No Revanchismo

On the Brazilian dictatorship

Johann Joachim Kändler, Sparrowhawks. c. 1739, painted porcelain. 11” and 10 5/8” high. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

B wore tiny, rimless glasses, and his bone structure, vaguely Mediterranean, seemed to exude intelligence, though his tendency to stare at the blackboard with his mouth open often made him look stupid. I sometimes thought in this pathological way — searching my classmates’ faces for hints of their intellect — because it was the year we were taking entrance exams for university, and our teachers liked to create competition among us. “Your friend whom you’re so fond of,” I recall one of them saying to us, in a squeaky, histrionic tone, “he’s the one who will steal your slot at the end of the year.” These sorts of statements had a deep effect on me. I had just moved from my home state in rural Brazil to Campinas, a midsize city in the interior of São Paulo. All I cared about then was getting into a good college so that I never had to go back. The ambition to leave home is often romanticized, but there is something vicious to it too: it can fill you with a mistrust of others, a light paranoia that never ceases.

B smoked a lot of weed. He was funny, or considered funny by most, though I don’t think he ever told a joke. In that deadpan stoner way, he was funniest when serious. Every now and then B decided to pay attention in class, because he entertained the idea of studying electrical engineering at a top university. It was hard to tell these serious phases from his more frequent slacker phases, mainly because his expression of studiousness, which involved squinting at the blackboard through his tiny glasses, was similar to the expression he wore when high.

One morning in a geopolitics class, the teacher was going on about the troubles in Northern Ireland. The entire history of Northern Irish separatism was delivered to us in about an hour, which meant there was almost no chance it would be in the exams. At one point the teacher spoke of Bloody Sunday. He said fourteen people had died in Derry in 1972, when British soldiers shot unarmed civilian protesters.

“Only fourteen people?” B asked, squinting at the board, his mouth agape. “So why are we studying it then?”

The class laughed. The teacher — who, now that I think about it, looked somewhat like a balding version of B (lanky, the same rimless glasses) — told him to leave the class at once. The teacher was so enraged he barely said a word; he didn’t feel the need to justify the expulsion. As B moved through the aisle toward the exit door, a ripple of diffuse laughter rose and then fell. B smiled, accepting the praise, and he might have even squinted to imply intoxication. But I could tell it was one of his serious phases, and that he had definitely meant the question.


The Brazilian National Truth Commission was launched in late 2011, under the orders of President Dilma Rousseff, then just starting her first term. The commission was conceived to bring fresh life into investigations surrounding the murder and disappearance of civilians under Brazil’s long-lasting military regime, which ran from the coup against President João Goulart, a socialist, in 1964, to the restoration of democracy in 1985. Shortly after the commission’s creation, though, sensitive figures in the armed forces pressured the NTC to take into account a longer time frame, one that began in 1946, so that the dictatorship wasn’t singled out. Eventually it became clear that the commission would have no authority to punish perpetrators for crimes against humanity, and that all of its suggestions would be nonbinding. The 1979 amnesty law — which gives legal immunity to officials involved with the dictatorship’s repression, and whose revision has for a long time been a goal of the regime’s victims’ families — was never touched upon. Last December, the final NTC report was delivered to the president.

Discussions about the dictatorship have often taken this metalinguistic bent.

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For a few days, the report held the headlines. Most local newspapers printed a large, front-page photo of Rousseff accepting the findings from the hands of a lawyer, Pedro Dallari, the group’s coordinator and one of seven people who had led the investigations. Then, about a week or so later, the NTC slipped into the back pages, and then very quickly out of them; now, by the time I write these words, it’s May and no one is talking about the report anymore. The local press’s short attention span is partly to blame, but it seems more a failure of the report itself. Since 1985, there have been three major collective projects in Brazil to investigate human rights violations during the military dictatorship, and the NTC has not added much substance to these. Families of those who died, disappeared, or were tortured throughout the ’60s and ’70s have not reacted with anger to the final report. Their posture has been one more of resignation, as though they expected little to occur in the first place.

