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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.

Chiquita Trying to Shirk Responsibility for Aiding Terrorist Organizations

August 26, 2013 2 comments

Banana companies have long had a horrible history in Latin America, based upon political corruption, economic exploitation, and even the overthrow of democratically-elected regimes. Yet the horrible practices of multinational fruit companies in the region is not a relic of the past, limited to the twentieth century. Just in the last decade, Chiquita Brands International (which was originally the United Fruit Company, which in turn played no small part in the 1954 Guatemalan coup that led to 36 years of civil war and violence that left 250,000 people dead or missing) was found to have given money to Colombia’s Autodefesas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-defense Forces of Colombia; AUC). Given that the US government declared the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary organization,  to be a terrorist organization in 2001, Chiquita’s funding of the AUC was a criminal act.

Yet today, Chiquita is fighting to prevent further knowledge, details, and understanding of its ties to the AUC to become public, filing a lawsuit to prevent the release of thousands of pages of documents. While such an act already smells like more than a little bit of a coverup, the fact that Chiquita is framing the issue as one of victimhood is even worse:

Despite the clear and existing evidence that Chiquita had engaged in criminal activity, Chiquita is arguing that under Exception 7(B) of the Freedom of Information Act, mandatory disclosure provisions do not apply to “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes . . . to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.”

In an effort to portray the multinational corporation as the real victim in this case Chiquita’s lawyer, James Garland, argued that the disclosure of the documents “will make them available to the general public, including members of the press and individuals and organizations that seek to distort the facts surrounding the payments that Banadex (a subsidiary of Chiquita) made to the AUC under threat of force.  Past experience with release of Chiquita’s documents has demonstrated that media campaigns based on gross mischaracterizations of released documents are certain to occur in an effort to entrench misconceptions of relevant facts in the minds of fact finders integral to the fairness of the proceedings.”

Furthermore, Garland has engaged in a campaign alleging that the National Security Archive is not an independent research organization, but instead is seeking to assist lawyers involved in a class action lawsuit against Chiquita in Colombia, on behalf of the victims of paramilitaries, in addition to an ongoing criminal investigation of former Chiquita employees in Colombia.  The fact that the National Security Archive would not have found evidence of criminal wrongdoing if it had never happened in the first place seems lost on Garland.

This is not just a case of some benign, consequence-free series of financial transactions, either. In 2007, the families of over 400 murdered and tortured individuals sued Chiquita, pointing to the company’s support for the AUC and the AUC’s subsequent violence as leading to the fruit company’s responsibility, and the AUC has long been known for targeting civilian populations and worsening the violence in Colombia’s nearly 50-year civil turmoil. That it is doing so while trying to prevent further understanding of the nature of Colombia’s civil war, and the ways multinationals affect and are affected by it, is disturbing; that Chiquita is framing itself as the victim, while disregarding the actual dead and their loved ones who suffered at the hands of the right-wing paramilitary forces Chiquita itself was giving money to is simply vulgar.

What Force-Feeding Looks Like

July 8, 2013 Comments off

Though reports on the story have been relatively slight in comparison to far more trivial matters that gobble up more TV time, for at least the past four months, detainees at Guantanamo have been on a hunger strike, protesting the conditions in which they are kept, the lack of charges or trials, and regulations that are outraging even the defense attorneys that the Pentagon itself appointed. In response to the strike, US forces at Guantanamo have begun force-feeding the detainees. Though earlier reports already indicated the violence and horrors of forced feeding, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) volunteered to go through force-feeding to illustrate what it is like. The results are difficult to watch (and that is putting it mildly), and the video is graphic, so be forewarned. That said, it is quite effective at conveying just what forced-feeding looks like, and it’s hard to see how it could not be considered torture by many definitions of human rights, not just in Guantanamo, but wherever force-feeding prisoners is used.

When Public Anger & Political Frustration Ignore History

June 22, 2013 4 comments

As readers of this blog know, I’ve written extensively about the Brazilian military dictatorship from a variety of angles, including how the military came to power amidst civilian calls for the military to remove constitutional president João Goulart. The idea of military intervention was not new, as the military had previously interjected itself into presidential politics with various levels of success or failure in 1889, 1930, 1937, 1945, 1954, 1955, and 1961. However, the military intervention of 1964 led to a dictatorship that employed torture, killed “subversives,” and repressed those who questioned it. In short, the last time Brazil turned to the military to “solve” its problems, the military ended up ruling through dictatorship, relying on the institutional use of repression to murder hundreds, torture thousands, and exile tens of thousands more, even while implementing economic policies that caused very real long-term harm to much of Brazilian society.

