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.
Ńaysaindy de Araújo Barrett does not exist. Her striking name — which
means “clear light” in the Guarani Indian language — cannot
be found in any Brazilian government archive. She is a ghost-citizen, without
an identity, forbidden to legally work or study in Brazil. Why? Her parents
were guerrillas who were killed by the military regime that ruled Brazil
from 1964 to 1985.
Araújo Barrett’s father, José Maria Ferreira de Araújo, came from the
Northeastern state of Paraíba. Being in the Navy didn’t stop him from joining
the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard (VPR), a guerrilla group led by ex-Army
Captain Carlos Lamarca. There Ferreira de Araújo met another young militant,
a Paraguayan woman named Soledad Barrett Viedma. The couple fled to Cuba
in 1966, after the Navy expelled Ferreira de Araújo for his “subversive”
In 1970, a year after the birth of Ńaysaindy, Ferreira de Araújo secretly
returned to Brazil to help continue the armed struggle against the dictatorship.
However, he was arrested later that year and died under torture in the
Săo Paulo headquarters of the Information Operations Department — Center
for Internal Defense Operations (DOI-CODI). In 1995, a government report
would reveal that Ferreira de Araújo had been buried under a false name.
Barrett Viedma decided to leave Cuba in 1973 to rejoin the VPR. Knowing
that her daughter’s future might be in danger if the Brazilian government
knew the identity of Ńaysaindy’s parents, Barrett Viedma had a false birth
certificate made that identified the child as Ńaysaindy Sosa del Sol.
The fate of Barrett Viedma paralleled that of her late husband. When
she returned to Brazil, Barrett Viedma had an affair with a commander of
the VPR, Cabo Anselmo. In 1964, Anselmo had led a sailors’ revolt that
helped frighten the higher military into deposing the constitutional government.
Nevertheless, by the early ’70s, Anselmo was secretly collaborating with
Brazil’s military regime. Anselmo’s reports about VPR activities helped
the government to imprison and kill five VPR militants in 1973. Among them
was Soledad Barrett Viedma.
In 1980, Ńaysaindy went to live in Săo Paulo with her Brazilian foster
mother, Damaris Oliveira Lucena. The year before, the Brazilian government
had given an amnesty to everyone who had been imprisoned or exiled for
political offenses. Before going into exile in Cuba and befriending Barrett
Viedma, Lucena had been tortured in Brazil. Lucena’s husband had been executed.
Adjusting to life in Brazil was hard on Ńaysaindy. “I was completely
lost,” she told Brazilian weekly newsmagazine IstoÉ in 1995.
“Brazil seemed so scary…” Her foster mother was also fearful.
“Mother [i.e., Lucena] avoided all contact with the police and that’s
why my situation wasn’t legalized,” Araújo Barrett said years later.
To keep away authorities who might wonder why Ńaysaindy had a different
last name than the woman whom she called mother, Lucena gave her surname
to the girl.
After Ńaysaindy came to Brazil, her father’s brother, Paulo Araújo,
a biology professor at the University of Campinas in Săo Paulo state, became
aware that he had an orphaned niece. He tried to help the girl. However,
their approach was “slow and careful,” as Paulo Araújo would
When Ńaysaindy went to school, she was afraid that she would be expelled
because she was not using her real name and had no documents to prove her
identity. With this fear paramount in her mind, Ńaysaindy found it hard
to concentrate on her studies. Ńaysaindy dropped out of school in the eighth
grade. She was 14 years old.
It was difficult for Araújo Barrett to find jobs where her employers
would not demand that she reveal her identity. Her friends, knowing her
problem, helped her find various temporary positions. She worked in an
umbrella factory and in a candy store, and acted in minor roles in plays.
Her delicate features, shapely figure and long brunette hair even got her
a job as a fashion model. Araújo Barrett, however, found it impossible
to continue modeling without telling who she really was.
Things seemed to take a turn for the better when Araújo Barrett received
her real birth certificate from an aunt. Unfortunately, it was a false
hope. Not only had the document been registered with the Swiss Embassy
in Havana (in 1969, when Ńaysaindy was born, Brazil had no diplomatic relations
with Cuba), but Lucena had not filed with any government authorities when
she and her foster daughter came to Brazil. Therefore, Araújo Barrett,
although a Brazilian citizen through her father, was an illegal alien in
her own country.
Araújo Barrett now lives with her boyfriend and two daughters in Florianópolis,
capital of the southern state of Santa Catarina. There she ekes out a living
by selling handmade souvenirs to tourists. Her uncle, Paulo Araújo, has
petitioned Justice Minister Nélson Jobim that Ńaysaindy be officially recognized
as the daughter of José Maria Ferreira de Araújo and Soledad Barrett Viedma.
