her past is not without its own dark roots, as her father was Minister of Justice under General Jorge Videla, when the government tortured, murdered, and disappeared tens of thousands, during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983.
-A couple of years ago, I posted a series of photos (here, here, here, here, here, and here) on ways in which the Argentine dictatorship continued to be criticized and memorialized in public spaces. Lillie Langtry points us to this article (in Spanish) with more examples of how Argentines continue to remember the regime and its victims, thirty years after it finally collapsed.
-Speaking of public space and memory, many of the prisons and sites where torture took place during Brazil’s dictatorship are disappearing from public space in São Paulo. The destruction of these buildings is significant, as they served as physical memory-sites that served to remind people of the deeds and impact of the military dictatorship; as scholarship on memory, human rights, and space has repeatedly demonstrated, the removal of such buildings can and does accelerate the receding of memorialization of human rights violations in public memory itself.
-It’s not just the physical landscapes of cities where the dictatorship is disappearing. Brazil’s military schools sadly, if unsurprisingly, are using textbooks that gloss over or ignore the military dictatorship and its deeds (original in Portuguese here), prompting scholars and members of the Truth Commission to suggest the need to overhaul military educational materials so as to better address Brazil’s past for future soldiers and officers.
-Even while markers of the dictatorship disappear both from public spaces and textbooks, however, the deeds of the dictatorship are being recorded in other ways. Brazil’s Truth Commission, which has been drawing on interviews, documentary evidence, testimony, and other materials to investigate the regime’s deeds, recently reopened an investigation into the death of former president Juscelino Kubitschek. Kubitschek, who was one of the regime’s highest-profile critics after 1965, died in a car crash in 1976, and rumors swirled around his death, including the possibility that the regime forced the crash (rumors aided by the fact that another high profile critic, fashion designer Zuzu Angel, whose son the regime “disappeared,” died in similar circumstances that the state ultimately acknowledged responsibility for).
-Not all are happy with the Truth Commission, however. Marcelo Rubens Paiva, the son of a politician who the regime arrested and disappeared, criticized the commission for being “timid” and needed to be firmer and stronger in its investigations.
-While the Truth Commission investigates the deaths of people the regime killed, the Organization of American States has announced it will launch its own investigation into the death of Vladimir Herzog, a journalist who died under torture during the administration of Ernesto Geisel.
-Meanwhile, a former torturer was recently discovered as having worked as a teacher for 24 years before his death in 2009. Under a false name, Cleber de Souza Rocha taught geography classes in São Paulo, often showing up to class drunk.
-The recent execution-style killing of Cícero Guedes, a leader for land reform and peasants’ rights in Brazil, provided another tragic reminder of the dictatorship, as his murder took place in a region where the dictatorship killed and disappeared land activists during its most repressive years.
-While Chile has had several official investigations into the Pinochet regime’s rights violations, some mysteries remain unsolved. One of those mysteries is how Pablo Neruda died. Officials are exhuming the Nobel laureate’s body to see if he may have been poisoned when he died just twelve days after the Pinochet regime overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende.
-Neruda isn’t the only high-profile cultural figure who died in the Pinochet era. The regime infamously arrested and cut off the hands of folk singer Victor Jara before ultimately murdering him. In the wake of the arrest of several officers connected to his death, J. Patrice McSherry has this great report on the case, its history, where it stands, and the impact of his widow Joan’s efforts to keep the case and his memory alive.
This week continues the recent focus on military presidents by turning to Ernesto Geisel (1907-1996), the fourth and penultimate of the presidents of Brazil’s twenty-one year military dictatorship. Geisel governed from 1974 to 1979, overseeing growing economic turmoil, the beginning of political re-openings under military rule, and internal challenges from hardliners within the military during his administration (1974-1979).