Which is why it is still baffling to see something like this in 2013. Yes, they claim that “We do not support dictatorship. We do not support any type of violence. We don’t defend torturers.” So presumably, they think a military intervention in 2014 would be different than the one fifty years earlier (and even if it’s coincidental, the symbolism of calling for a military coup fifty years after the last one is not exactly encouraging). Yet this is either naive, willfully ignorant, or trolling, plain and simple. Once military officials take office, there’s little ability to force them to leave, as Brazilians learned in the 1960s; the middle classes and conservative elites who’d called for military intervention expected the military to leave power quickly, once things had “stabilized.” When it became clear that military leaders like Artur Costa e Silva had no intention of doing so, the public had little to force the military out.

And if one is tired of the violence in the streets, turning to a military institution of any color is not exactly the means to peace. Indeed, though a small number of vandals have marred the demonstrations, an overwhelming majority of the demonstrators have been peaceful, while it has been the military police [a militarized police force] that have been behind an overwhelming and disproportionate use of violence against civilians in the streets. It is hard to see why further relying on militarization will suddenly bring an end to that violence.

And perhaps somewhat ironically, the facebook page itself says that comments from people who don’t like the page will be deleted. You know…censorship. Like the kinds that military governments have used not just during Brazil’s military dictatorship, but in military interventions like the creation of the Estado Novo in 1937, or in military interventions regimes throughout the region throughout the 20th century.

The hypocrisy, ignorance, and disregard for Brazilian history makes me think this page really is just trolling. But even if it is, the worst part is that it is still contributing a dangerous discourse that views the military as salvationary, and some people will take that idea seriously, even if the page’s creators don’t (and there’s nothing to indicate they don’t). Either way, as Brazil in particular and Latin America more generally in the 20th century repeatedly demonstrated, turning to the military for political intervention was repeatedly damaging to political stability, democracy (in various forms), and human rights. That such ideas are still floating around in the 21st century is just shameful.

The Legacies of Torture in Central America

April 11, 2013 1 comment

As scholarship and human rights reports have repeatedly demonstrate, the effects of torture on the human mind and body have long-term ramifications, and many of those victims continue suffer from both the psychological and the physical effects of torture decades after the regimes that committed such torture have left power. Two reports from Central America add to the demonstrated effects of torture and of the brutality of past regimes.

In El Salvador, a report on torture composed 27 years ago finally saw publication, making the stories of those who suffered torture at the hands of the state during the civil war of 1980-1992 public.

More than 40 torture techniques are described in detail and depicted in drawings in the report.

One of the most commonly used techniques was the “avioncito” (airplane), in which the victim’s hands were tied behind his or her back and the victim was suspended in the air from the wrists, often causing dislocation of the shoulders.

In the “capucha” (hood), a plastic bag was placed over the prisoner’s head, to partially suffocate them, while the “submarino” (submarine) involved simulated drowning.

Other methods were electric shock, cutting off the tongue, or destroying the eyes with chemicals. [...]

The book also provides profiles of torture victims who were forcibly disappeared.

And of course, this was not a human rights crisis that involved only Salvadorans. As a journalistic investigation uncovered, the US sent officer James Steele, a Vietnam veteran, to work with forces responsible for torture in El Salvador. Later, none other than Donald Rumsfeld sent Steele to work in Iraq.

Colonel James Steele was a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran when he was nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency [...]

A second special adviser, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked alongside Steele in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of US funding.

Coffman reported directly to General David Petraeus, sent to Iraq in June 2004 to organise and train the new Iraqi security forces. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and returned to the country in 2006, reported directly to Rumsfeld.

The US’s ties to repressive regimes and torturers in Central America in the 1980s is generally well-known among those who study the region or US foreign policy; that the US then redeployed to Iraq people tied to torture in Central America is a new, if semi-unsurprising, twist. And of course, a culture of impunity prevents those in El Salvador (and those in the US who aided them) from facing trial for their actions.

