Why Can’t Brazilian Generals Admit Their Guilt in Human Rights Violations?

September 7 paradeTwo days before Christmas, when bells were already ringing, President Lula heard a distant clatter in his office. They weren’t good old Santa’s reindeers. It was the metallic sound of the horses’ hooves of his Defense minister and Armed Forces chiefs on their way to trap the president in the most serious military crisis in the Republic since 1977.

That year, president Ernesto Geisel dismissed the then Army Minister Sylvio Frota , in a ruthless and reckless act to curb the regime’s hard-line radicalism – which in three months killed under torture, journalist Vladimir Herzog and worker Manoel Filho at the Second Army’s DOI-CODI (Destacamento de Operações de Informações – Centro de Operações de Defesa Interna – Department of Operations of Information – Center for Internal Defense Operations)  in São Paulo.

This time the opposite is happening. The military commanders are the ones trying to corner the president threatening mass resignation to oppose the presidential decree establishing a National Commission for Truth to investigate human rights violations and torture cases during the military dictatorship (1964-1985).

 Only washed wounds will heal. (Michelle Bachelet, a doctor, tortured in 1975, president of Chile in 2006)

For two decades, a repressive apparatus estimated at 24,000 agents arrested for political reasons about 50,000 Brazilians and tortured somewhere around 20,000 people – three each day.

The military had already reacted badly in August 2007 when the Presidential Palace released the book Right to Memory and Truth, a courageous job of 11 years from the Department of Human Rights, started during the Cardoso administration, acknowledging for the first time the government’s responsibility for the official violence, with a list of 339 dead or missing due to political repression. In a clear act of defiance, no military commander attended the ceremony presided over by the commander in chief of the Armed Forces, President Lula.

Cemetery Peace

The barracks’ bitterness, then and now, was already expected. But what surprised, in fact, was the heavy bombing that the National Plan for Human Rights drew from the national public opinion’s traditionally more enlightened groups. Editorials in the mainstream press, renowned writers and influential bloggers closed ranks against the idea of the Truth Commission, voicing unqualified fear blown, in a tone of veiled threat, by the barracks and the usual vivandières (women attached to military regiments as sutlers or canteen keepers).

The alarmist situation outlined by a block reaction showed a worrisome future: a Brazil again conflicted, divided, steeped in revenge, trying to settle past accounts with a calculated review of the Amnesty Act of 1979, manipulated by ex-terrorists now entrenched in government looking for a personal vendetta against those responsible for abuse suffered in prison.

Streets signs and schools named after torturers would be wiped off the national map and federal police agents would invade military barracks in search of clandestine graves of people killed by the repression. All this plotting against the peace covenant established three decades ago to enshrine the tolerant and peaceful Brazil that would rather forgive and forget. Really?

The excited national media let go unnoticed something far more serious: the triple functional transgression by the president, the minister and the military chiefs. Lula by omission: more concerned about the thawing of the planet in Copenhagen than with the heating of the barracks in Brasilia, he acknowledged he had not read the law he signed – a written version of the traditional “I didn’t know.”

Nelson Jobim as a bungler: despite having a big 6.2 feet body he has not grown enough to understand the institutional role of his position as Defense minister, someone who must exercise the authority of the civilian society over the armed forces, and not the other way around.

The commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force for insubordination: they opposed a government decision announced in a public forum by their commander in chief, to whom they owe unrestricted obedience as imposed by the constitution.

They bumped head-on with the facts and with government colleagues. The Secretary of Human Rights, Paulo Vanucchi, central focus of the military wrath, explained: “The PNDH is not against the Amnesty. It doesn’t annul or revise the law. The bill says that the Truth Commission will be set ‘as defined by the Law Amnesty ‘. It’s there in the text. You just have to read,” says Vanucchi.

His boss and main ally, Justice Minister Tarso Genro argues: “During the military regime no provision, not even the AI-5, allowed torture. This is not a political offense but a common one.” This is the essence of the difference that justifies the action of Brazil’s Bar Association (OAB) in the Federal Supreme Court (STF) to define the amnesty’s scope. “Brazil cannot cower and cannot want to hide the truth.” Amnesty is not amnesia,” teaches Cezar Britto, president of the OAB.

