What do you know about the military regime in Brazil?

by Mario Saraiva, MPA-DP candidate 2018 at SIPA

We need to talk about the military regime. I don’t think the issue has received the attention it deserves. Some stories from the period of dictatorship in Brazil are famous, such as the kidnapping of the American ambassador by the communist guerrilla, and how the US was a key supporter of the regime. However, many Brazilians are still unaware of the atrocities that happened from 1964 to 1985.  Our neighbors, Argentina and Chile, have publicly examined the crimes committed against human rights during their dictatorships regimes but Brazil…let’s just say Brazil is not there yet. Open dialogue about the military regime remains limited and consequently, my generation—born after 1985—is at risk of forgetting what we as a nation have been through.

 “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana words carry a timely lesson for Brazil as the country approaches the one-year countdown for its 2018 presidential election.

In a recent Datafolha polling, former president Lula (30%) appears to be leading the polls, followed by congressman Jair Bolsonaro(15%) and Marina Silva (15%). If Lula is unable to run due to his ongoing trial regarding the Car Wash operations, then we could have a tough race between Bolsonaro and Marina.

Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, a former captain in Brazil’s army, represents ideals of the extreme right. The potential candidate to the presidency of Brazil may represent the outcry of those who lost heart during the (ongoing) political crisis that was so turbulent, even House of Cards admitted it was hard to compete with[1]. In every major protest since 2013, a growing minority held signs calling for military intervention.

(if you want a bit more information on Bolsonaro, we selected a few different sources to give you a balanced critique on him see footnote[2].

A book published on May 2017, by Intrinseca, called “Em Nome dos Pais” (On Behalf of Parents) could not be more appropriate to the times we are living in Brazil right now. Author Matheus Leitao, son of the renowned journalist Miriam Leitão who, in 2005, received the  Maria Moors Cabot award from the Columbia Journalism School, presents a profound discussion on the lack of dialogue about Brazil’s dictatorship period.

The book is comprised of the author’s own journey investigating what happened to his parents during the Military Regime in Brazil. As a teenager, he found out that both of his parents suffered tortures as political prisoners in the city of Vitoria, Espirito Santo for being active members of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), which was illegal at the time. Through the betrayal of a friend, his parents were captured by the regime.

In one of many sessions of torture his mom, while pregnant, was locked in a dark room naked with an anaconda-type snake for hours. His dad, Mr. Marcelo Netto, an acclaimed journalist now, was not allowed to sleep for days and was consistently beaten every time he fell asleep.

Dictatorship Protest Women
50 years of the Military coup. Photo credit: Fotos GOVBA. Flickr 2014.

More than 30 years later, on behalf of his parents, Mr. Leitão found the traitor, the torturer, and the captain who oversaw the torturers. Face to face with…them (no names here to avoid spoilers) Matheus had the most difficult conversation of his life. The story is not about revenge, but rather about a son stretching himself to understand what happened during that period through different perspectives. The book is a personal story about a national dialogue that needs to continue.

In 2011, President Rousseff, who was also tortured during the regime, approved the National Truth Commission (NTC)[3]  whose mission was to investigate human rights violations during the military regime. The commission began its research in 2012 and in 2014 a final report was delivered to the president. Also in 2012, President Rousseff signed into law the Access to Information law (law number 12.527/2011) giving civilians greater access to government documents.

It is important to understand that there was some sort of silence pact among the military of the time, preventing officials from openly discussing everything that happened during the regime and making it difficult for civilians to access documents from that period (even with the Access to Information law). Nevertheless, forty years after the regime, during a hearing of the NTC, Colonel Paulo Malhaes confessed several crimes against human rights at the Petropolis House of Death (Casa da Morte)[4].

One month after his confession, Colonel Malhaes was found dead at his own house with signs of asphyxia[5].

