Jorge Videla, the first military leader of Argentina’s military dictatorship who governed for five of the regime’s seven years, has apparently called for the Argentine military to arm itself for an overthrow of the government.
To repeat: the man who for five of seven years led a brutal authoritarian regime that oversaw the murder of upwards of 30,000 of its own citizens, the “disappearance” of thousands, the torture of tens of thousands, and the kidnapping of at least 500 victims’ children, wants the military to prepare itself for the possibility of doing it again.
Of course, Videla is in prison until he dies, leaving only for ongoing trials that continue to find him guilty of manifold human rights violations. That he finally faced justice for his role in the regime hopefully serves as a deterrent to any current military officials actually entertaining such possibilities. Videla’s guilt and his admission to his regime’s repression have already rendered him a villain of Argentine history to many; the fact that he continues to believe that the use of force to overthrow democratically-elected governments is appropriate only serves as another reminder of his truly reprehensible attitudes towards civilians, democracy, and Argentina itself.
One hundred years ago today, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, the Decena Trágica, or “Tragic 10 Days,” began in Mexico City. By its end, over 5000 Mexicans were dead in urban violence, and, with support from the US, General Victoriano Huerta had overthrown the first president of the Revolution, Francisco Madero, who Huerta had assassinated on February 22, 1913.
The Decena Trágica marked the first time that Mexico City itself confronted significant urban violence during the Mexican Revolution. Up to that point, the violence of the revolution, which began in 1910 when peasants, middle-class politicians, urban laborers, and others rose up against Porfírio Díaz (who had governed in one form or another since 1876), had been limited to the northern part of the country and to individual states like Morelos. By 1911, Díaz was in exile, and Francisco Madero, a ranch owner from a wealthy family, had assumed the presidency. While Madero had become the face of the revolution in the election of 1910, social forces proved to be far beyond his control. Peasant calls for land reform, symbolized by the efforts of Emiliano Zapata, were too extreme to Madero’s liking; likewise, his slowness to move on urban labor reform alienated the working classes in industrial centers. While Madero enjoyed some middle-class support, by 1912, Mexican politics and society were increasingly divided, as different forces jostled for power within the government or plotted to take over themselves. Up until early 1913, the population living outside of the capital had felt most of this violence. But in February 1913, the unrest and turmoil finally arrived in Mexico City itself.
Angry at his uncle’s removal, Félix Díaz, assembled an army in Veracruz. Counterrevolutionary in nature, Díaz was able to quickly gain the allegiance and moral support from those who did not want to see Porfírio Díaz go. Díaz joined forces with General Bernardo Reyes, who had run against Madero for the vacant presidency in 1911 and lost, and launched an assault on the capital on February 9, 1913. The assault failed to take the presidential palace, however, and Reyes died in the fighting. Failing to immediately overthrow Madero, Díaz relocated his troops to a well fortified arsenal in another part of the city. Needing a strong military leader to counter the rebels, Madero, against the advice of many of his confidants, appointed Victoriano Huerta to head the army.
For ten days, Madero’s supporters and Díaz’s supporters exchanged artillery fire. The damage to the city was catastrophic, as it set fires, destroyed buildings, and killed thousands of civilians. Businesses shut down, and consumer goods became scarce, leading to increasing panic among the public. As a result, people resorted to looting. At the same time, the urban warfare severed electric wires, which dangled loosely throughout the city and left many without power. The situation was so violent and chaotic that, in one instance, a barrage of artillery actually blew a hole in the walls of the Belén prison; seeing how dangerous and anarchic conditions outside were, some of the prisoners opted to remain in jail, where they felt it was safer.
As time progressed, Madero grew increasingly frustrated with Huerta, asking his general what had been taking so long. Huerta assured his president that it would all be over soon. Unbeknownst to Madero, Huerta was tragically correct. Ever since the Revolution had begun US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson had meddled in Mexico’s internal affairs in order to protect American economic interests, even demanding Madero resign at one point. With Díaz’s failed coup attempt, Wilson brought together Díaz and Huerta to try to find an alternative to the Madero government. Seeing Díaz as weak and easily-manipulable, Huerta decided to work with Wilson and Díaz, and entered what came to be known as the Pact of the Embassy. In meetings at the US embassy, Huerta agreed to switch sides and help Díaz overthrow Madero. Thus, on February 19, Huerta had Madero arrested. Three days later, Huerta had Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez, assassinated, bringing an end to what many scholars consider the first phase of the Mexican Revolution. In the meantime, well over 5000 people had died in the urban fighting and violence.
