When Ghouls Get a Pass, Colltalers
Brazilians have been transfixed about allegations of corruption by elected officials at high levels of the government. The press’s doing its job, and everyday a new piece of (bad) news reaches the top of the heap. Thus a probe on secret Swiss bank accounts held by Eduardo Cunha, lower house Speaker at Congress, has been receiving proper priority.
Two news of historical importance, however, coincidentally timed on Oct. 15, have attracted dismal attention: the death of a former chief of intelligence, and the admission of crimes by a military commander, both willing participants in the violent repression to opponents of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 20-odd years starting in the 1960s.
Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the retired Army colonel who led the ferocious Doi-Codi repressive apparatus and who’s accused of illegally arresting and/or torturing about 500 civilians during the bloodiest peak of the military rule in the early 1970s, died of complications of prostate cancer at the ripe age of 83.
In the same day, the Ministry of Justice disclosed that, in a 10-hour, closed-door deposition, Capt. Sebastião Rodrigues de Moura, a.k.a. Major Curió, admitted to having executed two members of what turned out to be an ambitious but poorly trained ragtag group of activists who fought the army in the 1970s Araguaia Guerrilla.
The events underscore Brazil’s toothless approach to recover a crucial part of its history by pursuing crimes committed during those dark years. Both Ustra and Moura have had no qualms defending their still unnamed bosses, and at times, have even boasted about their actions with impunity. And still, Brazilians don’t seem to care much about it.
What’s startling about these notorious apologists of violence is that they have lived long and trouble-free lives despite
the despicable pain they’ve inflicted onto thousands. And that they’ve subscribed to that Nuremberg Trials-dismissed notion of ‘following orders’ from the generals who deposed the constitutional government of João Goulart in 1964.
But every time the wave of brutal military dictatorships that took over Latin America at the time is discussed, Brazil is almost automatically given a pass, since Chilean, Argentine, and Uruguayan juntas were comparatively way more violent, and left many more corpses in their wake. Now it may be time for such callous excuse to be put to rest.
(The number of those killed or ‘desaparecidos’) ‘wasn’t too high,’ some seem always eager to say, a flawed view that barely finds support on the incomplete public record. According to the Commission of Truth, established in 2011 by President Dilma Rousseff to investigate crimes committed by the regime, about 500 political opponents were killed.
The figure seems to be a far cry from the estimated 30,000 who perished under the juntas that ruled those other three nations, which by the way had already started inquiries into the period years before Brazil, and right after the generals were kicked out in the middle 1980s. But that’s not a valid point. Certainly not to the families of those killed.
And definitely not, considering Brazil’s vibrant democracy in the 1950s and 60s: a new generation was coming into age, the economy was exuding confidence, and the culture was blossoming, when it all came to a screeching halt.
It took the currently embattled president, who did spend jail time during the dictatorship, to finally step up funding for the commission. But since the panel of jurists and human rights advocates had a preset time mandate, their final report was limited, and restrained by a previous, absurdly generous amnesty given to militaries accused of being torturers.
As a final irony, many who lived through the dark years were distraught to see signs, at recent rallies calling for impeachment of the 2-term president, that asked for a comeback of the military rule. To those who lost loved ones, it may have added an extra layer of insensitivity from the part of segments of the Brazilian society towards their grief.
In fact, either for political illiteracy or downright naiveté, too many Brazilians believe that much of the progress that occurred the past forty years is a direct consequence of an authoritarian rule. But that sentiment is not matched by reality: the coup and its 20-year interruption only weakened and delayed the maturity of the democratic process in Brazil.
As a result, society’s still issues to face up about its identity and notion of citizenry, a development only possible by just such a process. Also, much of the currently constitutional turmoil may be a reflection of the time the regime relied on a new cast of haves, an artificial social strata made up of picked-upon winners, that got rich living on its shade.
But not all segments of Brazilian society ignored the significance of Ustra’s death and Curió’s confession. Leonardo Sakamoto, for instance, a journalist and political scientist, decried the fact that Ustra died a free man, and places his death in the context of that of other infamous criminals who ruled the continent and elsewhere during the same period.
He cites Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who died at 91 in 2006 a wealthy man, relatively unencumbered by criminal suits he faced at the end of his life. Despite grabbing power by force in 1973, murdering President Salvador Allende, and ordering the killing of thousands, he managed to stay on top for 25 years of terror, in great part due to U.S. support.
Also on his list is Argentina’s chief dictator Jorge Videla. Yes, he died in prison but at 87 and amid a largesse he wouldn’t have prescribed to his political enemies, swiftly executed while he was in power. He and Pinochet shared another macabre legacy: both ordered the offspring of those they killed to be ‘donated’ to friends and supporters.
These kids, a conflicted generation, only now is awakening to the theft of their identity and history for most of their lives, perpetrated with complicity from those they’d considered their biological parents and relatives. It’s another layer of the emotional and social trauma the passage of such a barbaric lineage of leaders caused to Latin America.
Till the end, Ustra was unapologetic about his torture role and ducked efforts at placing him along a common, albeit particularly sadistic, class of criminals. While appealing the only official process moved against him, he’d often go on a familiar and well rehearsed diatribe against ‘communists’ who, he claimed, he prevented from taking over Brazil.
Curió, whose spurious actions during the Araguaia Guerrilla motivated the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to penalize Brazil in 2010, for non-compliance of principles of justice, has also maintained his ‘innocence.’ The evidence though may be too much even for someone who’s eluded all attempts to charge him with crimes against humanity.
But Brazilians remain puzzlingly ambivalent about the need to establish accountability over what went on during the military dictatorship. The signs displayed at street rallies were not isolated incidents, as many sites and social media forums still shelter rancor against those seeking to reposition the country’s past under a more constitutional light.
And they can be dangerously explicit in their threats. Sakamoto was threatened with death on a March Facebook post by a supporter of the movement seeking to oust President Rousseff, with the approval of hundreds of sympathetic comments. His perceived crime: to dare applying democratic principles of disagreement and criticism to the debate.
In fact, social media’s a scary place in Brazil, festering with ire and astonishingly crass attacks on the president’s physical integrity and gender, and her Workers’ Party, the PT, itself embroiled in one corruption scandal after another.
It may be all part of the free flow of ideas any democracy worth its votes is supposed to support. But not when whole chapters of history are conveniently swept aside, and historical facts are subject to distortion and misinterpretation.
For a nation is nothing but its history, the accurate account of its successive governments, and the role the citizenry that they’ve served, have played on from its inception till now, warts and all. No democratic regime can be partial to a particular version of the facts, and dissent has to be bounded by its principles, not by personal paybacks.
The Brazilian press, at times much more than the U.S. established media, has generally done a good job covering issues of government accountability and exposing the layers of corruption within the country’s powers that be.
But it has to do more to prioritize issues that haunt and have the potential to demoralize its still in progress democratic process. The dictatorship era is just such a haunting subject most Brazilians need to be more willing to explore and identify, so it can’t be repeated ever again. We owe that to those who were killed by it. Have a good one. WC