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When Brazilians Were Tortured and Disappeared

The Night of the Generals

It is unlikely, however, that such trials will ever take place. The political climate in Brazil today does not favor such an outcome. Despite the torrent of attention given to the approaching 50th anniversary of the coup by the print media, and also within the many public forums conducted by the truth commissions and in a spate of academic seminars and meetings, several of which I attended while in Rio, the president and former guerrilla Dilma Rousseff held her tongue. Only on April 1st, did Dilma finally speak. And while she was uncompromisingly clear in recognizing the historical significance of the resistance in which she had played a role, and paid homage to those who had suffered torture – as she had – or death, she insisted that her government would make no attempt to reverse the conditions of the 1979 amnesty.

This was not a task for the executive, Dilma argued, but for the legislature. There was in this pragmatic decision a recognition that the military ghost had still not been entirely laid to rest in Brazil, and that in the close re-election campaign Dilma faces this fall, it would be unwise to stir up an unsettled past. Informed public opinion is one thing. But most of the voting public is not deeply invested in this discussion, and who knows what polemic from the right to rehabilitate the military image might stir the sympathy of the electorate?

What is true for now, however, is that the public image of the Brazilian Armed Forces has never been lower since democracy was restored. Still, the brass have been permitted by their putative civilian superiors to maintain a stubborn silence, refusing for over a year to respond to the Truth Commission’s repeated requests for exact information about how the torture centers were set up and administered. In what can only be interpreted as a further gesture of defiance despite intense public pressure, the brass waited until April 2 to finally submit. Defense Minister Amorim communicated to the Truth Commission that an inquiry would be conducted internally by the armed forces focused on the seven most infamous torture chambers housed within military installations during the dictatorship. Can one doubt that their final report will reek with the language of exoneration?

Chico Caruso, editorial cartoonist for O Globo, imagined a more devilish contingency. Chico’s front page drawing on April 1st is a line up in caricature of the five generals who ruled in the dictatorship, their backs turned to the viewer. They are raising their glasses in a toast. A calendar shows the date is March 31st. “Cheers!” they exclaim. “In a little while we’ll be back.”

Michael Uhl is a Vietnam veteran who worked in intelligence; he is author of the memoir Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to the Citizens' Commission of Inquiry on U.S. War Crimes in Vietnam. He's currently working on a second memoir. He speaks fluent Portuguese and has written travel guides on Brazil. He lives in Maine.

story | by Dr. Radut