While a culture of impunity continues to reign in El Salvador, the same cannot be said for Guatemala, as the trial of former general Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide continues (a trial in which current president Otto Perez Molina’s name has been tied to past atrocities, charges he unsurprisingly has rejected outright). Last week, indigenous women who suffered systematic rape in the early-1980s while Ríos Montt was in power took the stand to testify about the terror and brutality they suffered at the hands of the state under Ríos Montt’s government. As powerful as the story is, the accompanying picture is perhaps even more so – 30 years after Ríos Montt was in power, she covered her face before testifying, revealing the ways in which the crimes of the past continue to haunt her present. Nor was she the only one:

[A] second woman to take the stand wept as she told the court that she had been raped by a series of men over three days in a military post in the Quiche department in the country’s heavily indigenous highlands region in 1982.

“They tied my hands and feet,” and raped me, she said, “Not just me but my mother, too.”

Her testimony is as sadly powerful as it is sadly familiar, as military regimes from Argentina to Guatemala and numerous countries in between used rape and torture to intimidate and terrorize their populations. That , after 30 years of impunity, Ríos Montt finally has to confront these crimes in a courtroom is no small step towards justice. At the same time, it’s another remarkably sad, if all-too-familiar, reminder of the long-term legacies of the regimes that operated throughout South and Central America (often with US support) from the 1960s through the 1980s.

On the Vatican’s Relations with the Pinochet Regime

April 9, 2013 2 comments

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.

Get to Know a Brazilian – Vera Sílvia Magalhães

April 7, 2013 Comments off

While recent posts in this series focused on the presidents of Brazil’s military dictatorship, no country’s history, society, or politics is defined merely by its (male) political leaders. During the dictatorship, millions of Brazilians resisted the military’s authority (even while millions more supported it), and support and/or opposition from various social groups ebbed and flowed throughout twenty-one years of military rule. While there is no shortage of materials on resistance to the dictatorship, especially in the 1960s, such work tends to focus on the men (often university students) who challenged the regime (and who later went on to play roles in the post-dictatorship state), even while women played key roles in the student movements that challenged military rule in a number of ways. Thus, this week we begin looking at the lives of these women, often ignored in the narrative of resistance to the dictatorship , by focusing on one of the most important yet most overlooked figures of student politics and resistance in the 1960s: Vera Sílvia Magalhães.

Vera Sílvia Magalhães in 2001. Photo available at Folha de São Paulo.

Vera Sílvia Magalhães in 2001. [Photo available at Folha de São Paulo.]

Vera Sílvia Magalhães was born to a middle-class family in Rio de Janeiro in 1948. Although her family was from the carioca upper middle class, they did not shy away from communism; she allegedly first read Marx and Engels after a family member gave her the Communist Manifesto. Although apocryphal, what is certain is that, from an early age, she was exposed to the ideas of the left, and by the age of 15, she was a member of the Associação Municipal dos Estudantes Secundaristas (Municipal Association of Secondary Students; AMES). One year after she joined AMES, the military overthrew constitutional president João Goulart in a coup, ushering in a right-wing military regime.

Although president Humberto Castelo Branco’s government had made early attempts to crack down on the student movements in Brazil, they were not as thorough or persistent as efforts to persecute labor activists, high-ranking politicians, or members of Brazil’s Leninist Partido Comunista Brasileiro (Brazilian Communist Party; PCB). Thus, less than two years after the coup, university students had become one of the main groups still openly challenging the military dictatorship, criticizing it both along ideological lines while also making more quotidian demands that reflected their experiences as middle-class university students. While some students participated in protests through the “semi-clandestine” National Students Union (UNE), by 1967, other students were becoming more radical. Discontent with the failures of the PCB to adequately address the “Brazilian reality” and frustrated by the fact that, far from ending the dictatorship, street protests only seemed to lead to intensifying police violence under president Artur Costa e Silva, some leftist students looked for more radical solutions to transform Brazilian politics and society. Yet the older members of the PCB, Brazil’s first communist party, refused to endorse the armed struggle as a path towards social change and the end of the dictatorship. As a result, university students turned to alternate offshoot groups. Drawing on the model of the Cuban revolution and abandoning the “Old left” of Leninism for Maoist and/or “Dissident” versions of communism, a small number of urban youth began to see the luta armada, or armed struggle, as the only path to bring down the dictatorship.

