This week, Brazil’s Truth Commission finally managed to get the Ministry of Defense to accede to requests to investigate the military and sites of torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.
I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, this absolutely is a major victory in terms of efforts to confront the military’s repressive past. Military archives and records have often long been off-limits for historians and human rights activists, with the military alternately denying such archives and records exist or insisting they were already destroyed (and even sometimes contradictorily making both claims at the same time). Opening up centers where torture took place will not only allow for the forced recognition of the past; it will also help improve our mapping and understandings of the mechanisms of torture and repression in Brazil.
On the other hand, the military itself will be responsible for conducting these investigations, with internal “inquiry units” rather than external agents probing the past. Letting the military be in charge of its own policing on the past is troubling for a few reasons, and not just because it was the military that originally gave itself an amnesty in 1979, an amnesty it has stood behind and that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. The fact that there remain both within the military and outside of it many people who continue to defend the military and its actions during the dictatorship, and there is certainly the potential that internal pressure from above within a system predicated on strict hierarchies could limit the findings. And it is not like there is a strong history of the military being fully transparent even in times of democracy. A culture of impunity (itself a major legacy of the dictatorship) continues to reign in much of Brazil both in its armed forces and in police forces, and rarely do military or police officials face punishment or even inquiries into their roles in human rights violations in Brazil’s cities or countryside. It is not unfair to wonder whether or how an investigation into past crimes will be any different.
To be clear, this is not to say that the investigations are doomed to failure, or that the military cannot directly and transparently confront its past, and the fact that it has finally agreed to participate in investigations, even internally led ones, is encouraging. At the same time, it will be worth watching to see how these investigations occur and what their findings are. Hopefully they provide full, frank, and honest accounts of the regime that further add to our understandings of repression under military rule, but given the recent trends in the armed forces and the contentious nature over Brazil’s military dictatorship today, questions will remain until the investigations can be (and hopefully are) brought to completion and published.
David Axe recently published a really interesting long-form piece on the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). The basic focus is on how the FAB operates on a relatively low-budget, even while maintaining sustained campaigns relevant to defined national security interests (namely, combating smuggling in the country’s interior and regional defense). Frum’s contextualization and discussion of the FAB is thorough, but I’d like to make a few additional points.
Regarding the use of the FAB to try to monitor and maintain control over the Amazonian basin, this is part of a number of historical trends. First, there’s the issue of integrating the Amazon into the nation more generally, and efforts to address this issue go back much further than 1990 (which Axe points to). Until the 1930s, much of the Amazon remained “outside” the nation of the federalist First Republic (1889-1930). From the government of Getúlio Vargas onward, Brazilian governments of any number of political stripes have attempted to incorporate the Amazon into the country, be it just through discourse (usually as the Amazon as “our” national treasure, in Brazilian rhetoric) or through practice (as with the military regime’s ultimately-limited efforts to build the Transamazonian highway). That these efforts continue under the government of Dilma Rousseff, herself once subjected to torture under the military rule and now president of the country, reveals the ways in which “securing” the Amazon and making sure it falls under the more direct aegis of the federal government’s power continues to be a major part of political and military agendas of governments from across the ideological spectrum.
Secondly, and somewhat related to this, is the issue of the Amazon as an area needing “securing.” Given the historically weak presence of the state in the region, fears of foreign involvement/infiltration into the region have long existed. These fears aren’t necessarily unfounded – after all, the majority of the Amazonian basin is only Brazilian because in the colonial period, the Spanish presence was so weak in the area that the Portuguese could disregard the Treaty of Tordesillas and effectively make the Amazon “Portuguese,” papal bulls notwithstanding. Even today, there is very much a strong nationalistic tendency even among leftists that the Amazon is “theirs,” and those who are not from Brazil but are interested in the Amazon are viewed with skepticism if not outright suspicion. Certainly, cases like Raytheon’s alleged corruption do not help this image, but it’s not just limited to corporations trying to abuse the system to their economic favor (certainly nothing new in the world of transnational resource exploitation). Rather, these attitudes even extend to foreign environmentalists who are often seen as either taking what belongs to Brazil (a more nationalist stance) or extracting wealth from the Amazon for foreign corporations while pretending to be conservationists (a charge I heard not-irregularly during my time in Brazil). This isn’t to say the air force’s presence in the Amazon is equivalent to these concerns; however, it is fair to say it makes up part of a broader intellectual and political discourse that views the Amazon as particularly “Brazilian” but susceptible to intervention/invasion from (often poorly-defined) “outsiders.” Sort of the inverse of the need to make the Amazon part of the Brazilian nation-state, this rhetorical fear of invasion, like its nationalist counterpart, is not limited to a particular political ideology. Put another way: the use of the air force to make sure the Amazon remains under the power of “acceptable” (read: nation-state) actors is part of a longer history of fear over the region’s weakness.
