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.
Forty-five years ago today, Mexican police and armed forces killed hundreds of unarmed, peaceful protestors.
-Yesterday, Chile marked the fortieth anniversary of the coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and ushered in the 17-year military dictatorship that killed over 3000 people and tortured tens of thousands. Even while the date was commemorated, the search for justice for some continues. Family members of murdered folk singer Victor Jara, whose hands the military cut off before killing him in 1973, have sued an officer tied to the murder who now lives in Florida, while former friends and colleagues of US journalist Charles Horman demand an investigation into his own death in Chile shortly after the coup (a story that was portrayed in Costa Gavras’s 1982 film Missing).
-Of course, Chile is not the only country continuing to pursue justice decades after the rise of right-wing military regimes. It recently extradited judge Otilio Romano to Argentina, where Romano is wanted for his role in cases of torture, disappearances, and other crimes.
-In the wake of wire-tapping scandals that revealed the US spied on Mexico and Brazil, the Obama administration has begun trying to patch up its relationship with Brazil in the wake of the revelations (and as President Dilma Rousseff weighs whether or not to cancel a planned state visit to the US in October).
-Thousands of teachers in Mexico continue to take to the streets in protest of a new educational law that would create mandatory evaluations, reforms they say erode labor rights.
-As Cuban doctors continue to travel to Brazil to help with medical care in the country (one of the many issues raised in massive protests throughout Brazil in June this year) and even enjoy the support of a majority of Brazilians, that has not stopped them from facing racism from some Brazilians, including Brazilian doctors who oppose the Cuban doctors’ presence, a powerful reminder of the ways racism operates within and in between Latin American countries.
-Another former Guatemalan guerrilla is set to face trial for his role in killings during the civil war that left 250,000 Guatemalans dead or missing, providing another reminder that the court system in Guatemala has gone after more than just military human rights violators.
-Brazilian prosecutors have launched an effort to prevent Canadian mining company Belo Sun mining from creating an open-pit mine in the Amazonian basin, arguing such a project will devastate indigenous communities and the environment.
In another episode of the impact of total bans on abortion in Latin America, an 11-year-old girl was raped by her mother’s partner repeatedly over the course of two years, finally resulting in a pregnancy that doctors say puts the life of both the girl, who is still growing, and the fetus at risk. However, thanks to a total ban on abortions in Chile, the 11-year-old girl will have to carry the pregnancy to term, even if it kills her or/and the baby. Facing this reality, the 11-year-old has said she will give birth (an obvious choice, since a medically viable alternative is illegal in Chile), and President Sebastián Piñera praised the girl’s “maturity” for her choice [or "choice" - for how can one really choose if there are no other options available]. It seems not-unfair to suspect that an 11-year-old does not have a full grasp of the situation of pregnancy, but thanks to Chilean law, there is no legal alternative for her. And why is that the case?
Because Pinochet completely criminalized abortion in all cases, and lawyers have failed to change the law since then. And so, a young girl born 12 years after Pinochet’s regime fell and 4 years after he was first arrested in London is denied a choice for her future thanks to a dictatorship she never even saw.
…[update] Meanwhile, presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet has come out in favor of limited decriminalization that would allow abortion in the cases of rape or medical emergency.
In an editorial on the Egyptian military coup yesterday, the Wall Street Journal actually wrote the following:
Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.
Simply put: this is vile, disgusting, repugnant, vulgar, and ignorant. Pinochet’s regime murdered over 3,000 people. Again: the government actively arrested and murdered 3,000 people – men, women, children, parents. What were their crimes? Some had been union leaders. Some had been in the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. Some had simply expressed themselves in ways the government disagreed with. Some criticized the coup and the dictatorship that resulted. Some were merely suspected of “subversion” without a shred of evidence. And Pinochet oversaw their murders, directly and indirectly. Just as he oversaw the torture of tens of thousands more, in brutal, horrific, illegal ways. And tens of thousands more fled into exile to escape such repression, in the process tearing apart families.
And yet, the Wall Street Journal says Chileans were “lucky.”
Nevermind that Pinochet only reluctantly left the presidency – after losing a plebiscite he was certain he would win in 1988, he insisted on cracking down on the people and annulling the results, and only other generals’ refusal to do so ultimately led to his leaving office. And even after he left the presidency, he remained head of the army and served as a senator for another eight years, enjoying immunity for his crimes until London finally put him under arrest in 1998 in response to a Spanish extradition request.
And yet, Chileans were “lucky.”
Nevermind that, under those alleged economic improvements under Pinochet, the gap between rich and poor grew considerably, as nearly 90% of the country’s wealth went to only 10% of its population, even while Pinochet himself embezzled millions into private bank accounts in other countries.
But Chileans were “lucky.”
In a perfect world, the editorial board would be fired en masse for such horrific statements and perspectives, and then forced to apologize personally to every single family member who lost a loved one during the Pinochet regime, to every single person who was tortured by Pinochet’s security forces. Sadly, the editors will likely keep their jobs, protected by the same elitist insulation that led them in the first place to see only economic outcomes, rather than human rights crises.