Ernesto Beckmann Geisel was born in August 1907 to German immigrants in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul, the third consecutive military president who was born there (after Artur Costa e Silva and Emílio Garrastazu Médici). Geisel was one of five children, and the youngest of four boys. In 1921, he followed the footsteps of two of his older brothers by joining the military (the other went on to become a chemical engineer and university professor), enrolling in the Military School of Porto Alegre, where he finished at the top of his class in 1924. His performance in military school was not an anomaly; he also finished first in his ongoing military training at schools in Realengo and in officer training in the 1930s.
As had so many others of the military in his generation, Geisel actively supported the 1930 revolution that brought Getúlio Vargas into power. Like his military presidential predecessors, he also served in the Revolution of 1932 that saw the state of São Paulo revolt against the Vargas government. After a brief stint in government in the 1930s, he returned to the School of Training for Army Officers, where in 1938 he once again finished at the top of his class. He continued his officer training from 1941-1943. Although Brazil had officially entered World War II by 1944, Geisel did not see action in the European theater, instead going to the United States, where in 1945 he finished training at Fort Leavenworth’s Army Command and General Staff College.
After the war, Geisel continued to balance his status as an officer with roles in government, serving as Brazil’s military aide to Brazil’s embassy in Uruguay before returning to serve in various functions, including serving as a member of Brazil’s Escola Superior de Guerra (War College; ESG), in the 1950s. After Vargas committed suicide in 1954, Geisel briefly served as the sub-chief of the Military Cabinet in the presidency of (former) vice president João Café Filho. He continued to move up through the military ranks, even while his background in government allowed him as a bridge between the military and technocratic worlds. Geisel opposed what many perceived to be the increasing leftism of president João Goulart, and when the military overthrew Goulart on April 1, 1964, Geisel quickly became a member of the new military regime, serving as the chief of the Military Cabinet under the first president of the regime, Humberto Castelo Branco.
Under Castelo Branco, Geisel became one of the key figures of the so-called “Sorbonne” group, thus named due to their alleged intellectual qualities. Although the military dictatorship presented a publicly unified face, behind the scenes, splits were emerging between Castelo Branco and the “Sorbonne” group on the one hand, and military hardliners (with Costa e Silva as their figurehead) who wanted more repressive measures taken against opponents. While Geisel condemned the use of torture after the coup and opposed the ascent of Costa e Silva (who was Castelo Branco’s Minister of War) behind closed doors, Castelo Branco ultimately was unwilling to divide the military regime, and stepped aside for Costa e Silva in 1967. The rise of the hardliners, first under Costa e Silva and then under Médici, meant the marginalization of Geisel in the military governments. Though he continued to serve as a minister in the Supreme Military Tribunal from 1967-1969 and as president from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned energy company, from 1969 to 1973, he was effectively ostracized from national politics under military rule.
Though Geisel was far from the organs of government under the hardliners, he had an ally in his older brother, Orlando Geisel, also a general. Orlando ultimately served as the head of the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Service; SNI) under Médici during the most repressive years of the regime. The SNI had been Médici’s launching point for the presidency; when he asked Orlando to consider succeeding him, Orlando turned it down, instead recommending his brother. Médici convinced other military leaders to support the nomination, and Ernesto Geisel became the candidate for the president, overwhelmingly winning the indirect elections of 1973 and taking office in March 1974. With his election, the hardliners left office for the last time, and the so-called “moderate” “Sorbonne” school in the military returned to the presidency for the first time since 1967.
From the beginning, Geisel’s administration stood in marked contrast to that of his predecessor. Where Médici had been hands-off in governing, allowing his ministers to take care of matters in their departments and creating an atmosphere where the use of torture was widespread, Geisel was a micromanager, involved in the decisions of many of his ministries. Where Médici oversaw a period of heightened repression and crackdown on political rights (referred to as the anos de chumbo, or “years of lead”), Geisel initiated a program of a “gradual, slow, and secure distensão,” or “distending” the military from the government. Although he maintained some of the policies of his predecessors from both the hardliners and the Sorbonne school – notably the dual policy of “development and security” articulated in the ESG – his administration was in many ways a rupture.