There is something ironic about the categorical names given to these commissions and their temporary nature. It’s as though the authorities, by the use of some definitive language, wish to force closure on an issue before even addressing it. The word truth is by far the most ubiquitous. It is everywhere: in statements, in the commission’s name, in speeches, in depositions. In 2008, when the NTC was still in its embryonic stages, then minister of defense Nelson Jobim criticized the use of the word justice in the commission’s title (initially, the group was to be called the National Truth and Justice Commission). Jobim argued that justice was too strong a word (one wonders how he’d react to an expletive); he implied that the word was offensive to the armed forces. Jobim suggested it be replaced with reconciliation. Other members of the government disagreed. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president at the time, withdrew the word justice, but neglected to replace it — a decision that left everyone dissatisfied. The word truth, however, remained; either because it meant too much, or, more likely, because it meant nothing.

Discussions about the dictatorship have often taken this metalinguistic bent. Last year, in the run-up to the October presidential election, when rhetorical attacks between the center-left, ruling Workers’ Party and the center-right opposition, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), reached their usual peak, a heated debate over the proper term to be used when speaking of 1964 ensued. More than before, outspokenly right-wing voters of the PSDB began to use the term “1964 revolution,” whereas the rest of the country continued to refer to the “1964 coup.” The discussion might seem absurd, but it isn’t marginal. In April 2013, Aécio Neves, the PSDB presidential candidate who went on to lose the election to Rousseff by merely three points last year, used the expression “1964 revolution” in a speech, signaling his allegiance to his party’s right wing.

The most contentious word of all is revanchismo. There is no exact translation for this Portuguese word. Like the word revanchism in English, it means something like “the wish to take revenge,” or “revenge-ism,” though revanche is somewhere between revenge and rematch. Whereas revanchism in English refers to the retaliatory policies of those in power against the oppressed, in Brazilian Portuguese it’s used in nearly the opposite way. It’s what military officers and their sympathizers invoke, as a warning, anytime a discussion of the past regime’s repression emerges. Any attempt to set the record straight, any vaguely expressed desire to reassess the amnesty law, is derided as another instance of revanchismo. “Let’s move on,” the army says — as though a twenty-one-year period during which hundreds of people disappeared and thousands were tortured, and in which civil liberties were curtailed, were roughly equivalent to some romance gone bad (though reconciliation, the word suggested by Jobim, does have an amorous ring to it). And the Brazilian left — which is now broad and formless and, lately, not very leftist at all — responds by engaging the discussion. There is no revanchismo, they insist, meek and aimless — as if the question were a real question, as if it deserved being answered at all.


As in other Latin American countries, the Brazilian military derived strength from the fear of communism. But its seizure of power in 1964 — and rule until 1985 — was less troubled than that of similar juntas in other parts of South America. The socialist president João Goulart, who took office in 1961, had imposed capital controls and begun a process of land reform, and the bargaining power trade unions had attained during his tenure scared much of the urban middle class. Parts of society pined for intervention: the army had a history of meddling in civil affairs since the 19th century, and to some a coup seemed the rule in national history rather than the exception. For its part, the military feared the support Goulart had gathered among members of its lower ranks. The army rose, took power, and changed the policy course. There was little resistance.

And this is probably what makes the Brazilian dictatorship less known to foreigners: its relative peace; the alleged lack of blood

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Under military rule, the economy grew at high rates — GDP growth between 1968 and 1973, a particularly bountiful period, was on average more than 11 percent a year. The linkage between military rule and good economic management is no longer made with the same confidence by sympathizers of the regime (inequality significantly increased during the period, and much of the growth was built on mounting public debt); but anti-communists of the time often praised the Brazilian dictatorship for its stability. Samuel Huntington, before he became known for his visions of immigration causing a cultural apocalypse, acted as consultant to the Brazilian generals, promoting the use of ersatz political parties to gain the regime some legitimacy; and the US government itself supported the dictatorship. Policy wonks seemed enticed by a place where the military ruled and there hadn’t been a bloodbath.

And this is probably what makes the Brazilian dictatorship less known to foreigners: its relative peace; the alleged lack of blood when compared with other regimes. Between eight thousand and thirty thousand people disappeared in Argentina during the “Dirty War” period, which ran from 1976 to 1983. In Chile, estimates of murders and disappearances under Pinochet vary from four thousand to tens of thousands. These numbers, of course, do not account for torture, forced emigration, repression of everyday civil liberties. In Argentina, state agents stole babies from militants and threw captives out of planes into the sea — an image that former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi would claim to find poetic. In Chile, opponents of the regime were rounded up at football stadiums and then kept there in unspeakable conditions. The Brazilian NTC’s final report lists 434 state-sponsored deaths in the country from 1946 to 1988. In 1970, at the peak of the regime’s power, under the tenure of the curiously named General Garrastazu Médici, the total population of the country was roughly 96 million. “Only fourteen people?” B had asked in class that day; and though it might be kept secret because of its obscenity, because of its callousness, this kind of utilitarian thought hovers when one thinks of Brazil’s military period compared with others in South America.

