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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Though I’ve written repeatedly (and recently) on the historical use of torture in Brazil, it’s important to remember that state agents’ use of torture did not go away with the military dictatorship in 1985. This week sadly provided another reminder of that fact. Video taken in a prison in the southern state of Santa Catarina in mid-January showed police lining up prisoners naked against a wall and then shooting them with rubber bullets, tear-gas, and pepper-spray. In the video, none of the prisoners is resisting, threatening, or otherwise posing a risk to the officers; indeed, as the (obviously NSFW) video in the link shows, it’s pretty clear that this is a case of blatant police abuse against prisoners. And as the accompanying story in the link points out, the prisoners seem to deal with the situation as if it were “natural,” suggesting that this might be regular practice in the prison. There is some small hope for justice here – the video has already been handed over to a judge for an investigation. One could hope that the police will face prison time for their actions, though such an outcome is far from guaranteed. What is certain, however, is that even 28 years after the end of military rule in Brazil, torture and the violation of basic human rights (which juridically still apply to prisoners) continues to be a very real problem for some, including those in this prison in Santa Catarina.
Continuing the recent focus on military presidents, today we look at general Emílio Garrastazu Médici, the third of five military presidents during Brazil’s dictatorship and the man who governed during the period of greatest repression and human rights violations.
Emílio Garrastazu Médici was born in 1905 to immigrant parents – his father was Italian and his mother Uruguayan. Like his predecessor, Artur Costa e Silva, Médici was also born in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul. At thirteen years old, he enrolled in the military school in the state capital of Porto Alegre, eventually becoming a member of the cavalry, a fate not-uncommon among the ranching culture of the south’s gauchos. As with many military men of his generation, he supported the Revolution of 1930 that ushered Getúlio Vargas into the presidency, and fought against rebels in São Paulo who rose up against the Vargas government in 1932. Though in the military during World War II, Médici did not serve in the European theater, instead finishing his officer training in 1944. In the 1950s, he served as a commander of reservist forces before being appointed chief of staff to Artur Costa e Silva from 1957 to 1960. Though not directly tied to the 1964 coup that overthrew president João Goulart, he supported the coup itself. With the new military regime, Médici became the military attache to Washington DC, where he lived from 1964-1966 before returning to Brazil in 1967 to serve as the head of the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Service; SNI), one of the main repressive security apparatuses of the military regime. His service led to his promotion in 1969 to General of the III Army in Rio Grande do Sul.
With Costa e Silva’s stroke in August of 1969, the military regime was left temporarily leaderless. Between 1964 and 1969, there had been a behind-the-scenes struggle between “moderates” from Castelo Branco’s camp and “hard-liners” who had supported Costa e Silva. After a one-month junta made up of the heads of the army, air force, and navy, the top brass in the armed forces selected Médici as the next president. Reconvening Congress (which the regime had dissolved in December 1968) just long enough to rubber-stamp the selection of Médici and give the regime the thin veneer of “democracy,” the junta stepped aside, and on October 30, Médici became president of Brazil.
As president, Médici was not afraid to delegate, and under his administration, the armed forces and security apparatuses were given a free reign to employ torture, commit political murders, and use terror to silence opposition to the regime. In spite of the period of intense repression, which witnessed the exile of thousands and forced organizations like the National Students Union into clandestinity, Médici enjoyed widespread popularity. In part, his avuncular appearance helped him; Médici claimed to be disinterested in politics, letting his ministers take care of the daily problems of governance as they deemed fit. Perhaps more importantly to his image, Brazil was in the midst of what came to be known as the Economic “Miracle,” a five-year period that coincided with Médici’s administration and that witnessed over 10% annual growth. Though the “miracle” was an illusion, built on foreign debt that would come to take an increasingly heavy toll on Brazil’s economy and society, the long-term effects would not appear until after Médici was out of office. Nonetheless, his administration played no small part in sowing the seeds of future economic turmoil; in 1970, Brazil took out a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank in what was up to that point the largest loan in Latin America’s history. Perhaps the best example of the incongruence between his administration’s popularity and its human rights violations was exhibited in 1970, when Brazil won the World Cup for a third time, becoming the first country to bring the Jules Rumet trophy home. Médici, a football fanatic who had one year earlier suggested Brazil replace its coach (a move it made), embraced the victory, hosting the national team at the Presidential Palace and posing for photos with the trophy even while his security apparatuses tortured and murdered.
