Inconvenient Truths

The struggle for justice and memory in Brazil’s Truth Commission

by by Emma Wohl

illustration by by Diane Zhou

As the credits rolled last week on The Day That Lasted 21 Years, a film about Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship screened at Rio de Janeiro’s International Film Festival, a man sitting in the row behind me stood and cried out, “Truth commission now!”

At first glance, this may seem an unnecessary demand, considering that Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, swore in the National Truth Commission last spring. The commission will investigate many as-yet undisclosed facets of the military dictatorship, ranging from specific instances of torture to businesses that financed covert government acts to Brazil’s influence on other regimes in South America. The investigation will look at the years from 1948, twenty-four years before the regime, to 1988, three years after its end; the commission has until the spring of 2014 to complete this task.

But for human rights organizations that have lobbied for years to make the government recognize, publicize, and prosecute violations of human rights under the dictatorship and the many people and families who suffered under the regime, the proposed commission is a far cry from what they hoped for.


Many nations in Latin America underwent periods in the 20th century during which the government took harsh, repressive measures against its own people—whether rounding up and torturing political dissidents or massacring a particular ethnic group. Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Uruguay all formed truth commissions to look into state violations of human rights.

Brazil’s military dictatorship may not be as infamous as those in Chile and Argentina, but it was one of the earliest regimes in 20th century Latin America and lasted years longer than its neighbors’ regimes. It began with a coup in 1964, in which the military vowed to clean up what it claimed was a corrupt state and to return the country to democracy. But the military remained in power long past the coup, denying citizens the right to choose their leaders, purging Congress of opposition candidates, and censoring the press. As critics grew more vocal, the government rounded up dissidents, imprisoned them without trial, and tortured them, sometimes to death, in order to learn about further anti-government organizations. Some members of the opposition turned militant, robbing banks and kidnapping foreign dignitaries to gain attention and leverage with the hopes of freeing their comrades and ending the military regime. Most of those who were freed fled the country in fear of being arrested again.

The government foresaw its own demise years in advance, and the final two General-Presidents adopted a strategy for transitioning out of power and protecting members of the regime, while allowing indirect elections in 1985 that chose a new president from the opposition party. The 1979 Amnesty Law pardoned all political prisoners and activists who had not committed ‘blood crimes’ (crimes in which someone died) and allowed those living in exile to return to the country; at the same time, it protected members of the government from future prosecution.


The 2012 law establishing the Truth Commission allowed the commission members to determine their own guidelines for carrying out the investigation and releasing information to the public. For the most part its proceedings have been kept closed, a decision Cecilia Coimbra, vice-president of the human rights organization Tortura Nunca Mais-Rio de Janeiro, calls “censorship.”

But the commission has spoken at several public hearings across the country to report discoveries and answer questions. Commission member Claudio Fonteles spoke at one such hearing, organized by the municipal government of Rio de Janeiro, in late September. The attendees—representatives of organizations involved in the question of transitional justice for years, such as Tortura Nunca Mais and the Brazilian Lawyers’ Association, as well as journalists, students, and some ex-prisoners and their families—sat mostly quiet, with occasional outbursts to demand more information, as Fonteles and representatives of several working groups and agencies thanked each other and reiterated the importance and complexity of the cause.

As the officials spoke, Djalma Domingos da Silva sat in a corner of the auditorium, waiting for a chance to speak. He was draped in fabric covered with writing that told the story of his arrest and torture at a meeting of a metallurgical workers’ union in 1964. “I am the truth,” he said when the time came for the audience to speak. “I bear on my body the marks of the dictatorship.”

At the time of his arrest, Da Silva was a member of the Marine Corps. He was taken to the naval prison, stripped of his uniform, beaten and abused, but he does not have official documentation of the time he spent in prison.

Fonteles did not directly respond to Da Silva’s story, nor to a stack of documents that Jorge Eduardo da Costa de Nascimento, the son of another political prisoner, placed on the table in front of him. Several other speakers rose to tell their stories and beg the commission to use them as testimony. But when Fonteles spoke of gathering evidence, he talked about archives, not about witnesses.


Memorias Reveladas (Memories Revealed) is an online database of documents related to the military dictatorship, run through the National Archive in Rio. It was launched in 2009, three years before the commission was established. A new access law, which went into effect in May, requires government archives to collaborate with the government in making records about the dictatorship available to the public. Before the law, archives and databases determined what documents were available, and most remained largely inaccessible.

Speaking to the audience in Rio, Fonteles credited the National Archive, Memorias Reveladas, and the access law with making available documents that led to revelations in the investigation.

The way the Memorias Reveladas database is organized makes finding documents next to impossible. Some of the documents it lists are digitized and available through the site if one uses accurate and specific terms for the search, but many are not. Rather, a successful search yields information about where these documents are held. This could be anywhere from the national archive in Rio or Brasília to the archives of Rio Grande do Sul, the country’s southernmost state, or Ceará, on the northeast coast. Such information hardly makes most of the resources in the database more accessible. But by flaunting the database as a path to further communication, the National Archive and the commission can claim progress.

That the commission need rely so heavily on documents stored in archives is a point of contention for those who have sought recognition of human rights violations. The commission has only two years to complete its investigation, and some of its members are starting from scratch in studying the dictatorship. But to Fonteles and other members of the commission, their first-hand research is necessary. When asked about a specific incident of torture, he said he cannot simply accuse a former member of the military of torture: “I need documental proof.”