“That would put an end to many years of lies,” Ńaysaindy says.
How could the story of Ńaysaindy de Araújo Barrett have been allowed
to occur as it did? For an answer to that question, it is essential to
tell a bit about Brazil’s history during the 1960s and ’70s. Jânio Quadros,
an independent-minded former governor of Săo Paulo state, was elected by
a landslide to the Brazilian presidency in 1960. Nobody expected that he
would resign after just seven months in office — perhaps least of all
his vice-president, Joăo Goulart. When Quadros resigned in August 1961,
Goulart was on his way home from a state visit to China. Much of Brazil’s
military and civilian establishment viewed Goulart as a leftist demagogue,
and tried to insure that Goulart would not return for his inauguration.
For two weeks, Brazil was on the edge of civil war, but Goulart came home
and took office.
The Goulart years
However, Brazilian society polarized during the next two and a half
years. “Peasant Leagues” in Northeastern Brazil demanded that
tenant farmers be given the land they worked on. These leagues were anathema
to many large landowners, who believed that well-behaved, apolitical peasants
were being incited by outsiders with Marxist tendencies. By 1964, a total
of 2,181 leagues had been formed in 20 of Brazil’s states.
In the cities, unionized workers were also no longer as docile as they
had been. Strikes became more prevalent, which displeased business executives
and shareholders. Prices went up. Inflation, which had been 6% a year in
the late ’40s and 30% in 1960, rose to 74% in 1963 and 91% in 1964. Nevertheless,
workers usually received salary adjustments that kept pace with the rising
cost of living.
All of this might have been tolerated by the upper middle class, military
officers and the US government if Brazil’s executive branch had been both
more efficient and more willing to accept the status quo. However, Goulart
began to demand for “basic reforms” such as agrarian reform,
rewriting the labor codes, granting the vote to illiterates and controlling
the expropriation of profits made by foreign companies in Brazil. Many
people, both Brazilians and foreigners, feared that these proposals were
the prelude to a left-wing dictatorship which would be friendly with the
Soviet Union, if not Communist itself.
Enlisted men and noncommissioned officers in Brazil’s armed forces began
to revolt against their superior officers. In September 1963, six hundred
enlisted soldiers rebelled in Brasília. The President refused to condemn
them. In March 1964, 2000 sailors made a mutiny. Goulart granted them an
amnesty and accused their superior officers of lack of discipline.
Many high-ranking officers, who had their patience worn thin by what
they saw as Goulart’s maladroit rabble-rousing, thought that was the last
straw. On March 31, 1964, army troops marched from Minas Gerais toward
Rio de Janeiro. The forces that were supposed to stop them joined them
instead. Almost no one resisted against the revolt, and very little blood
was shed. Democracy would not return to Brazil for another 21 years.
The role of the United States government in the events of March 1964
is controversial and still disputed by historians. It has been asserted
that Vernon Walters, military attaché to the US embassy in Brazil (who
would become the US ambassador to the United Nations under the administration
of Ronald Reagan) offered arms to generals who were contemplating a coup
d’état. Walters himself denies this.
Certainly, the US government felt relief at the premature transfer of
power in Brazil. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a telegram congratulating
the new government even before Goulart went into exile. (Goulart would
never return to Brazil alive: he died in Argentina in 1976, at the age
of 58.) US Ambassador Lincoln Gordon stated that the “Brazilian Revolution”
was “one of the major turning points in history, in the middle of
the twentieth century.” Brazilians who distrusted North American influence
in their nation’s affairs joked: “No more middlemen! Lincoln Gordon
Of course, Lincoln Gordon did not become president of Brazil. He did
not even have much clout with the man who actually became President in
April 1964, Marshal Humberto Castello Branco. According to an article that
Gordon wrote for Săo Paulo newspaper O Estado de Săo Paulo in 1994,
the ambassador protested to Castello Branco about how politicians were
being stripped of their mandates and civil rights “without trials
and without proofs.” Gordon was so horrified that he seriously thought
of resigning. “I only desisted after making an internal assessment
in which I decided that it would be better for US-Brazilian relations that
I stay,” he declared.
A cardinal’s involvment
Gordon’s successor as ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick, would be kidnapped
by guerrillas from the October 8 Revolutionary Movement (MR-8) in September
1969. After the military government agreed to release 15 political prisoners
and fly them to sanctuary in Mexico, the kidnappers released Elbrick physically
unharmed (although emotionally scarred by his ordeal).
