Bahia Empowers its Voice in Brazil’s Search for Truth

Guest post by Shari Wejsa

Shari Wejsa holds an M.A. in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from Columbia University, an Ed. M from Rutgers University, and is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship in Salvador, Brazil researching issues related to human rights and education. The following post draws from research conducted for her my M.A. thesis, “Decentralizing Brazil’s National Truth Commission: Localizing Truth in Bahia,” submitted in May of this year.

At the May 16, 2012 installation ceremony of Brazil’s Comissão Nacional da Verdade (National Truth Commission, CNV) which will examine and clarify human rights violations state agents committed between September 18, 1946 and October 5, 1988, with an emphasis on the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, President Dilma Rousseff emphasized the notion of democratic progress, noting that the ceremony was, “A celebration of transparency of truth of a nation that continues in its democratic path.”

Not everyone has agreed with Rousseff’s optimism. Many military and police raise questions about the Commission’s partiality, arguing that it fails to consider the “war” Brazil endured during the dictatorship against an, “infiltrated enemy, [who was] armed, unknown, and used false identities.”  Some even claim that Rousseff designed the entity in retaliation for the torture she endured as a political prisoner. The Naval Club created a “parallel truth commission” to shield military officials who may be called to testify to the CNV and to present a countermeasure to possible criticisms of the Armed Forces.

Non-military criticisms also exist. Many human rights groups allege that the CNV, without the right to punish, will not provide adequate justice to victims and their families.  Other critics argue that the CNV can “reopen wounds” in Brazilian society and “divide Brazilians,” thus threatening Brazil’s democratic progress.   Some suggest that two years (extended until the end of 2014) is inadequate for a commission of only seven members (currently five since Cláudio Fonteles and Gilson Dipp have since resigned) with 14 assistants to conduct its investigations. Others claim that the Brazilian government should have consulted the public to determine what the CNV would be.

The seven Commission members also struggled to develop a clear trajectory for their work. They determined the CNV’s Internal Guidelines nearly two months after the start of its mandate,  and updated them again eight months later, revealing uncertainty regarding best practices for tackling their objectives.

Rousseff and CNV members also entered into contention. Rousseff demanded that the CNV provide more concrete results and sensitize public opinion by actively addressing wounds of the  dictatorship. Only this process, in which victims and their families can openly express their suffering, she argued, will provide a true “cure” in Brazil.  Although the CNV members agreed to overcome their internal division on the issue, they counterbalanced Rousseff’s request by demanding more support.

Still, one of the greatest concerns calls into question the CNV’s capacity to illuminate victims’ stories through the “voice of the State” when such restrictions exist.

To compensate for its limitations, the CNV endorsed the establishment of state and local truth commissions.  The CNV identified this collaboration as essential to promote civil participation, protect democracy, and to construct a more cohesive truth. These partnerships enable the CNV to delegate its powers by requesting data, documents, and organizing hearings and investigations. Nine of 27 states have installed state truth commissions.

A Comissão da Verdade Estadual da Bahia (The State Truth Commission of Bahia)

Despite these efforts to delegate truth-revealing efforts, localized representation at the national level has remained problematic. Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia is a primary example. The military regime held 157 Bahians as political prisoners between 1964 and 1979, terminated the terms of 41 political figures, exiled 16, and killed or disappeared 32 Bahians. Bahian Governor Jacques Wagner symbolically announced and signed the decree establishing the State Truth Commission of Bahia on December 10, 2012, the date devoted to international human rights awareness.  It wasn’t until Tuesday, August 2013, however that the seven State Truth Commission of Bahia members were installed.  The commission will have two years to investigate human rights violations committed by public officials in Bahia between 1946 and 1988. Its final report will also contain recommendations to improve public institutions. The members may collect information related to the deaths and disappearances reported in the state, solicit statements from victims and persons accused or suspected of being involved in abuses and request documents to clarify facts.  Professor of Political Science, lawyer, president of Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais da Bahia (Torture Never Again Group of Bahia) and Coordinator of Comitê Baiano Pela Verdade (Bahian Committee for Truth) Joviniano Soares de Carvalho Neto, will serve as the commission’s first coordinator.  The other members are professor and former councilwoman Amabília Vilaronga Almeida de Pinho, journalists Walter Antonio Pinheiro Filho and Carlos Navarro, the dean of the Federal University of Bahia, Dulce Silva e Tamara Lamego Aquino and attorneys Jackson Keys Vera Azevedo and Christina Leonelli.

A major theme surrounding the commission has been its delay. Joviniano Soares de Carvalho Neto suggested that Wagner’s December announcement was a premature political maneuver, discussed with few advisors prior to its revelation, which had stalemated due to a lack of funding and an inability to find appropriate members and adequately trained research assistants. He also blamed cultural influences, stating that the “jeito baiano, devagar”, the “slow Bahian way” halted its implementation. Amabília Almeida also criticized the delay in the opening of her installation ceremony speech.  Comitê Baiano Pela Verdade members noted that this delay minimizes Bahia’s representation in the CNV’s final report, since the CNV completed one year of its mandate in May of 2013 without having received submissions from an officially partnered entity in Bahia.

The Comitê Baiano Pela Verdade previously functioned as Bahia’s core representation.  In September 2012, the Comitê submitted case materials of Salvador native Jorge Leal Gonçalves Pereira, a member of the Ação Popular Marxista-Leninista (Popular Action-Marxist-Leninist) group and identified as “disappeared” since 1970.  The members selected documents which humanized Gonçalves Pereira, including letters from family members while strategically inserting articles calling attention to various other disappearance cases in Bahia. The case was selected in great part for personal connections with the Gonçalves family among Comitê members and because materials were already compiled.  In Bahia, therefore, minimized representation at the national level due to local delays and few case submissions have challenged the CNV’s depiction as a promoter of democratic progress since many Bahian voices remain absent.

Still, Almeida insisted on promoting the State Truth Commission of Bahia as a key component of the CNV’s democratic function: “[By] rescuing memory and truth, [Brazil] acquires higher consciousness about its own identity, [and] democracy is strengthened.” Therefore, delayed truth-telling initiatives are much better than absent initiatives. They will strengthen the CNV’s democratic identity by clarifying and amplifying dialogue on Brazilian history.

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