The result of these two factors has been that a long-term context of efforts to bring a difficult environmental region under the control of the nation-state, combined with (sometimes not-so) latent fears of the region’s historical weakness have led to the militarization of combating deforestation, as well as how efforts to fight deforestation and illegal crime are not mutually-exclusive terms. Indeed, while there is much handwringing among some in the US over that country’s use of drones (an issue not really under the scope of this blog), in Latin America, drones are being used for purposes like this, so that, rather than targeting “enemies” overseas, drones are put to use to try to strengthen the nation-state’s power domestically.
As thorough as Axe’s piece is, however, he rather superficially glides over another major function of the Brazilian air force: regional power. As the US’s gaze turned elsewhere in the first decade of the 2000, Latin American countries operated with an unprecedented degree of (relative) non-interference (though the US remained active in the region in often-pernicious ways, as the failed Venezuelan coup against Chávez demonstrated). In that new-ish context, regional politics shifted, as countries (often under new left-ish leaders) demonstrated a greater autonomy and role in international politics. Far from a unified bloc, there were competitions, both explicit and implicit, between the countries; even while professing to be friends and allies, countries like Brazil and Venezuela still jostled to be the leader of the region. That Brazil is the continent’s largest country, and has one of its largest militaries, is thus not an accident; rather, it’s an example of how it could take the lead for the region should a military need ever arise, with the not-so-subtle implication that it could probably overwhelm neighboring militaries as well, should that particular “need” ever arise. Indeed, it’s made no secret of its effort to train others, which always brings the implied message of one country’s particular military strength. To be clear, this isn’t to say that the air force is so strong because of some militaristic plans on Brazil’s part; however, having a strong and modern military that is effective still carries a veiled threat, even if that is not the intent. Axe seems to give this sense of (still-friendly) regional competition in the twenty-first century short shrift. Admittedly, there is not much in terms of the public record to suggest any sense of militarized competition, but that does not mean such messages aren’t still tacitly present when one country or another conducts military exercises, as Brazil itself recently did.
Finally a point regarding the implications of Brazil’s ability to maintain what are by most global standards a strong air force without a massive budget. The implications are not meaningless for the US. It’s no secret that the US has a massive (and even bloated) defense budget that far outstrips social programs; meanwhile, Brazil manages to launch massive social programs like Bolsa Familia that have played no small role in addressing (though far from resolving) the socioeconomic inequalities that have historically defined the country. Put another way: Brazil suggests that a country can simultaneously adequately address “safety” even while maintaining social programs designed to help its citizens; it’s not the either/or proposition that all too often defines budgetary discussions in the US.
-Marking the first major protest of the year, over 100,000 Chilean students took to the streets to continue to push for educational reform, an issue that has garnered much support and been a consistent problem for conservative president Sebastian Pinera. (And for those wondering, this is what (part of) over 100,000 people in the streets looks like.)
-With the recent conviction of some of his former top aides for corruption, Brazilian federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to examine what, if any, role in or knowledge of payoffs Lula might have had during his first term.
-Uruguay became the third country in the Americas to legalize gay marriage nationwide (joining Canada and Argentina) after the Chamber of Deputies approved the Senate’s changes to the bill (the Chamber of Deputies originally passed an earlier draft of the bill last December). Meanwhile, in Chile, Congress has begun debating the legal recognition of same-sex couples; though the recognition would fall short of allowing gay marriage, it would grant gay couples the same rights as married couples.
