Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Brazil to Establish a Truth Commission for Its Dictatorship Period (1964-1985)

Well, this is interesting news:

Twenty four years after the military left power in Brazil, the government is to create a Truth Commission to investigate crimes committed by the security forces between 1964 and 1985.

Brazil is the only country in Latin America which has not investigated deaths, disappearances and torture which took place during its dictatorship, or put alleged perpetrators on trial.

Anytime a Truth Commission is established, it's good news for multiple reasons: it forces governments and societies to recognize the horrible crimes some sectors have committed (and many more supported, tacitly or explicitly); it frequently allows closure for victims' families who still don't know the fate of their loved ones; and the sheer act of a truth commission hopefully deters such actions from future governments (though it's in no way guaranteed).

I'd like to say what all can emerge from this, but I really have no idea right now. It's not like the country, human rights organizers, or historians are going to be incredibly shocked by the techniques of torture and of murder by state agents - those accounts have been well-known and well-detailed both through non-state-sponsored commissions like the "Nunca Mais" ("Never Again") project, as well as testimonials of many others who were tortured. As for the disappearances and murders, it's true that sometimes details are missing, as in the case of the Araguaia guerrilla war in the early-1970s, when the military killed and buried dozens-to-hundreds of guerrillas challenging the dictatorship.

Additionally, I really do hope the military archives are opened up. The military's line that the archives were burnt and destroyed years ago and don't even exist rings hollow for a number of reasons. First, the military's stance on this has shifted throughout time; first, it said the archives didn't exist anymore, then that they never existed at all, then that they were did, but were closed, and then that they were destroyed. I suppose this is possible, but I find it unlikely. Additionally, I fail to see how some central components of the military security apparatus remain in archives like the Department of Public Order and Security (DOPS) archives in places like Rio and Sao Paulo, as well as the Division of Security and Information (DSI) archive at the National Archive, both of which I've had experience with. While the security apparati in Brazil were varying and multiple, they all ran through at least some branch of the military, so I fail to see how the DSI and DOPS collections could survive and make it into archives, yet the "military archives" have been destroyed. Plus, if my research experience showed anything in general terms, its that the "banality of evil" and the desire to document everything, no matter how incriminating, is a frequent feature (not a bug) of authoritarian regimes.

That said, I also suspect this can only illuminate so much. Even if the commission reveals the general whereabouts of the bodies of the victims of the Araguaian war, for example, it was in one of the most forbidding and rapidly shifting environmental areas in Brazil, and tracking down the bodies' remains could be difficult (though the fact that some remains have been found is somewhat encouraging).

I hate to end on a pessimistic note, so I'll make it the penultimate point. One of the people quoted in the article points out that state agents still actively practice torture in prisons and against the poor, and he's absolutely right. However, I don't have much hope that a Truth Commission into the dictatorship period in Brazil will lead to an end to current practices of torture. Torture and "alternate" rights for the poor and marginalized in Brazil have existed since slavery; the poor and the rich/darker and lighter have always had alternate sources of justice, prisons, etc. Torturing the poor and marginalized has been a part of the landscape of Brazilian "law" since the late-1800s, and I just don't see why a commission studying just 21 years would suddenly lead everybody to support an end to torture today. Again, it's not like the practice and methods of torture in the dictatorship are some secret - most people in Brazil (and those studying the dictatorship) are familiar with the "parrot's perch," the "dragon chair," and other torture mechanisms. If society has known about these for more than 30 years, I really don't see how a truth commission will suddenly lead to an "awakening." I hope I'm wrong, but I just don't see it.

That said, the fact that the government and state apparatuses themselves are finally forcing themselves to deal with this dark period in Brazil's history is nothing but good news. Again, scholars and others have known much of this for decades, but new details are always valuable to historians and human rights activists, and especially to the victims' families, and the fact that the government is finally willing to confront its past is an important step, even if it is symbolic. If nothing else, Brazil's governments and state owe this to the families who lost loved ones in their struggles against a repressive, authoritarian regime.