Thoughts on Brazil’s Truth Commission and the Investigation of State Crimes Only

Brazil’s Truth Commission, which is finally looking into (but not prosecuting) human rights crimes and violations committed during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, has announced that it will only investigate crimes and human rights violations that the state under military rule committed, specifically the use of torture, murder, and disappearances. As a result, any alleged crimes or abuses the regime’s opponents committed fall outside of the Truth Commission’s jurisdiction. Although the government says it does not have the authority to investigate crimes of private citizens, some military members are demanding the government also investigate the acts of the opposition movements as well, with the standard line that “both sides committed crimes” (an observation that also played an important rhetorical role in the Truth Commissions and/or human rights prosecutions in Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere).

The government only investigating the crimes of the military dictatorship is reasonable in this case, though, for several reasons. First, there is the fact that the “both sides did it” argument attempts to obscure the sheer disproportionate use of force and violence on the part of the state under military rule. From the very beginning of the dictatorship in 1964, the military regime relied on torture and the suspension of political rights in an attempt to eliminate any opposition from leftists, workers, or others. By 1969, the regime had entered its most repressive phase, and for the next five years, it relied heavily on torture, as well as the murder of political opponents in urban centers as well as the murder and “disappearing” of guerrillas in the Araguaia River Basin. While radical leftists in the cities did commit their own political murders, including the assassination of a US Air Force official in 1968, the sheer number of murders that state agents committed far outnumbered those of urban guerrillas. Additionally, the state often captured, tortured, and even murdered those connected to such political crimes; those who were not killed were sentenced to many years in prison. So in that regard, the civilians who committed political acts often already faced a (skewed) justice system, even while their torturers remained free.

This in turn leads into another important difference between leftist opponents of the regime and the military itself: institutional power. Simply put, even if the guerrillas and opposition movements resorted to violence, they never had the institutional or infrastructural capabilities for violence that the state had. The “biggest” guerrilla threat came from the Araguaia Basin, where perhaps 70 leftists in total had gathered to try to overthrow the government. By contrast, the dictatorship could and did count on the Army, Navy, and Air Force, as well as multiple branches of police forces (public and secret), to employ torture, imprison any suspected opponents, deny the rights of habeas corpus, and even murder and “disappear” suspected “subversives.” The sheer institutional authority and power of the dictatorship overwhelmingly outweighed any threat of violence that the regime’s most radical opponents ever had at their disposal. To say that “both sides committed crimes” is to blithely overlook just how more institutional, widespread, and methodical the regime’s use of violence was.

Additionally, while guerrillas did commit a handful of assassinations, as well as bank robberies, the very nature of their violence differed from that of the state. Guerrillas wanted to overthrow the repressive government that itself had overthrown a democratic government in 1964. Their agenda was regime change, plain and simple (and whether one thinks regime change is a legitimate agenda here is irrelevant to the broader point).  This stands in marked contrast to the military dictatorship, which used torture, repression, and violence in no small part to terrorize the population and prevent significant opposition to its rule. There is no record anywhere of guerrillas relying on the systematic use of torture against state agents or supporters of the regime. Likewise, what few political assassinations did take place happened in public, meaning the victims’ bodies could be and were recovered and buried; thus, while they may have been political murders, they were not part of what are generally considered to be “human rights violations.” By contrast, the regime “disappeared” at least several dozen of its opponents (most likely after using torture and/or summary executions), and the location of their remains are still unknown today, leaving their families and friends with no knowledge of their loved ones’ fates and denying them a sense of closure.

This is not to deny, or even downplay, the opposition’s use of violence. However, the regime itself not only prosecuted many of those acts (sometimes extrajudicially); it also pardoned them. In 1979, the military issued a general amnesty that in part pardoned all those convicted of political crimes between 1964 and 1979. As a result, many were set free, with their records cleared. However, the amnesty also pardoned any state agents connected to torture and/or state-sponsored murder between 1964 and 1979. As a result, while opponents were finally released from prison or cleared of charges, state agents who had committed crimes and human rights violations were preemptively forgiven and excused from ever facing trial for their own violent acts.

Finally, since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, the military regime’s opponents have been more than willing to be open about their actions, peaceful or violent, during military rule. Indeed, the return of democracy created a new context and political narrative in which those who had been persecuted during the military regime were finally able to begin to discuss life under military rule openly. This included both acknowledgments of the opposition’s own shortcomings, as well as detailed accounts of torture and other human  rights violations they and their colleagues suffered at the hands of the state. And the 1979 amnesty allowed them to be candid about their own actions, including criminal activities, in ways that were impossible under military rule. As a result, in the last thirty years, there has been a flourishing of scholarship and material on opposition to military rule, thanks in no small part to the numerous and publicly-recorded experiences of the opposition, be it in archival collections, interviews, oral history projects, books, documentaries, and even (problematic) films. Meanwhile, the military has continued to refuse to release its own archives that detail the extent of state repression and violence. While we know plenty about the opposition’s experiences and actions during military rule, the internal workings of the military dictatorship are still largely obscured. Consequently, there’s only one “secret” history here, and it’s that of the military, not the opposition, during the dictatorship. And given that the Truth Commission’s duty is in no small part to uncover the hidden history of the military dictatorship, it is pretty clear that its focus would by necessity fall more on the military regime than on opposition movements whose actions, ideologies, experiences, and thoughts are public knowledge by this point.

All of these differences show just how weak and problematic the “both sides committed crimes” argument is. Of course they did. But to equate state-sponsored violence to civilian violence is to create a false equivalency that implies that both are equally guilty. Did leftist guerrillas commit crimes? Sure. But the military outstripped them in sheer number of murders, and that says nothing about the Brazilian dictatorship’s use of torture against thousands of Brazilians. Even at their most violent, the guerrillas who opposed military rule in the late-1960s and early-1970s did not employ torture, nor did they have the mechanisms and institutions to commit systematic torture at their disposal. And again, the military imprisoned or murdered many of those guerrillas (who at the most numbered perhaps several hundred total throughout the entire military regime) after “investigating” their crimes. Did both sides commit crimes? Sure. But did the military regime commit broader human rights violations and crimes at a rate that far outnumbers those of the regime’s opponents? Absolutely. And for those reasons, the decision of the Truth Commission (which, again, cannot punish human rights violators, a pardon the regime’s opponents did not enjoy) to investigate only the dictatorship’s crimes is a reasonable one.

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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