There was little resistance to the dictatorship, but what resistance there was shaped the country up to this point. And in fact there was blood — particularly after 1968, when state policing increased to stifle rebellions at birth. “Relative peace” is a misleading expression; one can equally say “relative war” and be accurate. Guerrilla groups sprang up to fight the army, and almost every national leader democratically elected since — Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Dilma Rousseff — was, to varying degrees of intensity and commitment, an opponent of the regime.1 Culturally, the Sixties and Seventies continue to overshadow whatever artistic production comes out these days. Glauber Rocha, still the best filmmaker the country has ever produced, directed his masterpiece Entranced Earth in 1967. Small theater companies like Teatro de Arena and Teatro Oficina, though different in their methods, responded to the coup with powerful allegories criticizing the repression taking place. Music, our most decayed but still most influential cultural expression, also went through its richest period back then: Chico Buarque’s strange, ironic lyrics that blossomed into social critiques; Caetano Veloso’s sly ambiguity and Dylanesque masks. All these artists, at different points in time and in different ways, used their material to mock, provoke, or criticize the regime. That Tom Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” — the most apolitical song of the canon, written two years before the military took over — is now the most popular Muzak around, played at home and abroad at a particularly dull kind of dinner party (and in Hollywood portrayals of such dinner parties), seems to me some kind of metaphor. I don’t know what the metaphor is, exactly, but it can’t be any good.


The day B asked the question about Northern Ireland, I was glad to see him kicked out. I never thought he was funny; not even, or especially not, when he was high. He was the first bespectacled person I ever associated with stupidity, and glasses, which until then had always seemed to me a sign of seriousness, even of modestly rebellious instincts, lost some of their romance that year.

But as time has passed I’ve come to understand his question. We often dealt in abstractions. B’s utilitarian assumption was just a version of what we’d all learn later — either in “cost-benefit” analyses (that charged euphemism) in economics and public-policy classes, or else in nonsensical “moral compass” tests in job interviews. B intuited a principle that underlies so many political decisions, from drone strikes to the building of World Cup stadiums. His stupidity was to say it out loud. I just googled him; I don’t think he got into a top college in the end, and he certainly hasn’t become an electrical engineer. Northern Ireland took about an hour of class, more or less. Our own dictatorship took longer, and yet, considering it was a small part of “contemporary history” — and history was only one among many subjects that would be in the exams — it didn’t take very long either.

“As for Pinochet,” the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra writes in his novel Ways of Going Home, “to me he was a TV character that conducted a show with no regular timings, and I hated him for it, for those boring national addresses that interrupted the TV schedule during its best parts.” This is a radical sentence. We — middle-class Latin Americans who came of age in the ’90s or early ’00s — were taught in classrooms to understand the dictatorships our parents endured (or enjoyed, in some instances). In school we were given books that showed us economic statistics before and after the military coup; faded black-and-white portraits of militants who were tortured by the army; a continental map that pointed out which other countries in the region had gone through similar periods of military rule. (I remember the map as dark green, with mottled patches of light green: was that to indicate the length or “sternness” of each regime?) We were told not to forget. Some of us went as far as choosing to write about this period we didn’t live through. Some of us learned, to borrow another term from Zambra, the “literature of the parents.”

I couldn’t dissociate Brazil’s military dictatorship from the sterility of high school classrooms.