Torture has a long history in Brazil. During the colonial period, representatives
of the Portuguese government tortured pro-independence leaders. After Brazil
gained independence in 1822, rebels against the empire that had been established
were also subjected to torture. And of course, until the abolition of slavery
in 1888, millions of slaves lived constantly under the threat of severe
punishment — and even death — if they attempted to revolt against their
After the coup of 1964, however, government representatives used torture
more systematically on members of the political opposition. Various groups
emerged to combat the regime, but seldom became strong enough — or united
enough — to be effective. Nevertheless, their relatively mild terrorism
was enough to scare the military hardliners into proclaiming the fifth
of a series of Institutional Acts. AI-5, as it was called, gave the President
dictatorial powers to defend “the necessary interests of the nation.”
The decree shut down Congress and the state legislatures, suspended the
Constitution, abolished habeas corpus, authorized censorship of the Brazilian
media (including non-Brazilian journalists working in Brazil for foreign
newspapers, magazines and television networks), and allowed the President
to take away the civil rights of anyone with only the vaguest pretexts.
On the morning of January 20, 1971, Rubens Beirodt Paiva was preparing
to go to the beach with his family. Just before the Paivas were ready to
leave their home in the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Leblon, six armed
men in civilian clothes invaded and searched the house. They refused to
identify themselves. They forced Paiva, accompanied by two of the men,
to drive his own car to DOI-CODI headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. Neither
Paiva’s wife Eunice nor their five teenage children ever saw Paiva again.
Paiva, a congressman who had been stripped of his office after the coup
of 1964, had been accused of sending letters to Brazilians in Chile.
In the early ’60s, Paulo Stuart Wright, a founder of the progressive
student group AP (Popular Action), was a state legislator in Santa Catarina.
Soon after the coup, Wright, the Brazilian-born son of Presbyterian missionaries
from Arkansas, was stripped of his political office. He began to work in
the underground resistance, organizing peasant cooperatives and rural networks.
In September 1973, Wright was abducted and taken to the DOI-CODI headquarters
in Săo Paulo. He was never seen again. His older brother Jaime, a Presbyterian
minister who had also chosen to make his life in Brazil, tried to discover
what happened to Paulo. Jaime searched for Paulo in military prisons and
went to anybody who might have some information about Paulo’s whereabouts.
Jaime was shocked that other Protestant clergy were not willing to help.
On the other hand, Jaime Wright could count on the support of the Catholic
Archbishop of Săo Paulo, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who took an interest
in human-rights issues. In the following years, the two clerics’ friendship
led to a close working relationship. “As far as I know,” Jaime
Wright would tell Lawrence Weschler of the New Yorker in 1986, “I
am the only Protestant minister who works inside the Catholic Church at
the invitation of a cardinal.”
The collaboration between the pastor and the cardinal deepened in 1980.
In that year, a secret grant from the World Council of Churches allowed
them to set up a project in which lawyers would check out files from the
archives of the military justice system. There were more than 700 records
of trials of political prisoners during the military regime — one million
pages in all. It took three years to have the files photocopied, and another
two years for journalists working in their spare time to summarize the
files’ contents. Since there was still a chance that the government would
delay the transition to civilian rule, the 30-person team worked in the
The result of these labors, Brasil: Nunca Mais (Brazil: Never Again)
suddenly appeared in Brazilian bookstores in July 1985, four months after
General Joăo Baptista Figueiredo stepped down from the presidency. With
a preface by Cardinal Arns, the book quickly sold over 200,000 copies and
is still in print. (The average press run for a nonfiction book in Brazil
is between three to five thousand copies.) An English translation, Torture
in Brazil, was published in 1986. Jaime Wright, who had served as research
coordinator for the journalists who wrote the book, translated it as well.
Jaime discovered proof of his brother’s death among the files, although
no information about the whereabouts of Paulo Wright’s body could be found.
Not every member of the Wright family was convinced. Refusing to accept
her uncle’s disappearance, Paulo’s niece Delora Wright wrote a book about
him. At the end, she wrote: “I’d like to leave a post office box number
for you to give some news about you. You know, we haven’t calmed down,
although we’ve tried.”
It was the evening of January 17, 1976 in Vila Guarani, a neighborhood
in the city of Săo Paulo. A thin man got out of a Dodge Dart and knocked
at the door of Teresa Fiel. When she answered, the man gave her a trash
bag full of men’s clothing and a warning: “I’m from the Hospital das
Clínicas. I’ve come to tell you that your husband killed himself. Here
are his clothes. I think it’s a good idea that nobody go to the coroner’s
office. If somebody has to go, it should only be male relatives. No woman
should go to the coroner’s office — not even the widow. Otherwise, the
body goes straight to the cemetery.”