The book is rich with documents and findings from different experts on the Brazilian military regime such as the Brazil: Never Again project. Developed by the World Council of Churches and the Archdiocese of São Paulo in the 1980s, the project produced a six-page document with official records of torture during the military regime in Brazil: 1,843 people stated that they had suffered torture through legal proceedings 6.016 times[6]. Mr. Leitão explains that these proceedings were recorded at the Superior Military Court during the trial of political prisoners. In every trial, the accused had the chance to speak in his defense before the (military) judge, and the statement had to be recorded word by word as part of the trial. Today these proceedings are one of the strongest pieces of evidence of human rights violation. It is a bizarre fact; why did the military keep their own torture records? Even stranger is why we are not talking about it like our neighbors did.

The Amnesty Law (law # 6.683) granted amnesty to all who were accused of a political crime during the dictatorship years but also granted amnesty to all torturers. On April 28, 2010, the Supreme Federal Court ruled against the petition (ADPF 153) to revise the unconstitutionality of the application of law #6.683 to the civil servants who committed crimes[7] . How amnesty was given to all torturers at the end of the regime? Were not the torturers representing the Government?

This is a complex issue; while some political prisoners committed crimes, such as kidnapping the American ambassador (although no signs of torture were reported), many political prisoners were college students tortured for handing out flyers or promoting discussions on democracy, or merely for possessing forbidden books (aka “subversive content”). Apart from physical torture many were expelled and restrained from studying at any higher education institution.  What about the families that were not able to bury their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, relatives or friends that were abruptly captured by the regime, never to be found?  

It was the State, whose primary mission is to serve its people, that committed the worse crimes against its citizens. I have heard comments such as “ they did what needed to be done”. The ends cannot justify the means, for the end cannot address the deep harm caused to many families. Brazil has the duty to address the pain it caused on its sons and daughters. Tough questions that we need to discuss before it is too late (it has been over forty years since these crimes were committed, many of the torturers are already dead…)

The book does not defend communism, in fact, it recognizes that Brazil was better off without it and that a dictatorship—capitalist or communist—is toxic. It further acknowledges the important economic policies established during the military regime that were critical for GDP growth. Most importantly, the book is not about revenge, but rather closing a wound and bringing peace through forgiving…not forgetting.

Mr. Leitão intelligently conveys a multigenerational message, inviting the generation of his parents and our generation to dialogue. Dialogue is a bridge between people, ideas, and times. Unfortunately, bridges are often blown up by the attacks of those who are unwilling to understand the other side. Extremism (either right or left) is not healthy in any democracy. Honest dialogue has the power to heal wounds from the past while enhancing our capacity to build a better future. Being aware of Brazil’s untold history, it is not possible that a candidate such as Bolsonaro can stand for the values and principles of a true democracy. I hope Brazilians will choose to remember what the country has been through and vote accordingly.

Works Cited

[1]Cards, H. of. (2017, May 1). Tá difícil competir. [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/HouseofCards/status/864992970994368512

[2] More on Bolsonaro:

[3]Tortura em Instalações Militares – CNV – Comissão Nacional da Verdade. (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2017, from http://www.cnv.gov.br/torturas-em-instalacoes-militares/2-uncategorised/626-tortura-em-instalacoes-militaress.html

[4]Coronel revelou funcionamento da “Casa da Morte”, em Petrópolis. (2014, April 25). Retrieved July 28, 2017, from https://oglobo.globo.com/brasil/coronel-revelou-funcionamento-da-casa-da-morte-em-petropolis-12296665

[5] Coronel Paulo Malhães, que assumiu torturas, é encontrado morto no Rio – 25/04/2014 – Poder. (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2017, from http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2014/04/1445454-coronel-paulo-malhaes-que-assumiu-torturas-e-encontrado-morto-no-rio.shtml

[6] Leitão, M. (2017). Cap. 57 – Frente a frente com o torturador. In Em nome dos pais (p. 396). Rio de Janeiro-RJ: Intrínseca.

[7]Notícias STF :: STF – Supremo Tribunal Federal. (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2017, from http://www.stf.jus.br/portal/cms/verNoticiaDetalhe.asp?idConteudo=125515&caixaBusca=N