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It’s hard to remember what you didn’t experience. I recall my grandfather occasionally speaking in positive terms about the economy under military rule, which often left people at the dinner table uncomfortable, or caused them to change the subject; I remember my mother telling me she was quite upset when she wasn’t allowed to study linguistics at PUC-Rio, a university then thought of as subversive by the middle class. These are the stories I have. The dictatorship ended when I was 2 years old, and by then we were on our way to Philadelphia, where my mother went to get her PhD. When I came back to my country in the early ’90s, to my parched, hot, parochial town, a president was being impeached, people were nervous, and hyperinflation ruled the mood. (I remember distinctly the odd melancholy I felt holding a wad of cash that would cover the cost of a pack of gum, but just a few days earlier would have bought me a bicycle. The time machine, a child’s dream everywhere, gained special meaning in the Brazilian economy of the early ’90s.) But the country was a democracy by then, and though I’m often told it was a young, fragile democracy, I can’t really point to any early experiences that would lead me to say otherwise.

And yet I know what language to use when I speak of those days I didn’t live through; I learned it in school. I condemn people who say revolution instead of coup; I think reparation should have been kept in the original title of the commission; and whether a commission is or isn’t based on a longing to take revenge is to me beside the point — the term revanchismo should be rejected, rather than seriously engaged. At school I perfected this ability to speak of a past that wasn’t mine to such a point that, for quite a long time, I couldn’t dissociate Brazil’s military dictatorship from the sterility of high school classrooms. The subject had the same aura of boredom that permeated the topography of the Amazon, polynomials, the life cycle of Platyhelminthes—any subject that appeared in an exam. If Pinochet was an old man who interrupted the cartoon schedule, then to me the Brazilian dictatorship was a collection of GDP graphs, weird names of generals, and maps in dark green and lighter shades of green.

One can only overcome this torpor by exercising empathy: in my case, by eventually meeting people whose relatives suffered under military rule or whose countries still operate under authoritarian regimes. But often, watching the NTC work—with its fondness for linguistic discussions; its obsession over secrecy and poise; its general love of grand compromises and “reconciliations” — I was reminded of my schoolbooks and the grave tone they engendered, a tone that had always struck me as a little false.

There is something else to the comparison. The lawyer who appeared in those front pages with the president last December, handing her the final findings of the commission, was also my undergraduate professor at the University of São Paulo. I remember this man as nice, affable; he often arrived in class with a springy air, his dark hair combed sideways, its texture faintly moist, in a way that evoked wealth. His exams were not always in-class tests, but often essays one could write at home, “consulting the relevant literature.” He hated confrontation and never chastised students. He was the kind of teacher who favored compromise — students went up to his desk to bargain for higher grades. Very few people failed his class, and end-of-semesters under his supervision were light, easy-going affairs that lifted the spirits. He was, in short, one of the worst teachers I ever had.


In an essay about the dictatorship written in the late ’60s, around the time he went into exile in Paris, the Marxist literary critic Roberto Schwarz speaks of a critic who “found the houses after 1964 rather uncomfortable to live in, because of the excessive use of brute, raw material and concrete, and their excessive rationalization of space.” Schwarz goes on to argue that this impression was only natural, because the architects weren’t really worried about the aesthetic sensitivities of a bourgeois critic when they built the houses. Rather, their constructions reflected the communal aspirations of people who, before the military coup against João Goulart, had believed in a socialist kind of living. Thus the solid materials and austere craftwork; thus the frugality in the use of land. Whether the argument is sound or the wishful thinking of a Marxist is beside the point. Schwarz’s anecdote points to an important truth (rather than “truth”) about the Commission: the discomfort of some with its proceedings obscures those people whom it was actually meant to address.

Rosa Maria Cardoso da Cunha, a criminal lawyer in her sixties, was one of the most criticized board members of the NTC. Appointed to her post in May 2012, from the outset Cardoso da Cunha aroused suspicion from her peers, the press, and, of course, the army. In the ’60s she gave legal counsel to many leftist militants who had been imprisoned by the military regime. When Dilma Rousseff — who in her youth was a member of three clandestine leftist revolutionary groups — was captured by the regime in the early ’70s, and held and tortured for three years, Cardoso da Cunha defended her. This previous relationship, according to Cardoso da Cunha’s critics, violated the principle of “impartiality” and thus made her unsuitable for the position.

“Impartiality” is not a quality that should be sought.