Of course, Huerta himself was not long for office. Henry Lane Wilson had acted in the last days of the Taft administration; a month later, Woodrow Wilson [no relation to Taft's ambassador] was in office, and was opposed to Huerta’s regime. Using the arrest of lost US sailors as a pretext, president Wilson would order the United States to occupy the harbor city of Veracruz in 1914; the move weakened Huerta’s government, even as Constitutionalist forces led by Venustiano Carranza and the armies of Emiliano Zapata and Francisco “Pancho” Villa challenged Huerta’s government from within. By the end of 1914, Huerta himself was out of office, and for the next six years, the revolution was marked by civil wars at the national and regional levels as various groups and interests jostled for power. Indeed, although traditional political narratives view 1920 as the “end” of the Mexican Revolution, much of the political and social unrest and issues it unleashed continued into the 1920s. Nonetheless, February 9, 1913 marked an important moment in the Revolution, as it unleashed the processes that ultimately led to Madero’s overthrow and changed the dynamics of revolutionary politics and violence in Mexico. The Decena Trágica marked one of the first times Mexico City directly experienced the turmoil and violence of the Revolution, but it would not be the last.
Well, the Honduran election just got a little more interesting:
Former Honduran armed forces chief Romeo Vasquez, who in 2009 led the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, on Sunday launched a presidential campaign, saying he will restore order and security to the troubled Central American country.
Vasquez, who until now has been running the country’s phone company, will stand as a candidate for the right-leaning opposition Patriotic Alliance party in the elections in November, he said at an event in the Honduran capital.
“We will fight hard to bring order and security to this country, combating corruption and impunity so we can attract jobs and investment,” he told journalists. [...]
In the election, Vasquez will face the wife of Zelaya, Xiomara Castro, a candidate for the leftist Liberty and Refoundation party.
Glibness aside, there’s sadly little in this news that’s surprising, from the generic, boilerplate slogans of combating corruption and attracting investment to the impunity for individuals who led what was, by Honduras’s own admission, a coup. The fact that military members can act outside of their constitutional authority is nothing new, of course, but it speaks to the ongoing challenges democracy faces in Central American countries like Honduras. One can hope that Honduras won’t elect a man whose very actions helped establish the escalating violence that has led to Honduras having the highest murder rate in the world. Unfortunately, one of the many depressing history lessons from Central America is that the political and military elites in the region rarely face the consequences of or face justice for their actions. The fact that Vasquez is even able to run for office after the events of 2009 is yet another reminder of that fact.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has created a bit of a stir after claiming yesterday that there is a conspiracy to launch a coup and overthrow him. Of course, this isn’t the first time Lobo has made such claims – back in 2010, he also hinted at vague allegations of a possible plot to overthrow him. And of course, it’s no small irony that Lobo himself took office after elections held to replace overthrown president Manuel Zelaya, whom the military and conservatives overthrew in a coup in 2009 when he attempted to hold a plebiscite on potential constitutional reforms, throwing the country into political turmoil and fundamentally transforming it in unintended but damaging ways in the long term.
A few quick thoughts. First, it’s tough to say whether or not there’s any substance to these rumors. The fact that it’s not the first time Lobo has made such claims without offering much in the way of evidence to support them could certainly lead to some doubts about the allegations. At the same time, though, it’s not like segments of the political and/or economic elites have hesitated to overthrow presidents in the face of international opposition, as the 2009 coup reminds us. As for why Lobo would make such claims, that’s equally uncertain: on the one hand, the claims could be legitimate, but on the other hand, it could be an attempt to strengthen his own position and isolate his opposition. As even a basic understanding of Latin American politics in the 20th century reveals, the allegation mysterious plots to solidify one’s own control over the country has been a tried and true method for politicians throughout the region in the past, and that could be what we’re seeing here in a country with an executive branch that was greatly weakened in the wake of the 2009 coup.
