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Eleven years after Brazil's military handed power back to civilians and returned to the barracks, the legacy of two decades of dictatorship endures. Former political prisoners who were tortured, as well as relatives of people who were killed by the military regime, demand explanations and reparations. Meanwhile, torture and disappearances continue to be used against ordinary prisoners.

Katheryn Gallant

The back story

    For many historians, the coup of 1964 began to take shape when Jânio Quadros resigned from the presidency in August 1961. Others believe that the military had thought of assuming control since the suicide of President Getúlio Vargas in August 1954. What is certain is that, even in the '50s, elements in Brazil's armed forces were trying to take power away from democratically elected civilian presidents.

  • February 19, 1956 -- Air Force officers revolt in Jacareacanga, Pará, in an attempt to overthrow President Juscelino Kubitschek. The rebellion is suppressed and the officers receive amnesties.
  • December 3, 1959 -- Another military uprising occurs in Aragarças, Goiás. Kubitschek again subdues the rebellion and amnesties the rebels.
  • January 31, 1961 -- Jânio Quadros is inaugurated President and tries to transcend political parties. He soon adopts an austere economic program, with credit restrictions and a freeze on workers' salaries. He also prohibits wearing bikinis at the beach and cockfights.
  • August 25, 1961 -- After seven months, Quadros resigns from the Presidency. In a letter to Congress, Quadros says that he was under pressure from "terrible forces." Carlos Lacerda, governor of Guanabara state (Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area), had accused Quadros of plotting to become a dictator.
  • August 25, 1961 -- House Speaker Ranieri Mazzilli becomes interim President. Vice-President João Goulart had been on a state visit to China.
  • September 7, 1961 -- After political manipulations, Goulart is inaugurated President under a hastily-manufactured parliamentary system. Tancredo Neves (who would be elected President in 1985, but become fatally ill on the eve of his inauguration) is elected Prime Minister by Congress. Goulart begins to face a wave of strikes in Brazil and receives full presidential powers in January 1963, after a plebiscite that ends the parliamentary experiment.
  • March 13, 1964 -- Goulart takes measures that displease business executives and military officers. During a rally in Rio de Janeiro, he signs a decree that nationalizes privately-held petroleum refineries. He is accused of being partial to Communism.
  • March 29, 1964 -- In Minas Gerais, Generals Olympio Mourão Filho, Carlos Luís Guedes and Odílio Denys put the final touches on a plot to depose Goulart.
  • March 31, 1964 -- Troops advance toward Rio de Janeiro and Brasília. Goulart, without military support, travels to his home state of Rio Grande do Sul and afterwards decides to go into exile in Uruguay.
  • April 15, 1964 -- Marshal Humberto Castello Branco becomes President. He bans strikes, closes civilian associations, revokes the mandates and civil rights of politicians and intervenes in trade unions. Generals continue in power until 1985.

The generals in charge

    Presidents of Brazil, 1964-1985
    Humberto Castello Branco -- 1964-1967
    Arthur da Costa e Silva -- 1967-1969
    Emílio Garrastazú Médici -- 1969-1974
    Ernesto Geisel -- 1974-1979
    João Baptista Figueiredo -- 1979-1985

Grading the presidents

    In 1994, Congressman Roberto Campos (PDS -- RJ) evaluated for O Estado de São Paulo newspaper the administrations of the generals who ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

    For the Castello Branco administration (in which Campos was Minister of Planning) Campos gave the highest grade: 9 out a possible 10. Why? According to Campos, Castello Branco "planned everything very well, although it might not have been accomplished yet." As for the government of Costa e Silva, which had a "short duration and was weak," the congressman gave it only a 3.

    The Médici regime, which Campos sees as having been "repressive, but who presided during a period of great prosperity," got a 7. For that of Geisel, whom Campos perceives as "serious," a 5. "Marked by a period of political exhaustion," the Figueiredo government, like that of Costa e Silva, received a below-average grade from Campos: 4.

Brazil was not alone

    For years, military interventions were routine throughout the Third World. A political crisis would suffice to make the tanks roll out onto the streets. For example, Bolivia endured seven coups between 1956 and 1983. In the '80s, Guatemala came to such a point that there were no more civilians to remove from the government. Generals -- and even lower-ranking officers -- did coups on their own colleagues. The same thing happened in Honduras. That country was under dictatorships for 39 years.