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Tellingly, Cardoso da Cunha is also probably the NTC member who is most admired by the families of the victims. Throughout the NTC’s investigations, she was the most confrontational of all board members, vocally (and unsuccessfully) fighting for a revision of the amnesty law. One of her most fraught initiatives was the creation of the 13th Work Group, focused on investigating private businesses that either funded the 1964 military coup or gave financial support to the regime’s repression apparatus. Compared with Cardoso da Cunha, the other NTC members looked rather tame: obsessed with secrecy, too worried about the nerves of the armed forces. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the final findings of the NTC have not caused much discomfort to the private businesses that supported the military regime. But a local journalist and close friend tells me that Brazil’s main literary publisher will soon release documents that were not made public because they were deemed too sensitive by the president — documents that incriminate businesses involved with the 1964 coup. If this is true, then a great deal of credit should go to Cardoso da Cunha.

Her case is symptomatic, a metaphor for the government’s confusion over whom the NTC is for. The government acts as though a truth commission should serve that formless entity, society. It acts as though it should consider “all sides in the equation,” an assumption as clichéd as it is misleading. For beyond this lofty concern — one almost feels the urge to use Margaret Thatcher’s malicious dictum about society’s nonexistence to a better purpose here — there is what is concrete: 434 names, all listed in the report, most of which were already known before the NTC began its investigations; names of those who were killed by the state and whose families still wait for apologies, or just an acknowledgment of where the bodies are, so that they can bury a family member. Meanwhile, the armed forces act like Schwarz’s critic: entitled, patronizing.

“Impartiality” is not a quality that should be sought. If Cardoso da Cunha was the best NTC member, it was precisely because she was partial, because she spent her youth fighting against a repressive regime and understood the needs of the victims. The idea of two roughly equal “sides” in the debate — the armed forces and those who support the victims — an idea that seems to have guided the NTC’s abstract, lofty tone and its obsession with secrecy, is nonsense not only because the sides are unequal but because they are of a different nature altogether. On one side you have a state institution actively involved in one of the darkest periods of the republic, and on the other a vague amalgam of citizens, some of whom learned in school about the dictatorship but didn’t actually live through it. If one juxtaposes the armed forces with the actual victims or their families, the pledge for neutrality becomes not only disingenuous but sadistic.

And yet the armed forces have pushed for such a setup. Until 2012, when the NTC finally made clear that it would only investigate “state agents,” the armed forces had argued that former militants of leftist groups should be under equal scrutiny. Anything else would be considered revanchismo, the armed forces said. There is something both strange and sad when Rousseff, often mocked for her awkward speech and general lack of charisma, loses her emotional restraint and sobs at hearings about the dictatorship. Rousseff, tortured on several occasions by the army in her youth, understands the absurdity of the request for equal scrutiny. But surrounded by a coterie of dubious allies — a coterie she is increasingly bound to, since she has lost touch with social movements, unions, and anything else that might resemble the left — she ends up caving to these demands. The president’s passive acceptance of compromise leads her straight into a quagmire: her personal history cannot be reconciled with her institutional position. The world is what it is.


The NTC’s most revelatory moments are found not in its euphemistically worded findings, but in public-hearing episodes that took place throughout the investigations — episodes so steeped in concreteness that they resemble literary scenes. One of these moments occurred on May 10, 2013, when Colonel Alberto Brilhante Ustra gave a deposition in São Paulo’s legislative assembly. According to a report by the local newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Ustra, an 80-year-old man, arrived at the building that day in a fine suit and dark glasses, an outfit long associated with stern military men. He also had a cane. He sat down and listened impassively to documents read out loud by the chairman, Claudio Fonteles, an NTC board member who soon afterward resigned his position for alleged personal reasons. The documents read by Fonteles described Ustra’s conduct as the head of the DOI-Codi, one of the army’s main detention centers in São Paulo, which Ustra ran from 1970 to 1974. Ustra began his deposition that day by denying the DOI-Codi’s involvement in any kind of repressive activities. Then he said no murders ever occurred there under his supervision, saying that all deaths of militants during his tenure were “in combat.”

Electrical wires were attached to his body. Before the expected next step, Ustra asked him to recite verses of poetry.

