Brazil was ruled by the military for 21 years from 1964 to 1985. In 1979 the generals gave themselves an amnesty for crimes committed during the dictatorship. However, since 2012, a truth commission has been collecting information, data and names. For the time being the torturers can only be punished morally, but the hope is to overturn the amnesty law in the future.
The Federal University of Campina Grande (UFCG) is nothing special, architecturally speaking – just a series of functional buildings, the dominant colour being grey. Room 15 of the Faculty of Social Sciences is on the ground floor – a small classroom for about 20 students. This time however, it is not the usual lecture. There are two professors up front, but flanking them to the left and right are two men, witnesses, in their 60s wearing baseball caps and sunglasses. These will serve to hide as much as possible their tears and emotions.
“Our job is the most difficult”, said Professor Fabio Freitas after the hearing. “We have to open the wounds, but it is necessary.” Prof. Freitas is one of seven members of the Truth and Preserving the Memory Commission of Paraíba, a state in Brazil’s Northeast. He heads the working group “torture map”, which has been collecting information from victims of the military regime in Paraiba and from Paraibans in other parts of Brazil.
The sunglasses and caps do their job. The two witnesses at the 16th public hearing of the working group were arrested in 1965 for being members of leftist organizations. It is the first time that they have had the chance to talk about what happened to them: “What I have been experiencing in these public hearings is that people are relieved to finally be able to talk about what they went through. On the one hand I feel joy (alegria) that we are finally coming to terms with it, but at the same time there is also sadness (tristeza), because our job is the cruellest – the most heart-rending. Anyone who did not personally witness it cannot imagine what it ws like. All forms of dehumanization were practiced, here in Paraíba too.”
The aim of the torture in Brazil was threefold: firstly to kill off the opposition’s political leadership slowly and brutally, as an example to others of what could happen to them. Secondly, to obtain information about activists: their relationships and meeting places and third to create a climate of fear to further suppress any form of criticism. This system was not cheap. The torture was to a large extent financed by private businesses, mainly companies which collaborated with the military. This was also the case in Campina Grande.
When talking about military regimes, torture, people who had been “disappeared” and truth commissions in Latin America, countries like Argentina, Chile or Guatemala usually dominate the discussion. Internationally a lot less is known about the fact that Brazil too had a military dictatorship, which tortured, killed and humiliated opponents. Even if the number of the “disappeared” – people assassinated extra-judicially – is rather low compared to other countries, recent research shows that about 400 people were killed during the 21 years of military rule. Many more were tortured. One of those who were severely tortured is current president, Dilma Roussef who was arrested in February 1970. Dilma spent almost three years in the so-called “women’s tower” where roughly 50 women were imprisoned. Only once, in 2005, she did talk openly about those years when she gave an interview to top-selling Brazilian daily “Folha de Sao Paulo”. She also described the torture in the “operacao baneirantes”, the torture centre of Sao Paulo: “There you urinate and shit everything.”
Dilma was released in December 1972. After the fall of the military regime, she started her political career in Porto Alegre. However, many of her torturers also made a career in politics or the armed forces, the amnesty law protecting them. This won’t change any time soon, but at least a moral condemnation is being prepared. On Dilma’s initiative, the Brazilian Truth Commission was installed in May 2012. The federal act made it possible for the 26 Brazilian provinces also to set up their own provincial truth commissions, which Paraiba did in October 2012. The Paraiban commission started working in March 2013 and will finish collecting material by the end of 2014. Professor Freitas reacted to criticism against their efforts:
“The Brazilian way started with an error. The amnesty law made a coming-to-terms with the past impossible. Other countries did it differently. What we are now doing is for the first time a documentation of torture. At last we also have access to certain archives, which is only possible thanks to a change in the law in late 2012. Some say our job is useless, because we just produce information. Others attack us saying this is a kind of revenge. It is nothing like that. It is a question of justice. The families find the mortal remains of their relatives. This is being done for those who are still alive and for the future.”
By summer 2014, 39 Paraibans who had been tortured were registered. However, some people don’t want to testify, preferring to wipe the slate clean. Those who do talk, add more and more information and details about certain torturers who were active at the time in Paraiba, but who have denied it up till now – continuing to live as respected members of their communities. A concrete example is a certain Sergeant Marino, who was stationed in the 5th Infantry Company in Campina Grande. Marino has always denied having witnessed torture and continues to live near Fortaleza. However, in the past months several witnesses have confirmed his presence during their torture. “Just one testimony would be enough to undermine his credibility”, Prof. Freitas commented. So far eight deaths during the rule of the military have been registered, a figure which includes Paraibans killed in other parts of Brazil.
“Hoje tem coisas boas” – Today beautiful things happen – said Freitas as he walked out of the classroom on 11 June. There are more and more books, documentaries and a growing public awareness relating to this issue. Many of the guerrillas have also published their experiences. The ongoing process is stimulating more and more people to break their self-imposed silence. “I am hopeful that this amnesty law will be changed one day. Whether I will still be alive then, I don’t know, but it will happen.”
Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere is a political analyst and journalist based in Istanbul – for more information see his website