Jurist Paul Brossard disagrees: “The effects of the amnesty have been felt when the law came into force. The crime itself is deleted.” The former minister of the STF, which was a brave MDB senator in the bloody 1970s, was not always so legalistic. “I never wanted [the coup] in 1964, but I thought it was absolutely normal, because it was just self-defense of a society then directly threatened,” he admits in his memoir, Brossard – 80 years in the Political History of Brazil (Arts & Crafts, 2004, p. 126).

In an article published in daily Zero Hora last week, Brossard explains why he considers the amnesty irreversible: “Amnesty may be more or less unfair, but it is not justice its outstanding character. It’s peace.”

Whose peace, paleface? It is certainly not cemetery’s peace from those killed by torture, nor peace of mind of the relatives of the political disappeared, let alone peace of conscience of those who survived the torture and screams of pain in the dungeons.

“State Responsibility”

The amnesty law that Brossard holds dear is not the result of consensus of a country sitting around the table of understanding. It is more the delivery of the dictatorship’s rings to not lose the fingers stained with blood. Pressed by the growing clamor of the streets in 1979, General João Figueiredo negotiated, top to bottom, the amnesty that seemed more appropriate to the regime.

The Left, defeated in the armed struggle, arrested or exiled, didn’t have much to demand, but the benevolence of the military regime, which would still last six more years. It swallowed an amnesty grafted in the barracks with a broad and vague shield, diluted in the expression “related crimes,” which should cover the torturers’ crimes of blood.

One of the ministers of Figueiredo who signs the law on August 29 of that year, is General Octávio Aguiar de Medeiros, head of the SNI (National Information Service), who still dreamed of the regime’s survival and his own anointing as the sixth president of the dictatorship. The terrorism left in the country in those days was all from the Right, which set fire to newsstands and exploded bombs in organizations that called for democracy, as the OAB’s national headquarters.

On the eve of Labor Day in 1981, two years after the promulgation of the amnesty, a Puma car exploded prematurely in Riocentro. It had on board two Army’s terrorist operatives: one sergeant who died with the bomb on his lap and a DOI-CODI captain who survived unharmed and became a professor at the Military Academy in Brasília.

A police-military investigation by the Army found that the attack was planned by the SNI’s head in Rio, Colonel Freddie Perdigão. Other victims of that clumsy ‘work accident’ fell by the wayside: the Medeiros’s presidential project, Figueiredo’s infarcted heart and chances to extend the dictatorship.

Figueiredo and the dictatorship left the Presidential Palace through the back door in 1985, so as not to return the presidential sash usurped from the civilian power in 1964. The new president, José Sarney, signed in 1989 Brazil’s adherence to the international treaty that considers torture a crime against humanity and as such, indefeasible. Nevertheless, no one went through the unpleasantness of a conviction, which is now common in other Southern Cone countries

The only exception is Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra sentenced in first instance in São Paulo in a process that seeks only to declare him a “torturer”. He doesn’t lack merits: as major, he built and headed the regime’s most famous center of repression and torture, the DOI-CODI at Tutóia street, in São Paulo. In 40 months as commander of that corruption cave, according to a Commission for Justice and Peace of the Archdiocese of São Paulo, Ustra racked up 502 complaints of torture (one every 60 hours) and 40 deaths (one a month).

In defense before the Court, the brave Ustra preferred to kick the responsibility up the ladder:

“The Brazilian army is a legal entity, and so illegal acts, including acts that cause moral damage, done by agents of these entities are answered by these legal entities and not the agent against whom they have regressive right. ( …) Every time a Brazilian army officer acts in the exercise of his functions he will be drawing the State’s responsibility.” 

Manly Brazil

Tutóia street and Colonel Ustra remind us of an even greater tragedy: the Second World War (1939-1945). The planet’s greatest catastrophe involved 100 million soldiers from 72 nations on five continents, killing 70 million people (the combined populations of Argentina and Canada) and mutilating nearly 30 million. It cost about US$ 1.5 trillion, almost as much as Barack Obama has injected into the economy to save banks and carmakers.

