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The Brazilian Truth Commission after One Year

December 3, 2013 Comments off

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

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

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

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

Part. 4 The Use of Torture: 1964-1968

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

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

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

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

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

Around Latin America

June 12, 2013 Comments off

-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.

-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.

-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.

-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.

-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.

-In the wake of an AP report that found that Brazilian car designs facilitate deaths from crashes, Brazil has begun plans to create its first-ever crash test facility.

-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.

-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.

-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”

-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.

-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]

South American Dictatorships in Images

May 17, 2013 1 comment

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

Genocide, Judicial Power, and Justice in Guatemala

March 19, 2013 Comments off

Today, the genocide trial for former Guatemalan leader Efraín Ríos Montt begins (in spite of his failed attempts to have charges dismissed based on an earlier amnesty law). The trial marks the first time a former Latin American leader has been tried not only for human rights violations, but for genocide, as outlined in the findings of Guatemala’s Truth Commission. The charges against Ríos Montt for genocide are thus based on the military’s targeting of indigenous communities between March 1982 and August 1983, when he was in power. Survivors who witnessed the atrocities are set to testify in the case. For those interested, you can follow the trial live here.

The New York Times ran a piece (accompanied by incredible photos) on what the trial says about judicial power in Guatemala.

Guatemala’s justice system has begun a transformation. In a show of political will, prosecutors are taking long-dormant human rights cases to court, armed with evidence that victims and their advocates have painstakingly compiled over more than a decade — as much to bear witness as to bring judgment.

“It’s sending the most important message of the rule of law — that nobody is above the law,” said Claudia Paz y Paz, the attorney general, who many here say has been one of the most important forces behind the change.

Certainly, it’s good to see the courts acting, and the fact that the military obeyed a court order to turn over documents in 2009 is an important step in respecting institutional authority. However, this only comes after nearly three years of judicial inaction. Ríos Montt did not just remain free for 30 years because of his own personal power or even his ability to count on political immunity as a congressman. For far too long, too many people in positions of power were willing to look the other way on his crimes. This option of inaction was not even limited to the court system; it also counted on “elite complicity, and political immunity,” as Kate Doyle put it.

In that context, it’s understandable why so many civilians also remained silent for years. This isn’t a case of blaming the victims for the slowness of Ríos Montt’s trial; it’s a damning reminder of the long-term impacts of military regimes that violate human rights with impunity (and often with the support, tacit or explicit, of the US). As scholarship on military repression and human rights violations in Latin America and beyond has demonstrated, the scars of military regimes long outlast the governments themselves. The arbitrary use of violence and torture, the disappearing of victims, the ongoing power of post-dictatorship militaries behind the scenes, and the physical markers of death on the landscape all create conditions in which many people fear speaking out, even in times of peace. Daniel Wilkinson’s Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala cuts right to the heart of this imposed silence. And while hundreds of thousands of victims will never be able to speak out, now that the Guatemalan judiciary, the legal system, and the military itself have moved beyond forgetting and begun to address the past, those who for so many years feared and remained silent will now finally have their chance to speak directly to the justice system.

In that regard, the story is simultaneously a story of historical institutional failures and justice through institutional transformation and autonomy. And yet, it’s only occurring 30 years later, reminding us that fear of the brutal and senseless violence of military regimes does not die quickly.

 

Around Latin America

March 18, 2013 Comments off

-While many in the Americas celebrated the announcement of the first American pope last year, not all citizens (including Catholic clergy) in Francis I’s home country are pleased with Bergoglio or the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina.

-It appears the long national mourning of Hugo Chávez may have hindered plans to embalm the late Venezuelan president.

- José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, the first economics minister of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, has died at 87. In a pattern that was not uncommon throughout the region, Martínez de Hoz garnered praise in the international community at the time for his imposition of neoliberal policies (policies that ultimately led to deindustrialization and privatization in Argentina), but whose imposition of such policies was accompanied by crackdowns on labor, repression, and human rights violations.

-In Brazil, former soccer player and current politician Romário is calling on Brazil’s Truth Commission to investigate Brazilian Football Confederation official Jose Maria Marin for his possible role in the murder of journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1977 during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Meanwhile, in another reminder of how broken Brazil’s legislative branch is, evangelical minister and congressman Marco Feliciano, who has openly made racist and homophobic comments in the past, was chosen to head Congress’s Human Rights Commission.

-Several Nobel Peace Prize winners recently wrote in support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organization that had been under criticism from member countries recently.