-Although the frontrunner in Paraguay’s upcoming elections, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes apparently has quite the history of shady dealings and possible corrupt practices, including international smuggling, practices that, if true, could further strain Paraguay’s relations with its neighbors, relations that were already damaged when Congress rapidly removed former president Fernando Lugo through a dubious “impeachment.”
-A study finds that an overwhelming amount of the money donated to aid Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake ultimately ended up in the hands of US companies, with only one percent aiding Haitian companies themselves.
-Speaking of Haitians, they are among the thousands of immigrants who have recently entered into Brazil, leaving the small state of Acre to ask for federal aid in supporting the influx. I don’t quite agree with Boz that their desire to move Brazil automatically means that the economy there is doing well, but it at least suggests that people in other countries perceive the Brazilian economy to be preferable to their own.
-In spite of his family’s claims late last year, Alberto Fujimori does not actually have cancer, which was the reason his family initially called for his release from prison, where he is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations during his 1990-2000 presidency. Although the former president is not actually ailing, that has not stopped Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani from calling for a pardon for Fujimori.
-As a hunger strike among prisoners at US facilities in Guantanamo continues, the US has begun force-feeding some of the striking prisoners.
-In the wake of the rape of a tourist from the US, Rio de Janeiro has banned the use of vans for public transit (rather than the larger buses) in the southern part of the city. Of course, that the ban is in effect only in the wealthier southern zone where tourism dominates provides yet another reminder of the social stratification evident throughout Rio, including in public transportation options.
-Hundreds of thousands of Colombians, including President Juan Manuel Santos, marched in support of ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC.
-Are Brazil and Russia close to a missile deal?
-Although scholarship and human rights activism have already torn much “the veil” off Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime, the recent exhumation of Nobel-laureate Pablo Neruda could further shed light on the poet’s death and end years of speculation over whether he really died of cancer, as had long been maintained, or if the regime had him killed, a theory that has been bandied about as well.
-Outrage continues over the appointment of evangelical politician Marco Feliciano as the head of the Brazilian Congress’s Human Rights Committee in spite of a history of public homophobic and racist statements. As a result, in a blow against transparency or accountability in government, the Committee recently decided to close all hearings to outsiders in hopes of preventing protests from erupting in committee hearings.
-Speaking of human rights in Brazil, police are finally facing trial for their role in the executions of prisoners during the Carandiru massacre of 1992. The massacre, which occurred 21 years ago this October, left 102 prisoners dead from gunshots after police entered the prison to break up gang fighting between prisoners.
-A Guatemalan court upheld the not-guilty verdict of former president Alfonso Portillo on charges of theft of state funds. However, his legal problems are far from over, as the ruling now opens the path for his extradition to the United States, where he faces indictment for embezzlement and money laundering.
-A Chilean court has suspended development on the Pascua Lama mine, originally set to be one of the world’s largest gold mines, ruling that the pollution and environmental destruction already caused by the Canadian mining company Barrick violates the original terms of the agreement. The shutdown marks a victory for indigenous groups, who had argued that the mine threatened their daily lives and resources, and is part of broader challenges to Barrick’s environmental toll and presence throughout Latin America.
-Finally, scientists have recently encountered a new species of porcupine in Brazil, but the future of the species is already uncertain, as the tree-dwelling Coendou speratus lives in an endangered forest.
This week continues the recent focus on military presidents by turning to Ernesto Geisel (1907-1996), the fourth and penultimate of the presidents of Brazil’s twenty-one year military dictatorship. Geisel governed from 1974 to 1979, overseeing growing economic turmoil, the beginning of political re-openings under military rule, and internal challenges from hardliners within the military during his administration (1974-1979).
Ernesto Beckmann Geisel was born in August 1907 to German immigrants in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul, the third consecutive military president who was born there (after Artur Costa e Silva and Emílio Garrastazu Médici). Geisel was one of five children, and the youngest of four boys. In 1921, he followed the footsteps of two of his older brothers by joining the military (the other went on to become a chemical engineer and university professor), enrolling in the Military School of Porto Alegre, where he finished at the top of his class in 1924. His performance in military school was not an anomaly; he also finished first in his ongoing military training at schools in Realengo and in officer training in the 1930s.