However, the “gradual” opening was definitely gradual, and not always linear. While the government under Geisel eased censorship and even allowed candidates from the blanket “opposition” party Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Democratic Brazilian Movement ; MDB) to campaign for congressional elections, his government continued to openly and brutally persecute the Leninist Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), and his regime finalized operations against guerrillas in the Araguaia region of Brazil, where the dictatorship “disappeared” dozens. And while Geisel himself privately opposed torture, he found it difficult to immediately rein it in after security apparatuses had operated with relatively free rein under Médici. Thus, in 1975, Vladimir Herzog, a journalist, was found dead in his cell; although the military officials in São Paulo claimed he had hanged himself, it was quickly clear that he had died under torture. The death of worker Manoel Fiel Filho under similar circumstances in 1976 made clear that, while Geisel might want an opening in the regime, the hardliners were less willing to acquiesce. This led Geisel to relieve of his duties the general responsible for troops in São Paulo, setting the stage for growing behind-the-scenes conflict between Geisel and the hardliners.
Although the public was generally unaware of these tensions within the military government, behind the scenes, things were coming to a head. In October 1977, Sylvio Frota, a hard-liner and Geisel’s Minister of the Army [previously called the Ministry of War, today's Minister of Defense], began to maneuver to become the next presidential candidate against Geisel’s wishes but with the support of hardliners. As Geisel refused to acknowledge Frota’s candidacy, Frota began to plan a plot to remove Geisel, but before he acted, the president outmaneuvered him, using a national holiday to fire Frota, knowing full well troops who might have rallied to Frota would not be in the barracks that day. Though Frota tried to rally his support, Geisel had already ensured the support of the generals who were considering supporting Frota; Frota’s failed power-grab ensured that the “moderates” would continue in office.
Though Geisel moved against hardliners in the state under military rule, he was by no means bereft of his own authoritarianism. That distensão that he sought was to be top-down; challenges to it from society would not be tolerated. Thus, after the opposition party MDB made significant gains in the 1974 congressional elections, he enacted a law in 1976 that prohibited candidates from making live appearances on television or radio. And in 1977, when Congress refused to pass a judicial reform bill that Geisel had sent to Congress, he closed Congress for 14 days, during which he continued the indirect elections of governors at the state level and established the indirect elections of 1/3 of the senators (perjoratively labeled “bionic senators”), thus giving the government enough of a majority to ensure Geisel’s future bills would pass. Nor were such actions limited to electoral politics. Although censorship eased under Geisel, it did not disappear, leading to bizarre cases of censorship; indeed, at one point, nearly all of popular and polemic singer Chico Buarque’s songs were censored, leading to Buarque to create an alter-ego, “Julinho da Adelaide,” a name under which he not only recorded a handful of songs, but gave interviews.
Geisel’s administration was an eventful one in other policy areas, as well. Although the military regime had issued a widespread university reform in 1968, by 1977, the shortcomings of that reform had become painfully obvious, leading Geisel to issue another reform focusing especially on graduate education in Brazil in 1977. He also inaugurated subway lines in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and his administration oversaw a significant portion of the construction of the Itaipu Dam that Brazil and Paraguay share. Geisel also used his office to legalize divorce in Brazil, much to the consternation of many Catholics and cultural conservatives.