It’s also interesting that he made the claim while addressing a military group. The military played a key role in overthrowing Zelaya in 2009 (though several of its leaders escaped prosecution). Lobo may be trying to ensure that he has the support of at least a not-insubstantial part of the armed forces. Again, historically, politicians have often turned to the military for support in order to remain in power, creating an uncertain political terrain that gives the military a more direct role in national politics and turning the armed forces into another political agent rather than a less partisan and independent institution. The timing and audience of Lobo’s latest allegations does not seem like an accident; indeed, he may be using such threats, real or perceived, to try to gain greater institutional support from the Honduran military. For what purpose remains unclear, but it will be worth watching to see what, if anything, comes out of these latest allegations in Honduras.
Last September 11, Chile marked the thirty-eighth anniversary of the military coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in a 17-year military dictatorship that oversaw the murder of over 3,000 Chilean citizens and the torture of tens of thousands more. As transforming as that coup was, it was not the first time that the military made an attempt on Allende. Greg Weeks points us to this interview with a retired Air Force officer who alerted Allende of a plan to assassinate him in 1970, shortly after he was elected president. For foiling the early assassination/coup plot, Captain Jorge Silva was imprisoned after the 1973 coup, where he was tortured alongside others, including General Alberto Bachelet, who ultimately died under torture and whose daughter Michelle served as president from 2006 to 2010.
As mentioned late yesterday, Paraguay’s Senate had voted to remove President Fernando Lugo from office barely 24 hours after the Chamber of Deputies had brought forth articles of impeachment. Although Lugo had originally appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the impeachment was unconstitutional as he had not been given due process and time to adequately prepare his defense, after the Senate’s ruling, Lugo said he would respect the decision, and Vice-President Federico Franco assumed the office of the Presidency. Many people in Paraguay were understandably outraged; Lugo had in particular championed for the rights of and equality for the landless and the poor, positions that ultimately played no small role in his impeachment. There were clashes in the streets through the night, as police used tear gas and water cannons against those who protested the removal of the democratically-elected president. (AS/COA has a great roundup on the events and of some of the long-term causes behind Congress’s sudden impeachment.) Meanwhile, the region quickly condemned the Congress’s actions, and Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Venezuela have already announced they will not recognize the new government, while it is unclear as yet what position the United States will take. Suffice to say, the removal of Lugo from office more than a year before the next president is scheduled to take office has thrown the country in turmoil, to say nothing of the sudden exertion of authority from Paraguay’s Congress.
All of that said, in the immediate fallout of the impeachment, the question has emerged: Was the impeachment effectively a coup?
Some say yes. Twitter was abuzz with the word “coup” last night, with some even saying Paraguay shows the Honduras coup having hemispheric impact. I don’r really buy that latter argument – in Honduras, the military forced President Manuel Zelaya out of the country at gunpoint and then had Congress and the Supreme Court retroactively legalize the action; even the internal Truth Commission’s investigation in Honduras ruled that Zelaya’s removal was a coup. By contrast, in Paraguay, the military sat on the sidelines awaiting the results, and Lugo was not forcefully exiled out of the country. However, that does not mean it wasn’t a coup. Beyond Twitter comments and speculations, Brazilian magazine Carta Capital made a more compelling case that it was a coup, in that Congress undid the will of a plurality of electors and undermined the very basic operations of politics and political power in presidential models.
Others are more circumspect, with Boz arguing it technically isn’t a coup, as Congress followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the impeachment law. Technically, that is true – Congress did not once waver from the process of impeachment as outlined in the Constitution. However, Lugo did not do anything unconstitutional (as the Paraguayan constitution defines executive powers), so while the impeachment was technically legal, the motivations behind his removal were clearly partisan and not based on any real constitutional violations of powers. That Congress can now remove a president in just over 24 hours reveals there are some gaping loopholes in that law as it’s currently defined.
Additionally, as I said yesterday, the impeachment has revealed a true institutional threat to electoral politics and checks and balances in Paraguay; if Congress can remove somebody they do not like that quickly, it not only undermines the people’s power in choosing their presidents; it also undermines the power of the president himself, at least greatly reducing (if not eliminating) the checks and balances that are constitutionally supposed to define the dynamics of power between the Paraguayan President and Congress. The fact that this impeachment was successful simultaneously establishes the precedent for Congress to annul the people’s choice for president and grants Congress considerable power over the President.