With the economic and athletic success, many Brazilians were blissfully unaware of just how brutal repression had become. Future-president Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who in the early-1970s had just begun his career as a metalworker, later commented that, if there had been a popular and direct election in 1970, Médici would have won in a landslide. He also enjoyed close relations with the United States, drawing on his time spent there as a military attache. In 1971, he made an official state visit to the Nixon White House, where the two men discussed possible ways to overthrow democratically-elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. And to build up support, Médici relied on propaganda in new ways, spending millions of cruzeiros on advertising campaigns designed to drum up patriotic support for the regime through slogans such as “Brazil: Love it or leave it” (“Brasil, Ame-o ou deixe-o“). He finished his mandate in March 1974, leaving office just as Brazil’s economy started to show subtle signs of weakness that would come to plague the country throughout the rest of the decade and into the 1980s and 1990s. As he left office, he enjoyed a massive amount of popularity, seen as the man who finally “stabilized” Brazil, even while many of the economic policies that had created the “miracle” preceded his administration.
While he was popular while serving as president, his popularity quickly faded away. The growing economic turmoil of the 1970s, which proved increasingly difficult to curb, led more and more people to question the policies of his administration. In the 1980s, the Catholic vicariate of São Paulo and Protestant ministers managed to secretly obtain thousands of classified documents that detailed the use of torture in Brazil during Médici’s government; the documents, ultimately compiled and published as Brasil: Nunca Mais (“Brazil: Never Again,” translated into English as Torture in Brazil) shocked millions of Brazilians who had been unaware of (or had chosen to ignore) the extensive use of torture in the 1970s. Though at the time people referred to the Médici years as the ”economic miracle,” these years ultimately became known as the “Years of Lead,” due to the regime’s heavy repression.
Médici rarely faced such criticisms directly, however. He retired to a private life after leaving office, rarely speaking out in defense of his government. Indeed, he did not grant an official interview with anybody until the early-1980s, though some friends and family members (including one of his sons, a university professor), spoke out in his defense periodically. He died of complications from a stroke in 1985, just two months shy of his 80th birthday. With the passage of time, he has become a symbol of the disfunction of the Brazilian military regime, a president who at best was unable to control his subordinates in their blatant and extreme use of torture and murder, and at worst openly supported and encouraged such actions behind the scenes even while condemning the “isolated” use of torture publicly.
Continuing with presidents from Brazil’s military dictatorship, this week focuses on Artur Costa e Silva, who served from 1967-1969 as the second president of the military regime.
Born in 1899 to parents from Madeira, Costa e Silva was the first of three military presidents born in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul. He enrolled at the Military College of Porto Alegre, the state capital, where he finished at the head of his class. In 1922, he joined the Tenetismo movement, a military movement that objected to the oligarchic and slow-moving governments of Brazil’s first republic and that had its roots in a doomed uprising at the Fort of Copacabana in July 1922. Costa e Silva joined the July movement, ultimately being arrested and then pardoned.
Like many of his generation, Costa e Silva participated in the “Revolution of 1930″ that brought Getúlio Vargas to power, and fought for the government against rebels in São Paulo two years later. Unlike Humberto Castelo Branco, his predecessor who had served in Europe during World War II, Costa e Silva never saw combat in the European theater, though he did help organize forces to go abroad; however, he himself did not accompany them, ending up in the United States instead. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he continued to rise through the ranks in a variety of posts, including time as the military aide to the Brazilian embassy in Argentina. In 1961, he was promoted to General of the Fourth Army in Recife, where he used his power to suppress student protests in the region, a harbinger of things to come later in the decade. However, he was removed from his post and was relocated Rio de Janeiro as the head of the Personnel Department of the Army.
In Rio, Costa e Silva was witness to President João Goulart’s rally at Central Station in downtown Rio de Janeiro, where he spoke before hundreds of thousands of supporters and called for land reform, electoral reform, university reform, and other social programs that marked a leftward shift in Goulart’s public pronouncements. The rally seemed to confirm the military’s worst fears that Goulart was a “communist,” fears that had led to the military initially preventing his constitutionally-guaranteed ascendance from the vice-presidency to the presidency when Jânio Quadros resigned in August 1961. On March 31, General Olympio Mourão Filho launched a revolt in Minas Gerais, moving on Rio de Janeiro; by April 1, Goulart had left the country, and the military dictatorship began.
