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.
Yesterday, on International Human Rights Day, Brazil’s National Truth Commission (Comissão Nacional da Verdade) concluded and submitted its report after over two years of work across 14 work groups and thousands upon thousands of hours of interviews, fact-finding, document-collecting, and site visits. The report is of remarkable significance, in part because it marks the Brazilian state finally beginning to fully account for the actions, atrocities, and human rights violations that the military regime of 1964-1985 and its supporters committed; in part, because it provides an even greater level of detail and of the systematic use of torture than we previously had; and in part because it has forced the most enduring and most public discussion on a military regime that Brazilians had tended to ignore and leave in the past in an effort to “move forward” without critically looking at the context and legacies of the regime.
There’s a lot to be said on the Commission, but there are a large number of reports in both English and Portuguese that cover the Commission’s findings and its context. There are a lot of different angles to consider: the report’s findings themselves; the question of possibly revoking the 1979 general amnesty that pardoned torturers and perhaps moving toward prosecution; the question of collective memory as survivors relive the events of the past; and even the gendered portrayal of a crying Dilma Rousseff when she received the report. Below is a list of some excellent pieces related to the Report. [Some are in Portuguese, but Google Translate can do a passable job in many instances.]
“Brazil Releases Report on Past Rights Abuses” (New York Times)
“Brazil president weeps as she unveils report on military dictatorship’s abuses -Dilma Rousseff was herself tortured; 191 people killed, 243 ‘disappeared’ – US and UK trained interrogators in torture during 1964-1985 military rule” (The Guardian)
“Report will motivate new actions in the Justice system” (Folha de São Paulo)
“Brazil releases truth commission report” (Memory in Latin America)
“Argentina an ally in Brazilian state’s repression” (Buenos Aires Herald)
Over a month ago, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, went “missing” after mobilizing and protesting for improvements in Mexico’s educational policy and social system. Within days, authorities had uncovered mass graves; yet the bodies were not of the students, making a bad situation even worse in revealing the depth of murder and “disappearance” of bodies in one of Mexico’s most violent states, where drug gangs have infiltrated not just the police force but the very mayoralty of Iguala itself. (Vice News, of all sites, has a useful timeline here.) As I wrote then, if ” it turns out that the graves aren’t even the students’ remains, then not only are students still missing, but apparently other people have been murdered and dumped unceremoniously in hidden graves in an attempt to “erase” evidence of them, which is even worse.” Yesterday, state authorities announced that the students were indeed dead, cremated (some while still alive, apparently), and their ashes dumped, according to a gang confession.
Alma Guillermoprieto wrote a piece this week that covered not so much the events as their significance, especially with regards to the relationship between the state and society, as a group and class of citizens whose voices the state all too often ignores and whose rights it disregards finally made themselves heard.
Emiliano Navarrete, a slight man in a baseball cap who looked to be in his mid-thirties, was the last relative to speak.
“I am the father of a boy who, for me, is not disappeared,” he began. “For me, he was kidnapped by men in uniform who are municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero.” His face was stretched taut against his skull from tension and the stress of speaking in public, and his stumbling Spanish revealed his Indian origins. “Why does this government act like this?” he went on, searching for words. “We are not sheep to be killed whenever they feel like it.”
Even the cameramen, normally so noisy and cynical, were listening closely. “I haven’t come here to ask for any favor,” Navarrete shouted now, in his rage. “I’ve come to demand [that our children be found], because I am a citizen of Mexico, and I have rights.”
The following day government security forces were deployed by the thousands in and around the towns of Iguala and Chilpancingo. They mobilized in tanks, helicopters, vans, and motorboats.
The Mexican state’s response to the events in Iguala is indeed belated, as Guillermoprieto notes; yet as she also notes, it is in some ways remarkable that the state has mobilized at all, in light of how many times people have been murdered, their rights as citizens disregarded as the state failed to act to investigate or prevent such deaths, something the dozens of bodies who weren’t the students but who were uncovered in the wake of their disappearance reinforces.
Yet of all the parts of Guillermoprieto’s piece that stuck out to me, it is perhaps the last sentence, almost tossed out as an aside, that struck me. She writes,
[T]he spokesman for the families, Felipe de Jesús de la Cruz, has reiterated their position: they will only accept proof that their sons are dead in the form of positive DNA test results analyzed by a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists, who have been acting as independent investigators throughout the search.
The reliance on Argentine forensic anthropologists is notable here. As many are aware, the wake of the military dictatorship that governed Argentina from 1976-1983 murdered and “disappeared” tens of thousands of Argentines, dumping some into the Atlantic Ocean but dumping many more into unidentified mass graves. In the wake of the dictatorship, a unique and previously-underdeveloped branch of anthropology developed, one that sought to be able to identify the bodies the families of the disappeared who sought to resolve the fate of their loved ones. As Rita Arditti has shown, organizations like the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo drew on their plight and on their international connections to help spur the scientific community into new areas of genetic testing to identify remains of victims, providing not only closure for some but also helping to identify the “lost children” whom the regime and its allies had kidnapped and adopted after murdering their parents. To the present, Argentine forensic anthropologists are among the best in the world when it comes to trying to identify the bodies of the missing. While Guillermoprieto does not say as much, it seems highly likely that those forensic anthropologists who have worked in uncovering and identifying the disappeared in Argentina have been brought in to aid in Mexico. Their presence serves as a haunting and powerful reminder both of the tragedies of the disappeared in the past and the present, and of the importance of the ongoing quest for justice, be it in the history of Argentina or in the more recent events of Mexico.
