In The News…

Posted by Hilary Marie Johnson

The bill that would revise the Amnesty Law to exclude state security agents accused of human rights crimes continues to make its way through the proper channels. Senator Randolfe Rodrigues insists that the push on modifying the Amnesty Law does not come from a desire for revenge, but rather to show that Brazil is a country that will no longer tolerate crimes against humanity, such as torture. He also states that the dictatorship has left in its wake a highly aggressive military police force, one that is consistently in violation of human rights. Senator João Capiberibe (PSB-AP), himself a victim of torture during the military dictatorship, also supports the revision. A poll taken on March 31st shows that 46% of Brazilians disapprove of how the Law is currently interpreted.

Brazil’s Congress now has until June to not shut down the National Truth Commission. The Provisional Measurement edited by President Dilma Rousseff last year would allow the National Truth Commission to continue until December, but if it is not voted on by June 2nd, it will lapse. The Provisional Measurement was supposed to be voted on last week. Human Rights groups believe that it is the delay in Congress that is responsible for making the National Truth Commission’s future uncertain.

Approximately 40 people participated in a demonstration in front of the Federação das Indústrias do Estado de São Paulo on the 50th anniversary of the coup of 1964. Organized by Frente Esculacho Popular, the act was in protest of the entity that the group believes financed and supported the military dictatorship. The protesters were comprised of former political prisoners, relatives of the disappeared, and representatives of the State Truth Commission.

More than 700 schools in Brazil are named after presidents during the dictatorship, an UOL survey in conjunction with school census information states. The states of Bahia (138) and Maranhão (99) possess the highest number of these schools, followed by Pernambuco (51), Rio Grande do Sul (44), and Minas Gerais (42). The Federal District does not have any such schools.

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In the news…

Posted by Rebecca J. Atencio

The Brazilian senate’s Human Rights Commission approved a bill (237/2013) that would revise the Amnesty Law to exclude state security agents accused of human rights crimes. The next step is for the bill, proposed by Randolfe Rodrigues (PSOL-AP), to undergo review in the Foreign Relations and Constituição and Justice committees (Comissão de Relações Exteriores, or CRE, and Comissão de Constituição e Justiça, CCJ).

A 1965 telegram from Ambassador Lincoln Gordon to the State Department, now declassified, reveals new information about the role that Roberto Marinho, owner of the Globo media empire, played behind the scenes in the consolidation of the military dictatorship. In the telegram, Lincoln reports that Marinho met with military leaders to discuss the “succession problem” with the goal of arguing in favor of President Humberto Castelo Branco’s continued occupation of the post through a term extension or reelection. According to the document, Castelo Branco was initially resistant to the idea.

The National Truth Commission opposes the reopening of a highway, site of the killings of 5 Brazilians and an Argentine. The victims’ bodies were secretly buried and the exact location has yet to be identified.

A retired member of Brazil’s military police compares today’s police force with that of the dictatorship years in an interview and finds that both share a habit: that of regarding citizens as potential enemies.

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Brazil Marks the 50th Anniversary of the Coup

Posted by Rebecca J. Atencio

In Brazil, April 1st–or April Fool’s Day–is known as the Day of Lies (Dia da Mentira). Tomorrow, the day will have special resonance: it will mark 50 years since a group of leaders within the Brazilian military deposed the democratically constituted government of João (Jango) Goulart. The new regime quickly moved to brand its seizure of power not as  coup, but as the “March 31st Revolution.” And so, the Brazilian military dictatorship was borne of a lie, precisely on the Dia da Mentira.

For at least the past month, countless entities–the Brazilian Amnesty Commission, state and other truth commissions, human rights and other activist groups, artists and cultural producers–have been marking the fiftieth anniversary of the coup in a variety of ways.