In an attempt to keep up legal appearances, Chamber of Deputies leader Pascoal Ranieri Mazzilli formally assumed the presidency. However, Mazzilli’s position was just window-dressing; real power rested with a military junta (along with the heads of the Air Force and Navy). As the army was the strongest branch of the military, Costa e Silva’s power was effectively the leader of the junta, which was quick to issue the first Institutional Act (originally known as “the” Institutional Act until the regime issued a second Institutional Act in 1965). AI-1, as it came to be retroactively known, promptly ushered in military repression, giving the government the right to suspend the political rights of political opponents; the junta promptly stripped 102 politicians of their rights, allowing it to purge Congress and create an indirect election that would ensure military rule. However, though Costa e Silva had angled to be president, Castelo Branco’s higher rank (and experience in the European theater in World War II) made him the more popular choice. On April 15, Congress chose Castelo Branco as president, ending the charade of the Mazzilli “presidency.”
However, Costa e Silva was not forgotten, as Castelo Branco appointed the general his Minister of War. Using his high-ranking position and his ties to the military, he began angling behind the scenes to become the next president; while Castelo Branco allegedly initially hoped to return Brazil to civilian rule in 1965, elections in 1965 changed his mind, and the hard-liners, seeing a chance with Costa e Silva, began mobilizing to assume the presidency. While Castelo Branco and his aides, known as the “moderates” (and including future military president Ernesto Geisel), opposed the move, Castelo Branco himself did little to prevent Costa e Silva’s angling. Indeed, the hard-liners and Costa e Silva entered into a mutually beneficial relationship; he saw in them the way to the presidency, and they saw in him a man who would take a more hard-line stance against “subversion,” especially among university students; indeed, Costa e Silva’s crackdown on students in the early-1960s seemed to be a promising sign to the hard-liners. Though Geisel tried to prevent Costa e Silva’s candidacy, Costa e Silva outranked and outmaneuvered the “moderates” in Castelo Branco’s administration, and in October 1966, the pro-dictatorship Congress indirectly elected Costa e Silva to serve as the country’s next military president. He took office on March 15, 1967.
As president he sought to further strengthen ties to the U.S., appealing to Cold War rhetoric that pitted “democracy” against “subversives.” He also sought to continue the economic policies that had begun under Castelo Branco, pushing for industrial growth, a greater ease of access to credit, and inflation control; under his administration, the foundation was laid for Brazil’s “economic miracle,” which led to over 10% annual growth between 1969 and 1974 but that was built on a foundation of foreign debt that would send the economy spiraling out of control by the end of the 1970s. Costa e Silva also sought to establish a variety of social programs to improve Brazil’s “development” in a number of ways. He reformed the Indian Protection Services, renaming it the National Foundation of the Indian, in order to protect indigenous rights and lands. However, during his administration, the government also created the Indian Rural Guard, which became a key institution in targeting and repressing native communities. In an attempt to expand Brazil’s economy and strengthen its industry so as to appear more “developed” and compete on the global stage, he created the Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica, better known as Embraer, which makes military and commercial planes for the global market (and which was privatized in 1994 as part of neoliberal president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s quest to sell of any and all state-owned companies he could). Education was also a major focus of his administration. In 1967, he created the Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização (Brazilian Literacy Movement; MOBRAL) to address the high illiteracy rates in the country, especially in rural areas. He launched several studies. Perhaps most importantly, he created several study-groups (both foreign and domestic) to examine the Brazilian university system; ultimately, these studies led to the dictatorship’s 1968 university reform. The new reforms, the first comprehensive higher education policy in over 30 years, would transform the university system in Brazil, leading to increasingly privatized universities throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
In spite of these economic and social policies, however, he faced an increasingly turbulent political landscape. As he took office, social mobilization against the regime was on the rise; a gradually-reconstituted National Students Union was increasingly mobilizing against the regime for its repression and its ties to the US through agreements between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Student protests prompted increasingly violent police crackdowns, which only furthered the protest movements. In March of 1968, at one protest, police opened fire, killing high-school student Edson Luís de Lima Souto. Students promptly took his body to the former Chamber of Deputies in Rio de Janeiro, putting it on display and draping it in a Brazilian flag; the funeral for the young man brought thousands to the street, marking an intensification in protests.
