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When Brazilians Were Tortured and Disappeared

The Night of the Generals

“To oppose the authorities, to advocate social change or even political reform was to place yourself beyond the law.” These words used by Tony Judt to describe life in Nazi- dominated Europe during World War II echo over the world Brazilians sufferedthrough in the worst days of their dictatorship. Nothing in modern history, of course, matches what the Nazis inflicted. And in fact the Brazilian generals did not turn the screws tightly in the first few years they governed. Moreover, as it often annoyingly pointed out to Brazilians, the dead and disappeared who numbered in the tens of thousands at the hands of military regimes in Argentina and Chile, both inaugurated a decade after 1964, far outnumbered the body count in Brazil, where the total of the disappeared is given as fewer than five hundred. It's a fact that brings solace to few Brazilians.

By 1968, the rule of law was totally suspended in Brazil, habeas corpus a receding memory, and brutality doled out in increasingly harsh doses at any sign of dissent. The heavy weight of repression and censorship in Brazil entirely suppressed the public sphere of open discussion, much less independent political action, and in this atmosphere a clandestine resistance arose which for a time made the rulers sleep less easily, especially after such dramatic actions as the kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador Charles Elbrick in September 1969. But the resistance in Brazil, albeit widespread, was never a match for the regime’s security forces, all the less so since conditions for educating and mobilizing an activist popular base to challenge the regime from below were utterly eliminated.

In the interim between the departure of the generals and full restitution of representative constitutional government, and today, much has changed in Brazil. Most dramatically there is the emergence of a genuine middle class, not so distinct one supposes from the consumers of an enlarged internal market that Joao Goulart and his allies had sought to lay the groundwork for in 1964 before the coup. And yet the stark existence of two separate societies at Brazil’s economic extremes – the obscenely rich on one end, the equally obscenely impoverished on the other – remains scandalously frozen in time.

Today the union rank-and-file and the social action movements are filled with the sons and daughters of this new middle social stratum, who, whatever other levels of education they have benefited from, are fully wired to the Internet and the social media. Given that this demographic barely existed in the time of the dictatorship, it is not surprising that the majority of the militants who fought the regime rose among the decent-minded youth of the privileged classes--young people who found Brazil’s intransigent backwardness was historically, ideologically and morally repugnant. It was to this class that most of those tortured and disappeared for political reasons during the dictatorship belonged.

story | by Dr. Radut