Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Struggle for Truth and Memory
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Bolsonaro and Brazil’s Struggle for Truth and Memory

October 24, 2019


In my apartment over my bed there hangs a map of the world. It’s not particularly accurate or easy to read in a lot of places and it’s in Portuguese which I don’t speak anymore apart from a few sentences. Nonetheless It’s probably one of the things most dear to me in my apartment My dad bought it on a market while we lived in Brazil around the year 2000 and it’s a nice reminder of the two years I’ve spent there Now while I was there, I was still a dumb kid and I didn’t care much what was going on around me outside of how to finish Super Mario Land on my yellow Game Boy pocket A few things still stand out in my mind though like the Samba music playing while taking a late-night stroll on the beach or how we used to kick around the avocados growing in our garden since we didn’t know what they were What stands out the most though is the stark divide between the rich and the poor that didn’t escape my impression even at that young age For someone coming to Brazil for the first time, it might seem like a country full of social and economic contradictions where you can witness a situation of extreme poverty being separated from luxurious condos or designer boutiques by only a few hundred metres Because even though Brazil is rich in size and natural resources it is also one of the most unequal countries on the planet If you would receive the monthly minimum wage in Brazil it would take you 19 years to earn what the top 0.1% earn in one month And although the country has been making progress on this front over the last decades, it’s still rather slow and lags behind its neighbors Continuing at the current rate it will take Brazil about 30 years to catch up with the current rate of inequalities of Argentina and Uruguay and about 75 years to reach the standards of the United Kingdom Inequality has been a source of conflict violence and instability for a long time in Brazil and attempts were either unsuccessful or brutally suppressed One of these attempts was called the ‘Basic Reforms Plan’ proposed by former Brazilian President João Goulart in the early 1960s. The goal of this plan was to invest 15% of the state budget in education as well as enacting land reform and taxing large corporations so that some of their profits would stay inside the country In the heated cold war climate of the time it didn’t take long for the plan to be condemned as a socialist threat by the Brazilian right-wing and the military It also alarmed the United States who weren’t so fond of Goulart to begin with for lacking animosity towards Cuba On the 31st of March 1964 the US backed Brazilian military who seized control of the government and forced Goulart into exile and installed one of their own generals as President They outlawed Brazil’s existing political parties and established a two-party system consisting of the nationalist party ARENA and a psuedo opposition party called MDB This regime would rule Brazil with an iron fist for two decades and become the blueprint for military dictatorships all over Latin America It systemized the doctrine of national security which justified the military’s actions as being in the national interest in times of crises like an alleged communist threat. People who wished to make light of the military’s actions at the time often reject the comparison to the dictatorships of Argentina or Chile by pointing out a significantly lower death count of the regime whereas in Argentina estimates under region of 10,000 to 30,000 and in Chile between 3,000 and 10,000 the number of dead and disappeared in Brazil is usually set at below 500 victims To see the brutal aspects of Brazil’s pass in an honest way though. We have to look further than just these numbers despite having similar Cold War repressive context with the military taking office as a Preventive effort against the alleged communist threat these three countries adopted distinctive patterns of repression and full of different pathways to address atrocity Brazil had the most legalized form of military rule the director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College in London calls this ‘authoritarian legality’ ; opposing rule of law with rule by law Whereas the regime in Argentina radically antagonized the rule of law and the one in Chile carried out mixed legal and illegal repressive strategies, the judicial branch of government in Brazil strongly supported the coup. As a result there was broad cooperation between civil and military justice. This cooperation led to a much lower number of capital victims in Brazil than in Argentina and Chile. The judicial branch’s adherence to authoritarianism allowed political enemies to be prosecuted, imprisoned and expelled from the country in formal ways. In Argentina, courts were largely uninvolved in repression therefore practices like forced disappearance became routine. In Brazil the legal system helped to persecute political opponents judicially. This allowed the military regime to remove undesirable elements with surgical precision by means of direct execution or disappearance which meant the same thing in practice It’s easy to get tricked when looking at the raw numbers presented earlier but when one peeks behind the curtain a bit, it becomes clear that Brazil’s military dictatorship didn’t have any less qualms about murdering and torturing innocent people than the other dictatorships of the continent. The picture of Brazil from the mid 60s to the mid 80s is less defined by mass executions and more by savage torture and unjust imprisonment. If we look beyond the body count I mentioned earlier and include