Brazilian Esculachos Demand Justice

Guest Post by Riley Russell

Riley Russell received her B,A. in Sociology and Spanish and Portuguese from Tulane University. She is the 2014 winner of the Stone Center for Latin American Studies Prize for Best Undergraduate Paper on a Latin American topic for her essay “Frame Consistency in the Esculachos Movement in Brazil: A Call for Categorization,” from which this post is drawn.

Since the signing into law of the creation of Brazil’s National Truth Commission in 2011, major cities in Brazil have become familiar with the repeated chant, “Se não há justiça, há esculacho,” (If there is no justice, there is esculacho). Organizations such as Frente de Esculacho Popular and Levante Popular da Juventude gather to esculachar (shame, uncover, or “out”) known torturers and officials of the 1964-1985 military regime. They aim to alert the public of the presence of these repressors in neighborhoods and workplaces, calling for justice through punitive action and collective memory of victims.

The concept of public shaming protests originated in post-dictatorial Argentina in the 1990s, when social actors mobilized to denounce impunity for torturers and officials of the dictatorship, calling for the resumption of criminal trials. The escrache spread rapidly to other post-dictatorial societies struggling with similar issues, such as Spain and Chile. Scholars recognize the crucial role of the Argentine escrache in moving the country toward trial of torturers and public acknowledgement of the dictatorship.

Despite similarities with these predecessors, the movement in Brazil has emerged in a unique historical and social setting, in that they appeared decades after the dictatorship ended and rallied initially around the defense of the formation of the Truth Commission. Therefore, our understanding of esculachos must be shaped by consideration of this distinct context. While we can use existing Argentine ideas to inform initial study of esculachos in Brazil, it would be inaccurate to presume that all theories about escraches are also applicable to the Brazilian case. By considering existing theories through the unique lens of Brazil’s history and culture, we can study esculachos:

  • As a social movement: Defining esculachos as a “social movement” points toward numerous possible theoretical approaches, including framing theory (asking how esculachos depict their goals and ideas to the public in order to gain attention and followers), resource mobilization theory (focusing on the resources that allow esculachos to emerge and make an impact), and political opportunities theory (attending to the aspects of the political environment that facilitate the formation and success of esculachos). Social movement theory also defines and describes methods by which collective action such as esculachos can spread and popularize.
  • As a performance: Conceptualizing the esculachos as a performance has vast implications for the way in which we approach them. Performances of all kinds are inherently public, intended to attract attention and draw a large audience, a characteristic that reveals the very purpose of the esculacho. Their essential goal is to make public what has been hidden, and they use elements of performance such as music, chanting, and even acting to do so. By exposing torturers and repressors in public performances, esculachos serve as an antidote to torturer anonymity, if not impunity.
  • As driven by trauma: Like their counterparts in Argentina, Brazil’s esculachos can be understood as products of trauma, even though Brazilian participants’ relationship to the crime is less direct. The Argentine organization HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y Justicia contra el Olvido y Silencio), which originally organized escraches, was comprised of sons and daughters of disappeared victims. In Brazil, where performers of esculachos are young and often a full generation removed from personal encounters with the dictatorship, trauma may look different. For example, one unique feature of esculachos is that, unlike their Argentine counterparts, the Brazilian version often includes reenactments of torture. The result is a collision of performance, which is inherently public, with the private and individual experience of trauma. By approaching esculachos as trauma-driven performances, we can begin to examine their possible effects on national memory and identity.
  • As a new discourse: Esculachos are also a communication tactic aimed at challenging the national discourse of denial. Their loud, public nature breaks patterns of silence and suppression, raising the question to what extent might they contribute to the nation’s collective memory and how.

It remains to be seen whether esculachos will gain enough national traction to truly affect the national discourse of justice, or even to contribute to the revocation of amnesty. Moreover, only time will tell whether they will remain focused on justice for torturers or turn their attention to ongoing police violence. Regardless of the outcome, esculachos have the potential to play an important role in Brazil’s dynamic process of reckoning with the dictatorship.

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Two Truth Commissions, Two Truths

Posted by Hilary Marie Johnson

There has been much controversy surrounding the true cause of death of former president Juscelino Kubitschek (JK), especially after two separate Truth Commissions came to two entirely different conclusions. The Municipal Truth Commission of São Paulo ruled that JK’s car accident was in fact an organized hit, carried out by the military regime. The National Truth Commission concluded that JK’s death was actually an accident, albeit one that the military dictatorship was likely pleased with.

The National Truth Commission submitted a 139-page report signed by five renowned experts detailing the accidental events that resulted in JK’s death. The report analyzes the location of the accident, the onset, and the immediate aftermath of the collision. It also addresses and seeks to disprove elements referenced in the report submitted by the Municipal Truth Commission of São Paulo, including the possibility of the following factors: involvement of another vehicle, the presence of a bomb, the firing of a fatal shot into the head of the driver, Geraldo Ribeiro, and the small metal object found in Ribeiro’s head. The group responsible for the compilation of the report insists that the accident occurred “in circumstances that couldn’t simply materialize”.

The presence of two “truths” that directly contradict each other implies that one of these “truths” is inevitability untrue. In order to identify which “truth” is actually the truth, it has been suggested that Brazil follow Italy’s new government’s example of declassifying all documents related to a series of attacks between 1969 and 1984. According to many commentators, it is only through the uncovering of all relevant documents of the era that Brazil can hope to finally unearth the truth regarding JK’s death.