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One of the photos we were often shown in school while preparing for our entrance exams was a black-and-white print of Vladimir Herzog, a journalist who was tortured and killed at the DOI-Codi in 1975. Alongside the dull maps and graphs, this photo stood out. It was tragedy and farce. Herzog appears in a dingy room, seemingly dead, with a piece of cloth tied around his neck: his body hangs from the grate of a low, barred window that is barely shoulder height, and his knees, awkwardly bent, hover slightly above the floor. The first two buttons of his shirt are undone, and small tufts of chest hair hang out. He is bald, but not completely: the disheveled dark hair on the sides and back of his head gives him the air of someone just pulled out of a newsroom. Officially, Herzog’s death was recorded as a suicide. But an understanding of basic physics rules out that explanation. The suicide claim wasn’t only fiction, it was bad fictionthe military never cared for realist techniques or anything of the sort.

According to the final NTC report, fifty state-sponsored assassinations occurred at the DOI-Codi between 1970 and 1975. Forty-five of these took place under Ustra’s command. The center’s grim history is well known. The colonel’s refusal to acknowledge it was less a provocation than a symbol of the armed forces’ reluctance to admit any kind of mea culpa. “You think they were all little angels, in there? No, sir. They all died with guns in their hands, out on the streets,” Ustra said that afternoon. He also claimed that the only reason he was sitting there answering questions was because “the terrorists” were now elected, under “the democracy that we (the army) preserved.” If it hadn’t been for the army, Ustra argued, then everyone would be living under a communist, “Fidel Castro–type” dictatorship.

Present at the courtroom in São Paulo that day was Gilberto Natalini, a district counselor and member of the Green Party, a former militant who was imprisoned and tortured by Ustra in the early ’70s. The counselor described the colonel’s methods. Natalini was captured and then taken to the DOI-Codi one night. There he was told to stand naked in a water puddle. Electrical wires were attached to his body. Before the expected next step, Ustra asked him to recite verses of poetry. Natalini did so. At the end of each verse, Ustra gave him electric shocks, interspersed with beatings. The ritual was repeated several times. Marival Chaves Dias do Canto, a former DOI-Codi employee who worked under Ustra, gave a deposition to the NTC that confirmed his former boss’s sadistic bent. Do Canto says that Ustra often showed the corpses of militants who’d been tortured and killed in the army’s clandestine centers to other state agents, presenting them as trophies.

Irritated with Natalini’s accusations, Ustra shouted that he wouldn’t do any cross-examinations with terrorists. “I’m not the terrorist, you’re the terrorist,” Natalini replied. As they chided each other, two men rose from the benches in Ustra’s defense. One of them said: “If a terrorist can speak, I can speak too.” Near the courthouse entrance, these men allegedly approached Ustra and shook his hand. One of them turned out to be General Luiz Eduardo Rocha Paiva, another high-ranked official in the Brazilian military and a longtime critic of the NTC.

According to Folha de São Paulo, General Ustra’s deposition was the first time a Brazilian truth commission organized a public hearing to scrutinize a high-ranked official directly involved with the dictatorship’s repression. There is merit in that. But Ustra’s paranoid belief that people like him were heroes who stood up for democracy rather than sadists is not an isolated pathology. In an interview given to the same newspaper on December 19 of last year, General Gilberto Pimentel reiterated Ustra’s beliefs in more abstract language. Pimentel is the president of the Military Club, the country’s main private association of veterans and officials in the army, air force, and navy. The post-’64 period had “excesses on both sides,” the general argued. The army only acted “because society pressured us, so we could prevent a dictatorship of the proletariat.” When asked whether the armed forces should conduct the country now, Pimentel answered that it was clear “a civil government should be in power,” and that 1964 had been an exception. But politicians should have “good judgment,” he said, presumably patting himself on the back for his level-headedness. And what do you mean by “good judgment”? the reporter asked. The general then went on to express his own political opinions: Brazil should be closer to the US and other powers; it should immediately ditch countries like Cuba and Venezuela; society should be based on free-market values. What did he mean by politicians who have good judgment? Basically, people who agree with him.

The day of the deposition in São Paulo’s assembly, Claudio Fonteles had to end the session early because of the commotion. But before he did so, José Carlos Dias, another member of the NTC who was present, asked Ustra about torture techniques used in the DOI-Codi. He asked what procedures were involved in the pau de arara (“macaw stick”) and the cadeira do dragão (“dragon’s chair”), and with what frequency detainees were submitted to these methods of torture. “It’s all in my book,” Ustra replied, “and so I’m not going to answer that.” For though he loathed poetry, the colonel had, in fact, written a book once. Its title? A Verdade Sufocada: “The Suffocated Truth.”


