Bernardo Kucinski is a highly respected Brazilian journalist and writer. After decades in journalism, he recently turned to literature, writing, among other works, a widely acclaimed short novel, entitled “K”, based on the ‘disappearance’ of his sister during the military dictatorship. On 25 October of this year Bernardo gave a public address in the Tucarena Theatre, São Paulo, on being awarded the prestigious Vladimir Herzog Prize for Human Rights and Amnesty, journalism category. This is a shortened version of what he said, translated from the Portuguese by Sue Branford:

Good evening everyone. I understand that I was chosen to receive the Vladimir Herzog award, not because the judges wanted to pay homage to me as an individual, but because they wanted to express a collective repudiation of all those who preach human rights violations. And I feel honoured that they chose me as the instrument for this gesture.

LAB book ‘K’. Available from DevelopmentBookshop

In 1970, during the military dictatorship, my wife and I left for London in what was then called ‘voluntary exile’. I had in my pocket a letter of recommendation from Vlado [as Vladimir Herzog, the journalist tortured to death by the military in 1975, was widely known] to the head of the Brazilian BBC service, where Vlado had worked. We were also carrying in our luggage the draft of a book written by me and the journalist Italo Tronca, denouncing the practice of torture in Brazil. It had been commissioned by the journalist Luiz Eduardo Merlino and it was published it in France under the title Pau de Arara [the name for a common form of military torture] – Military Violence in Brazil.

Shortly afterwards, in July of the following year, Luiz Eduardo Merlino was arrested on his return from a trip abroad and suffered pau de arara torture in DOI-CODI, the main centre of military intelligence and repression in São Paulo, headed by Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. Merlino suffered a rupture of his femoral vein, didn’t receive treatment and died. He was only 23 years old. He was one of the most brilliant journalists of my generation.

Four years passed. On October 25, 1975, I left for London for a brief internship in a Brazilian newsroom. On landing, I received the news that Vlado had been murdered in the same DOI-CODI in São Paulo where Merlino had been killed. Visiting friends at the BBC office, I learned that embassy agents were trying to extract statements from colleagues that Vlado was mentally unstable. Vlado was only 38 years old. He was also one of the brightest journalists of my generation.

In 2008, nearly 40 years after Merlino’s death, his family had Ustra declared guilt of kidnapping and torture in the first declaratory judgement made against military officers. However, eight days ago, in an indication of the new times we live in, the São Paulo Court of Justice overturned the judgement made in the lower court. And just three days later, in one of the most extravagant episodes of collective hysteria in our history, we elected as President of Brazil a person who, as well as being unqualified in every sense of the word, publicly recognises as his idol this same Colonel Brilhante Ustra, responsible for the murder of Merlino and co-responsible with his colleagues for the death of Vlado and another 433 people (among whom are 210 ‘disappeared’ people).

This is what the journalist Monica de Bolle, from ÈPOCA magazine, wrote in an article published on 21 September:

In 2015 Bolsonaro said in a video interview that Pinochet did what had to be done … and In 1999, in an interview with Bandeirantes TV, Bolsonaro made the following statement: ‘You [the Brazilian people] will only change, unfortunately, when we start a civil war, doing a job that the military regime did not do. Killing 30,000 people, starting with FHC [referring to former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso]. In 2016 he told an interviewer: the dictatorship’s mistake was to torture, instead of killing.

I quote now what this mind, this sick mind, said in a video made public last Sunday: ‘The cleansing will now be very extensive. If anyone from the group [of opponents] wants to stay here, they will have to put themselves under our law, the law of us all. If not, they will have to leave the country or go to jail. These red outcasts will be sent packing from our homeland … If [former President] Lula was waiting for Haddad [the other presidential candidate in this year’s election] to win and sign a decree to pardon him, I will say just one thing: you will rot in jail. Soon he’ll be able to play dominoes with Lindbergh Farias [another politician from the Workers’ Party]. And then Haddad will arrive in the jail and it won’t be to visit him.’

How can we explain the fact that millions of Brazilians voted for such a repulsive being? How can we understand an act of such extraordinary cognitive dissonance? Its causes are certainly many and complex. But it is not a process that was born yesterday. It has been gaining force for decades, ever since a worker, a simple worker [Lula], led the great strikes that led to the fall of the dictatorship and later became President of Brazil. It reached its apex when the judiciary and press made the fight against corruption a sectarian war. I intentionally quoted from ÈPOCA magazine because I see it as one of the few exceptions in the Brazilian media, one that has understood what was going on all these decades.

It is not for me to judge other people. It is not for me to evaluate the reasons for people’s actions. I speak for myself, of what I feel. What saddens and shames me most at this moment is not the stance taken by the economic bosses, we expected such a stance from them, nor the position taken by a frustrated and enraged middle class, not even the attitude taken by poor people, seduced by the easy solution offered by lynching. What leaves me most mortified is the posture taken by those who should have known better, among whom, of course, we journalists.

I share this Herzog award with the journalists who have exercised and still exercise the noblest function of our office, which is to defend freedom, life and the fundamental rights of human beings, including the right to housing, food, education and health; and I share it also with former President Lula, who has devoted his political career to the extension of these rights and today, more than ever, is a victim of collective hatred and lynching.

Copies of K, published in English by LAB, can be obtained here.