As Brandi mentioned yesterday, the dust has settled in the Chilean presidential primaries. On the one hand, the Concertación elected Socialist Party candidate and former president (2006-2010) Michelle Bachelet to run for re-election for the coalition. On the other hand, the right-wing Alianza coalition selected the Independent Democratic Union’s (UDI) Pablo Longueira to represent it in the election. In addition to Longueira, Bachelet will face challenges from two candiates to the left, Marcel Claude and Miguel Enríquez-Ominami. With well over two years of student protests that call for educational reform and that enjoy a substantial amount of support among many Chileans, a right-wing coalition confronting the need to overcome unpopularity of current president Sebastián Piñera, and two challenges from the left to an ex-president who left office with very high approval ratings, the elections set for November will be interesting for any number of reasons.
What is perhaps most interesting, though, is the way ties to the Pinochet era continue to shape presidential electoral politics. When Piñera was elected in 2010, some saw it as the right finally breaking with the right-wing Pinochet dictatorship. Indeed, some analysts suggested Frei’s loss was in part because the center-left Concertación coalition that had governed since Pinochet’s exit in 1990 continued to campaign against the Pinochet era, while Piñera insisted on looking forward – a politically tactful move, given the right’s long-standing ties to the regime. It seemed at the time that Piñera’s victory was going to finally force the Concertación to broaden its appeal beyond anti-Pinochet rhetoric (though such rhetoric was understandably and justifiably not going to completely disappear).
And yet, here we are in 2013, with two major candidates still tied directly to the Pinochet dictatorship: on the one hand, the Concertación re-nominates Michelle Bachelet, who as a youth resisted the military regime and whose father the Pinochet dictatorship murdered. Meanwhile, the Alianza, left in the lurch after heavy favorite Laurence Golborne had to remove himself from the race, nominates Longueira, who worked as an assessor in the Pinochet government and who, according to Pinochet’s daughter Lucía Pinochet Hiriart, received support from Pinochet when Longueira first began his political career. And so, in spite of some analysts’ conclusions about the significance of the 2010 election in marking a new phase of post-Pinochet politics, both major candidates have direct, albeit very different, ties to the regime.
Nor is it just the personal connections that demonstrate how Pinochet-era politics continue to resonate nearly a quarter-century after he left office. While educational reforms will be a major topic for presidents to contend with as students continue to take to the streets, reforming the educational system is just part of the broader institutional challenge. Educational reforms have been slow in coming in no small part because the Constitution of 1980 that Pinochet issued is designed in such a way as to make reform very difficult, allowing governmental inertia to dominate (as well as including a Pinochet-era anti-terrorist law that the Chilean government has used against indigenous groups, both under Piñera and, before him, under Bachelet.) The ongoing rule of a dictatorial constitution has increasingly become a sticking point, and figures to be a key issue in the campaign: Bachelet herself has said that Chile needs a new Constitution. Though it has been 23 years since the Concertación first won election as Pinochet was forced to leave office, and though this September will mark 40 years since the coup that overthrew democratically-elected socialist Salvador Allende and ushered in Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, and even nearly 7 years since Pinochet died, the influence, legacies, and outcomes of his regime on both the left and the right continue to shape politics well after he has left the political stage.
No doubt, there will come a time where the regime, although important to history and national memory, will not be so present in national presidential campaigns in such a direct and obvious way, be it through the candidates’ own backgrounds or through the reforms and visions they have for Chile. But what is clear is that, in spite of those who thought 2010 might force a re-calibration of politics that tried to appeal to a generation that did not live under Pinochet’s repression, the dictatorship still casts a long shadow over Chilean politics. There will be a time where that is the case, but in both the major coalition candidates and the issue of constitutional reform, it is clear that 2013 is not yet that time.
Foreign Policy has published a piece I wrote on how South American dictatorships can provide important lessons for Egyptians clamoring for military rule:
As Egypt struggles to cope with economic turmoil and political divisions, citizens are increasingly seeking alternatives to the current Muslim Brotherhood government. Discontent with the religious tenor of Islamist rule and rhetoric under Mohammed Morsy, some opponents of the current Egyptian government are now looking to the military for help, viewing the military as a legitimate political actor that could intervene and save the country before the Muslim Brotherhood’s government becomes entrenched.
These pleas sound remarkably similar to those used by Brazilians, Chileans, Argentines, Paraguayans, and Uruguayans who were discontent with their own governments in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Their tortured histories provide powerful reminders of what can happen when people turn to the military as a country’s savior. During the second half of the 20th century, military regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, all came to power in ways that many Egyptians now seem keen to emulate. However, far from “saving” their societies, these military regimes relied on political repression, torture, and state-sponsored terrorism, even while reaffirming the economic policies that created instability and led to a “lost decade” for the region in the 1980s.
You can read the whole thing here [it requires registration, but it is free].