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When Brazilians Were Tortured and Disappeared

The Night of the Generals

Now, granted, Jair Bolsonaro is a piece of work, as a quick scan of the man’s reported opinions on social and cultural issues makes obvious, not least his chronic expressions of homophobia. But he clearly has an electoral base. Moreover, his current affiliation with the Brazilian Progressive Party puts him in the company of some of the major collaborators during the dictatorship who helped sustain and direct the regime from high posts in civil society, economists like the late Roberto Campos, and the still very active Antonio Delfim Netto, who at 85 poses in the Chamber of Deputies as a Democrat. What plays with the mind of an outsider trying to navigate the chutes and ladders of Brazilian politics is the seemingly ill-placed fact that Bolsonaro’s party today also supports the government of former leftist guerrilla Dilma Rousseff.

Bolsonaro’s stunt failed to distract from the twin narratives of torture and victimhood that dominated public attention during these days of remembrance. Malhaes had grabbed the headlines temporarily, but muted accounts from testimonies of other torturers heard before the state and federal truth commissions also circulated in a slowly drawn-out process of putting faces to those still kicking who did the dirty work of the generals and the other high placed elites not in uniform. A band of youngsters engaged in what Brazilians call the social action movements have been conducting escraches – where they track down the whereabouts of a surviving torturer and subject him to public humiliation.

 “In the torture chamber, the Phillips 550 can’t be broken.”A1969 Philips TV ad: “In the torture chamber, the Phillips 550 can’t be broken.”

On March 31, or “revolution day” as styled by the golpistas, 150 activists of Youth Rise Up papered the residence in Brasilia of Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a known and unrepentant retired colonel who commanded an infamous torture center in Sao Paulo, with denunciations and posters of the faces of the tortured and disappeared. But it was a pamphlet produced from one corner of the Left featuring a reprinted ad placed by the Phillips Electronics Company in a Brazilian newspaper in 1969 that infuses the theme of torture with a prior psychological predisposition within the Brazilian historical memory, a predisposition linked to the country’s prolonged legacy of slavery. This state of mind is still familiar in the all but quotidian reports of contemporary police and prison practices. The print ad shows a photo of a curled bull whip next to the company’s latest model TV. The copy reads, “In the torture chamber, the Phillips 550 can’t be broken.” That, of course, did not apply to people.

story | by Dr. Radut