those who fell victim to political persecution under the military regime, we arrive at over 45,000 victims as determined by the Brazilian Amnesty Commission established in 2001. The systemization of tortures, arguably the cruelest aspect of what the military regime is remembered for and for good reason. How to inflict the maximum amount of pain on a human being quickly became part of the training curricula for the coup and the regime got a lot of help in developing these horrendous techniques by the US and later the UK. One of the first officials to introduce this practice in Brazil was a US government advisor for the CIA named Dan Mitrione. During his time in Brazil he would snatch up beggars off the streets and torture them in classrooms in front of dozens of officers or other officials of the military dictatorship. Same was done to alleged enemies of the regime or their relatives. The most infamous method used by the perpetrators of these crimes was the so called ‘parrot’s perch.’ The method consists of an iron bar wedged behind the victims knees and to which his wrists are tied. The bar is then placed between two tables causing the victim’s body to hang some twenty or thirty centimetres from the ground often up to 40 hours. As if this wasn’t horrible enough, this technique was hardly ever used isolated but was accompanied by electric shock to the genitals waterboarding or sexual abuse. I could run down a list of all the various torture techniques the regime used to terrorize its citizens but the most disturbing fact about it is probably that it would take me several hours The reason why the method of torture is so central in remembering Brazil’s oppressive military regime is because they themselves made it out to be that way. The obvious objective they had when torturing their own citizens was to extract information. The second objective becomes very clear when we look at the fact that the regime once in a while let out information about the use of torture on purpose. They wanted to create a climate of terror in which people were less like to form an opposition to the regime Not only did they let out information on purpose but applied torture techniques that made it obvious what the victim had faced in the encounter with the regime, like burning the face with acid. An idiom from that point in Brazil’s history went like this: “The only democratic thing Brazil is torture because it is applied to everyone.” Now, going over all of this and reminding ourselves of the horrendous acts of the military regime like torture, execution and the abolishment of human rights, it seems contradictory to Brazil’s current political development. How can a country which suffered so strongly under the boot of an oppressive regime, overwhelmingly elect a president who has no qualms about showing his affection for it and even specific torture techniques or torturers? Going so far as to claim the mistake of the military regime was to torture but not to kill as he claimed in the radio interview in 2016. Why isn’t it as devastating when Brazil’s new president openly praises a man who used to torture people by inserting rats into his victims bodily orifices, as it would be for a German politician to praise Josef Mengele? To understand that we have to take a look at how the Brazilian population Itself sees the past of their country. It’s much less clear-cut than we might be used to and attitudes in Brazil towards the military dictatorship are much better described as unmastered than anything else. There are four key characteristics of the military regime in Brazil that influence the subsequent memory culture. Firstly, the regime did a lot to appear democratic while in reality governing by dictatorial means. As Nina Schneider writes in her piece for The Bulletin of Latin American Research called ‘Breaking the Silence of the Military Regime: New Politics of Memory in Brazil’ “Unlike in Argentina or Chile, democratic institutions and procedures were maintained but in a distorted manner: elections were still held but manipulated; Congress remained intact, but was threatened and closed when it disobeyed the regime’s orders. The military regime in Brazil was ruled by military presidents on rotational basis. rather than strong dictators.” Secondly, much less people were affected by the human rights violations of the regime, which made a reworking of the military past less of an immediate concern Also, the military regime in Brazil didn’t implode amid financial disaster and a humiliating military defeat as with the war with the Falklands in Argentina In fact, Brazil witnessed a huge economic boom during the dictatorship Although this development largely left behind the average worker. To sustain the boom the regime also had to lend a lot of money from outside investors leaving Brazil as one of the countries with the highest national debt on the planet. And lastly when the Brazilian population finally had enough and demanded democratization, the Brazilian military was able to exercise substantial control over the transition to democracy. It was a transition by transformation rather than by rupture and this allowed the military to guard several levels of power. As a consequence of this, things like the judicial branch were simply inherited by Brazil’s new democracy. As Marcelo Torelli wrote in a piece for the International Journal of Transitional Justice “During 21 years of military rule the government was able to appoint judges and prosecutors, mainly excluding those critical of authoritarianism; depuration never occurred following the end of the military regime. To exemplify the reach of authoritarian influence, the last military appointed Supreme Court Judge to retire was Jose Carlos Moreira Alves in 2003, 18 years after the regime ended.”