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Amnesty Commission Hosts Roundtables in New York

Posted by Rebecca J. Atencio

Amnesty Commission President Paulo Abrão of the Amnesty Commission was in New York this week, attending to official business that included a Marcas da Memória (Marks of Memory) Film Screening at the Brazilian Consulate and two roundtables on the role of art in remembering the dictatorship at NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.

In the first roundtable, historian James N. Green (Brown University) gave a talk entitled “Fashion Shows and Broadway Plays” on the body as site of performing denunciations of the Brazilian military dictatorships in the United States. Green examined the case of Brazilian designer (and mother of desaparecido Stuart Edgar Angel Jones) Zuzu Angel’s fashion show in New York City in September 1971, the performance of the Living Theatre Collective upon its return to the US from Brazil, and the Broadway production of Roberto Athayde’s play Apareceu a Margarida (Miss Margarida’s Way). Those interested can find these examples in Green’s excellent book, We Will Not Remain Silent (Duke 2010). Art historian Estrellita Brodsky, for her part, gave an in-depth talk about depictions of torture in the fine arts.

Also in the first panel, filmmaker Sílvio Tendler explained to the audience why he is known as the “filmmaker of interrupted dreams,” tracing his work on historical figures whose struggles for a better Brazil were cut short. Among his subjects are Brazilian presidents Juscelino Kubitschek and João Goulart, as well as lawyers and military officers who opposed the dictatorship. Tendler emphasized that without the Ministry of Justice/Amnesty Commission’s Marcas da Memória project, it would have been impossible to produce, much less distribute, his films on the latter subjects.

In the second panel, Performance Studies scholar Marcos Steuernagel (NYU) presented on the question of delayed temporalities in the theatrical productions of the group Ói nóis aqui traveiz. Cultural Studies scholar Rebecca Atencio (Tulane) spoke about artistic-cultural expressions marking the 50th anniversary of the Brazilian military coup. Paulo Abrão closed the session with a talk about the role of youth movements in contemporary Brazil, which paved the way for a lively debate about the significance, repercussions, and official responses to the June 2013 protests, and their relationship to the legacies of dictatorship.


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Former security agent who testified to CNV is murdered

Posted by Rebecca J. Atencio

Retired Army Colonel Paulo Malhães was found dead of asphyxia today, following an invasion of his home by three unknown men. Malhães testified before the National Truth Commission (Comissão Nacional da Verdade, CNV) last March and is considered one of the dictatorship agents who has been most forthcoming in providing new information about human rights crimes during the authoritarian period. In his testimony, the retired officer admitted to participating in tortures and assumed responsibility for the political disappearance of congressman Rubens Paiva.

President of the Rio de Janeiro truth commission, Wadih Damous, has called for a full investigation of the murder, saying that the killers may have been motivated by a desire to silence Malhães from making further revelations (for an article in English, see here).

Malhães’s murder is also bringing renewed scrutiny to similar cases. For instance, in November 2012, another retired Army Colonel, Júlio Miguel Molinas Dias, was killed in Porto Alegre in what was believed to be an attempted robbery. In that case, three officers of the Rio Grande do Sul state militarized police force (Polícia Militar, PM) were found guilty of what was ruled to be a “common [ie not politically-motivated] crime.”

Both cases are reminiscent of the highly suspicious death of notorious police torturer Sérgio Paranhos Fleury in May 1979. Fleury supposedly slipped while on a boat, hit his head, and died; however, the timing (only a few months before the passage of the Amnesty Law), circumstances (there are rumors Fleury was about to go public with his knowledge of the repression), and lack of a serious investigation into his death (no autopsy was performed) have long fed suspicions that the torturer was silenced by regime hit men.

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In The News…

Posted by Hilary Marie Johnson

Brazil’s National Truth Commission announced that no evidence was found connecting the military dictatorship to the fatal car accident that killed former President Juscelino Kubitschek. There were no hints of the former President and his driver being murdered in any of the documents analyzed during the investigation. This announcement goes against what the São Paulo State Truth Commission concluded in their own investigation late last year, that the accident had in fact been a set-up by the military regime.

The Chemistry Institute of USP, one of Brazil’s top universities, withdrew the alleged resignation of Professor Ana Rosa Kucinski, who disappeared during the military dictatorship. Up until now, USP claimed that Kucinski had been fired for having abandoned her job. This stance was upheld in the 1970’s, despite the fact that there was very clear proof Kucinski had been kidnapped by the military regime. If the Chemistry Institute does formally retract Kucinski’s resignation, a near certainty, a sculpture will be erected in honor of her memory in the Institute’s gardens, and a representative will formally apologize to her family.

Brazilians who have been the victims of torture in Chile claim that agents of Brazil taught their Chilean counterparts their torture and interrogation techniques. These ex-political prisoners were held captive in Santiago’s National Stadium, which was transformed into a concentration camp following the coup against President Salvador Allende in 1973. The witnesses, who testified at a hearing for the Senate’s Subcommission on Truth, Memory, and Justice, stated that foreigners were among the first to be persecuted following the overthrowing of Allende, including those who had no political affiliations whatsoever.

Following the commemoration of 50 years since the military coup, the Aparecidos Políticos Collective threw approximately 140 toy parachutes into the air, each bearing the image of someone who died or disappeared during the military dictatorship. The Collective has been promoting military dictatorship-themed art and politics for four years.


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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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