On Economic Abuses under Military Regimes in Latin America

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.

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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.
This entry was posted in Argentina, Argentina's Military Dictatorship (1976-1983), Augusto Pinochet, Brazil, Brazil's Military Dictatorship, Chile, Corruption, Human Rights Violations, Memory Struggles. Bookmark the permalink.