Given the recent discussion of memory and military dictatorships, it seems worthwhile to recall one of the many horrific events of Argentina’s military dictatorship: La Noche de los Lápices, or “Night of the Pencils.”
The Night of the Pencils had its roots in the military junta that had taken power six months earlier. Citing political instability, the new regime launched the “Process for National Reorganization,” commonly referred to simply as El Processo. Asserting a centralization of power in the hands of the (military-led) executive branch, through El Proceso the junta (led by Gen. Jorge Videla) gave the military executive, judicial, and legislative powers, launching widespread censorship, undermining habeas corpus, and setting up the mechanisms through which the regime would use torture and “disappear” anybody who it deemed a “subversive.” However, such a term was intentionally loose, and the result ended up being the military arbitrarily arresting, torturing, and usually murdering anybody who deviated in the slightest from the military’s own political, economic, social, cultural, or ideological vision of the nation. In the subsequent months, the military forces arrested and disappeared anybody who was associated with diverse movements ranging from labor unions to student groups, from liberation theologians to peasant activists, to those who professed even mild sympathies with leftist (or left-ish) worldviews.
It was in this context that the Night of the Pencils happened. Dissatisfied with mounting educational and living expenses, a number of high school students began to mobilize for lower bus fares, part of the quotidian struggles that were part of broader social issues for the Unión de Estudiantes Secundarios (Union of High School Students; UES). On September 16, 1976, military forces moved, committing the first of what would ultimately be sixteen kidnappings of high school students between the ages of 16 and 18, as the first salvo in trying to dismantle the UES. However, some of those kidnapped had had no affiliation with the UES; yet the mere suspicion, on the part of the military, led to their arrest and Across the next several nights, the military brutally tortured and disappeared many of those kidnapped; only a few would survive to confirm the fate of their colleagues.
The military did not act alone in the Night of the Pencils (named because the targets were high school students), however. Military authorities acted after receiving a tip from Catholic priest Christian von Wernich. The students had admitted to their involvement with UES to the priest in Confession; Wernich, violating the secrecy of the confessional, revealed to the military the students’ political activism. His participation was not surprising; many in the Catholic hierarchy agreed with the military over the perceived “threat” of “subversion” to the Argentine nation, and were more than happy to collaborate with the regime. Wernich also was present in the prison where the students were tortured to death, according to the few survivors.
Though some of those survivors remained imprisoned until 1978, ultimately it was through them, and their memories of torture, that the fate of their colleagues became known. Likewise, their accounts played a vital role in the eventual arrest, indictment, and conviction in 2007 of Wernich, who was found guilty of complicity in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the students from the Night of the Pencils, along with dozens of other cases of torture and disappearance; a court sentenced Wernich to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, the tortured and murdered students stand out as one of the early cases of state repression under the military’s (problematically-named) “Dirty War,” and their names have become a part of the broader historical record of torture and repression that is remembered annually on March 24, Argentina’s Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.
The Night of the Pencils was not exceptional, but that fact alone makes it worth remembering. From the targeting of unarmed citizens, to the use of torture, to the disappearance of the regime’s victims in order to “silence” the historical record, to members of the Church actively collaborating with the repressive regime, the Night of the Pencils is all too representative of the actions and legacies of Argentina’s authoritarian regime. But it is this representativeness that makes the Night of the Pencils all the more important to remember: not only does it undo the regime’s efforts to silence and erase from the historical record those who disagreed with or merely challenged it by bringing those victims and their stories back into the broader historical narrative of life under military rule in Argentina; it also reminds us that, far from unique, thousands upon thousands of Argentines suffered similar experiences, and that those experiences, and the memories of them, are vital to understanding broader historical narratives and processes not just of Argentine history, but of Latin American history more generally.
I wasn’t the only one who objected to the various arguments made in The Economist’s piece yesterday about how “Memory is not history.” There were several other thoughtful pieces that tackle the issue from different angles. Lillie deals with the false equivalency issue from a different perspective by highlighting the disparities in violence of the left and violence of the right under military regimes in Latin America. Likewise, Mike Allison makes a very important argument about the limits of Truth Commission reports and the periods they seek to “reconcile” even while providing a nuanced analysis that suggests the need to avoid romanticizing the left while condemning the more extreme violence of the right. Otto puts yesterday’s piece on memory in the broader context of The Economist’s often-problematic reporting on Latin America more generally. Steven Bodzin has an excellent piece up that draws on his interview with Ricardo Brodsky, the executive director of Chile’s Museu de la Memoria, that emphasizes both why the museums and memory projects are important historical sites even while they aren’t “history museums” per se. And Geoffrey Ramsey points out how The Economist manages to get the basic history of Uruguay wrong and ends up being “guilty of engaging in the kind of historical revisionism it claims to condemn.”
All are worth reading, and highlight just how many ways The Economist piece fails, be it in terms of history, journalism, politics, or human rights issues.
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.
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.