Reading Paulo Freire in Recife

Guest Post by Cath Collins

Cath Collins is professor of transitional justice at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland and director of the Human Rights Observatory at the Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile. She attended the 78th Amnesty Caravan and conference as a panelist on the theme of ‘memory and culture’ and a founder member of the Latin American transitional justice network.

In March 2014 I returned to northeast Brazil for the first time in twenty-two years. The first time I went, it was as an idealistic English undergraduate. I spent six months helping build houses in a mutirão in a João Pessoa favela. Dom José Maria Pires, inspirational Afro-Brazilian bishop and liberation theologian, would come along at least once a week, put on his straw hat, and shovel gravel and dirt alongside everybody else. On weekends we would attend CEB meetings alongside Dom Helder Câmara, legendary, tiny, crusading bishop of the neighbouring Pernambuco diocese. We read and debated Paulo Freire, and saw his principles in action among the women of the favela, who taught each other not only to read but to be someone in a world that, outside the confines of the dirt floor chapel, showed little or no sign of valuing their existence. Over two decades later I heard the name of Dom Helder evoked over and over again as I walked the Recife seafront with colleagues from all over Latin America, or crammed into the auditorium of the Jesuit university to hear survivors, lawyers, prosecutors and activists from all around the region talk about the need for truth, justice, reparations, and the remembering of past atrocities.

Latin America’s military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s may be fading into the past, but the long shadow of their crimes is still felt.  While former student activists of the 1960s and 70s told their stories of repression and resistance, in person and on film, their young counterparts of today filled not only the hall but also the stage at the Recife conference and Amnesty Caravan, marking the 50th anniversary of Brazil’s military coup of March 1964. One of the remarkable things for any outside participant observing Brazil’s recent  transitional justice renaissance is the mix of youth and experience among its protagonists, and the remarkable positive energy that results.   When the Caravan was finally called into solemn session, the ranks of commissioners summoned to the stage included some who seemed barely older than the scared, defiant teenage faces who we had just seen projected in the black and white newsreels relating the sombre story of the 1964 coup and its aftermath.

Commission President Paulo Abrão stands as he apologizes on behalf of the Brazilian state for violence committed under the military dictatorship.

Commission President Paulo Abrão stands as he apologizes on behalf of the Brazilian state for violence committed under the military dictatorship.

Commission president Paulo Abrão is, after all, himself not yet out of his thirties; something which renders perhaps even more remarkable the commanding yet infinitely respectful presence with which he engages survivors and witnesses, as they tell their stories, and personifies the State as he asks their forgiveness for the historical wrongs that were done to them. The Commission’s dedicated staff, and the network of academics, practitioners and concerned and active citizens that has clustered around its work, is an equally impressive repository of talent and determined moral purpose. Since the year 2007 the Commission, set up in 2001 after a joint state-civil society committee had tackled the equally thorny question of deaths and disappearances caused by state repression from 1964 to 1985, has travelled the length and breadth of Brazil. It receives, studies and acknowledges the harms done by deliberate state brutality to women, men and children rightly or wrongly suspected of ‘subversive’ agitation in favour of social change, and does what it can to repair part of the damage. It does so through these solemn yet engaging ceremonies, on stages sometimes adorned with visual and musical representations of the colourful slogans of today’s and yesterday’s justice struggles.

A woman honored by the Amnesty Commission poses with her certificate and red rose

A woman honored by the Amnesty Commission poses with her certificate and red rose

In one sense it is a poor replacement for what will never come: the sincere repentance of yesterday’s torturers or today’s armed forces, still grudging and occasionally plain defiant in denying or justifying what they did. In another, it could be understood as something even more potent and perhaps more important for the future: a re-encounter of the state with its citizens and a profound acknowledgement that it is the structures of power, and not the individual victim of their wrongdoing, that must be rehabilitated if a healthier future is ever to be possible. The Caravan takes place, after all, against a backdrop of powerful social discontent with the current political process and its meagre offerings. This discontent, widespread around the Western world, crystallised recently in Brazil, as it did in many other countries in relatively recently re-democratised Latin America, in the form of massive social protests. Led by students and others who feel alienated from a system that offers aspirational, essentially illusory, consumer-led progress for some, and continued exclusion for the rest, the protests both betray and propagate the view that dictatorship and democracy, at least in its current form, are essentially interchangeable. It is a view perhaps foreshadowed by the late, lamented Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell, who predicted as far back as the 1970s that the authoritarian regimes then plaguing the continent would eventually give way to ‘democracies’ in name only. These new regimes, pale shadows of the formerly vibrant political complexion of the continent, would offer only differences of emphasis while continuing to administer the model of exploitative accumulation imposed by technocrats and foreign capital in sometimes uneasy alliance with military rulers.

Whether fully correct or not, this gloomy prognosis certainly chimes with the experience of youthful Chilean protesters of recent years.  My own presentation at the Recife conference attempted to tell the story of student protesters as a counterpoint to the 40th anniversary commemorations with which Chile, in September 2013, held its own version of the past/present, democracy/dictatorship, debate. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the ‘No generation’ – the centre-left Chilean political elite that fought the dictatorship, as portrayed in Gael Garcia Bernal’s box-office rendition of the 1988 plebiscite that finally pushed Pinochet from power – feels somewhat betrayed and bemused. The venom directed against ‘the system’ by today’s student cohort, angry about fees but also about a whole world of lost or simply illusory opportunity, feels to them like an ungrateful rejection of all that they suffered in order to win even these meagre pickings. The generation that suffered the rigours of dictatorship and persecution, and bears the battle scars of exile and torture, is the same that made the bargains and compromises today’s youth implicitly criticise or openly reject.

Iconic Chilean president Salvador Allende, self-immolated in the aftermath of the 11 September bombardment that launched Chile’s 1973 coup, once famously declared that ‘to be young and not to be a revolutionary is an essential, even a biological, contradiction’. When Chile’s once progressive elite, now about to re-take the power they have held in five out of six presidential elections since the 1990 return to democracy, look in the mirror, they see the face of Allende or even of Che Guevara’s archetypal revolutionary. But today’s youthful protesters see, instead, the image of the establishment or even just the tired, middle-aged face of capitulation. Scornful as only the young can be of the compromises life demands, they see little to choose between this and the self—satisfied face of the right-wing civilian elite who correctly sees itself as the true, silent beneficiary of the ideological war of the 1980s.

In Brazil as in Chile, it has fallen to the self-designated progressive elite to inherit the discontent of the generation for which they themselves sacrificed so much. The ironies of such a situation include the reality that mass discontent has reappeared at a time of material advancement in both countries, advances for which the centre-left could certainly with justice claim some credit. They seem, however, not to be enough. Inequality and the growing gulf between the ‘1%’ and the rest are a worldwide, and not only a Latin American, preoccupation. And yet the inescapable echoes of the past that this demand raises are what return us inexorably to the question of the recent past. Latin America’s last major drive for justice culminated in the torture chamber. The re-encounter between the survivors of that moment and the protagonists of the new one may be the key to discovering a better fate for the new utopianism. In this, the circling round to questions of truth and justice for the past is far from being a distraction, and the Amnesty Caravan’s humble offering of apologies is a far from empty gesture.

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One Response to Reading Paulo Freire in Recife

  1. Pingback: Brazil Marks the 50th Anniversary of the Coup | Transitional Justice in Brazil

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