As had so many others of the military in his generation, Geisel actively supported the 1930 revolution that brought Getúlio Vargas into power. Like his military presidential predecessors, he also served in the Revolution of 1932 that saw the state of São Paulo revolt against the Vargas government. After a brief stint in government in the 1930s, he returned to the School of Training for Army Officers, where in 1938 he once again finished at the top of his class. He continued his officer training from 1941-1943. Although Brazil had officially entered World War II by 1944, Geisel did not see action in the European theater, instead going to the United States, where in 1945 he finished training at Fort Leavenworth’s Army Command and General Staff College.
After the war, Geisel continued to balance his status as an officer with roles in government, serving as Brazil’s military aide to Brazil’s embassy in Uruguay before returning to serve in various functions, including serving as a member of Brazil’s Escola Superior de Guerra (War College; ESG), in the 1950s. After Vargas committed suicide in 1954, Geisel briefly served as the sub-chief of the Military Cabinet in the presidency of (former) vice president João Café Filho. He continued to move up through the military ranks, even while his background in government allowed him as a bridge between the military and technocratic worlds. Geisel opposed what many perceived to be the increasing leftism of president João Goulart, and when the military overthrew Goulart on April 1, 1964, Geisel quickly became a member of the new military regime, serving as the chief of the Military Cabinet under the first president of the regime, Humberto Castelo Branco.
Under Castelo Branco, Geisel became one of the key figures of the so-called “Sorbonne” group, thus named due to their alleged intellectual qualities. Although the military dictatorship presented a publicly unified face, behind the scenes, splits were emerging between Castelo Branco and the “Sorbonne” group on the one hand, and military hardliners (with Costa e Silva as their figurehead) who wanted more repressive measures taken against opponents. While Geisel condemned the use of torture after the coup and opposed the ascent of Costa e Silva (who was Castelo Branco’s Minister of War) behind closed doors, Castelo Branco ultimately was unwilling to divide the military regime, and stepped aside for Costa e Silva in 1967. The rise of the hardliners, first under Costa e Silva and then under Médici, meant the marginalization of Geisel in the military governments. Though he continued to serve as a minister in the Supreme Military Tribunal from 1967-1969 and as president from Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned energy company, from 1969 to 1973, he was effectively ostracized from national politics under military rule.
Though Geisel was far from the organs of government under the hardliners, he had an ally in his older brother, Orlando Geisel, also a general. Orlando ultimately served as the head of the Serviço Nacional de Informações (National Information Service; SNI) under Médici during the most repressive years of the regime. The SNI had been Médici’s launching point for the presidency; when he asked Orlando to consider succeeding him, Orlando turned it down, instead recommending his brother. Médici convinced other military leaders to support the nomination, and Ernesto Geisel became the candidate for the president, overwhelmingly winning the indirect elections of 1973 and taking office in March 1974. With his election, the hardliners left office for the last time, and the so-called “moderate” “Sorbonne” school in the military returned to the presidency for the first time since 1967.
From the beginning, Geisel’s administration stood in marked contrast to that of his predecessor. Where Médici had been hands-off in governing, allowing his ministers to take care of matters in their departments and creating an atmosphere where the use of torture was widespread, Geisel was a micromanager, involved in the decisions of many of his ministries. Where Médici oversaw a period of heightened repression and crackdown on political rights (referred to as the anos de chumbo, or “years of lead”), Geisel initiated a program of a “gradual, slow, and secure distensão,” or “distending” the military from the government. Although he maintained some of the policies of his predecessors from both the hardliners and the Sorbonne school – notably the dual policy of “development and security” articulated in the ESG – his administration was in many ways a rupture.
However, the “gradual” opening was definitely gradual, and not always linear. While the government under Geisel eased censorship and even allowed candidates from the blanket “opposition” party Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Democratic Brazilian Movement ; MDB) to campaign for congressional elections, his government continued to openly and brutally persecute the Leninist Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), and his regime finalized operations against guerrillas in the Araguaia region of Brazil, where the dictatorship “disappeared” dozens. And while Geisel himself privately opposed torture, he found it difficult to immediately rein it in after security apparatuses had operated with relatively free rein under Médici. Thus, in 1975, Vladimir Herzog, a journalist, was found dead in his cell; although the military officials in São Paulo claimed he had hanged himself, it was quickly clear that he had died under torture. The death of worker Manoel Fiel Filho under similar circumstances in 1976 made clear that, while Geisel might want an opening in the regime, the hardliners were less willing to acquiesce. This led Geisel to relieve of his duties the general responsible for troops in São Paulo, setting the stage for growing behind-the-scenes conflict between Geisel and the hardliners.