Vera Magalhães was one such student. Amidst the regime’s increasing repression and its efforts to silence critics (even moderate ones), in 1968 Magalhães, now 20 and enrolled in university, joined the clandestine Movimento Revolucionário 8 de Outubro (Revolutionary Movement of October 8), or MR-8, named after the day CIA-supported Bolivian troops captured Ché Guevara in 1967 [they executed him one day later]. Another group had been operating with the name MR-8, but the regime had captured almost all of its members, trumpeting the regime’s triumph to the public. In an attempt to discredit the regime, Magalhães and other members of the MR-8 began launching increasingly high-profile actions under the MR-8 moniker to indicate that opposition did not end with the arrest of a handful of individuals. Throughout 1968 and 1969,these armed groups mobilized in high-profile actions, even while the student movement faced increasing repression. They attacked banks, where they “expropriated” money from foreign capital and from the bourgeoisie, abandoning the student movement for armed struggle and bank robberies that helped fund the organization and marked an ideological attack on capital both foreign and domestic. In these expropriations, Magalhães, with her blonde wig and her two .45-caliber pistols, captured the attention of the media, which named her “Blonde ’90.”

In this context, Magalhães came to play a vital role in one of the boldest moves against the dictatorship. As the military  used the new repressive Institutional Act Number 5 and Decree-Law 477  increase arrests and the use of torture against prisoners even while censoring the media, Magalhães and the MR-8 decided to act more boldly. She and a few of her colleagues came up with a plot to kidnap Charles Burke Elbrick, the US Ambassador to Brazil. No ambassador had ever been kidnapped before, and so the move was as innovative as it was daring. Magalhães spent time watching Elbrick’s route from his home to the US embassy in Botafogo, and even flirted with the chief of security in order to get him to reveal information about Elbrick’s routine. With the information she had gathered and the plans she had helped create, the MR-8 moved, and on September 4, 1969, they kidnapped Elbrick, the first time in world history that an ambassador had been kidnapped. MR-8 pledged Elbrick’s safe release in return for the release of 15 political prisoners and the reading on television of a declaration that expressed the MR-8’s visions and would break through the censorship the military had imposed; if the military refused to meet their conditions, they promised to kill the ambassador. The conditions put thus put Elbrick’s fate as much in the hands of the military as in the hands of his captors.

Charles Burke Elbrick, the US Ambassador to Brazil from July 1969 to May 1970.

Charles Burke Elbrick, the US Ambassador to Brazil from July 1969 to May 1970.

Although they did not realize it, Magalhães and her colleagues had perfectly, albeit accidentally, timed the kidnapping. At the end of August, president Costa e Silva had a massive stroke that had left the president incapacitated; not wanting to make clear that the country was presently effectively leaderless, the military had not announced his condition to the country. The regime thought it could safely pretend everything was fine until it found a way to replace the now-semi-paralyzed president. Unfortunately for military brass, the kidnapping of Elbrick had left them both unprepared and unable to quickly respond. Adding to the complications was the fact that the US, a major economic and political supporter of the dictatorship, was more than a little interested in seeing its ambassador safely released no matter the cost. In this context, the military split; some insisted that the government had to meet their demands so as to not lose the US’s support; others insisted meeting the demands would be a sign of military weakness, and that it was better to let Elbrick die.

A headline from the Jornal do Brasil during the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick. The headline reads, "The Government today settles its position regarding the kidnapping," thus revealing the uncertainty about the military's path. Courtesy the Jornal do Brasil Blog.

A headline from the Jornal do Brasil during the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick. The headline reads, “The Government today settles its position regarding the kidnapping,” thus revealing the uncertainty about the military’s path. Courtesy the Jornal do Brasil Blog.

Ultimately, those in favor of meeting the demands prevailed, but barely. The government read the MR-8’s statement, which proclaimed that Brazil was living in a military dictatorship and that the fight of the people would continue, on television. The regime also released fifteen political prisoners that the MR-8 had provided them; the list included student leaders like José Dirceu and Vladimir Palmeira; members of urban guerrilla groups like Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro and Ricardo Vilas; journalist Flávio Tavares; labor activists Agonalto Pacheco and José Ibrahim; and older leftists Rolando Frati and Gregório Bezerra (who had been arrested immediately after the 1964 coup and who had also spent 10 years in prison for his communist activism during the government of Getúlio Vargas). It loaded them on an airplane and sent them to Mexico. Immediately after the plane, named “Hercules 56″ (the title of an excellent documentary on the kidnapping), took off, paratroopers arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão airport to try to stop them. Nonetheless, they were late, and the prisoners safely arrived in Mexico before heading to Cuba, where they met with Fidel Castro. After receiving training in Cuba, some clandestinely returned to Brazil, while others went into exile.  [Of those who returned to Brazil, the military captured and killed two, gunning down both ex-sergeant Onofre Pinto and militant João Leonardo da Silva Rocha in 1974.] As for Elbrick, MR-8 stayed true to their word; with the release of the 15 political prisoners and the reading of the declaration, on September 8 Elbrick’s captors dropped him off at Maracanã stadium just as a soccer game was ending, and MR-8’s members disappearing into the crowd.