In 2012, the NTC backed an alteration in the official death records of Vladimir Herzog. Whereas the original death certificate suggested Herzog hung himself, the new one states, “Reason of death: bruises and bodily harm suffered during interrogation at the facilities of the II Army of São Paulo (DOI-Codi).” The use of the passive voice is far from ideal, but Ivo Herzog, Vladimir’s son, fought hard for the change and was supported by the commission in his plight. Likewise, the clarification of the circumstances of the death of Rubens Paiva, a congressman killed by the military in the early ’70s, the remains of his body interred and then disinterred several times before being finally thrown into the sea, is another victory for the commission. It took forty years for former state agents to admit to his killing.

The NTC’s greatest achievement, though, has been to inspire the creation of smaller regional and municipal commissions. On a smaller budget, these groups have often done more than their parent body for the cause. The greatest revelation so fara document listing every person in the ’70s who was forced to visit the Department of Political and Social Order, a Kafkaesque entity created by the state to stifle social movements at their inceptionwas the work of Ivan Seixas, a coordinator working in São Paulo’s local commission. The commission of Rio de Janeiro state has also done some fine work, hustling for research grants and uncovering a series of files never before made public. Many of these groups carry on with their work now.

Still, Brazil was the last country in Latin America to install a commission on its cold war dictatorship’s human rights violations. Panama, Paraguay, Haiti, Bolivia, El Salvador, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Chile have all been less sluggish in their reckoning. Compromise has many names, and one of the least recognized is “procrastination.”


The Brazilian military regime may have been less vicious than other dictatorships that swept Latin America, but it was nevertheless in the context of the regime’s oppression that the most articulate, most inclusive, and, for a long time, most compelling leftist project in the continent emerged. The Workers’ Party (PT), the ruling party in the country today, was founded in 1980, the result of a social movement that began in the late ’70s with a trade-union insurgency and quickly incorporated intellectuals, adherents of liberation theology, and members of civil society who pined for democracy. In 1985, in a shift triggered by these political forces and a dire economy, democracy was restored. By 1989, the PT’s charismatic leader, Lula, a former steelworker from one of the country’s poorest regions, had a good shot at the presidency.

Lula lost that year. And then a few years later he lost again. And then again. By 2002, the PT decided that either it had to change or it would never be in power. Like similar movements abroadNew Labour, for instancethe party began to sell itself as more moderate, abandoning its more radical propositions, such as Marxist economics and any mention of land reform. For this purpose it hired Duda Mendonça, a flamboyant political-marketing guru whose catchy slogan Lulinha Paz e Amor (Lil’ Lula, Peace, and Love) could as easily have served the campaign of a right-wing conservative trying to appear more concerned about the poor as it did a leftist trying to appear less angry with the rich.

The strategy worked, and in 2002 Lula won. His popular appeal was unmatched, and the combination of a growing economy, low inflation, and social programs that gave the lower classes more social mobility than they’d ever experienced made the PT hard to beat. The PSDB, the center-right opposition party, was stuck with a passionless if sound defense of their past efforts at ensuring macroeconomic stability and with a moralistic discourse against corruption (hard to pull off in contemporary Brazilian politics). It was too little; it still is. Dilma Rousseff, a low-profile technocrat with no experience in elected office and a former guerrilla fighter, was handpicked by Lula and took office under fairly comfortable circumstances in 2011.

Tony Blair became a fierce advocate for the Iraq war. Nothing so dramatic happened to Lula or his advisers (though a few of them went to jail for corruption), but the compromises the left had to make in power were many. Lula’s post-2002 leftism seemed derived from a kind of high-low conviviality, the idea that everyone could get alonga stereotype often associated, not always accurately, with the country itself. Lula liked to say that everyone made money while he was in office. The direct, boastful mention of cash, something of a taboo in contemporary politics, was not a slip of the tongue. Much of Lula’s government was based on bringing the lower classes into the fold of consumption. Still, every four years, the PT had to face the PSDB in elections, and then, like a tribe that honors its bygone ancestors with some bits of dancing and shouting, it spoke an old language: the rich versus the poor, social justice versus neoliberalism, empathy versus callousness.

Not all compromises pay off.