Here are some of the highlights (updated on April 1st and 2nd):

  • The Brazilian Bar Association is preparing to bring a fresh challenge of the Amnesty Law to the Brazilian Supreme Court. Moreover, Roberto Caldas, a Brazilian who serves as a judge in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, predicts that the “the future holds a new analysis of the Amnesty Law by the Brazilian Supreme Court.”
  • The National Truth Commission announced that Defense Minister Celso Amorim has agreed to form “inquiry units” within the armed forces to investigate the use of military buildings and other sites believed to have been used as torture centers.
  • My colleague Idelber Avelar sets the record straight about what really happened during the special session in Congress devoted to marking the 50th anniversary of the coup. Media outlets reported that right-wing politician and regime apologist Jair Bolsonaro was “prevented” from speaking in favor of the military regime. That’s not exactly what happened. When Bolsonaro rose to speak, most of those present turned their backs to him. He could have continued speaking, as Idelber points out. Instead, the president of the Chamber of Deputies “in a bizarre interpretation of procedure” abruptly terminated the session.
  • President Dilma Rousseff made a statement today affirming the importance of preserving the memory of the coup that occurred fifty years ago. She is also reported to have shed tears at a ceremony at Galeão airport, where she recalled the return of exiles.
  • Important articles: Vladimir Safatle makes the case that the dictatorship won; Samuel Rodrigues Barbosa responds with an argument to the contrary (here’s another article that argues that the dictatorship lost, but not much). Renan Quinalha asking the lingering question: Where are the disappeared?. And a beautiful text by writer Luiz Ruffato.
  • Interviews: The Folha de São Paulo printed a never-before-published 1967 interview in which  president João Goulart, exiled in Uruguay at the time, reflected upon the 1964 military that deposed him. The interview was conducted by US historian John W. Foster Dulles of UT-Austin but never published or cited. In a much more recent interview, Tarso Genro reflects on Brazil’s imperfect transition to democracy.
  • A flurry of other newspaper articles and blog posts. For coverage in English see, for example, this article in the BBC, this article in the Washington Post (thanks Jo-Marie Burt!), and this article here. Portuguese-language articles cover a range of topics, from polls showing that most Brazilians want to see the Amnesty Law overturned to various opinion pieces (see here, here, here, and here). See here for an image-rich slideshow overview of the dictatorship. There’s even a history of the dictatorship in cartoon form. And finally, there is coverage of counterdemonstrations in defense of the coup.
  • The Brazilian Amnesty Commission has sponsored a range of events. Over the past days and weeks it has held Amnesty Caravans, including one connected with a conference in Recife. Among other activities, it inaugurated the Never Again Memorial in Rio de Janeiro (see below) and launched a filmNossas Histórias, on Facebook as well as on Radiotube and Youtube (no links available at the moment). On a related note, O Globo published today a report on the Amnesty Commission, citing 40,300 claims approved by the commission for a total of 3.4 billion Brazilian reais.
  • In a gesture rife with symbolism, the Never Again Memorial (Monumento ao Nunca Mais) will be inaugurated tomorrow (April 1st) in Cinelândia–right in front of the Clube Militar (Military Club), the epicenter of apologism for the military dictatorship.

  • The youth movement Levante Popular da Juventude (Popular Youth Uprising) named and shamed Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra and Aparecido Laertes Calandra with escraches or esculachos, public spectacles that “out” accused dictatorship-era human rights violators (0ther escraches took place elsewhere in the country such as this one in Rio Grande do Sul).  The group also announced a campaign called “Erase the Dictator at Your School” to demand the rechristening of schools named after leaders of the military regime.
  • When a Law professor at the University of São Paulo made a speech in defense of the military regime in class, students protested by standing up and singing Zé Keti’s “Opinião,” a 1970 song associated with resistance to the dictatorship that begins “They can arrest me / They can beat me / They can even starve me / I won’t change my opinion” (Podem me prender / Podem me bater / Podem até deixar-me sem comer / Que eu não mudo de opinião). A video of the episode was posted on Youtube.

Of course, this list is necessarily partial and incomplete. Feel free to suggest additions in the comment box.

