It took Brazil almost 30 years to set up a Truth Commission, and even after it was finally created, there was still a number of retired generals who did not accept it, saying its findings were a “pack of lies”. Even so, its report, the result of two and a half years’ work, with hundreds of interviews, dozens of public hearings and visits to places of torture, was undoubtedly a milestone when it was delivered to President Dilma Rousseff on December 10. The President, herself a victim of torture, struggled to hold back tears as she remembered the dead and the “disappeared”.
According to the report, its task was to make public “scenes of horror, about which millions of Brazilians knew little, and to pay homage to the victims of the crimes committed by the Brazilian state and its armed forces, which, during the dictatorship, had turned the systematic violation of human rights into state policy.”
The Truth Commission made a series of recommendations: that the armed forces should recognise their responsibility for human rights crimes committed during the dictatorship; that the curricula of the military academies should be changed; that official events commemorating the 1964 coup should be banned; that the National Security Law should be revoked; that military justice courts should be extinguished; that torture should be stopped; and that the police forces should be demilitarized. The fact that these changes are still needed, three decades after the military returned to the barracks, is an indication of just how deeply rooted the dictatorship still is in Brazilian society and of the superficiality of the democratic process.
Three hundred and seventy seven state agents – police officers and military personnel, including all four general-presidents of the military dictatorship period – were named as responsible for human rights crimes committed between 1946 and 1988,
The report listed 434 men and women as “dead” or “disappeared”. During their investigations, the remains of only two of the 211 “disappeared” were found, because the military refused to provide the information needed to locate the others.
The cruel and savage torture applied to most of the 20,000 Brazilians imprisoned during the dictatorship was described in detail, including the systematic rape and humiliation of the women. In a number of cases small children were imprisoned with their parents, or saw their parents being tortured or killed, which meant that they suffered psychological damage for years afterwards.
The report describes how Brazil collaborated with other South American dictatorships in the persecution and capture of dissidents. It also mentions the participation of American and French instructors in teaching interrogation and counter-insurgency techniques.
It devotes a special section to the involvement of the British government in Brazilian intelligence activities, which dates back to the 1930s. The report suggests that Britain’s MI5 was the model for CIEX, the Brazilian Foreign Office’s intelligence service, which not only monitored the activities of the thousands of Brazilian exiles scattered throughout Latin America and Europe, denying them passports and their children birth certificates, but also helped to organise the capture of wanted “subversives” who had taken refuge in other countries.
One of the very few former military officers who volunteered to give evidence to the Truth Commission – the Commission had no power to subpoena witnesses – expressed great admiration for the British secret service.
Former army coronel Paulo Malhães, one of the army’s most notorious and sadistic torturers, described without remorse how political prisoners who died under torture at a clandestine detention centre in Petrópolis, known as the House of Death, were thrown into a nearby river, after their bodies had been mutilated to prevent identification.
Malhães told the Truth Commission that he had been sent to the UK for a course in the interrogation methods used in Northern Ireland.It is known that half a dozen army officers were sent, but he is the only one to have admitted it. A couple of weeks after giving evidence, he died mysteriously at his home in Rio de Janeiro, after an alleged break-in. Members of the Truth Commission considered his death as “suspicious”, probably a queima de arquivo (burning of the archive) designed to prevent him revealing more names and details of the repression he was part of.
A few days before his death I had managed to talk to him on the phone, to ask him about the UK-Brazil collaboration. After first he denying going to the UK, he later waxed lyrical about the English, praising the superiority of their intelligence services. He ended our surreal conversation with a jokey “God Save the King”. During a second conversation he talked about the superiority of psychological torture and boasted of how he had “turned” captured terrorists into infiltrators.
The report also detailed how Brazil had deliberately obstructed efforts by international organisations like the UN and the OAS to investigate its human rights violations.
The Truth Commission did not confine its investigations to the victims of the 1964 coup, but also looked at the ongoing violence against indigenous populations, rural workers, and trade unionists. It found that in land conflicts, the state, under whatever government, always supported the land-grabbers and large landowners, while systematically criminalizing the attempts at resistance by the posseiros (small farmers). It stated:
The Sarney government (1985-89), allied to the state governments of Goiás, Pará and Maranhão, gave its tacit support to armed actions commanded by members of the UDR (the Democratic Rural Union) … assassinating posseiros, unionists and lawyers who defended the peasants’ cause. While the peasants who tried to defend their land were attacked as “terrorists”, an armed organisation created by landowners received an unofficial go-ahead from the state to persecute illegally and to kill in the cause of defending private property.
It was the law of might over right.
With regard to indigenous peoples, the Report found that 1968, the year when the military regime finally abolished all vestiges of democracy, was also the beginning of a more aggressive indigenous policy, as the Indians came to be seen not only as unwitting obstacles to progress, but as an “internal enemy”. To fight this enemy, massacres, the deliberate spread of disease, and forced removals from ancestral lands were widely practised. This anti-indigenous policy of the dictatorship not only amounted to genocide, it also reversed the historic tradition of Brazil’s more peaceful relations with its indigenous peoples. It stated:
During colonial, imperial and Republican times, Indians had been seen as “defenders of the frontiers”, but now they are seen as suspects, as virtual internal enemies, who have been influenced by foreign interests or are seen this way merely because their territory has mineral wealth, is located on the frontier or is in the way of some development project.
In 1976, interior minister Rangel Reis declared “The Indians cannot impede the passage of progress … within 10 to 20 years there will be no more Indians in Brazil”.
Altogether the Truth Commission’s report paints a shocking picture of years of human rights crimes, against both individuals, social classes and ethnic groups. It points out that many of them can be considered crimes against humanity, and therefore they are not covered by the Amnesty Law of 1979, which has prevented Brazil’s torturers from being put on trial. This impunity has led to the continuation, until today, of similar crimes. The question now is, will the Commission’ recommendations be put into practice?