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The idea that trade unionists and financiers, northeastern oligarchs and small farmers, agribusiness moguls and environmentalists can all live in harmony is more marketable when the economy is growingnot so much when it is not. Last year, Rousseff won a tight election by adopting the usual discourse of fighting for the poor and diminishing inequality, attacking the opposition’s neoliberalism. But faced with a recession, rising inflation, and a large corruption scandal within the state-owned energy company, Petrobrasills in large part accumulated throughout her first termshe immediately, on starting her second term, implemented an austerity program so severe that even the exacting Milton Friedman would have approved (to keep analogies in the realm of those who supported Latin American dictatorships).

Perhaps I should be more specific. Rousseff’s new ministry contains at least two members linked to Paulo Maluf, a former supporter of the dictatorship and member of ARENA, an extinct party whose only purpose was to give a veneer of legitimacy to the thuggish regime of the ’60s and ’70s. The new minister of agriculture, Kátia Abreu, until last year one of the government’s most vocal adversaries, and also the country’s fiercest agribusiness lobbyist, inaugurated her tenure by announcing that “there are no latifundia in Brazil”a strange statement considering that latifundia is a term that seems only to be used here (it means immense farmland properties). Another minister, Aldo Rebelo, is perhaps the only self-proclaimed communist in the world who doesn’t believe in climate change (he claims it’s an imperialist plot). A climate-change skeptic would be unnerving in any administrationbut it’s more so because Rebelo is the new minister of science and technology. Those on the left who can’t stomach the government’s ideological flexibility are migrating to the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), a party that espouses Marxist ideals and has a more radical agenda. But the PSOL is still tiny, and stands no chance of becoming a political force in the short or even medium term. Still, Rousseff’s approval rate now hovers around an impressively low 10 percent. By not being sufficiently right for the conservatives, nor sufficiently left for the leftists, the president finds herself in a delicate position, hostage to allies and adversaries. Not all compromises pay off.


On the afternoon of March 15, according to the most credible data, around one million people went to the streets to protest against the Rousseff administration, with approximately 210,000 people gathered in the city of São Paulo, where the opposition to the government is now concentrated. In its language, the protest was lofty and self-righteous: against corruption, against the “left,” pro “indignation,” pro “decency.” The streets teemed with abstract words and expressions, either shouted or written on handmade signs. Justice, dignity, decency. Truth. One cardboard sign held by a middle–aged woman went viral on Facebook. It said: Feminicideyes! Hungercideno! (FeminicídioSim! FomenicídioNão). Only she knows what she meant. Other signs praised “meritocracy,” “righteous workers,” “family values.”

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing,” Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (the essay is of course not only applicable to English). In the same piece he draws attention to the tendency of modern political prose to move further and further away from concreteness. And so to find the nouns, one might have to look at the fringes, to those like B, who are unembarrassed to say what they mean, and by proxy what others may be thinking. On March 15 there were two types of signs that asked for very specific things.

The first one, the more numerous kind, asked for the president’s impeachment. Even in its aestheticswith the use of national flags, green and yellow face paint—the street protests resembled the movement that overthrew Fernando Collor in 1992, the difference being that at that time a pro-market oligarch was the target, whereas now it’s a leftist (or formerly leftist) technocrat.

The second kind of placard was more direct. I don’t know how many of these were at the protests. My impression, gathered from different sourcesmost of them either ardently pro-government or ardently anti-governmentwas that there were more than a few. No one can agree on the number of protesters that were on the streets, never mind the number of signs. But what struck me wasn’t the scale. It was the language used: so crystalline, so unlike “Down with corruption!” “We want a dignified country!” and all the other vague chants that took over the streets. These signs were straightforward. They said: we want a military intervention now.

These past few nights, made restless by coffee and Rio’s prickly weather, I’ve stayed up late looking at pictures of the people holding these signs. Hard as it may be, I try to forget what they’re holding and read their faces, the way I used to do with my classmates when I was 16 and full of those raw stranger’s nerves. In the pictures there are the usual, inescapable marks of classpale or light brown skin, polo shirts, prim haircuts. But other than that, I can’t find anything too remarkable about them.

  1. For the sake of fairness, it should be added that both Lula, who led trade union strikes against the government, and Rousseff, who worked as a clandestine guerrilla, took more personal risks than Cardoso, who was then a sociology professor forced into exile. 

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