Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Brazilian Military's Opposition to a Truth Commission

A couple of months ago, I commented on Brazil finally launching a truth commission into the use of torture (thousands of victims) and disappearances (several hundred) during its twenty-one year military dictatorship. A couple of weeks ago, Lula sent a bill to Congress creating the "committee". I don't have much to add in terms of my own opinions expressed in the link above.

However, an interesting little knot has emerged in the process, as certain sectors of the military have already come out against the establishment such a committee, and the heads of the army, navy, and air force all tendered their resignations to Lula, who refused them. Still, he promised to "review" the bill again. This is, suffice to say, a step backwards, even if the bill proceeds. Scholars have done a good job of showing how, through much of the 1990s, military leaders were able to exert undue influence on presidents Collor, Itamar Franco, and Cardoso from behind the scenes, with the specter of possible military intervention always hovering over the leaders. While I haven't seen similar studies on Lula's administration, it's clear that much of the military's influence has remained in spite of Brazil re-writing its constitution in 1988 in an attempt to remove the military's constitution of 1967. If Lula buckles into this pressure, then there has been little change in this arena, and the military can still influence politicians in ways that should have disappeared with the dictatorship itself.

Beyond the obvious self-serving efforts of the military leaders on this (who I imagine may very well have entered the military and even began working their way up the chain of command during the dictatorship), there are a lot of reasons why their complaints that it will "tarnish" the military's reputation are bunk. Firstly, the fact that torture and disappearances happened is not only well-know, but very detailed and chronicled in the Nunca Mais project, an abbreviated version of which was published shortly after the end of the dictatorship, and is incredibly easy to find in Brazil (I actually have a copy sitting on my desk here next to me. The names of individual torturers are even pretty well-known, and the fact that such a commission may reveal more names doesn't tarnish the military's reputation; after all, we know what it did already. It simply tarnishes some of the individual torturers who may still be alive, and I'm sorry, but I just find little reason to sympathize with torturers. Additionally, this is as much about giving closure to the families of the hundreds of disappeared in Brazil. Their rights have been repeatedly violated over the years as this has remained unstudied and hidden away; it's time that the families, rather than the murderers, get some special treatment.

As the UPI article that Lillie links to points out, Lula may lose more face if he backtracks on the bill (which is now public) than the military would if he sticks with it. But this is about more than political face-saving. It's about justice and truth for thousands of Brazilians, and it's 25 years overdue.