    From 1960 until the mid-'80s, most Latin American countries were in the hands of generals. During its years under military rule, Brazil experienced economic growth and political restrictions -- prison, exile, torture, censorship. Argentina went to war with England over the Falkland Islands -- and was soundly defeated. In Chile, in 1973, the civilian president Salvador Allende died while tanks bombed the presidential palace in which Allende was making his last stand. The new president, General Augusto Pinochet, remained in power until a civilian was elected in 1989.

    In wealthy democratic nations such as the US, Latin American dictators are a familiar comic stereotype, along with bearded guerrillas and Mexicans taking siestas under gigantic sombreros. The Woody Allen film Bananas (1971) depicts an imaginary Latin American country where dictators depose each other. When he takes over, the new leader announces radical changes for the country: wearing undershorts over trousers and the adoption of Swedish as the official language.

    The "Years of Lead" -- a term that became popular after Argentine writer Alberto Daneri used it for the title of a short story about the effects of dictatorship on an ordinary person -- seem to be over. However, it is possible that if there is a major economic decline or a significant threat to the political hegemony of the US, the ghosts of regimes past will leave the barracks and take to the streets.

Torturers' acronyms

    Oban -- Operation Bandeirantes Cenimar -- Navy Information Center
    CIE -- Army Information Center
    Cisa -- Air Force Information and Security Center
    DOI-CODI -- Information Operations Department -- Center for Internal Defense Operations
    DOPS -- Department for Political and Social Order
    DEOPS -- State Department for Political and Social Order

The government's crimes

    152 persons disappeared
    2000 persons tortured
    352 persons killed
    4500 persons deprived of their civil rights
    10,000 persons exiled
    50,000 persons detained in the first months after the Movement of 1964
    2828 persons sentenced to prison by Military Justice
    452 trade unions purged in 1964

The guerrillas

    PC do B -- Communist Party of Brazil
    PCBR -- Revolutionary Brazilian Communist Party
    PCB -- Brazilian Communist Party (did not take up arms)
    ALN -- National Action for Liberation
    AP -- Popular Action
    Molipo -- Movement for Popular Liberation
    MR-8 -- October 8 Revolutionary Movement
    POC -- Communist Workers' Party
    VPR -- Popular Revolutionary Vanguard
    VAR-Palmares -- Armed Revolutionary Vanguard -- Palmares

Crimes of the guerrillas

    134 persons killed
    CIA agent Charles Chandler and São Paulo industrialist Henning Albert Bollesen were executed
    A car bomb targeted the Second Army headquarters in São Paulo
    4 diplomats kidnapped
    100 banks and stores robbed

What the families want

  • Two more cases of disappeared persons put on the official government list, as well as the names of 13 Brazilian militants who disappeared outside Brazil and another three who are only known by their pseudonyms. The list would then increase to 156 cases of desaparecidos.
  • An additional 217 names of persons who have been officially acknowledged to have been killed by the military regime. Their survivors would then have the right to the same compensation given to the families of desaparecidos.
  • Inquiries into the circumstances of the deaths and the names of those involved. This information would then be on the official list of those who were killed or disappeared during the military regime.
  • The group Tortura Nunca Mais has proposed that the government commit itself to denying high-ranking civil service positions to persons involved in crimes during the military regime.

What the government is offering

  • The government has declared legally dead 136 persons who were accused of political activities between 1964 and 1979 and then disappeared.
  • The families of the desaparecidos listed by the Justice Ministry will receive a death certificate and an optional government compensation of R$100,000 to R$150,000, depending on the age of the person when he or she disappeared.
  • A five-person commission, with one member connected to human-rights groups and another to the Congressional Human Rights Committee, will try to locate the remains of the desaparecidos.
  • The compensations will begin to be paid in 1996.

The "suicide" list

    Below is a list of leftists who were officially declared to have committed suicide in prison. Out of 22 reported suicides among political prisoners during Brazil's military regime, human-rights groups have proven that 13 of these prisoners had been tortured just before their deaths. All 13 had marks of torture on their bodies.