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Reading Paulo Freire in Recife

Guest Post by Cath Collins

Cath Collins is professor of transitional justice at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland and director of the Human Rights Observatory at the Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile. She attended the 78th Amnesty Caravan and conference as a panelist on the theme of ‘memory and culture’ and a founder member of the Latin American transitional justice network.

In March 2014 I returned to northeast Brazil for the first time in twenty-two years. The first time I went, it was as an idealistic English undergraduate. I spent six months helping build houses in a mutirão in a João Pessoa favela. Dom José Maria Pires, inspirational Afro-Brazilian bishop and liberation theologian, would come along at least once a week, put on his straw hat, and shovel gravel and dirt alongside everybody else. On weekends we would attend CEB meetings alongside Dom Helder Câmara, legendary, tiny, crusading bishop of the neighbouring Pernambuco diocese. We read and debated Paulo Freire, and saw his principles in action among the women of the favela, who taught each other not only to read but to be someone in a world that, outside the confines of the dirt floor chapel, showed little or no sign of valuing their existence. Over two decades later I heard the name of Dom Helder evoked over and over again as I walked the Recife seafront with colleagues from all over Latin America, or crammed into the auditorium of the Jesuit university to hear survivors, lawyers, prosecutors and activists from all around the region talk about the need for truth, justice, reparations, and the remembering of past atrocities.

Latin America’s military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s may be fading into the past, but the long shadow of their crimes is still felt.  While former student activists of the 1960s and 70s told their stories of repression and resistance, in person and on film, their young counterparts of today filled not only the hall but also the stage at the Recife conference and Amnesty Caravan, marking the 50th anniversary of Brazil’s military coup of March 1964. One of the remarkable things for any outside participant observing Brazil’s recent  transitional justice renaissance is the mix of youth and experience among its protagonists, and the remarkable positive energy that results.   When the Caravan was finally called into solemn session, the ranks of commissioners summoned to the stage included some who seemed barely older than the scared, defiant teenage faces who we had just seen projected in the black and white newsreels relating the sombre story of the 1964 coup and its aftermath.

Commission President Paulo Abrão stands as he apologizes on behalf of the Brazilian state for violence committed under the military dictatorship.

Commission President Paulo Abrão stands as he apologizes on behalf of the Brazilian state for violence committed under the military dictatorship.

Commission president Paulo Abrão is, after all, himself not yet out of his thirties; something which renders perhaps even more remarkable the commanding yet infinitely respectful presence with which he engages survivors and witnesses, as they tell their stories, and personifies the State as he asks their forgiveness for the historical wrongs that were done to them. The Commission’s dedicated staff, and the network of academics, practitioners and concerned and active citizens that has clustered around its work, is an equally impressive repository of talent and determined moral purpose. Since the year 2007 the Commission, set up in 2001 after a joint state-civil society committee had tackled the equally thorny question of deaths and disappearances caused by state repression from 1964 to 1985, has travelled the length and breadth of Brazil. It receives, studies and acknowledges the harms done by deliberate state brutality to women, men and children rightly or wrongly suspected of ‘subversive’ agitation in favour of social change, and does what it can to repair part of the damage. It does so through these solemn yet engaging ceremonies, on stages sometimes adorned with visual and musical representations of the colourful slogans of today’s and yesterday’s justice struggles.