The husband’s name was Manuel Fiel Filho, a 49-year-old metalworker.
He had a wife, two daughters and a small two-story house. He was suspected
of belonging to the Communist Party and was tortured to death in the Săo
Paulo headquarters of DOI-Codi. The official story was that Fiel Filho
had hanged himself with his own socks. His imprisonment and death were
the result of mistaken identity. DOI-Codi authorities had confused him
with a Communist Party militant named Fiore who had once worked at the
same factory as Fiel Filho.
“I didn’t know that there was torture in Brazil,” Teresa Fiel
told Brasília newspaper Correio Braziliense in 1995. “I knew
that it was dangerous to say bad things about the government and that the
Communists were dangerous people.”
The day after Fiel Filho’s death, President Ernesto Geisel fired the
commander of the Second Army, whose headquarters also housed the Săo Paulo
headquarters of DOI-CODI. It was the beginning of the end for DOI-CODI.
In 1980, Teresa Fiel won a lawsuit against the Brazilian government
for its role in her husband’s death. For 15 years, the government filed
appeals to overturn this decision, but lost in June 1995. It must now pay
Teresa Fiel $600 a month and a penalty of $265,000.
Despite the money that it has taken Fiel Filho’s widow so long to get,
no amount of cash can compensate for his death. Even now, Teresa Fiel has
recurring dreams in which she hears the last thing her husband told her
before he was taken away by DOI-CODI agents: “Don’t cry, darling.
I’ll be back soon.”
The new victims
Eleven years after the end of military rule, illegal imprisonment, torture
and disappearances continue to take place in Brazil. Most of today’s victims
are low-income blacks who live in favelas (shantytowns).
In October 1995, Federal Police officers in the Northeastern state of
Ceará arrested José Ivanildo Sampaio Souza, a 33-year-old candy maker and
known gang member. Not only was he armed, but he also was carrying 70 grams
of marijuana and hashish, as well as two papelotes of cocaine. The
officers took Sampaio Souza to police headquarters in Fortaleza, the state
capital. The next day, he was dead.
His autopsy stated that Sampaio Souza had eight broken ribs and a broken
sternum. “Death occurred by means of a bruising instrument,”
the report continued, “that caused acute abdominal hemorrhaging with
traumatic lesions in the left kidney and liver.”
The police tortured Sampaio Souza to death because he refused to tell
them the names of other gang members. “We’ll go to the bottom of this
and punish the culprits,” Federal Police Chief Vicente Chelloti told
Brazilian weekly newsmagazine Veja about the Sampaio Souza case.
That may be an uphill battle.
In police stations throughout Brazil, torture is the method of first
choice to clarify crimes. Instead of the time-consuming and expensive path
of investigations and proofs, police officers opt for the quick and easy
way out. Some politicians say that torture is justifiable since criminals
do not have human rights. If cops go too far while interrogating a suspect,
that’s one less thug to deal with.
If the suspect does not die, police officers can get away with torture.
There are three main reasons for this. First, Brazil’s overburdened magistrates
barely have time to judge homicides, much less arrange time to verify police
abuses. For example, the Secretariat of Public Security in the state of
Pernambuco made 400 inquiries in 1995 to investigate injuries made by police
officers. Of these, one-fifth of the cases went to disciplinary hearings,
and only 20 police officers were dismissed from their jobs. This 5% punishment
rate means that Brazilian cops accused of torture have 19 chances out of
20 to get off scot-free.
Another factor for the apparent dominance of torture today is because
the police tortures more criminals than innocent people. And, among criminals,
torture victims usually are petty thieves, not drug traffickers. Major
players in the illegal narcotics trade could murder cops who would dare
to torture another trafficker. The poorer the suspect, the easier it is
to abuse him or her.
If a police officer is convicted of torturing a suspect under custody,
the maximum sentence is one year in jail. That is the same penalty given
to people who get into barroom brawls. The punishment increases to five
years only if the torture causes permanent injury to the victim or induces
miscarriage in a pregnant woman. Psychological damage is not even considered
as a factor. The Cardoso administration has attempted to make torture a
felony punishable with prison terms of eight to 20 years. However, the
proposal has been indefinitely shelved.
Finally, torture continues to be prevalent in Brazil because many Brazilians
turn a blind eye to it. As Veja expressed it in a 1995 article about
torture in democratic Brazil, “torture exists in police stations because
society wants it that way.”
