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On Volkswagen’s Ties to the Brazilian Dictatorship

February 2, 2015 Comments off

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.

Dictatorship Apologists, 50 Years On

April 2, 2014 Comments off

Yesterday, Brazil’s Congress marked the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew constitutional president João Goulart and ushered in a 21-year military dictatorship that killed hundreds of its own citizens and tortured thousands others.  In 1964, Congress was directly implicit in the coup and the subsequent military dictatorship: Congress proclaimed the presidency vacant even while Goulart remained in Brazil and declared Chamber of Deputies leader Ranieri Mazzilli as the acting President of Brazil for the second time in his life (he’d also assumed the role in the wake of Jânio Quadros’s abrupt resignation in 1961). Mazzilli was president in name only, as a military junta, led by Artur Costa e Silva, established control before Congress selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the country’s new president. By contrast, yesterday’s commemoration was to be a more solemn affair, recognizing the setbacks that human rights and democracy both suffered under Brazil’s military regime.

Of course, that did not mean all were willing to cooperate with such a dignified approach. Ultra-right wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a dictatorship apologist, decided to use the event to celebrate the military in his speech, with various other representatives turning their backs on him. Meanwhile, his supporters unfurled a banner thanking the military, through whose efforts “Brazil is not Cuba,” according to Bolsonaro, while another Bolsonaro supporter shouted to others, “I do not want communism in my Country.” Ultimately, the ceremony ended up being delayed for over an hour. Yet the event reminds us of the degree to which Brazil’s dictatorship continues to appear in politics even while torturers are publicly named but remain unpunished, something that seems unlikely to change anytime soon, given the reluctance of President Rousseff (herself a political prisoner and torture victim during the dictatorship) to review the 1979 amnesty that pardoned all those in the military regime who committed torture and murder.

When Public Anger & Political Frustration Ignore History

June 22, 2013 4 comments

As readers of this blog know, I’ve written extensively about the Brazilian military dictatorship from a variety of angles, including how the military came to power amidst civilian calls for the military to remove constitutional president João Goulart. The idea of military intervention was not new, as the military had previously interjected itself into presidential politics with various levels of success or failure in 1889, 1930, 1937, 1945, 1954, 1955, and 1961. However, the military intervention of 1964 led to a dictatorship that employed torture, killed “subversives,” and repressed those who questioned it. In short, the last time Brazil turned to the military to “solve” its problems, the military ended up ruling through dictatorship, relying on the institutional use of repression to murder hundreds, torture thousands, and exile tens of thousands more, even while implementing economic policies that caused very real long-term harm to much of Brazilian society.

Which is why it is still baffling to see something like this in 2013. Yes, they claim that “We do not support dictatorship. We do not support any type of violence. We don’t defend torturers.” So presumably, they think a military intervention in 2014 would be different than the one fifty years earlier (and even if it’s coincidental, the symbolism of calling for a military coup fifty years after the last one is not exactly encouraging). Yet this is either naive, willfully ignorant, or trolling, plain and simple. Once military officials take office, there’s little ability to force them to leave, as Brazilians learned in the 1960s; the middle classes and conservative elites who’d called for military intervention expected the military to leave power quickly, once things had “stabilized.” When it became clear that military leaders like Artur Costa e Silva had no intention of doing so, the public had little to force the military out.

And if one is tired of the violence in the streets, turning to a military institution of any color is not exactly the means to peace. Indeed, though a small number of vandals have marred the demonstrations, an overwhelming majority of the demonstrators have been peaceful, while it has been the military police [a militarized police force] that have been behind an overwhelming and disproportionate use of violence against civilians in the streets. It is hard to see why further relying on militarization will suddenly bring an end to that violence.

And perhaps somewhat ironically, the facebook page itself says that comments from people who don’t like the page will be deleted. You know…censorship. Like the kinds that military governments have used not just during Brazil’s military dictatorship, but in military interventions like the creation of the Estado Novo in 1937, or in military interventions regimes throughout the region throughout the 20th century.

The hypocrisy, ignorance, and disregard for Brazilian history makes me think this page really is just trolling. But even if it is, the worst part is that it is still contributing a dangerous discourse that views the military as salvationary, and some people will take that idea seriously, even if the page’s creators don’t (and there’s nothing to indicate they don’t). Either way, as Brazil in particular and Latin America more generally in the 20th century repeatedly demonstrated, turning to the military for political intervention was repeatedly damaging to political stability, democracy (in various forms), and human rights. That such ideas are still floating around in the 21st century is just shameful.

Former Dictator Calls for Military Uprising in Argentina

March 18, 2013 Comments off

Jorge Videla, the first military leader of Argentina’s military dictatorship who governed for five of the regime’s seven years, has apparently called for the Argentine military to arm itself for an overthrow of the government.

To repeat: the man who for five of seven years led a brutal authoritarian regime that oversaw the murder of upwards of 30,000 of its own citizens, the “disappearance” of thousands, the torture of tens of thousands, and the kidnapping of at least 500 victims’ children, wants the military to prepare itself for the possibility of doing it again.