A woman honored by the Amnesty Commission poses with her certificate and red rose

A woman honored by the Amnesty Commission poses with her certificate and red rose

In one sense it is a poor replacement for what will never come: the sincere repentance of yesterday’s torturers or today’s armed forces, still grudging and occasionally plain defiant in denying or justifying what they did. In another, it could be understood as something even more potent and perhaps more important for the future: a re-encounter of the state with its citizens and a profound acknowledgement that it is the structures of power, and not the individual victim of their wrongdoing, that must be rehabilitated if a healthier future is ever to be possible. The Caravan takes place, after all, against a backdrop of powerful social discontent with the current political process and its meagre offerings. This discontent, widespread around the Western world, crystallised recently in Brazil, as it did in many other countries in relatively recently re-democratised Latin America, in the form of massive social protests. Led by students and others who feel alienated from a system that offers aspirational, essentially illusory, consumer-led progress for some, and continued exclusion for the rest, the protests both betray and propagate the view that dictatorship and democracy, at least in its current form, are essentially interchangeable. It is a view perhaps foreshadowed by the late, lamented Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell, who predicted as far back as the 1970s that the authoritarian regimes then plaguing the continent would eventually give way to ‘democracies’ in name only. These new regimes, pale shadows of the formerly vibrant political complexion of the continent, would offer only differences of emphasis while continuing to administer the model of exploitative accumulation imposed by technocrats and foreign capital in sometimes uneasy alliance with military rulers.

Whether fully correct or not, this gloomy prognosis certainly chimes with the experience of youthful Chilean protesters of recent years.  My own presentation at the Recife conference attempted to tell the story of student protesters as a counterpoint to the 40th anniversary commemorations with which Chile, in September 2013, held its own version of the past/present, democracy/dictatorship, debate. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the ‘No generation’ – the centre-left Chilean political elite that fought the dictatorship, as portrayed in Gael Garcia Bernal’s box-office rendition of the 1988 plebiscite that finally pushed Pinochet from power – feels somewhat betrayed and bemused. The venom directed against ‘the system’ by today’s student cohort, angry about fees but also about a whole world of lost or simply illusory opportunity, feels to them like an ungrateful rejection of all that they suffered in order to win even these meagre pickings. The generation that suffered the rigours of dictatorship and persecution, and bears the battle scars of exile and torture, is the same that made the bargains and compromises today’s youth implicitly criticise or openly reject.

Iconic Chilean president Salvador Allende, self-immolated in the aftermath of the 11 September bombardment that launched Chile’s 1973 coup, once famously declared that ‘to be young and not to be a revolutionary is an essential, even a biological, contradiction’. When Chile’s once progressive elite, now about to re-take the power they have held in five out of six presidential elections since the 1990 return to democracy, look in the mirror, they see the face of Allende or even of Che Guevara’s archetypal revolutionary. But today’s youthful protesters see, instead, the image of the establishment or even just the tired, middle-aged face of capitulation. Scornful as only the young can be of the compromises life demands, they see little to choose between this and the self—satisfied face of the right-wing civilian elite who correctly sees itself as the true, silent beneficiary of the ideological war of the 1980s.

In Brazil as in Chile, it has fallen to the self-designated progressive elite to inherit the discontent of the generation for which they themselves sacrificed so much. The ironies of such a situation include the reality that mass discontent has reappeared at a time of material advancement in both countries, advances for which the centre-left could certainly with justice claim some credit. They seem, however, not to be enough. Inequality and the growing gulf between the ‘1%’ and the rest are a worldwide, and not only a Latin American, preoccupation. And yet the inescapable echoes of the past that this demand raises are what return us inexorably to the question of the recent past. Latin America’s last major drive for justice culminated in the torture chamber. The re-encounter between the survivors of that moment and the protagonists of the new one may be the key to discovering a better fate for the new utopianism. In this, the circling round to questions of truth and justice for the past is far from being a distraction, and the Amnesty Caravan’s humble offering of apologies is a far from empty gesture.

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New Books on Transitional Justice in Brazil

Posted by Rebecca J. Atencio

One of the pleasures of attending conferences is the acquisition of new ideas, new books, new films. Here are some that I picked up recently at the “50 Years after the Coup” Conference in Recife.