The victorious powers have seen fit to punish the direct responsible for all this, the Third Reich of Hitler. Soviet leader Josef Stalin had a blunt solution: kill all the Nazis directly or indirectly involved with the war. According to the allies’ calculations, that would mean over 100,000 executions of agents from Hitler’s state apparatus – three times more than the dead at Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich.

The more civilized solution won: the Nuremberg Tribunal, who spent 285 days of trial to hear 240 witnesses and write down 300,000 statements, generating a summary of 4 billion words. The final indictment of 25,000 pages to the main Nazi leaders sentenced 12 to death, three to life imprisonment and another three to prison terms between 10 and 20 years. Three were acquitted.

The defense claimed at Nuremberg the same point raised in São Paulo: the “due obedience to superior orders.” What American judge Francis Biddle replied serves, therefore, also to Colonel Ustra: “Individuals have international duties to perform, beyond national duties that a particular state may impose,” said Biddle.

Nuremberg sank forever in the conscience of the civilized world, the pioneering notion that the foundations of the human person are above the political circumstances and beyond national borders. That is why the long arm of the Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón reached Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London, for crimes of torture and murder. The Third Reich’s defense tried to raise a principle that would prevent the trial of past events (ex post facto), arguing that there was no provision in the law prior to the crimes on trial.

Prevailed fact and common sense that no law in the world had imagined, as state policy, such a large scale of genocide as the one coldly devised by the Nazi ingenuity in their concentration camps where six million Jews were killed. If Ustra’s argument were accepted in Nuremberg, to escape prison it would be enough to say that all Nazis were just following Adolf Hitler’s orders … The argument didn’t work there, but seems to have good results here. Nobody is even indicted in Brazil, and when that happens, Colonel Ustra says that the excesses that he possibly committed were the State’s responsibility.

Minister Tarso Genro and the country’s most renowned scholars remind us that even the harshest exception acts were careful never to mention, much less authorize torture. It is a crime, therefore, without father or mother. Amnesty is not forgetfulness, is forgiveness, teach jurists who do not hide behind words. We cannot forget what we don’t know. Nor can we forgive what has not been punished – immaculate privilege of all torturers who still exist in the country. American historian Edward Peters, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, warned: “The future of torture is inextricably linked to the torturers’ future.”

That is, the impunity of the torturer just ensures the perpetuity of torture and its beloved daughter, violence. The Brazil that avoids punishing or even pointing its torturers ends up banalizing violence, which spills over the dictatorship and victimizes ordinary citizens in full democracy, especially in the two largest capitals, São Paulo and Rio.

In the 24 years following the amnesty (1979-2003), firearms killed 550,000 people in Brazil – 44% of them youths aged 15 to 24 years. This manly, peaceful and friendly Brazil, lost nearly as many people as the United States during the five years it fought in World War II (625,000 troops). In a single year, 2003, according to the Ministry of Health, it was murdered in Brazil a civilian population (51,000 thousand people) almost as large as the United States losses (58 thousand) over the Vietnam War’s 16 years.

Last Dictator

It is hard to tell how much of this violence has a direct line to the torture of the dictatorship that remained unpunished as well as its perpetrators. But, of course, who kills and tortures today has the good example of their predecessors who remain unscathed and protected. It is even harder to explain the feeling of solidarity that makes Brazil’s current military commanders into loyal fellows of old criminals of a military coup that’s now celebrating 46 years.

No friendship can exist between military generations as distinct, so far from illegality. Captains, majors and lieutenant colonels today, in the three forces, were not even born when the military raided the cellars of 1970’s to run the state terrorism that fiercely fought the armed Left. The best example is the job record of Brazil’s Armed Forces current leaders, all professionally matured in the democratic regime, which now reaches 25 years of life.

Army commander, General Enzo Martins Peri, is from a technical branch of the ground-force, Engineering. He was second lieutenant at age 23, when the 1964 coup occurred. Between the eve of the military rebellion and the restless 1968, Peri hibernated in a bureaucratic engineering battalion in Rio de Janeiro. He passed briefly through the 2nd section (information area) of the discrete 1st Engineering and Construction Group of João Pessoa (Paraíba state), during Ernesto Geisel’s government. He crossed the turbulent 1970s as major. Just got promoted to general in 1995, during the Cardoso government, without ever having soiled his hands with repression.