Of course, Videla is in prison until he dies, leaving only for ongoing trials that continue to find him guilty of manifold human rights violations. That he finally faced justice for his role in the regime hopefully serves as a deterrent to any current military officials actually entertaining such possibilities. Videla’s guilt and his admission to his regime’s repression have already rendered him a villain of Argentine history to many; the fact that he continues to believe that the use of force to overthrow democratically-elected governments is appropriate only serves as another reminder of his truly reprehensible attitudes towards civilians, democracy, and Argentina itself.

On This Date in Latin America – February 9, 1913: The Decena Trágica

February 9, 2013 Comments off

One hundred years ago today, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, the Decena Trágica, or “Tragic 10 Days,” began in Mexico City. By its end, over 5000 Mexicans were dead in urban violence, and, with support from the US, General Victoriano Huerta had overthrown the first president of the Revolution, Francisco Madero, who Huerta had assassinated on February 22, 1913.

Mexican soldiers fighting in urban war in Mexico City during the Decena Trágica of February 9-19, 1913.

Mexican soldiers fighting in urban war in Mexico City during the Decena Trágica of February 9-19, 1913.

The Decena Trágica marked the first time that Mexico City itself confronted significant urban violence during the Mexican Revolution. Up to that point, the violence of the revolution, which began in 1910 when peasants, middle-class politicians, urban laborers, and others rose up against Porfírio Díaz (who had governed in one form or another since 1876), had been limited to the northern part of the country and to individual states like Morelos. By 1911, Díaz was in exile, and Francisco Madero, a ranch owner from a wealthy family, had assumed the presidency. While Madero had become the face of the revolution in the election of 1910, social forces proved to be far beyond his control. Peasant calls for land reform, symbolized by the efforts of Emiliano Zapata, were too extreme to Madero’s liking; likewise, his slowness to move on urban labor reform alienated the working classes in industrial centers. While Madero enjoyed some middle-class support, by 1912, Mexican politics and society were increasingly divided, as different forces jostled for power within the government or plotted to take over themselves. Up until early 1913, the population living outside of the capital had felt most of this violence. But in February 1913, the unrest and turmoil finally arrived in Mexico City itself.

Francisco Madero, the first president of the Mexican Revolution. He would be overthrown (and, shortly thereafter, assassinated) during the Decena Trágica of February 9-19, 1913.

Francisco Madero, the first president of the Mexican Revolution. He would be overthrown (and, shortly thereafter, assassinated) during the Decena Trágica of February 9-19, 1913.

Angry at his uncle’s removal, Félix Díaz, assembled an army in Veracruz. Counterrevolutionary in nature, Díaz was able to quickly gain the allegiance and moral support from those who did not want to see Porfírio Díaz go. Díaz joined forces with General Bernardo Reyes, who had run against Madero for the vacant presidency in 1911 and lost, and launched an assault on the capital on February 9, 1913. The assault failed to take the presidential palace, however, and Reyes died in the fighting. Failing to immediately overthrow Madero, Díaz relocated his troops to a well fortified arsenal in another part of the city. Needing a strong military leader to counter the rebels, Madero, against the advice of many of his confidants, appointed Victoriano Huerta to head the army.

Victoriano Huerta, whom Madero fatefully  (and futilely) appointed to lead the army against rebels.

Victoriano Huerta, whom Madero fatefully (and futilely) appointed to lead the army against rebels.

For ten days, Madero’s supporters and Díaz’s supporters exchanged artillery fire. The damage to the city was catastrophic, as it set fires, destroyed buildings, and killed thousands of civilians. Businesses shut down, and consumer goods became scarce, leading to increasing panic among the public. As a result, people resorted to looting. At the same time, the urban warfare severed electric wires, which dangled loosely throughout the city and left many without power. The situation was so violent and chaotic that, in one instance, a barrage of artillery actually blew a hole in the walls of the  Belén prison; seeing how dangerous and anarchic conditions outside were, some of the prisoners opted to remain in jail, where they felt it was safer.

Destruction from the fighting during the Decena Trágica.

Destruction from the fighting during the Decena Trágica.

As time progressed, Madero grew increasingly frustrated with  Huerta, asking his general what had been taking so long. Huerta assured his president that it would all be over soon. Unbeknownst to Madero, Huerta was tragically correct. Ever since the Revolution had begun US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson had meddled in Mexico’s internal affairs in order to protect American economic interests, even demanding Madero resign at one point. With Díaz’s failed coup attempt, Wilson brought together Díaz and Huerta to try to find an alternative to the Madero government. Seeing Díaz as weak and easily-manipulable, Huerta decided to work with Wilson and Díaz, and entered what came to be known as the Pact of the Embassy. In meetings at the US embassy, Huerta agreed to switch sides and help Díaz overthrow Madero. Thus, on February 19, Huerta had Madero arrested. Three days later, Huerta had Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez, assassinated, bringing an end to what many scholars consider the first phase of the Mexican Revolution. In the meantime, well over 5000 people had died in the urban fighting and violence.

