On Volkswagen’s Ties to the Brazilian Dictatorship

I recently received an email about Volkswagen’s ties to the Brazilian military regime, documented in the final report of Brazil’s National Truth Commission  (Comissão Nacional da Verdade – CNV), available for full viewing/download here. Stories of Volkswagen’s ties to the military regime and its repressive apparatuses began to appear last year, as the CNV was in the midst of its hearings on and investigations into the military-led authoritarian regime of 1964-1985, including the violation of human rights and both support for and opposition to the regime.

The first thing that sprung to my mind was the similarities and differences to Ford in Argentina. As Diana Taylor’s excellent Disappearing Acts points out, shortly after the Argentine military took power in 1976, Ford was quick to put out a full-page ad in January 1977 seeking a “New year of faith and hope for all Argentines of good will;” as Taylor points out, this did explicitly meant “Not all Argentines of course, just the ‘good’ ones.”¹ And the Argentine military commonly used the Ford Falcon as its vehicle of choice when it snatched people off the streets to take them to torture centers, often before “disappearing” them, to the point where people associated the Falcon with death, and the sight of one on the street spurred fear in many. Ford actually took advantage of this relationship, advertising the Falcon with language that invoked “feelings of male prowess and supremacy” akin to the military’s own rhetoric and gendered ideology.²

However, while auto companies and regimes were connected in both Argentina and Brazil, the nature of that connection still differed, as the case of Volkswagen makes clear. If Ford publicly supported the regime’s project of launching El Proceso to “reorganize” the country, Volkswagen was directly tied to the military-led regime itself in Brazil throughout the dictatorship. As the CNV found, Volkswagen worked to support the military’s political cause both before and after the coup of 1 April 1964. However, Volkswagen was far from alone. According to the findings of the CNV, just in São Paulo (the industrial center of Brazil), “the final arrangements for the coup counted on the participation of business leaders from the industrial sector, as much foreign as national.”³ These businesses in São Paulo numbered over 50 and, beyond Volkswagen, included transnational corporations like B.F. Goodrich, Firestone, Pfizer, Goodyear, and others, as well as dozens of Brazilian industries. Overall, well over 70 national and international companies collaborated with the regime throughout Brazil. In this regard, Volkswagen’s involvement is tragic, but not unique.

Nor was this support merely moral or material. As the article points out, and as the Truth Commission is quite clear, Volkswagen provided the military security apparatuses with access to its plant for the purpose of intimidating and torturing labor leaders. Such was the case of Lúcio Bellentani who, along with around 20 other metalworkers from Volkswagen, Mercedes, and other industries, were handcuffed at work and immediately tortured.4 This occurred in the midst of the “Years of Lead,” the period that saw the most institutionalized and widespread use of torture, “disappearance,” and violence not only against those who took up arms against the regime, but also those who worked to fight for better rights, mobilized popular movements, expressed an interest in social justice, or embraced other “subversive” causes, even in the flimsiest of cases (such as the infamous death of journalist Vladimir Herzog). It was no secret that the military regime enjoyed the support of many not just among the leaders of businesses in the 1970s, but even among many other Brazilians who felt that the growth of the economic “miracle” from 1969-1973 and Brazil’s status as tricampeão in 1970 swept many up in a nationalist fervor. Nonetheless, the case of Volkswagen demonstrates just how deep that support for the regime went, all the way up to aiding directly in the torture of perceived “opponents” and the violation of basic human rights.

However, there is something of particular interest in Volkswagen’s involvement. The CNV also found that Volkswagen worked closely as a mediator between the regime and other industries in São Paulo in 1983 to create a “Communitarian Security Center” [Centro Comunitário de Segurança, CECOSE] made up of other company heads and representatives from the military itself. CECOSE actually met in a Volkswagen plant, among other locations, working to share “information about the activities of workers, above all, labor leaders” in order “to maintain the political and patrimonial security within factories.”5

This is a major finding for studies on the dictatorship, for a number of reasons. First, most narratives of the regime portray the military as voluntarily and gradually “exiting” power as the regime transitioned to democracy, culminating in indirect elections of 1985 that led to the election of Tancredo Neves and finally, the direct elections of 1989, when Fernando Collor became the first popularly-elected president since 1961 (though Collor’s presidency would end prematurely as well, albeit for very different reasons than a military coup). While the use of repression did indeed decrease by then, the CNV findings on CECOSE and Volkswagen (and others) makes clear that a decline in overt repression and covert torture does not mean a decline in surveillance and the use of intimidation and coercion at the private level of industry. By 1983, when CECOSE formed, labor movements had rapidly spread in Brazil, certainly highly visibly in the metalworkers’ union in São Paulo in 1979 (and beyond), but, as my own work has argued, spreading to white-collar sectors, including doctors, engineers, university professors, public school teachers, and others, as Brazil’s inflation spiraled out of control (it was already 110% by 1981, and continued to worsen after that). That companies sought to collaborate to prevent labor movements from working for better rights is unsurprising; that they took the lead in such a project as the military regime was “retreating” is likewise predictable. But that military officers were also involved in coordinating and participating in CECOSE’s efforts to surveil workers and prevent labor mobilization even as the regime’s own economic policies were creating economic turmoil for both blue- and white-collar workers in the early 1980s is a new wrinkle, providing invaluable insight not only into the ways private industries asserted their own surveilling and coercive powers, but also the ways in which military agents themselves helped in the relocation of coercion through surveillance, ceding some of the authority the state had exercised in its most repressive phases to the private sector as it “stepped aside.”

All of this is to say that, in addition to shedding greater light on the relationship between private industry (national and multinational) and the military during Brazil’s dictatorship, the Truth Commission raises some new insights and questions for what had increasingly become a static and simplistic political narrative of the regime’s end.

¹ Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), p. 111.

² Taylor, Disappearing Acts, p. 110

³ Comissão de Verdade, Volume II – Textos Temáticos, pp. 311-312.

4 Comissão de Verdade, Volume II – Textos Temáticos, p. 70.

5 Comissão de Verdade, Volume II – Textos Temáticos, p. 64.

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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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