Although the public was generally unaware of these tensions within the military government, behind the scenes, things were coming to a head. In October 1977, Sylvio Frota, a hard-liner and Geisel’s Minister of the Army [previously called the Ministry of War, today's Minister of Defense], began to maneuver to become the next presidential candidate against Geisel’s wishes but with the support of hardliners. As Geisel refused to acknowledge Frota’s candidacy, Frota began to plan a plot to remove Geisel, but before he acted, the president outmaneuvered him, using a national holiday to fire Frota, knowing full well troops who might have rallied to Frota would not be in the barracks that day. Though Frota tried to rally his support, Geisel had already ensured the support of the generals who were considering supporting Frota; Frota’s failed power-grab ensured that the “moderates” would continue in office.
Though Geisel moved against hardliners in the state under military rule, he was by no means bereft of his own authoritarianism. That distensão that he sought was to be top-down; challenges to it from society would not be tolerated. Thus, after the opposition party MDB made significant gains in the 1974 congressional elections, he enacted a law in 1976 that prohibited candidates from making live appearances on television or radio. And in 1977, when Congress refused to pass a judicial reform bill that Geisel had sent to Congress, he closed Congress for 14 days, during which he continued the indirect elections of governors at the state level and established the indirect elections of 1/3 of the senators (perjoratively labeled “bionic senators”), thus giving the government enough of a majority to ensure Geisel’s future bills would pass. Nor were such actions limited to electoral politics. Although censorship eased under Geisel, it did not disappear, leading to bizarre cases of censorship; indeed, at one point, nearly all of popular and polemic singer Chico Buarque’s songs were censored, leading to Buarque to create an alter-ego, “Julinho da Adelaide,” a name under which he not only recorded a handful of songs, but gave interviews.
Geisel’s administration was an eventful one in other policy areas, as well. Although the military regime had issued a widespread university reform in 1968, by 1977, the shortcomings of that reform had become painfully obvious, leading Geisel to issue another reform focusing especially on graduate education in Brazil in 1977. He also inaugurated subway lines in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and his administration oversaw a significant portion of the construction of the Itaipu Dam that Brazil and Paraguay share. Geisel also used his office to legalize divorce in Brazil, much to the consternation of many Catholics and cultural conservatives.
Although Geisel was fiercely anticommunist, he diversified Brazil’s diplomatic ties, including with Africa; indeed, under Geisel, Brazil was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the MPLA government in Angola in 1975, in spite of the fact that the MPLA was officially (if not realistically) Leninist while the Brazilian military regime was right-wing. Brazil entered into negotiations with West Germany to help Brazil get the parts and materials to start its own nuclear program in 1975 (though it would not be until ten years later that the first reactor at the Angra dos Reis plant was operational). In the final months of his presidency, he announced the expiration of the repressive Ato Institucional 5 (Institutional Act Number 5; AI-5), which Costa e Silva had issued in December 1968 and which had served as a key component in establishing the repression that followed throughout the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s. Though he hoped to continue the economic successes of Brazil’s economic “miracle” from 1967 to 1973, by 1974, global economic turmoil, including the 1973 oil crisis, hit Brazil hard, as did the fact that much of the economic growth of the “miracle” had depended on foreign loans whose repayment hit Brazil hard as global economic conditions worsened in the latter half of the 1970s. Thus, though he attempted to reduce dependency on foreign capital for infrastructure and industry, inflation was only worsening by the end of his term (though it would get much worse in the 1980s).