So….was it a coup? I’m inclined to say “no” – at least, not in the traditional sense, generally associated with the overthrows of democratically elected governments that took place in Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, or even Honduras in 2009, to give just a few examples. However, I think the idea of an “internal coup” here might also be useful. While we tend to refer to military regimes as monolithic, unified, monodimensional entities, scholars of military dictatorships often point out that military regimes themselves are full of competing and differing voices, and that the power struggles and dynamics of dictatorships are not just a case of a repressive state over dissenters, but also military officials and their allies jockeying for power behind the scenes. There are numerous examples of these types of power struggles – Pinochet’s marginalization of the commanders of the other armed forces in Chile after 1973 is a good example. However, these power struggles could and did lead to what are known as “internal coups,” in which one faction effectively maneuvered (again, usually behind the scenes) to remove their opposition.
Brazil’s military dictatorship is a particularly useful case in understanding these processes. The so-called “moderate” wing of the military governed from 1964-1967 [though it still employed torture, censorship, manipulation of laws, removal of political rights, etc.]. However, in 1967, the “hard-liners” took over and governed until 1974. In 1968, as street protests and opposition increased, the hard-liners used an incidental speech from Congressman Marcio Moreira Alves to usher in the most repressive phase of the dictatorship, in what came to be known as the “coup within the coup,” or, put another way, an “internal coup” that fundamentally shifted the direction of the dictatorship. when “moderate” Ernesto Geisel became president. By 1977, the hard-liners were concerned about Brazil’s gradual return to democracy as Geisel had envisioned it, and some armed forces, led by Army Minister Silvio Frota, planned a revolt that would overthrow Geisel and return the hard-liners to power – thus, an “internal coup.” However, Geisel managed to outmaneuver Frota, ultimately preventing the planned internal coup and removing Frota from office, preventing the hardliners’ internal coup from removing the moderate wing, and Geisel and his hand-picked successor, João Figueiredo, governed Brazil until the end of the military regime in 1985.
While Paraguay is certainly not a military dictatorship, I think the institutional dynamics of Brazil’s internal coups, which were simultaneously legal from a technical perspective but had the express intent of removing those in command at the time, provides a useful means to understand what happened in Paraguay. Indeed, I think what we’re seeing in the case of Paraguay is what an “internal coup” looks like in democratic (but still elite-dominated) politics in Latin America in the early-21st century.
Certainly, I could be convinced otherwise – these are just early observations on a process that will play out across the following months and even years – but I think understanding this as an example of how an internal removal of an elected official over partisanship can occur in a democratic system is useful, as it also allowing for an understanding that, even if Congress technically did not violate the constitution, neither did Lugo; Congress simply used the vagueness in its constitutionally-defined power to impeach to overthrow a man whose (legal) policies it did not like – an “internal coup” in democratic Paraguay.
It is no secret that there has been a lot of economic turmoil in the hemisphere (and the world) in the last few years, and as a result, we’ve seen a growing number of protests and social movements emerging that challenge the current socio-economic structure and the concentration of power in the hands of the few. As a result, a wave of protests have erupted throughout the Americas in the last couple of years, from student protests for educational reform and economic changes in Chile to the Occupy movement that erupted in the US and spread to other countries in Latin America and other parts of the world.
While the US media stopped paying attention to the ongoing Occupy movement a long time ago and never really paid more than perfunctory attention to protests in other parts of the Western Hemisphere, that does not mean they have gone away; indeed, from the northern to the southern tip of the Americas, people continue to take to the streets to express their anger and dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in the political and economic climate of the early-21st century and to demand change. A couple of weeks ago, students in Montreal began to protest the conservative government’s use of austerity measures and the increasing privatization of education, with all of the fiscal burdens that puts on students, just as their Chilean counterparts have done over the past year. Meanwhile, in Argentina, some groups have begun to mobilize against the economic slowdown and rising inflation that has begun to emerge.
