- “We have to Talk about it”:Why Brazil must Confront the Crimes of its Military Period
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PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil—When Jair Bolsonaro, a Brazilian congressmen and former army parachutist, voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff on April 17, he exalted a torturer. He spoke into the microphone and told the legislature and the millions of Brazilians listening on TV and radio, “For the memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff, for the Caxias’ Army, for the armed forces, for Brazil, and for God above all, my vote is ‘yes.’” [End Page 96]
Bolsonaro’s comment was particularly galling because Rousseff had been tortured at Brilhante Ustra’s DOI-Codi, the military regime’s intelligence and repression center.
From 1970 to 1974, Ustra headed the junta’s efforts to capture and interrogate anti-government dissidents. He rarely applied the electric shocks to his prisoners’ genitalia, nor did he routinely suffocate them in water barrels, insert rats and cockroaches into their orifices, or hang them from poles until they bled out over the course of a few days. (Although, when the prisoner was a woman, he would sometimes make an exception and administer the torture directly.)
Twenty-three years after the end of the military rule, in 2008, a São Paulo court found Ustra responsible for the disappearance and murder of 60 people—a fraction of the killings he’s suspected to have overseen. It was the first, and so far only, time that the Brazilian judiciary acknowledged a specific official’s involvement in the military’s crimes. Ustra was convicted, but, because of an amnesty law, was never arrested.
After he dedicated his vote to Ustra, 17,000 Brazilians lodged formal complaints against Bolsonaro with the office of the attorney general, citing the lawmaker’s “conduct.” The office confirmed it would be investigating the conservative congressman, but it couldn’t specify what crime he may have committed.
At the same time, in the three days after the vote, the number of people who “liked” a Facebook page honoring Ustra jumped by 3,300 percent, according to the BBC. In the comments, Brazilians, especially young Facebook users, thanked Ustra “for his services” in saving Brazil from communism. In June, Ustra’s memoir, which was largely ignored when it was first published 10 years ago, rose to number six on Brazil’s non-fiction best-seller list. The following month, bookstores across the country prominently displayed a 12th edition of Ustra’s historical account, A Suffocated Truth: The History the Left Doesn’t Want Brazil to Know.
Nostalgia for the military regime has long simmered below the surface, but until recently, it was typically revealed only in offhand remarks that blamed democracy for all of Brazil’s woes. The adoration of an unrepentant sadist, though, is something new—and terrifying. Right after the impeachment vote, Amelinha Teles, one of three siblings who sued Ustra in civil court for torture, told reporters: “This declaration by the congressman means that he wants the Brazilian state to continue torturing and exterminating people who think differently than him. What kind of democracy is this that wants to torture and repress people who do not agree with their ideas?”
“I DON’T WANT TO KNOW”
When a society does not confront the dark episodes of its history, it leaves its past vulnerable to distortion and exploitation. Now amid a declining economy and political turmoil, Brazil is leaving its history to the likes of Bolsonaro to interpret. For the survivors of the regime’s torture apparatus, Bolsonaro and others’ celebration of repression can be traumatizing.
Brazil’s refusal to fully reckon with its past begins under the military junta, when even hinting at state oppression was dangerous. “There was a deliberate process of terror back then,” said Jair Krischke, a historian known for helping victims of authoritarian states in South America. “You just didn’t talk about it. People used to say in the streets back then: ‘Do you know the latest news?’ ‘No, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I have a friend who...