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Brazil: a book called João

Two books on the period of military dictatorship are a timely reminder of the barbarities unlimited power can achieve

SourceJan Rocha


April 11th 2017. In Rio recently ex-military officer and ultra rightwing deputy Jair Bolsanaro was applauded for his racist remarks at the Hebrew club, of all places, while a new survey showed that 73% of cariocas think human rights get in the way of fighting crime.  So two new books are a timely reminder of what unlimited power in the hands of men in uniform actually means. Jair Bolsonaro: “Where there is indigenous land, there is wealth beneath it. We have to change that.”  “The slightest Afro-descendant there [in a quilombo] weighed seven arrobas (An old unit of measurement mainly used for Livestock). They do not do anything. I do not think they even serve to procreate any more. More than R$1 billion a year is spent on them”.
In 1974 a group of political prisoners being held in the Casa da Detenção, São Paulo’s main prison, managed to smuggle out a painstaking, handwritten, compilation of data and analysis on military and police repression. A rudimentary version was published in Paris and then it was forgotten. Now, 43 years later, it has been re-published in Brazil,* with the curious subtitle “a book called Joao”. At the launch in São Paulo attended by some of the surviving prisoners a few days ago, they explained that ‘João’ was their code name for the project. They could ask, “how’s João getting on?” without arousing suspicion. They worked on it secretly in their cells, collating and organising material smuggled in to them by various drepressão-policial-no-brasil_thumb650evious means – hidden inside the hollowed out interior of approved books like Delfim Neto’s on the economy, or religious books.  Ordinary prisoners smuggled them newspapers in exchange for cigarettes. One of the prisoners, even managed, in spite of his handcuffs, to steal a rubber stamp from the military tribunal where he was on trial, and secrete it back to prison.  There it was concealed in a specially fashioned leather medallion, surviving innumerable searches, and enabling the prisoners to stamp their subversive literature “Approved by Military Justice”.  Other items were hidden in carefully camouflaged holes dug into the thick walls of the cells. They  detailed, not only the tortures inflicted on political prisoners, including themselves, by members of the police and armed forces, but the historical origins of those organisations,  including the replacement of the external enemy with the concept of the ‘internal enemy’, which was introduced by the doctrine of national security during the Cold War. The preface to the book is by Bernardo Kucinski, author of LAB book ‘K‘. os fuzis e as flechasThe other book is Rifles and Arrows,** subtitled ‘the story of blood and indigenous resistance in the dictatorship’, written by journalist Rubens Valente, who had access to recently declassified archives of the military and Funai, the government agency for indigenous affairs, and who also travelled to ten states to interview indians, missionaries, sertanistas and anthropologists. Valente describes how 100s of Indians died during the 21 year dictatorship, many from epidemics spread by the building of roads and dams in the Amazon.  He quotes an analysis prepared by Funai employees themselves in 1985, after the end of military rule, when they recognised that there had been an official policy of “extermination or assimilation, where indigenous societies were seen as obstacles to the full occupation of a space economically coveted by national society.” He also describes “the Orwellian system of espionage implanted by the military to watch the day to day life of villages, indigenous leaders, and missionaries”. Today Brazil is a democracy, yet members of the MST continue to be attacked, arrested and accused of belonging to a criminal organisation because of their struggle for land reform, and indigenous leaders continue to be assassinated when they defend their traditional lands.
* A repressão militar-policial no Brasil, published by Expressão Popular, São Paulo ** Os Fuzis e as Flechas, published by Companhia das Letras, São Paulo

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Jan Rocha's Blog

Jan Rocha is a former correspondent for the BBC and the Guardian and lives in São Paulo, Brazil. She is the author of a number of LAB books, and contributes this regular column for LAB, known for its incisive analysis of current Brazilian politics.

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