Although Geisel was fiercely anticommunist, he diversified Brazil’s diplomatic ties, including with Africa; indeed, under Geisel, Brazil was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the MPLA government in Angola in 1975, in spite of the fact that the MPLA was officially (if not realistically) Leninist while the Brazilian military regime was right-wing. Brazil entered into negotiations with West Germany to help Brazil get the parts and materials to start its own nuclear program in 1975 (though it would not be until ten years later that the first reactor at the Angra dos Reis plant was operational). In the final months of his presidency, he announced the expiration of the repressive Ato Institucional 5 (Institutional Act Number 5; AI-5), which Costa e Silva had issued in December 1968 and which had served as a key component in establishing the repression that followed throughout the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s. Though he hoped to continue the economic successes of Brazil’s economic “miracle” from 1967 to 1973, by 1974, global economic turmoil, including the 1973 oil crisis, hit Brazil hard, as did the fact that much of the economic growth of the “miracle” had depended on foreign loans whose repayment hit Brazil hard as global economic conditions worsened in the latter half of the 1970s. Thus, though he attempted to reduce dependency on foreign capital for infrastructure and industry, inflation was only worsening by the end of his term (though it would get much worse in the 1980s).
After leaving office, he continued to remain in close contact with the military. In 1985, he spoke out in favor of opposition candidate Tancredo Neves, helping to quell some of the opposition within the armed forces to Neves’s candidacy. He also continued to work in the oil business, where he’d acquired experience in his time as president of Petrobras. In the 1990s, he left much of his private and public documents, including from his presidency, to the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, and even sat down for interviews to provide an oral history of his government and his life. These collections and materials have given (and continue to give) scholars unprecedented insights into the operation of the military regime, and are one of the richest fonts for research on the dictatorship in Brazil. Shortly after his 89th birthday in 1996, Geisel died. Though his legacy is a complex one, the fact remains that his administration marked an important turning point in the dictatorship and in Brazilian politics.
Argentina and Spain aren’t the only countries where children were stolen from their parents during military rule. As the Associated Press reminds us, El Salvador has its own history of children stolen from their parents during the civil war of 1980-1992. During that era, there were
hundreds of children who disappeared under a variety of circumstances during El Salvador’s brutal, 13-year civil war, which left some 75,000 people dead and thousands more missing. In most cases, the parents have yet to find out what happened to their children, while a few hundred of the missing have been identified after giving investigators DNA samples and other evidence.
Now, a human rights group, Probusqueda, is uncovering another macabre, and mostly unknown twist to the tragedy. In Contreras’ and at least nine other cases, low-to-mid-ranking soldiers abducted children in what an international court says was a “systematic pattern of forced disappearances.” Some of the soldiers raised the children as their own, while others gave them away or sold them to lucrative illegal adoption networks. In Contreras’ case, an army private spirited her away, raped her and gave her his own surname.
As the article goes on to point out, the work of Probusqueda has demonstrated that El Salvador is the second Latin American country where kidnappings of children of political opponents to military regimes took place, following Argentina. In Argentina, groups like the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have successfully researched and revealed hundreds of such cases, leading to the prosecution and conviction of military-era leaders for their role in these kidnappings. Certainly, El Salvador has a longer way to go – only now is the depth of these crimes becoming clear, and prosecuting those responsible has a long way to go; while there have been some minor instances of the government making efforts to go after those responsible for human rights violations and even apologizing last year for the El Mozote massacre, such efforts have usually been timid at best, and a culture of impunity that allows human rights violators to walk freely continues to persist. Nonetheless, there is some hope – after all, in the region, the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide in Guatemala marks the first time in Latin America that a former head of state has faced trial for genocide in a national court. Such trials show that, while it may take decades, justice for human rights violators is not a lost cause; perhaps the attention drawn to El Salvador’s own kidnapped children will bring not just justice, but a powerful reminder and greater awareness of the depth to which the military’s actions during the civil war tore families and lives apart.
-Brazil and Russia reached an agreement on arms and technology exchanges between the two countries while also discussing nuclear power. Talks between Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and President Dilma Rousseff led to the sale of surface-to-air missiles to Brazil as well as the possibility of Russia aiding Brazil in building more nuclear power plants. Currently, Brazil, whose rapid growth has put a strain on energy supplies, has only one nuclear power plant (with two functioning reactors) at Angra dos Reis in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
-Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court has upheld a ruling that prohibits gay couples from adopting children. The judges ruled 5-4 that only mother-father relationships were appropriate for children, marking a significant setback in equal rights on the island.
