Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dealing with Brazil's Dictatorship and Its Legacies: Good News and Terrible "Journalism"

In spite of having ended nearly 25 years ago, Brazil's dictatorship is still very much present in current politics and society, and two events this week have hammered this point home.

First, in the "despicable journalism" category (non O Globo category), there is a story about Dilma Rousseff, Lula's Chief of Staff and the PT's candidate for president in 2010, published this week in Folha de Sao Paulo. The headline reads: "Dilma's group planned the kidnapping of Delfim in 1969." Basically, the story alleges that Dilma's group of radicals who fought against the dictatorship planned to kidnap the Treasury Minister, Delfim Netto, back in 1969. While it's true that Dilma was a member of opposition groups in the 1960s and 1970s, radical opposition to the dictatorship hasn't exactly prevented others from arriving to the presidency. What is more, though she admits (and has long admitted) to her involvement in radical student groups, there is absolutely no evidence linking her to any plans to kidnap Netto (who never was kidnapped), and she has adamantly denied the latest story.

What is so despicable about this is that it is nothing short of an early effort on Folha's part to use its influential role as one of Brazil's top newspapers to prevent the PT (or the left) from winning the elections in 2010. The article presents Dilma as somebody who was involved in bank robberies (or "appropriations," as young "revolutionaries" at the time called them) and planned murders, in addition to the kidnapping. The article apparently tries to use her police records (from archives) to make its case, and ends up giving her the stigma of a "terrorist." I haven't seen the actual evidence the article uses (it was available only in the dead-trees version of the paper), but I do know from having worked with literally thousands of police reports for my own dissertation, they are far from an "objective" report on people's activities. Trapped in a Cold War mindset in which "subversive" and "communist" threats were to be found everywhere (and which, indeed, the security apparatus under the dictatorship had to continue to find to justify and legitimate its own repressive and invasive measures and existence), the police during the dictatorship often embellished students' and others' positions and activities, making mountains out of what were by any account molehills, and making connections between "radicals" that quite simply did not exist. Although I may be wrong, I suspect that these "vague connections" that were never there are what appear in the police reports cited in the article.

These aren't the only appalling aspects of the article. As critics of Folha have already pointed out, it hardly seems "objective" that Dilma is a "terrorist" in the article, but the family whose car company built and sold the vans that the military used to kidnap civilians and take them to torture centers have never been labeled such. What is more, despite any evidence directly connecting Dilma to plans (again, never executed) to kidnap the Minister of Finance, Folha opted to run a headline that explicitly said she was involved with such plans, thereby immediately jaundicing readers who simply had to glance at the headline to be impressed with the image of the PT candidate as a "terrorist." Even more blatantly evil, Folha apparently received the tip on the police files from none other than the public relations team of Jose Serra of the PSDB, one of Dilma's main rivals in the 2010 elections. That Folha is publishing this, not out of any "fair and balanced" "investigative" interest, but at the suggestion of her main political rival, is as base and disgusting a "journalism" as one could possibly conceive.

Finally, there is the fact that Folha has begun semiotically reducing the power of the dictatorship. The word dictatorship in Portuguese is ditadura, and, by itself, dura means "hard" (as in "hard-liners"). However, Folha has begun using a play on words to diminish the actions of the dictatorship, calling it the ditabranda, replacing "dura" with "branda" (bland); in other words, it was a "bland" dictatorship that didn't do much. Nevermind the thousands of people who were tortured, the tens of thousands who were exiled, the hundreds who were murdered - at the same time that Folha is painting the PT's presidential candidate as a "terrorist" and kidnapper, it's painting the dictatorship as something that wasn't so bad. It's just appalling and scary all around.

In the face of this, there actually was good news about the pursuit for justice against human rights violators during the dictatorship. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared last week that Brazil's 1979 general amnesty and the statues of limitations on human rights violations do not apply to crimes against humanity that the dictatorship committed. Unlike in neighboring countries (Argentina and Chile), Brazil never really saw any major punishment against those who committed torture or disappearances during the dictatorship. The 1979 amnesty law that the final president of the dictatorship, Joao Figueiredo, decreed, not only forgave "political prisoners" and exiles that had resisted the dictatorship; it also gave blanket amnesty to the armed forces and leaders. While some doctors who helped monitor torture sessions were disbarred, nobody else has ever really seen punishment for the actions the dictatorship, armed forces, and security apparati committed. The Commission's ruling is in response to the case brought forth by more than 70 families whose loved ones were involved in a guerrilla movement against the military government in the Brazilian northeast. From 1971-1974, the military systematically disappeared the rebels, and to this date, their fates and the location of their remains are unknown, hidden by still-classified government documents and hidden by plant growth and always-shifting landscapes in the Brazilian "hinterlands."

Unfortunately, the Commission's ruling doesn't automatically have any standing in Brazil, and if the government chooses to disregard the ruling, it can. However, this is still a major ruling, for a couple of reasons. First, it's the time an international decision has been made regarding the deeds and actions of Brazil's military dictatorship of 1964-1985. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is just one more example of growing insistence on re-examining and punishing those involved in crimes against humanity in Brazil during the dictatorship. Already, the government has given reparations to victims of the dictatorship, and while the Brazilian government has never given a full account of the dictatorship's activities (unlike what Truth Commissions accomplished in Chile, Argentina, or elsewhere), the government in 2007 acknowledged the Brazilian state's direct role in 356 deaths and disappearances. And as of now, there are several cases pending before the Supreme Court that challenge the legitimacy of the Amnesty law and that are seeking the declassification of documents that were given "permanent secrecy."

Certainly, many of the leaders and highest military brass will avoid any punishment, as many of them have died (including all five presidents during the dictatorship, including the first two, Humberto Castelo Branco and Artur Costa e Silva, both of whom were dead before 1970), and the cases may move so slowly or be challenged to the point that prosecutions for a majority of the torturers and murderers may never happen. Nonetheless, the general trend towards re-examining and questioning the Amnesty law and its applicability to specific cases is good news, and offers hope, even when the Brazilian media continues to wage a war against the "dangerous leftists" of 40 years ago and tries to diminish the overall horrors of the dictatorship.