After leaving office, he continued to remain in close contact with the military. In 1985, he spoke out in favor of opposition candidate Tancredo Neves, helping to quell some of the opposition within the armed forces to Neves’s candidacy. He also continued to work in the oil business, where he’d acquired experience in his time as president of Petrobras. In the 1990s, he left much of his private and public documents, including from his presidency, to the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, and even sat down for interviews to provide an oral history of his government and his life. These collections and materials have given (and continue to give) scholars unprecedented insights into the operation of the military regime, and are one of the richest fonts for research on the dictatorship in Brazil. Shortly after his 89th birthday in 1996, Geisel died. Though his legacy is a complex one, the fact remains that his administration marked an important turning point in the dictatorship and in Brazilian politics.
-Brazil and Russia reached an agreement on arms and technology exchanges between the two countries while also discussing nuclear power. Talks between Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and President Dilma Rousseff led to the sale of surface-to-air missiles to Brazil as well as the possibility of Russia aiding Brazil in building more nuclear power plants. Currently, Brazil, whose rapid growth has put a strain on energy supplies, has only one nuclear power plant (with two functioning reactors) at Angra dos Reis in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
-Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court has upheld a ruling that prohibits gay couples from adopting children. The judges ruled 5-4 that only mother-father relationships were appropriate for children, marking a significant setback in equal rights on the island.
-Nearly 30 years after battles between the Shining Path and government forces, Peru’s government returned the bodies of 26 people killed during the fights to their families, who were finally able to bury their loved ones.
-While it’s difficult to imagine extreme poverty being eradicated, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff says that Brazil is very close to doing just that after raising the monthly stipend for 2.5 million Brazilians living below the poverty line.
-With Colombia near the top of the list in terms of deaths and injuries caused by mines, volunteer groups made up of civilians have begun training and working on removing mines.
-In an effort to reduce both deforestation and crime that is often connected to illegal logging, an international operation has led to Interpol arresting over 200 people for illegal timber trafficking and logging in South America.
-A new intelligence law in Honduras designed to create new security apparatuses has some concerned, as its combination of military defense and police forces is reminiscent of Cold War policies that fostered the disappearance of Hondurans in the 1980s.
-While Chile’s support for England over Argentina during the Malvinas War has long been known, recently-declassified documents have further shed light on the diplomatic ties and subjects discussed between the Chilean and English governments diplomatic ties operated prior to the beginning of the War.
-Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez took advantage of new passport regulations to leave her home country. Her first stop? Brazil, where she addressed Congress yesterday, though her journey has also witnessed some opposition from supporters of Cuba.
-Finally, FIFA appears ready to finally use technology to improve futebol/soccer, as the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will employ goal line technology to confirm goals. The issue came to the forefront when Englishman Frank Lampard clearly scored a goal that did not count in a match against Germany (though Germany went on to win the game 4-1, Lampard’s goal would have made it 2-2).
Unlike in Argentina in the 1980s and presently, and Chile more recently, Brazilian military officials have never stood trial for human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, due primarily to a general amnesty issued in 1979, the lack of an official Truth Commission until last year, fears over military intervention during and after democratization in the 1980s, and a general desire to “move on,” among other factors.
However, a federal judge has authorized the criminal investigation of General Alberto Brilhante Ustra and two others for their roles in the kidnapping and disappearance of a soldier who had opposed the 1964 coup. The Pan-American Post has a good summary of the case in English. Right now, the hope that Ustra and his colleagues are convicted is minimal – the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled the 1979 amnesty law cannot be reinterpreted a few years ago, and there has only been one case that tried to circumvent the amnesty – the March arrest, and subsequent release, of Colonel Sebastião Curio Rodrigues de Moura, whom a court found could not be tried due to the 1979 amnesty. I’m not hopeful that the case of Ustra will turn out any differently, but efforts to force the issue, and public discussion of it, are important, and these cases provide that kind of forced public discussion and recognition. And if Chile and Argentina have taught us anything regarding these processes, it’s that change only comes when the issues are kept public and the court systems are forced to deal with them again and again. Even if Ustra’s case ends up being dismissed, if it helps Brazil move towards better addressing its past and penalizing those guilty of human right violations, then it’s a worthwhile cause.
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.
One of the many signs of a strong and organized state is the organization and effectiveness of the military as displayed not only in parades but in military maneuvers and exercises designed in part to test “readiness” but also to show to the rest of the world one’s military capabilities. Suffice to say, given these guidelines, it seems safe to say that Brazil’s state is strong and organized.