Navy commander, Admiral Júlio Soares de Moura Neto, was still very young when the coup of 64 happened, eleven days after his 21st birthday. It was nearly five months after the fall of João Goulart  that Moura Neto wore the uniform, as midshipman. In the 1970’s lead years, he kept white not only his political records but also his corvette captain’s uniform. He arrived at the Admiralty during the Cardoso government in 1995.

Air Force commander, Juniti Saito, turned a FAB cadet at the end of 1965, 19 months after the military coup. He became captain in 1971 and ended the cursed decade as a major, without ever flying over the most radical area of the Air Force set ablaze by radical Brigadier John Paul Burnier. He was promoted to colonel in the Sarney administration, in 1988, and became brigadier with Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1995.

In the job record of the three, therefore, there is no reason to justify the corporate response in defense of people who soiled the uniform with torture. A proper understanding of the historical process that requires knowledge of the past would do very well to the three chiefs of the Armed Forces who are committed to the country and the Constitution they vowed to defend – not with the radicals of the past who fear the sanitary effects of a Truth Commission.

There is therefore no reason for them to feel offended by something that is a moral obligation of a country that must confront its history to better know its fate. It is pure nonsense to imagine that a wave of revisionism will clog corners of the country with names of torturers or heads of the dictatorship.

General Garrastazu Médici, the popular president of the bloodiest phase of the military regime (1969-74), when Colonel Ustra used to shine at Tutóia street, is a city name in Rondônia and Maranhão, an avenue in Osasco (São Paulo), a neighborhood in Chapecó (Santa Catarina), a street in São Luís (Maranhão), a residential complex in Rio (Rio de Janeiro).

Senator Filinto Muller, the head of the truculent political police of the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship and who sent in 1936 Jewish German Olga Benário (the pregnant wife of communist Luis Carlos Prestes) to death in a Hitler’s concentration camp, is all over the country: he’s the name of seven schools in three states, he baptizes three streets and one avenue. Muller also has the right to a bust in the Senate’s ward office that bears his name. It is useless to imagine that an alleged revenge would attempt to repeal now these addresses and tributes.

Instead of cowering with ghosts of a past we should know and not fear, Minister Jobim and the military leaders should be inspired by the courageous example of Argentina, which has a case of violence and death much bloodier than Brazil. There, without fear of revenge, the government of Néstor Kirchner (2003-07) reversed, with the support of the Supreme Court, the two indulgent amnesty laws – the Full Stop and Due Obedience – granted by President Raúl Alfonsín (1983-89) .

The Argentine judiciary now is suing 263 military and police agents for crimes against human rights. The general responsible for the 1976 coup, Jorge Rafael Videla, 85, was sentenced to life in prison and is under house arrest, as well as the last president of the dictatorship, General Reynaldo Bignone.

In Uruguay, the last dictator, General Gregório Alvarez, was sentenced in 2009 to 25 years in prison for killing 37 opponents – three fewer than the number of victims of the Tutóia street’s DOI-CODI under the command of Colonel Ustra.

Without Fear, Without Guilt

Lula, Jobim and the military ministers might draw inspiration from the noble figure of Martin António Balza, a soft-spoken general of proud bearing, who commanded the Argentina Army from 1991 to 1999, during the two terms of President Carlos Menem.

He came from Artillery specializing in mountain warfare. As lieutenant colonel, he took part in the 1982 Falklands War commanding an artillery battalion. He was arrested by the British and for the bravery the Buenos Aires generals didn’t show he received the Army’s Medal of Merit.

His most notable act, however, was the amazing appearance he made the night of April 25, 1995 in Tiempo Nuevo, Argentina TV’s most important talk show, presented by journalist Bernardo Neustadt. With the commander’s khaki uniform and his white hair at 61, Balza started an unexpected mea culpa that touched the country still traumatized by the officially recognized 18,000 disappearances (30,000 according to human rights organizations) in the “dirty war” years between 1976 and 1983.

