Brazil is not condemned to a future of human rights abuse

President Jair Bolsonaro has described that National Truth Commission of Brazil report as nonsense. Interview with Paulo Pinheiro, a member of the Brazil’s National Truth Commission. Español Português

Paulo Pinheiro José Zepeda
16 September 2019, 12.01am
Protest in memory of the victims of the dictatorship in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 01/04/2017
Photo: NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images. All Rights Reserved.

The National Truth Commission (CNV), created in 2011, aims to investigation human rights violations committed in Brazil between 1946 and 1988 – that is, between the 1946 constitution issued immediately after the forced resignation of Getulio Vargas, which resulted in the New Republic (1945 -1964), and the 1988 constitution which ended the period of military dictatorship.

The Truth Commission report, which has just been published, makes clear that there were 434 fatalities or missing people, several thousand were tortured and many others imprisoned. President Jair Bolsonaro, who said that 1,300-page document was just nonsense and questioned what credibility a commission appointed by former president Dilma Rousseff could ever have.

The President then proceeded to replace members of the Commission on the Dead and Disappeared of the military dictatorship with people he trusted. And finished by praising Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the most celebrated repressors of the Brazilian dictatorship, who Bolsonaro called a national hero because he helped “stop the country become what the left still wants today”.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, professor of political science at the University of Sao Paulo and former Minister for Human Rights, human rights rapporteur and President of the UN International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic since 2011. He was also the former coordinator and member of the CNV.

Paulo Pinheiro: According to the CNV report, everything that Colonel Ustra did is well documented not only by the victims but also by in himself in a long interview with my colleagues at the CNV. There is no doubt that he was a torturer. He was a prominent figure, linked to the Army High Command, as the commission uncovered. He didn’t officially work for the army, but he occupied an important position within it. This meant that his superiors knew exactly what he did, from the President of the Republic to the Minister of the armed forces.

José Zepeda: This is not the first time that there has been an attempt to rewrite history in Brazil. During the operation of the commission there were army officers that argued that the coup was needed to prevent the imposition of a communist regime in the country. Recently, when Bolsonaro was a member of Congress, he made 56 speeches denying the truth of witness declarations and the findings of visits by the Commission to torture centres.

PP: I think it is a failed claim because the truth is very evident within the documents, which are based on witness testimony. This is not the only the conclusion of the commission but it is also set out in the book “Tortura, Nunca Más”, supported by cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns and Pastor Paulo Writght in 1985. It’s in the archives of Superior Military Court, which is the source on which the book is based.

JZ: Paraphrasing Tzvetan Todorov, those searching for truth are driven by the desire for testimony, to fight to remember the past, to record the trail of terror and humanity of the victims. To understand to help prevent this happening again. The problem is 40 years have passed.

PP: I don’t agree that we have addressed this late in Brazil. It is not true. During the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a law was passed establishing the responsibility of the state for the crimes committed during the military dictatorship. As a result, there were trials and victims received compensation. The law passed in 1995, just 10 years after the end of the dictatorship.

The Truth Commission report, which has just been published, makes clear that there were 434 fatalities or missing people, several thousand were tortured and many others imprisoned.

JZ: The search for truth, however, has been prolonged. In 1985 the Commission for Political Deaths and Disappearances was created which initially established more than 100 cases of disappearances whose families received compensation.

PP: It should be remembered that in France the crimes of Vichy, the fascist regime of the 1940s, were only recognised as crimes of the French State by President Jacques Chirac… in 1995! In Brazil, the CNV was established in 2012 that doesn’t mean that nothing happened between 1985 and 2014. Tortura, Nunca Más was published and a huge amount of work that relates the atrocities of the dictatorship.

JZ: The Truth of Commission of Argentina didn’t have access to the documents explaining what had happened and it was the same in Chile, Guatemala and other countries.

PP: In this case, we had access to 12 million documents from the National Information System (Sistema Nacional de Información, SIN) in the national archive. We also had access to information from the Foreign Information Centre (Centro de Información del Exterior, CIEX) which is linked to the National Information System, located in Itamaraty, these archives include secret documents. I don’t think any other state in Latin America has had this opportunity.

JZ: The search for justice in Brazil experienced a serious defeated in April 2010, when the supreme court rejected the request from the National Union of Lawyers – by 7 votes to 2 – to revise the amnesty law, which pardoned crimes committed during the dictatorship. The father of the current President of the Bar Association of Brazil, Felipe Santa Cruz, was arrested by the dictatorship on 1974. President Bolsonaro criticised the Bar Association saying “If one day the President of the Bar Association wants to know how his father disappeared during under the military, I will tell him. He doesn’t want to hear the truth”. This is the tone he uses; this is how he speaks.