-It’s been more than 40 years since the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years, and activists, scholars, and others are calling on the Dominican government to form a truth commission to fully investigate and officially address the regime’s brutality (including the murder of 25,000 Haitians in 1937 alone).

-Speaking of Truth Commissions, last week marked the 20th anniversary of El Salvador’s Truth Commission; Tim has a nice summary of its findings.

-The US military has acknowledged that prisoners at Guantanmo are on a hunger strike, though it denied that the strike was “widespread.”

-The trial of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier for human rights abuses continues, and the defense seems to be struggling a bit. Duvalier’s attorneys asked one witness if she may have been arrested by mistake, her reply? “If I was arrested by mistake, I was imprisoned by mistake and forced into exile by mistake.”

-Activists in Argentina are pushing for judicial reform to make the system more transparent and “democratic.”-Guyana’s Parliament rejected a law that would have made it illegal to carry disassembled gun parts into the country, a law designed to reduce gun smuggling and gun violence in the country.

-Great Britain’s plan to require Brazilian tourists to acquire travel visas on hold for now.

-Finally, IPS had a fascinating story on how indigenous women in Chile are helping bring solar energy and clean energy into communities in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet.

History vs. Fiction? Gael vs. Chile? Memory Struggles over the Film “No”

February 10, 2013 Comments off

As an historian, I’m never all that surprised when fictional films don’t live up to historical reality. So I wasn’t shocked when the film No, which tells a story about the media side of the No campaign in the 1988 plebiscite in Chile, did not give credit to the social movements of the 1980s, but instead practically argued that the media shifted dictator Augusto Pinochet out of power.

Needless to say, many human rights activists and the left in Chile range on a scale from disgruntled to outrage regarding the movie. And yet some people who are active in leftist politics have recommended the film to me. It came out in Chilean theaters last September, near the anniversary of the golpe de estado. Now that it has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, discussion has started again over the film’s significance and its validity as part of Chile’s collective memory of the dictatorship.

I would argue that, at root, rather than the issue of blockbuster films distorting history, the struggle for space in collective memory is the fire that has been ignited here. The two problems are intertwined: whose version of history is more important, which narrative takes precedence, which story is the one people will remember—that is what is being debated.

Many people who have taken offense to the film participated in the social and political movements in the 1980s that led to Pinochet’s loss in the 1988 plebiscite. Afterward, during the transition to democracy, the catchphrase from the campaign, which is the feature of the movie—“la alegría ya viene (happiness is coming)—did not come true for activists. Pinochet and the military oversaw the transition, he made himself senator for life, his constitution remains in effect today (albeit with some amendments), most torturers and killers did not receive punishment, and neoliberal policies remained. State socialism did not return full-force as the left had hoped.

In that context, the activists and sympathizers who have spoken against the film feel as though, with this successful movie starring heartthrob Gael García Bernal, they are once again being marginalized from the narrative. They’re frustrated. And that’s understandable, considering that we live in an age in which the general public relies far too much on movies and television for their education, rather than cracking open a real history book.

But if you really want to watch films that don’t mess up the history of the Pinochet dictatorship, check out any of Patricio Guzman’s documentaries. If you want to see Gael García Bernal’s face for a couple of hours, and watch an entertaining work of historical fiction, check out No. But do remember that it’s historical fiction, and its purpose isn’t to tell the story of the social movements that actually did bring down Pinochet. For that story, you’ll actually need some bona-fide history.

Argentina, Israel, and Misguided Hyperbole

January 31, 2013 Comments off

Israel may have legitimate reasons to dislike the agreement between Iran and Argentina to establish a Truth Commission to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association. However, this is ridiculous:

Israel has strongly criticised Argentina for its decision to work with Iran to investigate a 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires. [...] an Israeli spokesman said the move was tantamount to “inviting a murderer to investigate his own killings”.

This kind of hyperbole is useless to the point of being offensive. The bombers themselves are not being appointed to investigate the bombing – five independent judges are. And does Israel really think the investigation will hinder the investigation? On what basis? Has the lack of a Truth Commission helped to lead to the arrest and prosecution of those tied to the murders in the last nineteen years?  The answer is patently “no.” Creating a Truth Commission that can finally have access to and question possible suspects seems far more likely to lead to concrete conclusions on the bombing than anything that has taken place in the last nineteen years.

Again, Israel may have legitimate concerns over the agreement to form a Truth Commission, but these aren’t those objections. Instead, rather than supporting an effort to end impunity for people who murdered Jewish people in other parts of the world, Israel has apparently opted to express anger over a country signing any type of agreement with Iran, even one that seeks to address past injustices.

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