By Joe Bateman*
In November last year, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed the Truth Commission into law, marking a huge step forward in the process of addressing human rights violations that occurred during the Dirty War. The seven-person commission, likely to be named in the coming months, will compile a history of human rights violations committed from 1946-1988. However, the information gathered in Brazil will not be able to be used to prosecute those responsible for the abuses. Even though fewer civilians died under Brazil’s military dictatorship than was the case in other countries, military rule lasted longer than in any country in South America (1964-1985) and many suffered, including the past three presidents who were either imprisoned or exiled. Despite the country’s return to democratic rule more than 20 years ago, Brazil has been slow to fully address these abuses, and tensions between victims seeking justice and those who do not want to re-examine the past remain high.
The tensions surrounding historic impunity in Brazil were again evidenced recently when retired members of the military issued a statement urging President Dilma Rousseff to reprimand two members of her cabinet who attempted to strengthen the Truth Commission. Minister of Human Rights, Maria do Rosário, recently argued that the soon-to-be installed Truth Commission should allow the victims of the military dictatorship to bring their cases before national courts despite the 1979 Amnesty Law. Eleonora Menicucci, the new Minister of Women and fellow political prisoner of Rousseff, criticized the military dictatorships as undemocratic in a recent speech. Despite the retired generals’ statement, President Rousseff remained silent, offering tacit approval for her ministers’ remarks.
After the retired generals’ statement was published by Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S Paulo, President Rousseff called a meeting with Defense Minister Celso Amorim. According to reports, he apologized for the release of the statement, expressed support for President Rouseff, and persuaded the retired generals to retract their statement. Although they offered their apologies, they expressed that they viewed the Ministers’ statements as a direct provocation against them. Now there are reports that they might receive more formal punishment for subordination.
Given that these events unfolded during Carnival, the incident went mostly unnoticed, but it showed that as President Rousseff finalizes the composition of the Truth Commission next month, tensions surrounding the extent of the Commission’s mandate remain high. The Clube Militar, the association of retired members of the military involved in this last debate, has frequently criticized the Truth Commission, arguing that it will not be impartial and that it will attempt to rewrite history—this coming before the Commission even begins collecting evidence. While the Commission’s mandate does not allow the information gathered to be used for prosecution, there is hope that its findings could create the political and public will necessary for the human rights abuses to be brought to justice, which some retired military officials may fear.
The military remains an important political actor in Brazil even nearly thirty years after the return of democracy. Opposition among active duty and retired military is a significant obstacle to fully addressing abuses committed during the years of the military dictatorship. When President Lula attempted to push forward the Truth Commission, his defense minister and the heads of the three branches of the military all threatened to resign. President Rousseff has persevered in the face of opposition, showing her strength as a leader in making the Truth Commission a reality and in her firm response to the retired generals’ statement. At these beginning stages of the Truth Commission, it will be important for her and other members of the Brazilian government to publicly support the Commission and reiterate that attempts to obstruct its work will not be tolerated. Compared with other countries in Latin America with similar authoritarian pasts, Brazil has been slow to address the abuses committed during its dictatorship, and the passage of the law that creates the Truth Commission recognizes that simply forgetting is not a viable way of dealing with past human rights violations. Now that the Commission is poised to begin documenting the abuses committed during the Dirty War, Brazilian civil society and international human rights organizations should also closely monitor the process, show steady support, and discourage any attempts to thwart its work.
Joe Bateman is WOLA’s Program Officer for Brazil