Sunday, September 06, 2009

Report Emerges on the First "Disappeared" of Brazil's Military Dictatorship

Last week, O Globo published a fairly important report on the Brazilian dictatorship. In it, they pointed to a document from 1969 in which the Brazilian Army "assumes responsibility for the death of guerrilla Virgilio Gomes da Silva, [AKA] Jonas, considered the first political "disappeared" of the dictatorship." [English summarization of the report here.]

If it's accurate, and it seems to be, this is relatively big news. Although the military government in Brazil came to power in 1964, the first four years of the dictatorship were complicated. Many believed that the first military president, Humberto Castelo Branco, expected to be in power just long enough to stabilize Brazil, at which point the country would return to democracy. In between 1964 and 1967, though, the military fractured into two segments; the "moderates," who followed Castelo Branco, and the "hard-liners," led by Artur Costa e Silva, the Secretary of the Army under Castelo Branco. By 1967, Costa e Silva and the hardliners had maneuvered behind the scenes to take over, and Costa e Silva became president that year.

On top of this, the social and political situation in Brazil was increasingly polarizing in the context of the Cold War. University students were heightening their attacks on the dictatorship and getting more and more radical in their politics. The support of the middle class was wavering as it became increasingly clear that democracy was not returning anytime soon and as their children were now increasingly targets of police violence in protests. And conservatives were increasingly insistent on the need to stamp out communism and protect "freedom" in Brazil. As a result, at the end of 1968, Costa e Silva issued Institutional Act No. 5 ("AI-5"), which, among other things, indefinitely closed Congress, increased the president's power, and ushered in the most repressive phase of the dictatorship, during which torture and "disappearances" would become more prevalent.

To combat this, and to fight for the release of 15 political prisoners (including student and labor leaders and communist intellectuals), a group of students, with the aid of two "revolutionary" leaders, kidnapped the American ambassador, Charles Elbrick, in September 1969. The events are chronicled fairly well (albeit embellished and lopsided) in the movie "Four Days in September", as well as the outstanding (but not available in the U.S.) documentary "Hercules 56." Ultimately, the 15 political prisoners were released, and the students released Elbrick, who was relatively unharmed (save for a minor head-wound).

All of this matters because, as the students who organized and executed the kidnapping of Elbrick were young and relatively disorganized, two men were sent to help them - an older man who'd fought in Spain and was code-named "Toledo," and a younger radical named "Jonas," Virgilio Gomes da Silva. Ultimately, all of the kidnappers were caught and tortured (and many of them subsequently released in the kidnapping of the Swiss Ambassador in 1970). However, "Jonas" was one of the few who was never released, and it has been presumed that he had been disappeared. But there had never really been any documentary evidence that this was the case; all that we had were piecemeal eyewitness reports. Until now.

What's particularly interesting is that we now have what appears to be an official, albeit rough, date for the first disappearance in Brazil. Compared to Chile and Argentina, the numbers of "disappeared" in Brazil are relatively low (a few hundred). And while Brazil employed torture and arbitrary and political arrests and killings in the first 5 years of the dictatorship, apparently, it did not begin disappearing people until 1969, five years after the dictatorship arrived in power, and by about 1974, the practice was discontinued (though torture and political arrests continued), again marking a major difference between Brazil's dictatorship and those of Chile and Argentina, who began "disappearing" people almost immediately.

Of course, those who committed these acts remain anonymous, and it's not unlikely that those who killed "Jonas" are themselves dead at this point. And any effort at punishment will not happen; once again, Brazil is markedly different from Chile and Argentina, in that, outside of some doctors who were present for torture sessions, Brazil has not juridically punished any of the perpetrators of torture and disappearances. Still, this new information could help the fight to open military archives that remain secret and closed. If nothing else, it has offered a little more detail into actions and timelines that many people suspected, but that lacked documentary evidence. Until now.