Although they are virtually two continents apart, the protesters in Montreal and Buenos Aires share much in common, especially in what many perceive as an increasingly uncertain economic future for the middle classes. However, there is another feature they share in common:
Pots and pans.
When the protesters in both Montreal and Argentina took to the streets, they brought with them pots and pans, banging on them to make noise, a tactic that simultaneously made their presence harder to ignore (by the sheer noise it created) and while it also symbolized the increasing economic uncertainty, with the empty pots implicitly suggesting empty plates on the table, even as powerful business leaders and politicians continue to implement policies that benefit the few over the many. Thus, in one of the most basic utensils for cooking, these protesters have found a potent symbol to express the struggles they feel they face daily.
However, this tactic is not particularly new. Indeed, as far back as the 1960s, protesters in Latin America were using pots and pans to protest their governments. Ironically, though, it was not progressives or leftists angry at their government who first used the tactic; it was conservatives, church leaders, and housewives who turned to pots and pans as symbols of their anger with their then-progressive governments.
The most famous instances of the use of pots and pans came in Chile in the early-1970s. Although socialist president Salvador Allende had won the 1970 presidential elections, he did not receive a majority of the vote (there were three candidates in the 1970s election who split the decision). In the context of Cold War politics in Latin America, the right saw this as nothing less than the first step towards a Communist dictatorship, and by 1971, they were taking to the streets to protest shortages in foodstuffs and other consumer goods (shortages that were spurred in no small part by conservative entrepreneurs and businessmen who withheld goods in an attempt to destabilize the economy under Allende). To symbolize the lack of food available and the growing black market, women took empty pots, or “cacerolas” in Spanish, and beat on them to symbolize their struggles. So it was that the “cacerolazo” (literally, “hitting pots”) form of protest became one of the most common and powerful symbols of conservative protests against the Allende government, and they continued up well into 1973.
And even those Chilean protests were not the first of their kind. In early 1964, Brazil became increasingly polarized even while inflation increased. When president João Goulart moved toward the left and called for agrarian, electoral, and educational reform in March of that year, hundreds of thousands of women, conservatives, and church leaders protested against the government in the cumbersomely-named “March of the Family with God for Liberty.” While awkwardly named, the protest made clear exactly what the protesters, including many from the middle class and what they (implicitly) believed the government was against: family, God, liberty. By the end of the month, the Brazilian military, encouraged by the popular mobilizations against the government, rose up and overthrew Goulart, establishing a twenty-one year military dictatorship. Although the use of pots and pans was nowhere near as dominant as it would be in Chile 7 years later, Brazilian women’s rhetoric that claimed governmental economic policies were destroying people’s ability to put food on their tables was an important part of the protests.
In this way, Brazil’s 1964 protests were a harbinger for the similarly-conservative protests against the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende in Chile in the early-1970s. And as was the case in Brazil, these popular protests in Chile ultimately played no small role in convincing the military leaders, including Augusto Pinochet, that they had the support of a significant portion of the civilian population when they launched their own coup that set up Chile’s own brutal, repressive right-wing dictatorship.
While these conservative protests brought an end to the progressive democratic governments and ushered in right-wing dictatorships, the tactic would not disappear. In 1984, as Brazil gradually returned to democracy, millions of Brazilians took to the streets in the Diretas Já movement to demand direct elections in the 1985 presidential election. These protests, which were the largest in Brazil’s history, saw the return of pots and pans, this time not from conservatives protesting a progressive government, but from broad sectors of society demanding direct participation in their return to democracy. Although the movement fell short and Brazilians would only participate in direct presidential elections in 1989, the use of pots and pans was again a powerful symbol and instrument of protest, one Chico Buarque even commemorated in a song about the Diretas Já movement (of which he was a major participant). And as Chileans grew increasingly resistant to the repressive tactics and lack of democracy in Chile in the 1980s, they too turned to pots and pans to protest against the government, just as they had in the 1970s; however, this time, the target was not a democratically-elected leftist leader, but a right-wing military dictator. The ideologies had changed, but the methods of resistance and protest had proven to be remarkably adaptable. Indeed, in Argentina in 2001, as the full effect of neoliberal policies became apparent, with devaluation, inflation, and a freezing of bank accounts, Argentines used the pots and pans to protest against the austerity measures and fiscal policies that had begun under Carlos Menem in the 1990s.