From March onward, protests intensified. Artists joined students in the streets, and middle-class parents whose children were often the victims of police violence began to pine for a return to democracy after four years of military rule. In June 1968, 100,000 people marched in Rio de Janeiro in what had been up to that point the largest street protest in Brazilian history. Though the military successfully arrested nearly 900 student-leaders at the failed UNE National Congress in rural São Paulo in October 1968, students continued to mobilize, insisting that the arrest of leadership would not stop them and chanting “UNE is us, our force and our voice” ["A UNE somos nós, nossa força e nossa voz"]. Behind the scenes, the hardliners grew increasingly frustrated and looked for a way to intensify repression and strengthen their control legally.
The excuse for intensified repression came in September 1968. That month, an opposition politician, Márcio Moreira Alves, gave a speech encouraging Brazilian women not to dance with or date members of the military. Though not many civilians paid attention to what became known as the “Lysistrata” speech, the military had a pretext to act. Insisting that their honor had been attacked, the military demanded that Congress strip Moreira Alves of his congressional immunity so that they could prosecute him. In December, Congress, which had been purged to create acquiescence to military demands, refused the military’s demand, voting to allow Moreira Alves to keep his immunity and even singing the national anthem after the vote. The military moved quickly, and on Friday, December 13, Costa e Silva issued Institutional Act No. 5. This act immediately and indefinitely suspended Congress, giving the president even greater authority; it also stripped even more politicians and other civilians of their political rights, prompted a wave of arrests against students, workers, and artists, and ushered in what came to be known as Brazil’s “years of lead,” with heavy repression and the intensified use of torture and state-sponsored murder. Although street confrontations and protests continued into 1969, the new atmosphere of repression ultimately forced many groups underground or into exile by the beginning of 1970s.
Though scholars and military members have debated to what degree Costa e Silva was involved in the crackdown, all generally agree he was sympathetic with the intensified repression. However, as 1969 progressed, his health began to waver under the stress of the job. In late August of 1969, he had a stroke that rendered him ineffective. Unprepared to deal with the crisis, the military leadership kept his condition a secret. His wife, Yolanda, assumed a greater degree of power behind the scenes, something that increasingly rankled many men in his cabinet. At the same time, in the first week of September, student radicals who, like the rest of Brazil, were completely unaware of Costa e Silva’s incapacitated state, kidnapped US ambassador Charles Elbrick, demanding the release of 15 imprisoned colleagues and the reading of their demands on national television and radio in exchange for the ambassador. The timing could not have been worse for the upper echelons of the military regime; with the one clear “leader” paralyzed from a stroke, they were divided over whether to fulfill the students’ demands or to let the ambassador die. Ultimately, the regime met the students’ demands; 15 political prisoners were sent to Mexico (though just barely – members of the air force arrived at the Galeão airport in Rio de Janeiro to stop the departure, but they were too late), and Elbrick was set free. Ultimately, a military junta led by the members of the Army, Air Force, and Navy once again assumed control temporarily, announcing Costa e Silva’s sickness and preparing for the selection of a new president. By the end of October, general Emílio Garrastazu Médici had been selected and “approved” by a briefly-reconvened Congress, and Costa e Silva left office formally.
His time as ex-president would be brief. He never recovered from his stroke, and on December 17, 1969, almost exactly one year after issuing Institutional Act No. 5, Costa e Silva died of a heart attack; like his predecessor, Castelo Branco, he died just a few months after formally leaving office. Though he did not survive to see the long-term effects of his policies, there is little doubt he transformed Brazil, and not for the better. His economic policies created the house of cards that (falsely) indicated success in the first part of the 1970s but that became increasingly illusory in the latter half of the decade. His educational policies often fell short of their goals, and even efforts to rapidly expand the federal university system created new infrastructural problems that needed a second reform in the mid-1970s and led to the increasing privatization of higher education. Perhaps most importantly, his issuance of Institutional Act No. 5 ushered in one of the most repressive eras in Brazil’s history, as the regime tortured thousands, murdered and “disappeared” hundreds, and forced the exile of thousands more between 1969 and 1979. Thus, though Costa e Silva’s presidency was relatively brief, its impact would play out and negatively affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of Brazilians for years to come.