According to the Defense Council for Human Rights (CDDPH), a division
of Brazil’s Justice Ministry, there have been over 200 disappearances since
Brazil returned to democracy in 1985 — more than the 152 reported disappearances
throughout the military regime. The largest number of disappearances has
occurred in the state of Rio de Janeiro. When Rio de Janeiro newspaper
O Dia made a survey of police archives in 1995, it discovered that
162 people had disappeared under conditions which suggested the involvement
of the police.
Lacking police interest in the disappearances, relatives and friends
of the disappeared, as well as lawyers and human-rights advocates, have
investigated the cases on their own. They often receive death threats.
Sometimes those threats come true.
In July 1990, 11 teenagers — eight boys and three girls — from the
Rio de Janeiro favela of Acari went to spend a weekend on a farm
in Bagé, on the periphery of the Rio metropolitan area. The young people
never returned. Their mothers got together to discover the circumstances
of the disappearances and found evidence that the young people had been
kidnapped and murdered by the police. Inspired by the example of the “Mothers
of the Plaza de Mayo” — Argentine women whose children had disappeared
between 1976 and 1983, when a military regime ruled that country — the
mothers of the disappeared of Acari began to march around the downtown
Rio neighborhood of Cinelândia every Monday afternoon. In their hands,
they held photos of their children. The women became known as the Măes
de Acari (Mothers of Acari).
Although the mothers gained national attention, their attempts to speak
with police and government officials were in vain. “Didn’t your son
have enemies in drug trafficking?” a police officer asked one of the
In March 1994, two of the mothers were invited to speak in France and
Switzerland. When she invited them to lunch, French First Lady Danielle
Mitterand was so shocked at what the mothers had to say about how Brazilian
police officers could get away with murder that she donated $15,000 for
the publication of a book about the mothers’ efforts to find the truth.
That book, Măes de Acari — uma história de luta contra a impunidade
(Mothers of Acari — A Story of Struggle Against Impunity) by journalist
Carlos Nobre, was published in 1994, with a preface by Danielle Mitterand.
Before this success, the mothers had met with another tragedy. In 1993,
one of the mothers, Edméia da Silva Euzébio, was murdered in front of a
prison. A similar case, not connected to the disappearances of the Acari
teenagers, happened in October 1995. While investigating the disappearance
of a friend, Adilson Cobra Secco, in the Rio favela of Parada de
Lucas, Régina Célia Vieira also vanished under suspicious circumstances.
Cases like these are responsible for an average of 140 letters a day
sent to Brazilian authorities by people living abroad. All of them ask
the government to clarify why the disappearances occurred and to bring
those responsible to justice.
In Brasília, Humberto Spinola, coordinator of the CDDPH, has proclaimed
that it is “the government’s determination to put an end to this situation.”
However, neither he nor any other government officials have concrete proposals
to deal with the current wave of disappearances.
Lawyer Cristina Leonardo, of the Brazilian Center of the Defense of
Children’s and Adolescent’s Rights, says that the fact that police officers
are not arrested and punished for the crimes they are accused of proves
that the poor are not given the rights that Brazil’s constitution guarantees
them. “How many of these cases of police violence were punished?”
she asked Săo Paulo newspaper Folha de Săo Paulo in 1995. “None.”
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 Joăo 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
- 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 Mourăo Filho, Carlos
Luís Guedes and Odílio Denys put the final touches on a plot to depose
- 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
Humberto Castello Branco — 1964-1967
Arthur da Costa e Silva — 1967-1969
Emílio Garrastazú Médici — 1969-1974
Ernesto Geisel — 1974-1979
Joăo Baptista Figueiredo — 1979-1985
Grading the presidents
In 1994, Congressman Roberto Campos (PDS — RJ) evaluated for O Estado
de Săo 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.
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
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
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 Săo Paulo industrialist Henning Albert
Bollesen were executed
A car bomb targeted the Second Army headquarters in Săo 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
- 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.
- Astrogildo Viana
- Carlos Schimer
- Milton de Castro
- Joăo Lucas Alves
- Reinaldo Pimenta
- Roberto Cieto
- Severino Colon
- Avelmar de Barros
- Olavo Hansen
- José Gomes Teixeira
- Pedro Gerônimo de Souza
- Vladimir Herzog
- 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
- 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.
These profiles are taken from the archives of the Săo 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 Săo 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
“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
“A leftist intellectual very influential in student organizations.
He belongs to the group of University of Săo 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
“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
“He enticed several colleagues from the Instituto de Aplicaçăo
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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