-Nearly 30 years after battles between the Shining Path and government forces, Peru’s government returned the bodies of 26 people killed during the fights to their families, who were finally able to bury their loved ones.
-While it’s difficult to imagine extreme poverty being eradicated, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff says that Brazil is very close to doing just that after raising the monthly stipend for 2.5 million Brazilians living below the poverty line.
-With Colombia near the top of the list in terms of deaths and injuries caused by mines, volunteer groups made up of civilians have begun training and working on removing mines.
-In an effort to reduce both deforestation and crime that is often connected to illegal logging, an international operation has led to Interpol arresting over 200 people for illegal timber trafficking and logging in South America.
-A new intelligence law in Honduras designed to create new security apparatuses has some concerned, as its combination of military defense and police forces is reminiscent of Cold War policies that fostered the disappearance of Hondurans in the 1980s.
-While Chile’s support for England over Argentina during the Malvinas War has long been known, recently-declassified documents have further shed light on the diplomatic ties and subjects discussed between the Chilean and English governments diplomatic ties operated prior to the beginning of the War.
-Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez took advantage of new passport regulations to leave her home country. Her first stop? Brazil, where she addressed Congress yesterday, though her journey has also witnessed some opposition from supporters of Cuba.
-Finally, FIFA appears ready to finally use technology to improve futebol/soccer, as the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will employ goal line technology to confirm goals. The issue came to the forefront when Englishman Frank Lampard clearly scored a goal that did not count in a match against Germany (though Germany went on to win the game 4-1, Lampard’s goal would have made it 2-2).
Human Rights Watch issued its report on the Disappeared in Mexico, and the findings are grim. The report documents 249 disappearances in just the last six years; that’s more than half of the official number of disappeared or murdered (475) during Brazil’s entire 21-year dictatorship. Additionally, the report finds that the Mexican state, through its security forces, is responsible for 60% (149) of those disappearances. And in over 60 cases, state security agents worked directly with organized crime in “disappearing” victims and extorting their families.
Typically, uniformed officials took the victims into custody themselves; when families inquired about the fates of their loved ones, the police denied that detentions occurred, in spite of eyewitness accounts. This latter fact is particularly alarming; although Mexico is a functioning democracy, the tactic of denying an arrest ever happened chillingly echoes what took place in military regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay during the 1950s-1980s. Authorities have failed to act on requests from the families of the disappeared to investigate their cases, creating a climate of impunity even while such disappearances continue, and even when such investigations occur, the police usually simply say the individual was involved in illegal activities, prompting the prosecutors not to investigate further and putting the burden of investigating the disappearance on the victims’ families.
And perhaps most damning of all? As the report itself puts it:
The nearly 250 cases documented in this report by no means represent all the disappearances that occurred in Mexico during the Calderón administration. Quite the opposite, there is no question that there are thousands more. Officials in Coahuila, for example, told Human Rights Watch that 1,835 people had disappeared in that state alone from December 2006 to April 2012. More alarming still, a provisional list compiled by the Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Prosecutor’s Office—which was leaked in November 2012—contains the names of more than 25,000 people who were disappeared or went missing during the Calderón years, and whose fates remain unknown. While the list’s information is incomplete and its methodology flawed, the number leaves little doubt as to the unprecedented scale of the current wave of disappearances.
Of course, as historical and human rights studies on the disappeared in other parts of Latin America have amply demonstrated, this has a devastating impact on the relatives of the families and friends of the disappeared, leaving them with the uncertainty of their loved ones’ remains or fates and disrupting their lives at the most basic level. I’ve mentioned before that this is a major crisis facing Mexico; the new report helps us further understand just how endemic the problem has become since Felipe Calderón took office in 2006. That such a crisis still exists in a civilian-led republic in the 21st century is as shameful as it is disturbing, and human rights should and must be a top issue for new president Enrique Peña Nieto.