Interview with Professor Idelber Avelar

Idelber Avelar is a professor at Tulane University who specializes in contemporary Latin American fiction, literary theory, and cultural studies. He is the author of The Letter of Violence: Essays on Narrative, Ethics, and Politics (2004) and The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning (1999). He is currently working on a new book project, entitled “Rethinking Masculinity in Contemporary Brazilian and Argentinean Literatures.” We recently had the chance to speak with him about President Dilma Rousseff, the Amnesty Law of 1979, Brazil’s long held tradition of masking conflict, and the Brazilian Truth Commission.

Engram Wilkinson: Since it was first proposed in December 2009, the National Truth Commission has generated a great deal of controversy. We’re wondering if we could get your perspective on the initiative and maybe some aspects of that controversy.

Idelber Avelar: Sure. Well, it’s a fairly old struggle of human rights movements in Brazil. It goes back at least to the mid 70’s in the middle of the dictatorship, when people started fighting for the establishment of some legal mechanism that could punish human rights violations. In 1979 the military, in control of the transition process, was able to pass an amnesty law that basically put perpetrators and victims on the same plane and granted amnesty to all crimes committed under military rule; the argument was that some of the left wing activists that were fighting the dictatorship also committed crimes, which is true—some of them robbed banks, for example. But the widespread violations of human rights in Brazil under the dictatorship were committed by the military, of course. Brazil has a tradition that goes very far back in its history and that is very different from other Latin American countries, which is the tradition of masking conflict. So whereas in Argentina–immediately after the fall of the military–you had trials, and you actually had convictions, people going to jail, for example–those sentences were later revoked, and this decade with President Kirchner the possibility of prosecuting those crimes is restored.

In Brazil that discussion was simply swept under the carpet. Because of the uniqueness of the Brazilian political process, the dictatorship didn’t fall the way the Argentinean dictatorship fell; it was a sort of long, drawn out transition process over which the military exercised a fairly good deal of control. And the first civil government that was established in 1985–still not with a direct election–had people that collaborated with the military. In fact the vice president was a man of the military, and when the president died in ‘85 this vice president became the president again. So we had this bizarre situation in which a man of the military conducted the first democratic government after the dictatorship. So that discussion, because of the particularities of the Brazilian political system, was simply swept under the carpet. When the Lula government started in 2003, a lot of human rights activists and a lot of the families of the disappeared had high hopes for the establishment of some sort of accountability. It ended up not happening. The current process is better than nothing, but it’s almost nothing the way it’s set up. So that’s the background.

EW: The Truth Commission in Brazil sets out to address demands for truth and memory but not necessarily justice. You were just talking about accountability, so given the aims and goals set out by the commission, what kind of prospects do you see regarding accountability being reached or enacted in Brazil? Why, on the subject of accountability, do you feel that the Amnesty Law has the staying power it has?

IA: I’ll start with the second one. One of the reasons why the Amnesty Law has such staying power is that it plays very well into this political tradition of forced reconciliation. It’s not true reconciliation, because true reconciliation presupposes the side that has committed crimes first of all admits that it committed crimes, and then you can reconcile, right? I mean you can’t reconcile with someone who doesn’t admit what they did. It’s forced reconciliation. And it’s a very particular way of making atrocity look acceptable and sweet and forgotten and so forth. It’s a political system that abhors conflict whereas in Argentina, for example, tradition has been historically that conflicts are clear and out in the open. Brazil is the precise opposite to me. There are plenty of conflicts going on in the political field, but those conflicts always have some way of being renegotiated. So if representatives of the popular classes somehow get to legislative or executive power, like they did in this decade with the Worker’s Party, there will always be some compromise where the more obvious visible conflicts will be sort of brushed aside. The Supreme Court rubber-stamped that law which makes it very difficult to reach any sort of accountability, in terms of actually putting those criminals on trial.