PP: The CNV, like the other 46 truth commissions that I’m familiar with, has no judicial power. It isn’t a court. This is why the criticism that the work of the commission is pointless is unjust. The fact that nobody has been found guilty is the fault of the supreme court which upheld the amnesty law that stops those who worked for the dictatorship being brought to justice.

JZ: The military dictatorships in Latin America have always insisted that human rights abuses, including torture, were random acts rather than state policy. That is, they were exceptions, understandable in turbulent times. But the Brazilian case is different; the military supported torture with great conviction as if it was an acceptable means to defeat the opposition. For this reason, some argue that the regime came close to being fascist.

PP: We clearly showed in the CNV that there was a chain of command, from the highest positions down to the torturer. Torture, kidnapping, disappearances, assassinations: these were not random acts, they were state policy, Just one example: the Commission has proved that the policy of assassination of the members of the guerrilla in Araguaia, on the banks of the river Araguaia between 1967- and 1974 was a decision taken in person by Generals Garrastazu, Medici and Ernesto Geisel, at one time Presidents of the country.

It is worth noting that the truth about torture in Brazil has not been an issue of broad national interest, as in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. In Brazil, most people do not know what happened. And this is probably because we have had 30 years of democratic government and we have not been able to raise popular consciousness about what happened here.

The people you refer to are not ordinary citizens but rather the military – at least most of them – and the powerful groups who took power with Bolsonaro. Ordinary people are not really part of this debate. Of course, there are members of the extreme right who support what the current regime says and does as well.

Most people were clearly opposed to torture, but there was around 45% of people in favour.

JZ: The situation is serious and worrying. The dictatorship was not soft, in the way some suggest. There were no more than 500 people killed and disappeared here, because the only victims came from working class communities. This is why it is the left and pro-democracy groups are demanding to know the truth and what happened.

PP: An illustrative example: when President Lula da Silva proposed the creation of a Truth Commission, all the ex-Ministers of Human Rights went to Congress and we spoke with the President of the Chamber of Deputies and with ex-President Jose Sarney, then President of the Senate. When I was leaving, Sarney embraced me and said: “Paulo, the problem won’t be here”, meaning in the Senate. He meant it won’t be a problem even though there were so many conservatives in the Senate. This was distinctive in Brazil: it was the centre right and the centre left, supported by the left of course, who supported the creation of the Truth Commission.

JZ: I agree, the things that are being said now are not representative of all the political elite in Brazil. They’re the views of those who are currently in power. But still: expressions of approval of torture, you would think that is threat to democracy in Brazil, wouldn’t you?

PP: This is certainly one of the dangers Brazil faces. There are a number of serious risks facing the country: racism, anti-feminism, homophobia, the violent crackdown in the name of security.

I ran an opinion poll between 1990 and 2000 for the Centre for the Study of Violence. Most people were clearly opposed to torture, but there was around 45% of people in favour. It was about the same as for the death penalty. Those people in favour of violence are now in power and there are always some people in society for whom this will be a popular policy.

But if we were to ask the question of what measures are needed to combat crime, the first preference is education. This shows that Brazil is not condemned to a future of rights abuse.

JZ: When something bad happens to people or we experience tragedy, generally people raise their eyes to heaven and say: “Why?”. I now look to the ground and would say the something similar: How can this be happening in Brazil, one of the most relevant countries in Latin America

PP: If you look at Latinobarometro, it has been clear over the last few years that democracy is not being seen as the best system of government. The polls show that this is particularly the case in Brazil. We need to offer a critical analysis of the democratic experience here.

Nevertheless, I refuse to do this at the moment. Now is not the time to question democratic achievements. What we can say is that Brazil is a profoundly racist, unequal and conservative society. The question is why?

First, 30 years of democratic government has not put an end to the worst excesses of the military police. Brazil is, shamefully, the country where the most people die at the hands of the police.

Secondly, democracy has not been able to reduce inequality. Even under democracy, the rich have always had enormous advantages and they have been able to increase their wealth.

And thirdly, democracy has not been able to combat racism in any effective way. The governments of Cardoso, Lula and Dilma all introduced affirmative action policies in defence of the rights of black people. This had never happened before. There were very progressive policies such as grants for afro-Brazilian citizens, and opportunities to join the Ministry of Foreign Relations, for example, where previously only white people had worked. We have, finally, some black Ambassadors, 130 years after the Brazilian Republic was founded.

In this context, of a country that is fundamentally racist, unequal and violent, it shouldn’t surprise is that, in moments of serious economic crisis, authoritarian policies are momentarily popular with some people.

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