Rosângela Paraná felt a shiver surge through her body as she watched the protesters gather, their signs reading: “Congratulations, military. Thanks to you Brazil will never be Cuba”, or “There was no coup, only popular uprising”.
For Rosângela and many other Brazilians who were victims of the military dictatorship, especially the more than 20,000 victims of torture and family members of the 434 murdered or forced into dissappearance, the protests in favour of the dictatorship last Sunday are a chilling reminder that the ghosts of the past have yet to be appeased.
Paraná recounts her story, fearing what Brazil has become today: “I feel incomplete. Everything that happened to me was a product of human wickedness, and that’s terrifying”. She was kidnapped as a baby, and illegally adopted by a family with links to the military in 1963. Her adoptive father falsified her birth certificate and never revealed anything about her biological parents.
She is one of 19 cases that have recently come to light, due to the investigative work of Brazilian journalist, Eduardo Reina. His work tells of the kidnappings of babies and children of left-wing activists that were later adopted illegally by military families. Only now in 2019, 34 years after the fall of the dictatorship, these stories are becoming public knowledge..
“If it wasn’t for the confession, I’m absolutely certain they wouldn’t have told me anything”
Paraná has many memories of a disturbed childhood, throughout which she was subject to abuse by her adoptive family. “When I was young, I went from school to school. My adoptive parents gave me pills everyday that would sedate me. In our home, there were always people smoking, drinking and gambling, and at these parties, there was always a male adult that would try to abuse me”.
She tells us that her mother accepted the abuse as though it was normal: “I never had any choice, my entire life was obedience”. When the family were experiencing financial difficulties, they would use her, selling her in order to obtain the money they needed, leaving her with physical and psychological scars that have never healed.
In spite of the brutal abuses her adoptive family subjected her to, Rosângela spent almost the entirety of her life in the dark regarding her true family history.
The worrying revelations of Rosângela point out the possibility that many more cases of kidnapped babies during the dictatorship beyond the 19 recently revealed most likely exist.
“It was a cousin that I’d never met personally that sent me a message through Facebook telling me that I should be grateful to the Paraná family for saving me from my mother. Later, I spoke with an aunt who, in an aggressive tone, confirmed the truth, and told me that my birthday had been falsified, alongside my birth certificate”.
This was later confirmed by Reina, with whom Rosângela managed to locate her original birth certificate that declared she was an “illegitimate child” of the Paranás.
“If it wasn’t for the confession of my cousin, I’m absolutely certain they wouldn’t have told me anything” she claims. “They brought me up to not see, to not speak, to not listen to what was in front of me”.
The worrying revelations of Rosângela point out the possibility that many more cases of kidnapped babies during the dictatorship beyond the 19 recently revealed most likely exist, however their true past is unknown due to the powerful societal structures that have successfully kept these stories buried deep underground.
How have we got to this point?
The images of the protests in favour of the dictatorship from last Sunday indicate how little we have learnt in 55 years. Public support for the dictatorial regime is evident on the streets of Brazil, personified by the woman who attacked an anti-dictatorship protester with pepper spray whilst several other supporters cheered her on.
Even more worrying are the results of a 2017 survey by the Paraná Institute that revealed 43.1% of Brazilians would support a military intervention, whilst only 51.6% would be against this measure, and 5.3% are undecided.
These figures cease to surprise many who are already acquainted with the revisionist and apologist views of the most powerful man in the country. President Jair Bolsonaro, ex-military official and known for his fascist discourse, made it absolutely clear where he stood regarding the military coup in a recent speech by a spokesman of the president.
“There was no coup in Brazil, only a popular mobilisation between civilians and soldiers who came together to regain direction in a country that was losing its way”. For Bolsonaro, the 31st of March is a day for commemoration, and in such a vein, he ordered the Ministry of Defence to organise a ceremony in honour of the coup.
But, how have we got here, to a point in which historical memory of military rule is so damaged that there are Brazilians openly celebrating the dictatorship in the streets? The answer lies in understanding the present by looking to the past. In Brazil, there was never a period of transitional justice after the fall of the dictatorship, as existed although imperfectly in the likes of Argentina.
Due to the Amnesty Law, very limited information regarding the crimes of the dictatorship has been revealed and the only action that has been taken has been that of providing financial reparation to a handful of victims.
In Argentina, President Raúl Alfonsín managed to capitalise on an anti-dictatorship sentiment within society as a whole, and highlighted the necessity to investigate and judge the crimes of the dictatorship and those responsible, upon being elected in 1983 during the democratic transition.
He abolished the Amnesty Law that had been previously approved, he committed to putting the military junta on trial, and he created the National Commission for Disappeared Persons (CONADEP) to investigate the cases of forced disappearances, that published the results one year later in a book called ‘Never Again’.
On the contrary, the Brazilian transition took a very different path. The Amnesty Law of 1979 forgave all crimes of suspected political motivation that took place during the military dictatorship.
Even until this date, the Transition Court of the Public Ministry has only been able to investigate certain cases of notoriety such as that of journalist Vladmir Herzog, creating a dark shadow that envelops the truth of what really occurred between 1964 and 1985. Due to the restrictions of the Amnesty Law, very limited information regarding the crimes of the military dictatorship has been revealed and the only action that has been taken has been that of providing financial reparation to a handful of victims and their families.
There is no doubt that apologism regarding the dictatorship today in Brazil has everything to do with the lack of remembrance that was forced upon the country during the transition by the military elite, who remained in a powerful position at the negotiating table in 1985.
Stories such as that of Rosângela’s that warn of kidnappings of babies and illegal adoptions by military families, are only coming to light now, due to the weakness of the democratic institutions of Brazil that have been unable to defeat a law that the most powerful man in the country would now be likely to defend.
Only the tireless work of human rights defenders and journalists such as Reina have allowed for these stories to surface. However, it would appear that it is now more dangerous than ever in Brazil to speak up against the powerful interests that currently govern the country.
The family of president Bolsonaro, according to recent investigations, has powerful connections with the murder of Marielle Franco.
This demonstrates that the presidential family, alongside its powerful allies, is prepared to do whatever it takes to silence those who speak against the values they claim to defend: militarism, white supremacy, ultra-conservative evangelism and neoliberalism in its least forgiving form.
Rosângela, and many others like her, won’t live in peace until the horrendous crimes of the dictatorship are investigated comprehensively and adequately.
We cannot let Rosângela be forgotten, like many other victims of the Brazilian dictatorship. Opinions that the Brazilian dictatorship was ‘mild’ in comparison to the other military regimes of the Southern Cone have been and continue to be propagated by Brazilian media outlets, and this dangerous discourse silences the voices of those who truly experienced the violence of this brutal regime.
To this very day, Rosângela still has no answers regarding the identity of her biological parents. She only managed to confront her adoptive brother, a man who also attempted to abuse her on many occasions, who informed her that her “biological mother was very pretty” and that her “father was imprisoned” at the time of her adoption.
Rosângela, and many others like her, won’t live in peace until the horrendous crimes of the dictatorship are investigated comprehensively and adequately, paving the way for the incarceration of those who are responsible for human rights abuses that remain unpunished today.
Only the truth can cure. If what occurred is never revealed and if justice is never achieved, the social fabrics that hold Brazilian society together will always be marked by wounds of a trauma that will never truly heal.