I am not optimistic. I don’t think any kind of repeal of the law is going to happen. It doesn’t mean I wont keep fighting for it to happen, but after the Supreme Court said that the Amnesty Law was constitutional and that it didn’t contradict international treaties Brazil had signed, that became very difficult. Our argument was in fact fairly obvious when you read the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and when you read the Convention 169 of the Organization of International Labor–of which Brazil is a signatory–it is very clear in stating that no retrospective amnesty can be passed for crimes against humanity. We have reached a pretty clear consensus in the international community that torture is a crime against humanity, so even if you can argue that the Amnesty Law of 1979 is constitutional, it is contradictory with international treaties in which Brazil is signatory. But we were defeated in the Supreme Court.

EW: You’ve talked about your involvement a little bit in this social struggle, and I know you’ve written about the civil trial against Ustra, so what role do these types of civil trials play? And why could we consider them significant?

IA: They are significant. They are very significant. Because even if we continue to be unsuccessful when it comes to criminal accountability, those trials keep pointing to the past and say look this happened. It may sound very trivial, but it’s very important. You see, I am forty-three years old now and I’m young enough not to remember a whole lot about the military dictatorship. I know it because I’ve studied it, but a lot of the people that are younger than me or are my age don’t have a very good sense about what actually happened. Of how widespread torture was, how many people got killed, how widespread the rape of female prisoners was, so on and so forth–the list is long and fairly horrific. So, those trials do that: they put the stuff back on the agenda. You know, the newspaper will run a story; people will start talking, and we sort of get the subject out in the open again. That is what they’ve accomplished so far–they haven’t really accomplished more than that. For example, they haven’t really accomplished the task of creating an illegal precedent. But these civil trials are very important in that sense.

EW: On the subject of things being revisited, it gets mentioned in conversations about President Rousseff that she was a former political militant and torture survivor. How has this identity factored into her own political campaign? Or how has that formed her national perception? And what has been her role in the transitional justice process?

IA: That is a huge and complicated question. There is one event associated with Dilma’s past that sort of became significant in the recent political processes in Brazil. It was an exchange with the right wing senator José Agripino. She was being interrogated about matters having to do with her position in government when she was secretary of one of the ministries of the Lula administration. This senator accused her of possibly lying because she had lied before, because she admitted she had lied before under torture. She really took him to task and responded beautifully saying that there is no room for truth under torture, that you have to be courageous and worthy in order to be able to lie under torture because when you speak the truth under torture, you put your comrades in danger, and you can kill indirectly or lead to the capture of other human beings when you speak the truth. And there is no possible comparison between lying under torture and lying in a conversation conducted under democratic rule. You can watch it on Youtube: it was a beautiful moment, and she beat him up fair and square—an absolutely beautiful moment.

Her past was used in the campaign mostly as a weapon that the conservative media tried to wield against her, even though she never participated in armed action. She was a part of an organization that conducted some armed action—though she was never part of any. That was used by the conservative media in order to say that she had been a terrorist, so on and so forth. In her own administration it hasn’t really been very present other than something from which she is carefully staying away. In the case of the Truth Commission for example, she could have been much more forceful in carrying out a project that would have established at least some sort of real Truth Commission. We know our legal problems associated with establishing criminal accountability, but we could at least have a real Truth Commission if there had been political will behind it. There wasn’t. Again, returning to the century-old tradition of masking conflict and avoiding clashes and sort of massaging things so that everybody is going to feel fine: that is our political tradition and it has cost us a lot in terms of truth, justice and memory.

EW: You published your first book called The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning. How has postdictatorial literature in Brazil and the Southern Cone evolved since 1999? With particular focus as to how that literary evolution relates to the issue of memory.

IA: There are some writers that have taken up that question. They are few and far between in Brazil; they are far more numerous in Argentina, where the issue has been out in the open. In Brazil what you will see in the case of writers such as Luiz Ruffato or João Gilberto Noll is a very subtle allegorization of situations that have to do with what was lived under dictatorship, but that do not even necessarily take place during the dictatorship. In Argentinean literature and cinema especially, you will find a much more direct confrontation with the legacy of the dictatorship and the imperative to bury the dead with the task of mourning. In Brazil it’s far more rare, and when it does happen it’s a much more allegorical, indirect treatment of the question.

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