In this way, then, the use of pots and pans has proven to be a remarkably adaptable and effective tool for protest for both the left and the right. And so it is that while Montreal becomes the new site of the latest wave of protests against economic conditions, the methods they turn to have their roots in Latin America in the 1960s, revealing the ways in which social movements of the past continue to impact and shape those of the present.
A few days ago there was a story that pointed to how the ongoing investigations into human rights abuses during Argentina’s had led to revelations of economic abuses during the 1976-1983 “Dirty War.” Basically, the investigations have revealed that hundreds of people who were prosperous before the military regime lost their property and finances to corrupt and/or greedy military officials. Of particular importance is the case of Alejandro Iaccarino, who is the first to sue for reparations. Iaccarino had been a dairy businessman before armed forces kidnapped him and his brothers “with the sole aim of taking over everything we owned.” While Iaccarino’s experience is the first to go to trial (most likely before the year is out), his is not an isolated example, as other business owners also lost their possessions during the military regime. Last year, the Inter-American Human Rights Court received the case of a family who lost its businesses in agriculture, and another case is expected to also arrive in Argentine courts this year.
However, the economic elite were not just “victims;” as the article points out, many other conservative business leaders directly supported and aided the military regime. This is not surprising in the context, as business leaders not just in Argentina but in Chile, Brazil, and elsewhere, were direct participants in the ideological struggles of the Cold War, seeing “dictatorship” and threats to their way of life in the language and goals of leftist politicians and movements; when right-wing authoritarian regimes like those in Brazil (1964-1985) and Chile (1973-1990) emerged, they were direct responses to a growing leftism in the region, and militaries often took power with the tacit or direct aid of members of the middle classes and business elites.
And Argentina is not the sole case of right-wing authoritarian regimes in Latin America committing economic abuses in addition to their violations of basic human rights. Indeed, even while indictments for human rights violations continued to mount against Augusto Pinochet in the late-1990s and early-2000s, so too did the extent of his economic abuses emerge. For many Chileans who continued to support the ex-dictator as the twentieth-century closed, viewing him as somebody who “saved” Chile from a leftist “dictatorship” or anarchy, the emerging details of money-laundering and personal enrichment of upwards of $77 million dollars from a soldier who had declared himself “selflessly” devoted to Chile was the last straw, and when Pinochet died in 2006, he had far fewer supporters than he had had only eight years earlier when he was first arrested in London. As Steve Stern has argued, while the human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime definitely captured the attention of the world and fueled the efforts to punish the dictator and other military officials responsible for human rights abuses, the allegations and emerging details of corruption, embezzlement, and money-laundering played no small part in also transforming the ways in which Chileans remembered the Pinochet dictatorship and viewed Pinochet himself. While the details of economic abuses during Argentina’s military regime that are now emerging are a new wrinkle in how scholars and activists consider Argentina’s dictatorship, the belief that economic abuses occurred under military rule should not be surprising.
Curiously, I’ve not seen anything (either in the archives or in the scholarship) that suggests that the Brazilian military participated in this process in nearly the way that occurred in both Chile and, as is becoming increasingly apparent, in Argentina. The reasons could be several: the context and contours of military governments in each of the countries (compared to the personalist regimes of Pinochet and, to a lesser extent, the junta system in Argentina, Brazil’s regime had five presidents across its 21 years and had not-insignificant factionalization within the armed forces during military rule); the economic elites’ support of the Brazilian dictatorship, sometimes well into the 1980s, when inflation rates were north of 100% for the first time since the military coup*; the (ultimately illusory) steady growth of 10% per year in Brazil between 1968 and 1974, which led to increased popularity for the regime among multiple socio-economic sectors in Brazil; or any other number of reasons.
*This increase in inflation in the early-1980s fueled opposition to the regime and shaped the road to democratization in 1985 and beyond. The fact that people mobilized against the military dictatorship because of high inflation was more than a little ironic: when the military overthrew leftist president João Goulart in 1964, military leaders claimed the coup was necessary as inflation had gone over 100% under Goulart. Seventeen years later, the reason that the military had used to legitimize its rule became the same reason white-collar workers increasingly mobilized against the regime.
