Brazilian Military Refuses to Surrender Documents from Era of Military Dictatorship

I wish this surprised me, but it doesn’t. The Army and the Navy, the two military branches most responsible for the use of torture and extrajudicial murder during the dictatorship of 1964-1985, have hidden behind the excuse that they “destroyed the documents” for years, in spite of evidence that such destruction never took place. And the refusal to provide the documents chronicling the dictatorship from the military’s point of view have several repercussions. First, the Brazilian Truth Commission will have a harder time investigating the depth of torture and repression in Brazil. Given that the commission has no punitive authority, it’s not like ceding the documents will lead to certain military members facing trial. Additionally, it’s not like the military is protecting an untainted image; other reports (such as Torture in Brazil) clearly detail the types of torture victims suffered, while other secret police files in state and federal archives make clear that the powers of the security apparati were extensive. What the Army’s and Navy’s documents do is allow a better understanding of the internal dynamics of repression; more importantly from a human rights perspective, it may let Brazilian families who lost loved ones during the dictatorship find some measure of closure.

Beyond that, the military’s refusal to cede the documents once again raises the question of just how much power the president has over the military. Lula ordered the armed forces to surrender these documents five years ago, and current president Dilma Rousseff (herself a political prisoner whom the state tortured) has made similar calls. The 1988 Constitution clearly makes the president the supreme commander of the armed forces, as outlined in Article 84; yet the military has refused to follow the orders of the president on this issue, and there has not been any real repercussions for very clearly violating constitutional authority. It’s not that this is a new development per se; certainly, the military in Brazil has a long history of acting as an independent political entity, intervening in national politics any number of times throughout the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the point of the 1988 constitution, ratified three years after the end of the military regime, was to reestablish political power in such a way that the military would no longer be able to act independently of the executive branch. Yet as this case reminds us, the military is still able to operate relatively independently without any real repercussions.  While that does not automatically mean Brazil is doomed to another military regime, it shows that there is still a long way to go in fully consolidating civilian authority in the country, even twenty-seven years after the end of the dictatorship.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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