The biggest coup the military pulled when their reign was coming to an end, though, was something else. In 1979 the regime passed an amnesty law which allowed exiled activists to return but also shielded those who had violated human rights in the name of the regime from future prosecution. Those who persecuted, tortured, and killed so many people during the reign of the military have yet to face criminal justice of any kind. And this ‘let bygones be bygones’ attitude is widespread when it comes to addressing the horrific acts of the military regime, and has left those victims without much sympathy in their struggle for recognition and justice. The Brazilian Bar Association went before the Brazilian Constitutional Court in 2008 against the amnesty law but the case was denied hearing. There was also never really reformation of Brazil’s military or police force, and Brazil has only recently started to come to terms with its past. In 2012, Brazil’s former president Dilma Rousseff, herself a victim of torture under the regime, set up the National Truth Commission, which worked to help uncover Brazil’s past. The investigators spent years combing through archivesm hospital and morgue records, and questioning the victims, their families, and alleged perpetrators. In 2014, Rousseff, under tears, presented details from the 2,000 page report which concluded, “Under the military dictatorship, repression and the elimination of political opposition became the policy of the state, conceived and implemented based on decisions by the President of the Republic and military ministers. The Commission therefore totally rejects the explanation offered up until today, that the serious violations of human rights constituted a few isolated acts or excesses resulting from the zeal of a few soldiers.” For many Brazilians, this was quite the shock. A good chunk of the population learned of the dictatorship’s brutal methods through memoirs or telenovelas in the 90s which also often romanticized the regime. Part of the population associates this time period with security, order, and as silly as that may seem, Brazil becoming the first country in the world to win the Football World Cup for a third time. And even when these acts get brought to the forefront, as with the just mentioned report by the Truth Commission, it’s usually under the pretext of reconciliation, an attitude that is carried by the broader population. Even former president Rousseff, when presenting the report that detailed all the suffering the regime has caused, made sure to speak of reconciliation and emphasized that the report would not be part of a revenge campaign. These clashing images of Brazil’s past and the half-baked attempts at justice for the victims of the regime have left the collective memory of the country divided and highly contentious. Although this might help us understand why statements like those by Jair Bolsonaro aren’t career-ending, it doesn’t really explain this election. Especially when looking at Brazil just a few years ago, after 500 years of cruel colonial history and the lasting damage it caused, things were starting to look up at the turn of the millennium Brazil disappeared from the World Hunger Map, the economy was flourishing and Brazil’s now imprisoned former president, Lula la Silva who had worked his way up from cleaning shoes to becoming president, was one of the most popular politicians on the entire planet. Brazil was taking centre stage as South America’s largest Democracy and the PT Party, which had formed in opposition to the military regime in the 80s, was starting to tackle the historical inequality that caused so much conflict and suffering over the last few centuries. The project of the PT Party is best described as class politics without class struggle. Knowing that too invasive attempts to make Brazil more equal would most likely result in open conflict, the PT party was focused on lifting more people into the middle class and countering the worst excesses of Brazil’s post-colonial economic landscape. Due to Brazil’s electoral system, though, a more radical social policy was always prevented due to the dependence on multiple parties in a paralyzing coalition. And while their attempts were successful in many ways, starting in 2010 we can see Brazil unraveling before our eyes. The sharp drop in prices of raw materials takes a heavy toll on Brazil’s export dependent economy, and corruption scandals lead to the stagnation of several public projects. Three years later, pictures of burning cars and flying Molotov cocktails make