Interview with James Green

Dr. James Green is Professor of History and Brazilian Studies at Brown University. He works on the political, social, and cultural history of nineteenth and twentieth-century Brazil. His books include: We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (Duke UP, 2010) and Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-century Brazil (U of Chicago P, 1999). He is currently working on a biography of Herbert Daniel, a Brazilian guerrilla leader, political exile, and AIDS activist.

This interview was conducted by Cara Fonseca, a senior at Tulane University completing a B.A. in Political Science.

Cara FonsecaYour book We Cannot Remain Silent is a historical study of the grassroots movement that emerged in the United States during the late 1960s and 1970s to denounce the torture that was taking place under the Brazilian military dictatorship. In your view, why is this topic still so relevant today?

James Green: It is important to realize that this was a moment before NGOs had arrived.  People offered their time and money without institutional support, which meant they needed to employ different campaign tactics than those used in human rights movements today.  These individuals formed small groups with focused agendas, and through this they were able to make an impact and change public opinion.  They were able to target key newspapers and influence U.S. policies in an interesting way.

CF: In the book, you also analyze the role of the U.S. government during these years. Can you describe how U.S. foreign policy toward Brazil evolved over the course of the dictatorship period? Was there a specific turning point?

JG: Politically, after Institutional Act 2, there was a mandate that abolished parties and instituted indirect elections; Ambassador Lincoln Gordon did not change his policies or his communication with the United States, as he was closely connected with Castelo Branco. So the United States supported the regime.  After Institutional Act 5 in 1968, President Johnson was out of office and Nixon was in, and questions about foreign policy emerged as important issues for U.S. politicians.  People were questioning the support of any anticommunist regime that had been American policy, and this led to the proposition to suspend aid.  Politicians wrestled with the struggle between continuity and offering responses to changing public opinion.  Things changed with the rise of opposition to the Vietnam War, becoming especially pronounced the Republican crisis of 1974, when Liberal Democrats spoke out against the anticommunist regime support and human rights violations of military dictatorship, prompting the major shift toward U.S. foreign policy response.  As for the public response, U.S. activists had previously focused on Vietnam during the time of torture in Brazil, after 1974 more attention could be directed to Latin America.  But at the same time, Pinochet offered the perfect symbol of an evil, oppressive dictator, and instead the overflow of antiwar sentiment from the politically charged American youth is directed there, not toward the Brazilian dictatorship.  Then Argentina happens, or the brutality of the Argentine case is revealed and U.S. groups begin to grow.  These groups continued to organize and grow, culminating in 1974 when Ford allows Chilean refugees into the United States.  At this time, the Brazilian military was losing the elections—part of their exit strategy—so while the policy toward Brazil did change, it failed to receive the widespread attention of other dictatorships.

CF: Your book was released in Portuguese- and English-language versions that were published almost simultaneously in the U.S. and Brazil, respectively. Do you think U.S. and Brazilian readers take away the same things from reading it, or have you noticed a difference in the responses from each country?

JG: In Brazil, responses were more or less “I didn’t know anyone was doing anything!”  Brazilians thought everyone in the United States supported the military government, so to many the evidence presented in the book came as a surprise.  I’m still unsure of how U.S readers respond to the book, something but I hope to find out more in the future.

CF: The dictatorship period in Brazil has been the subject of renewed attention with the creation of a National Truth Commission. As an historian, how do you view the role of such official commissions of inquiry in establishing an authoritative narrative of a nation’s painful past? 

JG: It’s very important to realize that while the Inter-American Court declared the amnesty unconstitutional, the Brazilian amnesty law still exists. I support the creation of the Truth Commission, but I don’t agree that what will come out of official inquiries will prove to be successful in the process of reconciliation and resolution for Brazil.  With the election of Dilma, a tortured guerrilla herself, to the presidency, one might suspect great strides in reforming the narrative of Brazil’s past, but even she recently consented to the silencing of a family whose relative disappeared during the era.  Yet the creation of a National Truth Commission is important because it is sparking a new debate.  It remains to be seen how political parties and the Brazilian federalist system will impact the effectiveness of the truth commissions, as we have already seen an example of different courses of action being pursued at the state level with the São Paulo commission and the federal level with the National Truth Commission.

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