    1. Astrogildo Viana
    2. Carlos Schimer
    3. Milton de Castro
    4. João Lucas Alves
    5. Reinaldo Pimenta
    6. Roberto Cieto
    7. Severino Colon
    8. Avelmar de Barros
    9. Olavo Hansen
    10. José Gomes Teixeira
    11. Pedro Gerônimo de Souza
    12. Vladimir Herzog
    13. Manuel Fiel Filho

Methods of torture

  • As was the rule during the military regime, the police do not use special rooms or sophisticated equipment to torture prisoners. Anything goes when it comes to disrespecting human rights to obtain information. Besides kicks, blows and slapping, here is a list of the most used methods in Brazilian police stations:
  • Parrot's perch -- An iron bar is wedged behind the victim's knees. His or her wrists are tied to the bar. The bar is then placed between two tables, which causes the victim to hang eight to 12 inches above the floor. The victim's position is reminiscent of a roast chicken on a spit. This method leaves no marks. However, it causes severe pain, nausea and breathing difficulties. It is frequently used in combination with beatings and electric shock. Since four consecutive hours on the parrot's perch is enough to kill a person, torturers usually stop the punishment after an hour or two, only to resume it later.
  • Electric shock -- Torturers take wires which are connected to electric plugs or car batteries and put the wires on the victim's body. To increase the effect, water is thrown on the victim and the wires are put on sensitive spots of his or her body, such as the genitals or the eyes. It is also common to place the wires underneath fingernails and toenails, or in the back near the kidneys. Electric shock causes tremors, weeping and urinary incontinence. The nervous system will go to pieces. Electric shock is deadly when used to excess.
  • Telephone -- The torturer goes behind the victim. When the victim does not expect it, the torturer slaps both of the victim's ears simultaneously. The immediate effects are disorientation and sharp pains. If the telephone is repeated three times with great force, it can shatter the victim's eardrums and cause permanent deafness.
  • Drowning -- This can be done with small rubber tubes in the mouth and nostrils, or even with a bucket of water in which to submerge the victim's head. At first, it lasts only a few seconds and the victim is taken out. Afterwards, the torturer increases the time that the victim spends underwater, while the periods between the submersions lessen. The victim's nausea causes him or her to vomit or faint. A related method of torture is to place a plastic bag over the victim's head. This impedes the circulation of oxygen and, if the bag is not taken off in time, can suffocate the victim to death.
  • Psychological torture -- This is used as a reinforcement for other methods. Before the victim is tortured, he or she is often forced to undress. During the torture session, the torturers take advantage of the victim's nudity to make fun of his or her physical characteristics or defects. Women and girls are often raped and otherwise sexually assaulted while under torture. When the victim cries, urinates or defecates against his or her will -- common reactions under torture -- the torturers make jokes about it. It is also common for torturers to say that the victim's family and friends will also be tortured if the victim does not confess. During the military regime, children and other obviously innocent people would be subjected to torture in front of their loved ones who had been arrested for political crimes.

All agitators

    These profiles are taken from the archives of the São Paulo state Department for Political and Social Order (DOPS-SP) during the 1970s, when Brazil's military regime viewed thousands of Brazilian citizens as security risks.

    Fernando Henrique Cardoso:

    "He is an element of the left. He was the treasurer of the Paulista Center for the Study and Defense of Petroleum. A professor at the University of São Paulo, he approved the student movement and translated Marxist texts. He made slanderous propaganda against the Brazilian government abroad."

      Cardoso is now President of Brazil

    José Serra:

    "One of the heads of the intended Communist revolution. He has been a great agitator and troublemaker since the time he was the president of the state Students' Union. A skillful indoctrinator of Marxist ideology, he dictated norms of conduct for all the student organizations."

      Serra is now Minister of Planning

    Francisco Weffort:

    "A leftist intellectual very influential in student organizations. He belongs to the group of University of São Paulo professors composed of subversive and suspect elements. He helped to found the leftist entity Cebrap [Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning Studies] and writes for subversive newspapers."

      Weffort is now Minister of Culture

    Sérgio Motta:

    "On March 8, 1965, he was caught at a secret meeting of Popular Action by DOPS-SP investigators. Intelligent and persuasive, he slandered the Castello Branco government at a student symposium in the US in 1966, saying that Brazil was under a dictatorship."

      Motta is now Minister of Communications

    Pérsio Arida:

    "He enticed several colleagues from the Instituto de Aplicação into the terrorist group VAR-Palmares. He accomplished several propaganda activities for the armed struggle. He led indoctrination meetings and meetings where terrorist activities were being planned."

      Arida is now president of the Banco Central

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