their way into the international press. People who feel left behind the economic upswing, riot and demonstrate against rising bus tariffs, and the waste of huge amounts of tax money on projects like the Football World Cup The administration looks overwhelmed facing this and becomes increasingly paralyzed by corruption. The historic defeat of Brazil’s national team in the semifinals of the World Cup that takes place in their own country only furthers the dark outlook that many Brazilians have. And I get that this might seem silly to someone looking from the outside in, but football, and especially the World Cup has an immense amount of cultural significance in Brazil, Two years later, the maybe biggest corruption scandal in history becomes public and ushers in the beginning of the end for President Dilma Rousseff who gets impeached in his six hours long spectacle on the 17th of April in 2016. Every single one of the 513 delegate steps up to the speaker’s desk to orchestrate their anger. The climax is reached when Brazil’s now president Bolsonaro dedicates his vote to a certain Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ultra, the military colonel who oversaw those facilities in which Dilma Rousseff herself was tortured. Looking back at this moment it seems almost like an omen of what was about to come, when a president is impeached for allegedly being in the know about ongoing corruption, by a parliament of which more than half the members have been under investigation for corruption. Including the now president Jair Bolsanaro, who was now, in 2018 able to take advantage of a particular incendiary mood in the country. While the PT party wanted to prevent class warfare under all circumstances what unavoidable was to challenge the status of the country’s elite and middle class. And while capitalist structures exist in Brazil the same way they do in Europe, the remnants of feudal times are much more present in the country who was subject to colonial rule for hundreds of years. A significant amount of the lower classes sells their labor not to companies or factories but directly to the members of the upper classes. As maids, nannies or security personnel the nature of the relationship between the worker and the boss is direct and personal. But the times in which power relations could be upheld with the stroke of a whip are over, and Brazil’s lower classes have gathered a political conscience and are organized. This, combined with the lurking upper class and the middle class, who in large parts felt aggrieved and threatened by Brazil’s new upstarts rising from the lower classes, have left the country deeply unstable But Bolsonaro couldn’t just win with the votes of the upper-middle class, so how did he get the votes of poorer communities and people of color although he previously spouted the opinion that sterilization would be a good method in combating crime and poverty? Well, he did it by painting a picture that depicts the country being thrust into a vortex of corruption and crime by the PT Party. A lot of problems we in the West face today when it comes to the integrity of elections are laid bare in Brazil’s recent election. Many mobile phone contracts in Brazil allow the customer to use WhatsApp and Facebook free of charge. This has led to a shift in the media landscape where now according to data published by the Polling Institute Datafohla 65% of Brazilian voters acknowledged having informed themselves politically through news received on WhatAapp and 47% admitted to believing these news items. Another study of 100,000 WhatsApp images that were widely shared in Brazil, found that more than half contained misleading or flat out false information, often painting the country’s left-wing politicians as communists, who want to turn Brazil into another Venezuela. Although the Workers’ Party has mostly governed from the centre when it came to the nationalization of industry, this falls on deaf ears in Brazil’s current climate where the right is constantly slandering left candidates and leaders with accusations of corruption, the sexualization of children, rape, and even Satanism. “It produced a culture of denunciation and political persecution recalling the darkest hours of interwar Europe,” wrote historian Antoine Acre. If all of this wasn’t bad enough, Brazil’s homicide rate continues to rise and recently hit a record high with almost 64,000 people being murdered across the country in 2017. Brazil shares its border with the three biggest cocaine producing countries in the