Scene from the Decena Trágica, during which thousands died and parts of Mexico City were torn apart by artillery and gunfire.

Scene from the Decena Trágica, during which thousands died and parts of Mexico City were torn apart by artillery and gunfire.

Of course, Huerta himself was not long for office. Henry Lane Wilson had acted in the last days of the Taft administration; a month later, Woodrow Wilson [no relation to Taft’s ambassador] was in office, and was opposed to Huerta’s regime. Using the arrest of lost US sailors as a pretext, president Wilson would order the United States to occupy the harbor city of Veracruz in 1914; the move weakened Huerta’s government, even as Constitutionalist forces led by Venustiano Carranza and the armies of Emiliano Zapata and Francisco “Pancho” Villa challenged Huerta’s government from within. By the end of 1914, Huerta himself was out of office, and for the next six years, the revolution was marked by civil wars at the national and regional levels as various groups and interests jostled for power. Indeed, although traditional political narratives view 1920 as the “end” of the Mexican Revolution, much of the political and social unrest and issues it unleashed continued into the 1920s. Nonetheless, February 9, 1913 marked an important moment in the Revolution, as it unleashed the processes that ultimately led to Madero’s overthrow and changed the dynamics of revolutionary politics and violence in Mexico. The Decena Trágica marked one of the first times Mexico City directly experienced the turmoil and violence of the Revolution, but it would not be the last.

A Mexican citizen dead on the streets of Mexico City during the Decena Trágica.

A Mexican citizen dead on the streets of Mexico City during the Decena Trágica.

Former Coup Leader Running for President in Honduras

January 21, 2013 Comments off

Well, the Honduran election just got a little more interesting:

Former Honduran armed forces chief Romeo Vasquez, who in 2009 led the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, on Sunday launched a presidential campaign, saying he will restore order and security to the troubled Central American country.

Vasquez, who until now has been running the country’s phone company, will stand as a candidate for the right-leaning opposition Patriotic Alliance party in the elections in November, he said at an event in the Honduran capital.

“We will fight hard to bring order and security to this country, combating corruption and impunity so we can attract jobs and investment,” he told journalists. […]

In the election, Vasquez will face the wife of Zelaya, Xiomara Castro, a candidate for the leftist Liberty and Refoundation party.

Glibness aside, there’s sadly little in this news that’s surprising, from the generic, boilerplate slogans of combating corruption and attracting investment to the impunity for individuals who led what was, by Honduras’s own admission, a coup. The fact that military members can act outside of their constitutional authority is nothing new, of course, but it speaks to the ongoing challenges democracy faces in Central American countries like Honduras. One can hope that Honduras won’t elect a man whose very actions helped establish the escalating violence that has led to Honduras having the highest murder rate in the world. Unfortunately, one of the many depressing history lessons from Central America is that the political and military elites in the region rarely face the consequences of or face justice for their actions. The fact that Vasquez is even able to run for office after the events of 2009 is yet another reminder of that fact.

Coup-Mongering in Honduras?

December 8, 2012 Comments off

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has created a bit of a stir after claiming yesterday that there is a conspiracy to launch a coup and overthrow him. Of course, this isn’t the first time Lobo has made such claims – back in 2010, he also hinted at vague allegations of a possible plot to overthrow him. And of course, it’s no small irony that Lobo himself took office after elections held to replace overthrown president Manuel Zelaya, whom the military and conservatives overthrew in a coup in 2009 when he attempted to hold a plebiscite on potential constitutional reforms, throwing the country into political turmoil and fundamentally transforming it in unintended but damaging ways in the long term.

A few quick thoughts. First, it’s tough to say whether or not there’s any substance to these rumors. The fact that it’s not the first time Lobo has made such claims without offering much in the way of evidence to support them could certainly lead to some doubts about the allegations. At the same time, though, it’s not like segments of the political and/or economic elites have hesitated to overthrow presidents in the face of international opposition, as the 2009 coup reminds us. As for why Lobo would make such claims, that’s equally uncertain: on the one hand, the claims could be legitimate, but on the other hand, it could be an attempt to strengthen his own position and isolate his opposition. As even a basic understanding of Latin American politics in the 20th century reveals, the  allegation mysterious plots to solidify one’s own control over the country has been a tried and true method for politicians throughout the region in the past, and that could be what we’re seeing here in a country with an executive branch that was greatly weakened in the wake of the 2009 coup.

It’s also interesting that he made the claim while addressing a military group. The military played a key role in overthrowing Zelaya in 2009 (though several of its leaders escaped prosecution). Lobo may be trying to ensure that he has the support of at least a not-insubstantial part of the armed forces. Again, historically, politicians have often turned to the military for support in order to remain in power, creating an uncertain political terrain that gives the military a more direct role in national politics and turning the armed forces into another political agent rather than a less partisan and independent institution. The timing and audience of Lobo’s latest allegations does not seem like an accident; indeed,  he may be using such threats, real or perceived, to try to gain greater institutional support from the Honduran military. For what purpose remains unclear, but it will be worth watching to see what, if anything, comes out of these latest allegations in Honduras.

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