Brazil’s Truth Commission continues to conduct hearings and accept testimony from a variety of witnesses as it investigates human rights violations during the military regime of 1964-1985. Much of this testimony has been helpful in further fleshing out details that were previously assumed or generally known, helping to further enrich our understanding of the regime’s repressive measures and their impacts on those who were tortured or suffered political persecution in both the short- and long-terms. However, some of the testimony has been a bit surprising, perhaps most notably the testimony of Jair Krischke, who claimed that Brazil’s military regime was the “mastermind” behind Operation Condor.
Suffice to say, this is a somewhat surprising claim. Thanks to John Dinges’s excellent work, in which he worked in the (at the time) relatively-underutilized “Archives of Terror” in Paraguay, we know a good deal about Operation Condor. At its most basic level, the intelligence services from right-wing military regimes in Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru collaborated in political repression, torture, and “disappearing” alleged “subversives” from the region in an attempt to stamp out what they viewed as the communist threat. Through Operation Condor, which formally (albeit secretly) began in 1975, these countries would trace exiles’ movement throughout the region, and assist one another either by arresting and extraditing political targets to their home countries, or by torturing, murdering, and disappearing exiles from other countries (e.g., Argentina’s repressive forces would arrest and torture a Chilean exile). Operation Condor took the repressive violence of these regimes into the international arena, including not just the torture and disappearances of political opponents in the region, but even the attempted assassination on Chilean Bernardo Leighton in Rome in 1976 or the successful assassination of Orlando Letelier in a car bomb in Washington D.C. in 1976. Though the military regimes of South America collaborated, scholarship suggests that Augusto Pinochet’s government played the central role in Operation Condor’s operation, from its creation in 1975 onward, something Dinges’s work compellingly argues.
Which is why Krischke’s recent claims about Brazil’s role as a “mastermind” in Operation Condor are intriguing. Krischke points to Brazil’s use of torture and political repression in the immediate aftermath of the 1964 coup and in the increasing repression of the “years of lead” under Artur Costa e Silva (1967-1969) and Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1969-1974) as setting the stage for broader international collaboration between the new right-wing dictatorships in Bolivia (1971), Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973), Argentina (1976), and Peru (which joined Condor in 1980). Admittedly, Brazil did set the stage for many of the military regimes that followed (only Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship, begun in 1954, preceded Brazil’s), something that scholarship tends to overlook (too often, one sees phrases along the line of “the South American dictatorships of the 1970s”). Likewise, Brazil (and Paraguay) were among the first to use the types of repression and terror that would come to define the right-wing dictatorships throughout the region, albeit to varying degrees. But Krischke’s claim that Brazil “created” Operation Condor seems to stretch Brazil’s role to somewhat incredible degree. The mechanisms of repression and torture may have appeared in Brazil before in Chile and elsewhere, but Dinges’s work again does a very good job of showing just how involved Pinochet was, and how much the establishment of Operation Condor was a Chilean initiative. Indeed, by 1975, when these countries formed the secretive pact, Brazilian president Ernesto Geisel had already begun the process of “distensão,” or a gradual move away from the most repressive phase of the Brazilian dictatorship. Though Brazil was involved with Operation Condor, it was not nearly as dominant as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, or Paraguay. That’s not to deny culpability or responsibility to Brazil’s regime, but it is to contextualize what we know about Operation Condor, and different member countries’ involvement in it. Either Krischke’s claims are overstated, or we will be forced to completely reevaluate Condor’s origins and history; given the detailed research from people like Dinges and Peter Kornbluh and the political context of Brazilian military politics at the time of Operation Condor, it seems likely that Krischke’s claims, while perhaps not-incorrect in some regards, are an overstatement of Brazil’s involvement in Condor.