On the Problem with Decontextualized Narratives of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship

This past weekend, both the New York Times and CNN published stories on Brazil’s truth commission and the history of torture and violence during the military regime of 1964-1985, a topic of frequent discussion here (as are truth commissions).

Simon Romero’s piece in the Times focuses on current President Dilma Rousseff, whose identities both as a torture victim and as the leader of Brazil have recently made her a centerpiece of work on and discussion of the military regime; indeed, like her counterparts José Mujica in Uruguay and former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, Rousseff is the first politician to be president of a country whose military tortured her in the past. Romero’s piece focuses on Rousseff’s trajectory and the experiences she, like thousands of other Brazilians and tens of thousands of others throughout Latin America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, endured:

[Rousseff] described the progression from palmatória, a torture method in which a paddle or stick is used to strike the knuckles and palms of the hand, to the next, when she was stripped naked, bound upside down and submitted to electric shocks on different parts of her body, including her breasts, inner thighs and head.
[…]
[A]n investigative report published in June described more torture interrogations, including sessions during a two-month stretch at a military prison in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. When she was still an obscure provincial official, she gave testimony in 2001 to an investigator from Minas Gerais, describing how interrogators there beat her in the face, distorting her dental ridge. One tooth came loose and became rotten from the pummeling, she said, and was later dislodged by a blow from another interrogator in São Paulo.
[…]
[A]fter recalling interrogations resulting in other injuries, including the hemorrhaging of her uterus, she was in tears…

From there Romero’s piece turns to the surviving torturers, who remain defiant and intransigent in the face of accusations and the recent efforts of the Truth Commission to investigate (but not punish) torture and repression during the military regime. Overall, it’s a good snapshot of the types of torture Brazilians went through in the past, though there is not much on the legacy of human rights violations on victims and society in Brazil or on the human rights commission more generally.

The CNN piece does look into these latter issues at greater length. Certainly, it includes the accounts of other torture victims aside from Rousseff, but as much through the lens of how they perceive their past in the present. The article also brings in human rights activists who address the issue of why a truth commission and confronting Brazil’s past matters, and while the piece doesn’t detail the horrors of torture, it does do a good job focusing on the issue of accountability for victims and victims’ families, including the son of murdered journalist Vladimir Herzog, whose death during torture in 1977 played a key role in a broader shift within the dictatorship away from torture and helped galvanize popular opposition to the regime.

Many Brazilians agree that exposing the truth is a way of exacting justice.

Ivo Herzog was 9 years old when his father, the editor-in-chief of a TV station, was killed while in jail.

Military officials called it a suicide. But Herzog said he believes his father, Vladimir Herzog, was tortured and killed, a theory that archives have supported.

Herzog said he doesn’t want revenge, but he does want the perpetrators to be known.

“To be held accountable by society,” he said, “that’s the most important thing.”

In both cases, the articles do a good job in providing a basic narrative and looking-glass into Brazil’s military past and its use of torture at the basic level. At same time, the decontextualized and depoliticized narratives they provide are frustrating. It’s not just that either article fails to mention that, in the context of Cold War geopolitics, the US was supportive of the Brazilian dictatorship (and others in South America), and played a role in training soldiers who used torture or that, when the military coup of 1964 took place, Lyndon Johnson sent battleships to Brazil to provide assistance to the military if it needed it (in the face of the military coup, the government of constitutional president João Goulart crumbled, and the military ultimately didn’t need such support).

It’s that both articles completely ignore the fact that these were right-wing military governments that had international support, including the U.S. Quite frankly, I don’t really understand why they chose to overlook a central component of the Brazilian dictatorship and how it was able to implement torture in the first place. The only argument I can think of is an attempt to be “neutral,” but that doesn’t really hold for a government that left power 37 years ago and whose leaders no longer survive (even if its torturers do). Additionally, it’s not like claiming they were right-wing is a controversial political statement or a hotly-contested argument, as scholarship from both political science and history have repeatedly pointed to the conservative and right-wing nature of these bureaucratic authoritarian regimes. The use of torture was a feature of this type of dictatorship in Latin America in this era, be it in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, or elsewhere. To focus on the issue of torture without connecting it to the broader political historical narrative or context is baffling. Again, I realize these are journalistic pieces produced for a mass audience, so perhaps making complex matters understandable to those without a background in this is the explanation, but I don’t fully buy that argument, either, as  neither piece shies away from historical complexities or details of torture and its effects on individuals and societies. To look at such a subject without focusing on the context, nationally or transnationally, of such subjects ultimately paints a highly flawed historical picture of Brazil’s military regime, and denies the popular audiences a chance to learn even more about a subject that the authors seem to genuinely care about and want to discuss.

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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.
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