To be clear, that’s not to say that similar abuses did not take place during Brazil’s military regime, and some military officers did get wealthier simply by taking advantage of governing the country, even if it was legal; after all, general Ernesto Geisel was appointed head of Petrobras before becoming president, a position that could not have hurt his pocketbook. And perhaps as Brazil begins to investigate its own past, evidence of economic abuse will emerge alongside accounts of human rights abuses, as it has in Argentina. Up to now, though, Brazil’s regime continues to offer a fascinating study in differences from some of its Spanish American counterparts, even while it directly collaborated with them in tracking down, torturing, and murdering leftists in South America.
No matter what the outcome is for Brazil, though, as the cases of both Chile and now Argentina remind us, the effects and legacies of authoritarian military regimes goes well beyond the question of basic human rights and are felt throughout all of society, not just the regimes’ opponents, and new discoveries on their actions and policies beyond the use of torture and “disappearing” continue to shape how we study, think about, and remember such regimes in the twenty-first century.
Last August, progressive senator Cristovam Buarque penned an editorial declaring that “The Whole World Is Mad, But Brazil Has Lost Its Capacity for Indignation.” He’s right, but not for the reasons he suggests. He declares that the failure to mobilize against corruption in Brazil is proof that Brazilians have lost their ability for indignation. While corruption is a not-insignificant issue, it seems that the daily use of torture and violation of human rights against poor Brazilians, especially in favelas, should be the thing that leaves Brazilians indignant. As the 2011 report on Brazil from Human Rights Watch puts it, “torture remains a serious problem”:
The use of torture is a chronic problem within the penitentiary system. A report by the multiparty National Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on the Penitentiary System concluded that the national detention system is plagued by “physical and psychological torture.” In one case from Goias, the Commission received evidence that the National Security Force subjected female detainees to kicks and electric shocks, stepped on the abdomen of a pregnant woman, and forced another woman to strip naked. A 2010 report by the Pastoral Prison Commission found that these problems continue. [...]
There were also continued reports of substandard conditions at Rio de Janeiro’s juvenile detention centers run by the General Department of Socio-Educational Measures (DEGASE). In 2010, 44 DEGASE agents were charged with participating in a torture session in 2008 that resulted in the death of one juvenile and left another 20 injured.
This of course is not a major surprise. The military government of 1964-1985 regularly used torture against thousands of victims, a process that is well-chronicled in the Brazil: Nunca Mais (“Brazil: Never Again) report, translated in English as Torture in Brazil. However, the social practice of torture in Brazil goes back much further; as Thomas Skidmore suggested, torture in the 20th century had its origins in the violence and abuse against slaves during the colonial era. Indeed, the military’s use of the pau de arara, or “parrot’s perch,” drew directly from a mechanism overseers used against slaves.
Just as the military’s use of torture had its roots in colonial slavery, today’s ongoing use of torture, especially in the favelas and in prisons in Brazil, has its roots in the military regime. Unlike Chile and Argentina, Brazil never officially confronted the crimes and legacies of the military regime that murdered and “disappeared” hundreds and tortured thousands. In the particular contexts of Brazilian democratization in the late-1970s and early-1980s, the country opted to “forget” its past and “move on” rather than focus on its authoritarian past. The result was that those who tortured were never punished (or even officially acknowledged). Even the recently-established Brazilian Truth Commission lacks the power to punish, instead only having the authority to investigate and detail the crimes of the military regime, and even then, the military is proving recalcitrant in surrendering documents pertaining to torture and human rights abuse even twenty-seven years after the military regime exited office (and forty-eight years since the 1964 coup that ushered in the 21-year authoritarian regime). All of these factors have combined to set a pattern in which military police could act with impunity in terms of human rights.
Corruption certainly is a problem in Brazil, and it’s certainly not a question of “either/or” in terms of cracking down on and eliminating corruption and torture. But it speaks volumes that even Buarque claimed that corruption, and not the ongoing use of torture, was what Brazilians should be indignant over, and is another reminder of the ways even progressive leaders in Brazil overlook the use of torture in both the present and the past.