The primary product of Argentina’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a 50,000 page report full of depositions from survivors of disappearance. South Africa’s first commission, in the aftermath of Apartheid, centered on testimony of human rights violations from both abusers and abused, using their accounts to further the cause of restorative justice. But those commissions had a clear goal of rehabilitating both those whose rights had been violated and the nation as a whole. The goals of Brazil’s commission, beyond creating an accurate historical record, are unclear.


Brazil’s post-military leaders have been more resistant than other countries to condemn crimes committed during the years of conflict. The Brazilian government only acknowledged responsibility for the regime’s illicit acts in 1995, establishing a law that would allow victims and their families to seek financial remittances, and President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva dropped his 2009 proposal to form a truth commission after members of the military, still a powerful and respected national institution, threatened resignation. Government officials regularly invoked the amnesty law as a reason not to pursue members of the regime. While Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay all passed Amnesty Laws near the ends of their regimes, these amnesty laws were either overturned or ignored by subsequent governments who prosecuted members of the regime.

Victória Lavínia Grabois Olímpio is the president of the Rio de Janeiro branch of Tortura Nunca Mais and has lobbied since the end of the military regime for a commission of truth and justice. She disputed the “reciprocity” with which the Brazilian courts, and now the commission, view the Amnesty Law, extending its protection to the state as well as to political dissidents. “They have the interpretation that the amnesty law was made for the two sides—for the opposition to the regime and for the public agents of the state. But this is not written in the law,” Grabois Olímpio told the Independent. Even though it seems clear that the original law was intended to protect the regime, she argued that it need not be interpreted that way—the courts are free to prosecute agents of the state who violated human rights.

But at this point, the Brazilian courts show no sign of changing the way they interpret the law. In a precedent-setting 2008 decision, the Supreme Court, responding to a challenge to the Amnesty Law, re-affirmed that agents of the regime could not be charged with human rights abuses.

The Truth Commission, meanwhile, has publicly stated that it will not seek to prosecute. The Federal Congress could only gain enough votes to approve the law forming the commission after including amendments that limited the power of its members and guaranteed it would not result in prosecution of any member of the regime found responsible.

In arguing whether the purpose of further investigation into the dictatorship should be prosecutions or not, both the Truth Commission and Tortura Nunca Mais are fighting a third argument about reconstructing the past, which considers even studying it to be dangerous. “We are disturbing a wound that is scarred over, which may once again cause serious problems,” Representative Arolde de Oliveira, a member of DEM, a center-right party, told the Chamber of Deputies in September 2011, in the midst of the debate over forming the commission.

This view is not the sole purview of the military and right-wing factions of the government. Swaths of Brazil’s public feel the same way. Suburban couple Luis Claudio and Ana Rosa Moutinho, a carpenter and an accountant at GloboNews, believe that the government tortured some citizens. They also firmly believe that political dissidents committed terrorism and murder. These acts, in their minds, balance out, and they see no reason to revisit the regime. Nina Schneider, in an article in the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, describes this mindset as a common phenomenon throughout the country. There was never broad public sympathy for victims of the regime, a small and politically marginal group—one reason that the Truth Commission was not formed until now.


Fonteles said the “great challenge” for the commission was to find a way to reclaim justice in spite of limitations like the Amnesty Law and the Supreme Court decision. He was not optimistic. “We will fail profoundly. We will try, but we will fail.”

What, then, does the Truth Commission hope to achieve? For now, according to Fonteles, its members are “studying a theme,” hoping to spark more discussion and produce more concrete information. The October 2 announcement that the commission would be relying on the findings of state-level truth commissions, which are currently being formed, further reinforced the idea that it is hoping to “push other sectors of civil society to create a permanent web in defense of democracy,” Fonteles told O Globo. But this, like the creation of various working groups and the agreements with archives, seems like a façade of progress to the commission’s critics.

Ultimately, members of Tortura Nunca Mais find fault with the commission’s very premise. “What is missing from the truth?” asked Pimenta, a member of the group’s Rio de Janeiro chapter. “The Brazilian public does not need more proof of these torturers.” For Tortura Nunca Mais, what the nation needs are politicians determined to publicly acknowledge and condemn both the human rights violations committed and those who committed them.


The truth commission and other government agencies dismiss complaints about the danger of investigating the regime, but they maintain a hope for closure through the proceedings. The goal of the commission “is not to cause new wounds, but to cauterize old ones,” said Guilherme Guedes Raposo, a member of a working group on transitional justice organized by the city of Rio. A member of the Brazilian Lawyers’ Organization used a different metaphor, quoting one of the judges who tried Augusto Pinochet in Chile: “We all want to turn this page, but we have to read it first.”

But Tortura Nunca Mais is not interested in turning pages or closing books. Their campaign for recognition of crimes committed by the government in the 60s, 70s, and 80s is part of a larger cause: fighting “against impunity” in all parts of the Brazilian government, past, present, and future, Grabois Olímpio said.

For her, even if the law somehow changes and members of the regime are prosecuted, the fight for justice will continue. Today in Brazil, corruption is commonplace among government and law enforcement officials. The torture and persecution that were tactics of the military regime remain tactics of the police, who now target “the young, the poor, blacks, and residents of favelas” as well as people living “on the periphery of cities,” Grabois Olímpio said.

But she is hopeful that in conjunction with public policy, the recognition of Brazil’s past human rights violations could help shape the country into one that treats its citizens with dignity. “You need to make an example so that people don’t do this again.”

EMMA WOHL B’14.5 hasn’t finished reading this page quite yet.