Brazil's Truth Commission

Brazil's Truth Commission

Published on: Wed Feb 8, 2012

 

By Jan Rocha, LAB

brazil_tortura_cartoonA man in a Pau de Arara, cartoon by Carlos Latuff.It is three months since congress approved the installation of the Truth Commission, but President Dilma has still not announced the names of its seven members. It is reported that ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso has been sounded. Failing FHC, one of his justice ministers, José Gregori or José Carlos Dias, might be invited. The inclusion of such a prominent 'tucano', or member of the opposition social democrat party, the PSDB, would prevent the truth commission being seen as a leftwing conspiracy to discredit the military.

The commission's brief is to identify those responsible for deaths, tortures and political disappearances between 1948 and 1985, although the vast majority of these crimes took place during the 21 year military dictatorship. But it will not have the power to punish the perpetrators, because they are protected by the 1979 Amnesty Law.

Jurist Walter Maierovitch, who comments on legal matters, was scathing, calling it a 'half truth' Commission, designed to create a smoke screen around Brazil's recent condemnation by the OAS' Human Rights Committee, the IHRC. The Brazilian government was accused of failing to punish the perpetrators of human rights violations during the dictatorship. The IHRC rejected the auto-amnesty the military granted themselves with the 1979 Amnesty Law. Recently the Supreme Court in Brasilia, in response to a challenge by the OAB, upheld its validity, effectively flouting international law.

While the president takes her time, the São Paulo state assembly has decided to go ahead and create its own Truth Commission. It will have five members, its remit is restricted to the dictatorship period, and it must report by March 2015. Other states are expected to follow suit.

While the choice of the seven people who will make up the commission is crucial, the mere approval of the commission has already opened up a tide of suggestions, confessions and revelations.

Some want to widen the commission's scope to include the murders of peasant and indigenous leaders during the period.

Magazines have published confessions by former double agents who infiltrated leftwing groups in the 60s and 70s. The photographer who took the infamous photo of murdered journalist Vladimir Herzog, arranged to look like a suicide, was tracked down by the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo in Los Angeles. Silvaldo Leug Vieira revealed that he still feels bad about having been used to try and substantiate a lie.

Twenty-seven years have passed since the military reluctantly handed power back to civilians in 1985. Why has it taken so long for Brazil to set up its Truth Commission, while neighbouring Latin American countries who also suffered military dictatorships have not only investigated, but tried and sentenced military and police officers for their crimes?

In Argentina every single general who was a member of the various military juntas that ruled the country and the regional army commanders who submitted the population to a reign of terror between 1976 and 83, if still alive, are all in prison.

The difference is partly it is due to the way the handover happened. In Argentina the military regime ended in shambles, demoralised by the defeat in the Falklands War and discredited by their refusal to explain the fate of the disappeared.

In Brazil there was no rupture: the millions who took to the streets in 1984 to demand direct elections did not go on to demand that the military go. When direct elections were rejected, they accepted the compromise offered by the military – indirect elections, won by the opposition, but with a candidate, Tancredo Neves, who could be relied on not to rock the boat, not to demand investigations. So there was a carefully stage-managed return to democracy.

Forgetting the crimes of the dictatorship was all too easy in a country which makes a habit of forgetting the past. Young Brazilians know little about their recent history. Yet there is a new generation of historians, researchers and journalists who have begun to look under the stones. And there are books like "K.", Bernardo Kucinski's moving story of his father's search to find his disappeared daughter, detained and murdered because of her political activism, which reveal the cruel suffering endured by so many families. For them the Truth Commission is long overdue, but at least it offers a glimmer of hope that they will at last learn something about what happened to their loved ones.

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