He took a paper from his pocket and with a firm voice, full of conviction, read a text that could be a general’s reading about  Brazil. Balza talks:

“I want to start a painful dialogue about the past, a painful dialogue that was never maintained and that moves like a ghost on the collective consciousness, returning these days inevitably from the shadows where it occasionally hides. Our country lived the 70’s, a decade marked by violence, messianism and ideology. Without looking for innovative words, but by appealing to the old military regulations, I take this opportunity to once again order the army, before the whole society: no one is obliged to comply with an immoral order or that departs from the laws and military regulations. Who does it incurs a vicious conduct, worthy of the punishment its gravity requires. Without euphemisms I say clearly:

“Commits an offense whoever violates the national Constitution. Commits an offense whoever gives immoral orders. Commits an offense whoever obey immoral orders. Commits an offense he who, to fulfill an end he believes just, uses unjust and immoral means. An understanding of these essential aspects makes the republican life of a state. Understanding this, abandoning once and for all the apocalyptic vision, pride, accepting dissent and respecting the sovereign will …

“This is the first step we are taking in many years to leave the past behind, to help build the Argentina of the future, an Argentina matured in pain that can come someday to a fraternal embrace. If we cannot elaborate the pain and heal the wounds, we’ll have no future. We must no longer deny the horror we experienced, so that we can think of our lives as a society that advances, overcoming pain and suffering.

“In the name of the fight against subversion, the military overthrew the constitutional government and installed himself in power illegitimately through a coup d’état. I come to ask forgiveness for this and take the political responsibility for the folly committed in the past. In power, the Army committed still other crimes. The Army arrested, kidnapped, tortured and murdered – as the subversive offenders did – and many of its members became like them criminals.

Argentina, astounded and moved, swallowed hard. It was the first time that a general said, with clarity and bluntness, what the country commented to itself in a painful and still startled whisper. The act of contrition liberated and encouraged the other two military leaders.

Days later, the commander of the Air Force admitted the same excesses, followed by the Navy commander, a patron of most emblematic sign of repression in the country – the ESMA, the Navy Mechanics School.

In 2004, the classical style building framed with four slender columns of white marble, in the elegant Avenida Libertador in Buenos Aires, was renovated and transformed into the “Space for the Memory and the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.” It is open to the public since 2007. Last December, capping this phase of national dignity, started the trial of 19 Navy personnel accused of crimes against humanity committed inside the ESMA.

The historical testimony of General Martín Balza produced a profound effect on the country and the Argentine armed forces, reminisces Brazilian journalist Flávio Tavares, who was a correspondent for O Estado de S. Paulo in Buenos Aires in the lead years:

“Without the knowledge of President Carlos Menem himself, General Balza did the mea culpa and began the process of sinceramiento as Argentina calls this military institution’s catharsis. Thus, he released thousands of Armed Forces’ military officers from the nightmare of having to assume as their own crimes committed by a minority in the Army, Navy and Air Force.

“This sinceramiento process, the decision to hide nothing, reconnected the armed forces to the population, overcoming suspicions and fears. I still remember that after Balza’s repentance interview, an Argentine journalist – with family members murdered by the dictatorship – came up smiling, stretched out her hand and said:

– For the first time I can shake hands with a general without fear or guilt. “

A dialogue so painful in a nation so bruised as Argentina, shows that the amnesty and pardon issue depends, sometimes on the right word and a lot of political will. Moreover it calls for courage, which so far has not emerged in Brazil’s High Command. It’s not hard to imagine the regenerating effect that a statement by general Enzo Peri, with this kind of content, would have in Brazilian history, reconciling military and their victims by the mere admission of guilt. It is a painful. resigned, contrite gesture, but of unsurpassed grandeur. It is hard and at the same time simple. Therefore, possible.

When he took the post of Defense minister, at a time when the country was living with the air blackout that crippled airports, Nelson Jobim made a rallying call that impressed by the courage, the determination:

– Act or get out, do or go away!

Brazil would like to shake the hand of its generals, without fear or guilt.

Just take action and do, Minister Jobim! Otherwise, leave. Go away.

Luiz Cláudio Cunha is a journalist, author of Operation Condor: The Kidnapping of Uruguayans (LP & M Publishing, 2008). This text originally appeared in Portuguese in Observatório da Imprensa.


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