Dodge, Raquel Elias Ferreira, ed. Grupo de trabalho justiça de transição: Atividades de persecução penal desenvolvidas pelo Ministério Federal, 2011-2013. Brasília: MPF, 2014. 262 pp. [A report on the activities of federal prosecutors working on building criminal cases against dictatorship-era human rights violators between 2011-2013. Portuguese] 


Marx, Ivan Cláudio. Justicia transicional: Necesidad y Factibilidad del juicio a los crimines cometidos por los agentes del Estado durante la última dictadura en Brasil. La Plata: Al Margen, 2013. 362 pp.  [A comparative study of the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as it relates to Brazil and the Supreme Court of the Argentine Nation, by a Procurador da República. Spanish].

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Piovesan, Flávia, and Inês Virgínia Prado Soares, eds. Direitos Humanos Atual. Rio de Janeiro: Elsevier, 2014. 581 pp. [This edited volume contains essays by several leading human rights scholars from Brazil, such as Paulo Abrão, Marcelo Torelly, Marlon Weichert, Ivan Marx, Edson Teles, Anthony Pereira, and others. Portuguese]

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Brazil and Its Multiple Truth Commissions

Posted by Rebecca J. Atencio

What is the relationship between the National Truth Commission and the smaller state, city, university, and other truth commissions?

The process of getting the National Truth Commission (Comissão Nacional da Verdade, or CNV) approved by Congress, constituted, and inaugurated took an inordinately long time. Dilma signed the law that created the CNV on November 18, 2011, but it took her another six months to inaugurate it, on May 16, 2012, and the newly constituted body only began its work in earnest the following July. When events were unfolding, there was an enormous degree of uncertainty as to whether the CNV would ever get off the ground. Consequently, advocates of the body began to take matters into their own hands, and creating their own state and other truth commissions. Hence, some of these smaller commissions actually predate the CNV and helped exert pressure on the government to follow through with the national commission.

These smaller commissions kept proliferating even after the CNV began its work. There are now state and municipal truth commissions, as well as commissions in universities, labor unions, and the Brazilian postal service (Correios) has a commission. These smaller bodies function independently while also collaborating with the CNV. Moreover, some of the state commissions in particular forward evidence to federal prosecutors for possible use in criminal trials (the CNV does not) and actively investigate important cases that the national commission is unwilling to probe. For example, rumors have long circulated that President Juscelino Kubitschek (known as JK) was assassinated by the regime in a simulated car accident. To date, the CNV has refused to take the possibility seriously, so the São Paulo State truth commission (known as the Rubens Paiva commission) has taken on the task, collecting evidence and concluding that JK was indeed murdered by the regime.

The CNV is required to submit its final report in December 2014. The smaller commissions are sharing their findings with the national commission, but each are also likely to produce their own independent reports. It may seem that the existence of multiple commissions and reports will result in a fragmentation of memory and truth, but there are also advantages to the multiplicity of truth-seeking bodies. Whereas the CNV must necessarily present its finding in broad (national) strokes, the smaller commissions allow for a finer grained investigation and analysis into how the repression worked in a variety of contexts. As Paulo Abrão pointed on in a recent conversation with me, only when all of the commissions’ release their final reports, and scholars and activists have an attempt to study them carefully, will we be able to evaluate the work of Brazil’s various commissions.

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50 Years Since the Coup Conference

Videos of morning panels from the conference “50 Years of the Coup and the New Transitional Justice Agenda in Brazil,” March 10-14, 2014, Recife, Brazil

Panel 1: “50 Years Later: What’s Left of the Dictatorship”

Tony Pereira, Luis Nassif, Iara Xavier, Alberto Fillipi

Panel 2: Culture and Memory

Rebecca Atencio, Manuel Reyes-Mate Rupérez, Valeria Barbuto, Cath Collins

Panel 3: Trauma and Reparations Policies for Grave Human Rights Violations

Doudou Diêne, Pamela Graham, Pablo Galaín, José Benjamin Cuellár Martínez

Panel 4: Amnesties, Impunity, and Crimes against Humanity

Baltazar Garzón, Pablo Parenti, Jo-Marie Burt, Roberto Caldas

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