world: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. And not only is Brazil a major consumer of crack and powder cocaine, it also serves as a key transit point for shipments to Europe and Asia. And in the response to this high amount of drug-related crime, we can see the ripple effects of a police force that never underwent any kind of reform after the end of the military regime. According to separate studies released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Brazil’s military and civil police force is among the most violent on the entire planet. The amount of civilians killed rivals, and depending on the year, even overtakes the one of the United States, a country with a fifty percent higher population than Brazil. Human rights organizations also repeatedly publish reports of torture and outright execution of suspects in police custody. The most tragic aspect of Brazil’s current movie-like collapse is probably that it easily could have gone the other way. The most popular politician in Brazil was, and still is, the earlier mention Lula da Silva of the PT Workers’ Party. Before the recent election though, he was in prison for corruption in a clearly politically motivated stunt, and then banned from running in the presidential election. All while, according to polling at the time, surpassing Jair Bolsonaro by over 20 points. This forced the PT Party to run a much less known and distinguished candidate. The strong distrust in the political system and institutions by the Brazilian population gave Bolsonaro the last boost he needed to seize the presidency. When we in Europe look at the events currently unfolding in Brazil, there is often a cynical and sort of patronizing attitude on display. Another South American country struggling with democracy. What else is new? Taking a closer look though, lays bare the same problems we are facing: losing trust in democracy, the channeling of xenophobia as a political tool to divide the working class, and the wish for a strongman to make everything right. For Brazil, it is five minutes before midnight and we shouldn’t brush it aside as just another South American country falling into crisis, but stay connected and stay organized with the people on the ground trying to mitigate the current disaster. And for Brazil, we can only hope that after so much progress, the truth of what military rule really meant for the country doesn’t get lost among the current call for order. [Music] Thanks for watching everyone. This video is kind of late, but I initially wasn’t planning on doing something on Brazil, and then had to reschedule. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing releasing a video outside the typical Left-Tube cycle. If you want to read a bit more about Brazil’s history or current political developments I put the links to all my materials for this video in the description. You should be careful with the book ‘Brazil the Years of Lead’ though, because I bought it for this video only to find out it seems to have been translated to English by an AI and is almost unreadable. Anyway, I hope you got something out of this and if you want to see more videos from me, consider becoming a patron of mine, which also gives you a bunch of neat little perks like seeing all my videos early, or your name in the credits, and that sort of stuff. Speaking of which, sadly the editing software I used the last time cut the credits halfway through and I didn’t notice until the video was already published, so here are the names who didn’t get that deserved spot in the credits the last time: Daniel Löf, allisaurus, Stephen, Sebastian Emanuelsson, AnimeTiddyFan, Owen Cawley, Caleb Romo, Noah, Daan van der Zanden, Braden Anderson, Logan Morrison, Sam Dover, Aaron Anthony Steward, Clarke Fletcher, Cumstorm, Arienai, Tommerino, Seumas Morrison, The Fisherman’s Soul, Vaughn Crowley, Becca Edwards, Cowrara, Jason Frank Carl Eusebius, Dashofweak, Skulgun, WH, Matt Standish, neoliberalism_is_the_answer, d-lang, Spirit in the Machine, Peter Warton, Dark Statistic, Tommer_man, Peter Reyes, Kash Dermody Dylan Jenkins, Adrian Silvas, Dino, Stephan Cho, Gareth Murphy, Ben Kilziqi, Thomas Smith, Mariette Feeney, Pineapplebolos, Adam Clarke, weltysparrow, Simon Yakowich Bret Dibble, Benedict Marko, John Meyerin, Joe Zeranski, Marcelo [???], cokernel, Tim Harris, ZipDurango, Gaius Gracchus, BizarreWaffles, polarrobin, Niklas T, Oxnard Montalvo, and SomeRandomGeek. Phewf! Thank you all for your support, and I hope to see you next time. Have a good one.

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