Thirteen of the Political Prisoners released after the kidnapping of Elbrick. You can see the "56" of the plane's name (Hercules 56) at the top-left.

Thirteen of the Political Prisoners released after the kidnapping of Elbrick. Front row (L-R): João Leonardo da Silva Rocha; Agonalto Pacheco; Vladimir Palmeira; Ivens Marchetti; and Flávio Tavares. Back row (L-R): Luís Travassos; José Dirceu; José Ibrahim; Onofre Pinto; Ricardo Vilas; Maria Augusta Carneiro Ribeiro; Ricardo Zarattini; and Rolando Frati.

Magalhães and the others who had planned the kidnapping managed to disappear into the crowd in 1969, but they could not escape the regime’s security apparatus. In March 1970, the military arrested Magalhães while she was handing out political pamphlets; in the arrest, she was hit in the head by gunfire. Although wounded, the regime showed her little tolerance; angry at the MR-8’s ability to challenge the regime and in a period of intense repression, the security forces tortured the wounded Magalhães. She sustained three months of beatings, electrical shocks, and psychological torture; the physical abuse was so severe that she was unable to stand on her own without the support of somebody else.

A recently-uncovered photo showing the effects of torture in Brazil. Vera Sílvia Magalhães standing only with the aid of two people after multiple torture sessions in 1970.

A recently-uncovered photo showing the effects of torture in Brazil. Vera Sílvia Magalhães standing only with the aid of two people after multiple torture sessions in 1970.

In spite of the physical and psychological abuse, she never revealed names. Nor could her legacy be undone; that July, members of the Ação Libertadora Nacional (National Liberating Action; ALN) and Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária (Popular Revolutionary Vanguard; VPR) followed MR-8’s model, kidnapping German ambassador Ehrenfried von Holleben and demanded the release of more political prisoners. Ultimately, in July of 1970, the regime released forty more prisoners, including Magalhães; however, the physical effects of torture on her were clear. In a photo of the prisoners, she was seated in a chair, still unable to stand on her own.

The forty political prisoners released in 1970. Vera Magalhães is seated on the far right.

The forty political prisoners released in 1970. Vera Magalhães is seated on the far right. Fernando Gabeira (in glasses), a member of the group who kidnapped Elbrick, is squatting next to her in the photo.

After her release, Magalhães went into exile, first in Algeria and then in Chile, where many Brazilian exiles remained until the military coup of 1973 ushered in a right-wing dictatorship there as well. From there, she went to Europe with her husband (and comrade in MR-8), Fernando Gabeira (they eventually divorced). She ultimately settled in Paris, studying sociology at the Sorbonne under Brazilian professor Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had also gone into self-imposed exile. When João Figueiredo issued a general amnesty in 1979, Magalhães joined thousands of other exiles in returning to Brazil.

Although she returned to Brazil safely, Vera Magalhães was never able to shake the long-term effects of the horrible abuses and torture she suffered at the hands of the military regime. She worked as an urban planner in the state government of Rio de Janeiro for years, but ultimately retired early at the age of 54, unable to work any longer due to her health. Throughout the rest of her life, she suffered from periodic psychotic episodes, kidney problems (from the beatings), and troubles with her legs, even while the medicine she had to take caused dental problems. Though hesitant to use her long-term suffering for financial gain, in 2002, she became the first woman to receive financial reparations from the state for her suffering at the hands of the military (previously, such reparations had usually only gone to families of those who had died at the hands of the military during the dictatorship). While the financial aid helped her with her medical problems, it could not cure her of them, and in December 2007, she died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Although often overlooked in general narratives of student mobilization and opposition to the military regime, there is no doubt that Vera Magalhães played a key role in challenging the dictatorship. Although her politics and her fight for social justice led her to suffer severely at the hands of the military, she was proud of her ability to maintain her “human sense, ethical and political.”

Vera Sílvia Magalhães during her time in prison in 1970.

Vera Sílvia Magalhães during her time in prison in 1970.

Other posts in this series have looked at author Clarice Lispectortropicalista Torquato Neto, and architect Oscar Niemeyer.

On the Selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francisco

March 13, 2013 13 comments

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.

Around Latin America

March 8, 2013 Comments off

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.

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