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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